Letters from Edinburgh: A Calm Uncharacteristic

In the fourth installment of her letters from Scotland, our writer, who is living in Edinburgh for a year, visits Italy, where she marvels at people and architecture, and can never seem to elude those church bells.

Every morning I am in Florence—with the exception of Christmas—I wake up early, put on my coat, and walk to Mercato Centrale, Europe’s largest covered food market. The lower level is mostly meats, cheeses, breads, olives, pastas, pastries, and sweets, and the upper level holds the fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, spices, and flowers. I buy a mix-and-match bag of dried fruit and make countless rounds of both floors, taking in everything around me.

Pigs, ribs, chickens, and sausages tied up with brown string hover above butchers in white button-up shirts speckled with cold, pink blood, like canvas bits of Chaim Soutine paintings. There are skins, noses, torsos, legs, feet, and barrels of shriveled-up sardines, all out for perusal. Cheese comes in rough boulders or evenly quarried blocks and in careful displays or haphazard pyramids.

Fishing sugary pieces of melon out of my teeth, I see an elderly woman with square ankles spoon olives from a bucket of oil while a man in a single-breasted suit examines the underside of a mushroom and sings louder than the radio. After weighing an eggplant in my palm, I walk downstairs and stand in a corner that smells like the inside of a brioche.

Mercato Centrale, along with most everything else, is closed on Christmas. So I wake up early, put on my coat, and walk around central Florence. Given the day of year and the time of day, there are only a handful of people out to experience a calm uncharacteristic of the city. The Duomo and the Baptistery, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Maria Novella, Ponte Vecchio, the Arno—I linger past them in a silence broken only by church bells.


* * *

I’m in Milan for the last three days of my trip. I’m ambivalent about Milan: It’s large, crowded, consumer-driven, and dirty. Plus it’s irritatingly fashionable and doesn’t conserve its history very well. Yet it has some amazing contemporary-art galleries, theatres, art-house cinemas and, of course, opera houses. In 2005, La Scala will open after a three-year refurbishment; the company will return from its temporary residence in Arcimboldi Theatre, and I for one plan to be there. I think the city is definitely worth visiting, but only in short doses—long enough to get used to the traffic, but not long enough to die from the exhaust.

Exploring the business district outside Stazione Centrale, I realize that many of the one-star hotels in the area are cheaper than Milan’s youth hostel out in the suburbs. After spending four days in an austere convent-run hostel in Verona I am ready for more privacy than regulation. So I get a room on the fourth floor of a hotel that has only a few rooms and a shared bathroom. I quickly discover why so many hotels in the region are on the cheap: They are used by Milan’s notorious red-light trade.

Roberto at the front desk is nice. He works every day of the week and sleeps in a small room by the door so he can wake up if someone rings from the street. He gets excited when he sees my American passport, and leads me behind the desk to show me four rolls of film from his trip to New York City. I fumble my way through three years of college Italian as he pieces together English he’s equally learned from dictionaries and liberated from pop music. Our limited conversations are funny and, at times, odd. I ask him to explain current expressions; he wants to know why food in New York is so expensive. I tell him I would like to live in Italy; he says this makes no sense because doesn’t everyone want to live in America?


* * *

Church bells, art exhibits, and white Christmas lights best mark my time in Italy. The only chunk of time I cannot remember a bell ringing is when I’m on trains, traveling between cities. The Uffizi is amazing, but not nearly as special to me as a walk in the cold rain to the top of Forte Belvedere to see 70 sculptures by the Sardinian sculptor Costantino Nivola. Yet I don’t think even that quite equals getting to use ‘The Handphone Table’ at the Laurie Anderson show in Milan. But my favorite thing is a long evening walk beneath the white Christmas lights. They hang across the street, strung from terrace to terrace, making everything—cobblestones, shutters, and peeling walls—glow softly. They’re tricky, though; they make you believe the stars are simply hanging low.


* * *

Climbing the stairs out of Waverly Train Station, the dumbass grin on my face gives away how thrilled I am to be back in Edinburgh. It’s nearly midnight, so Princes Street is quiet and the Castle and Ramsay Garden are visible only by lights on the ground. Edinburgh is a great city, and I can tell it’s becoming my new home because it’s exactly where I expect to be the second I open my eyes in the morning. Even if only for a year.