It was twenty years ago this week, a voyeuristic experience that happened during my first solo vacation and on my first day in Florence, Italy. A magic moment that came after five days in Rome, a city as cosmopolitan as my hometown except the facts that culture was nothing new to them and Roman Catholicism seemed to once have as much influence as Starbucks and Wall Street combined.
I still felt pretty young back then but the big “Four-Oh!” was rapidly approaching and I had waited long enough for that companion to share the experience of Cappella Sistina with. Actually the whole trip was Stockard Channing’s fault. Florence and Venice were add ons but it was the year of the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” and I purchased the ticket to Rome when I saw her high-five the hand of God. Rome, as I found it, was also a city where no one could ever feel alone.
It was late morning when I had gotten off the first fast train I’d ever experienced, a quick and fascinating ride in one of those six seat compartments that are worked into almost every American movie that is set in Europe. It was a ride where I thoroughly enjoyed the friendliness and broken English of my five Roman companions, sort of what Tyler Durdin called “Single serving friends.” After five wonderful days of instant friends and the lively conversation of that train ride, I got off that train at Santa Maria Novella thinking that the whole world loved me.
Then on my slow walk to the Florence hotel, taking in the red terra cotta roofs with the opera set architecture below and that very special shade of blue Tuscan sky above, I realized that my pace, slowed by gaping at the beauty and questions about finding my bearings seemed to annoy the locals. After all the years I’d worked in Time’s Square surrounded by slow moving tourist, I’d been there and done that but it was not so easy to become comfortable in the familiar after a Roman holiday. Just the bad luck of the draw or if Firenze really is a town where tourists are not welcomed, I could never say. Once I found the Botticellis and Caravaggios of the Uffizi I didn’t give much more thought to the Florentine culture of the present day.
The front desk was nice enough. I sweet talked my way into a view of the Arno. The bellboy was my best friend after a fiver and offered much of the information that the leather clad locals looked at me like I was wearing two heads for asking. A little room service pizza along with some knee slapping laughter over the television in my room and how badly the translators missed the mood of Spock, McCoy and Kirk, then I was off to go and see some things. After an extremely tense Spock “Il mio Capitano! Il mio Capitano!” and William Shatner doing a Steven Wright impersonation in Italian, it was Michelangelo’s David or bust.
If you’ve never been there, I couldn’t even begin to explain looking up at David for the first time. A line from “Trainspotting” comes to mind. “Imagine your best orgasm, multiply it by a thousand, you’re not even close.” If you happen to be looking at David after a week of experiencing the Vatican collection and the awe that is St. Peter’s Basilica, the power of Roman Catholicism suddenly started making sense. Madison Avenue has nothing on those long dead church leaders. To lead an underprivileged agrarian lifestyle where dirty hand frittatas in the field are as good as it gets and then go to such opulence on Sunday, they owned you. I looked up at the now secularized David and wiping the tears away from my eyes I thought about a time when chasing the good life for good people was about learning to read and write so you could go write Bibles and live celibate but with a full stomach in a shining monastery on a hill.
Then I walked into a "Lake of Fire." As I walked all alone into Palazzo Pitti for the first time in my life, caught up in thoughts of Good Queen Bess slapping the Pope upside his head and the House of Savoy knocking them down to size, there was a good old American hippie with a guitar. Actually he was too young to be a real DFH, probably born in the 1970’s but he was American, dressed for the part and it’s really the thought that counts. He was surrounded by a crowd while strumming out folkish versions of the current tunes of day like Oasis, Pearl Jam, Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As I approached he was playing the Nirvana Unplugged version of "Lake of Fire."
I still had so much Florence to see but I just could not pull myself away from those familiar sounds. After he finished off I went over to chat with him. He told me how he got there and why he was staying. Then he suggested I put off the Uffizi until I had a full day, instead go to the Boboli Gardens while there was still light and come back again for David at night. For directions he told me to just follow these sixteen girls who had been watching him perform because they were going home for dinner and that was where they lived.
I looked over and saw these sixteen girls. They were probably around twelve or thirteen years old and all of them were wearing the plaid Catholic school uniforms I remembered from my youth. The music had ended but they were still dancing, laughing, giggling and speaking in joyful Italian. After saying goodbye to another single serving friend I followed them thinking of when I was that age and more than a few of Irish American girls I once knew wearing those same uniforms.
I had to give up, they were in no hurry, seemed they needed to examine and discuss every trinket and piece of Florentine leather they came across. I also started feeling both old from watching their energy and a little bit creepy about stalking school girls on the streets of Firenze. So I went back to annoying the locals for directions but when I stopped for another slice of pizza just before crossing the Ponte Vecchio, they caught up with me and I picked up their trail.
There on the bridge, that was when I witnessed something that made me feel so good. More amazing than hearing Kurt Cobain cover tunes in the Pitti Plaza, it was even more emotional for me than seeing Michelangelo’s David. Those young girls got to the middle of the Ponte Vecchio and formed a circle. Surrounded by the gold merchants of the bridge, so innocent and pure, all sixteen sat down in a circle and began to sing “Do do do do... do do do do...do, do, do do...” Then one of the young girls with a beautiful high voice sang “When the night has come and the land is dark.” Another with a deeper voice added “And the moon is the only light we'll see.” Then back to the first vocalist for “No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” I just couldn't handle it when all the rest, who never stopped do do doing, chimed in and sixteen young Italian girls sitting on that very famous bridge sang out with perfect American accents “And darlin', darlin', stand by me, oh now stand by me, stand by me, stand by me.”
A lot of water has run under that Ponte Vecchio since my experience with culture unshock. It would take almost two decades of growing cynicism for me to make the association between Popes and politicians, the grasp that the Roman Catholic Church once had and the present day grasp of celebrity obsessed consumer capitalist culture. Sorry thoughts about “Pay no attention the man behind the curtain” never changing plague me today but for as long as I live I’ll never forget that one special moment of isolation in my younger life when I felt more like a part of it all than I ever did.
Two decades back but the memory is so vivid that it feels like yesterday.