Sunday, January 18, 2009

Florence Arrival

4:30AM January 14

The flight to Florence was on an Airbus RJ85, and this plane was notably smaller. We took a small bus across the tarmac to reach the plane, which we boarded through a fold out set of stairs on the door’s inside. There were about 20 rows, each with 2 seats on the left and three on the right. I had the window seat again on the left side halfway back, directly underneath the wing. It seems that non-American airlines haven’t made the same drastic cuts to in-flight amenities as they again served complimentary beverages and a Swiss milk chocolate on this one-hour flight.

The flight went directly over the Alps, as you might imagine. There was ridge upon ridge of mountains with steep drops, and rocky snow covered peeks that reached well beyond the tree line. As we reached the Italian side, more lakes filled the valleys between these mountains, and towns sprouted up along the waters’ edge, squeezing in between the water and quick ascendance of the mountain side. As we moved further south, the mountains became less numerous, and even more towns filled in the valleys and shorter hilltops. The snow covered mountains remained though, reaching well into the heart of Italy and only stopping in the two or three minutes before landing in Florence. The towns, much like in Switzerland and France, were arranged in clusters, ending abruptly and seemingly randomly, while other clusters popped up only a few hundred feet away. Farms filled the land between these villages, but unlike the Swiss/French towns, these did not have winding streets, but each town followed a more strict grid of cross-hatched roads.

The airport itself was tiny, with all flights requiring a bus ride form the plane to the terminal. Surprisingly, customs took little more than a glance at my passport, and no questions were asked. The baggage claim was only a step beyond the customs window, and representatives from NYU were waiting in the adjacent room along with people from James Madison and Syracuse.

The bus ride through the city and off to campus was everything I’d imagined. It looked like the Italy of The Godfather and countless other films. The tiny streets were populated by mostly compact cars (Priuses and smaller) and scooters. Although they are small, the cars generally did not look aerodynamic: trading in size for boxiness, which I imagine would help them to conserve more energy. The buildings along the route were mostly old, and some decrepit, while others showed signs of quite un-historic restoration. On either side, they reached no more than four or five stories, creating a cavern of yellow stucco extending right up to the streets edge, leaving room for skinny sidewalks barely able to accommodate a single person, forcing (or allowing) many people to walk in the streets on the less-trafficked roads.
The campus itself is gorgeous, or at least the little I saw of it was. 57 acres of legendary gardens are accompanied by 5 historic villas overlooking the city from the hillside to the north. The various preliminary orientation procedures took an hour or more and then it was off to my residence in the heart of town.

The city reminds me so much of New Orleans, the most European of cities I’ve visited since I was in England 18 years ago. It has the charm of the French Quarter, but it is distinctly Italian, defined by a more reserved architecture.

By this time, close to 5:00 locally, 11:00 EST, it was getting dark. My apartment sits on the southwest side of the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. It is a great building, and quite modern on the inside. The rooms are huge: double the size of the dorm I had in New York. A long hallway connects the two bedrooms by the door to an adjacent bathroom and kitchen. The hall opens up into a sizable living and dining space which abuts the third bedroom. The common area has two sofas and a coffee table furnished with an immense number of old textbooks and magazines, and the kitchen comes complete with new appliances including a dish washer and clothes washer. Each bedroom accommodates two people, and I have one of the two by the door. The other two bedrooms each have adjoining bathrooms, complete with a nice shower stall, a heated towel-rack, and a separate low-sink basin I was informed you may opt to use instead of toilet paper. All of the rooms have the classic Italian shutters, and we are supposed to open them at least twice a day to ventilate the apartment in this humid climate. Each one opens onto a small courtyard where clothes hang out to dry on many lines. I can’t help but thinking about the consequences of having clothes fall into the dirty alley below.

I put away my things and then quickly fell asleep around 7:30 local time, 1:30 EST, in my first bed in some 28 hours. Of course, this led me to wake up by 4:30 the next morning, at which time I decided to get up and write.

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