In the few weeks we’ve been in Florence, we’ve already visited most of its major cultural attractions, and we’ve taken excursions to Ravenna, Lucca, and Pisa of “Leaning Tower” fame. Even in January and February these places are crowded. Still, the crowds at these places were nothing when compared to the Sunday afternoon throngs that mobbed a multi-cultural attraction that Italians call “Eekaya.” You’d think that inexpensive Swedish doodads for the home were the 9th Wonder of the World. I seem to recall having been in one of these establishments years ago in the California town of Emeryville, but it lacked the Italian feed-lot ambiance of this store on the outskirts of Florence. Entering the blue and yellow building, one immediately becomes a piece in an interminable, diabolical board game with 10,000 other pieces, following a maddeningly labyrinthine configuration of arrows that gives each participant the opportunity to observe every imaginable space-saving shelf unit, toilet seat, tea cozy, pasta fork, and spatula from at least a half dozen vantage points on the self-guided tour. Shortcuts to the store exits were unthinkable because they all required going against the direction indicated by the arrows, which would have resulted in one’s being trampled underfoot in the slow but inexorable stampede of humanity trudging along en masse in a shuffling procession of souls like something depicted in scenes of Hell on an Italian cathedral ceiling.
We had taken a half-hour bus ride to the fringes of Florence on a quest for a cheap plastic kitchen recycling container as well as a cheese grater because the historic center of Florence mainly sells the pricier, deluxe genres of cheese graters that are intended to be framed, mounted and integrated with the household’s copy of the Last Supper. We had intended to meet up with other faculty from the program in the cafeteria but had to give up because we were unable to distinguish any individuals in the swarm of Florentines who apparently develop a craving for Swedish pizza and wieners on Sunday afternoons in IKEA.
As I followed the arrows on the floor, there was a point at which I completely lost track of time. The arrows double back on each other, and on two or three occasions I thought I recognized a younger version of myself coming toward me. I remember an especially desperate moment when I was quite sure that there was actually no way out, and I had the urge to sit down and weep. In the Cathedral of Florence there is a famous painting of Dante in which the entrance to the inferno is located on the outskirts of Florence. Who would have known it was IKEA? As Dante says, “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.)