Part I: Venezia
“Your brother got to Germany and he slept basically the whole first day.”
“Seems like a waste of a finite resource …”
“Ha! Exactly! So what do you want to do when we get to Venice?”
And then, Day One: lunch and wine; sleep for 4 hours; dinner and wine; sleep for 8 hours.
We took on a tenor of relaxation in Venice. Competetive nature of tracking daily steps, checked mostly on our “interim” stops for a glass of wine. Wine evolved into a newly discovered Spritz (prosecco, aperol, soda), and we had one at every stop along the way. Oh look, there’s another street corner – we should stop for a drink! Sometimes it became hard to tell if we were still exhausted or just pleasantly processing our second or third vino of the day. Prosecco in the sunshine on the Piazza San Marco? Why would I choose anything else in life? I think we knew this is why we were here – sit somewhere beautiful, drink something delicious, snack on olives, watch the people.
Did you know Venice was built upon the water? Did you know there’s a wonderful breeze that blows off the waterfront as you wander? Did you know that Venice is beautiful, and quiet, and full of twisty dark streets like its fucking Diagon Alley? I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. This is vastly better.
I asked our gondolier (because how the hell you going to NOT take a gondola ride in Venice) … I asked our gondolier if he’d ever heard of the place?
[Italian Accent] “Alla Madonna? Is very good! Very traditional, family place. Very honest! Good price.” [/Italian Accent]
Directions: cross the Rialto from San Marco, head down the street on grand canal. Turn down an alley called calle della madonna. It will be there (said in a tone that implied that maybe, perhaps, just maybe it won’t actually be there?).
This was a family place. The tables around us were Italian families with their grandparents, their children. Dad ordered an entire sea bass, grilled whole and served with the head on. I tried sarde in saor, of which I’d never even heard (much less conceived could exist or put me into such a confused bliss and contentment), and a seafood risotto which does not require memorandum beyond recommendation. We bragged about our mastery of the water taxi system and we joked about the Murano glass factory tour ending smack dab in the glass shop like the Hersey Park factory ride. Everything was fresh and new to us, and we laughed and drank our newly-discovered spritzes and ordered wine and caffe and limoncello. On that night, Venice was the start of something new, something undefined but taking shape, and I proudly navigated us through the back streets and alleys leading to the shop near our hotel, where we bought a beer for my brother and bottle of wine for my father and for me, and the pathway home was lit as much by the moonlight as by the yellow street lamps and the reflections off the wet stones.
Part II: Firenze
When you spend 45 minutes climbing steps to reach the top of a hill to catch the most spectacular view possible of Florence, you deserve to treat yourself to a gelato and a glass of vino. The spritzes were beginning to lose their inital luster, but damn if they don’t quench your thirst in the Tuscan sun. When we stop at the caffe, we do so because of the promise of free wifi. We post our pictures of the day’s hike, of the Uffizi, Piazza del Duomo. We interact more on FB than we do across the table from one another. Accompanying our drinks are complementary olives, bruschetta of three varieites (chicken liver being my preferred), small pannini. Order three drinks and an entire lunch comes gratis. I like Florence. A lot.
Our hotel is around the corner from Ufizzi, down the street from Duomo, 5 minutes from Galleria dell’Accademia. Compared to Venice, the streets are packed. Everything is in plenty, including the tourists, but its a pleasant kind of bustle. Almost. And no one can stay anxious when presented with vino and free bruschetta.
The day prior, I’d asserted a god-given-right to walk the streets of Florence alone for an hour. It felt good to move towards some quiet, to walk away, on past the people, past the tours, past the Sites and Sounds, to just keep walking until I found myself in a walled-in garden in the middle of the city, where I could smell flowers and, despite the proximity of the Actual City, I don’t think I heard a single car or person. Or maybe I’m just remembering it that way.
So for dinner on that last evening, we moved away from the crowds, down to Piazza San Spirito where, the Book tells me, the sun sets on Bascillica de San Spirito and the long shadows create a beautiful sight and where, the Book tells me, I will find cats aplenty roaming the back streets and where, the Book tells me, I should dine at Osteria San Spirito. Thus far, The Book has been right about an unbelievable number of things.
Osteria San Spirito was on the corner of the piazza, and we are promptly seated outside in a covered area where the spring evening was temperate and the sun set at pace with our lavish meal. Tuscan cuisine promotes a heavier diet, full of game and heavy sauce and steaks as large as your head. What is it they say? When in Rome …
As we indelicately devour our decadent meal, the piazza begins to fill with people. Italians. Locals, walking their dogs, or meeting for a drink while sitting on a low wall. Street performers begin to play right outside our veranda. The table full of Study Abroad Americans laugh at some joke. We pour more wine and pour ourselves into our meal. The steak is huge. The rabbit is delicate. The gnocchi is covered in cheese. Everything is good, and we try it all. And the piazza continues to fill, but it seems less hectic than the tourist centers we’d been traversing. Despite all of it, so much of it all at once, the overwhelming sense was that this was exactly the right amount of Things and the sun sets on Piazza San Spirito and The Book is right yet again, and I feel entirely full.
Perhaps, in truth, too full of it all.
Part III: Roma
Too much. Too much people. Too much austerity. Too much humidity. Too much options. Too much with everyone.
That sounds so unappreciative.
It wasn’t too much. It was just … the crowds. The jostling. The warning that you WILL get pickpocketed. The nerves were shot, the anxiety high. Do you know what it’s like to stand within a nearly 2000 year old building? Do you know what’s its like to stand upon the tallest hill in the oldest empire, and to see the grandest and largest church ever built looming across town? Do you what its like to come face to face with legitimate, actual history? Do you know how disappointing the Circus Maximus is?
Seriously. Its like an abandoned lot behind an abandoned shopping mall.
Too much. I had my fill. I was full. Full of awe, full of inspiration, full of knowledge, full of human interaction. 6 days and only an hour alone. Introspection and the tackling of Life’s Issues while sitting silently at a cafe, a bar, a ristorante, but constantly with others.
So, for one night, under less than amicable conditions, I struck out on my own. By my third step from the hotel, my resolve was found.
The Piazza Navona stands a tribute to whatever the exact opposite of the Piazza San Spirito might be. Touristy, loud, noisy, crowded, leaning more towards cheesey than authentic. The middle of the piazza is filled with fountains and vendors of every type. Selfie stick. Water color. Selfie stick. Selfie stick. Grand Theft Roma t-shirt. Apron with the Privates of David. Do they even know the David is in Florence?
I should go back to Florence.
I walked alone, navigating the streets with my map held folded and close, searching for a recommended restaurant which, even when I conceded and busted out Google Maps, eluded me. I ventured further from the piazza, down bright and lively streets filled with outdoor restaurants. And then, rounding a corner and heading down what looked like an empty alley – is that a restaurant?
I dined alone, on ossobucco and a liter of red wine. There is an amount of wine that is too much for one person. I determined that a liter of wine is less than that amount.
Across from me, a couple on a first date. She from Moscow. He from Rome. English their shared language. Small talk is difficult in a second language. Discomfort is a universal. As she smoked cigarette after cigarette, as he drank glass after glass of wine, as the conversation got no less stilted; from the other side of me:
“How about you sir? Are you Italian? Do you know what tomorrow’s holiday is?”
No. No, I am not Italian. I’m from Washington, DC. You’re from Seattle? I love Seattle! How long have you been traveling? You’re going to Florence next? Then Venice! I know some restaurants you simply have to try …
I’d spent amost the entire evening hiding in plain site, enjoying the fact that I do not speak the language and no one had asked me to speak at all. Perhaps the scowling was a deterrent.
I loved being alone.
But I think what I really loved was having this thing, this one prescious, mundane, unique to me moment. This here, even as I drank my liter of wine and turned my chair to face my new friends – this thing belonged to me.