It's darker and quieter at 6:00 in the morning here in Florence than it is in New York, for a few more minutes, anyway, before the buses begin their runs. Hotter, too: we have another few weeks of summer heat, it seems, before the air turns cooler. At home, though, this is the glory season: bright sun, blue sky, temperatures that don't wilt your spirits or your shirt even before the day begins. I can see them now, hurrying to the trains, stopping at the newsstands, waiting for the bus.
No one here remembers what day it is. And why should they? It's been seven years since the World Trade Center collapse, and it didn't happen here. The disaster of Florence's living memory is the flooding of the Arno, 42 years ago. You can see markers, here and there throughout the city, that show how high the water got. You can see the washed-away bottoms of the outdoor frescoes on the corners of buildings. Our older parishioners remember it well, and all have a story they will tell you if you ask: where they were, what they did, what was lost. Cars, trees, mattresses, pieces of wood were swept along in the powerful current until they reached the low-lying Ponte Vecchio, where they stopped, lodging there and forming a dam. The river surged up over its banks and through the narrow streets. The world, immediately aware of what was lost, came to help: scientists, students, everyone -- it was surely the largest art restoration effort the world has ever seen.
Living memory -- it comes to an end. The last passenger on the Titanic died last year, I think, and the next-to-last veteran of World War I this year. The veterans of the Second World War are all in their 80s now -- maybe there are a few in their late 70s, men who lied about their age back then. But not for long. Everything takes its place in the past. We can't hold onto any of it.
We should tell people what we saw. What we thought. Where we were and what we did. Last night was the first of St James' Wednesday night dinners for college students; over dessert, Q talked about elections he remembered, going back to 1940. He was a child then: he had been given a little printing press, and turned out flyers for Wendell Wilkie's presidential campaign: WENDELL WILKIE WON'T LET US DOWN! HE HAS A HATRED OF PERSECUTION INHERITED FROM HIS ANCESTORS!
That's so cute, I tell him. How big was the printing press?
He shows me with his hands. It was about the size of a laptop computer. That was the beginning of my journalistic career, he says.
People forget. People change -- I have a feeling that Q would not be a Wilkie man if that election were held today. But history has happened, and its events were real. Only human beings record them; the animals don't bother. It doesn't matter much to the natural world of which they are a part, not over time. But it matters to us.
Seven years later: sometimes I still cannot believe that 9/11 happened. That all those people went off to work, on a day like today, and never returned. I still cannot believe that they felt the terror I know they felt. I still can't believe we did the things we did in the weeks and months that followed. Sometimes I still think that the towers will be there when I return.
Now, what happened to that book? an old lady here in Florence asks herself, scanning her bookshelf for a volume given her by her father. Oh, of course. She lost it in the flood.
Silly me, she thinks.