Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How We Got to Florence

For years we have been planning Dave’s sabbatical, what we will do with it, where we want to go. For a long time, we contemplated a trip to Africa with the kids, but eventually all the doors closed except for one it felt right to fear, and we started to think about what we really wanted to do. Paris, some people said. You would love the south of France. Rome. A Caribbean holiday, just you and Dave. England had some appeal. San Francisco. Then last May, a friend said Florence and something clicked in place. I had forgotten about Florence.

I fell in love with Florence on the cusp of adulthood when I watched the movie A Room with a View - and then I forgot about it. Until May. I remember mowing the lawn last May, throwing ideas out to Dave. Gelato, I said. The David. Coffee. Pasta. The place spoke our language.

We read that Florence was a smallish, walkable town. My main mode of transportation at home is a bicycle and I like the idea of a city that can be explored in the open air. We began exploring the possibilities, thinking of the three thousand and seventeen details that had to be balanced in order for us to go and to find the perfect time. I received an email about a conference held in Florence in another season and something about the place it was held at captivated my interest. I began exploring this Villa Agape, run by the Suore de Stabilite e Caritas. It sounded loving at the very least.

The suore were also stealthy: no website, no email address. They had a fax machine. They were reputed by other conference goers I sleuthed out on the net to speak little English. An Agape meal was spoken of as a highlight of Italy. I saw pictures of ordered gardens. Finally, I found something that did resemble an email address, wrote to them in the simplest English, and heard back a short message of acceptance.

We read that the convent was ten minutes up the hill from the bus that took you directly into the centre of the town. A week before we left, I sat down at the computer to figure out exactly what bus we needed to take. I was devastated: the bus that came to the bottom of our street swooped far away from where we hoped to go. I had pictured a direct route, an easy drop off. How about walking, I thought. It was only a couple of kilometres from our convent to the bridges, but there were about twenty turns we had to take. Suddenly it didn’t seem so simple.

We woke up our first morning in Florence to the sounds of birds singing, chirping, trilling insistently. The sky was brilliant blue and we flung the shutters open like Lucy Honeychurch. We showered, descended the staircase to eat bread and jam and coffee, and then we set out down the hill, directions in hand.

It turned out our little mapquest directions were accurate and far easier to follow than they looked on paper. We walked along a medieval laneway, brick walls covered with moss on either side. We passed a grove of olive trees, saw our destination in the distance, saw a tree – apple? – in brilliant white bloom as we descended down the hill. We found another laneway with smooth orange-stuccoed houses rising above the cobblestone curves, gardens protected by barbed wire, embedded shards of glass and protective dogs. But we kept walking as the lane grew steeper and steeper beyond what cars could manage. We would take the bus home we decided as our calf muscles strained against gravity, stretched after the long flight. We twisted and turned according to the map, checking with the street names nestled in the sides of buildings at each corner. We passed an ancient arch in a high stone wall, turned a corner, passed a shop with a display of gold utensils, saw the park we would meet in a few days later, realized the wall ahead of us marked the boundary of the Arno, walked across the bridge incredulously – we were actually here. And there was the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo, the iconic images of the city. We slipped into the shadows of the narrow, still-cobblestoned streets, walked several blocks, looking in store windows, but not yet ready to shop. Suddenly we found ourselves in the square of Santa Croce where there was a farmer’s market going on. We walked. Dave was surprised that I did not stop and sample everything but the meats looked too marbled, the cheeses too soft and I was dazzled by the sunshine, the reality of being where I had long dreamed of being.

A woman offered us a sample of wine and that seemed like just the thing – the red wine was clean and light. We stopped at a cafe and chose lemon gelato and cappuccino and sat and drank it all in.

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