A Florence Diary: Writings and Memories from 1947 to Today

In The Art of Travel, 6. First Book, Florence by Annie1 Comment

Keeping a Diary was one of those clichè preteen hobbies that I, shamelessly admit to taking part. I remember it quite well. The cover was filled with an illustration of a fluffy white cat against a bright yellow background and had a “lock” on the side that did not do its job. My diary was filled with the ramblings of how each day went, and usually ended with the sentence “I had a good day”, or “I had a bad day.” Lack of travels and interesting events meant that my diary consisted of typical social scenarios and events of an elementary and middle school girl. We don’t realize it but these hobbies we pick up from a young age tend to tell us a lot about ourselves and in the future, we can learn from them.

When reading Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary, I could relate to her memories of a city in which she spent several weeks with her cousin, Pim. Journeying from postwar London to Florence must have seemed like a safe haven for Diana. She ventured abroad when she was around my age, and took note of Italian behaviors. She also made friends from her travels, whether it was the stranger sitting next to her on the train from Paris to Milan, or the photographer that Pim met on her day alone in Sienna. I appreciated reading about this type of traveling because I have taken my friends here for granted. I am looking forward to a trip I have planned next weekend to Rome by myself. I love traveling with others, but I also hold the belief that everyone should travel alone at some point in their lives. The experience takes us out of our comfort zones and introduces us to people we otherwise would not meet.

Athill’s assumptions and then experiences were influenced heavily by the culture here in Florence. Her visits to the churches, museums, bakeries, and gardens drew her deep into the mystery of what it means to be a traveler and what it means to be a tourist. Her appreciation and neverending exploration are what differentiates her from the typical tourist that both she and I have come into contact with. Tourists and personalities she comes across visit the sites and then leaves them. Pim actually tends to represent the typical tourist with her “American” needs and minimal appreciation for the local culture.

“Florence didn’t feel like home,” she writes. “Its great charm lay in its unlikeness to home- in its being so enchantingly ‘elsewhere’. None could be lovelier” (9). This opinion she held was most likely due to the fact that she struggled with what it means to be in a safe, “homely” place. The adjustment to living in a completely new environment with different languages and foods, for example, is one that is rather difficult. But Athill does not want to feel at home when she travels. She wants to feel uncomfortable at times because this is how she gains the appreciation and pleasure for her time spent away. World War II limited her ability as a teenaged girl to explore and discover the culture within her own city. At times, I can imagine, she spent many days locked inside to avoid airstrikes such as the Blitz and conflict outside her home.

Athill’s writings seem very critical of her writing style. She often writes that she is not writing enough on a certain subject, and the reader can clearly tell that she intends on showing this work to others. I find that when I write for others, I automatically critique myself. However,  if I am writing for myself, I let the words flow onto the page without being tough on myself. My biggest takeaway from reading A Florence Diary is the significance of keeping a diary to reflect on my time abroad… which is exactly what I am doing now!

(Image: A Florence Diary by Diana Athill; Source: Annie Barson)


  1. Hi Annie,

    I’m also a shameless journaler, and it is amazing to see how everyone seems to interact with their diary differently. I can’t imagine writing everything with the consideration that it might be published with few edits. I would probably tear out half the pages!

    You write that Athill’s “neverending exploration” sets her apart, and I noticed the same with my reading/author: Paul Theroux. It makes me think about how writing about the real world (and planning to publish it) might actual excite my urge for discovery beyond what I have done previously.

    Thanks for the read. -M

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