Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Light My Path, Stranger

So I need to tell you about my day.

The weather in Utah has been fickle. This morning (2 April) the sky was swirling with black clouds spitting ice onto the gray streets. Patrick and Tré agreed to give me a ride to the bus stop: their good deed for the day. I was extremely grateful.

As we pulled up to the bus stop, a woman in her fifties with long brown hair stood under a black and white patterned umbrella. I stepped out, waved goodbye, and took my place next to her to wait for the UTA Route 17. She turned to me, her face framed by her hair, and said that she had been waiting for quite some time. Her stained teeth flashed with every warm smile, an action that reached all the way to her eyes. 

Nothing like it used to be because the bus only comes every hour--it used to come every thirty minutes. She had to change her regular bus route due to a change in her schedule. Our meeting was kismet, serendipity, Fate--one of those moments you wish could have lasted just a bit longer. 

We discussed the weather, the bus route, and then she guessed at my presence at the bus stop: transportation to university. After asking about my studies—International Studies—I told her about my study abroad in France. Her face lit up with another one of those smiles that genuinely transformed her. She explained that she had grown up in Sweden, had been an exchange student to the US in her university days, met her husband here, had to return to obtain an extended visa, and almost didn’t come back.

“I did come back, and it must have been the right decision. We’re still married.” Another flash of that smile. Then, “We spent our honeymoon in France.” I’ve been all over Europe, but that’s natural. She explained that her class would take field trips to Austria when she was younger. Her brother would help her pay for the trips: they would share a paper route, and after saving up all of the money from their shared work, her brother would give her his share.

“I just couldn’t imagine how everyone else had brothers that fought with them. He was genuinely my friend and wanted to look out for me. He left to sign up for the army, but we reconnected in our adulthood. I really think it is important to be away from our loved ones in our lives. It really makes us appreciate them.”

She was wonderful. We boarded the bus, took separate seats, and she departed two stops later. Before she left, I watched her turn, search through the seats, find my gaze: she then smiled one last time and waved. I returned the gesture, and she was gone. My only regret was that I hadn’t sat next to her, I hadn’t introduced myself, nor had I registered a phantom’s hint at a name. Life offers us beautiful situations like this, and we must hold onto them for all we are worth. Without a few moments with a stranger, this wide world can start to look like a pretty terrible place. 

However, that was just the start of my day. Boo, my supervisor at the Bennion Center, texted me while I was on the bus. 
—Let’s plan on meeting for 15 minutes or so at the beginning of your office hour.
—That works perfectly. I’ll see you in a bit.

I walked into the Bennion Center, and Boo was there on the couch talking with another volunteer.
—Let’s take a walk.

We strolled back out of the Center.
—Have you eaten breakfast yet?
—Then it’s my treat. An end of the year gift.
—You really don’t have to.

I ordered the oatmeal and he ordered a shake: gotta love Jamba.
—Let’s find somewhere to sit. I need to talk to you for a minute.

We sat, then:
—I wanted to give you a gift. I’ve been thinking a lot about these gifts, and I really wanted it to mean something. You’re a religious studies major, right?
—No, but I’ve taken religious studies classes.
—Oh yeah, that’s right. And where are you with religion?
—Oh, well, actually (and I really haven’t told many people this) but I was actually baptized last August.
—What?! You shouldn’t feel ashamed, but you should’ve told me!

He then proceeded to take a Book of Mormon out of his bag. 
—I got this for you. I’ll give it to you anyway. I just wanted you to know that there is a big difference in the Church between that which is Doctrine and that which is Culture. I think you have exemplified that Doctrine since the moment we met, and I only wish I had been able to tell you earlier. Every day you show these qualities, and I want you to know that I see that. I’ve gone through and marked the passages that have impacted me, I just hope you will learn something from it.

His compliment blew me away. It is probably the highest compliment anyone has ever paid me, then he gave me the most invaluable (in his eyes) gift I could have received: faith and the [Christian] teachings. It was an overwhelming experience, to say the least. I’m not sure I could forget it. 

From there, I really couldn’t stop thinking about how my day had gone so far. My mind was reeling. I spent an hour in French, laughing and wishing that my Fairytale studies could continue much longer than this semester would allow—Professor Jones, you are spectacular. If I take anything away from the University, it will be my memory of your enthusiasm. Words are not enough to express my gratitude for the things you have taught me and the perspective you have given to me.

After class, I was back on the bus. Usually this consists of scrolling through FaceBook and Instagram until I feel my stop should be coming close. Today, the normal lurching didn’t happen. I looked up, we were heading down the hill along 9th. Quite a distance from the normal 17th. I thought I had gotten on the wrong bus, then:
—Did I do it again?! That is the second time!
As she said this, the bus driver slapped her leg and laughed—boisterous and a tad bit humiliated. 

We took a left on 13th E and she yelled back, “I’m sorry! We’ll get back on track.” 

I yelled forward, “It looks like we’re going to have an adventure today.” 

We both laughed, along with the few other passengers seated in front of me. 

As we approached my stop, I pulled the cord to signal the “Stop Requested” sign. Ding! I then watched as we proceeded to lurch through the stop light and right on passed my requested stop. I stood up and moved to the front of the bus.
—Oh! Today’s just not my day.

She almost couldn’t contain herself, she was trying so hard not to laugh. I couldn’t help but laugh and smile.
—We are having an adventure today!

I smiled and thanked her for the ride. She grabbed my elbow.
—Have a good day.

And all of this by 1:30 in the afternoon. Whew.

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that it was such a brief encounter. The people we meet every day, the people we pass on the street, all of the people. As we’ve been going through our French Fairytales, we’ve been talking a lot about “les personnages.” The characters. All of those beings that make up the story, that move the plot forward, that cause and sort out all of the problems. We discuss the relationships and the power structures, the social classes and the allusions.

I couldn’t help but wonder what role I played in the lives of those I had met today. I also wondered how they had touched me. What was gained? How had these brief or lasting relationships affected each of us? Would I ever meet any of them again? Or would the universe have only brought us close because one or the other needed it to happen? 

How do we even go about answering these questions? I am a strong believer in the power that each person holds. Each individual is a beacon (read: Lord of the Rings, fires on the mountaintops) shining bright in the fog of the chaotic life swirling around each of us. We light a limited path, but each of us sheds light on the other, illuminating those parts that each of us must experience together. 

Ainsi dit, Ainsi fait. 

Time to extinguish the lanterns and succumb to the fog: the crier called out midnight a while back.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


That is the name of the game. I recently read an article defining life as a video game (great metaphor). The main focus of the piece described time allotment and the division of time as having the utmost importance. Each person actively chooses how they will spend their day. Such a novel idea, right?

24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 672 hours in a month [roughly], and 8,760 hours in a year. Whew! I can do math.

Now, onto the point [possibly]. With all of this math, we should not solely sum up the total amount of time we are given. Though, it is important to realize that we should not take this time for granted. It has been GRANTED to us. For whatever reason. Whether by God’s will, the gods, Mother Nature, or nothing—whatever you believe, the fact remains: we have time. So, we should get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. [Shawshank, anyone?]

Moving on: let’s start subtracting time. On average (a loosely defined average based on 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night), we will sleep away 2,190 to 2,920 hours each year! That’s not taking into account insomnia, an overreacting imagination, all-nighters, and the like. If you aren’t getting your full nights sleep, go talk to a doctor or start doing your own math...

Now, after we’ve taken all of that out, let’s assume we are working or going to school as well. Average work week is 30 - 40 hours a week, so let’s go with 35 hours a week. This is LOW for most people, especially if you have multiple jobs or just one job that has taken over your life. Love it or leave it, we all gotta work. So, we've taken another 1,820 hours away from each year. Even if you find your work fulfilling and uplifting, your life’s work is literally eating away at the time you've been given. 

Okay, that’s enough of mathematics for now. What are we left with? 4,020 hours or 167.5 days or about 45.89% of our year left. Plenty of time to circumnavigate the world only using technology from the 19th century—in fact, you could circumnavigate the world twice with trusty (or not so trusty) Passepartout and still have a week left over for that holiday in Rome that you’ve been planning. 

So, what have I been doing with all of that extra time. To be fair, some of those hours are chiseled away in the preparation and consumption of food, commuting, and other mundane/obligatory acts of la vie quotidienne. I’m still left with a bushel of hours—plenty for a pie or two. 

And some hours, I do just that: I look up recipes (the latest: croissants and pain au chocolat), and I bake. Oh what a joyous occasion. And other hours are spent in front of my early 20th century Wurlitzer, I’ve mastered a most basic Clair de Lune, a simplified rendition of Nearer My God To Thee, and a somewhat tricky arrangement of Greensleeves. However, most (if not all) of the extra hours of my life are spent in a mindless stupor, a state that is supported by my endless desire to procrastinate. 

Procrastination could outline an entire book with me. My favorite thing to say on the subject is, “Procrastination is an art form.” Such an art takes on many different forms and media: Netflix, house cleaning, computer games, social networks, StumbleUpon, my piano, and sometimes even baking. The article that I mentioned before said this was common. We replace the hard tasks or the less “enjoyable” tasks with something easy and immediately rewarding (even if the croissants took two, possibly three, days to complete…). 

In my struggle to come to a point, let’s just say that I’m trying harder to have a point. Not solely a point to my existence, but something to affirm my existence. I know that I’m here, I know that I can’t be anywhere else, and I know that no matter how hard I try, I’m still me. In the end, if I can’t be somebody else, then I might as well try to be the best me I’ve ever been. 

Here’s to improvements. *raises glass* *clink* Cheers! 

Note: If you're interested in reading the article I mentioned a few times, here is the link.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"This is life." Part 3

Venice – Feb 26

Part 3 of the 5 part series on my trip to Italy. Please forgive me for taking a tremendous amount of time to post this.

The morning of Feb. 26, a Tuesday, Kitty, Arlieke, and I said our goodbyes to Florence from the seats of a bullet train hurtling its way across the countryside and through mountains towards the great canal city of Venice. By the way, hurtling, in this sense, is a train filled with passengers clipping along the tracks around 230 kilometers per hour. I had to look up the conversion for those of us still using the Imperial system of measurement: ~140 mph a.k.a. Fast.

My mind wandered as the blurred fields and mountains swept passed the window. Stone houses dotted the fields, while villages and small towns blanketed the feet of the mountains. Sooner than I thought possible, the train slowed and began to cross an expanse of track elevated over the sea. A glance out the opposite window to my right showed the blue-green waters hugged by a distant shoreline. I moved my stare back to my side of the tracks: more blue-green water, shimmering in the sunlight.

Blue-green waters shimmering in the sunlight.
Across the neck of water, the train stopped inside the station. With bags in hand, we stepped off of the train and into the most wondrous city my eyes have ever had the privilege to behold. Blinking the sun away, I took in the city one breath at a time from the steps of the station. A sturdy, stonework church stood to our left, the first canal of the trip separated us from the rest of the cityscape, and, to our right, the waterway opened up to the sea beyond. My feet were rooted to the steps, a minute, even two, passed as I stood on the steps smiling at the brilliance before me.

A sturdy stonework church

The San Simeone Piccolo near Santa Lucia train station
The weight of my duffel bag on my shoulder brought me back to the list of priorities: baggage storage, then explore the city. We deposited our bags in the station, promising a 5€ payment later in the afternoon before we were to check into the hotel.

We returned to the steps, took another breath of the sun-filtered sea air, and continued on to buy tickets for the public transport around the canals, let’s call it a Canal Bus (the Italians have a much better word for it, I’m sure). The Bus, though in appearance cumbersome, proved to be quite agile as the captain guided it along the busy waterway. Crossing from one side to the next, the Bus made regular stops: local Venetians, bright-eyed tourists like myself, enamored couples, and the occasional group of I’m-too-cool-for-school teenagers.

The waters of Laguna Veneta
Looking out on the Adriatic Sea

The Bus gathered speed as it left the isolated canal: we were now on the wider lagoon, the Laguna Veneta. Broad steel ships gently swayed at their docks, smaller fishing boats headed out for less crowded waters—we were headed back to the city canals. Our final destination would be the famed Piazza San Marco.

A view of the Grand Canal of Venice
Ancient structures faced the channel; greeting the Bus each time it crisscrossed the watercourse. For me, these magnificent buildings had faces, but were nameless. Our time in Venice would be short, less than 24-hours—this meant most of these architectural feats would have to stay unnamed.

An unnamed lighthouse on the Grand Canal
Our first view of Piazza San Marco
The Canal Bus lightly bounced against the floating dock. Soon, the tide of people pulled us toward the Piazza. We passed the Bridge of Sighs—an artifact from a time when prisoners were locked away from the crash of the waves and the light of the sun, the small windows offered a final glimpse of the free world outside the stone and iron to many condemned criminals.

Bridge of Sighs
Richly dressed gondoliers dotted the path nearest the channel, beckoning to the crowds. Masked figures, dressed to the nines, posed on wooden boxes: a euro for a photo, more if they were silver-tongued. The Piazza San Marco unfurled to our right: the intricate basilica to our right, the neck-craning campanile to our left, and the main expanse of the piazza extended farther to the left (the “L” shape, but turn the “L” backward).

Campanile of San Marco
The decision was made to take the elevator to the apex of the campanile. A short queue later, we ascended: the city unfurled beneath or silent gazes. To our right, the maze of alleys and canals spread across greater Venice; to our left, only La Giudecca and Lido di Venezia besmirched the endless horizon of the Adriatic. Under the great bells of the campanile, emotion runs rampant: awe and amazement, joy and wonder, and others without proper names to describe their volume. The feeling of a place fills you up, bubbling over and spilling out: small laughter, beaming grins, and the Oohs and Ahs of pure enjoyment.

View from the Campanile: horizon of the Adriatic
View from the Campanile: maze of greater Venice
View from the Campanile: greater square of the Piazza
We descended, finally stepping out into the greater square of the Piazza. Pigeons swarmed the plaza, gathering around food-offering tourists and beating a hasty retreat from sly children planning their best pursuit. Wielding a bundle of breadsticks, we were soon surrounded by the birds: some perched on our shoulders, while others fastened themselves to backpacks and the tops of heads. The bravest, or possibly greediest, of the pigeons settled themselves on our wrists and hands pecking at the crumbs in our palms.

Later, after stumbling across an article filled with fun facts about Venice, I found that feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marco is an illegal act. We had become unsuspecting criminals and laughed the entire time. I had given one of the breadsticks to a small boy, he smiled and gave an endearing, “Grazie.” Thank you. That’s me, incriminating small children one breadstick at a time.

We had fed the pigeons, and now it was time to find ourselves a bite to eat. Winding our way through the streets away from San Marco’s, we found a small bistro near one of the canals, bought a slice of pizza, and sat down to eat on the steps of a bridge, looking directly through the window of another pizza establishment. Suddenly, instead of cheese and tomato sauce, the restaurant had found a new ingredient for their pies: pigeon. The panicked bird flew in through the open door, over the counter, and into the window we were sitting in front of. Flapping frantically against the glass, the pigeon was in over its head. Pizza production came to a standstill as the group of workers puzzled themselves with the best way to humanely remove the creature from the shop. Five minutes later, after the short scuffle between pizza girl and pigeon, the bird flew from the shop. Luncheon and a show.

Have you ever walked through Wonderland? The flowers speak, the caterpillars blow smoke, and the cats disappear with a smile. Obviously you’ve never been to Venice. The light shines between the buildings. The waterways sparkle as sunlight dances across the waves created by the gondolas and vaporettos cutting along the water. The mundane becomes magical as the ancient city sweeps you away. Storefronts stare you down from paper-maché visages: masks laughing and crying, fantastical beast masks with fur and feathers, long noses and broad cheeks—hundreds of masks meant for the great celebration of Carnevale.

It is a wonderment usually found it dreams, brought to life by centuries, each Venetian soul adding to the greater memory of the city.

We found our way to Ponte di Rialto, crossing the Grand Canal. Our rambling soon brought us back to the train station. We collected our bags and walked down the street passed the sturdy church to our hotel. The Casa Gerotto Calderan offered a second-floor room with a view of the stone courtyard below. From our window, we spotted a gelato stand; it was time for an afternoon snack.

View from the window of Casa Gerotto Calderan
2€ and a short walk to a nearby park later, I found my gelato cup empty. For grief sake, it tasted like brownies. It didn’t stand a chance. If you find yourself in any Italian city, make sure to add gelato to your diet. Remember, calories don’t exist on vacation.

Sunset in Venice: priceless.
With the light slowly fading, we decided to walk back toward San Marco’s to find something for dinner. The streets bustled with tourists and vendors. While Kitty and Arlieke inquired about souvenirs, I stepped into a maskmaker’s workshop: masks hung from the ceiling and lined the walls. The husband and wife duo stood at the counter as I wandered around the shop. Soon, the woman approached me, smiling, and explained that she was the maskmaker, or mascherari in Italian. In English, she explained that the traditional Venetian masks were crafted from the Italian Comedie. She explained that there was a set of characters commonly used for the masks; any characters outside of the set were fantastical creations of the craftsman.

A long-nosed creation caught my eye, I pointed to it, and she took it down and handed it to me.

“The Captain,” she smiled. “Try it on.”

I fastened the mask to my face and looked at my blurry portrait in the mirror.

“Now you’re ready for next year’s Carnevale!”

I left the shop with my Captain mask wrapped tight ready for travel and met back up with Kitty and Arlieke. Near the Piazza San Marco, we found a suitable restaurant. I ordered the salmon gnocchi with a glass of sauvignon blanc, a spectacular decision. Flavorful and light, just enough to leave me completely satisfied.

Ponte di Rialto by night, the path back to the hotel.
After dinner, we continued on through the lamp lit plaza. Circling around the heart of the city, our path led us back to the Casa Gerotto Calderan. Our train would leave Venice at 5:20 AM, giving us a few hours to enjoy our hotel comforts. I slept deeply, rising quickly in the wee hours of the morning. Lanterns lit the street as a light rain fell. The city of wonder would soon be behind us, we carried with us a few souvenirs and a memory to last a lifetime, touched by the great canal city of Venice.

Part 4 and 5, Verona and Milan respectively are coming soon. Adventure on, mes amis!

Monday, March 18, 2013

"This is life." Part 2

Florence – Feb 24

As a small preamble to this extenuated blog, I would like to say that these events are now almost three weeks old in my mind. I may not sift through them as easily due to the extended circumstance in which they were written. Thank you, as per the usual, for your patience with my blogs! Those of you that read these are amazing.

Enough with the flattering! Let’s do this. Days 2 & 3 went as follows:

The morning after our first night in Italy, we rose relatively early and the five of us readied ourselves for the long haul to the great city of Florence, a four to five-hour drive from Turin.

After escaping the crazed hurry of the city morning, we reached the open road through the countryside of northwestern Italy [I’m sure our valiant driver, Lisa, let out a sigh of relief once on the country interstate]. We were to head east for about an hour, and then divert our path from the ever-nagging route that the “Navi” wanted to take us on. Our old-fashioned, paper map and live navigator route would take us south toward the coast, passed the city of Genoa.

Our path led us through the coastal mountains, climbing up toward the passes and tunnels that were dug through the mountain to better access the Mediterranean. The seasons seemed to change with every passing second: we drove through bouts of sunshine, torrents of rain and sleet, then outright snow with white-patched roads sending chills through the car as we passed the intensely charged moments in quiet concentration, then back down through tunnels and along the side of the mountain, through quieter rain, then into the glorious sunlight offered by the reflections of the sea.

My first sight of the Mediterranean. Though brief, it wouldn’t be my last. The coastal highway guided us along the mountainous terrain that fringed the sea. We passed high mountain villages tucked into singular valleys, then low, sweeping port cities with docks loaded with cranes and crates waiting for the next floating giant to take its fill. The sea glittered, as the sun shone through the patches of cloudy skies. The grey of the sky, churning with clouds, melded with the grey of the sea, churning with waves to create an almost endless perspective: the horizon was lost as the sky met the sea. Then, it was all gone in a flash as the car entered another tunnel.

The tunnels showed us dramatic changes in landscape: one moment, the sea with a city fastened to its shores, then after the darkness of the tunnel, the next moment would bring us higher still in the mountains facing a half-modern, half-antiquated city abutted to the mountainside. Needless to say, the drive proved to be an absolutely marvelous experience.

Once we left the final crossing of snowy peaks, we eased down into a wide flat, possibly as wide as the peninsula itself. The sun shone again, and we decided to drop off the freeway for a quick bite to eat at a roadside convenience station.

These stations are positioned all along the toll-sustained interstates and highways of Italy [at least, all along the portions of Italy I was able to see]. This particular station was fixed with a bustling, chow-line restaurant; a bit more stylish than a regular canteen. The cook grimaced at my attempt to pronounce the Italian pasta: a creamy mixture sprinkled with salty bits of smoked pork on top of spaghetti noodles. My first Italian pasta! Even though it was at a slightly commercialized establishment, the pasta was great. It tasted even better due to the fact that the sun was shining, and I finally had the time to stretch my legs, but that’s just complicating the equation.

Bolstered by the quick stop, we quickly finished the final leg of the journey. All the while, we discussed a dilemma: we had booked tickets at the Uffizi Art Museum, but we were worried that we would not make it to the museum in time to pick up the tickets. The information provided on the booking slip hinted to the fact that refunds weren’t thought of as a habitual action; it also hinted to the fact that rules were of the utmost importance. We were all a bit on edge, especially since that just added to the fact that we had been driving for almost five hours.

With the city in sight, the car was parked in a lot by a supermarket (free parking at the edge of the city, a great way to save on cash!). After spending a few more euros on tram tickets into the city, we were off. The tram took us to the main train station of Florence, near the ancient heart of the city. A heart, we would soon find out, that still beat with the strength and pride of its earliest days.

The group oriented itself, and then we were off, arms full of our luggage. As we walked, I sensed that we would soon be in sight of the Duomo of the Florence Cathedral. This building, of wondrous magnitude, had been one of the sole reasons I committed myself to the journey. They say it is the journey, not the destination that matters. In this singular case, I would have to disagree.

As we half-walked, half-jogged down the sidewalk, dodging through the crowds of tourists and locals, alike, I spotted the great dome. As a pilgrim might stop upon his arrival to the great Jerusalem, I stopped, mid-step, and gazed up at the structure before me. I lost all sense of the world around me, and my eyes moistened. I could hear Michelle, “Jesse!” But I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “Jesse! It’s the dome!” I could hear her smiling, “Yes, I know it is!” I was positively beaming from the excitement. I had made it.

Though, as soon as I had made it, we had to be off. The rest of the group had hurried off down another street, away from the dome. The Uffizi Gallery was temporarily placed higher on our list of priorities, especially since we were running about 20 minutes late. Struggling under the weight of our bags, we arrived at the gallery, queued in the short line for reserved tickets, and, with luck, we received our tickets and headed off to pass through the metal detectors! 

Plaza of the Uffizi Gallery. Photo courtesy of Michelle S.

The Uffizi Gallery, as I read on Wikipedia, was one of the largest, oldest, and most famous Italian Renaissance art collections in the Western world. A few of the well-known pieces [I qualify well-known, as in, I knew them before I got there… Which, obviously, means that they are well-known]: The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Medusa by Caravaggio, and (my favorite) Judith DecapitatingHolofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi [one of the most important works by a female artist of her time]. Overall, the experience was dumb-founding and a bit exhausting. We arrived later in the afternoon, and the gallery closed earlier in the evening. By the end, we passed through many rooms at a brisk walk, bringing a new definition to the term “moving picture.”

Il Duomo, the Baptisery, and the Campanile by night. 

From Uffizi, the group traversed its way back through the Florentine streets, passed the now glowing Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral), then up another street to reach our lodging arrangement for the next two nights: Hostel Archi Rossi.

Entering into the “lobby,” the Archi Rossi gave me a whole new perspective on the idea of a hostel. This place resembled that which we had just left: a gallery for works of art. The walls were covered with paintings, directly on the plaster. After checking in, we escorted ourselves to the first floor (remember, first floor would mean second floor, if we were in the States). The doors and greater portions of the walls were covered with felt-tipped, permanent marker scribbles of all sorts: names and dates, places of origin, friendly notes and risqué messages. If you have ever been to the Pie Pizzaria just below the University of Utah campus under the University Pharmacy, then you know what I’m talking about.

The room, comfortably fitted with two bunk beds and a single, overlooked a small courtyard. We settled ourselves in momentarily before heading back out to the streets below to find a place to eat. A respectable establishment, located just down the road, suited our tastes perfectly.

Established in 1943, the Trattoria Nerone Pizzaria Ristorante has everything anyone would want from an affordable Italian pizzeria: ambiance, history, style, and flare. The mismatched furniture seemed to be from the original founding, with some tables fitted with benches, while another table (lower than the others) stood up to a couch gilded with golden woodwork and knobby feet. Candlelight flickered at each wooden table, each a character of its own with a thousand memories scrubbed into the grain.

Our server, an older woman with a kind face, directed our order with a professional manner, speaking fluent English without the slightest bit of consternation. I ordered the Quattro Stagioni pizza and a flat mineral water, with a cappuccino to follow (as would soon become my custom). A quattro stagioni consists of four items on a delicious, thin-crust pizza: artichoke, olives, salami, and mushrooms. The olives were fresh, pits still intact. It was delicious. The atmosphere and the company mixed with the authentic Italian cuisine left us all in a great mood, but the night was still young!

We planned to meet our Italian friend, Ambra, at the Piazza della Signoria near the replication of Michelangelo’s statue, David. However, our after-dinner dessert was more important: gelato. After pizza, cappuccino, and gelato, the whole experience of everything I had seen so far overwhelmed me. I turned around to face everyone, as we walked with our frozen treats, and exclaimed, “We are here! I can’t even… I… This is life!” Lisa automatically returned, “That’s the title of your next blog!”

Piazza della Signoria.

The group meets up with Ambra. Photo courtesy of Michelle S.

We were soon standing under the looming tower in the Piazza della Signoria, where Ambra, along with her English speaking friend, Marta, were waiting for us. Ambra had planned a bit more sightseeing for us, by this time it was nearly 11:00 PM. First, we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge featuring many high-end jewelers during the day. Then onto the square beneath the Pitti Palace, a grand building lacking the artist’s flourish, but enough pomp and circumstance to hold my gaze. Back across the Ponte Vecchio, we traversed the streets, every now and then catching a glimpse of il Duomo peering down on us. 

Il Porcellino, the boar of Florence. Photo courtesy of Michelle S.

We came to stand under a columned pavilion featuring a bronze sculpture known as il Porcellino, a boar; the boar of Florence. The nose shone bright in the city lights from the traditional rubbing of the snout. The practice involves placing your hand on the nose in the hopes of returning; it reminds me of Matrimony Springs back in Moab: once you’ve tasted the water, you’ll always feel the tug of Moab calling you home. From il Porcellino, our group walked a few city blocks farther to sit in the square at the Church of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in Italy with a crypt that holds the remains of Michelangelo and Dante.

Church of Santa Croce.

The night came to a close. We parted ways, Ambra and Marta heading back to their car, and our group back to the Archi Rossi. At this point, a small midnight snack was in order: des gauffres avec crème et chocolat! A perfect end to a staggering day. We fell into bed, ready for another day of exploration.

Florence – Feb. 25

Whew! Day 3. Just think, if you’re tired reading this; I actually had to experience and process all of this! I’ll try to keep my long-winded explanations out of Day 3. Anyway, call this an intermission: snack break? Stretch your legs? Bathrooms are down the hall to the right. Oh, the sun is finally shining! You had better go enjoy it while it lasts.

You’re back? Well, let’s get cracking.

Sometimes I just have to have my way. This sounds a bit childish, but sometimes it works out for the best. Apart from the great reviews, the Archi Rossi features an amazing continental breakfast, featuring many breakfast staples and hot food items to make two Dutch, a German, an Indonesian, and an US American happy. I knew, even from the pictures online before reserving the room, that this would be the choice. It took some convincing, because it wasn’t the cheapest option, but I think in the end we were all happy with the result.

As per the usual, I was late for breakfast. Though, I was still able to pile my plate with toast, sauerkraut and sausages, mini quiches, fruit, tomatoes, and baked beans. The food was amazing. I think I’d go back to the establishment just to have the breakfast. Anywhere else, the all-you-can-eat breakfast would have cost just about as much as the room rate. In the end, we were happy.

The sun was shining when we stepped outside, ready for a day of discovery. It had rained the previous night. The cobbled streets resembled a patchwork of miniature canals or river deltas. As we made our way down the street, I spotted the telltale signs of a street market: canvas pavilions with differing goods stacked to the ceiling. We meandered through the market escaping with most of our money, though I was worst off: I had succumbed to a new scarf and a genuine Italian leather belt. Later, near the Ponte Vecchio, I would buy a new wallet, fitted with a snap pocket for all the blasted coins that the Europeans insist on carrying around.

Ghiberti's door [a replica]. Photo courtesy of Lisa H.

Our main goal in the course of the morning was the Basilica and its surrounding wonder. We came into the square of the Baptistery, the Basilica, and the Campanile. The Baptistery, designed by the great Ghiberti in an hexagonal shape with the famous bronze door, stood before the doors of the great Basilica. The intricate bronze doors of the Baptistery gleamed in the morning light: Ghiberti’s design had won out over Brunelleschi’s design for the great doors. Though, in the end, it would be Brunelleschi’s design for a dome that would give the Florentine Basilica renown.

Brunelleschi's Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile by day [with construction].

We made our way into the great hall of the Basilica. Again, I stood, astounded. To think, this structure was built with the technology of its age: a huge place filled with the solemnity of the ages, the expanse of air suspended between the gargantuan stone walls brought a hush to the mass of people below. A reverent tranquility had settled itself there long ago, as a dragon would on top of its hoard. A tranquility that no one would dare to disturb.

Properly known as a groined vault, I think. Amazing.

Soon, we had paid the fair to walk ourselves up to the top of the dome. A grand work completed in the name of grander ideas, yet a place that does not boast. A monument, an homage to man’s brilliance, that just is, without any trace of hubris or self-serving ideologies. A structure built for the purpose of worshipping God’s power on Earth. No matter your beliefs, upon entering such a place, you understand the dignity and strength of faith.

463 stairs later, after scrambling up the sloping stairways that would be much scarier traversing on the descent, we reached the lantern, the apex from which I could see the whole of Florence. At this point, I think the photos describe that which words have trouble defining. After a few moments of gazing out across the land, the city’s chorus rose up to the dome: the city bells rang out, and the Campanile sung a sweet, throbbing melody.

Perspective from the lantern.
A view from the lantern.

Panorama 1

Panorama 2

After our descent, we walked aimlessly through the Florentine streets, drunk from the experiences of the morning. Our wanderings took us back to the Ponte Vecchio, now bustling with tourists and hawk-eyed merchants. Clouds roiled overhead, though decided against spilling over into the streets below.

Along the way, the Ponte Vecchio in all its glory stands.

Once we had our fill of exploration, we found the path back to the Archi Rossi, deciding to rest for the later portion of the afternoon. The evening consisted of a long dinner, filled with games and laughter at a sister company to the one previously visited. The next day would find the group splitting to appease the interests of all, though each would come back with stories of their own to tell.

At the close of the day, I knew I had found one of my most favorite places in the world. That singular brush of the boar’s snout will surely prove to be a relentless tug, one that will hopefully pull me back to this wonder-filled place.

You made it! The end of Part 2 of 5. The next portion will feature Venice in less than 24 hours. I am grateful for those that stuck it out. I hope the photos acted as a bit of relief from the monotony! Enjoy yourselves today more than you did yesterday. Passez des bonnes aventures!