By Yasmine El Tabib
We woke up at dawn. As the last straggling stars were absorbed into the brilliant blue that emerged, we headed down the familiar road through the town I had been plopped in for 5 weeks as part of my study abroad, but ended up living in for 14. It was me, my Zio (Uncle) Michele, a man who acted and looked like a true Don; Anna, a small Polish lady who worked in his little gas station café and may have been the only pale-skinned person around besides me; and her boyfriend, Enrico, who reminds me of the BFG. Tucked into Zio Michele’s Mercedes, we cruised north from Rogliano, a town in Calabria, to drop Anna off at Rome’s big airport, Fiumicino. We went from a town of 5000 to a city of 6 million in 5 hours.
After an exhilarating ride through the verdant hills and lush vegetation of Calabria, after dozing off and on as fields and forests passed me by, and a stop at my favorite restaurant in all of Italy, Autogrill, we arrived in Roma. With time to spare as the BFG waited with Anna, Zio Michele turned to me and in his heavy, Southern slur that had caused me to continuously have him repeat himself, exclaimed,
“Let’s go to Florence.”
We jumped back in the Benz. As we sped by everyone, the excitement of this spontaneous trip to Firenze built up. I had never been, and we only had about 2 hours to explore.
We hurried through the romantic and colorful side streets, scattered with unique doorways and iron window work. The musk of leather shops fused into the thick smell of Pecorino cheese, among others. For a fleeting moment we stopped and took a picture in front of the golden doors of the Duomo. I craned my neck back to look up at the green and pink marble stripes stacked high to the top of the Gothic cathedral.
We entered Piazza della Signoria and I realized I was walking in the paths that Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli and other artists had once traipsed. Looming in front of me was the Palazzo Vecchio, a brick castle. I HAD TO RETURN. I would not have the chance to see the masterpieces that lay behind these walls and those of the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia. Next to the Palazzo Vecchio stood the elegant arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi, held up by embellished Corinthian columns. The juxtaposition of the inviting space under the columns, sprinkled with various muscular statues, and the commanding presence of the harshly geometric fortress was bizarre.
After a big, thirst-quenching beer, we continued on through swarms of people. I have never heard so many languages being spoken at one time. I peeped into the windows of Ferragamo, Gucci, Cavalli, Armani and Bulgari—their designs so admirable and unique. Florence is the intersection of art and commerce, of history and modernity, and how extraordinary it is to experience them side by side. With time slipping by, Zio Michele looked at me with his goofy grin and told me I would like what was to come next.
Before I knew it, my surroundings were dripping in gold. The street we walked along was lined with jewelry shops. Vintage and new, the pieces were immaculate and I’ve never felt so close to Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, gazing in at the treasures.
We continued onto the old bridge, Ponte Vecchio, the one so historic that even Hitler gave orders to avoid it when bombing Florence during WWII. Looking out over the Arno River to the Uffizi and all the little houses and shops that lined the banks, a sweep of emotion drowned me in melancholy. We had to go, the adventure could not continue although it had barely begun.
But those two hours wandering through paths so steeped in history had given me intense gratification. The feeling of visiting a new spot on the map for the first time, the feeling of seeing something in front of you after only having had glimpses in photographs, empowered me to continue the journey. It empowered me to experience more, because the satisfaction of immersing yourself into a place, if only for two hours, is astronomically better than any description ever written or photograph ever taken.