A (Class) Room With a View

Photo by Tommy Zurhellen
I’m sitting alone on a rooftop veranda overlooking the steep cavern of the Via del Giglio, listening to a waiter downstairs at bustling Café Giotto patiently answer questions from an American couple. Okay buddy, but what exactly is this one here – chin-gee-al-ee? Seriously? Wild boar? Isn’t that like an endangered species, like bald eagles? Around the corner, there’s also the faint lilt of an accordion coming from Piazza di Madonna, a street performer playing a marathon version of “O Sole Mio” (or Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” if you prefer, since they share the same melody). Across from my perch, I can see an older couple check into their room on the third floor of the Hotel Astoria. They flick on the light and dump their shiny, wheeled suitcases onto the bed like anchors, glad to finally be rid of the weight. The man releases his fanny pack to the floor and slumps into a chair while the woman comes to the cramped window and peers down at the crowds milling by on the cobblestoned street. The man leans forward in crash position and says a short prayer for air conditioning. After a few moments the woman stands back from her view, lets out a tired sigh, then reaches out to close the shutters tight.

It’s another warm summer night here in Florence, and I’m nursing a late coffee by candlelight while going over the reading I’ve assigned for tomorrow’s class, one last time. The candles were here when I arrived, probably left by the last professor who stayed in this apartment for a semester. It’s close to midnight and I know I should be drinking wine right now – this is Italy, after all – but I confess I don’t really drink much wine; as you can imagine, this makes me an instant outsider in this, a city of outsiders. Alora, Tommasino, you don’t drink wine? I suppose you don’t breathe air, either? In Italy, I am told even children take a glass at dinner. I might as well live in the Deep South and tell the locals I don’t eat barbecue.

Which I have. There was this rough six months in grad school. But that’s another story.

Tomorrow morning, my freshman writing class is discussing the first two chapters of E.M. Forster’s sharp novel A Room With a View, where young Lucy Honeychurch finds herself in Florence for the first time. I’m hoping the students see the parallels between Lucy’s situation and their own, but right now I think I could spend the whole class period just talking about Forster’s character names: I mean, Lucy Honeychurch? It was the perfect choice for a naïve ingénue when the book came out, in 1908 — although now, more than a hundred years later, it does kind of vaguely sound like a bad porno name. Anyway, I’m on the part of the story where the indomitable Miss Lavish is showing Lucy the way to the church of Santa Croce, a popular tourist sight still today. Halfway there, Miss Lavish stops abruptly under an arch and says to Lucy, “A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell.”

I definitely agree with her on that; you can identify a city just by its smell. Anyone who spends a summer in New York City never forgets that sticky fog of diesel, hot sweat, and roasted asphalt. I’ve been to Festivale in Cartagena where even the ocean breeze can’t compete with the spicy sting of sancocho cooking on the parasol-covered carts all along the Bocagrande. And I’ve spent a cold winter in Dublin, where peat fires still coat the darkened city with a sweet smoke. Tonight, Florence has that musty tang of old stone right after a fresh rain; the Arno is low this time of year, giving its bottom muck a rare chance to breathe and fill the streets with a gentle, muddy musk. Summer is the season that always exposes a city, even one as ancient and full of secrets as Florence.

Photo by Tommy Zurhellen

So far I have a grand total of fifteen days’ experience in Italy, which doesn’t count for much, I know. We are all tourists here tonight: me, my students, the couple in the Astoria, the couple downstairs ordering an endangered species. I’m not even here on vacation, I’m here to work, but I’m still a tourist. Part of me wonders how long it would take to become something more. A year? Ten years? Fifty? How long to finally be allowed behind the glass? Learning the language would help; I’ve gotten a lot better just in the short time I’ve been here, buying groceries at the Mercato Centrale and postcard stamps at the corner tabacceria without much trouble. But even if I magically learned to speak perfect Italian in a Florentine accent, I’m guessing I still would be considered an outsider. It seems an identity is more than just a new language, or a new outfit, or a new menu.

I’m betting Forster was thinking about the exact same thing when he wrote A Room With a View, a book based on his own time spent in Florence. Lucy’s transformation comes when she tries to explore the city by herself, without the aid of a guidebook or advice from other tourists. She only finds herself when she risks getting lost. That’s the reward of striking out on your own and dropping the safety and comfort of the beaten path. It doesn’t seem like much of a reward at first – heck, it seems downright scary – but when you talk to folks who travel the world, the real explorers, they all tell you it’s the best feeling they’ve ever had.

It’s the same with writing: when writers push themselves out of their comfort zones, that’s when the real creativity happens. Listen, the only real difference between novice writers and those more experienced is how we deal with fear. The difference isn’t in talent, or grammar, or a better vocabulary (I’m pretty sure Hemingway wasn’t checking a thesaurus, and he did all right). It’s in how much practice we have facing the unknown, the dark tunnel ahead where the story or poem or essay wants to take us. Of course, Keats came up with this idea a couple hundred years ago, but it’s still just as significant to writers today. We have to admit that there are plenty of things we have no control over. Sometimes it’s the story writing us. A long time ago, someone told me the act of writing was at least 50% magic, and I think that might be a conservative estimate. I’m hoping there’s that much magic floating around Florence for the next few months, because I have my own writing project to tackle, and just like my students, I’ll sit there in front of a blank screen and get a little frightened at what to do next.

The more I travel, the more I’m convinced our identity might contain a lot more things we can’t control than things we can. We like to think we can change our own identity, but it seems a true identity is pretty hard to fake. It’s deep into us, tattooed on our bones, and it can’t be scraped away so easily.

Tomorrow in class, we’ll probably get a few good laughs out of Lucy Honeychurch’s misadventures while we read the story aloud. After all, it is a very funny book, and Forster certainly meant to skewer all the stuffy, static tourists he saw converging on Florence a hundred years ago. But most importantly, I hope we will realize that when we laugh at them, we’re also making fun of ourselves. If we’re honest, my students and I, we’ll see a lot of our own stories at work in there. And that honesty just might be the first step towards a better understanding of who we really are in this amazing city, and in this world.

For me, the second step might be a glass of wine. But that’s another story.

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