The train to Florence takes a little over an hour. Once outside of Rome, the train stretches out into pleasant, rolling Tuscany countryside, and the closer you get to Florence you see the vineyards that grow the wine you will soon consume in the trattorias and osterias.
We were excited, and feeling lucky. It was nice to take a break from all the walking we’d done in Rome, and to just look out the window and anticipate our arrival. Also, on this trip, we wouldn’t need a map, since Francesco, an old flat mate of mine from Istanbul, was going to give us a personal tour of the city.
At the station, we looked around for our host. He wasn’t on the platform, so we walked outside the terminal, but he wasn’t there either. We went back to the platform and there he was – Francesco! We embraced, and I introduced him to Özge, and they hugged as well. It was good to see Francesco again. He looked exactly as I remembered, with his tall, gangly build and mountain of frizzy hair.
“Ciao!” Francesco said. “Welcome to Florence!”
We started down a road and were in the center of the city within five minutes. In Rome, there had been rain, and in Florence it was grey, but warm enough to where you didn’t need a coat. The northern, Mediterranean climate was familiar. It reminded me of Northern California.
“I thought we could just walk around,” Francesco said, taking the lead. “Unless you have something you especially want to see.”
“Actually,” I said, “I have always wanted to see Brunelleschi’s Duomo.”
“Oh,” Francesco said. “It is right over there.” He pointed to the left, and sure enough, there it was, the grand dome in all its Renaissance glory. “But wait,” Francesco said. “We will save the Dome for later.”
Fair enough. We should build up to it slowly, like in the Vatican tour, where you see the Sistine Chapel last.
It was really quiet in the streets, a Saturday morning. Most Florentines, especially the young people, were still in bed. We took our time, passing along slender, cobbled streets and colorful buildings, taking in the churches, the piazzas. It reminded me a lot of Prague, to be honest. I said so to Özge.
“Actually most of Europe is like that,” she said. “Whether you’re in Edinburgh or Basil or Paris or Prague – in the end it’s all Europe, so there are similarities.”
Of course, we didn’t mention this to Francesco, out of risk of offending our host’s sensibilities. As if he’d overheard us, though, he said presently: “Of all the cities I have seen, I think Florence is the most beautiful city.”
We arrived at the Arno River, and crossed Ponte Vecchio, a bridge filled with shops and cafes, then circled back. It was lunchtime and we were hungry.
“What would you like to eat?” Francesco asked.
“It doesn’t matter. We trust you.”
“OK,” Francesco said. “I think I know a good place.”
He ducked into a small, crowded place that locals call vinai. We followed him downstairs to a handsome, low-lit wine cellar. We were the first ones downstairs, so we had a great table. All the walls were stocked with bottles of wine, and the décor was handsome and subdued. Now, it felt like you were really on holiday, tucked away, under the comfort and protection of our host, Francesco, and nobody could ever find you. The world could end, and there you would be in a vinai sipping on a glass of Florentine wine.
The waiter came, a local with a shaved head and Hard Rock Café t-shirt, and handed out menus. Francesco discoursed intensely with the waiter, both of them making gestures, knitting their brows, consulting, nodding, shaking their heads. It was a negotiation. The wine was the chief point. Here, the discussions over food and wine were quite serious, studied, contemplative. I had heard that Italians take their food and drink very seriously, but it was quite an experience, as a fast-food raised American, to observe the process firsthand.
“OK, OK,” Francesco said finally, spreading the menu before us, his index finger arriving at the best options. He gave us suggestions, carefully explaining each one and going over its respective merits and potential drawbacks. We settled on the tagliere, a salami and cheese plate, for a starter. For the first course, Özge had pappardelle al cinghiale, a pasta and meat dish, and I had ribollita, a thick, gruel-ish blend of reboiled vegetables.
Over the first course, Francesco and I caught up. It had been almost two years since we had shared a flat in Istanbul. I was still writing and teaching. He was still at university, where he was working toward a master’s degree in medieval studies. As a history student, Francesco was also interested in Özge’s job at the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul.
“Are you from Florence?” Özge asked.
“No, from Prato.” Prato is the second-largest city in Tuscany, after Florence. “But I share a flat with some friends here in Florence since it is close to my university.”
Francesco also worked a part-time job as an archivist on the weekends, and was thinking about going to Scotland to enter a post-graduate program. He was torn between going to Scotland and completing his studies in Florence.
“I would go to Scotland if I were you,” Özge said. She lived for a year in Edinburgh, and was familiar with Glasgow as well.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It would be a great experience.”
“Yes – well,” Francesco demurred. “At this point it is not experience I am looking for. As you know, I have already been to Istanbul, and other places. I feel that I already have that kind of experience …” He paused, reflected. “Here in Italy, it is very hard to find work. The pay is not so good. You know, here in Italy, we produce culture. Not like China, or America, where you make things. Here, the people come for culture, for the food, the wine, the history. Which is great – but these days, the people don’t stay very long, just a few days.”
The second course arrived. By now, the whole room was full of people, and the waiters were very busy. We had stufato di cinghiale with fried polenta, trippa in stewed tomato sauce with parmesan, and a big bowl of ensalata. Again, we shared the food, and topped up our glasses with the house red.
As we ate, I thought of an article I had read in a French newspaper some years ago. The mayor of Paris, or some such official, had complained of the “fish-bowl” effect. He meant that people come to Paris wanting to see the same old Gay Paree of 19th and early 20th Century novels, while the city itself was faced with the same challenges as any other 21st Century city. The world cannot expect us to remain a museum, a fishbowl for tourists, forever, the official complained.
I mentioned something of this to Francesco, and he nodded.
“Yes, it is true of Florence too sometimes,” he said. “People don’t want us to change.”
“Actually,” Özge said. “While we were in Rome I noticed that compared to Istanbul, Rome seems very settled and relaxed. It feels complete – not like Istanbul, which is always growing and growing and growing.”
“Yeah, it’s a nice change,” I said. “It feels that way here too. You feel like you can relax.”
“You are right,” Francesco said. “I mean, when I was living in Istanbul, when people said something was ‘very near,’ they meant that it was one hour away! Here, if something is 20 minutes away – like my parents’ house in Prato – it seems very far to us. Even Rome – it’s just three hours’ drive, and I never go there.”
We finished the wine and asked for the bill. At Özge’s strong, quiet urging, I followed Francesco upstairs, determined to pay. He would not let me. I insisted, and he kept waving me away. Finally, we compromised and split it. All told, the bill was 60 euro, for three people. Not bad at all.
After lunch, Francesco suggested we go for coffee. But as we passed the Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s Duomo beckoned. They said it couldn’t be built. There was only a small queue (in summer you would wait for hours), so we decided to skip the coffee. When we got to the entrance, we realized we’d forgotten to buy tickets. Francesco dashed off down the street, his long, gangly figure disappearing around a corner. In a flash, he was back clutching the tickets.
We entered the cathedral, and proceeded up a narrow, winding flight of stone steps. It was so tight that your shoulders nearly brushed the walls as you ascended. I heard the people coming up behind us, a group of American college girls. “I read somewhere that it’s, like, more than 500 steps,” one of them said, huffing and puffing. We were all winded by the time we reached the stage where you could see the famous Vasari fresco high overhead. You had to follow a tight path around the base of the Duomo. I’ve always been terrified of heights. Standing on that narrow ledge, and peering down to the church floor far below, that old fear came to revisit me. Suddenly, I felt vertigo, paralysis. I looked up at the fresco, and then down, and all the world was spinning…
So I went back toward the stairs. I thought I would just wait there, while the others traversed the narrow ledge. A group of Chinese students were coming, and they saw the apprehension registered in my face, and they were nervous too. But it was too tight for us all to just stand there. A guide instructed me to go back down the stairs. I could meet my friends, who had continued on, outside, he said.
Embarrassed, I apologized to the guide for being unable to continue.
“I don’t blame you,” he said, sympathetically.
Before heading down, I took one last look up at the top of the Duomo, the Vasari fresco lit up and tantalizingly near, agonizingly far. Ever since I had studied the Renaissance in school, I had always dreamed of visiting, and climbing, the famous Brunelleschi Duomo, the thing that they said couldn’t be done. Now, here it was, and I couldn’t make it all the way up. Oh, well. Perhaps there was a lesson in this somewhere, something about how you can’t have everything. You are here, and that’s what matters.
Outside, I went to the other side of the cathedral, where the people were coming out. I couldn’t see Özge and Francesco. I panicked. I hadn’t brought a phone, since I didn’t have an Italian SIM card. Özge had all of our tickets. Well, if worst came to worst, I had money. I could always get a train back to Rome, return to the hostel and wait.
I went back to the front of the cathedral. Özge and Francesco were there, and we reunited with relief. “I thought I’d lost you!” I said breathlessly.
“We did too.”
Walking away, we gazed up at the top of the Duomo, where people had reached the top and were standing looking out at the city.
“Well,” Francesco said. “Shall we get that coffee?”
We continued walking . It was afternoon now, and the streets were beginning to pick up with tourists, many of them Americans. Lots of Americans seem to love Italy. In Turkey, especially on the touristic south coast, you come across lots of Germans, English, Russians, even Dutch.
We stopped at Dante’s house. It was a brown, brick building, perhaps four stories high. Francesco explained how it used to be taller, that there was some kind of tower. In medieval times, many of the buildings where the people lived were like fortresses, because there were all the familial rivalries, so the houses had to be easily defended. Also, he pointed out some tresses along the side of the building where the staircases used to be.
“They were on the outside,” Francesco explained, “so that if there was a fight, you could run back to your house, go inside, then grab the stair cases and take them in through the windows. Then your enemies couldn’t get in.”
“Wow,” Özge said. “I wouldn’t have ever noticed that.”
“Notice this too,” Francesco said, later, as we moved along. There was what appeared to be a bit of concrete covering a hole in the wall. “Before this was filled in, in medieval times, you had a little slot in your wall, where the bread man could come by with fresh bread. You would open the slot, give the money, and he would give you the bread through the slot.”
We walked over to the Palace Vecchio, and saw the exterior of the Uffizi Gallery, where the replica of Michaelangelo’s David stands (the real one is in a museum across town). But having toured the Vatican and the Villa Borghese in Rome, both Özge and I had had our fill of such things. Instead, we followed Francesco back down to the river, crossed a bridge and went over to a district where Francesco said most of the local Florentines actually lived. It was quiet there, with modest shops and cafes. We sat down at one of the cafes and had our long-delayed coffee.
Then we walked up a long hill to the Piazzala Michaelangelo, where there are old Medici houses, as well as a wonderful, sunset view of the city and the surrounding Tuscany hills.
“If you come back someday,” Francesco said. “I can take you up in the Tuscany hills in my car. It is amazing.”
Later, after walking around the city for another hour or so, we decided to get a drink. Özge and I had to get our bus back to Rome at nine. We had time.
Francesco selected a nice bar in the center, not far from the bus station. Most of the places were still empty, even though it was Saturday evening. “Most people don’t go out until about 11,” Francesco said.
Özge had a glass of Chianti, and we bought Francesco several glasses of the local spritzer that he liked. I’d had my fill of wine for the day, so I went for a local beer. It was Happy Hour, and the bar was serving tasty snacks inside. Francesco went to grab a plate of fried pasta.
“Don’t let him pay,” Özge said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I already paid the bill when I went in to use the toilet. So, should we ever go back to Istanbul?”
Özge, her eyes – eşeğin gözleri – floating into the distance, were calm and searching. “I don’t know if I could live here, coming from Turkey,” she said, surveying the beautifully lit Florentine streets. “No,” she said, coming back. “I wish – I wish I was born here.”
“That would be something,” I said. “Imagine me – dating a Florentine.”
But we were Florentines for a day: at least for another hour or so.
Francesco returned with the snacks, and we dug in. Since he is gluten-intolerant, Francesco had to settle for watching us enjoy the fried pasta. But there was also plenty of salami and other meats, which he ate with a hearty, young Italian appetite.
“You’ll have to come and see us in Istanbul,” I said, with Özge quickly agreeing: “We have a spare bedroom. Any time.”
“Thank you,” Francesco said. “I would like to visit Istanbul again.”
It was time to go. We rose to head to the station. Just as we were leaving, a group of locals came in and sat down. They called for the waitress, a pretty collegiate redhead who was carrying a tray of empty drink glasses.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Italian!” the girl said, in an apologetic, unmistakably American accent.
We said good-bye to Francesco at the station. Just as we were leaving, he ran into some friends, Lorenzo and Cadmilla, who he hadn’t seen in a long time, and we were glad to be leaving him in good hands. We hugged Francesco, and then, for good measure, hugged Lorenzo and Cadmilla as well.
On the train back to Rome we slept, a foggy moon high above in the Tuscany sky. We awoke with the Termini Station approaching.
“Were we Florentines today?” Özge asked, yawning. She had been dreaming about something.
“Yes, we were.”
“Let’s go to bed, and we’ll go to the ruins tomorrow.”
James Tressler, a writer and teacher, is the author of “Conversations in Prague,” “Lost Coast D.A.,” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1.” He lives in Istanbul.