One man’s trials and tribulations in a pretty city
by Tristan Dickison, staff writer; illustration by Lily Turner, staff artist
Florence is an ancient city that seems entirely populated by American students. I avoid them like the bubonic plague that landed here in 1348 but, like the plague, they are unavoidable. They cover the streets at night like lesions on a corpse. Their English taints the pristine, meaningless chatter of Italian passersby. They’re goddamn everywhere—something like four thousand of them every semester. But perhaps I’m oversensitive, a cultural hypochondriac. Perhaps, Americans and American things are naturally to be found abroad and, like zits, my agitating against them just makes them more noticeable.
There are some Bad Americans, and one of them weaseled his way into my study abroad program. Every group needs an antagonist against which to rally. That person for us is our professor’s son and my roommate. He thinks he’s quite something, and everyone else thinks he’s a fool. His straight-talk is as sophisticated as a child blowing bubbles; his constant antics supply us with enough gossip to fill a tabloid. While he and I despise each other, real confrontations are rare. We share our room like strangers share an elevator.
But at Linguaviva, our school, I am among allies, and in a prime location downtown. Each morning, I stand with my espresso on the balcony and watch the crazy Italian traffic. Motorbikes weave through honking cars like bees around an anarchic honeycomb. Nuns jaywalk, yielding only to His signs. The mobs of schoolchildren—that no one can help but overhear—give impromptu but thorough lessons in Italian profanities. Among my favorites: Cazzó!, Santa Maria di Mierda!, and Vaffanculo!
There are indeed some Good Americans in my program, like this gorgeous, blond principessa from Minnesota. I’ve been eyeing her since we got here. Let’s call her Beatrice. The first weekend after arriving, six of us hit some wine bars downtown, and then, around 2:00 a.m., started heading back to our respective host houses. We had drunk plenty of wine, and Beatrice and I were walking arm in arm. As we travelled uptown, people began dropping away, bidding us goodnight.
Suddenly, she and I were alone together. I shrugged off her arm and took her hand. For an instant I dreaded that hers had a reluctant limpness to it, and that she would pull away. Instead, she gave mine a little squeeze. My heart lifted, then delivered the requested blood to my loins. We continued walking, but with that squeeze all space-time had frozen over, and I felt suspended at a great depth, where some blissful undercurrent washed over me. We reached her apartment and I snapped out of it. Then we said our goodbyes. A fleeting hug, no kiss.
Soon after that night, I discovered that Beatrice was in a committed, long distance relationship—whatever the fuck that means—with her boyfriend of four years. I barricaded myself in my room with a Bukowski novel and a two-Euro bottle of wine and, after a night of brooding, I resolved to try to seduce her anyway.
It has taken longer than expected.
No matter. Though that particular romance is as of yet unrealized, there is something generally romantic about the Florentine way of life. To be stupefied by women is but a trite reality of the male condition, a reality that exempts only men stupefied by other men. But most men don’t live in Florence like I do. And though I desire Beatrice, I am grateful for this strange quiet that has befallen me, which I can only attribute to my stimulating surroundings. There is so much to look at besides her. Take the ancient Ponte Vecchio, which stretches across the shimmering Arno River; or Il Duomo, looming over the cityscape like a white and turquoise Titan; or the narrow streets, snaking between row houses crowned with matching terracotta rooftops.
No surprise, then, that it was in Florence that the great Italian poet Boccaccio kicked his lovesickness; that where “there once used to be a source of suffering, now that all torment has been removed, there remains only a sense of delight.” Here, in spite of my unfulfilled desire, the city keeps me buoyant and open-minded (knock on wood) to life without sex. I am like a blubbering child who’s yanked, kicking and screaming, out of the candy shop, only to be hoisted moments later onto a merry-go-round. By the end of the ride, I’ve completely forgotten the candy—at least until I see that shop again.
Last weekend we went to Rome. In the height of the rainy season, a rare Mediterranean sun beat down upon the pagan ruins. The ruins had been split down the middle by a broad avenue, wide enough for Mussolini to strut his stuff. The ruins were studded too with better-preserved mausoleums rising up from the ancient litter. Our professor told us dryly that these had been Christianized. We filed into the Sistine Chapel and there saw the Creation of Adam, couched in a dizzying but splendorous panorama. “Holy shit,” I whispered, and at my foreign exclamation an Italian guard nodded her approval.
Later that night, six of us sat by La Fontana di Trevi with beers and talked about nothing special. From where Beatrice sat, the backlit fountain cast smooth shapes on her hair and across her face. She turned and looked at me. “I want to kiss you more than usual tonight,” I told her. With that, she looked away, but now the shapes were colored slightly, dancing over the smallest of smiles. It had been a long day and people were tired and out of Euros. But that night we stayed out late. Whenever we felt like returning to the hotel someone would quip, “When in Rome . . . ” And that was all the convincing anyone needed.