Guest post: A Foreigner in Florence

Guest post by Katarina West, author of “Absolute Truth, For Beginners”.

Author photo Katarina West

Yesterday was a day of sparkling wine and toasts and congratulations for me, because I published my second novel, Absolute Truth, For Beginners. Set in Florence and Chianti, it tells an unusual love story between a twenty-something art history graduate Elisa and Judith Shapiro; a famous British mathematician, who lives cloistered in her world of numbers.

Elisa, my fumbling and insecure heroine, is orphaned – a fact that might explain some of her chronic insecurity. She’s been raised by her Finnish-born aunt Fanny, who has lived most of her life in Florence. And so even Elisa knows a thing or two about the émigré community in Florence, even if she is, in her own words, “dark-eyed and brown-haired: one hundred per cent Italian, one hundred per cent Mediterranean.”

Every Sunday Auntie Fanny organises a lunch for her bookish expat friends, and that’s when Elisa meets the colourful selection of foreigners who have settled in Florence. There is, for example, Matthias ‘Metanarrative’ Köppl, a German deconstructionist who ever since the US invasion of Iraq has refused to speak English as his one-man campaign against American imperialism. Or Roy ‘Ravi Shankar’ Gutman, a New Age composer. Or Ruth ‘Subconscious’ Sanderson, the only Jungian expert in town. Or DeeDee Docek, a fifty-something woman of various European nationalities, who lives in a half-restored farmhouse beyond Fiesole with eighteen cats, two rifles and an Irish poet for a partner.

Those lunch guests are fictional examples of the Florentine expat community. A colony with a long history, it has included some very famous writers and artists, like Henry James, who embarked on Portrait of a Lady while staying in an apartment overlooking the golden-yellowish river Arno. Or Edith Wharton, who wrote so superbly about Italian gardens. Or E.M. Forster, who made such a fuss about the view. Today it’s a bustling world of groups and sub-communities, and new members come and go without necessarily even knowing each other (as they must have done on Henry James’s days).

But what are the sub-communities? First of all, there are all the foreign students of the city’s art and language schools, and over thirty American campuses. And then there are the consulate people, and art historians on research missions, and business people doing short work stints here. Plus, who could forget the foreign wives of Italian men (for rarely is it the other way round), or the foreign artists trying to scrape through financially (because this is the only city where they can live)? And every now and then you meet a wealthy bon vivant who has taken a holiday from whatever he or she was doing before, and is now carrying out a third millennium version of the Grand Tour. Or a cool fashion designer who owns a gorgeous attic studio on piazza del Carmine. And so on.

You can live inside this community, talking English, and never really mixing with the Italians at all. Because one of the unwritten laws of the Florentine émigré community is that whenever you can, you’ll seek help and advice inside that colony, thus avoiding the haplessly messy Italy altogether. So your paediatrician could be Dutch and dentist British and gynaecologist Danish; and there’s a high probability that your kids go to an English or French school. OK, so your plumber and electrician have to be Italians – and that’s why it is so delicious to complain about them, starting from the undeniable fact that the Italians are always, always unpardonably late.

Since everyone often knows everyone in this insular community, it’s not hard at all to find the right names and addresses. And when you walk into, say, your British dentist’s office, you can’t help thinking that you have entered the terra incognita of ex-patriot life, because in the waiting room there are almost as many international newspapers as there are foreign licence plates on the parking lot of the UN headquarters; and on the noticeboard hang advertisements on language tuition, au pair help, Christmas Carol concerts at St. Mark’s Church and Fourth-of-July potluck dinners.

I once interviewed Donna Leon, the famous author of the Brunetti crime novels, and an American expat living in Venice. I asked her why so many foreigners end up living here. What’s the reason? She replied that behind each foreigner living in Italy, there is a story. There is a reason why they came here.

When it comes to Florence, that reason is usually obvious: many foreigners come to Tuscany because of its art and beauty. Because of Giotto and Fra Angelico. And the Italian opera. And the food: you can’t but eat well here. And the fashion. And that elegant, carefree lifestyle. And that glorious landscape: for have you stood on piazzale Michelangelo at sunset in summer? Or kissed your fiancé on Ponte Vecchio?

But when these foreigners find out that life’s just life, even in Italy, and that the imagined Florence of Botticelli and tourist guides is not the same as the everyday Florence of traffic jams and souvenir shops, they’re bound to get disappointed. That is exactly the point at which their honeymoon with Florence will end and their idol will metamorphose from a virgin bride into a scarlet woman, a nasty harpy slowly sucking their blood and vitality and making their lives hell. And so slowly the deluded foreigner will turn into the bitter expat who complains about everything in general, and the plumbers and electricians in particular.

I came to Italy to write a PhD on political science. I still remember my open-mouthed awe when the institute where I was going to study asked me to come for an interview, and I saw the Boboli gardens and the façade of the Duomo for the first time. I decided that I shouldn’t even dream of being accepted. For it seemed incredible that anyone – not the least me – could live in a city as beautiful as this. Strangely enough, I was accepted, and fell in love, and married an Italian, and never left this city… even if I was supposed to stay here no more than a few years.

That’s how it works, life.

Absolute Truth for beginners book launch

And you may read my review of Katarina’s new book Absolute Truth, For Beginners here.

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