Swing a cat?
I was house shopping ahead of our move to Blacksburg Virginia, and I asked the homeowner why she was moving. “Can’t swing a cat without hitting’ a Yankee,” she replied. Then after a glance at my obviously Yankee self, she hastily added, “Bless their hearts.”
We bought the house although we did not, in fact, swing either of our cats there. (Duopoly was a revenge-barfer and Cournot’s hobby was hiding dead rodents in the shoes of those who offended her.) But over the years I did wonder about origins of the phrase. Alas! As with so many beloved nursery rhymes and fairy tales, this one has dark origins.
Turns out the “cat” refers to a cat o’ nine tails, a gruesome form of discipline favoured by the early British Navy and every pirate movie ever. A length of ships rope was divided into nine smaller braids designed to lacerate flesh and inflict severe pain. As you can imagine, it takes quite a bit of room to swing a cat, leading to a phrase which means today that you’re in a confined (possibly Yankee-infested) space. Although most countries have banned its use, it continues to sell briskly on various fetish sites. (I looked. I will now need to bleach my brain.)
Despite this, I remain fond of the phrase. And in fact, it’s what came to mind when I was describing to a friend the wonders-per-square inch that is Florence. Take this week, for example. I’d been planning to take my finally/fully vaccinated self on a tour of Florentine hotspots I could only read about in the year we’ve been here during quarantine. Then I realized: why bother? Here in Florence, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a historical wonder that in the USA would require miles of signage in all directions, several chain hotels named after it, an outlet mall, and possibly its own beauty pageant with annually crowned queen and revisionist movement explaining why whatever dead-white-guy was involved would have to go. Here ancient wonders are lucky to get their own street address.
Consider my past three days.
Monday: I went with the Hub for his first non-zoom cello lesson in a year.
Tuesday: I had to take the dog to the vet in nearby Fiesole, and leave her for a few hours. No problem. Across the street was a Roman amphitheatre and baths (complete with little side temple labeled “Vomitorium” because I can’t make this stuff up), an 8th-century BCE Etruscan temple, and some 11th-century BCE tombs.
Wednesday: The Hub had to go into the office for a meeting. Their offices are in actual villas from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the 14th-century tale of a group sheltering from the Black Death devastating Florence, and exchanging stories to pass the time. I’m not saying my life resembles one of the greatest literary achievements ever. Except when it does… Anyway, I popped across the street to wait for him by the little fountain outside the 15th-century convent. Clearly I wasn’t the first with that agenda, because the fountain has plaques on both sides listing others who sought inspiration there, including Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Alexandre Dumas, and others. And of course, Hectoré and Violetta.
I have no idea where I’ll be tomorrow, but I’m sure it will be amazing. After all, you can’t swing a cat here in Florence without hitting a historical treasure. Or—because the tourists are back—a Yankee.