Somewhere between Rome and Florence a few things changed.
For one, whatever digestive thing was waking me up 5 times a night somehow resolved itself. After typing my symptoms into Google, I was pretty sure I had contracted a wheat allergy, and considering that we are in Italy, my life span was estimated at about 10 days. But good news, it turns out I was allergic to Rome, not wheat, so now that we are in Florence, I am sleeping through the night again.
These towel swans helped too.
The second thing that changed was my sandwich game. After nearly two months of meat and cheese lunches hastily stashed in our mouths in coach buses, museum lobbies, and cobblestone squares, I decided it was time to return to the finer details of the lunch making art. So like a practiced flight attendant, I pulled out at least seven ingredients, and put together a lunch that would make my mom proud, all while cruising through Tuscany at about 100km/hr.
The third thing that changed is our travel resolve. The flight sequence and car rentals of the past few weeks had disrupted our tried and true “bus everywhere” policy. So as we settled into our Flixbus seats we felt a return of the enthusiasm and energy from our trip’s early days. In fact, by the time we got to Florence, we didn’t collapse exhausted into our beds and pull out our ebooks. No, we laced our shoes tighter grabbed a quick snack and headed out into the neighbourhood.
It was nearing dark, but still we decided to check out the nearby park along the river. As we made our way down the well light tramway through the centre of the park, I insisted that we cross the tracks and find a more scenic pathway, nearer to the river. Mere seconds after we had crossed the tramway, we regretted our decision. Under the thick canopy of the trees it was closer to nighttime than evening and the path ahead was dotted with clusters of two or three men. I made a nervous joke about checking out the Florence drug-deal scene and then fell silent when I realized that my voice may tip off an eavesdropper to my tourist status. A few steps further and the clusters appeared to spread and then converge strategically. Our pace quickened and our faces deadpanned as we eyed the nearest tramway crossing back to the light side of the park. 30 very long seconds later, we were safely across and wondering weather we had been too foolish or too fearful. Either way, we decided to leave the park and find other sorts of trouble.
The next hour of exploring our corner of Florence included attempts to sneak into the Opera house to watch the prep for an indie rock show, Jakob’s rebellious proposal that we climb a fence as a shortcut home, and some casual spying on a soccer practice in a velodrome.
The real mystery was not why two foreigners were sneaking around the dark corners of the Florence arts and sports complex, but what Italian phrase found on a map would translate to “Surmountable Danger?”
By the time we were done exploring we had found a Mexican restaurant. I know, we are in Tuscany, the birth place of every delicious food with tomatoes and basil, why would we want to eat Mexican food? Try going two months without a burrito and then you can judge. So we happily spent the evening snacking on overpriced guacamole and tacos while the skylight over our heads offered a front row seat to a gathering thunderstorm. We agreed that tomorrow we would eat all the pizza, pesto, and wine we could find.
Our first full day in Florence had one objective: find travel friends. It had been a while since we had met a fellow backpacker or vacationer and we were hoping to stumble across a hilarious Australian or a fun-loving American. Our number one travel friend finding plan, thanks to Elyse, was to attend a free walking tour, scope the crowd for a friendly face, and then ATTACK! So I put on some make-up for a change, Jakob flossed his teeth, and we set off for the walking tour.
The tour turned out to be a total dud. It was your stereotypical old dude rambling on about old things and other old dudes for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, we had our eyes set on a down-to-earth American(?) couple. We had made casual comments about the size of the tour group at the beginning and frequently tried to stand near them at the tour stops. At risk of being total creeps, I even practiced a few introductory lines.
“Where are you guys from?”
“How long are you staying in Florence?”
It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the dating scene for long, because those are really the only half decent pick-up lines I could come up with.
In the end, we abandoned our feeble efforts and the tour group. It’s probably not a very good Renaissance tour if even I’m dreaming about lunch rather than paying attention.
With some help from Google, we made our way to the best pizzeria within 500m and translated most of their menu items. We immediately picked out danger words like: mushrooms and anchovies. Yuck. We were seated at the same time as another English speaking couple at two tables barely an inch a part. As we mumbled back and forth our thoughts on the pizza list we couldn’t help but overhear each others’ commentary. Jakob finally broke the awkwardness.
“I think that blue cheese one looks great too, I’m tempted to get it.”
The guy pondering blue cheese broke into a smile.
“Ya I think I’m going to go with that one. I heard you mention it and now I think I am going to have to get it!”
Any sort of imaginary barrier between the tables disintegrated and we began giving our input on each other’s choices. Margarita for her, blue cheese and pear for him, pesto for me, and prosciutto for Jakob.
They were Masters students from the US in the midst of a 15 month MBA program in Florence. He was from Seattle and she was from San Diego (?) …to be honest I stopped listening after he said Seattle and our travel-friend radar exploded.
Once our pizzas arrived we took turns telling our stories. They met three years ago when they agreed to be roommates in a mutual friend’s house. Before he even moved in, they were dating. The day he moved in, he decided to forgo his room and just move into hers. She agreed on one condition, that they return to Italy some day. She had fallen in love with the country during a semester abroad in undergrad. Without hesitation, he agreed to be the number two love in her life.
By the time we paid the bills we realized we hadn’t even introduced ourselves. So we shook hands, exchanged names and wished each other happy travels and studies.
With out day’s objectives fulfilled we only had one thing left to do. Actually enjoy Florence.
Day two in Florence was International Women’s Day, and that means all state museums in Italy were free for women! After extensive research I settled on spending the day at the massive Gallery d’Uffizi. With 90 rooms full of medieval and Renaissance art, I was sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Jakob needed a bit more convincing.
Here was my solution:
Jakob was both thrilled and nervous. In fact, the day before museum day, first thing he said when he woke up was: “Just so I can prepare myself, will I be doing a scavenger hunt today?”
Turns out he had no reason to fear, he found three within the first 10 minutes:
The first two on the list proved a bit more difficult and they were also the two that I was most excited about. Clue number two was for the artwork of a nun from Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli. The museum had chosen International Women’s Day to unveil (pun intended) their new three room exhibit dedicated to one of the Renaissance’s many forgotten female artists. Jakob wandered past the portraits of nuns without drawing the connection to his scavenger hunt clue.
The first clue on the list was for the one work that I couldn’t leave without seeing. When we reached the exit without laying eyes on it, I balked and immediately began moving against the flow of the museum goers. Searching for the nearest security attendant I fumbled through a mispronunciation of the artist’s name, Artemisia Gentileschi.
The attendant shrugged and looked away with a mix of nonchalance and exhaustion, “well it’s closed.” She gestured briefly towards the 90th room which was roped off. I stared in disbelief and the attendant turned away.
“No, no, no, this isn’t possible,” I pushed further back into the museum and Jakob followed reluctantly, “I’m not ready to leave.”
“Let’s just sit down for a minute,” Jakob suggested.
We sat down and I told him that he wasn’t going to be able to find the first clue in his scavenger hunt. He seemed okay with it. So I started at the beginning of the story, so he could share in my devastation, as he often did when I failed to grasp the gravity of a particular sports upset or victory.
“This piece of art appeared in every one of my women’s history classes. One of my classmates even made her own version of it for an assignment. It was painted by a woman in the Renaissance! That’s incredible because most women didn’t get to participate in the Renaissance. People talk about it like it was this great time of new ideas and the birth of modern society, but really only a tiny fraction of people were privileged enough to take part. We remember the names of the men like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo, but we have forgotten the women and children and minorities and so many other people who also lived at that time. This painting is one piece of evidence that women could be just as talented and creative as the men of their time, we have just forgotten about them.”
I rambled on for a bit longer until Jakob nodded in agreement. He suggested we go find some gelato to help us cope with the ongoing injustices of our world and I reluctantly agreed. Walking past room 90, I craned my neck hoping for a fleeting glance of Judith and her maid servant’s strong arms transgressing the boundaries of gender and overpowering Holofernes. But like so many strong women, past and present, they remained hidden.