The Badia: Florence’s Best-kept Secret

The winter cold of Florence has eaten through my coat and scarf, and it’s licking now at the soles of my boots. The time is six o’clock, and the narrow, rain-slick streets are dark. It will freeze tonight. Florence will likely be covered with snow in the morning.

I’m rushing toward Via del Proconsolo on Via Ghibellina, head bowed and eyes glued to the street in front of me to avoid rain puddles and the occasional taxi. If you passed by me, or saw me through a restaurant window, you’d think I was headed to a cozy bar where friends are waiting, or to an overstuffed armchair in front of a fire at home. You’d be wrong.

At the Bargello, where Via Ghibellina ends, I hop onto the sidewalk to avoid a tour bus that’s muscling its way toward me.  I sometimes challenge taxis and cars for the right of way in this part of town—especially when it’s raining—but I have no quarrel anywhere or at any time with these faceless beasts.  I wait on the corner as it lumbers by.

I’ve made good time, and my destination is right across the street. I’ll be just in time to hear the singing of Vespers at La Badia Fiorentina.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a religious person, but this is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had. And I keep coming back.

It’s a place not many people recognize or even know about. In fact, mysister and I walked past it every day for two weeks on our way to language school without ever noticing it. We’d seen people go in a door at the top of a short flight of steps occasionally, and once or twice a host of nuns would drift out the door in their long skirts and down the steps into the street. But there was no sign to identify anything of importance, no lines of people following a tour-guide holding a bright umbrella in the air, no mark of any kind to indicate this was a special place.

Just across from the Bargello. Who knew?

The only remarkable feature, in fact, is a pointed bell tower, the only one in Florence. So you’ve likely noticed it on the skyline, but never knew exactly what it was.


The hexagonal tower has an interesting history of its own. It was completely destroyed in the Middle Ages by the City of Florence when the monks refused to pay their taxes. Dante refers to the tower in the Divine Comedy.

Do you see it, just to the right of Giotto’s Campanille?

One sunny day last year, after a giant gelato in a sugar cone, I walked up the steps, opened the door, and peered in.

Nothing. An entry way like hundreds of entryways off the streets in Italy, complete with construction equipment and metal scaffolding crawling up the inside walls. But as I shrugged and turned to go, sucking the last of the gelato off my fingers, two nuns walked past me and wished me good morning. They opened a door on my left and smiled at me, holding the door open as if they expected me to enter. “What the hell,” I thought, and I went in.

A “badia” is an abbey, so I knew it was a place of worship, but the outside was so unassuming I had few expectations for the inside. (Yet another lesson for me on Living in Florence: Some of the city’s finest treasures are stored in plain brown packages. Think of the Basilica of San Lorenzo!)

When the heavy door closed behind me, shutting out the bright sunlight and the noise from the busy street outside, my eyes were drawn to a stunning altarpiece suspended from the ceiling. I later learned the piece was painted in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Artists, one of my favorite books on the Renaissance. Vasari created the piece to substitute for another by Giotto that now hangs in the Uffizi.

Other than the altarpiece and the walls of the apse, there is little additional ornamentation. No stained glass here. Instead, gray pietra serena walls and white-marble Corinthian columns create a quiet, solemn mood, unlike the more animated feeling I get in the Batistero and Ognissanti and Santa Croce and San Miniato.

The space is done in a mixture of architectural styles, but it works for me.

I sat in one of the pews along with only four or five others and let the sheer peace and quiet of the space envelop me. I felt alone here, safe. This would be the place to come, I told myself, on days when I missed my home, my family, my friends. The place to reflect, restore my spirit, lick my wounds.

I hadn’t been there long when I saw the nuns who held the door open for me file in with other nuns. All of them had replaced the gray jumpers they wear in the streets with white hooded capes that made them appear to float down the aisle like spirits until they reached the altar and then knelt. As more nuns and some of the order’s monks joined them—men on the right, women on the left—one of the nuns began to sing.

She had a sweet, clear voice that filled the empty church like sparkling water in a glass. The other nuns, and then the monks, joined in, and my spirit—again, I’m not a religious person—lifted. It was a remarkable experience.

The entire service was sung by the religious order that maintains and services the abbey. No readings from the Bible, no passing the basket for money, no audience participation.

And then it was over. The nuns and monks walked away, leaving me and the handful of others—all Italian, based on the bits of quiet conversation I heard—alone with our thoughts and prayers.

It was hard to leave. Going back into the bright sunshine to dodge taxis, buses, and tourists was as unappealing to me as a frozen pizza.

When I did get up, I noticed a striking painting on the wall on my right as I approached the door, a 15th century of the apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard by Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo Lippi. The rich colors and the sharp detail breathed life into the characters against the dark stone wall. The Virgin, in a stunning indigo cape, touches a page that St. Bernard is writing about the Annunciation. According to a French legend, Bernard had had a moment of weakness in his faith, and Mary had come to him to announce his salvation, just as Gabriel came to her.


Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard by Filippino Lippi (1486).

The theme of the painting is inscribed on the frame: “In matters that raise doubts, call on Mary.”

Back home, I did some research on the Badia.

I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s one of Florence’s oldest churches, commissioned for the Benedictine Order by Willa, the widow of Count Uberto of Tuscany, in the year 978.  Her son, Count Ugo, was buried inside the church in 1001, where his tomb still rests.

The Badia’s history is firmly anchored to the story of Florence. Among the more popular roles it plays, it was the parish church of Beatrice Portinari, the famous “Beatrice” of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Also, it was just next to the north entrance to the Abbey, in the chapel of Santo Stefano, that Boccaccio gave the first public Dante’s work.

The building has undergone many and massive reconstructions since its inception, the first in the 13th century, when it ceased being a Benedictine abbey and was consecrated as a Gothic church. In the 15th century, the building was expanded, and the Cloister of the Oranges was added, a beautiful example of early Renaissance architecture adorned by anonymous frescoes arranged in reverse chronological order that tell the life story of Saint Benedict.

In the 17th century, the church was rotated 90 degrees, the entrance was changed, and a new choir was built on the southern side. The present entrance, opened in 1494, is framed by a 19th century copy of the original doorway built by Benedetto de Rovezzano, a sculptor from Pistoia.

Some months after my first visit, I found a tour of the Cloister, which is built around a fountain and a copse of fragrant orange trees. It’s open only on Mondays for an hour or so in the afternoon. Once inside, I saw that the stone has not weathered well. The frescoes, however, are in surprisingly good condition.

Hours for visiting the Cloister are erratic, but be sure to see the church. You can attend high mass on Sundays with singing at 11 AM; Saturday mass 12:30 PM; and vespers from Tuesday through Friday at 6 PM.

Getting an Italian Visa: It Isn’t Easy, but It CAN be Done

 

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If you’re a baby-boomer like me, you’re either retired or thinking about retirement. And if you don’t have close ties to your present location, you may be looking for a place to spend the rest of your life.

What are you looking for? According to a recent Forbes Magazine article, the current most popular retirement destinations outside the US are south (Equador, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Columbia) and east (Thailand and Malasia). Only two of the locations are in Europe (Spain and Portugal). Choosing a place to live involves highly personal criteria, but it seems reasonable to assume that these locations are so popular because of their mild climates and low cost of living.

I chose Florence, Italy, as my new home for neither of those reasons. I was looking for a place where I could live well in a beautiful location that offered both casual and elegant amenities within walking distance, opportunities for an active social life, comfortable transportation to major European cities, and many venues to learn about a new and different culture. I’m thoroughly pleased with my choice.

Tip: If you’re a single woman like me, don’t let being on your own stop you from living your dream. Remember Anne Richard’s very wise words about competence: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

Get an Italian Visa

If Italy happens to offer what you’re looking for in a retirement home, you probably already know that moving there is not a matter of simply packing your bags and boarding a plane. To stay longer than three months, you need a visa granted by the Italian government. Years ago, it was possible to stay three months in a European country, cross the border to another country for a day and a night, and then return for three months. This isn’t allowed anymore. Today, you can stay for three months in any European country without a visa, but after that you have to leave Europe and stay out for three months before you can return. Three months in, three months out—that’s not only inconvenient, it’s expensive!

Be aware that you must apply for the visa in the US. I have heard horror stories of Americans who don’t know this, who learn only after they’ve settled into an apartment that they have to go back to the States and go through the process. One woman wrote to say she had moved to Lucca and didn’t discover until she drove to the coast to pick up all of her furniture that it wouldn’t be released to her unless she had a visa. Not only did she have to return to the States for more than a month to get the visa, but the Italian shipping company charged her a daily fee to store her furniture!

The visa process can take several months. It can be frustrating and painful, which is not altogether bad. As a friend said to me, “If it were easy, everybody would be doing it!”

Of course, there is no guarantee that your application will be approved. I have friends who have re-applied and re-applied with no success. Some of my friends have simply given up and live in Italy without the visa. It’s tricky, but they stay under the radar and don’t travel in and out of the country often.

Know the Type of Visa You Need

There are several types of long-stay visas, generally related to how you will spend your time in Italy. Visa types include those for students, for families, and for individuals who want to work or open businesses in Italy. Most retirees, like me, apply for the Elective Residency Type D visa, which grants permission to live in Italy but not to work.

Find your consulate and prepare your application

It’s important to determine which Italian consulate is in your area because this is the one you’re required to use. (Find a list of the consulates and their service areas here.) Search the Website for your consulate and find an application form and a list of required documents that must be submitted with it. The site will also provide directions for scheduling an interview and the amount of fees you must pay.

Tip: Don’t schedule your appointment until you have all the required paperwork in hand!

Assemble the required documentation

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know specifically what is required. For example, all consulates insist on proof of financial support. This may sound simple, but it can be a significant stumbling block. The reason? Consulates don’t state the amount of financial support they expect you to have, and the amount seems to differ from consulate to consulate. When I appeared for my interview, I provided statements of my monthly pension and my Social Security, the title to my home, a savings account in cash, and my savings investments. What a surprise to hear that the clerk needed proof that I had at least $70,000 in CASH!

Needless to say, it was devastating to hear this requirement at the last moment, but I stayed as calm as I could and told the clerk I could fax something to him from the bank. He agreed to this arrangement and held my application, my fee, and all of my documents (including my passport). When he received a faxed copy of a screen shot of my bank balance the next day, he called to tell me that all was in order and that he saw no reason the application would be denied. (The day after the phone call, I quietly moved the cash I was short back into my sister’s account. No one ever checked my account after the interview.)

Tip: My consulate in Houston required an FBI fingerprint check. If this a requirement for you, be aware that it can take as long as six weeks, so get this done as soon as possible.

Not all of the requirements are so opaque, but some of them may seem unreasonable. One of those is a valid, two-way ticket from your home in the States to your Italian destination with a return date as far out as you can get it (eight months with most carriers). What if your visa is denied, and that you can stay in Europe legally for only three months. Will you have to re-schedule your return flight?

Another requirement that seems unreasonable is that you must show a signed apartment contract in your destination city. This can be tricky, especially if you don’t know what your chosen destination city has to offer.

Apartments are not hard to find on the Internet, but you want to do a good deal of research before you make a deal with the owner or agent for the property. I have always found great vacation apartments on the Internet, and that’s how I found my first place here in Florence in the Santa Croce area.

This is where online friends in Italy can help you. (See this post for tips on making online friends.) Make sure the Website gives a clear indication of the location of the apartment, and ask your contacts if it’s a safe area with good transportation available. Here in the historic center of Florence, I feel totally safe all the time, but there are dicey areas of the city I would avoid after dark. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in those areas!

Tip: Not all apartments you find will rent long-term. Some will rent for only a few days, some for only a few months. All you need is a place to begin. This way, you have a home while you look around for something you may like better.

Attend the personal interview

At your personal interview with a consulate staff member, you will submit all of your paperwork, the required fees, and your passport. If everything is in order, the staff member will keep your passport and tell you when you can expect its return in the US mail. When it arrives, the visa will be imprinted on one of the pages.

If the clerk tells you he needs more from you, don’t despair. Be polite, stay calm, and then try your best to accommodate his requests. After all, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it!

Check your mailbox regularly

The waiting period is reasonable, usually one to three weeks. While you’re waiting, concentrate on Step 2: Preparing for the Move and Step 3: After You Arrive.

 

“Anciana” it is.

07C2F702-0005-48D7-AB59-AAE5F0517615I’m back in Florence for a three-month stay, having a great time catching up with friends and eating myself senseless.

I had lunch today at Luisaviaroma with Elizabeth Orchard, a talented artist from Isle of Man (that makes her a Manx, by the way), who lives in a charming home with an English garden in Bellosguardo, a Florence suburb southwest of the city. (See her website at http://elizabethorchard.com)

Elizabeth and I talked about everything from Donald Trump to flower arranging to Etruscan ruins. We also talked about growing older.

When we got to the growing-older part, I meant to tell Elizabeth about my Austin Italian tutor using the word “anziana” to refer to a woman my age.

I meant to tell her that my cab driver from the Florence airport objected when I used that unfortunate adjective to refer to myself. He told me I am not “anziana,” but rather “attempata,” which made me smile. I had no idea what it meant, but I liked the sound of it better than “anziana.” I gave him a big tip.

And I also meant to tell her that I Googled “attempata” when I got to my apartment. The word means “elderly woman.” It’s  used to refer to a woman in her 60s. A woman in her 70s, Google went on to inform me, is called “anziana.” (Italian cab drivers can be shameless flirts.)

Alas, I totally forgot to share all this with Elizabeth as we sped on to the next topic of conversation. Guess I’ll save it for our next get-together. It’s bound to start our visit off on a positive note.

 

 

Little Reminders

I’m an anziana. When did THAT happen?

A few days ago, I was telling my Italian tutor, Giulia, about Family Matters, a murder mystery I wrote. When I referred to my protagonist, 71-year-old Alice, as “una donna di molti anni come me” (a woman of many years, like me), Giulia corrected me.

“We use ‘una donna anziana,'” she said gently. And then she nodded and raised her brows, her way of encouraging me to continue stumbling over tenses and vocabulary until I got to the end. It was an exercise in humility–I haven’t used Italian in two years. We went on for an hour, me stumbling and her correcting and smiling and nodding.

As I drove home afterwards, I tried to review what she had taught me, tried to focus on what she had said about when to use the conditional tense; the curious conjugation of the verb “riuscire”; the difference between “autostima” and “confidenza”; but the tiny piece of the lesson that had taken root and flowered in my brain was that word “anziana,” the word Giulia had used to describe Alice. The word is close enough to the English word “ancient” to shock me.

Knowing the word applies to me is yet another reminder in a series of reminders that–at least to the rest of the world–I’m old.

I’ll be 72 in October. I’m slowing down. It’s hard for me to read without glasses. My lower back aches. My skin has thinned, and my body has thickened. My handwriting is barely legible. I sleep late and go to bed early.

Crap. When did this happen? HOW did it happen? What do I do now?

 

The Sun Also Rises (apologies to Papa Hemingway)

I’m finally in my new apartment. It’s clean and comfortable, but there’s one air conditioner in the living room that’s not gonna cut it if it gets much hotter than it did today. It’s supposed to be winter here!

Global warming is simply ruining my life.

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An oil painting above my sofa haunts me. Literally. I dream about it. It’s hideous.

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But I can live with it, or take it down if I want to. I’m thoroughly pleased with the neighborhood, and I’m settling in.

My time here so far has had its ups and downs, and I’m happy to report that I’m in an up-cycle at present. After having lived in a hotel for a week while the apartment debacle sorted itself out, my debit card stopped working. I spent a whole weekend without cash. I was so frustrated that I decided I simply wasn’t meant to be here. It was time, I thought, to throw in the towel and kiss South America goodbye.

Thank heavens I have a sister who wanted me to stay. (Hmmmm. Guess I hadn’t fully thought that through until I wrote it. You want me back EVENTUALLY, don’t you, Carolyn?) She sent me a few hundred dollars that came to me by Western Union as a thick stack of Argentinian pesos. I dragged the stack back to my apartment, and my attitude changed dramatically.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t had a tango lesson. The International World Cup of Tango completion has been in full swing here, so there haven’t been any teachers available for beginners like me. The competition ended yesterday, so I’m hoping I get on someone’s schedule early next week.

I met some nice women at an ex-pat’s luncheon today in the Tribunale neighborhood, and  I made plans to have a coffee with a friend of my neighbor in Asheville. It’ll be a lot more fun to learn the city (and do some traveling) with buddies!

maybe you saw my post on Facebook about black pepper, which they don’t use here. I have to ask for it in restaurants. I needed it in my apartment. I found one brand (from Italy) in a Carrefour supermarket. I paid $10.75 for this 45g bottle. I don’t pay that much for wine!

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Ciao!

 

Keep Calm and Buy Shoes

Buenos dias from Buenos Aires! (I don’t have an international keyboard, so please add an accent mark to the “i” in “Dias.)

I’ve been here a week, and I’m still in Hotel Castelar, Room 501, on Av. Del Mayo, because the owner of the apartment I booked painted it the day before I arrived, and it reeks! I have a new apartment, but I can’t move in until tomorrow.

The hotel is comfortable and in a great location, but I’m ready to unpack!

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I feel like I’m dog-paddling in time–I don’t want to commit to a tango instructor or a Spanish tutor until I have an address. This is a huge city, so I’d like to find what I need as close to home as possible.

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This is Av. De Mayo. That grand obelisk in the back is a national historic monument and an icon of Buenos Aires.

I’ve done a bit of exploring, though.

First Impressions

The city is huge and beautiful and full of big-city energy. Hoards of vehicles race at break-neck speed down 12 lanes of traffic–yes, 12 lanes–on Av. 9 de Julio. Waiters, store clerks, bank tellers, even shoppers on the sidewalks appear to be tethered to some grand, invisible stop watch that demands speed and efficiency.

This is so NOT Florence, Italy!

The people–they call themselves “Portenos” (please add a tilde over the “n”)–are handsome and kind. And forgiving of my half-baked Spanish. Sad to say, what little Italian I know is clinging hard and fast to that  part of my brain I use to converse. Just this morning, I said to someone, “Hasta domani!”

The Portenos are also generous. Twice, I’ve been asked to share yerba mate, a strong herb tea served in a wooden bowl and sipped through a straw. It’s very much a social drink intended to be shared. I accepted the first time in a shop, where all the clerks and I stood around passing the bowl and sipping from the same straw. (My father would kill me, or maybe just wait for me to die from some hideous, sputum-borne plague, just so he could say, “I told you so!”)

I  declined the second offer in a taxi when the driver handed the cup to me over the back of his seat.

The drink originated with the gauchos, evidently. It contains potent antioxidants, so it’s regarded by many as a healthy drink.

I’ve been told to buy yerba mate in a grocery store. I’m to look for UNION brand, SUAVE flavor. So noted.

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Yerba mate: It tastes better than it looks., thank God!

Shopping–for shoes, anyway–is a treat! In fact, I would be totally bummed out over the apartment thing if I hadn’t found my dream tango shoes!

My new BFF, Slava Khromov and her darling husband, Naum, went with me to Comme Il Faut, a Buenos Aires shoe store on Av. Arenales. Slava bought three or four pair, Naum bought two, but I bought only one. They are the most beautiful shoes I have ever, ever seen. As soon as Slava saw them, she Bought a pair, too! (She and Naum live in New York, so we’re not likely to see each other in American milongas.)

NOW I’m ready to dance!

By the way, you know what “comme Il fault” means, don’t you? “As it should be!”

 

Bag-Lady Years

bag-lady

Confession: I have developed an advanced case of wanderlust in my retirement. Although I love familiar faces and places, it’s hard for me to stay in one location for very long.

I wanna move when I get restless, get the hell out of Dodge. I need a new life, new scenery, new challenges.

So I move. Literally. I pack my roller bags, and I’m off.

Four years ago, I moved to Florence, Italy. After two years there, I moved to Asheville, North Carolina. A year after that, I moved back to Italy for a year.

I manage to do all of this because my sweet sister, Carolyn, and I share a house in Austin, Texas, so I always have a Real Home to return to. A Real Home where I leave treasures I wouldn’t dare throw in a roller-bag and drag who-knows-where. Lucky, lucky me.

I’m back in Austin now, packing my bags for a visit to Buenos Aires. I haven’t committed to living in South America, but I’ll be there for several months learning to tango. Who knows what will come after that?

The upside of all this coming and going is that I’m not really worried about it! I kinda like being a bag lady.

The downside is  .  .  .

Maybe there isn’t a downside.

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