I think it was W. H. Auden who dismissed the term “writer’s block”, as it implies that the writer spends most of their time writing, when of course the writer spends the majority of their time not writing. One of the reasons why we spend so much time not writing is because we spend so much time looking for a place in which to write, never an easy task. We are a picky breed, partly because money is never no object. Money most definitely is an object, one that we don’t have. We know our rates: we know that, in Florence, €1.20 is the absolute maximum that we should be paying for the writer’s traditional toll, the coffee. Anything more, and it’s our own fault for ordering a cappuccino, or for finding a bar in the centre where the prices miraculously double when bums are put on seats, or where they simply charge you for being foreign.
So, it’s rare now that I sit down and get out the notebook in Santo Spirito. Like Brits from the Home Counties, its expat community shudder to go north, meaning that Oltrarno bars are always rammed and overpriced. I make an exception for the boheme-academe vibe of La Cité, and its timber entresol where you can hide above the staff who probably want you to move on. Otherwise, I tend to shun the centre, favouring Dolci Pensieri near Le Cure or Il Ghiottone in San Jacopino, where I drafted quite a neat little monorhymed poem about a woman who (almost) stood me up in the queue for the Uffizi. These are places where you’ll only hear Italian spoken, which I think sharpens the ear to one’s own language. Drinking Italian coffee in an Italian piazza, eavesdropping on Italian conversation and smelling Italian smells, English becomes an umbilical lifeline. I have brought my Saxon tongue out to the wilderness: we are aliens together, and we cleave to one another.
But writing should be a free activity, and you can do it without paying anything. A stockade of street lamps runs along the Arno’s north bank from Hotel Mediterraneo to the Cascine, and there are few things more flâneuring than to swing yourself up on the levee and lean back against one of them, legs pointing upstream or down, a book in hand, notebook in pocket, the unseasonal February sun on your features. You have to choose your position carefully, of course. I normally go close to Ponte alla Carraia or Ponte Vespucci, where the drop is not life-threatening. How long I spend there really depends on how much wrought iron my interscapular can take.
In truth, I don’t really have a particular spot in Florence. Almost no poem of mine can claim one single birthplace. You can divide writers into the force-its and the fidgets, those who settle and those who scuttle, and if the former pride themselves on their professionalism and industriousness, the latter have the virtue of versatility. Plus, the outdoor office more or less compels you to write longhand.