I would never have thought that Florence would remember us! and certainly had no idea that we had been given such a glamorous name as"Mud Angels"...

An account by Stefano Stefanini (I) 2

Until recently the flood of 1966 was just a personal memory of a time when a group of students came from all over Italy, forgot about their lazy everyday habits and went, without any particular motive, to a place where they could be of help; this was somewhat rare in university life of the time, and it wasn't for political reasons either. Of course we talked about politics deep in the night in the train carriages that were our lodgings but, just for once, they were of secondary importance. We hadn't come to Florence to do that. We were there to help the city to recover from the terrible blow it had been inflicted, which we did by removing books from the mud (and how it stank! I shall never forget it...) or cleaning out the flooded houses.

Let's be really honest, we were also there for the adventure involved and, at that age (I was 19), who could ask for anything better?
My other memories are of Florence itself: Florence without lights, without shop windows and without its elegance. We were all, Florentines and students alike, dressed in the same way: windjackets, jeans and boots, right in the middle of the old city centre, which has always represented the best in Italian fashion design and elegance. Yet, for me, it was Florence at its most beautiful, and I have often come back here since. It had been stripped naked by the Arno but real beauty does not need any makeup. Instead....

Stripped naked but not on its knees. It takes more than a few metres of water to worry David! The whole city was in a bustle, as though the only thought it had in its head was not to give in to its sorry fate. Apart from the typical Tuscan grumbles (I'm half Tuscan too, so I can say this...), no time was wasted in controversy while I was there; people just rolled up their sleeves and got down to work. I learned a lesson of civic pride from the Florentines, how to react in times of trouble, and an inventive capacity of which some, I hope, has rubbed off on me.

The bars never closed in Via Tornabuoni and vicinity. The coffee machines were out of order but they all managed anyway with camp stoves run off blue gas cylinders. The food was poor, always the same thing (salame stuffed between two thick slices of rather stale Tuscan bread), but it was free (at least for us volunteers). I NEVER had to pay for anything during the whole week I stayed there.

We were made to feel really welcome in the city (something I have not experienced quite so much as a tourist...)
In material terms I don't think our help really made a lot of difference. Even so, to my surprise and great pleasure, thirty years later, Florence still remembers us. Our presence was apparently more important than we thought; maybe because it showed a tangible and physical demonstration of the solidarity that Italy and the rest of the world felt at the time or it was based simply on the principle that a friend in need is a friend indeed.

I am quite sure that Florence would have managed perfectly well without us but it was wonderful experience for us to be able to help in the collective efforts of the city. It was a moment of magic: these situations can only be found in times of emergency and when life goes back to normal such impulses come to an end as well. Naturally one hopes that should there ever be such a need again (elsewhere!), then the same thing would happen all over again (naturally on the part of later generations; after all, it really would be rather pathetic if only the fifty-year olds and over returned to active civil volunteer service, as well as possibly being dangerous - for the volunteers).

Personally I am convinced that our children or grandchildren would never allow such a chance to slip them by. Otherwise they would, above all, be harming themselves. As far as I am concerned, I still have wonderful memories of those times, in fact it is I who would like to THANK Florence and all the other volunteers for an experience that has remained with me ever since and accompanied me all over the world.

Stefano Stefanini, Italian Embassy, Washington



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