My Introduction to “Florence, Dante and Me”

Recently I posted two reviews of my book “Florence, Dante and Me” which is a record of a year (1960-61) that I spent studying in Italy.  If you read today’s posting you will be able to understand the back story of the book which I will soon be posting in installments of about twelve pages each. I hope the photographs will appear when I cut and paste but I am not sure if they will. (This post is about five pages long.)

AUTHOR’S INTRODUCTION TO FLORENCE, DANTE AND ME[RT1] 

THE SOURCES OF FLORENCE, DANTE AND ME AND HOW IT CAME TO BE

The material in this book comes from a bundle of about fifty letters written in 1960-61 when I was studying in Florence thanks to a scholarship from the Italian government. The letters were written to my fiancée who stayed in Vancouver to pursue her studies at UBC (the University of British Columbia). During the first few months in Italy I missed her badly and tried to persuade her to join me. To my chagrin these efforts were in vain. Nevertheless I kept sending her detailed letters of my life in Italy. My purpose was to keep the flame of love alive; it was also to record my experiences and reflect on them. I returned to Vancouver to discover that she had found a new love but that’s another story and not mine for the telling. I respect her privacy and won’t give her name; I have also omitted all passages of a very private nature.

Around November of 1960 my fiancée got the bright idea of culling highlights from my letters, typing them up, and circulating them among friends and professors with whom we had studied. Dr. Grant, the professor of Latin whom I write fondly about in my letters was one of them. Dr. Rachel Giese of the Italian department was another. When I realized who was reading my letters I took extra care with them. According to my fiancée they enjoyed reading of my adventures. This got me thinking: Hmm, maybe one day, with lots of revision, they could be made into a book. I could even add photos to make it more interesting.

Many years passed by. I got involved in my career. I took early retirement (1995) and started a new career as a writer and publisher. I wrote Great songs for the English Classroom, Hot tips for real estate investors, Italian for the Opera, Operatic Italian and Love songs in Spanish for Enjoyment and learning. I also published two books by my great-uncle, George Godwin (1889-1974): The Eternal Forest and Why stay we here? (a memoir about World War I).The next book on my agenda was this one on my year in Italy. I would have been astounded if anyone in 1960-1 had told me that I would publish it in 2017, fifty-six years later.

As for the graphics in this book, I am glad that I kept photos of most of the people I got to know in Italy. You will find them throughout the book. I have also included photos to illustrate many of the things that impressed me: cities, buildings, paintings, sculpture, movies, books and landscapes. Many of the photos I have taken from a handsome tome called Il Paesaggio italico nella Divina Commedia (Italian Landscape in the Divine Comedy). Written about 1910, its stark black and white photos reflect well the old Italy that I was getting to know in 1960-1.

Several things in this book were added in 2017: most of the photos, some comments in the text (these have been highlighted with brackets) and the copious footnotes. The footnotes often contain lengthy reflections on issues raised in the original letters.

MY FAMILY OF ORIGIN AND FIRST TWO YEARS OF COLLEGE

I was born in Vancouver on April 30, 1940. My ancestors were a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic My parents were average Canadians of British background. My stepfather worked in a local office of the Federal treasury department; my mother was a housewife. Neither had gone to university. I think my mother inherited a rich DNA through her father’s family, the Godwins. There is a strong current of innovative thinking in that family, as I discovered when I began reprinting my great-uncle George Godwin’s books in 1994.

I don’t know quite how to account for my interest in Italian opera and the French and Italian languages. It probably started in 1951 when I saw Mario Lanza play Caruso in the movie, The Great Caruso. I was converted in a flash. This interest was encouraged by my grandmother who bought me some recordings by Caruso. I thought it was quite wonderful that she had actually heard him sing around 1910 in the old Vancouver opera house. For grades one to twelve I attended various schools in North and West Vancouver. I was not much interested in studying until about grade ten when I changed my attitude. By grade twelve I was doing well, winning the general proficiency award in academics in grades eleven and twelve at West Van High.

During my first year at UBC I continued with French but also took introductory courses in Latin, Italian and German. I became very familiar with flashcards. It was in the Latin class that I met the young lady to whom I wrote from Italy. Second year at UBC went well. I was accepted into an honors program in French and Italian. UBC was very elitist in that era and encouraged outstanding students to sign up for an honors program which demanded extra courses and high marks. The highlight of the program came in fourth year when one took an Oxford style year-long private tutorial with one of the best professors in the department and wrote a fifty page paper (in French) under his direction. It was more or less a given that you would be going on to a PhD. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you more about my second year at UBC because it prepared me for Italy in several ways.

My second year was an exciting intellectual adventure. I had several outstanding teachers. They inspired me to work hard and get the grades that would qualify me for a third year scholarship. Latin was taught by Dr. Leonard Grant, a native Scot who taught not just Latin but also many fascinating things about life in ancient Rome and even some of his experiences fighting in the Navy in World War II. Genevieve Bird was a Parisian who taught a seminar for honors students on dictées and translations. Dr. Kurt Weinberg (from Yale) spoke French like a native and brilliantly glossed extracts from French literature. Dr. Rachel Giese taught the second year course in Italian and advised me to skip her classes and read Dante and Manzoni on my own. It was Rachel who suggested that I apply for an all expenses paid year in Italy sponsored by the Italian government.

I applied for two year long scholarships for third year and won both of them: one to Italy and the other (sponsored by the Canadian University Students Organization) to any Canadian university of my choice. Both scholarships would cover travel, tuition, and a monthly allowance for the academic year. Which should I choose? Italy (Perugia and Florence) or Canada (Laval University in Quebec City)? Laval was 95% French speaking and would be a good place to study French. But Italy! That was a dream come true and I didn’t anguish over the decision. Where in Italy? Rome and Florence were on my short list but I chose Florence because I was dazzled by the long list of great artists and writers from that city: Giotto, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo. The list seemed endless but the one who intrigued me the most was Dante Alighieri.

The terms of this Italian scholarship were liberal. There were no restrictions as to where you lived or what you studied. Taking final exams was optional. My plan was to take the train to Quebec City and spend a week there (I wanted to see what I was going to miss by choosing Italy) before taking a ship to Scotland and making my way down to Italy (with a two day stop in London). Florence, Dante and Me xi

VANCOUVER AND UBC IN 1958-1960

In many ways Vancouver was a rather dull and materialistic place in the period 1958-1962 but there were enticing currents of Romanticism in the air. Italian songs were often playing on the radio. They were glamorous and exotic and it was hard not to dream a little of Italy when listening to them. Domenico Modugno’s Volare, Dean Martin’s That’s Amore!, Frank Sinatra’s Vicino al Mare (also known as I have but one love) Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano and Julius La Rosa’s Eh, Cumpari! are typical. Movies about Italy were also alluring and sparked interest: Roman Affair, Roman Holiday, Three Coins in a Fountain. There were several. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these movies is how Italians were portrayed: good-looking, smartly dressed, proud, passionate, imaginative, charming wooers, sensitive to other people. Many of my generation were enchanted by the beauty and glamor of Italy, not to mention her distinctive style that could be seen even in everyday things such as Vespa scooters, Olivetti typewriters and “Vesuvius” espresso coffee machines. Italy had panache and style.

Vancouver had some culture (in the European sense) but compared with Italy it didn’t amount to much at all. There was one opera company, The Vancouver Opera, but it produced only three or four operas a year. There was a city art gallery but its holdings in Italian Renaissance art were negligible. There was only one good bookstore in town, Bill Duthie’s on Robson St., and probably only one good shop for buying long playing classical records, Len Timbers’, also on Robson. It was a very different world from today: No walkmans, message minding machines, CDs, DVDs, computers, cell phones, etc. Long distance telephone calls were ruinously expensive. Probably the richest part of the cultural scene was movies. Some of the best ones that I recall seeing were War and Peace, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Spartacus and Ben Hur. Spartacus and Ben Hur were powerful and historically pretty accurate. Such movies would help me to piece together ancient Rome when I went to Italy.

The University of British Columbia provided some glamor and exoticism. A small theater (“The Old Auditorium”) gave free noon hour concerts of a very high caliber. I remember seeing the Red Army Chorus, Jose Greco (the famous flamenco dancer), Andres Segovia and Pete Seeger, to name but a few. I also have fond recollections of a very suave, witty English ballroom dance teacher, Mr. Vincent (always in a tux, even for his 8 a.m. dance class) who enriched the lives of those of us who chose his course in ballroom dancing to fill the university’s physical education requirement. There was nothing staid about the rumba or the tango.

In the Faculty of Arts it was hip to be interested in Europe and to study European history and European languages. Such study whetted one’s appetite for Europe and many students travelled there as soon as they could. Some even went so far as to assume a new identity. I realize now that to some degree this is what I was doing: becoming as Italian as possible.

THE RATIONALE FOR THIS BOOK

I will feel very gratified if this book inspires some people to take the trouble to learn the language of the country they travel to. Such knowledge will bring understanding of the culture and enable them to connect with people in a more meaningful way. To study another language is a huge compliment to the native speakers of that language.

 I urge high school seniors to give serious thought to majoring in a foreign language. The benefits of doing this are not always obvious but I hope that reading this book will show how knowledge of a second language opens many doors.

Spending one’s junior year abroad has become common practice and there are many colleges that offer good programs. This is a very good thing. Living abroad for a year greatly enriches one’s life. It’s also a challenge and a test of one’s adaptability. It is not always easy: there are language skills to hone, new friends to reach out to and a new culture to explore. One has to become aware of cultural differences and make allowances for them. I did some things right and other things not so right, as you will see in the following pages. I hope what I write about them will prove to be helpful.

One of the unexpected benefits of my year in Italy was to see my life in a more moral and spiritual way. I gained insights into my upbringing and education and began to see that they had molded me in a very narrow way. I was somewhat like Dante, lost in a dark wood, a selva oscura. I hope my remarks on this subject will resonate with some readers.

If you would like to find out more about Florence, Dante and Me visit my website: http://www.godwinbooks.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s