I would like to be able to report that Italy is purely a portable chow-down for the senses, a magical land where cares vanish and all is sweetness, light, and beef that has not been treated with more hormones than Barry Bonds. But even Hemingway knew he was marketing Paris with that moveable feast stuff. There’s more to any country than what a vacationer sees.
Still, the news is good. Turns out Italy is a magical land. And a great many of my cares went into hiding while I was there. I found quite a bit of sweetness, ample light, and real beef. And charm? In abbondanza. But the real discovery upon touching down in Florence after a transatlantic redeye with Frankfurt connection was this: rather than being a state of mind, Italy is a product of the mind you bring to it.
Let’s face it: Italy is a modern country propped like a tarp over a natural amusement park of antiquity, a wonderland of art and history that even Disney couldn’t have organized. Small nation, part of a grand experiment uniting (under the banners of currency and mutual love of something like democracy) a continent whose people had, for about 1,000 years or so, spent a lot of time building walls and killing each other to satisfy tyrants and already-rich hereditary barons. Small nation, enormous taxes. Small nation, eyeing Greece and its economic debacle nervously. Small nation, to whom the idea of political stability is a government that lasts more than two years and is run by someone whose amorous affairs are at least entertaining.
Small nation, big heart. Everything you hear about the natural kindness of Italians is true. If anything, this has been underplayed. Yes, they spot tourists a kilometer away, and naturally they wouldn’t alienate dollars on the hoof. But by this age, I hope I can tell when people are being naturally decent and when I’m being played.
“Interplanetary. I’d like to smash this architect with seven truck angels.”
“Yes, good evening, Mr. Barr,” the desk clerk said. “Welcome to Florence. We have your family’s room ready.”
Actually, my Italian is much better than that, and I’m pretty sure I said something close to “Hello, I’m Adam Barr and we reserved a room for the evening.” But when you’re an hour into a new country and you love language, the initial attempts feel more like what I wrote above. The nice lady behind the desk responded in Italian, which I considered a great compliment, and switched to English only if it looked like I was having trouble — and never condescendingly.
And at once, I was at ease. I was able to throw open my mind and heart just as I threw open the shuttered windows of our hotel room onto the rooftops above Via Della Scala. The bells of Santa Maria Novella were ringing vespers. A Vespa zipped by below. A dog barked (in Italian!). I drank the air.
Yes, this is modern Europe, smack in the middle of Florence, in a tourist zone. But to keen eyes and open hearts, secrets were available around every corner. Some of them were 500 years old and more.
I know an inordinate number of otherwise reasonable people who insist that the best parts of any experience, travel especially, are the planning and anticipation. Some are even able to say it without allowing their voices to betray the bitterness or disappointment that has to be at the root of such an uncomfortable sentiment, and its natural conclusion that the event itself can’t possibly live up to its advance billing. I have rebelled against this notion my whole life. If that’s the case, why travel? Eat chocolate? Make love? Just plan it and anticipate. Jeez.
Jet-lagged and happy, looking out that window in Florence and thinking about dinner, I knew I would have no problem making — allowing — the thing to be better than its hype. Ho questa cosa. I got this.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr
Photographs by Adam Barr