Today I’m dreaming of Florence, Italy, a place I’ve been twice. It was the fifth stop during our year of travel with Tommy (Matt’s sister Becky joined us there). And it was the first place I visited outside of the United States when I was nine years old. In fact, I spent my fourth-grade year there.
Below are my Florence travel tips. Were I to visit with my children today I would (among many other things):
- Take them the Boboli Gardens, which are wild and tame at the same time, the enchanting paths covered with arbors of branches and leaves, now a statue, now a fountain, now an old stone wall to discover at the end. When we brought Tommy there he shrieked and ran down the paths that crunched deliciously beneath his feet, lost himself in a maze, and discovered the ruins of the botanical gardens. An ancient fountain nearby looked like it had sprung from the very earth. Algae trailed over the lip making the cold water emerald and irresistible to his little hands.
- Climb with them to the Piazzale Michelangelo, a hillside terrace where one can survey the entire city under the benevolent gaze of a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David. The view from there encompasses all of Florence, the Arno down its center. The skyline is full of famous landmarks: the campanile and cupola of the Duomo, the Palazzzo Vecchio, the green dome of the synagogue. To the left are olive groves that lead up to the huge medieval walls of the Forte di Belvedere. Even if one knows that amber, sienna, umber, and olive green are the colors of the Tuscan landscape, to see the soft sides of Florentine buildings, one red, one gold, one whitewashed and aged to a dull gray, is to truly understand these origins and how shoddy their reproduction is elsewhere.
- Go for ice cream at Vivoli and then watch them chase pigeons in the square in front of Santa Croce.
Florence is a place of both beauty and sadness for me. My mother, who died ten years ago next spring, loved it but was both mentally and physically unwell during the nine months we lived there together. Much of my practical philosophy about traveling with children was learned by observing her and then doing the opposite. She wasn’t much of a planner and our travel narrative was one of closed currency exchanges, nearly missed connections, and rides in third-class train cars where the seats were wooden benches. I have an especially vivid memory of running down a crowded platform as she frantically searched for our train car; just as she hopped on board, the bungee cord flew off the small metal rack I was pulling and sleeping bags and luggage tumbled to the ground. Breathless and frantic, I started tossing the items to her, hauling myself up the steps just as the train started to move.
But I also remember my overwhelming joy the first time I experienced the pink and green confection that it the Duomo, the taste of roasted chicken skin flavored with rosemary and olive oil, peering at the silky water of the Arno from the Ponte San Trinita, staring through the branches of an olive tree at a deep springtime sky, and standing in awe in front of the Primavera by Botticelli. It was my mother who showed me the pleasure of discovering the beauty and newness of an unfamiliar place; my appetite for travel was permanently whetted.
I was unable to bring myself to return to Florence until I could go with my own child, and I was so glad that I did. I had thought I would want to spend a lot of time in contemplation, and Matt and Becky did encourage me to wander the city where I visited my childhood haunts and thought about my mother. But eventually on all of these walks I would reach a point where I no longer wanted be alone with my memories but with the three of them in happy conversation.
And so I would head back to “our” little neighborhood in the Oltrarno (walking distance from the Duomo, but on the other side of the river). On one evening there was a brown-bearded man wearing a red velvet cap and playing the guitar up next to the old city wall that was adjacent to our apartment. My glance in his direction brought my eyes to the corner of the building closest to the gate where I realized that there was a faint fresco of the Virgin and Child in an indented shrine. I felt a sudden stab of grief for my mother, alone amidst all this beauty, very aware of her loneliness, and unable to really take comfort in me or my sister because the burden of caring for us fell solely on her shoulders.
Minutes later, when I walked past the kitchen window I saw Becky and Matt leaning over Tommy at the kitchen table; their faces looked like all the paintings I had been seeing of the adoration of Christ. When I walked in, I realized that they were feeding Tommy clementine slices and he was crowing about “eating juice.” It was as if my mother was telling me that the time for grief was past. Being in Florence with my child had exorcised the lingering demons of her sadness. I had fallen in love with Italy, with Florence, with our small traveling family, and with our adventure. Is it any wonder I am dreaming of it?