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The Italy Diaries: Pisa

The Italy Diaries: Florence

This week, Nadia El-Awady talks Florence, squeezing The David's balls, gorgeous 14-year-old Italian girls, and super-sized soft drinks.

One of our many family stories is that when I was a wee girl (my Scottish husband has indeed influenced my vocabulary), my parents tried to take us all to Florence. My father was teaching at the time in a university somewhere in Italy. Florence was a long car drive away. Every time we tried to go to this renaissance city, our car would break down or something else would happen that would prevent us from getting there. My parents never made it to Florence. And it is thus that one of my brothers and I have made a point of seeing the city that my parents never got to see. My brother managed to do this a few years ago. This autumn it was my turn.

Visiting Florence has always been a family ambition. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

For many, Florence is a city of museums. I sincerely dislike museums, however. I have no desire to go to a beautiful city for a day or two and spend half that time standing in long, boring lines with the other half spent inside an ugly building not sure exactly what it is I am looking at. Why is the best artwork placed in boring museums? Why not place them in exciting palaces or in churches or in outdoor museums? I understand that this may create security issues for important artwork and that the natural elements may then have more of an effect on them. But there are ways around these problems. Museums should at the very least be organized in a way that does not cause sensory overload and a feeling of being completely overwhelmed.

I want my museums to have large signs with arrows saying, “There is a masterpiece in this direction that you won’t want to miss. The kind you studied in high school. The kind you can go back home and brag about to your friends.” I need signs like that so I can shortcut through all the boring museum crap and just jump to the really important stuff. I want to be in and out of a museum in half an hour. And I WANT TO BE ABLE TO TAKE PICTURES of the important stuff I’ve seen! How am I going to brag to my friends that I saw Michelangelo’s David if I don’t have a picture of me pretending to squeeze his balls?

The only museum I did visit in Florence was the Galleria dell’Accademia. And the only reason I went there was because I read it held Michelangelo’s legendary sculpture of David, from David and Goliath. Colin and I browsed through the paintings on the walls in the entrance hall of the Galleria. We did this quickly. We enjoyed what we saw but, not being very knowledgeable in art, the significance of what we were seeing was lost on us. We moved into the hall to the left.

Michelangelo’s David stands proud yet humble in Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia. Photo sneakily taken by Nadia El-Awady

The moment we entered this hall we were immediately aware that we were in the presence of excellence. At the very end of the hall was the pure white marble sculpture of David, standing tall and beautiful and magnificent. We both stood at the end of the hall gaping at the brilliance that was standing some 50 meters away.

Sculpted between 1501 and 1504 by the master himself, The David stands proud yet humble, with his sling held casually behind his back. His eyes are piercing, his hair wavy, knee caps and veins prominent, buttocks strong, abdominal muscles sculpted, rib cage muscular,toes and fingers well-detailed, and hands and feet larger than they should be. No sculpture you see after The David will impress you.

The Galleria dell’Accademia has signs everywhere saying photos are not allowed within the museum. There were at least three staff members standing in the vicinity of the David to make sure people did not take photographs. Nevertheless, I did manage to capture a picture of The David. Illegally. Unnoticed. I should have been a spy for a living. I didn’t get one of me pretending to squeeze his balls (I’m not really that kind of person) but I did see a 60-year-old Italian woman getting that exact same picture while standing in front of a replica of him outside the Uffizi Museum. Old Italian women rock.

From what I read, the Uffizi is a must-see museum in Florence. But in front of it was an endless line of museum-goers, waiting for their turn to go in. Guidebooks say that one must leave aside at least half a day to properly see this large museum. Colin and I took one look at the line and then at each other. That was enough for us to know that neither of us wanted to spend this beautiful sunny day in line or in another museum. Instead, we walked toward the River Arno.

Immediately to our right was the Ponte Vecchio, a 30-meter long by 32-meter wide medieval bridge crossing the river. The bridge stands out from others along the river because of the shops that line it on either side. Colin and I walked onto the bridge to enjoy the views of Florence from its three main archways.

The Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, straddling the River Arno. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

We also spent a significant amount of time trying to get a picture of me on the bridge that I would approve of. In every picture either my mouth was snarling, my eye wrinkles were showing, or my hair was doing the crazy act. I blamed it all on Colin. He was a horrible picture taker. He, on the other hand, had but one thing to say, “What do you think you look like??”

I would have none of it. When I saw the Italian artists sitting outside the Duomo, Florence’s iconic cathedral built over a 150-year period beginning 1296, I insisted that Colin and I get our portrait drawn. I wanted a good picture of the two of us, not the crap he keeps shooting.

The artist whose displayed work I most liked agreed to draw our portrait, after some bargaining, for 35€, down from 60€. And that’s how we spent an hour of our time in Florence: sitting under the warm Florentine sun with the massive 13th Century Duomo as our backdrop, watching tourists stroll by, listening to the cathedral bells making beautiful music and to lovers laughing while a man who looked like he was a drugged up rock star from the 60s drew our portrait.

The result of this hour-long work was a 14-year-old gorgeous Italian girl sitting next to a very handsome 25-year-old Greek man. Colin and I looked AMAZING in our portrait. I was so happy I finally had a picture of myself that looked the way I think I look like in my head (a 14-year-old gorgeous Italian girl):

Me and Colin in the eyes of a drugged up Florentine artist. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady
For lunch, Colin and I found a small place along the Arno and we ordered pasta and pizza. The food wasn’t particularly special. But our drink was. We ordered a soft drink like we sometimes do when we’re restauranting. Instead of a glass, we were surprised to find that we were given huge, supersized bowls on a pedestal chock full of the brown stuff. It was the best soda pop I ever had in my whole life.
The biggest and best brown stuff I’ve ever had in my life. Photo Credit: Colin McFadden
At night we went to the Santa Monaca Church to hear a short selection of arias performed by an Italian soprano. The range on that woman’s voice was impressive. There were times when she hit some of those high notes that it was quite literally painful. Luckily she never stayed on those notes for too long otherwise I really do think my eardrum could have ruptured. Even with the pain, it was a sickeningly addictive sort of pain: I need more. The opera singer went up and down the scales like a nightingale. After hearing that, I can now only consider pop music as a mere humming.