Autumn’s Arrival in Florence

(September 2008)

Usually it starts with the tourists. Every year around the end of August, the swarms of people buzzing around the Duomo and clogging the city streets start to thin. As they return to the States or Germany or Japan, the Florentines return from the beaches and hills to reclaim their city. This annual rite of passage even has a name: the rientro, or re-entry. Shops that are closed for part or all of August raise their roll doors, dust off their merchandise and re-open for business. Italian once again becomes the dominant language on the streets, save for the pockets where American students live. As summer moves into autumn, Florence becomes itself again.

Apparently this year the sun didn’t get the memo. The oppressive heat it beat down on the city for half of July and all of August did not disappear in September. Hazy heat and humidity hung heavy in the air, softening the lines of the surrounding hills. Since our arrival on July 18, there had only been one light rain shower. The hills still held on valiantly to their green hue, drawing moisture from the dew that blanketed them each morning. Yet it still did not rain, and summer’s heat still clung to the moist air well into the second week of September.

That all changed in one weekend. On Wednesday, September 10, the clouds gave a warning, a heavenly harbinger of the change to come. Cloudless virtually every day before that, the sky turned white then gray then dark gray. We received our first precipitation in a month, but it was only a fleeting afternoon shower. Those clouds left, but like children running ahead of their parents they were followed by increasingly larger clouds.

By Friday we still had not received more rain, but the sky was growing darker, the air heavier. Anvil cloud armies with their great towers of moisture were descending from the north. Rain was definite; the only question was when it would arrive. On Friday afternoon I was in the internet café two blocks from our house while Melanie was at home. I was catching up on email before a 6:00 pm lesson, and not heeding nature’s warning, I had taken no raingear or umbrella. While I was there the rain started.

It gave no warning drops, no gentle transition into the heart of the storm. Having announced its arrival two days prior, it felt no need for additional ceremony. These clouds had decided to empty the air of summer, and they wanted to waste no time. Fat drops of rain plummeted onto unsuspecting pedestrians who ran for cover. In one minute the streets went from bone dry to drenched.

I had to head home to change for my lesson, so I ran as fast as I could. It did no good. By the time I had reached our apartment I looked like I had gone swimming in my clothes. I hung my wet clothes and changed into dry ones, put on my raincoat, grabbed the umbrella and headed out. My shields against the rain worked for my top half, but my bottom half quickly got soaked. The momentum of large, fast raindrops caused them to bounce off the pavement and halfway up my legs.

As I made the ten-minute walk to work, the streets were empty except for a few brave, foolish or hurried individuals: an unhappy-looking woman with a poncho riding her bicycle; a tourist couple already too wet to care. The storefronts were filled with people seeking shelter and watching nature’s show. Hail fell briefly, pure white popcorn that pinged off cars and scooters. With gutters unable to contain the downpour, rivers of rainwater flooded the streets.

The rain poured steadily through the night, becoming intermittent mid-day Saturday. It continued on and off through Sunday. Nature was trying to scrub itself clean, and it worked. The stones of the streets and sidewalks were polished to their original colors. Moisture was gone from the air; the hills now sharp photographs instead of the impressionist paintings of summer. The individual pine trees that dot their slopes were clearly visible. The Arno River that runs through the southern part of the city carried away this moisture and grime, and for several days after the storm its normal dark green color was light brown. Its waters swelled up the banks, submerging tree trunks and low-hanging branches. Yet the rain took away more than dirt. On Friday it was summer; by Sunday it was autumn.

The air which was still as pond water in the summer is now kinetic, blowing scents of wood smoke down the mountains and along the Arno. The annual northerly wind carrying Arctic chill, called the tramontana, is a month early. Temperatures are twenty to thirty degrees Fahrenheit lower. Now there is a chill in the morning air, and I walk to my 8:30 lesson with a jacket on. The warmer afternoon temperatures are pleasant, pale reminders of summer. The nights are cold, and we shiver under layers of blankets and comforters until there is enough heat trapped underneath them. Midnight forays to the bathroom are few and swift.

We feel more attuned to the seasons here, and not just because this transition was so dramatic. Stores reflect the shift with changes in inventories and prices. White onions have been absent in our local market for two weeks. The price of bananas doubled overnight. Yet these are not the only signs. Despite my earlier complaints of lack of vegetation (as irony would have it, we now have a backyard garden and a park a block from home), Italy is still very attached to its agrarian roots. This time of year, harvest festivals abound, and people gather in different towns across Tuscany to celebrate the earth’s annual bounty.

One such festival is the Chianti Classico wine festival in the town of Greve (pronounced greh-veh) usually held the second weekend of September. This year it was the same weekend of the heavy rain, so Melanie and I postponed our planned Saturday excursion to Sunday in hopes of staying dry. We will talk in more detail about this once we have visited all the wine festivals, but for now I will say we had fun sampling wine and food from the Chianti region (including a porchetta sandwich and schiacciata con l’uva, a sweet bread studded with grapes) and talking to vintners about the process of making wine. We even bought some sausage and salumi di cinghiale (wild boar salami) from Macelleria Falorni, a foodie pilgrimage site.

We still have the Florence Wine Event and the grape harvest festival in Impruneta to visit at the end of the month, and now that there is more rain, porcini mushroom season will soon be upon us. We hope to go to the harvest festivals for porcini and tartufi (truffles) soon. Those will have to wait until another update.


Copyright Axel Schwarz


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