It may have taken a little over a month, but I was finally able to get my hands on Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary. With my only experience with her work being her short story collection, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, I thought I would be reading about a someone fleeing from an unsatisfactory relationship to find herself – and probably land an affair or two – in Florence, Italy. Fortunately, this wasn’t that kind of book.
A Florence Diary is a refreshing and engaging holiday memoir, written during Athill’s two week stay in Florence, Italy in 1947. Having been to Florence myself and visited some of the places mentioned in the book, I felt incredibly wistful and eager to go back and enjoy the city as Athill did. Probably the closest experience she and I share are the Boboli Gardens, which she had the pleasure of visiting more than once. As she and her cousin Pen spend their days taking in the sights and the history of the city, Athill shares her amusing observations on the locals and other foreign visitors. In one scene, she describes a group of Swedish art students seen from a distance as ‘very decorative with their blond heads’ but no match for Italian men, whom she found very lovely to look at.
One of my favorite bits in the book is when Athill talks about Jack Bartley, a fellow English traveler whom she dubbed ‘the photo-fiend’, because of his tendency to show off his travel photos to everyone he befriends. “He was such an old bore, really, because he was a photo-fiend, who travels solely in order to take photos which he can then show to helpless victims.” Not very different from the current photo-fiends of today, only now they’re armed with selfie-sticks and Instagram.
At eighty pages, A Florence Diary is a slim read, but it’s ideal if you’re looking for a short and sweet mode of armchair travel, enjoyable and lovely throughout.