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She walks down the street with a swing in her step and a lift to her head. She radiates allure as if followed by a personal spotlight. She may be tall or short, slim or pneumatically curvaceous, dressed discreetly or ostentatiously—it matters not. Her gait, her composure, the very tilt of her head is an ode to grace and self-possession that makes her beautiful whatever her actual features reveal. She is Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale, Monica Bellucci. She is the Italian woman glorified on celluloid and on the nightly passeggiata you see on your Italian vacations—but she is no figment of the adman’s imagination. She is real and gracing the streets of every city, town, and village in Italy right now. She is the embodiment of bella figura and she cuts an elegant dash through our mundane modern world.
When I arrived in Florence, I could not have been further from this ideal. Decades of working at the computer had rounded my shoulders, years of looking down into a laptop or phone had slackened my jawline and compressed my neck. The stress of a demanding job and big-city life had hardened my features. My eyes were fixed to the ground as I hurried through life, with no time to throw anyone a smile let alone a kind word. Single for years, my loneliness had calcified. I didn’t so much strut with confidence as cringe down the street.
A year in Florence—and discovering bella figura—changed my life.
The concept of bella figura is about making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, whether in Rome, London, New York, or Vancouver. It is a notion at once romantic and practical. It encompasses everything we do, from what we eat to how we get to work in the mornings. It’s about sensuality and sexuality. It’s about banishing the stress that, no matter how few carbs we eat and how vigorously we exercise, means our bodies are so shut down we can only ever look harrowed and pinched. Bella figura is about generosity and abundance, not meanness or deprivation. The Italian woman who lives the bella figura knows the importance of beautiful manners and a graceful demeanor, not as a nod to a bygone era, but as a means of “making the face” until it fits—it’s a proven fact that if we smile genuinely often enough, we release the happy hormone serotonin. All of this improves not only our quality of life but also the quantity of years we have.
While this book will touch on details about already well-documented benefits of the Mediterranean diet, what follows in these pages is, instead, the story of a journey. Ten years ago I moved to Florence quite by accident, and that first year I spent there changed my life, my body, and the shape of my heart. I believe that what I learned can change yours too.
Chapter 1 - Festina lente or How to Slow Down
It all began with rain. It fell in heavy sheets as I was lined up waiting for a taxi at Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence. The line was not under cover and I didn’t have an umbrella. By the time I got into the cab, I was soaking wet.
I was in a city where I didn’t know a soul, unanchored from work, friends and family, a piece of human flotsam washed up in its Renaissance gutters. All I had, clutched in my damp hand, was the address of the apartment where I was to stay. As I reached the top of the line, I uncrumpled it, showed it to the cab driver, and got in. He grunted and pulled out, frowning at the thought of a puddle forming at my feet behind him.
We swept through the slick cobbled streets. The heating was on full blast and my sodden coat was fogging up the cab. I peered through steamed-up windows at the stone walls of ancient buildings rising up on either side of the road, water dripping off their deep eaves. The streets were deserted—it was January 2 and the city was still sleeping off its hangover. My own New Year’s Eve had been spent stuffing boxes into corners in my parents’ apartment under the beady eye of my mother, who said nothing but whose every breath asked me what on earth I thought I was doing, giving up a good apartment and a job so prestigious it came with embossed business cards to move my possessions into her already overcrowded apartment and flit off to Florence to play at being a writer. I may as well have announced I was going to Italy to run a brothel.
The cab driver slowed down, gestured to the left and grunted. I turned around to take in the majestic proportions of a colonnaded piazza, a cathedral looming up at the end of the square, its white façade reflected in the glistening ground. My mouth fell open.
It wasn’t just the beauty of the square, but the theatricality of it too; the way the eye was led to the façade of the church. “Si chiama Santa Croce,” the driver said. Then, indicating the statue of a scowling man, he said, “E quello li è Dante.” Dante looked as grumpy and bad-tempered as my cab driver, yet I was cheered. The man credited with inventing the modern Italian language in his Divine Comedy was standing right there, holding a book in his stony hands, looking at me with his basilisk stare. It was a good omen.
The basilica stood solidly behind Dante’s statue, the entire square constructed to induce awe in the insignificant human approaching it, as well as delight and marvel in the beauty. It was my first brush with the perfection of Italian presentation, the importance of the harmony of form, the genius of the impact on the onlooker, the moral weight given to beauty. It was bella figura embodied in stone and marble.
We crossed a nondescript bridge. This time the cabbie pointed to the right where the Ponte Vecchio squatted over the river on low arches. Lit up against the night, its row of matchbox shops hanging over the water, it shimmered like a dream. I took it in, wide-eyed, as we drove on, swinging into the Oltrarno, the other side of the River Arno from the historic center, winding through cobbled streets to pull up at my new front door.
“Eccoci,” the driver said as he heaved himself from his seat. I paid and stepped out straight into a puddle. I hurried into the entrance hall, taking in its cavernous proportions as I dripped onto the flagstone floor. A flight of wide stone stairs twisted off to the right and I lugged my bags up, stopping to rest on a narrow bench on what felt like the 108th floor, panting. It was still a long way from the top. The steps dipped in the middle, worn by centuries of feet: the building dated from the seventeenth century, the silence thick with ghosts. I resumed my climb and finally stood in front of a Tiffany-blue door, its paint cracked and curling. The lock was a massive iron box with a large keyhole—fortified, ancient. I pulled out an equally antiquated-looking key and opened the door.
A long corridor with a rough stone floor stretched away from me. It was freezing, my breath fogged into the air. Halfway down I found a dark bedroom with two single beds and an enormous wooden chest of drawers, and I dropped my bags before going back out into the corridor to find the heating, switching it on, shedding my wet coat, and grabbing a blanket and wrapping it tight around me.
The apartment, which would be my new home for who-knew-how-long, was stuffy as well as cold. The corridor opened into a chain of rooms linking one to the next, what interior-design magazines call a shotgun apartment: a sitting room with large, shuttered casement windows, a sofa bed and a rickety table with haphazard piles of books. A long and spacious kitchen led off the top of the sitting room. The sink, cupboards, and oven ranged along the right, while, on the left, a table sat under another set of double windows. At the far end of the kitchen, another sitting room was set at a right angle, with a long corner sofa, behind which a shelving unit was wobbly with stacks of books. In the far corner, the only door in the whole apartment apart from the front door closed off a small bathroom.
I regarded myself in the mirror above the sink: my hair was frizzy from the journey, there were shadows under my eyes, and I could see the glowing red mark of a new spot erupting on my chin. Or chins, I should say. My Big Job had made me hate my reflection. The years had been marked by inexplicable, distressing weight gain: rolls appearing not just around my middle but on my back, under my face, hanging from my upper arms; I tried every healthy diet going and eliminated every kind of bad food as identified by the latest fad, to no avail. Acne, which had given me a wide berth when I was a teenager, came to get me with gusto; my skin had broken out. I tried not to care, but the industry I worked in made that impossible—a glossy magazine company in which the daily elevator ride required nerves of steel, a pre-season designer wardrobe, and the insouciance of Kate Moss. I had draped myself in black shapeless clothes instead and avoided the elevator.
I sighed and turned away, going back to the windows in the kitchen. In spite of the cold and the rain, I threw them open and leaned forward, peering into the darkness.
Outside, a dark, silent courtyard was overlooked by windows, balconies, and terra-cotta roofs. On the far side watching over it all was the tower of the local church, a slim stone structure from the seventeenth century. Four green bells peeked through small arches, a jigsaw of brickwork around the top the only decoration. All around, the windows of the other apartments were dark. Rain fell into the silence.
Christobel’s tower, I thought, remembering the first time I had heard about it.
I had met Christobel when I accepted a last-minute invitation to vacation at a friend’s home in France. Christobel was another guest. She had white hair with a stripe of black running down the middle, and a diamond that glittered in the corner of her nose. An unlikely look for a fairy godmother, but then, Disney never dreamed up one as sassy and smart as Christobel.
I learned that she was a novelist, wife to a Cambridge academic and mother to five children. She told me how she had fallen in love with Italy when she had spent a year in Florence teaching English. She had traveled back regularly, and somewhere along the line had bought an apartment, talking dreamily of a courtyard and a church tower. She managed a visit most months—two days in which to be alone, no children tugging at her skirt, to wander the streets visiting her favorite haunts for cappuccinos, for designer frocks, and handmade shoes. She wrote it all into thrillers set in the city, her characters retracing the steps she took around town, her plots imagining the dark underbelly of the place she loved for its beauty but was compelled by for its mystery. She had published three novels and was working on her fourth. I couldn’t imagine how she fitted it all in. “I have a full-time job and a cat, and I still can’t figure out how to wash my hair during the week,” I had said, and, laughing, we had bonded.
Lying under an olive tree one hot day, Christobel had suggested that I retreat to her apartment in Florence to write the book I dreamed of undertaking. I had scoffed at the time—it was a lovely dream but as far from my reality as could be. After all, I had a Big Job anchoring me in London, I was far too busy to take off like that.
And then, in just a few months, I had lost my Big Job and been evicted from my apartment. Even my cat had deserted me, climbing out the window one day, never to be seen again. As if she had sniffed out my despair, Christobel rang me one winter night, as I sat among my boxes. At my news, she clapped her hands in delight. “So now there’s nothing to stop you going to Florence in January to write,” she said, and started making plans before I had agreed. So I had taken the hint life was emphatically giving me, drawn a deep breath, packed my book proposal, and stepped off the edge of the cliff. A cliff with a Renaissance face, but a cliff nonetheless.
Excerpted from "Bella Figura"
Copyright © 2018 Kamin Mohammadi.
Excerpted by permission of Appetite by Random House.
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