I’ve um-ed and ah-ed about how to best tell this next chapter of my story and no doubt will only truly know once I’ve hit ‘publish’. This is certainly not a story I ever expected to be telling as my own and one that I’ve considered not telling at all for reasons of discretion. But then I reasoned that all of you who’ve stuck by me through the dark days and endured my tales of woe also deserve to bask in the rays of sunshine and hear the juicy gossip. Besides, I’m the one who decided to do this blog and like my mum says ‘if a jobs worth doing, it’s worth doing properly’ (this does not apply strictly to apostrophes and other punctuation as several of you have noticed). Enough pussy footing around, I’ve already let the cat out of the bag with the heading so let’s dive right in.
I’ve come to Italy for a bit of a surreptitious rendezvous with a certain gentleman I briefly introduced you to in the Vancouver blogs – let’s call him Ryan, for that is his name*. Since leaving Vancouver, we’ve stayed in touch and I guess he thought it might be nice to come visit me and I suppose I thought that might be lovely too. We decided on somewhere neither of us had been but both wanted to see and if you’re going to do this type of thing, well, I refer you back to my mothers words of wisdom about doing a worthy job properly, might as well pick a destination as pathetically romantic as Tuscany.
In lieu of having told my actual parents, Vic and Pete asked all the appropriate interrogatory questions and offered to chaperone/spy (disguises, props and tactics were discussed – Rollo was even in on the act as an elaborate hat ornament). In the end, to the best of my knowledge, I left on my own – butterflies beginning to emerge from the cocoons in my stomach.
I’d managed to book a flight using my frequent flyer points which restricted my options a little. Consequently, I’ve arrived a day ahead of Ryan and flown into Pisa as opposed to Florence where we are to meet tomorrow. Luckily the flight was uneventful, PIsa airport is tiny & uncomplicated and the train station adjoining it was very simple to find. This dispatched my initial concerns but the next challenge was to make it to Piazza Santa Croce in Florence by 1.30pm for my first rendezvous with a man named Giovanni.
Both cliche and prior experience made me apprehensive about such specific timings in Italy, especially without the assurance of a phone – my SIM not being enabled for roaming so now serving only as timepiece in place of my recently broken watch. My train was mercifully on time and ran to schedule. Not wanting to leave anything to chance or poor navigation, I hopped in a taxi which plunged straight into the heart of Florence, passed centuries old buildings and over cobbled streets that never imagined anything more advanced than a horse and cart passing over them when they were laid. It was hard to remain focused on the task at hand with such monumental grandeur and history whizzing by all around.
But focus I did. The taxi pulled up at Piazza Santa Croce and as with everything else I’d been nervous of that day, it all became obvious – the designated meeting place could not have been more recognisable – the Basilica Santa Croce beneath the Dante statue. Unfortunately, Giovanni was not so discernible as Dante whose impressive shadow provided precious shade from the days heat. Having only communicated with Giovanni via email, I didn’t really know who I was waiting for but wait I did, and wait and wait. I kept checking my phone for the time and started wondering what the hell I’d do if he didn’t show. After several tour groups had convened and dispersed alongside me, it finally dawned on me that the other increasingly anxious waiting person might just be him, despite his not-very-Italian red hair and pale skin (yes, I know about the Northern Italians!). I approached him and to our mutual relief, discovered it was indeed Giovanni. He’d been equally dismissive of me because of my phone which I’d told him I didn’t have use of.
Confusion clarified, he led me to the apartment I’d rented from him through http://www.airbnb.com. Booking accommodation in a place you’ve never been before can always be a bit of a gamble without the proper lay of the land. Doubly so when you’ve left it late in the day and have fewer options to choose from. I was therefore delighted when we walked mere meters from the basilica, down a narrow street off the piazza, through a wrought iron doorway and into an apartment building which dates back to 1306. The entry way is a little dilapidated and of course there is no lift but it was a great relief to step through the threshold into the apartment that not only matched its description but exceeded my expectations.
Giovanni showed me the ropes and the quirks that are to be expected of any building of its age. He provided me with maps of the city, gave me recommendations and told me to help myself to anything in the well stocked kitchen including a bottle of prosecco he’d left as a welcome gift. And with that he was gone and I was left to my own devices once more.
There I was, standing in a 14th century apartment, looking out the window at the Basilica where Michelangelo, Machieveli and Galileo to name but a few were laid to rest mere meters away in this city where the Renaissance was born!!! How have I not been here before?
Although I knew I had days ahead of me to explore, I just couldn’t wait – I grabbed a map and headed out. I was happy to wander aimlessly to just see what I could see and get a flavour of the city rather than plot out a path to all the major sites. But as is so often the case with destinations of great historical and cultural significance, it was surprising to discover that geographical speaking, Florence occupies very little space. Without trying, I managed to pass the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery and Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, San Marco Piazza and so on and it was truly and literally awesome.
In between the ancient wonders, the modern world is woven seamlessly creating a symbiotic blend of Italian culture both past and present, allowing me the chance to also indulge in a bit of window shopping and a lot of gelato and coffee!
Across the day, the city worked its magic on me, giving me a sense of transcendent humanity and connection to times when these streets were occupied by people who have shaped our world and the way we see those beyond. It’s empowering to be put in mind of humankind’s ability to think, dream, evolve, discover, create, aspire, inspire and to move from where we are to where we could be; to know that we are part of a lineage and continuum by virtue of which we are entitled to contribute and be truly great.
But beyond that, in this city where the mortal remains of so many notable figures to whom we attribute almost mythical status lay, I was also reminded of the power of the individual to contribute to greater good through their life’s endeavours and in doing so, to shape the future for generations they will never know.
With these thoughts in mind, I wound my way back to Piazza Santa Croce feeling quite euphoric. I parked myself at a little wine bar just off the square and ordered pizza and chianti for one. Twighlight descended and transformed the square and took the sting out of the days heat. I took my time and watched the world go by. I felt independent and international. I felt brave and strong. I felt a very profound sense that I belong to this world and that this world belongs to me.
As I made my way across the square back to the apartment, I had an out of body moment looking down on myself, I marvelled at this reality that felt like it was never meant to be and yet it was – alone in Florence on the eve of a romantic interlude with a someone who was traveling half the globe to be with me. But far from being about someone else – this was about me. My whole life, I have been ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’ and it has been a tremendous privilege. However, in this moment, I felt a palpable sense
of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ – I got myself here, this time is for me, this life is mine and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people who have supported me to this point. I decided to sit a while and contemplate you all.
There was a busker playing in the square who sounded for all the world like Jose Gonzalez and seemed to be playing a bizarre selection of songs ripped right out of the jukebox of my life – John Denver’s Annie’s Song (for my mum), America’s Horse with No Name (a song I once covered with my imaginary band), Susan Vega’s Luka (for my nephew, Lucca); Lamb’s Angel Gabriel (for my sister, Gabrielle but also a sentimental favourite with particularly resonant lyrics for the moment) – it freaked me out because every time I went to leave, he’d turn out another unexpected number that made for a very random playlist. He eventually put down his guitar, got out of my mind and went home. I did the same.
Too enlivened to sleep, I decided to watch an episode of True Blood on my laptop which isn’t exactly conducive to sleep. By the third episode, I notice my battery was down to reserve power so went to plug it in only to realise I’d bought the wrong adaptor (fat pins, not thin pins!). The terror very quickly spread when I reached for my phone which was down to its final few percent and which I had intended to charge off the laptop – it would never make it through the night. Not only did this leave me without an alarm but also my only source for telling the time. I scoured the apartment but not so much as a timer on the stove was to be found! It was already the wee small hours, the shops long closed and I had nothing but a few more hours to kill before I had to be up to make my way to the airport to meet Ryan. I considered my options which included just getting up and going to the airport now to sleep or sleep with one eye open and listen for the bells from the basilica to measure the time… I’ve opted for the latter…
*Note for Marlon: as opposed to Brian