My recurring insomnia came in handy, allowing me to stretch my writing hours. I needed that extra time because nothing seemed good enough. When the time came in early May for me to turn in my chapters, I was exhausted and hopeful that they would pass for decent writing. Maybe, I would be able to actually use this beginning and finish the book.
My friend Cyndi and I were ready, finding a cheaper flight out of Washington Dulles, an inexpensive hotel near the railway in Florence. We would fly into Milan and take the train to Florence. Another friend, Jerri, would meet us in Florence and share our room.
The workshop started on the Sunday before the Fourth of July and ended two weeks later. We arrived in Milan on Friday, after stopping to change planes in London. Milan for the most part, was like other cities I’d seen. The crowd of buses and cars from the airport from the airport into the city rushed past industrial complexes and businesses. Our first real taste of Italy came at the railway station, where everything was in slow motion. As I spent more time in Italy, I came to appreciate the slower pace and the relaxed mood of the people.
If you have a low tolerance for hot days, you shouldn’t visit Florence around the Fourth of July. It’s a peak tourist time, but the city is full of tightly packed streets paved in ancient stone that absorb the ninety-plus temperatures of the day and cook you from your feet up. The villa, perched across the Arno at the top of a steep hill was cooler.
The workshop portion of the day would be every weekday morning, with craft sessions and readings in the afternoon. Most of the people in my section of the workshop were unknown to me. They had a wide variety of experience which our teachers tactfully handled. Some of them were beginner beginners and we had several members who had graduated from the Hopkins MFA program.
We were all distracted to some degree by our surroundings. Villa Spelman first appeared on the Florentine tax rolls in 1427. In the library where we most often met (the different sections were taking turns meeting in different locations on the estate) a mural portrayed religious scenes above the bookcases and fireplace that lined the walls. The long table where we sat was hundreds of years old itself. I had no trouble imagining Mr. Spelman sitting at the grand piano while his wife worked on a poem at the rough-hewn dark table. During lunch, if I walked through the tall French doors to the hallway, I would probably see Professor Irwin who led the poetry section and Jean sitting in the high back chairs listening to Alice’s oldest son playing the piano. The Villa was airy and had an amazing view of old Florence below. But Florence itself seemed obsessed by death and old bones so I tried to keep my mind on my writing.