The Reverse Florentine Gaze by Wendi Kozma

Best of 2019: Florence, Italy

 

Florence overwhelmed me. Nestled in the heart of Italy, she was at once a loud, dominant presence with her constant flow of traffic, yet she was mysteriously relaxed. To the untrained visitor, she suggested that Florentines were in a mad rush to reach their destinations; motorcycles and bicycles weaved in and out of the labyrinth of traffic and were nudged by taxi drivers to get out of their way. Traffic was a constant moving pattern that frightened visitors but failed to unnerve the locals. Because to them, it suggested a hurried ease. It was this feeling, this graciousness, I hoped to acquire.

But weeks later, surrounded by a mixture of lush vegetation, fellow neighbors, and the dry rattle of Vespas, I worried that the feeling would leave the moment I left.

I sighed. It was almost riposo — time to close, shut down, reboot. Time to sleep. I found myself enjoying this lifestyle, perhaps too much, because only too soon would I find myself back in America, overcome with deadlines, appointments, and moving at a pace too fast. My real life. Part of me believed that life would be so much more relaxed, happier if I wasn’t stressed about time. Yet, there was no escape from the perpetual, never ending tick-tock, tick-tock.

The tension that had left me slowly found its way back into my shoulders and made me grimace, and the sound of the clock became even louder in my mind. Things to do. Time to go.  Now, now, now.

 

The cobblestone pavement and often narrow sidewalks of Florence made for both an interesting and harrowing journey, especially for someone like me who had a fear of falling.  I worried that I would fall into oncoming traffic too and be stared at by passersby — a woman two sizes too large, unable to walk without stumbling, without grace and ease, but drivers tended to stop for pedestrians, tended to wait for them despite the perceived impatience to move. Eventually, I fell into the Florentine rhythm and didn’t experience that worry as much — the staring, though, the watching me, well, that continued to bother me. When the sidewalks became too narrow or too crowded with people, I confidently stepped into the streets, walking down the middle of them without hesitation but conscious of being looked at.

From my apartment, I walked to the Duomo, the heart of Florence; it was what I sought when I became lost or confused on the many one way streets. The Duomo was the compass to move through the city. Not only did it aid in navigation, it was one of the most impressive cathedrals Italy had to offer. It spoke to Florentines and visitors alike — whispering a tale of magnificence, beauty, and history. But the locals walked or rode past the Duomo as though it was just another place, without seeming impressed. Its once copper façade now faded to green.

I came to Florence to enjoy its cathedrals and museums and the many shops and restaurants that lined the streets. The Duomo was just the beginning. I wanted to stop, to take in my surroundings. That was what I was supposed to do. Although I felt the need to see everything I could, I needed to slow down to truly appreciate the experience.

Time passed; people came and went; circumstances changed; events unfolded, enveloped me, and sometimes made me part of them. And I left traces that whispered I was there — in this world, that I was part of something extraordinary. That I was extraordinary.

 

Fascinated by the gods and goddesses in Greek & Roman mythology since I was a child, I was taken in by Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” like so many before me. Beautiful, lithe, and born from sea foam. Her only purpose, her mission it would seem, to be a harbinger of love. And like Botticelli, I found Venus mysterious and alluring as she perched precariously on a seashell brought forth from the sea. The subtle look on the goddess’s face suggested she was one who knew the strength of her own beauty; she was woman, goddess. All knowing. All powerful. Certain in purpose. It was a song she sang in that smile, small enough on her lips to be timid but sure enough to be knowing. She was mystery.

Until I found myself at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I had never gazed upon Botticelli’s original. His mark was there — in the strokes of his brush, in the brilliant shades of pink and green. Beauty brought forth in those vibrant colors that swirled together on canvas to create seafoam and the gossamer shroud to cover Venus.

And when I finally encountered that mystery, I was overcome. Tears came unbidden, and for a moment, I wondered what other tourists must think of me as they rushed past — a grown woman standing in front of Botticelli’s work, overwrought and crying. It was the details, the story that interested me as well as the work itself. And perhaps this work spoke to me because mythology helped shape my love of literature when I was a child, and besides, I had a story to tell myself.

I relished that time with the Botticelli and ignored those around me, hustling and bustling to get to the next room, the next famous painting. I embraced the beauty and the subtle use of lines and color, took my time, absorbed every line and curve, and committed it to memory.

 

I was seated at the Gusto Leo Ristorante on Via del Proconsolo the first time I had dinner by myself there. This was also the first time I felt completely confident in knowing where I was in Florence and comfortable enough to dine alone.

At the Gusto Leo, the waitress seated me at a table for two, so I deliberately chose to put my back towards the door, something I never did. The restaurant was what I would call a typical, run of the mill bar and grill, similar to what the States offer. The waitress gave me a menu and disappeared. She waited behind the counter until I motioned her over to either answer my questions or take my order. It occurred to me that I hadn’t brought my usual protective gear, a book or writing material, when I went to a restaurant alone. I didn’t even take out my cell phone. Usually, I felt out of place, awkward and preferred having something to do besides staring at my plate or at the empty seat opposite me. Instead, I leaned back in the chair, breathed deeply, and observed what was happening around me.

I ate slowly; I savored the richness of the gnocchi alla leo, and I knew that my waitress wouldn’t acknowledge me again until I signaled, until I asked her for something else. She was not like American food servers; she didn’t hover or bring me a second drink before I finished the first. She didn’t bring me the bill before she offered me dessert. Instead, she took it for granted that I would stay until I was ready to leave, and I took it for granted that she wouldn’t care when I did. She seemed disappointed that I didn’t finish my gnocchi, that I asked for the check instead of dessert, but she gave it to me and then waited patiently for me to pay. I could have stayed at the Gusto Leo as long as I wanted; it wouldn’t have mattered. What mattered to them was that I enjoyed my meal and that I would return.

 

Sitting outside the Duomo, I watched as the painter moved towards me. He sat up his small stand just in front of me where he spent every day, painting and selling his work; we made eye contact every day that I sat on the bench. Today, we nodded to one other, and I found my own thoughts amidst the noise and people.

At times, I felt self-conscious while I sat there. Most of the tourists and Florentines ignored me, but on more than one occasion, I cringed as people stopped to stare at me.  Sometimes they pointed, and at least twice, they took pictures. I liked to think that they were taking photographs of something behind me or that they were gesturing to a statue or graffiti just beyond the bench, but I believe it was me that fascinated or horrified them. Had they never seen a woman my size before?  Perhaps I was an anomaly to them, something that didn’t register. Maybe it was because I was so beautiful that they stopped and stared, but I don’t really believe that.

Sometimes, I engaged other English speakers in conversation. Because I couldn’t readily understand the native language, sometimes I felt lonely when I sat there by myself for long periods of time.  This was perhaps the most difficult part of my journey — not being able to speak the language, so I learned through experience. I spoke slowly, enunciated, and used a lot of hand gestures.

Despite the occasional tourist who stopped to stare, I reminded myself to stop, to breathe, to embrace what was in front of me. As I sat on my bench outside the Duomo in the heart of Florence, I watched the people; it was what I liked to do most when I traveled. I made up stories about them and tried my best not to stare at them the way I had been stared at.  I gazed at one and then another and then shifted my attention, observing but conscious about being considered rude. I was encountering many people from many different places.

The tourists mingled with Florentines, eating gelato or buying goods from the many vendors who set up their wares every day, all day. Minimal traffic moved along the stretch of road before the Duomo; horse drawn carriages, bicycles, the occasional Vespa, emergency or police vehicles, and the random taxi weaved among the pedestrians who struggled to take that perfect picture. It was a loud place, teeming with multiple languages, wailing sirens, and the blowing wind.

The Duomo reminded me that I was in a city much older than the US and that I should relish the magnificence of its architecture and people. So I sat back on my bench and watched. I relaxed. I stretched, shifted positions and watched the artist continue to paint. He worked most of the day, stopping now and then to talk to other artists and tourists.  Before leaving the city, I would buy a painting from him — to remember my time there.

But, as the weeks in Florence passed, to my regret, I found it somewhat difficult to fully squelch the tick-tocking of my brain. I had slowed down; I relished the time lingered over meals; I meandered among the scarves or fruit in the marketplace and didn’t fret when I paused. The vendors let me take my time, decide.

When I returned to my apartment, I opened the windows and slept.  And later, I awoke — to the hum of a Vespa, the chatter of birds, the vibrant language of the Florentines who passed beneath my window, and it was then that I remembered that I was going home in a few days. When I did, would I be able to continue this subtle, slowed lifestyle?  Would I find myself bristling when the food server hovered or brought my check too soon? Would I lose patience with people who wanted things right then, no waiting? Would I find myself taking things for granted, being rushed and hurried along from one event to another, without fully embracing my experiences?

I packed my bag that night, slowly, methodically checking to make sure I had everything I needed for the journey home, and I reminded myself again and again that I would appreciate my life much, much more if I learned to simply embrace what was in front of me.

 

BIO: Wendi Kozma teaches English at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. Her work has previously appeared in The Ship of Fools and Flash Fiction Magazine.


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