Undici Quarantacinque

It doesn’t matter where you go, or how long you stay. When you return from a trip, you bring back both memories, which are temporal, and  impressions, which are ethereal.

Or so it is with me. For now I can roll the experience like a movie in my head, from start to finish, and remember most of what happened. That’s the memory, and it will fade. But I also have the impressions, the all-senses recordings of a moment, or a place, which I know I will carry with me forever.

With regard to Florence, I’ll now have two sets of impressions, and two faded memories. Of the impressions from my childhood visit, I spoke somewhat in my last essay. But specifically, there is the fried potatoes at the little Trattoria we found quite by chance one evening. I remember my father, mother, sister and I had been wandering around aimlessly in our characteristic way, probably searching for the cheapest of the restaurants, when we finally stumbled into one, literally a hole in a wall – the door was broken off its ancient hinges. It had about five tables, with Mama doing the cooking and Papa working the tables. I was a bit intimidated by this place, its earthiness, but I knew what I wanted: French fries. And by chance he was willing to make them, what are known locally as patati frita. I ordered them, and ate them with salt and a little wine, and they were the best thing I had ever eaten in my life. I think it was the olive oil.

So I suppose it was the sensory memory that created the lifelong impression of those French fries. At any rate, I know I’ll never forget them. Nor will I forget the greasy face of that hard-working owner, stooping over my chair, peering inquisitively into my greasy 12-year-old face stuffed with fries, saying with a twisted grimace that may have been merely questioning or may have been a little challenging – “e bene?” I was satisfied the place was not dangerous, comfortable with my wine, and knew enough Italian to reply with gusto: “Molto bene. Benissimo.”

This seemed to please the old man. He had impressed the Americans. (I should point out that in the early 1970s, American families strolling aimlessly around Florence was not a common thing. We were like Bigfoot.)

And this year’s trip – I know for a fact I will never forget the Uffizi man. The Uffizi man had what I consider the most stressful job in Italy. It was his task to stand outside the Museo dei Uffizi – one of the most visited museums in the world – and try to manage controlled entry for a frenzied crowd of over-scheduled, over-stimulated, reservation-holding art lovers.

It must be understood that in Europe, people do not necessarily queue up for entry into a place the way they do here. They more or less bunch up around the entrance, forming an organic blob of people with no beginning and no end.

These days at the Uffizi, the non-reservation entrance is a blob of people about half a mile long at any given time (in 1974 we just wandered in). The usual wait to get in is about two to two-and-a-half hours. But for those in the know, there is a special entrance for timed entry. You simply call a few days ahead, book a time of entry, and they give you a reservation number. You show up at the reservation entrance at that time and avoid the big blob of tourists in the regular line.

Still, it’s a harrowing experience. The people still bunch up, fearing they will miss their time. So about 75 people or so–those who are on time, a little ahead of time, or a little late–are all standing there, pushing toward the door, waving their reservations at the little old man standing behind the velvet ropes that guard the door to Botticelli, Leonardo, Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens and the rest.

He is about 60, or maybe older, aristocratically thin, short from an American perspective, careworn, with a big blue jacket, fashionable pants and shoes (he’s Italian) and a good head of silver hair. He looks about himself, rarely into the eyes of his supplicants, but beyond and a little above them, as if he’s waiting for some superior force to come and make them all go away. He answers his cell phone and cups his other ear to hear over the crowd. He stands behind the ropes which only he may touch. He lights a cigarette, smokes it hurriedly, then stubs it out after a few puffs. He points to his watch, he shrugs his shoulders, he listens to plaintive stories in Italian or French, answering back in tones of regret, of pragmatism, of powerlessness. But mostly he says, in a loud but not hostile voice – more a plaintive one – the time. He announces the time, like some town crier, at fifteen minute intervals.

“Undici quarantacinque,” he says. 11:45. That’s our time, all of us. When he says it, we wave our little slips of paper and, like good Catholics, chant the responsorial song: “Undici quarantacinque! Undici quarantacinque!” He nods knowingly, waves his arms to take us all in, his 11:45 flock. But then he shakes his head, points to his watch. Not yet.

“What time is it?” I ask my wife in a too-frenzied tone. She is calm like the Arno. “It’s only 11:35.” “Oh,” I say, “it really seemed like it should be time.”

“Undici trenta?” The man says to anyone who may find wisdom in the statement.

All of these people, including me, are thinking the same thing. They’re not sure how the system works. They’ve planned for months, come from far-flung lands, spent a fortune, with the Uffizi as their main object. They have a reservation, but what if they never get recognized by the little man? Occasionally he opens the magical ropes and lets a few people in. He has inspected their reservation. They must be a little late, I think. They must be undici trenta – yes, I’m thinking of time in Italian now. It just seems more efficient.

I am staring at this man as one would stare at a judge empowered to suspend an unjust life sentence. He is good at his job, he does not acknowledge me. He looks at his watch. I look at my watch. The crowd surges, it – as if evolved into an organism – is getting impatient. I’ve been at the front too long. Like cellular waste in the amoeba, I will be sucked away from the nucleus to the edge of the crowd creature and disgorged.

People yell from the back – “Dodeci!” Twelve noon. They are a million miles away. Just stay the hell away. The man shakes his head, waves his arms around our now intimate group – the in crowd – the undici quarantacinque crowd – and says it with polite resignation: “Undici quarantacinque.”

Hours seem to pass. Suddenly he looks right at me. He says it out loud, “Undici quarantacinque,” with a finality in his voice, a beautiful fatalism, and I, gripping my wife’s hand, surge ahead, realizing our time has come. The rope comes off its hook, and I thrust my little scrap of paper into his face, and he inspects it and nods his head resignedly. We pass beyond, through the ropes, the glass doors, into the lobby, and head toward the ticket window. I am ecstatic. I’ve done it. Four thousand miles and I’m here. And it will be fantastic.

And as we enter, I hear in the background, faintly now, that voice: “Undici quarantacinque…undici quarantacinque.” And I always will.

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