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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Florence

Globe and Mail Update
September 6, 2002
From the Field
McLaren Leah


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Pictures from Florence

Tourists ride bicycles through the entrance of the Campeggio Michelangelo in Florence, Italy.
Photo: Fabrizio Giovannozzi/AP

Backpackers relax on the terrace of Campeggio Michelangelo overlooking the 15th century St. Maria del Fiore Cathedral, in Florence, Italy.
Photo: Fabrizio Giovannozzi/AP

The first anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, but you'd never know it in the streets of Florence. The city is devoid of commemorative window displays, ominous adverts for TV specials and there are no terrorism-related headlines at my local newsstand near Piazza Santo Spirito.

Instead, the cover of Italy Daily featured two front page food stories. One about Roman artichokes, the other about the country's greatest mozzarella mogul. This is contemporary urban Italy -- an oasis of Gucci ads, girls in high heels and German tourists slugging cheap Chianti in the square. Thank God for it, too. Italians have never been very good at getting worked up over things they don't much care about, and the approaching anniversary is no exception.

What a change from London, the city I just left, where the media whips itself and the public into an emotional frenzy over nothing on an hourly basis. This phenomenon is something Henry James called, "writing made importance:" Instances wherein the media collectively seizes on an event, invents an "outpouring" of emotions, invents the consequences of those emotions and makes up the importance of the whole thing.

Anniversaries are the best for this cheap trick, as they are not actual events, but memories of actual events, and thus an open invitation for all sorts of ridiculous interpretation, speculation and rehashed hackery.

The Florentines, bless them, refuse to participate. They have more important things to do, such as eating gelato limone and walking arm in arm along the banks of the murky river Arno.

It's comforting to know that there is at least one city in the Western world that will go on about its business this week blissfully unaware of the imminent threat of a Sept. 11 reprise. And by reprise, I don't mean ingeniously orchestrated acts of mass destruction devised by al-Qaeda cells hidden in remote corners of the globe - I mean sentimental pap. Can you feel the apprehension in the air? It's the world bracing itself for a tidal wave of morbid sentiment.

Bring on the benefit concerts, hand-wringing columnists, TV retrospectives with "controversial, never-before-seen footage from inside the World Trade Center," I say. It can't bug me here. (Though, admittedly, I read The Herald Tribune and the Times of London everyday. Plus Plus regular CNN hits. But I'm planning to cut down around the time of the anniversary to avoid media-induced nausea. I plan to spend the day shoe shopping.)

As a teenager in Italy during Mussolini's rise to power, the future novelist Sybille Bedford made this acute observation of the Italian character:

    "When their rules are too bad, they duck; retreat into personal relations, family relations - there you'll find riches of good behavior, devotion and honour as well as endurance and courage. Out in politics they are opportunists and showoffs, clever when they ought to be straightforward, rhetorical when they ought to go home and think, and they haven't learned how to compromise without treachery."

One of the holdover effects from fascism in Italy is the suspicion of authority it has instilled in its citizens. While this trait is often cited as a negative thing (example: maniacal drivers, inanely inefficient rail system, the mafia), it is refreshing in the sense that Italians simply will not be told what to feel. By anyone or anything.

It is stubborn and lovely of them. Moreover, it makes Italy a fantastic place to hide out and wait for the forced and cringe-worthy moment to pass. The city streets are crammed with art and food and Ferragamos and so far, not a whisper of The Dreaded Anniversary. In honour of the date, I plan to go native. You know what they say: When in Florence…

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.