Have I mentioned that I love Shakespeare? I’ll say it again. I love Shakespeare. So when we stopped in Verona on the way to Florence, I had to visit Juliet’s balcony. The two Emilys, Megan, and a few others came with me and we posed dramatically for a few seconds before relinquishing our spot to the next eager visitors in line. In the pictures Megan took of me, it looks like I’m gazing serenely down at my one true love. In reality, I was looking down at a courtyard packed with a heaving crowd of tourists, all waiting to grab the breast on a statue of Juliet (a tradition I can’t begin to understand). I’m thankful that photographs don’t represent reality.
We spent most of our time in Verona muttering out of our tour guide Antonio’s earshot about whether or not Romeo and Juliet were actual people. We visited Romeo’s house and the place where he supposedly worked, all of us completely confused and wondering if these landmarks had any basis in reality. We finally muttered too loudly and Antonio heard us and assured us the play’s characters were based on real people. True or not, I enjoyed imagining the two lovers in Verona.
When we had some free time, a few of us went to an outdoor market to eat cups of fresh fruit. I was drawn to the ones with brilliant white chunks of coconut on top. When we sat down to eat them, I realized I’m an idiot and eating coconut is impossible. It was like biting into a brick. I kept trying to bite it, only for the pieces to fall from my hand onto the sidewalk. Joel, one of the four guys in the group, picked up the pieces and juggled them.
After a long and sweaty day, we arrived in Florence and Antonio led us to Mercato Centrale, a massive indoor food market (aka heaven). I felt like a wild leopard let loose in a field of helpless gazelle. I needed every kind of pasta in my mouth, and fast. A couple of girls and I bought everything at one of the restaurant stations and shared it all. The gnocchi was great, the ravioli spectacular, but the most life changing food experience came during dessert.
There was a cart with a woman making fresh cannoli (supposedly using cheese from her goat). I didn’t really have a clear idea of what cannoli is meant to taste like, but now I am ruined for them forever. There cannot be another cannoli on this planet that can hold a candle to those served in Mercato Centrale. It was almost an erotic experience, and that’s how you know food is excellent, when it turns you on.
When I’d calmed down from the cannoli and we went to our hostel, everyone was delighted to find that there was a bar with a dance floor inside. I don’t tend to do any social drinking. I do not dance. I don’t enjoy watching other people drink or dance. I wish I did. Life might be a lot simpler.
I played ping pong with the girls for a while, until people started drinking a lot. Then I decided to disappear like the ghost I am. Some obnoxious kid from another group said, “You can’t go to bed yet!” I don’t do well with random young men telling me what I can and can’t do, so I told him that I was indeed going to bed.
It backfired because my roommates were coming in and out all night and I didn’t get to sleep until after two in the morning anyway. I wouldn’t have done well in a college dorm.
It’s morning now and I’m less than rested, but excited about touring Florence. We grab some delicious gelato and meet our attractive guide, Tomaso, who makes me wonder if all Italian men are good looking and charming.
Tomaso leads us around his beautiful city, showing us the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the statue-lined courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery. It’s so much to take in at once. I’ve dreamed about seeing this city since high school when I started intensely studying art history. It’s strange to see buildings that have leapt off the pages of textbooks and into real life.
After our tour, we visit a leather workshop and learn about the process of making the famous Florentine leather. I fall in love with the leather jackets, but I don’t have five hundred euros lying around, so I buy a small lipstick case instead. Glass from Venice, leather from Florence- I think I’m doing alright being a smart souvenir shopper.
When we leave the workshop, we’re free to explore. I’m shocked to find out that no one wants to come with me to the Galleria dell’Academia to see the statue of David by Michelangelo. Isn’t that a must-see in Florence? I can’t imagine coming here and not going to have a look at it. I split from the group and find a line stretching from the door of the museum all the way down the street. A man approaches me.
“Trying to get into the museum?” he asks in the same way that someone might ask, “Trying to score some heroin?” I nod. “Come with me,” he says. Since I’m on a trend of going places with people I don’t know and it hasn’t killed me yet, I follow him. He takes me to a line of people waiting for a tour in English. The cost is triple the normal museum entry price, but I can get right in. I gladly join the group, thankful that the man was actually able to help me and not rob me.
The museum is very small. It doesn’t take long to reach the end of the tour, the part everyone has been waiting for: David. He’s absolutely massive, perfect in every way, right down to his smooth, perky butt. The guide tells us that he’s not totally proportionate because he was meant to be placed on the roof of the cathedral, but when Michelangelo completed him, the powers that be decided the statue was too beautiful and had to be closer to the ground for Florentines to appreciate him.
I can see why. I actually gasp when I turn the corner and see him at the end of the room. It’s an experience that pictures could never have prepared me for. You just don’t realize how enormous he is until you’re standing at his feet. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for every single person that has worked to preserve this work of art for so many hundreds of years.
After wandering around and around the statue, I realize it’s time to rush back to the hostel. We’re going to a vineyard for a wine tasting. I hate wine. But “when in Florence”, right?
The owner of the vineyard, a pleasant old man with limited English, seats us at an outdoor table and keeps coming around to refill our glasses. I can’t keep up with him. He’s not just giving us a taste, he’s being very generous with the wine. I’ve decided I can’t stand red, but I can tolerate white if I take small sips. It only takes these small sips to get me feeling very strange. Suddenly I’m confident and happy and I simply must go swimming in the beautiful pool next to our table.
Soon, most of the group has changed into their bathing suits and waded into the water. I find myself talking more openly with them than I have on the first three days of the trip.
When we all pile back onto the bus, smiles on our faces and wine in our veins, a spontaneous karaoke session breaks out. Megan and I belt Disney songs at the top of our lungs. The whole group sings “Don’t Stop Believin’” and I do start to believe that Antonio is succeeding at turning us into a big happy family. I love these people already. There’s not one of them that drives me crazy, and that’s rare.
Antonio is loving our camaraderie. I can tell he’s fond of this group, that this isn’t just a job to him. Even Simoné, our Italian bus driver, is doing a wonderful job of putting up with our antics. I think I even see him smile a couple times.
Back at the hostel, we decide the night is young and head to the bar on the bottom floor. One of the girls buys a giant bucket of a drink called “Babydoll” and passes it around to everyone. Somehow, it ends up with me and when no one comes to take it, I take sip after sip, enjoying the coconut flavor of the bright pink drink. I’m feeling relaxed and easygoing, which is basically a miracle for me.
I’m fascinated by the way the alcohol is affecting me. I certainly don’t feel drunk, just hyper-aware that I’m not as uptight as usual. Like some kind of scientist, I analyze the stages of my response to the drink. Laughing hysterically is quickly followed by a heart to heart with Joel and Bailey. We decide to tell each other our life stories in under a minute. I feel oddly like those people on TV who drink too much and say, “I love you man. No I mean it, I think you’re awesome” to anyone who will listen.
I spend the rest of the evening dancing with the girls. I pick up Macie and spin her around. I feel wild, free, accepted. I finally see why people say they have an easier time letting loose when they drink. I won’t make a habit of it because I still think it’s important to work on having fun without the aid of a mind-altering substance. But what matters is now I know I’m capable of not always being the uptight girl on the side of the dance floor, frowning and checking the time. There’s more to me than I thought, and I thank the wine in Florence, a drink called Babydoll, and a group of spectacular people for showing me that.
As magical as it was, last night had a bit of disappointment mixed in. Antonio came to find us in the bar and broke the news that the weather was going to prevent our excursion to Cinque Terre, a beautiful, colorful group of villages on the Italian Riviera. He tried to console us by offering a trip to Pisa instead. And that’s how we landed ourselves in this situation.
The water reaches up to our calves and we have no choice but to slosh through it, unable to find a single patch of ground unaffected by the torrential downpour. It’s true, Cinque Terre would have been pretty miserable in this weather, but the overall sentiment of the group is that this is all Pisa’s fault.
Seeing the famous leaning tower as the rain begins to ease distracts me from my sorrow that I’m not on the Riviera. This is one seriously unstable structure. I’m kind of glad I can’t afford to go to the top, because I’m not sure I’d want to. It looks like it could fall over and tragically crush everyone at any second. But it’s been standing since 1372, so it’s probably alright. We take the pictures that every tourist must take, lest they be put to death by the Tacky Tourist Photos Association. As hard as I try to make it look like I’m holding up the tower, all of the photos look like crap.
The thing about Pisa is, once you’ve seen the tower, there’s not much else to be amazed at. It’s definitely incredible to finally see a structure I’ve been interested in since childhood, but I can’t help but wish the Leaning Tower of Pisa was anywhere but Pisa. The rest of what we see in the city is pretty depressing: lots of kiosks with touristy treasures like keychains and mugs, disheveled buildings, rows of identical cafés with no charm, and very persistent umbrella vendors.
Emily D., Macie, and I stop somewhere for lunch and proceed to have the worst dining experience imaginable. Once we order, it’s as if our waiter has just found out we killed his family and he ignores us so efficiently, we can’t even get him to glance in our direction. He actually goes outside to straighten glasses and silverware rather than deal with any real customers inside. After waiting ages, we finally tell another server about the situation. We must have unknowingly murdered his family as well, or at least slept with his wife, because he snaps at us and storms off.
When the food arrives, it’s the most sub-par fare we’ve had so far in Italy. They only bring out two of the entrées though, making Macie watch us eat until her food arrives after we’ve finished. When we’re done and properly grumpy, it seems as though every waiter in the joint is under oath to not serve anyone and simply bustle around the dining room madly, pretending to look busy. The check doesn’t come and we seriously consider leaving without paying after the horrendous experience. But all of us are too chicken, so we practically beg a waiter to let us pay so we can leave. We head back to meet the group, our shoes still soaked and squishing from the rain.
Mercifully back in Florence, Macie and and I head to the Uffizi Gallery. We did some proper bonding on the bus and I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit. We rush around the museum, trying to find “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli before closing time. The place is like a labyrinth. Either that or we’re unobservant. When we finally find it, we push through the crowds and gaze at the large canvas, protected behind glass. Seeing a painting covered by bulletproof glass never ceases to move me. That glass is like a badge of honor, like the painting telling the world, “I’m so wonderful and famous, somebody might like to shoot me. But don’t worry, they keep me nice and safe here. Look upon me!”
Staring into Venus’ face, I think about how many times I’ve seen it on a beach bag my mom used to carry. Here I am, looking at the real thing. This picture isn’t just printed on beach bags. It’s hanging in a gallery in Florence and I’m looking at it. Life can be pretty grand.
Satisfied, Macie and I walk to the edge of the city and up the steep steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a square with a dramatic panoramic overlook of Florence. On the way, a pigeon poops messily on my neck and it drips down my arm. I use my map to wipe it off but only succeed in rubbing it into my skin. Hopefully pigeon excrement has beneficial properties, otherwise this is just gross.
When we reach the square the sun is setting, casting a brilliant orange glow across the city and the mountains surrounding it. This is the kind of view that’s so stunning, I can’t believe it’s actually real life. I must be in some kind of fancy limbo where everything is so perfect that no one has any responsibilities and we can all just stare at the sun melting into Florence. It’s hard to comprehend that a place like this can exist on the same planet as Walmart and parking lots and prisons.
When darkness falls over the square, Macie and I walk back toward the Ponte Vecchio, holding hands and having a genuinely good time. We grab some gelato because you can never have too much, and then we head to the hostel for another night of dancing like idiots. Not even Pisa could ruin this day.