[21 March 2011]
While climbing the steps from the Broadway-Lafayette subway stop in Manhattan last August, I dug for change in my pocket to buy breakfast from the fruit vendor on the corner. There was only a receipt in my jeans. The date on the slip marked the previous Sunday’s lunch, one of the final meals I shared on a trip to Italy with my girlfriend before we headed back to the States.
At an outside market in Florence’s Piazza Santo Spirito that Sunday afternoon, we flipped through books, ornate and dusty kitchenware, and even some old Italian 45s. We took a table for lunch at one of the handful of restaurants bordering the market. Over pasta dishes and cold bottles of beer, there was talk of all that we’d seen in the moments leading up to that meal, about how much of our trip to Florence and Rome we’d spent outside.
A lot of our vacation in Italy was spent in the open air—my partner and I lingered often during our stay in the region’s wealth of decorative piazzas, the open public spaces where people gather to shop, eat, look at art, or just to talk and relax. Piazzas are ubiquitous in Tuscany’s capital; grand public spaces materialize within every couple of feet of Florence’s busy foothpaths. It becomes almost too easy to spend a few Euro on a beer, order up a panini, and find a seat against a fountain that’s been there for hundreds of years.
Book: Dandelion Wine
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publication date: 1999-02
After lunch that day, my girlfriend bought olive oil-based soaps from a nearby vendor and a patterned cloth for our coffee table at home in Brooklyn. I embarrassed myself trying to mimic the local tongue in conversation with a bookseller, but I was able to score a copy of La Citta’ Perduta Di Marte (1967), an Italian-translated short fiction collection headlined by two Ray Bradbury stories.
Bradbury’s “The Lost City of Mars” (for which the book is titled) and “Frost and Fire” appear in La Citta’ Perduta Di Marte. The former is known to American readers for its place in the author’s I Sing the Body Electric! (1969), which is named after a line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Frost and Fire” is in R Is for Rocket (1962) as well as in a couple of other collections. The pages that follow the table of contents in R Is for Rocket are “mainly about the stars”, as Bradbury put it in his introduction. But when I was in Europe, I was thinking about the other kind of space with which Bradbury’s body of work is so often concerned.
My mind wandered frequently to Dandelion Wine (1957) when we landed in Italy last summer, as I’d sent off the essay, Ray Bradbury Wrote Me Back to a PopMatters editor not long before we left. In what Bradbury categorizes an “accidental novel”, Dandelion Wine collects stories that are joined by a single theme or place. He somewhat recounts his growing up in Waukegan, Illinois in the book, specifically his summer as a 12-year-old. He ruminates on warm August days, when in “each night the wilderness, the meadows, the far country flowed down-creek through ravines and welled up in town with a smell of grass and water.”
For Bradbury biographer Sam Weller’s second volume on his subject, he consulted archives of conversations he conducted between 2000 and 2010. In the chapter of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010) that’s dedicated to art and literature, Bradbury talks about the marvels of the open air. He mentions his affinity for Rockefeller Center, tying it into a fondness for public space overall and for afternoons spent outdoors. The author offers that “sandwich tastes better” when you’re outside, “sitting on the grass, smelling the air” (Weller, 2010, 158). Bradbury attributes these thoughts to something he’d written in Dandelion Wine:
“...he knew this day was going to be different. It would be different, also, because, as his father explained, driving Douglas and his ten-year-old brother Tom out of town toward the country, there were some days compounded completely of odor, nothing but the world blowing in one nostril and out the other. And some days, he went on, were days of hearing every trump and trill of the universe. Some days were good for tasting and some for touching. And some days were good for all senses at once.”
Book: Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews
Author: Sam Weller
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: 2010-06
Boxed in now by bandage-colored cubicle walls in downtown Manhattan, I take solace in the memories I have of Florence—the evening’s copper window glow from the homes perched along the River Arno and all of the room that is there to wander.
In an article for The Geographical Review in 1994, Ohio Wesleyan University professor Richard Fusch explained that “between 600 and 1100, open spaces fronting churches or serving as landings for noble-family towers became the piazzas around which public life was conducted.” When the city-states “restricted the power of the nobility,” public places were opened to “the entire citizenry” (Fusch, 1994, 427). Philip James Jones wrote about the significant stronghold that commerce had on the development of the piazza in The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signora (1997). In medieval Italy, “trade and traders spread indiscriminately everywhere” and “main squares in a number of cities became the seat and centre of markets and trading areas” (Jones, 1997, 212). On the first leg of our trip, my girlfriend and I spent a couple of mornings in a piazza marketplace called Campo dei Fiori.
Just before noon on our second day in Rome, we circled Campo dei Fiori’s busy fruit vendors, fleshy figs in hand. We spoke with an older, disarmingly friendly native named Henry who lived for decades in Rome before he moved to Sydney, Australia, which he seemed to appreciate a lot more. He referenced a fondness for Sydney’s comparatively slower pace and said that it’s a cleaner place to live than Rome. I asked him about markets in Sydney, explaining how much we liked being able to rest alongside Campo dei Fiori’s bustling merchant stands and admire the local scenery. Henry looked puzzled.
“Markets? There are no markets in Sydney. Not like this.”
After parting with our friendly acquaintance and turning toward the perimeter of the square to see what shops were open, I was startled to find an inconspicuous bookstore called Libreria Fahrenheit 451—a stylish shop named after a Ray Bradbury book.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read about it—an independent bookseller seemingly devoted to Bradbury’s powerfully resonant dystopic work, a mere walk from where we were staying in Italy. Libreria Fahrenheit 451 stocks all kinds of literature, art, and criticism (both Italian- and English-language), and a large glass case by the front door houses a wonderful collection of assorted editions of Bradbury’s book, translated into a number of tongues. Promotional posters for the 1965 Francois Truffaut film production of Fahrenheit line the store’s walls, and when I’d gawked at them long enough, I asked the two staff members/owners to permit us to photograph their display of Bradbury books. We summoned as much Italian that we could, and spoke excitedly about the author’s work with the Libreria folks. It was a really comfortable couple of minutes: two out-of-towners with a limited reserve of the local language between them, bonding with Romans over Ray Bradbury books.
Days later, after we arrived in Florence, we stopped at an outside sandwich counter called I Fratellini for lunch: a mozzarella and basil panini paired with wine by the glass. Pigeons swooped in for scraps while we stood and ate in the street. Local children broke pieces of bread and tossed them to the birds gathering near the lunch crowd. For a number of reasons, it was one of the better afternoons I’ve spent in my life. Bradbury describes meals like these with typical color in Dandelion Wine:
“...With buckets half burdened with fox grapes and wild strawberries, followed by bees which were, no more, no less, the world humming under its breath, they sat on a green-mossed log, chewing sandwiches and trying to listen to the forest the same way Father did. Douglas felt Dad watching him, quietly amused. Dad started to say something that had crossed his mind, but instead tried another bite of sandwich and mused over it. ‘Sandwich outdoors isn’t a sandwich anymore. Tastes different than indoors, notice? Got more spice. Tastes like mint and pinesap. Does wonders for the appetite.’ Douglas’s tongue hesitated on the texture of bread and deviled ham. No…no…it was just a sandwich.”
In the early evening on the next day I stood in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, eyeing its statues and florid works by Sandro Botticelli. In the building’s sprawling open-air courtyard, my girlfriend and I discussed plans for a dinner that would materialize in a small, dimly lit restaurant on the other side of the Arno, where our hotel was. We were nearing the close of our trip, and while standing before the magnificent Birth of Venus, I found myself unable to concentrate on the painting.
I looked instead to my right, at the woman in the rumpled black dress, with whom I’d traveled to my family’s native country. She was thumbing her grandmother’s jewelry, and I admired her flushed cheeks and petite frame, as I’d done so frequently in years prior. At that moment, I could only think of what it meant to see this place for the first time with her, and how much I needed an extra several hours in Florence before we boarded the plane home, if just for the simple reason of spending another afternoon outside.