i arrived in florence the next afternoon amid a contemplative daze. so many questions about my past and my future had been raised, and it was too easy to take the bait and wander down tangents of useless what-ifs and might-haves. i wanted to sit down, focus, lock myself in a room somewhere and hash everything out like it was some kind of math problem, but i was old enough to know now that this was not how it works. there was no quadratic equation to one’s problems or happiness. there was only awareness and progress, and every life, no matter how short or long, was just a process of evolution or devolution. i needed to focus on the present and keep moving. besides, i had exited the train and wandered directionless while my thoughts had run free in an oblivious daydream. now i had no idea where i was.
i was indeed in florence, one of the artistic and cultural icons of the world, home to the powerful medici family (so powerful they were able to get two of their family members to be elected pope), birthplace of the italian rennaissance, and home of such historic titans like machiavelli, the poet dante, galileo, michaelangelo, raphael, donatello, leonardo da vinci, and master splinter (ninja turtle joke ftw!!!!). as soon as i was paying attention again, it didn’t take long for the ghosts of greatness to begin lingering in every shadow and corner of this magnificent city.
i oriented myself by locating the top of the most ostentatious building in the city: the duomo. over the next five days, that building and its campanile (the neighboring belltower) became my north star. it didn’t take long to realize that it was virtually impossible to get lost in “firenze” because the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world was situated in the dead middle of the city, and it was always well-lit.
it was early december, and the mornings in the tuscan lands were crisp, but tolerable. the christmas markets were just opening up, selling hot mulled wine and other seasonal foods, as well as other kitschy items that held zero interest in me. i wandered the streets in a t-shirt and jeans, marveling at the high fashion on display among the wealthy florentines. even among tourists, there was a see-and-be-seen mentality in this city. in another life, i knew i would be
caught right in the thick of it. expensive leather shoes, tailor-fit suit pants, slim vest, leather band watch… i could already see myself dressing for the occasion of nothing more than walking down the street, shoulders pinned back, chest pressed forward, head held high, purpose and importance communicated nonverbally. i laughed to myself. i was a fool. no matter how important you look, no matter how nice your shoes are, it can all be dismissed as garbage if you open your mouth and say the wrong thing.
and so yet again, i embraced my road-weary tramp fashion and walked on, shoulders pinned back, chest pressed forward, head held high. without a care in the world of whether or not purpose or importance were being conveyed.
my hostel was conveniently located half a block away from the duomo, but my room eerily felt like a sterile hospital room to me and the entire hostel would shut down and kick all guests out every day for 3 hours around mid-day while they cleaned all the rooms. this was only a minor annoyance, since i was in florence to see florence, and not the inside of a hostel, but it did present certain inconveniences that seemed unnecessary to me. i’m still not sure if that is the reason i didn’t really make any close friends in the tuscan capital, but i’m sure it had a small part in it.
but i was also still a little emotionally spent from my new realizations while in venice. i had been remarkably adept at making friends during my trek through europe, especially considering how much social anxiety i had brought in with me (it’s always the easiest thing to smuggle through customs), but in venice i had suddenly realized the reason i was so good at fitting in and being popular and accepted by other fellow travelers was because i subconsciously knew that i would see less than 1% of any of these people ever again. it was an easy exchange. there was no emotional baggage, no investment, no risk, everything was safe. i could be as transparent or shallow as i wanted, and the ticking clock of the road could always run out whenever i wanted it to, allowing me to disappear the moment i encountered any difficulty. and now that i was aware of it, some of the magic had been lost on me. i wasn’t overly eager to engage in something that i now knew wasn’t authentic. it was partially a waste of time. why spend time with someone if it has such a rapidly approaching expiration date?
but that wasn’t how i really felt. was it? what about all the amazing people i had met on my journey? what about david in paris? yolanda in berlin? jean in the alps? devin in switzerland? gabby and the rest of the girls in budapest? the australians in morocco? what about the frenchmen, gregory and thomas, in iceland, and then again in nice, france? cassie and bree, the “lesbians,” what of them? what about martín in spain? each of these people and more had left impressions on me in some form or another. they had encouraged me, enlightened me, altered my perspective, made me laugh, helped me find my way… these people had all collectively had a profound impact on me. surely without them all, my trip would have been vastly different.
but could something truly be considered “profound” if it was so brief and fleeting? the greatest amount of time that i had spent with any of these people hadn’t even been two weeks. doesn’t that qualify someone as a stranger? i certainly hadn’t entrusted any of them with my home address, though i had extended invites to each to visit me in denver, as authentic or false as the invitation may have been received.
i didn’t know anymore. i was confused. i tried my best to block out this humorous existential crisis i was trying not to have while i ascended the steps of the duomo. i surveyed the valley below me, breathtaking visibility in 360 degrees. the wind blew through my
hair, refreshing my mind and soul. not satisfied, exited quickly back down out onto the streets and bought a ticket to the campanile, then sprinted to the top, lustfully embracing the burn of demanding physical exertion, only slowing when elderly tourists were in my way and i had no way around. that easily made my daily tally over 800 stairs (medieval stairs, mind you. uneven, steep, the kind that are better suited for mountain goats than actual human beings). i was breathless, but it wasn’t enough. i ran back down the stairs and crossed over ponte vecchio, the bridge over the arno river where all the jewelry
merchants had been remanded to in the 1600s when one of the medici rulers got tired of smelling fish guts on the bridge from the current tenants and kicked them all out, welcoming in dealers of “pretty things” like gold and jewelry. i trudged further into the hillside, locating a long walking trail with plenty more steps to run up, winding alongside beautiful gardens and walled off properties, ultimately leading me up to the piazzale michaelangelo, a panoramic lookout point to the rest of the city, and a display point of the bronzed oversized replica of michaelangelo’s “the david.” i had climbed well over 1300 stairs that day, and had no clue how far i had walked in addition. i walked over to a vendor truck and purchased a liter of red wine. i slung a leg over the side of the wall overlooking the rest of the city and sipped on red joy juice while the sun began its retreat below the horizon line. the harsh sunlight softened, taking florence and its magnificent architecture from a world straddling the past and present, and transformed it to a golden age preservation that had been frozen in time for a thousand years. the shadows and layers built depth upon each other, and the golden brown light offered by the sun reached feebly out to anything it could still capture as the darkness worked diligently to claim more and more territory.
that night, slightly drunk, i made it back to the hostel. there had been some free wine put out by the hotel staff which the guests had greedily consumed, and now were all mingling about, talking loudly about nothing particularly interesting. i wasn’t really interested in joining. outside on a patio was a lone figure, smoking a cigarette. i walked out onto the terrace and joined him.
i pulled out a pack of cheap, worn out winston cigarettes that i had purchased in morocco (i’m not a smoker, but a photographer friend of mine had told me a good way to combat “camera shyness” from moroccans is to offer them a cigarette first and strike up a conversation. then ask if you can take their picture. it’s the same
tactic they use when they offer you tea and then try to sell you something, and it works brilliantly). i had forgotten i still had them. i pulled one out, it was slightly broken. i pretended not to notice and then, knowing i didn’t have a lighter, i faked a self-imposed pat down of my own pockets to act out a search for one. the lone figure had noticed when i had walked out onto the patio and ruined his silent haven from all the drunk exchange students. he smirked and tossed me a lighter.
“thanks,” i said with a sheepish grin.
“jesus, man…” he said and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette from the breast pocket of his shirt and pressed it into my hand. he reached up and pulled the broken cigarette out of my mouth and held it up to my eyes so i could see. i started laughing, offering no explanation. that pack of cigarettes had been sitting untouched in the bottom of my backpack for two weeks.
“i’m brandon” i said as i lit his cigarette and handed him back his lighter. despite my relative proclivities toward health and fitness, sometimes i just really enjoy a smoke.
“nacho,” he replied. he had dark hair and a dark scruff on his face. he was thin, about my height, and had an evenly proportioned face. he was good looking, but he didn’t care. he had a thick accent, it was clear to me that he spoke spanish, but i couldn’t be sure of where from.
“didn’t feel like hanging out with the group, huh?” i inquired, expecting that i already knew the answer.
“damn circus, man. a bunch of kids having their first drink.” he replied coolly, but with a subtle grin.
“ha. my thoughts exactly. they’re all having fun, but i just don’t have the energy tonight.” i exchanged agreeably. “too bad we missed out on the free wine though.”
“it’s shit. the wine in the vending machine is much better.” he said with a straight face.
i studied his face, searching for signs of sarcasm. i found none.
“i’m serious amigo, this stuff is good…” he produced a tiny bottle of red wine, probably the equivalent of a glass and a half, and slid it over to me. i took a sip. it was silk.
“this came from the vending machine?” i asked incredulously. he pointed me across the lobby and into the kitchen, next to the refrigerator. i got up to go buy one.
“keep it man. i got another,” he said as he pulled another one out of
his jacket pocket. i laughed.
“thank you again. you are very generous to a stranger.” he made a frown and gently shook his head.
“you are no stranger. somos lo mismo. we are the same.” he took a long drag off his cigarette.
nacho was from mexico city. his father was actually french, a parisian, who had fallen in love with a mexican woman and then had left france and cut ties. he never returned, for reasons unknown to me. one day, nacho had grown tired of his life in mexico city, so he
began to learn french. he pressured his father to renew his paperwork in france. his father had shown little interest, but nacho continued hounding him for months, and then years. finally, after nacho had gotten his father to obtain the paperwork, nacho filled everything out for his father and got the signature. once his father’s dual citizenship was confirmed, nacho took advantage and applied for his. later that year he was approved and he quit his job, sold all his stuff and bought a one way ticket to london. he settled in nicely, getting a job and making friends quickly. after a year, he decided to test his french skills and he moved to paris, where he was now also a citizen. a year later, he was ready for his next challenge. he journeyed to florence, where he’d procured a dorm bed at this very hostel only days before, and he was now searching for a job and an apartment.
“do you speak italian?” i asked with a casual concern.
“not yet.” he replied, even more casual.
this guy was impressive. he was conquering worlds, one at a time, systematically, and he couldn’t even be bothered to learn the language before moving to his next location. he was making it up as he went. i was immediately envious of his fearlessness. so far, every traveller i had met had been adventurous in their own right, dismissing whatever obstacles or fears that had been preventing them from taking the first step, but nacho? he appeared to be on another level. he was fully committing to these places, for not just months. years!
we traded stories for another hour or so. i purchased more wine from the vending machine, nacho gave me more hand rolled cigarettes. i marveled at the dexterity of his hands in rolling the perfect smoke. i shared with him pieces of my journey, explained how far i had come and how long i had been going for.
“that’s great, man. and what is next? how much longer will you stay here?” he inquired.
“well i plan to meet an old friend in genoa on saturday. what is today? thursday? so i guess i will take a train tomorrow or saturday morning. not sure yet.” i explained nonchalantly.
“oh i am sorry to tell you my friend, but italian transportation is striking tomorrow, possibly for two days. you will not be able to meet your friend on time.” he replied with a reluctance.
i looked at him quizzically for a moment. “strike?” i knew what it meant, but this was unexpected, i didn’t know how to process it.
he nodded confidently and shrugged. “italians.” was all he said and took another long pull of his cigarette.
i excused myself and went inside, hoping the front desk lady could clear this up for me. i walked up to hear her explaining to a pretty young woman that italian transit workers were going on strike first thing in the morning and all trains, buses, even planes would all be shut down for an expected 2 days. she further explained that there were no sure things when italian strikes occurred, as the goal of these strikes was to induce chaos and panic so that the government would take more notice and take immediate action to concede to demands.
i panicked. dave was meeting me in genoa based off my recommendation. he had also never really traveled internationally, so his first moments in a foreign country where people weren’t speaking his language were likely to be very formative for him. i started having visions of him not being able to understand anyone and then panicking and getting lost, and me never being able to find him. dave was going to end up on an italian milk carton if i didn’t find a way to get to genoa.
i checked my watch. 8pm. i sprinted to my dorm room and quickly stuffed everything into my bag, hoping i hadn’t forgotten anything, and returned to the front desk. i explained to the woman that i had already prepaid for another night, but that i was checking out early. i thanked her for her hospitality and poked my head back out onto the patio, where nacho was still smoking a cigarette and enjoying the cool night air.
“hey man, i’m really sorry, but i have to go. i need to get to genoa tonight.”
“no worries at all man. i hope you make it. good luck!” nacho had never been bothered in his entire life.
i ran down the stairs, two at a time and out the door. there on the street was the girl who had been at the front desk receiving the lesson on italian transit unions.
“train station?” i asked in a rushed cheerfulness.
she smiled. “yep. trying to get to rome. didn’t realize this was something i had to worry about.” she was american, about 5’3” with blonde hair and blue eyes, and a beautiful smile.
“me either! i’ll walk with you.”
it was a 20 minute walk to the station. we did it in 10. we tried to make small talk along the way, but both our minds were in other places and the brisk pace had left us both a little breathless. we got to the station, where nothing but pure chaos awaited. the entire city was trying to get out of town before the strike. people were running from platform to platform, towing suitcases with clothing still sticking out of unzipped compartments. mothers lugged crying children, businessmen yelled at hapless train employees, lines backed up around the corner for every ticket vendor, machine, and help desk in the entire station. every single person in the building was stressed out.
we looked at each other helplessly, no idea where to start. half the ticket vending machines were out of order and the ones that were working had lines 20 people deep. it was inching up on 8:30pm now. the marquee showing the last trains going and leaving was now listing only a dozen other arrivals and departures and everything appeared to be in italian.
“follow me” i said, and bolted to counter in the corner with a sign that said in italian and english “info only. NO TICKETS”
i quickly went through a brief exchange with the agent and was able to confirm everything that was going on, while also determining that there was 1 more train to genoa that night, leaving in 8 minutes on platform 14, and 2 more trains going to rome, on platforms 6 and 8. i thanked the old man and filled in my new american confederate in chaos.
“this is where we part ways! i wish i’d had more time to get to know you. i hope rome is great!” i said as i turned to walk away. “you too! good luck!” she replied, and we both sprinted off toward our gates.
i had noticed when i had arrived in the florence train station that there were ticket machines sporadically around the station and i was hoping there would be one near my station away from the chaotic lines near the front of the station. i was in luck. i bought my ticket and made it onto my train with 2 minutes to spare.
the train pulled out of station and began lumbering down the tracks into the night. i took a deep breath as the wine from earlier in the evening burned slightly in my chest. i was exhausted. i still didn’t know exactly where i was going and i had not made any reservations. i’d just have to figure it out when i got there in a couple hours.
after a while i caught my breath, and my contemplations caught me. i started mulling over all my previous internal debates about my friendships and my connections and my conflicted feelings toward the perceived vs. actual authenticity of their value and impact on my life. i thought about my brief time with nacho. no, i would likely never see nacho again in my life. no, nacho would not be someone that i would likely ever call when i perhaps discover someday that
my dog has cancer or if i get married. nacho would likely never be someone that i would ever need to depend on for anything, nor would he need to depend on me. but he had shared with me his story. he had helped me see the world from a different angle. hehad inspired me in a new way. and that simple thing right there, had been completely worth it.
he had also helped me avoid an italian transit strike. that also was worth it.
quick advice for those traveling to florence
great, cheap tuscan sandwiches: i fratellini. 3 euro sandwiches, 2 euro glass of wine. perfect for a quick bite while exploring the city
tuscan dinner: il giova. a little off the beaten path, this small place is authentic and wonderful. one of the owners is likely to be in there at any given time and they are a treasure. fantastic food!
something different to do: walk up to piazzale michelangelo (don’t take a bus!). start at ponte vecchio and work your way back east along the arno river. in this walk, you’ll break away from all the tourist traps and crowded visitors, and find yourself among the locals for a peaceful slice of florentine living with a beautiful finish at sunset atop the best panoramic view of the city. here are your directions.
this week we’re starting a whole new playlist for Summer/Winter, and to kick things off, we’ll be moving more toward fun summer jams to get you dancing in the heat, wherever you are! our first song for summer comes from big wild, a los angeles dj with a thirst for more than just synth beats and dubstep explosions. the song “aftergold” features chopped vocals, clapping hands, jangly bells, and big horns that all add up to make you want to jump out of your seat. enjoy…
and for those following along at home, we started a whole new playlist for summer!