by Patty Civalleri
2013: It was a Very Good Year…
The Back Story
Many of us dream of replanting ourselves into a foreign land, even if only temporarily. The thought of immersing yourself into a world of new colors and landscapes, of enjoying the aromas of freshly-baked somethings emerging from local ovens, of startling your self-image with a new style of togs to match your new-found surroundings; all things that you just know will expand your ordinary daily existence and transform you into a new person replete with ancient wisdoms and insights. Wow… if only.
Over the years, I have traveled into the secret little corners of the world photographing every square inch of interesting-ness as I went. In each land, I imagined what it would be like to transplant my own personal little world into their thorough exotic-ness; to wake to ages-old cracked and heavy chapel bells, to learn the simple songs of the children while they play, to taste the tart and tang and sugar from their faraway world.
But never have I been so consumed with these imaginings as I had been each time I traveled through Florence.
Florence. Flower. Floral. The name reeks of a sweet sensuality that teases you, nay dares you, to return. And so in 2013, I returned to Florence for the third time. But this time the plan was completely different. I aimed my sights not on a 5-day breeze-through; not just long enough to ear-mark the top topics in the local guidebooks or to visit the top 6 tourist-trounced sites. But a simmeringly amazing truly indulgent wickedly unchained two-and-a-half months – by myself.
When a high school or college-aged youth gallivants through foreign hostels with their thumbs held proudly pointing forward in the hopes of acquiring a lift to the next town, no one bats an eye. It is clear that this is what one is supposed to do with their not-yet focused youth. But when I told my middle-aged well-established friends that I was going to go to Florence for a whole 2.5 months, it was clear that a suburban soccer mom with grown college-aged children do not just pick up and disappear for a couple of months. Alone. “Is everything ok with your marriage?” I was asked. “Will Roger really let you do this?” I was asked. [Let? LET?? Seriously? Do they even know me?] “Are you heading out for one last ‘cougar’ fling?” I was asked? [Really! These were people that have known me for over 20 years! Who knew that this was how they thought of me…? Or perhaps, this was merely a reflection of how they thought of themselves… or the things that would drive them to do such a non-sensical thing. Hmmm… I’m going to have to ponder this on another day.]
I left myself a mere few weeks to plan the whole event, because I didn’t want to suffer the pangs of it seeming forever until I would strap myself in and lower the tray table in front of me, Florence bound. I wanted to occupy myself with the daily tasks of preparing to leave my complicated little life, and to survive in a land of strange schedules and wonderful wines. So I sat and made myself a list of the things I needed to concern myself with in order to pull this off.
Where would I stay?
In the tiny little town of Florence, the choices and options of habitation are varied and confusing. On the river? (Which river might that be?) Near the Ponte Vecchio? (The ponta -what?) In the shadow of the Duomo? (Wassa dwomo?) Did I want a large hotel with all the amenities and services, or a small family-owned place where I would be mis-understood from the moment I entered their front door? What about renting a room in someone’s house? How about a room in a midieval castle in the middle of the legendary Tuscan countryside? OMG! I think I would like to stay in every single one of those places. They all sound so charming, or so old, or so …Italian.
Someone once said to me that the more money you spend, the farther away you end up from where you are going. Spending a lot oftentimes means buying a thicker and thicker American bubble: soft feather pillows, room service, a laundry service, a car service, built-in restaurants and entertainment and a concierge to take the pain out of seeking out the fun all by myself.
Nah. This time I didn’t want to be a mere tourist; to flaunt my American-ness in a safe and cushioned environment. I wanted simply to live like a local Italian girl. Ooh… what a concept? But what does that mean exactly?
After a meager amount of research online, I learned that Florence, like most cities, is divided into little neighborhoods that each boast of something that they feel makes them unique. For example in Florence, there is the Duomo area which features the most famous structure in Florence’s skyline: the Duomo; or the Santa Croce area which boasts the cathedral where so many of the historical ‘cognicente’ are entomed; or the San Lorenzo/Mercato area which is centered around Lorenzo d’Medici church and the outdoor leather market. But I decided to stay in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno from the tourist areas) in an even smaller area called San Frediano. Ah yes: local markets, local parks, local schools, local people where no one speaks English, and best of all, no tourists. Perfect.
Fast forward through the skies of Lufthansa…
Upon my arrival I learned instantly what the word ‘alone’ means. My cell phone wasn’t yet set up for a foreign country, so I couldn’t call home. I couldn’t text my landlord to pick me up at the airport. And in a land where I naively thought that nowadays most people speak English, the airport personnel and shop owners at the Florence airport glazed over when I asked if I could borrow their phone or where can I find my luggage.
I found a taxi, and because I had memorized how to say my new address, the driver happily chortled on about the virtues of Florence secure in the knowledge that I was a true speaker of his native tongue. My eyes glazed over. My new landlord let me into my new real Italian apartment, showed me around, and gave me a key (and yes, it really did look like an ancient skeleton key from the middle ages). At 10pm when he left, he closed the door and I found myself standing in the middle of the apartment with a singular thought: “Holy crap. What do I do now?”