I am writing in the Giardino Boboli, Boboli Gardens, behind the Palazzo Pitti, or Pitti Palace. I was lying under a tree in that almost asleep place where your limbs are heavy but you can hear the birds tweeting, the occasional fly that buzzes by and the sounds of people’s voices, which are more like a gentle hum somewhere far away. Your body is so deeply relaxed you can no longer feel hands, arms, legs… it is as if your body has melted into the ground.
It is my first day here. I arrived last night and discovered how happy I was to be back in a hostel. My room was full—all women—and it was comforting to hear one person softly snoring and the woman in the bunk below mine toss and turn a bit. I was assigned one of the top bunks and didn’t even care. I was in Italy—Florence—right in the heart of the city. I woke up and washed my hair and it was soft and smooth—Greece’s shower water had left my skin and hair feeling rough and dry, and it felt as if the shampoo would never wash completely out. It seemed like a luxury to touch my own hair this morning and have it feel familiar to me. The noise and bustle of Florence seemed calm and quiet.
I headed off this morning with my map in hand, deciding to walk to the places that I wanted to visit. After wandering through the city for awhile and taking way too many photos, I realized happily that I was hungry and it was time to begin the quest for lunch. I checked out a few places but there are so many it can be overwhelming and I couldn’t decide. So I did the smart thing—asked a local for a good trattoria and cappuccino, not so expensive. He sent me across the river to Casalinga, owned by his friend, Paolo. It was small and locals were working their way through the many stages of a proper Italian meal when I entered… perfect. My waiter was David (pronounced daw-vid) and he was impeccable, in manners and service, and he was hopping. I was seated at the last empty table. I had gotten there before the rush it seems as the walls of the tiny place filled up with people waiting. I had a simple one-course meal of spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes, and of course a cappuccino. Excellent.
David spent time talking with me even though he was busy and I asked his opinion of the best way to get to the Piazza Michelangelo and he let me know it was quite far and suggested that I pay to enter the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens along my way. Gardens—that was exactly what I needed. And that’s how I came to be curled up on the ground under a tree… and this is why I never got to the Piazzalle Michelangelo, or anywhere else that day. No matter where I cracked my eye open I was greeted with a sweeping vista of Tuscan hills rising above the city or a gorgeous part of the palace gardens, clearly designed for long walks, lying under trees and falling in love by princes and princesses of the past… it was as a dream and I didn’t want to wake from it.
The Italian sky is the clearest sky I’ve seen in weeks, the wind is almost nonexistent and the sun is quite warm without being stifling. I only realized how depleted I was when I was lying here in Florence in the gardens and all the tenseness that had built over the last few weeks began to melt away from my body.
With my ticket into the gardens I had admission to the Costume Gallery, the Silver Museum and the Giardino Bardina. I loved the Costume Gallery and got a couple of photos before realizing that I should not be taking them. Although you wouldn’t guess it by looking at me or the way I dress, I enjoy style and fashion; I love things that bring more beauty into the world. The Costume Gallery is full of magnificent clothes and ballgowns from a few centuries ago to recent times. It talks about how fashion is a way that women have expressed their own cultural identity and reflected their struggles and beliefs. I will say it inspired me to bring more beauty and femininity into my utilitarian wardrobe. Although haute couture doesn’t fit my wallet or practical sensibilities, I am sure to find an inexpensive Italian dress and perhaps a blouse; I will have to donate something to fit them into my bag.
On my way to the Bardina Gardens, I walked up to the coffee house, Belvedere, at the top of the hill inside the gardens. It is well worth the more expensive cappuccino. The view over Florence is spectacular and you sit outside on this old stone covered veranda, feeling that you’ve stepped back in time for a few moments. It’s lovely… a ‘do not miss’ experience.
I walked over and met the man who runs the hostel I will stay at when I return to Florence and he allowed me to leave my bag there while I go back to the artist residence near Rome to pick up my other bag and see the family who runs the residency. I leave on the train today. He also gave me the key so that I could return at my leisure Monday when I arrive back in Florence. He gave me some travel suggestions and added that if a woman goes to Bologna or Venice she will leave with a boyfriend… these cities are made for love. He said this is also true of the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the river that runs through the center of Florence in the evening as the sun begins to set. He said if you go there you will never be alone. You will fall in love. That sounds rather certain, and Italy has left me with little reason to doubt him… what to do, what to do. I have a plane to catch to Scotland next week so I think it might not be good to fall in love and leave… and I must leave Italy because I am at the end of my 90-day time allotment for my passport. Both Greece and Italy are part of the Schengen Visa countries; you can only stay 90 days total at a time in all of the 15 countries that are a part of it. Falling in love here doesn’t fit into my itinerary just now.
On my train odyssey from Florence to Rome, I was fine until I got into Rome and had to switch to the city train. I find the Rome city train system challenging. I boarded and asked the man next to me if he spoke English. He didn’t. The man across the aisle from me spoke a little. So I asked him if he knew how many stops before the Fara Sabina stop and he estimated it was 1-2 stops after his. He noticed the ticket in my hand and told me that it wasn’t the right one. The man who checks tickets happened to be in our car so this gentleman covertly handed me his ticket. He said, ‘It’s no big problem for me, I live here, but for you, oh, no, no.’ He shook his head and clucked his tongue, ‘It will be big problem for you.’ I already knew that to be caught without your ticket validated or the incorrect ticket came with strict penalties.
This man went on to say how he had come from Romania to Rome and loved it, clutching his heart and biting his lower lip repeatedly to emphasize his words and emotions. He said that Italy had become his home and it was so good and good to him. He is an elementary school teacher in Rome and loves the people he works with and the job. He feels that his life is blessed in Italy and he will never leave and return to Romania. I asked him what he loves so much about Italy. He looked away dreamily and then said, his voice rumbling with emotion, ‘Everything… everything.’ His gratitude moved me. He had found home—that place that calls your soul and captivates you. That place that you can no longer live without and you are so grateful to have found. You will forgive its shortcomings, work to improve things and swoon in the gaze of its more enchanting side. And if you are fortunate, you will be able to make a life in that place.
Unbelievably, that train trip was the only one where the ticket man walked up and down our car but never once checked our tickets. The gentleman who gave me his ticket was spared a hassle. He got up suddenly as he was at his stop and pointed quickly to a young woman and said to ask her about my stop to be sure when it was coming. He nodded politely, said ‘ciao’ and then he was gone, into the city that he loves.
This man’s passion about Italy and Rome made me more clear about something… it’s not who and what you can live with, it’s who and what you cannot live without.