Goodbye to Florence

Florence cloudburst

Arriving in a misty haze at Pisa international, I took my coach seat and felt a renewed love for nature. With steam rolling off the fields, I remembered being driven around Aberdeenshire as a child, watching herons and buzzards roam in a far harsher playground. Simple moments stirs memories as fresh as the soil. An earthly reminder of who you used to be and what you have become.

Florence marked a departure point for me last year. I gave up everything and nothing to live here last October. It’s an uneasy feeling to leave home without a key. Unsure of who you might meet or anyone at all. It’s a weightless feeling I guess – you are finally free of routine.

Settling into the finest apartment of my adult life, I was astonished by the timeless perfection of its medieval palaces and gardens. Just going to the supermarket and pouring over the sweet variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables became a daily highlight. I can’t cook to save myself but Italian ingredients made it almost fanciful.

Duomo

Walking around Florence city centre is like entering a children’s picture book. You have to adjust to the Duomo’s scale and size for context. Brunelleschi’s snowy mountain dominates the Arno valley for miles – a majestic beacon of engineering that has glittered for over 500 years. The terracotta temple lends a secular prestige to your visit. Medieval gods of science designed the Duomo through their wits and determination alone.

Settling into my Oltrarno home, I became fascinated at how Florentines’ still make things with their hands. Unlike the gated walls of their stately homes, the city’s workshops brim with creativity in full transparent glow. From boutique chairs to bird cages, an artist is sweating in paint and sawdust on almost every side street.

I loved the bookbinding and cartographer shops, many of them so expensive they only have to sell one item every three days to survive. Via Tornabuoni is famous for its opulent displays of garments, watches and leather shoes. No one remotely normal can afford to buy anything here, but it’s another tribute to the city’s self-confidence.

Such is Florence’s timelessness, there is a melancholy in returning this year, and everything is the same. It feels like a parallel universe in that respect. I exist in multiple dimensions through my work and metaphysical friendships, and this epilogue feels uncannily familiar. Like I never really left, but the romantic fable has shifted, and I can’t reclaim the optimism of before.

Fiesole villa

I have been focusing more on nature than art or food this time. I took the bus to the Fiesole, a scenic hillside village near Florence, and felt like a schoolboy walking amongst the vineyards and forests. Almost like I had stepped into an Italian mirror of my Scottish childhood.

Seduced by November sunshine, I walked for miles to neighbouring Tuscan hamlets with my smartphone operating as a map. It felt glorious for the few hours it lasted. For we travel for romance, we travel for architecture, and we travel to get lost.

Fiesole view

During my daytime crossings over the Arno, I often wondered what lay beyond Fiesole’s green hills. Even more so when I ran along the riverbed at lunchtimes, pushing my body harder and faster than any inner-city slog, where my thighs would tremble like jelly on the final bend home.

Oltrano is no longer my place anymore. I am currently staying in a small townhouse outside the city’s walls, and it was never going to be the same. On coming back you remember how little there is to do after sunset, and the seclusion of people’s lives becomes more apparent every day.

For the city if nothing else is a fortress. You can visit as many times as you like, but you’ll never belong in the garden.

Fiesole walk

Stony-hearted walls

Even when I have no pressing desire to see anything, I always go for a walk along the Arno at lunchtime. Tank up on sunlight and watch the terrible beauty roar down the valley. You can walk for pleasure here. Florence is one of the few towns whose name has an abstract quality and it means ‘taste and fine workmanship’.

Wrapped up in a woollen scarf and a paper thin jacket, I walk past antique workshops and impenetrable doors with iron horse rings. There is an aloofness to this sweeping symphony of stone.The Renaissance facades and Protestant-esque churches are designed to keep people out. Florence feels immaculately defensive to anyone walking on the perimeter of her doors.

As the days grow colder, the visitor numbers thin out and I have a winter countdown of my own. Excited and worried about the year ahead, I walk back along the river, trying to catch a sunbeam with my bare hands once more.

Safe house

One morning a vicious buzzing sensation awoke me from my laptop. It had never gone off before. I mean why would anyone ring my door? Nobody knows that I live here and those who do would call me first. My visitor was a handsome lanky man in a 1920’s prohibition style coat and he immediately addressed me in incomprehensible Italian.

“Non capisco. Non parlo Italiano, mi dispiace signor.”

“Okay, sorry to bother you, what are you doing here? Are you on holiday or is this a safe house?”

Somewhat perplexed by his ‘safe house’ line of questioning, I muttered something about AirBnb and he appeared satisfied with my answer. The door slammed shut. Is that what my invisible neighbours are thinking? That I’m a fugitive on the run. Returning to my desk, I began to think they may have a point.

 

 

 

 

City of Grace

From soaring lust in cocktail bars, to biblical tempests rinsing Ponte Vecchio to tears, I felt an earthquake rumble underneath the Arno. I want something pure and tangible to take place before I leave here. Reading news articles about Italy being smashed back to the Stone Age, I shudder to think what might have happened if the tremors had crept further north.

Going local in Oltrarno, with its mustard hues and pine green shutters, I love spotting antique workshops, cheese bistros and incomprehensible wine libraries full of dark dreamy bottles. I’ve been living on the south side of Florence and wake up to the sound of church bells every morning. I hope to stay here until New Year.

Since I settled in my Airbnb apartment, I’ve developed a huge respect for Tuscan architecture and design. I could spend all day taking pictures of studded Renaissance doors, with their symmetrical beauty and iron grandeur. Unlike in Venice, where even sea peasants are afforded glimpses of diamond chandeliers and fresco ceilings, you’ll gain no such insight in Florence.

From the gated communities in the suburban hills, to the brown medieval palaces in the city centre, Florence’s stony gates are drawn high. There is an overriding sense of secrecy in the medieval courtyards, an intellectual pride that goes back centuries. Like everything else in life, this only makes me want more.

As the autumnal leaves continue to fall along the Arno, visitors keep on arriving and much to my dismay, the December rental prices keep on rising.

Everyone I’ve met here has either been an architect, fashion designer or a florist. Florence is the intellectual and artistic capital of Italy. I didn’t anticipate just how literate and well-educated local people would be. Nobody seems to cares what I do for a living, but they are individually and collectively more interested on why am I here. How long are you staying here?

For that is the big question I am struggling to answer.

Oddo’s Court

After years of working in sterile British offices, my brief sojourn in Italy has been anything but dull. Like my meeting today in Oddo’s court, where my apartment’s bills and surcharges were finally revealed. It was a naked triumph of greed and entitlement, where as a pawn without a voice, I watched Oddo and his wife deliver their payment demands to my boss.

Surrounded by old money in a Venetian town house, I was summoned upstairs by my elderly masters. Sitting opposite them at their family table, I felt the full weight of powerlessness. They were inadvertently stripping away my salary by making me responsible for their communal property debts.

Earlier in the same street, a damp alleyway full of pot plants behind the Grand Canal, my boss explained I had to go to Oddo’s: ‘I need to stay friends with them, Daniel, do you understand?’ I know this is an unfashionable thing to admit, but I like my boss. He’s funny, entertaining and affable hustler with an eye for a new deal.

Once I realised what they were doing and that I was being charged for more than just an electricity bill. It felt like I was on remand for a crime I did not commit. I felt enraged by Oddo’s shameless greed but I couldn’t let my boss down in front of him.

I am pragmatic, savvy and calculating in these situations. I know how important it is to always pick the right words.

Partly Cloudy

Rialto Bridge Nightfall

I had my photo taken again this morning. My blurry silhouette is probably filling up pixels on Instagram as I write this story. It happens every day, observing untold love stories walking over Rialto Bridge. Europe’s most famous crossing is forever swelling with tourists wanting their Facebook cover of the Grand Canal.

Every day I cross over Rialto on my way to work. I love watching little men scurry off their boats exchanging ropes for boxes; frantically unpacking wine and chocolates. Occasionally an ambulance dashes underneath like a Bond villain under siege and even the waste disposal boat is fascinating as it churns out steam.

Church bells are crashing around me every hour, but I need to make myself eligible to live in London. Make a leap back towards metropolitan life and nurse glittering bruises on even broader shoulders. I told my new Lolita-esque flatmate before I left that I have a lot of love to give. Isn’t it strange that you travel so far only to daydream about the same thing.

Super selfie love story

Venice EveningSometimes I feel unworthy of living in Venice. I don’t pay enough attention to details, especially now the numbers are slowing down. Walking back to the hotel with my headphones on, I feel guilty for not listening to bursts of opera or cutlery exchanging hands in restaurants. Spotify is a generic experience. Play, pause and repeat your songs over and over again.

Collectively we are going through the first phase of hyper acceleration, an unprecedented boom of global fertility all wanting the same photograph of the Grand Canal. Likewise I’m just a temporary EU migrant passing through the loveliest city in the world. It was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.

Gondola Couple VeniceEveryday I see newly married couples snuggle in beautifully crafted gondolas and it’s very much a case of play, pause and repeat. Same posed smile, loving tilt of the head and furrowed brow, I’ve witnessed a thousand honeymoons upload their story underneath a bridge. Seen through the prism of light, it’s a unique private moment, one shared with loved ones and marvelled over by long distance friends.

Only I see the same love story every single day.

Away from the watery parade, I remove my headphones, the plastic grooves gnashing onto my collar bone and enter an inverted baroque church. Squashed inside the Venetian back streets, I step in a chaste world of silence and reflection.

Despite being militantly secular in my global politics, I took comfort in this beautiful refuge. Photography is banned in Venetian churches and the circus of life takes a deferential pause. With my rucksack weighing on my back, I stood in silence amongst elaborately carved tombs and dead wooden benches.

It’s one of the few places in Venice where you can share a private moment, a world without flashing cameras and streamed playlists. Outside the craziness goes on oblivious, and I have to get back to my hotel; shower, get changed and go online again. My smartphone might vibrate with loving messages.

There must be something about human nature that turns everything into a routine.

No filter

Sitting in a Venetian office watching an elderly Italian couple attend their pot plants, I type into my laptop. Same tabs, same websites and streamed songs as before. No one understands why I am here. Sleep has become a luxury and I am staying in a bog ugly hotel until early November.

On boycotting the only affordable stable in Venice, I am witnessing my body metamorphosis into something leaner. Many evenings I have gone to bed hungry and longing for breakfast.

Although I must acknowledge that my diet in London was snack driven and quite frankly atrocious. Idly wandering down to Shoreditch High Street to buy a cheap Bánh Mì baguette for dinner, only to change your mind and have Jewish bagel instead is a big city luxury.

Come nightfall I go running along the quayside and this only accentuates my physical condition. Streaming past the tourist starlings at St Marks Square, I skip over ornate bridges and race passenger boats and cruise liners. It feels easier and necessary to run longer and harder over here.

Venice Night CanalVenice is like a spooky romantic ghost story after midnight, where you develop a heightened sensitivity to the elegant stroking of a Gondola’s oar. For sheer aesthetic beauty, I am simply not a gifted enough writer to handsomely describe what I see.

I have been forced to be more social than I am otherwise inclined. Ambivalent friendships have been sparked up with passing strangers and drinking Spritz cocktails is far cheaper than beer.

Venice meanwhile is virtually crime free and rats appear after dark once the selfies have gone to bed. The plague of a medieval Disneyland that nobody has paid to see.

Between the kingdom of the living and the dead

I don’t how know I get myself into these situations. A mid-summer calamity formed the genesis of my Italian journey. It pains me to think about it even now. How could I have fucked up so badly. It’s an innate part of my personality that incidents of virtually no significance throw me to the stars or plunge me into speechless depressions.

I wish I felt more nervous, it would be more fitting, or perhaps my sense of ease is a reflection of the times. English as an international language, internet on tap and a globalised workforce thriving in the city of London.

On travelling to Venice at sunset, I arrive at dusk with a milky sky sinking behind the Adriatic. Looking at the old maps in my guidebook, it’s remarkable how little the city has changed. How is electricity even possible? For now at least it’s dry and warm. Daily flooding is a hazard I could do without.

Lugging two suitcases and a rucksack on an aquatic waterway with a freshly cropped head, I sat next to Midwestern tourists talking about Becks and Peroni. Their broad Yankee accents were charming and gullible in the kindest possible way. Tourist chatter is something I’ll have to get used to and fast. Accents unlock untapped prejudices reinforced by literature and modern television.

Already my proposed accommodation has been adversely affected because an old Venetian landlady refused my tenancy as ‘English are always drunk.’ I was amused to hear this story. Xenophobia is funny when it’s a white British guy at the receiving end. And let’s face it, protesting that I’m Scottish is highly unlikely to assuage her concerns about my sobriety.

Almost immediately I felt the language barrier in Venice for English is a professional tongue not a social one. Most people here speak it competently out of necessity. Stumbling into deli stores and restaurants, I immediately realised I have to urgently learn some Italian phrases and numbers. It’s tiresome nodding, smiling and handing over excessively large notes.

In my experience, buying petty junk food alone is ruinously expensive in Venice and I don’t want to eat pizza every night because funghi is easy to pronounce. Meanwhile I have to forgive myself for being an island monoglot, I have been hired for English language skills after all.

For now at least, that’s my forte.