How Beautiful, This Little Moment

MY sabbatical plans were a grand design. Not for me, the restful idleness after the discipline of teaching. No time out for me. On my previous sabbatical, years earlier in England, I had attended courses on editing medieval manuscripts, written academic articles, and hiked the length of the Cotswolds with my husband. At the end of this 12 months in Florence, I would emerge with no less than a complete set of revised "Classics" notes on Italian medieval and Renaissance authors, fluent Florentine Italian, and many essays, probably a book, on Italy. Now, with two young children, I might not hike as many miles as I did in England, but I'd travel extensively in Tuscany and as a sideline, I'd study the masterpieces at the Uffizi. "Don't waste a moment's time," my dutiful conscience said. "Time is too precious." My year wasn't proceeding according to plan, however. We had been in Florence eight months, but so far my accomplishments seemed to include little beyond retrieving our delayed station wagon from a port in Genoa, moving into and out of a villa that proved too cold for winter living, setting up a new apartment, ironing pleats in grembiulini (uniform coveralls worn by young schoolchildren), recuperating from a dizzying ailment, and learning to manage the essentials of life, like finding the shop with a bot tone rosso (red button) for my daughter's sweater. I had updated my Petrarch notes in Bernard Berenson's library at Villa I Tatti, but Dante and all the others were still on the shelf. My Italian was neither fluent nor Florentine. (I had to look up "red button" before I could look up the shop.) One day I announced to a curious street vendor that I was in Florence "to teach" (insegnare) rather than "to learn" (imparare) Italian. I couldn't account for his flood of conversazione until I found the error in my grammar exercises. I was also worried about enro lling Geoffrey and Julia in Italian-speaking preschools, even though Suor' Irene had assured us that language would not be a big problem. "Children learn much faster than we do," she said, patting them on the head. As for the writing plans, they had been reduced to spotty journal entries on button shops and on the difference between pizzeria and pasticceria, interspersed with rough notes for an article on the Florentine Easter ceremony, "Lo Scoppio del Carro." The fact is that I was mostly overwhelmed by Florence. In the company of so much genius, and preceded by centuries of curious and loquacious admirers, interpreters, and judges, I could find few new paths of my own and little to express beyond respect. Like a stargazer on a summer night, I was drawn by the expanse, but felt ill-equipped to comprehend it. I was inspired by the Medici's city, by Michelangelo's hills, by Botticelli's and Raphael's Uffizi, but here too was my problem. I always wanted to know more. I sometimes thought I needed to go home and start over again - after a year in the library. I couldn't stop assessing; I couldn't help feeling I was somehow failing my own tests. It was in this frame of mind one Friday afternoon in April that I packed Julia and Geoffrey into the car and headed for the local playground. At least there I could successfully supervise the jungle gym. But as we pulled into the lot near the long double-humped slide, Julia slept soundly in the rear car seat and Geoffrey nodded in the seat beside me, his pillow propped on the armrest. Not wanting to disturb them, it seemed that my achievements would not be at the playground that day either, so I distract edly turned the car toward the hills of Settignano, an easy road out of town. Within minutes, I was winding the narrow two-lane route toward the little settlement of Maiano. These were Michelangelo's hills, where he first learned the intricate skills of stonemasonry. (It was hard to get away from Michelangelo.) I COULDN'T help seeing the slopes of bright yellow flowers (not knowing enough about the local flora to name them) and the inviting greenery of the deep woods. But neither was attractive enough to lure me from my favorite pastime - assessing what I was making of my sabbatical, counting down the months till my time ran out. "This week," I thought, ll go to the library and begin those new Dante notes." I spotted a small pullout to the right of the leafy tunnel I had been negotiating and decided to stop for still greater concentration on my year, my plans. Turning off the engine, I glanced down the steep hillside, leaned back on my headrest, and closed my eyes. "Then in May, I'll rewrite the Easter piece on the colombina [dove] ... then afterward maybe I'll work on a bird-watching piece," I thought to myself. "And then maybe by July I'll ... ." "Che bello... !" whispered Geoff beside me, more to himself than to me. I had missed the last part of what he said. I opened my eyes and saw him, smiling, seat belt unfastened and chin resting on the dashboard. He was looking down over those bright yellow hills. "What?" I asked, as I sat up, a little irritated that my scheduling had been interrupted. In the deliberate accents he had been using recently when my Italian wasn't up to his, he repeated, "Che bello, questo momentino! Mum." I didn't need a dictionary to translate his "How beautiful, this little moment," but it took me longer to recognize why he had made the comment, his simple delight in a moment that was, in fact, beautiful. He was more at ease than I was. I also appreciated his comfort with the diminutive momentino. My language teacher had warned us against such casual use of diminutives, so common in Italian, unless we were sure of how to use them. Thus momento was in my vocabulary, but a bello momentino was, so far, beyond any comfort I was feeling with Italian ... or with Italy. NOW kneeling in my lap and leaning out the driver's window, he asked, "Is that a waterfall, Mum?" Julia sighed and tried to settle into a deeper sleep. "Yes," I replied, "a little one." For the first time, I noticed the spring cascade knifing through the sharp rocks and spattering up the side of the car. I wondered why I didn't see it or hear it when I pulled in. From far below, a still wintery breeze blew up the yellow hillside, rippling the flowers in waves to the wall just beneath our parking space. L ike Geoffrey, the waterfall and the flowers seemed determined to get my attention. The quiet was almost complete - except for Julia's rummaging for her brown bear, Geoffrey's ragged efforts to climb out the window, the splashing of the waterfall, the ruffling of the breeze, and a light trilling from the woods. It was a quiet that called for assessment. "Si, si, Goffredo molto bello... questo momentino," I finally answered, when it mattered a great deal to me and probably no longer at all to him. For another 10 minutes I sat and took in what I had missed before. I saw what had been so bello to Geoffrey, and when Julia woke up, we all walked a short path into the woods for a better view over the hills, our hills for now. I came down from Settignano with some new plans. I would reduce the grand designs. Maybe I'd get to the Dante notes. Maybe I'd write about Easter and the birds. And maybe I wouldn't. Certainly I'd go home sounding more Bostonian than Florentine. But most importantly I would also allow myself to enjoy whatever beautiful little moments we all had left in Italy - without scheduling them into my days, without looking them up in the library, without accounting for them in my sabbatical tally. Our time was, after all, too precious to waste - even a momentino.

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