Seasons on the Arno: My Year on the River

(May 2009)

The Arno River divides the city of Florence into two major sections. The northern and more well known section is a collection of neighborhoods known as Il Centro, or the center. The southern section is called the Oltrarno, which means “the other side of the Arno.” Most visitors to the city spend the majority of their time in the center. If people go to the southern side, it is usually for a quick stop at the Palazzo Pitti or the Piazzale del Michelangelo for its amazing views over the city. Very few tourists venture farther than that, and if they do almost no one heads upriver to the east, or downriver to the west. On my two previous visits to Florence prior to moving here, I was one of those people. I visited the major tourist attractions, and enjoyed the picture postcard views of the Arno from around the city; buildings lining its banks, bridges spanning its waters. Despite my lifelong love of the water, I didn’t give much thought to the Arno beyond its aesthetics. Since we moved here, my perspective of the river has changed completely. Having spent many hours paddling a canoe on its waters, I now recognize the Arno for what it is: the indicator of change in Florence. And over the course of our year here, as the river has changed, so have I.

When we arrived in July, Florence was sweltering hot. Everything seemed to hang still in the sticky summer air. Even the Arno barely moved, and its stagnant waters stank like the city it runs through. Just as it was difficult to see the city through all the people slowly moving their way down its streets, so it was difficult to see past the murky shallows of the Arno. The river was in poor shape from lack of movement, and so was I. In the months leading up to our move, I had not exercised as much as I normally do. Yet of course I still ate the same, in some cases even more in the celebrations with friends and family leading up to our departure. So by the time we got here I was in the worst shape of my life.

I wanted to start paddling again, but we were trying to save money. Since we had no jobs and no idea how long we would stay here, a membership at the canoe club was out of the question. Still I needed to move, so nearly every day I dragged myself out of the oven of our apartment and into the frying pan of the city. As I have often done in my life, I headed toward the water, and soon found myself doing regular jogs along the banks of the Arno. It was hot, but its tree-shaded paths offered some refuge from the heat. My runs (more like shuffles) also afforded me my first glimpse of the non-tourist side of Florence. As I ran upriver to the east, the buildings gave way to vegetation. Skylines were hilltops, not towers or domes. On one long run to the end of the eastern path, I passed farm fields and chicken coops. For a nature-loving city dweller, these sights were welcome respite from the gray stones of Florence.

These runs were not easy. They were penance for trying to live the good life without exercising it off, and while they were painful they were also necessary. By the time a big September storm brought fall to Florence, lightening the heavy humid air with torrential rains, my weight had dropped from 205 pounds to 185. The river had also lost weight, and while I can’t say it was healthier, like me it had survived the summer.

The change in season brought rain to Tuscany, and as always the Arno showed it. Water levels slowly crept up the banks, and after a few days of cleansing the hills and streets of filth and carrying it to sea, the waters of the Arno grew less cloudy. The first sweet smells of wood smoke drifted down from the hills as residents stoked their hearth fires. Though the temperature dropped over the course of two days, the mournful molting of leaves took longer. A gradual drop in temperature was mirrored in the foliage, and greens gave way ever so slowly to oranges, yellows and reds. Some of those leaves clung to their branches well into the winter.

Autumn also brought my parents. From my gaunt face in our photo albums from here, my mom (ever the gastroenterologist) feared I had contracted some bowel bug. I reassured her that I was fine by showing my usual appetite when we went out for dinners. The week of their visit I finally got to eat my fill with meals like Bistecca Fiorentina, a two-pound t-bone usually shared by two people. My parents also knew of my desire to return to paddling, and my father gave me the present of a membership to the canoe club here in Florence. Much to my delight, I was back on the water.

The canoe club here is the Canottieri Comunali, or “Community Rowers,” a facility run by the city of Florence, and located on the south banks of the Arno just west of the Ponte da Verrazzano. For those who know where the Ponte Vecchio is, it is three bridges upriver to the east. Anyone from teenagers to retirees uses this facility, although from what I have gathered they are mostly male. Some are competitive kayakers (individually and on a team), and others are simply recreational rowers and paddlers. Other people come just to use the gym. Everyone I have met is very friendly. My favorite custom is that people say hello or goodbye whenever someone enters or exits the gym or the locker room.  You can say “Ciao!” as you walk out of the weight room and get an immediate response of “Ciao!” “Ciao!” “Ciao!” from everyone in it. This is a far cry from the macho stoicism of many American gyms, and since there are usually fewer than ten people in the gym whenever I am there, you start to recognize familiar faces. Indeed, it does feel like a community.

The club houses two gyms, paddling and rowing practice areas, as well as all manner of self-propelled vessels: kayaks, rowing sculls and outrigger canoes. You may wonder why a club in the middle of Italy has outrigger canoes at all. Fifteen years ago, a member of the Cannottieri Comunali encountered them during a trip to New Zealand. He brought canoes home to Florence with him and the club members have been paddling them ever since.

To the west of the club, by the small loading dock, sit the outrigger canoes. There is one four-person boat, and one two-person one. The rest are one-person outrigger canoes, or OC-1s, owned either by members or by the club. If the canoe is marked barca sociale, or “club boat,” you can use it. They are all clunkers. After trying several different boats I settled on an old Tahitian-style OC-1 from the 1980s, painted white with pastels dripped on like a Jackson Pollack painting. It has an open cockpit (as opposed to the closed hulls found on most OC-1s, and a metal rudder that is bent in several places. Although most OC-1s weigh around twenty pounds, this one weighs more than twice that; my guess is about fifty or sixty pounds. In addition, its ama (the Hawaiian word for the outrigger part of the canoe) is heavy, creating lots of drag. Still, unlike most of the other boats it was watertight. Plus, I reasoned that if I can paddle a heavy boat that is unforgiving of any lapse in paddling technique, paddling a light, fast boat when I get back to California will seem easy by comparison. I have spent many hours in that canoe, and I have learned a lot from it as I pulled it up and down the Arno. As difficult as it is to paddle, I know I will miss it when I leave.

Usually I’m on the water by 10:30. I see few people. There are two or three men who are regularly out on their kayaks at that time, and the occasional other rower or paddler. Most of the outrigger paddlers go out around 1:30 pm, after I am off the water. I have paddled with them only once, and it was just like back home: as much trash talking as there was paddling.

I do two different “paddles” here. Both paddles are beautiful, but they offer different kinds of beauty. The short paddle is more urban, and as I paddle west I can see the city’s skyline in the distance, the tall tower of the Palazzo Vecchio surveying the land. Streets run along both sides of the river, and I can hear traffic and the occasional ambulance or police car. It is a surreal experience to see old buildings and hear European sirens as I paddle a Hawaiian canoe. The short paddle is along a straight section of the Arno, but the longer paddle bends slightly south halfway through. And while the sounds and sights of the city dominate the short one, the longer one is a more natural experience. Buoys mark shallow rocks on the south side of the river at the bend, and you have to skirt between them and the low-hanging tree branches of the south bank. Mallards and other ducks swim in and out of the trees and all over the river, and while the other ducks flee at the first sight of my canoe, the mallards barely bother to get out of the way. Often I have been able to enjoy from up close the shiny iridescence of the male mallards’ green heads. Other times I see the bobbing butts of the ducks, feet in the air and heads underwater as they feed off the bottom. In addition to the ducks there are gulls and snowy egrets, and even the occasional nutria. Nutria are small river rodents from South America that look like a cross between a beaver and a groundhog. There is even one I have named Ned who normally hangs out right by the loading dock.

While it was still early fall I paddled in short sleeves and board shorts. Then one Sunday morning I went to the club I was suddenly very aware of the temperature. It had turned cold, and the next time out I wore neoprene booties, pants and a long-sleeved paddling shirt. At some point Ned disappeared, and only the birds remained. The weather got steadily colder and wetter, and as the leaves changed and fell off the trees and the water levels rose, autumn blurred into winter.

At this point I was focusing purely on improving my technique, so an endless routine of paddling, analyzing and adjusting took me from the colorful fall into the wet gray of winter. Italy’s winter this year was particularly rainy, and the level of the Arno rose considerably. I didn’t know the Arno ever had a current, and here it was speeding along, cascading over waterfalls. I stayed far away from any hazards, and even stayed out of the water the two times the current was too strong, so for the most part the biggest danger was floating logs coming at me as I paddled upriver. The current was sometimes strong enough that my paddle upriver might take twenty minutes, but back the same distance would take less than ten. At first it was difficult to drag myself out into the cold rain every day, but I soon found myself enjoying the quiet solitude of those rainy winter paddles, when there was nothing out there but me, my canoe, my paddle and the elements. I would paddle toward the eastern hills with nothing but the soft patter of rain and smell of wood smoke, and could imagine myself transported to the same scene several hundred years ago. Some things are timeless, and just as the turns of the seasons are immemorial, so are a man in a boat on a river.

My training continued to mirror the seasons, though I did not do so consciously. Like the trees that shed their leaves and try to survive the winter on little sun, I too merely tried to make it through the winter. Since my focus was purely on form I did not worry much about gains in strength or conditioning. My muscles were tired all the time, and at a certain point I realized that while my technique had improved considerably, my speed had not.

Around the time of this realization the weather had started to turn once again. The first signs of spring were the warm breezes from the hills in the west. They teased me early in February, and still went back in hiding from time to time in March and April as the cold winter winds had not completely relinquished their grasp on the Florentine air. The sun was brighter and showed its face more, and even Ned the nutria made an appearance. The birds were still there, but they seemed to become friskier with each other.

By mid-April I was lean (down to 175 pounds), but I had lost significant amounts of strength. I needed to gain it back, but was worried about regaining my belly. Now it is May. The sun that warms me also causes the plants and trees along the river to sprout new growth. And as the world gets greener and fuller, so am I getting my strength back by lifting and eating more. Thankfully, my belly has not made a return.

We will return to San Diego soon, but the river still has a few chapters left to write before we leave. I am curious to see its transition back into summer. We will leave this city on July 1, seventeen days shy of a full year here, and I want to see the river come full circle. I want to see it return to its slow, stagnant, summer self. And just as I have changed with the river, so will I return to my old life. We will go back to San Diego, to our old house and old jobs and old friends. On the surface things may appear the same, but there have been changes in both the life of the Arno and our own lives. The river has experienced death as trees were swept away in the winter floods, and animals and birds along its banks died from cold or old age. But there has also been birth and rebirth, as trees begin to leaf and ducklings are created by those frisky mallards. We too have experienced death this year, losing both my cousin and one of my closest friends to cancer (both far too young). And just recently, Melanie lost her Nanay, her father’s mom. Yet we have also experienced birth. Some friends back home are welcoming babies into the world, and we have grown so much ourselves from our time here. Our lives, like the river, keep moving on.


Copyright Axel Schwarz



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