viva italia

We are back after a week’s holiday that felt like a month!  Every single evening we thought back to what we’d done that morning and say, ‘that was today?’ It was a different world, magical, beautiful, and surreal. I dusted off a great respect for fine art, for the men of the Italian Renaissance, for religious stories, and for those who dared to confront them. I rekindled a sense of wonder at the past and at the future, and I ate a lot of gelato. 

Florence was welcoming and after just one night we felt like we knew the city, like we belonged there as observers.  We ate dinner in the Piazza della Signoria the first night, and then returned every night afterwards to sit in the loggia for hours, stare at the sculptures, the sky, and all the other tourists. I wish I could think of a single word to perfectly describe our experience there. I guess the best I can find is rich. Florence is somehow, amid the rush of tourists and mopeds, a quiet kind of place. It is seeped in the greatness of its past and haunted with the ghosts of magnificent men. 

While Florence is a powerful fortress and memorial of humanism, Vernazze is a little piece of natural heaven. When I look at the pictures it already seems surreal that we were in a place so … (again, lack of adequate vocabulary!) perfect! I was aware of feeling as if I had stepped into some kind of ode-to-a-small-Italian-village film. This could not be for real, I thought over and over, as Giuliano (our hotel host) met us on the tiny main street, cappuccino mug and saucer in hand from the bar down the street, locals strolling around calling ‘Ciao BerNARdo!’ ‘Ciao SoPHIA!’ to each other. A fisherman pushed a small crate with his latest catch, a squid, up the street and all the old men gathered around to have a peek.

On Tuesday morning, market day, we bought strawberries on the street and sat out on the dock to eat them for breakfast. Soon the small crowd of local men had set up camp next to me. They read newspapers and smoked cigars, eagerly discussing…something in Italian. I doubt it was politics or business news; probably something more like the shipping news or the weather. We spent three days following the example of the locals, who consciously live ‘the lazy life of Vernazze’ – we sat on the beach, on our balcony, hiked through the vineyards, ate, slept, and slowly strolled up and down the main street, from the beach to the hills. The last day was a string of extreme experiences – we spent almost the whole day sitting on the beach, eating at restaurants on the waterfront, and staring out at the turquoise water. At 9:30 we finally took up our packs and rode the train (without tickets! – the ticket booths were closed and Marc was so nervous we were going to get busted) to Pisa, arriving around midnight. No trains, taxis, or buses were running then so we walked to the airport, just over a mile away through a dodgy part of town. There was only one moment of panic, when a car pulled over quickly right in front of us and a huge hulking man got out of the front seat, and for a split second I thought we were about to be mugged, but he just went around to the trunk or something and then drove on.(this picture makes me laugh every time!)

Well we made it to the small regional airport with a sigh of relief and eight hours stretched out before us until our flight left in the morning. We’d planned to sleep at the airport to save hotel money, and as we wandered around the airport we were surprised at how many other travellers about our age had had the same idea. Rugged young adventurers slept in cramped seats or poured coffee down their throats to try to stay awake all night. At 2 am we had really just gotten settled in our uncomfortable sleeping arrangement – on chairs with metal armrests, bags strapped to us and underneath us – when a bearded, uniformed man making the rounds told us that the airport was closing. Closing? ‘Uscita. Is closed. You go out, reopen four o’clock.’ From all around the airport, haggard young people gathered their bags and slowly marched toward the exit, and we joined them. They locked the doors behind us, and we all stood outside the airport, at 2 am, shivering, tired and generally lost. We shifted around uncertainly and watched out of the corners of our eyes to see what everyone else was going to do. Would they give up and go find a hotel somewhere? Would they try to find a 24-hour bar? No one left. And slowly we all began to spread out, until eventually we had set up a homeless shelter in front of Galileo Galilei airport. We rummaged through our bags for more layers of clothing, huddled up against benches, walls, and trees, and defiantly waited it out. Two hours? We can take two hours of this!

The minutes passed agonizingly slowly. We tried to sleep but it was too cold, and no matter how many layers I put on (I definitely achieved the homeless bag-lady look) it was still cold. Eventually Marc scouted us out a vent on the ground, near the side of the airport, where stale air blew out warmish every now and then. We stood over the vent, looking completely ridiculous and sleep-deprivation-tortured, hoping that the unidentifiably stale smell wouldn’t stick, and talked about how it felt like we were never actually going to make it home – that we would be perpetually in this pathetic kind of state forever, always dreaming of home just around the corner.

When they reopened the doors at 4 am the whole group of bedraggled homeless travellers shuffled back inside, feeling such a strange mix of embarrassment for being so pathetic and pride for being so bohemian, but most of all just happy to be warm again. We returned to our previous posts and slept a listless couple of hours before queuing for the flight.

So it was with great joy that we came to our front door again, seeing it for what it was: a fabulous vacation spot in a beautifully unique country, as well as a warm and cozy place where we could eat, sleep, and pee in peace and quiet. It was a week rich with experience, just crammed with life, and I return home in a dishevelled, road-weary, and sublime state of awe at this wide and wonderful world.

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