Travel Diaries: Exploring Florence

After falling in love with Lisbon and being shocked by Venice, the next stop on my Euro trip with Swetha was Florence. By the time I left Venice, I was in exceptionally high spirits. We’d figured out how to navigate the cobbled Venetian streets and cross all the beastly bridges, we’d had delicious gelatos at the train station, and we were heading south – which had to be warmer than where we’d just left. We found rather luxurious window seats in the train, and as I pulled out my Kindle, sitting in a warm spotlight of sunlight and watching bright blue skies over bright blue waters – life was pretty great.

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Here is the next (long-overdue) chapter of my European adventure:

After falling in love with Lisbon and being shocked by Venice, the next stop on my Euro trip with Swetha was Florence. By the time I left Venice, I was in exceptionally high spirits. We’d figured out how to navigate the cobbled Venetian streets and cross all the beastly bridges, we’d had delicious gelatos at the train station, and we were heading south – which had to be warmer than where we’d just left. We found rather luxurious window seats in the train, and as I pulled out my Kindle, sitting in a warm spotlight of sunlight and watching bright blue skies over bright blue waters – life was pretty great.

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The view from my train seat!

 

When I walked out of the station, I was filled with a wonderful sense of self-confidence and assurance I had never felt in a new place before – this feeling of knowing a place before actually seeing it. It was both exciting and comfortable, without any apprehension or anxiety. Florence was bright and sunlit, there were wide paved streets, I’d already mapped out our 11-minute walk to the hostel, and this time Swetha and I would have an actual room all to ourselves, which we weren’t sharing with four or five other girls. Such luxury! Such excitement! Nothing could ever go wrong.

But of course, we spoke too soon. Three minutes into walking, the handle of Swetha’s much-battered bag broke off.  After bumping our bags up and down the bridges of Venice, this didn’t come as a complete surprise, but it did make our lives harder. Now we were in a new city, facing an additional challenge of repairing or replacing a strolley bag before we left for Rome. While we had two days to deal with that, the immediate problem was of mobility – it was hard enough carting around our many bags while they were all intact. Anyway, this had a straightforward solution – we just hailed a cab to take us to our hostel (unlike Venice, Florence had actual roads and cabs! Already an improvement). We leaned out of the windows and pointed out the sights, the markets, the street artists.

Within no time, the driver dropped us off at the address we had. This turned out to be two imposing doors in dark mahogany, which wouldn’t budge unless we were buzzed in. The guy renting out the apartment was nowhere to be seen, so we waited until some other tenant of the building let us in. Once inside the lobby, we were faced by four long flights of stairs. There was a rickety glass elevator, which we called and called, but wouldn’t come to the ground floor. There was no way our bags would make it up the stairs, and of course none of us had functional phones to call our landlord – all because we decided to go old-school, and didn’t get data packs, or any kind of international roaming. So much for Florence being problem-free.

Eventually hunger won out, so Swetha and I left our bags inside the deserted lobby, pulled the mahogany doors shut, and hurried into the little deli next door. While I ordered some pasta to go, Swetha sought help from the proprietor, who took pity on us and called up our landlord himself. Ultimately, our very first meal in the lovely city of Florence ended up being cold pasta on the stoop of our building – so we could eat, guard our bags, and keep look-out for our landlord, all at the same time!

Finally, finally, we got to check in, the landlord taught us how to operate the elevator (first climb up the stairs to the first floor, call the elevator there, ride it to the ground floor, and THEN put your bags in to take upstairs – how silly of us to assume otherwise!), and we were off.

Our first stop for the day was the church of  Santa Maria del Fiore. Being a close walk from our hostel, Swetha and I just strolled over to the cathedral complex in Piazza del Duomo. The facade of the cathedral looked beautiful, the bell tower stood tall and proud, but we rushed inside, to see the frescos painted on the famed octagonal dome.

 

At this point, Swetha and I had our first disagreement of the trip – she wanted to walk around the streets, and chat with the local artists to get a feel of the real Florence, while I wanted to go the touristy way, and climb all the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo and the viewing gallery outside, to get a panoramic view of the city just while the sun set.

So we agreed to split up, and meet in about 4 hours. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but at this point of time, this was very much out of my comfort zone. I’ve always claimed that I can either explore an unknown setting with at least one known person, or be all alone/with unknown people in a known setting. Wandering around a new city without the only person I knew sounded mighty uncomfortable, especially since we had no working phones to contact each other at any time.

But we did agree to meet up at a specific time, at a very specific location (this Christmas tree located exactly across the basilica entrance), and headed off on our own ways. And as I started climbing up the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo all by myself, I started feeling really good about it. It felt quite empowering  – the realization that I didn’t need company to explore a new city, I could actually just do it on my own.

The climb wasn’t as tiring as I’d expected. Even though the steps were narrow and poorly lit, the occasional glimpses of outdoors were enough to spur me on.

 

I struck up conversation with other people, tourists and locals alike. One particularly cute Italian guy seemed to find my India – New York – Italy backstory just as fascinating as I found his stories of Dante’s Inferno and the seven levels of hell. So instead of feeling lonely and intimidated, I ended up finding a companion who told me interesting tales, took photos of me (he owned a selfie stick, which I pretended not to judge), and took me out for authentic Italian caffè. That’s a pretty successful outing in my book. Plus, the view from the top of the dome was staggeringly beautiful – it was so worth the climb!

 

 

And after a few minutes, the whole sky above the Tuscan countryside turned a blazing golden. It literally felt like I was on top of the world.

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After climbing down from the dome, I wandered around on my own, went to the museum near by, and checked out some of the exhibits. I decided to do some shopping – sauntering in and out of shops, buying tiny Italian leather purses, calendars, bookmarks, and magnets. I walked into a store which had an entire Harry Potter display, and squealed with joy –  these kind of things make a new place feel instantly like home. Pottermania is quite universal – although I’d definitely expect it in a city originally called Firenze. 

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By the time I met up with Swetha, we both had lots of tales and photos to share. We had a nice dinner, washed down with a dollop of gelato, and then headed home. While it was pretty great to finally have a room to ourselves which we didn’t have to share with five others, we did realize (after much struggling) that we didn’t really know how to pull the main doors shut and lock them. So we finally settled for locking the inside door, barricading it with a chair and hoping for the best. Pro tip: if you aren’t springing for an expensive hotel, just reserve a hostel room you share with multiple people – don’t attempt to find a cheap room for just two people and expect much security!

The next morning, we headed straight for the museums: the Uffizi Gallery with its long corridors full of statues, and artwork famous enough that it looked incredibly familiar when I did stumble upon it, such as The Birth of Venus, and La Primavera, which I learnt meant ‘spring’, and wasn’t just a type of pasta sauce. Both of these paintings were large enough to take up a whole wall each.

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The Birth of Venus
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La Primavera

 

We then went over to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, which was as imposing and detailed as it’s made out to be. We also saw a display of the first ever versions of the piano, created by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

 

We ended the day on a serendipitous, magnificent note – street musicians! It was late in the evening, and we were walking around a plaza with incredibly detailed statues, lit-up fountains, the cheerful gurgling of water in the background, and the scent of warm pizza in the air. And in the middle of this casually beautiful scene: a handsome musician, playing plaintive tunes on his violin. Not the kind of music that makes you clamor around, bop your heads, and tap your feet with the beats – but the kind of mesmerizing music that creeps up on you, and fills up your soul with melancholia and pain, tinged with hope and the promise of love. The sort of music that swells up inside you, and clutches you, raw and true, so tightly in its grasp that your eyes well up with emotion hard to define, and you have to remind yourself to breathe. It was a moment out of time, out of space – a moment when all your barriers fall away, and the crowd is hypnotized and swaying to this music resonating deep inside, dropping their illusions of normalcy and sophisticated banter – we weren’t just a mix of tourists and locals individually dealing with our specific triumphs and losses – in the moment, we were all raw, real humans, unified by emotion. Our lives and issues may be different, as are the ways we cope, but we all recognize and respond to basic emotion.

 

Finally, after a lovely dinner which involved a baffling mix-up with our order (I swear we ordered something chocolate for dessert, but ended up with a single glazed pear), we headed back to the hostel. Since this was our last night in Florence, we finally had to figure out a solution to the broken bag problem. So despite being exhausted from all the sight-seeing, we headed off to various bag stores to ask about prices, and if they took cash or card. Of course they all needed cash, and that involved a detour to the foreign exchange counters, which were, of course, closed this late at night.

We finally decided to wake up early the next morning and tackle the problem before leaving to catch our train to Rome. This ended up being a whole series of unfortunate mishaps in itself – involving running back and forth in unexpected rain, forgetting to take passports to the foreign exchange, checking out the market right across the street for sturdy bags that weren’t expensive Italian leather, and trying to find a cab in the narrow alleys where our hostel was located – until finally managing to fashion a makeshift handle for Swetha’s handle-less bag using a strong belt. It wasn’t ideal, but it was enough for us to drag the bag all the way to the train station, just in time to catch the train to Rome.

Thus concluded the Florence chapter of my Europe adventure. I liked it a lot more than Venice – there was certainly the old-world charm and culture I was looking for, but it was interspersed with just enough modern conveniences to survive comfortably. I’m particularly fond of Florence because that’s the first place I realized how independent I could be – it was the first city I felt brave enough to tackle without a companion, without knowing the local language, without an internet connection. Florence was where I realized it’s fun to figure out everything on my own. And yes, in every city I’ve visited after Florence, I’ve made it a point to go off exploring all by myself. So thank you, Firenze, for that little bit of personal growth. I’ll see you soon!

In the driver’s seat

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road.

I don’t drive. While I was growing up in Indore, I’d take my bicycle or my mom’s scooter to travel short distances, and Dad would drive me if I wanted to go beyond a certain radius. When I moved to Pune, I promptly adapted to elbowing my way into overcrowded buses and haggling over ‘meter’ charges with rickshaw-wallas. After moving to the States, I have been lucky enough to live in Manhattan which has a pretty great public transport system. Conveniently, parking is criminally expensive, so nobody expects me to have a car to drive anyway.

If anyone ever asks me if I can drive, I usually say no. That isn’t completely true, but the truthful answer requires a long-winded and rather ridiculous backstory.

I did learn to drive in India. During one of my winter breaks from college, I attended fifteen days of driving classes in Indore. I was taught by a female retired police officer, who was proportioned like Madame Maxime and behaved like Mad-Eye Moody. She was brisk and efficient, but wouldn’t let me rest my feet against the brake or accelerator unless I kicked off my shoes first. She assumed all women wear wedges and heels while driving, and claimed that that wouldn’t give me a real feel of just how much pressure I’d have to apply for the car to respond. So now every time I get into the driver’s seat, my first few moves are to pull my seat up close to the dashboard (otherwise I’m this short-legged child whose feet dangle and don’t touch the pedals), adjust the mirrors, and then kick off my shoes before putting on my seat belt.

Madame Maxime’s next tactic was to drive me right into the middle of the crowded, traffic rule-flouting city, and then plop me in the driver’s seat. Me, an utter novice, who wasn’t mentally prepared to drive before I’d learnt the exact name and function of every single thingamajig of the car. But nope, I had to learn by diving into the deep end – so middle of the city it was. The parts of the city where there isn’t unidirectional or bidirectional flow of traffic, but pretty much two-, three-, and four-wheelers driving in whichever direction they pleased, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amidst the ear-splitting din of annoyingly-pitched truck horns. While this experience taught me how to change gears instantly, and swerve to avoid stray cows plodding along the street, potholes, idiotic cyclists, and dogs who streak past the front of my car at the last possible second – it’s still a rather limiting skill set. Sure, I am fairly confident I will never crash into anyone, I have relatively fast reflexes, and have learnt to expect everything short of a UFO landing on the road in front of me. But on the other hand, I freak out the moment I have to go above third gear, simply because I have never had to. I can be the safest driver on the planet, but am probably also the slowest. I’m quite unsettled by empty roads and highways – what, am I expected to drive really fast, and own the whole road? That’s too much open space. Where is all the traffic?!

The third thing I learnt in driving school was how to obey orders instantly and without question. If Madame Maxime said stop, I slammed on the brakes with all my might. If she said switch to second gear, I did it instantly, before comprehending why. If she said I have to lean on the horn and press for several deafening seconds, that is exactly what I would do. While all this worked well for us in those two weeks, I never learnt how to drive without instruction. So the first time I drove without her by my side, it was incredibly unnerving. All of a sudden, I was expected to make all these decisions on my own. When exactly do I switch to second gear? How much do I slow down on my turns? Nobody else was looking out to estimate the size of the pothole coming up, and deciding if my wheel track was significantly wider than the pothole diameter, so I could safely drive over it instead of swerving to avoid it. That’s a lot of pressure, I tell you! What if I decide wrong? What if I switch to third gear, without anticipating giant orange construction barrels which suddenly materialize in front of me, and I panic and have to downshift to first, accidentally stalling the car in the process? (This happened while I was trying to impress my dad with my new-found driving skills in his new car. He was not impressed.)

After finishing up driving school, I got my driver’s license. There was a written multiple choice test, which I aced, because if there’s one thing I can do well, it’s prepping for theoretical exams. There was no actual driving test, which is quite alarming now that I think about it. Is this how all Indian driving licenses are handed out? Because that might explain a lot.

I haven’t learnt how to drive in the States yet, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve gotten by quite nicely in the last four years, and the whole process of buying or renting a car, getting a teacher, learning to drive in Manhattan traffic, and relearning all my driving coordinates (the left side of the road is NOT the right side to drive in this country!) seems a lot more hassle than it’s worth. I might do it at some point, once I find a reason more convincing than having to answer – ‘wait, you can’t drive?!’

So you see, the honest answer to that is yes, I can. I CAN drive a car, you know, just as long as I’m barefoot, it’s a manual, someone is barking rapid-fire instructions at me, and I’m allowed to drive on the left side of the road. I can totally drive! 😛 But for mine and everyone else’s sake, I’d really rather not!

A Playlist named Home

The whir of my dad’s car pulling into the driveway at the end of a long day. Gales of laughter around the dinner table. The renderings of Kishore Kumar singing in the background. The annoyingly shrill cries of the hordes of peacocks parading around town. The soft tap-tap of a tennis ball hitting the walls, interspersed with thwacks as it is caught by my brother’s ready hands. The drone of the water cooler as it fights to beat the summer heat. The hum of the washing machine. The tinkling sound of my mother’s laugh, warm and delighted.

Seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles. Here, in my NYC apartment, I am approximately seven thousand, six hundred, and forty five miles away from home. So very far away – more than twelve thousand kilometers,  a whopping 9.5 hour difference in time zones, and over sixty six hundred nautical miles. It’s a long way to home by any means of (feasible!) transport. I put on my headphones, close my eyes and listen …

The whir of my dad’s car pulling into the driveway at the end of a long day. Gales of laughter around the dinner table. The renderings of Kishore Kumar singing in the background. The annoyingly shrill cries of the hordes of peacocks parading around town. The soft tap-tap of a tennis ball hitting the walls, interspersed with thwacks as it is caught by my brother’s ready hands. The drone of the water cooler as it fights to beat the summer heat. The hum of the washing machine. The tinkling sound of my mother’s laugh, warm and delighted. The snip of the secateurs as the rose bushes in the garden are trimmed. The cheerful babble of school children on their way home. The characteristic jangle of the landline telephone. My mother’s voice, so like mine, talking to a friend. The static-y old Bollywood music trilling out of the radio in the kitchen. The piercing whistle of the pressure cooker. The rhythmic creak of the canopy swing set in the garden. The soft click of the front gate signaling my parents’ return from their evening walk, sending my brother and I scurrying over to more respectable activities. The jarringly loud flap-flap of a peacock’s wings as it flies up a few feet to rest upon the leaves of the bottle palm tree in my front yard – the peacock with two left tail feathers slightly crooked, who has made our garden his home, and now co-exists with us in not-so-peaceful harmony.

Back in my NYC apartment, I close my eyes and listen to all these sounds – these discordant, unrelated sounds, which somehow all come together seamlessly and blend into nostalgic melody: the soundtrack to what I call Home. And as my melody plays on, those seven thousand, six hundred and forty five miles steadily fade away into nothingness, and in a blink of an eye, I am home.