From what little I have read by Diana Athill it seems she has led a really interesting life. I would be happy to be seated next to her at a dinner party and imagine she must have some really wonderful stories to tell. As a matter of fact she shares a few of those stories in her travel memoir, A Florence Diary, which was published last year and which I mostly read in one sitting yesterday. In 1947 she and a cousin traveled to Florence and her mother urged her to keep a travel diary, and happily she did so. What better way to kick off the new reading year than with a short travel memoir of sunny Italy--an exotic journey, a literary journey chronicling her fortnight in Italy, and for me a metaphorical journey to inspire this year's reading--for me, books truly are a journey.
This compact little book, illustrated with black and while photos of Florence ca. 1950, is an absolute delight to read. She captures an era of travel that has since disappeared, when it was relatively cheap and easy to catch a train, at a time when travel was only beginning to be accessible to the multitudes. Travel now is TSA body scans and no leg room on flights where everyone is crushed together, where travelers are nickel and dimed and you're lucky not to miss your connection. In 1947 it was still romantic. You might meet a handsome Italian count who helps you along the way, dashing off up a sidestreet in Milan so he can send flowers to you at your next destination.
Athill would have been about thirty when she made this journey. This was the first time she had been to Florence and the only time she ever kept a diary. She traveled with her cousin Pen, with whom she had nothing in common yet she was the best traveling companion that could be had and they got along marvelously. I find a lot of truth in what Athill has to say about her travels, "What I was after was not a shared experience but the excitement of discovery. I was hungry for the thrill of being elsewhere." And it is only 'elsewhere' where one can
" . . . wake up on a train that had stopped in the middle of the night, push a blind aside, and see a lantern carried along an unknown platform by a man talking to another in an unknown language--those voices, the tiny glimpse of foreign ordinariness giving you such a tingle of excitement."
I've known that tingle and traveled by train and felt that elsewhere myself. There is little else like it save for a really good book that can at least transport you 'elsewhere' in your imagination. And I agree that traveling alone is a way you can "connect with strangers much better", than traveling with a companion.
Diana and Pen left Victoria station early August 24 on the Golden Arrow. She checked her luggage all the way through taking only her hatbox and a bag "with masses of food for the journey". That hatbox will come in handy for full trains (so she can sit on it), but the food was not as necessary (even giving as much of it away as she can to fellow passengers) since Alfonso the count so generously paid for many of her meals along the way.
I had a chuckle when late in the diary she notes that "all I seem to have written about is pastries", and then chuckled again as I look back over what I marked with my pencil--lots of those mentions of pastries! As a matter of fact I think I need to share a few excerpts--they are mouth watering in their way, though I promise they are not all going to be about pastries. A journey to Florence indeed is special where "everything is so beautiful that even not 'doing' anything special is marvellous."
"Then a most splendid tea, with ices and sponge fingers and little iced cakes that melted in the mouth--one of the things we do saying, 'Just this once'."
That after a visit to the Accademia di Belle Arti where they saw sculptures by Michelangelo, a collection of primitives, two "dream-like" Botticellis and an exhibition of pictures that had been damaged in the war but were in the process of being restored.
"We had been told that the food here in the pensione would be solid but not exciting, but we find it very delicious indeed, and most copious, and are stuffing to capacity. The best part of the food, though, is the cakery part. The pastry shops are full of the most miraculous little objects, that are as exotic as sweets and not much bigger, but more varied in taste and texture. I could eat them for ever. We never quite know what we will get, either. For instance, when yesterday we ordered (or thought we ordered) chocolate to drink, with cream on the top, we got an immense double ice, chocolate and vanilla, which was scrumptious."
"I paid my bill this evening so as to know how I stand for last-minute buys and changing lire to francs etc. tomorrow, and find I have ten of my thirty pounds left. That means that including the first three days in the expensive hotel, a fortnight has cost me twenty pounds all in (not counting fare) and that of the pensione has cost just about fifteen shillings a day, including all meals. I've had three baths and three bottles of Chianti (at one shilling each and three shillings respectively) extra, and they add fifteen per cent for service, and a tax of nearly thirty per cent, for séjour, which they all have to pay for each guest. I shall buy something nice tomorrow--nylons or a handbag or something."
Yes, my jaw dropped at those numbers, too. I wonder if it was really as cheap as it sounds to me, or if the amount was relative and more expensive than I imagine.
A good start to the reading year. This will be published in the US in April. You can find it already in the UK (where I ordered my copy since I was impatient and couldn't wait). In case you want a companion read or a similar sort of read I can highly recommend Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.