It is seven months since I have been in Italy. I sit on a terrazzo, sipping a cup of Earl Grey and surveying the beautiful hills.
The GP told me to avoid Italy in case it caused a recurrence of my illness. However, I cannot leave this country to be coloured by certain memories only. Italy was the happiest part of my childhood; Italy is a part of whom I am, my favourite food, my favourite wines, my favourite views, il modo di vivere piu speciale, and although, I do not wish to document the lows of these past seven months, it has brought me closer to a sense of what and whom I truly value.
So here I am in Florence, initially going to visit my mother’s grave, before I move on to other places. I say my mother’s grave, but in fact, it is the grave of John Tomlinson Baldwin, my grandfather, and an artist who although sporting an American passport, was every inch a Florentine. He was born, lived and died here in 1964. He never left except for the occasional trip to USA to see his sisters. He was imprisoned during the Mussolini regime as a communist – in those days that meant being anti-fascist. In fact, he was an artist, profoundly deaf, who managed to maintain friendships, follow his own creative path and live a full life, in an era when disabilities were not tolerated.
When my mother died two years ago, I vowed to take the ashes of my parents (my father had died ten years earlier but was in an urn next to my mother’s bed) and bury them in my grandfather’s grave. One of the strongest things that held my parents together was their love of Italy, and both wished to be buried in Italy. Michael, my cousin, also added a portion of his mother’s ashes (my aunt), who like my mother was born in Florence. I regard this as the family grave, and it does not hold any sadness for me. Rather I regard it as a place close to my heart.
So for the first days of my pilgrimage to rediscover Italy on my own, I am staying in a delightful AirBnB on the Via Masaccio, which is about an hour’s walk from the Cimitero Evangelista degli Allori on the Via Senese, but the journey will take me through the historic centre. It is an odd day, because it is raining and there has been a storm, but at least the punishing heat of Ferragosto has dissipated and the tourists are beginning to go home. Florence is not the city that my mother and aunt were forced to leave because of World War II, but it has that timeless quality nonetheless.
The building and rooms I am staying in are so delightfully, Toscana. From the high ceilings to the stucco on the walls and the cotta tiles. The streets with their green shutters and the large houses, now made into apartments, still maintain their distinctive Florentine architecture on the outside, with a spattering of newer buildings that would have been created post bombing. A nod to the present day is that I can hear in the distance Muslim prayers being chanted on a loud speaker. I can’t imagine what my mother would have made of that, but to me it is just a communal coming together, a call to peace, and all is well in the world for this short moment in time.