One Character in search of an author
I set out writing Barefoot in the Piazza with my storyline and characters all clear and raring to go in my head. I planned to tell a foreigner’s tale of Florence back in the 70s, from behind the scenes of the tourist industry, that powerful engine that drives the city. Back then English-speaking foreigners were the essential fuel that kept the engine going at full throttle. Mostly female, we were often girls who had dropped off the au-pair circuit, foreigners with Italian boyfriends, or older single women in their thirties who were at some kind of cross-roads in their lives that they couldn’t or weren’t prepared to face back home. We were British, American, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Dutch and German. For one reason or another that glorious city had got us hooked and we were all living on a shoestring, many of us stammering just enough Italian to order a pizza or a cappuccino.
In the cavernous shops where we were employed, tourists were handled by the busload, hit and run style. They came, they spent, they were hustled back onto the bus by the tour guides. No real selling savvy was required on our part, which was just as well, because few of us had any. Our jobs with no work permits, or any trace of paperwork were precarious and we knew it as well as the shop owners did. They also knew how desperate we all were to stay in Florence. So for very little money we were prepared to be trapped for weeks on end in the air-conditioned innards of the shops, where our close confinement could turn the atmosphere from giddy to toxic in minutes. The Italian police and regulating authorities turned a blind eye to the shop-owners and their invisible employees; it was as if we simply didn’t exist. The Italians got smart and these days they all speak English, so the gangs of foreign shop girls have disappeared. But back in the 70s it was maverick country out there in the piazzas.
So. my story would follow this shifting community of foreigners and their daily struggle to co-exist alongside their Italian paymasters and under daily siege from the tourists. It would eavesdrop on their camaraderie and their squabbles and reveal that although they were in Italy, at the same time, they were very much out of Italy. For many, Italy remained foreign and fascinating and ultimately impenetrable. They wandered through Florence like extras on a lavish Renaissance film set, frequenting the same few bars, restaurants and clubs where they socialised with other ex-pats. Only a few ever seriously got to grips with the language and the culture.
This was the story I set out to write, only after the first half dozen or so pages, just like one of the characters in Pirandello’s play, Sei Personaggi in cerca di un Autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), one voice in my head started to make itself heard above all the others. ‘Never mind all that nonsense. This is the real story’ insisted the voice with sweeping certainty. I had planned to give this character a fairly minor role, but before I knew it he had made a case for himself, and was confidently threading his way through the narrative; and all the time his voice was getting stronger and more distinctive.
For the ten weeks of writing the first draft, it was as if that voice had moved in with me and had decided to write himself in to the story whether I liked it or not. It was as if he were standing at my shoulder pushing the writing, moving the story along and ultimately shaping its direction. He never let up and the story seemed to acquire its own motor; at times racing ahead, it seemed, wholly independent of me.
So it was that ‘Luca’, transformed Jeli’s coming-of-age journey to a quirky love story. ‘Luca’ is a testament to the power of memory coming back, not just to haunt us but sometimes to inspire and galvanise us into action.