Botticelli Blue Skies
An American in Florence
Publication Year: 2002
When writer Merrill Joan Gerber is invited to join her husband, a history professor, as he takes a class of American college students to study in Florence, Italy, she feels terrified at the idea of leaving her comforts, her friends, and her aged mother in California. Her husband tries to assure her that her fear of Italy—and her lack of knowledge of the Italian language—will be offset by the discoveries of travel. "I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and interesting." Botticelli Blue Skies is the tale of a woman who readily admits to fear of travel, a fear that many experience but are embarrassed to admit. When finally she plunges into the new adventure, she describes her experiences in Florence with wit, humor, and energy.
Instead of sticking to the conventional tourist path, Gerber follows her instincts. She makes discoveries without tour guides droning in her ear and reclaims the travel experience as her own, taking time to shop in a thrift shop, eat in a Chinese restaurant that serves "Dragon chips," make friends with her landlady who turns out to be a Countess, and visit the class of a professor at the university. She discovers a Florence that is not all museums and wine. With newfound patience and growing confidence, Gerber makes her way around Florence, Venice, and Rome. She visits famous places and discovers obscure ones—in the end embracing all that is Italian. Botticelli Blue Skies (accompanied by the author’s own photographs) is an honest, lyrical, touching account of the sometimes exhausting, often threatening, but always enriching physical and emotional challenge that is travel.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
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1. I Can’t Go to Italy
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There is no possibility on earth that I can go to Italy with my husband in the fall. I am too firmly rooted in my California life to pick up and move to a different continent, though he promises me we will have a fine adventure. “I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, but something...
2. I’m Going to Italy
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When you have a major shock in life, the kind you first refuse, then resist,
then deny, you must finally take it in and make a space for it.
I am going to Italy in September, and that is that.
What will I do there? I don’t know yet. I hold in my mind, as a kind of mantra, what Joe said to me: “I can’t tell you exactly what will happen, but something will.”...
3. Gli Studenti
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Today, Nicoletta, the Italian teacher who will be teaching with Joe, is holding a reception for the “Semester in Florence” students at her home, a mixer where they will get to know one another better and choose roommates for the stay in Italy. Nicoletta and Joe have interviewed and accepted thirty-eight students for the trip; each one has...
4. A Flat Full of Sun
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E-mail from centro linguistico italiano dante alighieri:
Signora, herewith we give you the address of your apartment, which is Via Visconti Venosta, 66, 50136 Firenze, ITALIA This flat that we have reserved for you and the Professor is very nice it is on the fourth floor and is composed of: two bedrooms...
5. Siamo Arrivati!
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We fly to Rome on TWA Flight 801, shortly after TWA Flight 800 to Paris blows up in midair just outside New York and 230 people are lost in the ocean. I have brought along my laptop computer and entertain myself with Tripeaks, Golf, Tetris, Free Cell, and Tut’s Tomb until my battery blinks a warning and quits. Joe is continuing to study Italian...
6. Via Visconti Venosta
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We stumble through the three fortress-like doorways of our new home on Via Visconti Venosta, dragging our four enormous suitcases and two roll-ons. We stop at each barrier to figure out how to use the three keys given us at the lungarno: front metal gate, front glass door of building, and wooden apartment door. We ride up in the...
7. All Florence and Fiesole
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In the morning, the Italian sun brings us both to the windows. From the kitchen we see the promised Arno River (or, rather, we see the depression beyond the trees that would be the river) as well as the autostrada, whose entrance is directly across the road from our building. Beyond both the river and the highway are the graceful arcs of the Florentine...
8. Postcards and E-Mail (One)
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Postcard to Jessie Gerber:
Peaceful Hills Convalescent Hospital, Room 123:
We arrived safely in “Bella Italia”—we have a comfortable apartment with a view of the Arno River. I have to light the gas stove with a match (“fiammifero” is the word for match...
9. Mosquitoes (Zanzare)
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All night they attack like kamikaze planes, these filaments of torture—
squadrons of Italian mosquitoes. In our innocence we have opened
windows during the evening and now our bedroom is a bombardiers’
“Do you hear one?” I say in the deep of night, and Joe, beside me, says, “I hear ten.”...
10. First Lessons
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On Sunday morning, the girls from downstairs tap politely at our door. They understand that to ring the doorbell would throw me into a frenzy—I’ve already learned, by experience, that the buzz requires immediate action through the intercom. Someone is either standing outside the front gate and wants to be buzzed in, or is outside the main...
11. Reserved for the Mutilated
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We screw our courage to the sticking point and strike out for the bus stop, each armed with a biglietto, Valido 60 minuti, which we have bought for 1,400 lire each at the tabacchaio. With instructions from Maria and Patty, we find the bus stop opposite the recreational vehicle lot on Via Aretina. We wait, looking into the window of a shop that...
12. A Piece of Laundry (Un Pezzo del Bucato)
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The design of Italian washing machines seems to express the cherished idea that in Italy the simplest activities of life are an art form. I spend three hours watching my laundry in the process of cleansing while at the same time, at the kitchen table, I cut and wash mushrooms for the...
13. Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashonah)
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I receive an invitation to celebrate the Jewish New Year with an Italian family. A woman calls, introduces herself as Ruth Ianello, and says that she and Doctor Ianello would be honored to have me share Rosh Hashonah dinner with them and their family at their home after services at the synagogue. She is proud of her yearly tradition of opening her...
14. In the Bosom of My People
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I am lost. When I reach the Arno River, I know that I have walked in the absolutely wrong direction. There is something about the swirls of the map, the way street names change at every corner, the nongeometric layout of the city of Florence, and my own shortcomings that make it impossible for me to form a plan with the map as guide and to walk...
15. Florentine Hospitality
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The doctor’s home is in one of Firenze’s ancient stone buildings, fortified by iron gates, a twenty-foot carved wooden door (with brass knockers that resemble hands), and doorbells that require that one be buzzed in. The doctor and his son and daughter lead me through these various barriers into their bright and spacious apartment. Though...
16. The Mystery of Marriage
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Sunday morning: the secular world in Italy is closed, the gates in front of the shops are locked tight. If you are out of food, you are out of luck. Joe suggests we walk to the newsstand to buy the International Herald Tribune or Newsday—we have had no news of home since we left. If the United States were at war, we’d hardly know it...
17. Fiesole and the Etruscan Sigh
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On the #7 bus to Fiesole, which we board at the stazione, two lovers— the ages of Romeo and Juliet—travel up the mountain with us. They sit in facing seats, profiles stamped against the passing slopes of Mount Ceceri, their eyes locked, with each breath inhaling the image of the other. Such a pure and perfect love touches my injured heart. Since my...
18. Postcards and E-Mail (Two)
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Postcard to Jessie Gerber:
Peaceful Hills Convalescent Hospital:
On the other side of this card is the famous “Duomo”—the great cathedral of Florence that can be seen for miles in every direction. Next week we are going with all the students to...
19. Italian Trains, Italian Men
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On the morning we leave for Venice, due at the stazione to meet the students and Nicoletta at 9 A.M. for a 9:18 departure, we find ourselves caught in the early morning crush of traffic. On the #14 bus, holding our wheel-on suitcases at our feet and hanging for dear life to the straps above, we vie for what little space there is with a hundred schoolchildren...
20. Seashells from the Adriatic and Roast Sardines
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Venice is the fabled city. I know it from Shakespeare and from the movies. What will I see with my own eyes? Rain strikes my face as we disembark from the train. On the dock is an odd, slatted, wooden sculpture, triangular in shape—which I don’t have time to consider since we immediately board a traghetto for the Lido, where our group...
21. The Fire, the Wedding, the Gondoliers
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We are scheduled to meet at the museum, the Accademia—a huge, imposing structure guaranteed to be replete with treasures. But I can’t go in. Why would I (just now) want to enter a dark museum when all about me is the life of Venice, the crowds, the canals, the pigeons, the...
22. The Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Losses, and Other Thefts
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When we reach the Jewish Ghetto by following the map, we turn somber. The square is small but contains the “skyscrapers of Italy,” buildings as high as nine stories, with some floors having ceilings as low as six feet. These buildings were created over the years as more and more Jews were packed into a tiny area. Five synagogues are hidden in...
23. The Movie Sets of Venice and Florence
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Back from Venice, and walking again in the streets of Florence, I realize how thoroughly my mind is saturated with movie images. When I first saw the barbershop striped poles in front of the Doges’ Palace on the Grand Canal, I thought at once of Death in Venice and of the death-colored man dressed in white who moons over the beautiful boy...
24. Botticelli Women, Italian Wives
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On the benches along the Arno, their heads tilted against the sunlight, young women sit studying art and language books. Now and then they raise their eyes and watch a lone kayaker paddling by. When the wind blows, they gracefully brush a stray strand of hair behind an ear and go...
25. Sciopero! (Strike!)
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The weather has turned suddenly bitter—rain, wind, lowering skies— and Joe and I have both caught the germ that the students have been sharing among themselves by offering one another licks of their gelato cones and sips from their four-dollar cans of Coke and by their constant hugging, kissing and grooming of one another. This physical need...
26. The Five-Hundred-Year-Old Farmhouse
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A friend of my friend from California calls and invites me to her five-hundred- year-old farmhouse on Mount Morello, high up in the hills northwest of Firenze. Cornelia, an Englishwoman who met her Italian husband at Oxford, has lived for thirty years in Florence, where her...
27. Losing My Way, Discovering Treasures
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My technique for shopping now includes taking our suitcase-on-wheels to the supermarket. Admittedly, I may look a little strange to the locals as I hoist my suitcase into my wagon and wander the aisles buying buffalo milk mozzarella (soft white balls of cheese packed in...
28. Cinderella in Drag, a Night at the Ballet
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After dinner—hamburgers on pane bianco with ketchup (Del Monte) and maionese, accompanied by the cola I bought (not very good) and plumcakes for dessert (why are these dry tasteless packaged objects called plumcakes?)—we get ready for our night at the ballet. The class has tickets to see La Cenerentola by Prokofiev at the Teatro Comunale...
29. “Rita, You Are the Girl I Have Loved . . .”
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Looking for the post office one day, Joe and I take a street north near the open market, pass under the railroad tracks, and find ourselves almost in the foothills that, when we see them from our roof terrace, seem a great distance away. We walk past rows of ordinary apartment...
30. The Incorrupt Body
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Too many of the hallowed dead in Italian churches are not hidden below in the crypts and catacombs or laid to rest just under the marble floor or even in the raised biers with saints posed in effigy above them. Instead, in many cases, the sainted dead, in whole or in part, are there...
31. The Altar of the Virgin of Siena
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To take a day trip to Siena, we first must learn to read the orario posted at the SITA bus station (which is tucked away behind the Santa Maria Novella stazione). The options are many; we may take a one-hour bus trip via the autostrada, a two-hour bus trip via a succession of small towns along the way, or a combination trip, half autostrada, half hill...
32. La Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth)
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In the bowels of the Santa Maria Novella stazione is a veritable carnival of shops, vendors, food stalls, and beggars. Blankets line the tunnels, and on them are little jumping and dancing plastic toys from Hong Kong and Taiwan, many of them wind-up toys that play the...
33. The British Institute Library, Jane Eyre, il Porcellino
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With the arrival of our daughter, I suddenly become a specialist in Italian culture, a connoisseur of Italian life and customs. On the first rainy day of her visit, when she sees women across the courtyard hanging out clothes covered with plastic sheeting, I explain that the clothes dry...
34. The Uffizi, the Spanish Chapel, and Madame Butterfly
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The week has flown by, and there is only today for Becky to see the rest of Florence—impossible to accomplish, but we try. The three of us, to get an early start in the line for entrance to the Uffizi Gallery, arrive at the door at 8 A.M., only to learn that the museum is chiusa for a meeting. We and a hundred others are turned away, some having only this...
35. Halloween in Tuscany
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Joe’s students invite us to a Halloween party. No sooner have we seen Becky off at Peretola Airport than we begin to discuss possible costumes we might wear. As a teacher, Joe is not strictly required to appear in full dress, but he wants to wear something to show he’s a good...
36. Gypsies (Zingari)
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We see gypsy women everywhere. In the entryway of every church an old gypsy woman sits nodding or sleeping on the floor, her head covered with a kerchief, her little dish of coins held in her hand or on the floor beside her. Young gypsy women accost us in the piazzas, at the...
37. “A Pistol That Shoots a Big Nail in Front of the Animal”
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Our landlady, the Countess Rina Masotti, calls long-distance from her fattoria in Colle Val d’Elsa to invite us to visit her farm. She wonders whether we would like to come next weekend or wait for the day in December when the pigs are slaughtered. I tell her, as politely as I can...
38. A Farm Feast, Colle Val D’Elsa, Bongo Drums for the Bishop
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Hot spaghetti, swimming in olive oil, garlic, red pepper, and parsley, is
dished high by Rina upon my flower-encrusted dinnerware till I cry
“I hope you don’t mind garlic,” she says. This does not seem a problem for me, since, once I begin to eat, the wine dilutes most pleasantly any shock to the tongue, whether induced by too much garlic or too...
39. Picasso in the Dustbin, Windmills on the Wall
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On Saturday morning Joe calls me to the window. I have been writing e-mail letters home to my children and sister and have just called the Compuserve phone number in Rome. I am counting the scatti as they click by in rapid fire while I am waiting for the “connected” signal to...
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Professor Mario Materassi, who teaches American Literature at the University of Florence, invites me to speak to his class. It seems extremely lucky for me that he is an expert in Jewish American women writers, since I happen to be one. I’m especially flattered to be invited...
41. Daughters of Florence
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The girls downstairs, Maria and Patty, have love problems endemic to young women living the artistic life in Firenze. They are in love with art, with youth, with their own beauty, and with the illusions engendered by living under the eye of the surreal Tuscan sun. Patty’s boyfriend thinks he is following in the steps of Michelangelo; he has left...
42. Massimo’s Lizard-Skin Keychains, Riccardo’s Castagna
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Mai Jing’s boyfriend, Massimo, has not forgotten his pledge to make us dinner. On a night wild with rain and thunder, he picks us up at the gate in his little red car, with Mai Jing, smiling and speechless, sitting in the front seat beside him. He tears along the lungarno and over the Ponte Verrazzano to pick up Mrs. Pedrini at her apartment. Believing...
43. No Coins in the Fountain
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Our schedule in Rome could kill a horse. The class will have two nights and three days in the Eternal City, during which Nicoletta, who was born there, intends for us to see every church, every monument, every statue, every fountain, not to mention the entire Vatican Museum, all of Saint Peter’s, and—if possible—the Pope himself....
44. A Roman Ruin, I, the Sistine Chapel, and Judgment Day
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Nicoletta leaves the hotel at 6 A.M. to get in line to buy tickets for all of us at the Vatican Museum. The plan is for Joe to meet her there at 7 A.M. with the students, at which time we will all be ready, at the starting gate, for entry to the hallowed halls of the museum, and, ultimately...
45. St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope’s Fishing Cap
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Seven hours after entering the Vatican Museum, we are popped out an exit into fresh air again. The students collapse on benches, moaning, flinging their heads in one another’s laps; even the marine takes off her steel-toed marching shoes and looks at her feet as if she expects to see...
46. The Spanish Steps, Desperation at the Tiber River
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We have one more monument to visit—the Spanish Steps—and then (it is promised by Nicoletta), we may go back to the hotel and to bed. Tomorrow morning, she reminds us, we must be up at the crack of dawn for our trip to Ostia Antica, the ancient city that lies in ruins just outside Rome...
47. The Mosaics and Karaoke Bars of Ostia Antica
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A day in the country (and out of the congestion of Rome) is a balm, a benediction, a blessing. The bus delivers us to the seaport town of Ostia Antica, about fifteen miles outside of Rome. Once a bustling city center, Ostia now lies in ruins among trees and tall grasses brushed by...
48. Thanksgiving Tacchino Arrosto, Elvis in Sequins
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Nearing the three-month mark away from home, the students are
notably homesick. They miss certain beloved foods more than they do
their homes, families, jobs, or (according to some of the girls) boring
Bagels, tacos, refried beans, hot wings, and doughnuts are high on their “if I could only have . . .” list. And now that Thanksgiving is only...
49. The Olive-Picking
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On the second day of the olive-picking at Cornelia’s house, she arranges to meet us at the last bus stop at Piazza Tolentino and drive us up the mountain so that we may witness the event. Her olives have for years been picked by the same Florentine family, which runs a small business...
50. The Artist, Her Villa, the Bombs of World War II
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A calendar marking the New Year arrives in the mailbox from Esselunga, the largest supermarket chain in Florence, reminding me of last things: the last of the year, the last of our last few days in Florence. In less than a week, we will be packing up to go home to America...
51. The Christmas Mystery, Two Big Macs
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Wind rattles the windowpanes all night. Closing the wooden shutters doesn’t begin to reduce the commotion. A fierce shaking like this in California would be the signal of a huge earthquake—we would be running for our lives. But tonight we are snug and secure in our basket-bed...
52. L’Ultimo Addio, Last Views of the Ponte Vecchio
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Ice crystals creep across the window hours before dawn on our last night in Florence. Rain has been forecast, but the night is clear and icy. The alarm has just waked us at 2 A.M.; we must be outside with all our luggage, the apartment vacated, by 3 A.M., when the taxi will arrive at...
Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2002