I lived in Florence, Italy for two months during the heatwave summer of 2003, then I went back to Rome, Florence, and Venice for a week in 2004, but I hadn’t been back to the country until last week, when I had a talk in Turin, and added a couple days of extra days in Milan. I love the country and the style and the coffee and the language and the food and the way once you get out on a highway out in the farmland, it looks like you could be back in Ohio.
I was trying to remember how I planned my trips 13, 14 years ago… probably with a Rick Steves guidebook or something. This time, I just starred everything that seemed remotely interesting in Google Maps and downloaded the map to my phone so I could use it offline. (I didn’t realize that even in airplane mode, if you’re using Google Maps offline, you can see your location on the map.) I’d sort of plan my day in advance the night before, but then if I found myself in a certain part of the city, I’d just pull up the map and see what was starred nearby. I also printed out the Google Maps on paper and pasted them in my notebook, so I could take notes on where I went and what I saw.
Before I take a trip, I try to jot down a few notes about what I hope to get out of it. For this one, I told my wife I hoped to discover some things I couldn’t get in Texas, and if not that, maybe discover some things I could get in Texas that I haven’t discovered yet. (I’m suddenly reminded of a story from Dave Hickey’s Pirates and Farmers: Ed Ruscha got back from a trip to Italy, and when somebody asked him what he saw, he said, “Oh, lots of things, but nothing I could use.”)
What did I see? Lots of things. (And a few I think I can use. We’ll see.)
In Milan, I stayed in Brera, had dinner near the Bosco Verticale (“Vertical Forest”) with some folks at my Italian publisher, Vallardi. The next morning I walked the neighborhood, poked into the art academy, browsed an old library, observatory, and the wonderful botanical gardens, then headed down to the duomo and saw Warhol’s last supper at the Novecento. While waiting on De Santis (heavenly paninis!) to open, I wandered into an amazing church that turned out to be something like the Sistine Chapel of Milan. Walked in Sempione Park, watched people playing soccer, had a coffee in the design museum cafe, walked past the castle, then took a car to Turin.
In Turin, I saw a Bruno Munari show at the MEF, walked the river and watched the sun set, ate gelato under the crescent moon. The next day, I spoke in the Intesa Sanpaolo skyscraper with a terrific view, had lunch with magician Ferdinando Buscema, took the metro down to the mall in Lingotto and bought a 100 euros worth of Munari books at the wonderful Corraini store, then ate a plate of pasta at the famed Eataly. Next morning, I watched the mountains wake up, strolled Via Roma, caught the flea market, strolled some more.
Took a car back to Milan, walked the gorgeous cemetery Monumentale, visited Bruno Munari’s tomb, and had a beer with the great Olimpia Zagnoli, who signed a copy of her book I’d been coveting, La Grande Estate. (The cafe we drank in employed people with special needs and they practiced the Neapolitan tradition of “suspended coffee” — you pay for two coffees, one for a stranger who can’t afford one. I made a note to find out if anybody does this in the US.) I was exhausted by that point and coming down with a cold, but happy.
On the airplane(s) home, I decided to steal from Nina Katchadourian’s “Seat Assignment” series and see how much art I could make on the way. I made a bunch of silly collages and English blackouts from Italian newspapers. It was a grueling, 24-hour day of travel, but I can’t remember an easier “re-entry” upon my return. Maybe it was that I had so much time to process the trip.
Today, before sitting down to write this, my best friend from college forwarded me some emails I had sent him from various internet cafes across Florence in 2003. A sample: “almost everything you [hear] about italians is true, they are gorgeous, [a little] vain, fashion-conscious and they watch your every move. but they know how to live…everything is slow and steamy.” Fourteen years later, still pretty true. I look forward to my next return.