The final pages of my book “Florence, Dante and Me”

Here are pages 178 to the end of “Florence, Dante and Me.”  Within a few weeks I will post the footnotes to this book. They were written long after the book was first written (1960-61) and show how I see that pivotal year of my life in retrospect.

I wish I had figured out a way to include in these blog postings the many photos contained in the book. Maybe you could get your local library to order the book so it would cost you nothing (and I would get another sale).

May 7, 1961 Florence, 11 Via Guicciardini

My dear J,

 I spoke to my Italian professor about the exams in June. He said I would be tested on ten cantos from The Divine Comedy. I also will be tested on the major works of Ugo Foscolo (very complex—an early romantic, supersensitive and maybe a bit suicidal.) I guess you could say he’s the Italian Keats (as far as that goes). The exam will include written and oral exams in French. My friend, Dr. Halbwachs, has kindly offered his help to case the oral together. He’ll be one of the profs interrogating me on June 6, my D day. I hope to get at least half a year’s credit (nine units) from UBC. We’ll see. I should get it but the systems are so different that I am not overly optimistic. I’m really going to have to hit the books. It’s too bad in a way because I shall have to decline Rick Bronsdon’s invitation to spend a week at his place up in the mountains.

 Lectures end on May 20th. Exams are open to one’s choice: June 6 or June 21. They comprise oral and written parts. At times I think I’m too influenced by literature although isn’t rewarding when the new experiences we acquire serve to illuminate those experiences we read of in books? (Or, to look at it another way, when what we read in books reflects what we have experienced ourselves.) I find that I understand (or maybe feel) Dante’s Ulysses (canto 25) much better now that I have been roaming around Italy, separated from my lady love just as he had to wander around the Mediterranean before being united with Penelope.

Né il debito amore    Neither the due (promised) love

Lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta   That should have made Penelope happy

 Vincer poter dentro di me l’ardore     Overcome within me the ardor (Could overcome the ardor within me)

 Ch’io ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto   that I had to become experienced in the world

E dei vizi umani e del valore.    both its vices and virtues.

How well Dante expresses it! He sees value even in exploring evil, the dark side of human behavior. I really like that in him. He had a brave spirit and an inquisitive mind. I am learning a lot in the way of practical revelations like this from my year in Italy. It has been a great experience!

Please price Peppino di Capri records for me. I’ll pick up some here if they can’t be found in Vancouver. I’m really big on his style! Lyrical and passionate. Great to dance to. What’s happening? Your last letter sounded like a dutiful business letter. Thanks so much for the nice birthday gift—an encyclopedia of the opera! I will treasure it.

  May 12, 1961,  Florence

Dearest J,

I am very happy to get your letter. A knock at my door this morning. A little Chihuahua face sticks her head in: Mlle. Méreaux. J’ai quelque chose de très bon pour toi, qui commence avec un «l»! By this time I’m barking and jumping around! And such a nice, newsy letter it was! Mlle M. has a few manias: she eats lots of lemons, shuts doors so quietly that you can’t hear them close, and she eats absolutely everything on her plate (a habit from World War Two). She gets up every day at five a.m.! She’s a big help and corrects (tactfully) my spoken French and suggests improvements on my essays. It’s almost as if I were living in France which is great because my French is too bookish. Funny, I didn’t need to go to Laval to improve my spoken French after all; I am improving it here.

May is as hot as blazes here and studying is impossible at times. I saw Queen Elizabeth the other day in the Piazza della Signoria. She was on a throne about ten yards from me. It was quite a sight: all kinds of people in medieval costume including trumpeters who blazed forth fanfares. I was transported back in time to the 1300s!

As usual I am running out of money and the Italian government informs me that the scholarship is not renewable and ends on June 30. So I will be returning to Vancouver in late June! I can’t wait to see you! It’s been such a long time!

Mlle Méreaux often has people in for afternoon tea. Sometimes countesses! She introduces me as “mon fils spirituel”, which is amusing. “Spirituel” can mean both spiritual and witty. I go through the ritual and bow slightly, Molto piacere, Contessa! Another visitor is an actor who performs in Goldoni’s plays. He looks like he stepped right out of the eighteenth century: fine features, aquiline nose and all. I can certainly imagine him in a powdered wig. We had other visitors too: a tall guy named “Berry” from Belgium and his sister, at least I assumed it was his sister and referred to her as such until Berry himself put me straight—she was his amante. Naive, provincial me! I had to laugh at this. Anyway, we all got along well and they have invited me to stay at their place in Brussels. I would but I won’t have time. Rats! This is not the first time I have been invited by Europeans to visit them in their home. I get the impression that Europeans are much more generous than Canadians when it comes to offering hospitality and friendship.

Thanks for sending information on the summer courses. Is the Bible course given by the English department any good? I’d find a course in Bible literature invaluable. It would certainly help me to understand most of the great art, sculpture, etc. that I have been studying this past year! I can’t believe how pagan my upbringing and education have been! I expect the U. of British Columbia will give me six credits (out of 18) towards an honors B.A. for my year over here but nothing is certain and we shall see.

 I am glad I moved to Via Guicciardini. This part of town is much brighter and sunnier than the gloomy, narrow streets of Ede’s neighborhood although I have to admit that I miss that gang! I have broken a good attachment and probably offended them and I don’t feel good about it. Still, I think overall I have made a good choice. My new apartment is quite large and newly decorated. Mlle Méreaux is intellectually stimulating. We speak mostly French so I am learning a lot of everyday French from her. Even talking about the weather is good practice.

At the moment my French is improving and my Italian slipping a little. Strano ma vero. I am half way through Dante’s Paradiso. It’s loaded with medieval theological doctrine and very difficult, more difficult than the Inferno or Il Purgatorio. I am cramming for the exams which are coming up in about three weeks. I will take three: Italian-French translation (written), Italian literature (oral) and French literature (oral). Just imagine: Professor Walter Binni, one of the best literary critics in the country, will be there! Yikes!

I had another letter from Renee today giving me the address of a shipping company which hires crew for the Atlantic crossing. A job like this would be a big help financially. It would save me $200.

May 28, 1961

 Florence, 11 Via Guicciardini

 Dear J.

 I am quite peeved not to have heard from you for two weeks. Maybe I should spend the summer in France and not come home until September. Thanks for looking into summer jobs for me. There seems to be ziltch! It’s not going to be easy to think about scrounging money up, etc. again after this lovely (and dearer as time goes by) year’s sojourn in Italy. Not only this, but I’m going to miss lots here: the food, the history and great art all around me. I’ll even miss the dusty streets! It is decidedly with mixed emotions that I think of my return to Vancouver. I wonder how we’re going to find each other.

The past few weeks I have been absorbed in books. I have done all I am going to do (re. the exam) on Dante and Foscolo. I still should read some literary critics (Binni, Croce, etc.) and Rousseau’s Confessions but doubt I’ll have time. I have just learned that Oberman is not on the exam. Now they tell us! Actually, it doesn’t matter because I never did read it; in fact, I was never able to find it. None of the bookstores stocked it so I guess no one in charge ever ordered it. Molto strano.

I am planning on leaving for France on June seventh. After June second please send any mail to me c/o American Express, 9 rue Scribe, Paris IVième). I am thinking of doing two summer courses in French literature this summer. One is on the seventeenth century (Professor Daniel Poirion of Yale), the other is on twentieth century literature (Professor Jean Darbelnet of Laval). Both men have outstanding reputations. I am looking forward to this. [Footnote 34]

There was a magnificent rainbow this evening. It stretched in a perfect arc from Fiesole to the mists over Belvedere. There was a fine spray in the warm May air and the city’s towers and palaces were lit in gold. I saw Turcaret by LeSage at La Pergola Theater the other night. It’s a good satire on a nouveau riche character. It was directed by Jean Vilar himself and there was even music by Duke Ellington. As you know, Vilar is one of my idols. In freshman year at UBC I bought an LP of him reciting a selection of great French poetry. I listened to it dozens of times, reciting the poems with him and trying to imitate his sounds and cadences. This process helped me to acquire a good accent. Get this: my mother told me months later that she wondered if I had had a French priest in my bedroom!

For tonight I’ve a ticket for Lohengrin (in German) at the Teatro Communale, which has just reopened. I am looking forward to my first Wagner. I was having supper this evening when a blind man came in and sat down across from me. He looked very ill at ease. I said some friendly words to him and noticed how grateful he was to be spoken to with kindness. With a little imagination I put myself in his place, felt and not saw which was knife and which was fork, and so on, and was almost moved to tears. How sad it is to be blind! Why are there so many blind people here? Or maybe it just seems that way because they are visible in the street and don’t seem to be confined in institutions. It’s a rough, fast-moving and crowded society.

I have tentative plans to leave France for Canada by boat around June 20. I could fly but I really enjoy crossing the Atlantic by ship. In Paris on the way home I plan to buy several books (e. g. a good dictionary). I hear that the prices are very cheap.

Please ask my brother for information about the Ontario automobile company which hires people to drive their cars out to British Columbia. Maybe I could be a driver.

 June 13, 1961, Paris.

 Dear J,

I arrived here by train via Milan and picked up your letter at the American Express. How useful these people at the American Express are! And how beautiful it is along the Seine in the afternoon sun, watching river boats chugging along. I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour at the movies last night. A real work of art!

As arranged, I have met up with Dave Trott who is in France for the summer on a two month scholarship paid for by the Lafarge Cement Company. The purpose of the scholarship is to give a real taste of life in France to some outstanding student of French at the university. Everything is paid for, travel and all expenses. Dave will travel all over France and will be hosted by many people. What a great way for him to learn real conversational French! Some scholarship! [footnote 35]

In a few days Dave will be touring the Loire Valley and he has kindly arranged three days of accommodation for me. In the meantime I’m staying at a very cheap hotel near the Sorbonne: Monsieur le Prince. I am struck by the similarity between Quebec City and Paris. It’s the architecture, a seventeenth century kind of look. This afternoon we walked around the city, admiring Notre Dame’s towers, etc.

I haven’t told you about my emotional leave-taking in Florence last week. I managed to visit most of my friends. I was really choked up when Maestra Del Vivo looked fondly at me and said, “Bob, ti ho visto tanto volentieri!” (It’s hard to translate this but paraphrased it means more or less “It’s been a great pleasure to meet with you.”) I’ll never forget the tingling down my spine as I descended her apartment steps for the last time in who knows how many years, maybe never. Maestra Del Vivo embodies everything I admire in Florentines: high standards of artistry, intelligence, and good-natured buffoonery. Then I rode my bike over to the west side of town and sold it back to Signor Sgherzi. This was followed by a visit to Ede Parenti’s place and a parting glass of Cognac. Gino was in Naples so I didn’t get to see him. I still feel a bit bad about leaving Ede’s place. She showed me a lot of kindness but it had become far too noisy. We parted good friends.

That evening  I had my last supper at Italia’s trattoria and received a warm “buon viaggio” from her, her husband and her son, Filippo. All these Florentines have enriched my life with their beautiful language, their ideas, and, above all, their friendship. [footnote 36]

I passed the exams (21 out of 30 in French; 19 out of 30 in Italian). I am not used to such low marks but given the circumstances they are probably not that bad. This is a university for Italians and I am only a straniero. I was lucky I was able to talk them into letting me take the exams; no one else was allowed to because the professors had gone on strike a few days earlier and had shut the place down. I told them that if I didn’t take the June exams I wouldn’t get any credit from the U. of British Columbia.

 I also heard good news from UBC. They are giving me 12 units (out of a possible 18) for my work in Italy. This means if I do two upper division French courses this summer I will be back on track for finishing my honors B.A. one year from now. I shall have to leave La Belle France around June 23 and get back to Vancouver. I will sign off now. This might be my last letter from Europe. I can’t wait to see you!

Last Sunday Dave Trott and I and a couple of French ladies (friends!) went for a country drive. We visited Fontainebleau then stopped in a charming rural hamlet nearby, Moret-sur-Loing, for a three hour long lunch. French style! We walked along the river banks and looked at the artwork. Beautiful country: weeping willows, poplars, old river mills, and miniature castle residences. You could just imagine Monet standing outdoors at his easel. Je suis amoureux de la France!

We went to the apartment of one of the girls and listened to records (and sang) until about midnight, then Dave and I walked for miles, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe and back. A few days ago I looked up our friend R and went with her to the Louvre. I didn’t need too much in the way of a guide because I recognized instantly many of the artists I had studied in Florence. How satisfying it was to be able to do that! Yesterday I went to the Jeu de Paume art gallery to see les impressionistes. Of all the artists there I prefer Gauguin, especially his native women. I plan to go back tomorrow. What a choice of cultural activity there is in this city! I wish I had more time! Last night I went with Dave to see Helen Hayes in The Glass Menagerie. A great actress in an excellent play. After a few drinks we went for the longest of walks: the whole Champs-Elysées and then some!

Tomorrow night it’s Racine’s Andromaque at the Comédie Française. This morning I saw the house where Baudelaire was born. He is high on my list of great poets. The Rodin Museum really impressed me, especially his statue of Paolo and Francesca kissing. (Dante seems to pop up everywhere.) I think Rodin’s best work is on the same level as Michelangelo’s. In the late afternoon we climbed the tower of Notre Dame. The gargoyles from the roof are an amazing sight.

On June fifteenth Dave and I are off to Tours for a three day tour of the Loire Valley and its castles. La gloire de la France ancienne! Then I leave for Canada from Le Havre on June 20th.

 June 18, 1961; Tours

Salve, Musa!

Here we are in the beautiful valley of the Loire, 230 km. southwest of Paris. This wide grey-brown river meanders its way through a fertile plain: green fields, yellow alders, and straight regal-looking lines of Lombardy poplars. Dave and I rented Vespas today. The first time for both of us. We had quite a laugh when he started his up, floored it, and roared up onto the sidewalk. I thought for sure that he was going to fly it through the front door of the rental shop!

At the badly damaged castle of Cinq Mars we had a guide, a friendly little Frenchwoman who trilled her r’s and thought it was a hoot that we took her for the owner of the castle. One of the towers she showed us had been a German observation post in World War II. I noticed the name “Scüdler” (doubtless a German soldier) carved on the scaffolding; it fitted in well with the swords, halberts and crossbows we had seen inside the castle and it set me brooding on the tragedy of war and how it always manages to raise its ugly head. I thought of my stepfather who was gassed (and permanently damaged) in World War One and of my Uncle Ken who had slogged over dozens of Italian mountains fighting the Germans in World War II.

We visited two other castles (Langlais, Villandry). Both are impressive. Then we had a nice surprise in the evening. An official from the Alliance Française came by in his huge car and took us out to supper at Villandry. Wow! Did he roar over those country roads! I was in the back seat but I saw the speedometer: 130 km. per hour! After supper (and much, much wine) we went to an outdoor son et lumière concert given in the courtyard of one of the castles. [footnote 37] Performing was the Montjoie choir from Paris. The music was a good blend of religious and folk and sitting there enjoying it all I found myself thinking of France’s two great Renaissance poets: Ronsard and DuBellay. In the background we could see a blazing red sphere of a sun dropping slowly over the Loire. During the intermission we were introduced to a few local notables: the mayor, his wife, and the prefect. The mayor asked us how old we were: “Twenty-one” we answered. Hearing this, he quipped self-pleasedly: “Tous ceux qui aiment ont vingt ans.” (All those who love are twenty.)

I made a good impression, I think, by saying that I found the evening’s performance even better than those I had seen at the Pitti Palace in Florence. (Maybe not true, but it was diplomatic!) After the concert they put on unannounced readings by actors in period costumes at various places on the castle grounds. We were walking in the maze of high hedges in the Italian garden when we suddenly heard loud voices coming out of the hedges somewhere. We listened carefully. They seemed to be coming from the other side of a hedge, a man and a woman talking. When we looked behind the hedge, sure enough, there was a couple dressed in Renaissance costumes. It was a thrill to recognize the poem that they were acting out. It was by Ronsard and it’s about a young suitor, Ronsard himself, who warns his lady love that if she spurns him she will bitterly regret it when she is old and he has become a famous poet:

Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os,

I will be in the earth and, boneless phantom,

Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos.

Near myrtle shadows I will take my rest.

 Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie

You will be at the hearth a hunched-over old woman

Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.

Regretting my love and your proud scorn.

 Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Live, if you believe me, don’t wait for tomorrow:

 Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

Pick the roses of life starting from today.

 Seeing that Dave and I both appreciated Ronsard our host drove us out to the cemetery, right then and there, to visit the poet’s grave. The cemetery at midnight was enchanting: dark and perfectly still, the only sound being the occasional croak of a frog. Then the three of us went for a tasty meal of rabbit and boiled rice à la calabrese washed down with several bottles of wine. We were all feeling the wine and chatted and joked away for two hours. Then we went for drinks to his place. Out on the balcony of his fifth floor apartment he made a flamboyant gesture embracing the whole town and called it his “petit Chicago”. Intéressant. I wonder what he meant exactly.

 Today Dave and I took in three more castles: Amboise, Chaumont, and Chenonceaux. Chenonceaux is extraordinary because it juts right out onto the river. Tomorrow I leave for Paris, thence to Le Havre to board my ship: Greek Line, the Arkadia, 23,000 tons, two swimming pools. I hope it’s good! It will make a short stop in Cork, Ireland but I don’t know if we can go ashore. I am arriving in Montreal on June 28th and will be flying CPA to Vancouver (only $110.) that same night. I’m coming home! It will be so great to see you! It’s been a long, long time!


That’s the last posting on the text of “Florence, Dante and Me.” Very soon I will be posting the footnotes. To give you a sampling, here are the first two pages.

1 (p. 2) I am referring to the old campus of Laval, which was in the haute ville (of Quebec City). In 1960 the university was just beginning to expand westwards to Sainte Foy. Maurice Duplessis had been the premier of the province for many years and had stubbornly refused to accept any financial aid from the federal government. He hurt no one but himself and the people of Quebec.

2 (p. 3) I didn’t realize at the time that this friendly, modest man who was also interested in Baudelaire was none other than the Gilles Vigneault who was destined to become one of the most popular French-Canadian singers of all time. His Mon Pays, c’est L’hiver from the 1960s is his best known song. [note from the author: I have posted a few times on Charles Aznavour. He too got his career started in Quebec (specifically Montreal)].

3 (p. 8) As the year progressed I became familiar with the portraits of such great painters as Leonardo da Vinci, Bronzino, Perugino and Raphael. Their subjects are proud and richly dressed and so too are many of the modern Italians whom I observed while taking the passeggiata in the Corso Vannucci. Pride, flair, taste—I think these are bred to the bone for many Italians.

4 (p. 18) Looking back years later (2016) I think it was neither wise nor necessary to make “Italian only, no English” a rigid policy for my year in Italy. It would have been better for me to strike a balance and cultivate both Italian and English-speaking friends throughout the year. My stubborn “rule” caused me to suffer unnecessarily at times from loneliness and isolation.

5 (p. 23) La Festa della Rificolona (September 7) celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary (supposedly in Nazareth) on a September 8. On this date many Florentines mill about town carrying lanterns and singing as they make their way down to the celebrations on the Arno.

6 (p. 32) This German artillery tactic is described with droll dark humor by the Canadian author Farley Mowat in his World War II memoir, And No Birds Sang (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, reprint of 2012. See pages 84-87)

The scene: Sicily. Mowat is sitting on a bren gun carrier and is part of a Canadian force advancing on a German-held hill town. All is calm and nature-loving Mowat is bird watching with his binoculars. All of a sudden: Pandemonium! Well calculated German artillery suddenly comes crashing down all over the place. Mowat and another soldier bolt to a ditch at the side of the road. As the bombardment continues Mowat yells out to his companion the names of the German guns as he is able to identify them: “81 mm. medium mortars… MG-42s… four-barrelled Flakvierling light anti-aircraft mount”, etc.

Regarding Alfredo (at the Bianchi pensione in Perugia) I should mention that one evening we had a very strenuous wrestling match in the living room. I forget how it started. He got the better of me eventually but I think I gave him a run for his money.

7 (p. 36) Len Timbers was a friend who owned a record shop on Robson Street. He specialized in classical music and had an amazing knowledge of the field. I mention him in the introduction as well.


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