Thursday, June 5, 2014

Rinascita (n.): rebirth, revival

In October 2011, flash floods from a vicious storm devastated one of my favorite little corners of the world—the Cinque Terre, a hamlet of tiny fishing villages perched on the rocky cliffs that line the southern coast of the Italian Riveria.

Vernazza, in particular, was hit hard by the mud slides that followed. Just a year before, with a belly full of pesto and focaccia bread, I had snapped a postcard view of the town on a warm summer’s night, a memory fit for a daydream. The following winter, while knee deep in snow and ice back home in Vermont, I found that if I closed my eyes I could summon the bells of the lemon yellow church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, and I could imagine the rows of pastel houses that fold back from the snug harbor, watched over by the ancient Doria Castle and a fleet of small boats bobbing in the teal green sea.

The storm that fall brought a rude awakening. A headline in The Telegraph in London announced: “Villages All but Wiped Out as Storms Batter Italy’s ‘Cinque Terre.’” The scale of the disaster, they said, was “unimaginable.” A raging river of water and sludge had poured down the steep and narrow streets, which acted like a miner’s sluice, burying the towns in as much as thirteen feet of debris. The harbor in Vernazza, so stuck in my mind, was left silted and dry, its boats splintered like matchsticks.

Rick Steves, a long-time champion of the region in his guidebooks, said it was “as if nature had murdered someone I loved.” He was right. I felt it, too.

Nearly three years have passed and I’m eager to go back, but nervous, too, of all that has changed. Literature is replete with the notion that you can’t go home again. I’m about to find out, but first I’m having a lazy morning at the apartment in Florence, finishing chores of laundry and dishes. I pack a small suitcase with rolling wheels and listen to its rhythmic sound on the sidewalks and cobbled streets all the way to Santa Maria Novella station, where I’m booked on the 12:30 train to Monterosso al Mare. The journey is an easy one, with a change at Pisa Centrale, and before long I find myself pressed against the window of the train, excited by the quick snatches of sun and sea, as we hurl through long, dark tunnels towards the station.

It’s three in the afternoon when I step out into the sun and onto the platform. A row of palm trees frames my view of the turquoise sea, and I pause for a moment to breathe in the air and to enjoy the energy of the tourists crowding the New Town promenade. Instinctively, I turn left, walking past symmetrical rows of beach umbrellas, and a sign (in English) that reads: “Homemade Sangria, Experience the ‘Drunk Ass’ Bucket.” I push onward, through the tunnel, and when I emerge into the quaint streets of Old Town, I see a dark-skinned man in a fedora, playing the accordion. I toss a few coins in a basket and then bend down to pat the belly of his dog, who is napping lazily at his feet. He nods at me and grins widely, and with that simple gesture, I know that life goes on and that people are resilient.

The Cinque Terre is alive and well.

I check into my room at the Hotel Margherita, where the tangerine stucco and green shutters look just as I remember. In fact, I settle into the same room as before, although the fragrant garden of basil and lemon trees I remember so well has been replaced by tomatoes and oranges. I kick back on the bed and think about how to spend my time. Over the next few days, I intend to head north, by train and by boat, to a collection of small seaside towns along the Italian Riveria— to Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, San Fruttuoso, and Portofino. But tonight, I long to see Vernazza.

The train ride is short, and the summer’s night long with possibilities. I stroll down to the harbor to admire the view, and the rows of pastel houses that slide toward the sea like a melting dish of rainbow sherbet, but before long my stomach is begging for dinner.

Remembering Rick Steves’ colorful review, I decide to try Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre, a casual eatery owned and operated by a pair of Sicilian brothers name Gianluca and Massimo. To be fair, the food itself is nothing memorable, but the conversation certainly is! At the table next to mine, a woman from Boston is enduring a lecture on how “real” cannolis are made with ricotta. Nearby, an American couple has dared to order the chocolate cannoli, which earns a forceful rebuke. It seems I have stumbled not into the “Cannoli Twins,” but rather into the “Cannoli Nazis.” By the end of my meal, I’m half tempted to order the chocolate myself, to see if Massimo’s head might explode—I truly think it would—but I haven’t the heart.

It’s nine by the time I arrive back in Monterosso al Mare. The sky is fading into a dusky pink, and the colorful chairs and umbrellas that line the beach have been folded away, standing guard like sentries awaiting the dawn.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Questa è la vita (exp.) – This is the life!

It’s a beautiful day to be on the Italian Riviera. As I walk to the train station in Monterosso al Mare on my way to the pretty seaside town of Rapallo, there is a brilliant blue sky overhead, a warm sun on my shoulders, and the scent of roses in the air, mixed with the aroma of freshly baked focaccia bread. All I can say is: Questa è la vita. This is the life!

It takes me little more than half an hour to travel north less than twenty miles at a cost of just eight Euros, but the difference in my surroundings is striking. There are similar rows of spindly palm trees and buildings awash in Ligurian pastels, but the architecture is decidedly more refined than in the villages of the Cinque Terre. The windows are hung with the same green Plantation shutters that swing open to let in the light, or close for shade while tilting out to tempt in the sea breeze, but here there are ornate pediments above the window frames. Some are in molded plaster, while others are grandly painted in the fashion of trompe l’oeil.

My feet take me instinctively the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto, a wide and lovely promenade lined with park benches and ice cream stands and colorful umbrellas, anchored at its far end by an old stone castle known, appropriately, as Castello sul Mare, or Castle-on-the-Sea, which my guidebook tells me was built in the mid-16th century to ward off pirates. I wander towards it to take a closer look and it’s then that I see her.

There is a woman in a strapless bikini. Her feet are pressed into the pebbles on the beach and gentle waves are lapping at her ankles. She’s reading a newspaper and judging from the expression on her face, the article is terribly funny because as I stand and watch, her eyes crinkle at the corners and her smile approaches a laugh. I realize something then. What strikes me most—though it shouldn’t—is her age. Her gray hair is nearly white, and it’s pushed back from her face in waves that are reminiscent of a style women used to achieve with pins and curlers half a century ago. She is not young, her figure is not perfect, and she does not care. She is basking in the warmth of the summer sun, and enjoying the cool of the water between her toes.

I love her. I want to be her.

I struggle to remember when I last wore a bikini. It was sometime in my awkward teenage years, just before a growing self-consciousness drove me into a one piece with a flouncy skirt. Was it 1982, the year my family drove south to Florida on vacation? Or was it on one of our many trips to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia? No matter. It was a long time ago.

As I walk back along the promenade, past the Chiosco band stand in all its Baroque glory, I think of my hotel room back in Monterosso al Mare and of my luggage stacked neatly in the corner. I buy a dish of gelato and sink into a park bench facing the harbor. I didn’t pack a swimming suit. I spent more than a year planning this trip. I knew I was coming to the Italian Riviera and it didn’t once occur to me to pack a swimming suit. All of the sudden, I feel silly.

I stand and stretch my legs, make my way to the ferry terminal, and buy a ticket. It’s time to push on. I could take the train, of course, but if I cannot swim, why not sail on a day like this?

It’s a short ride on a crystalline sea that brings me to Santa Margherita Ligure. It’s a handsome resort town with extravagant villas and fountains and yachts moored in the harbor, although there is a romantic castle crumbling on a hill nearby that hints at a far more adventurous past. I stop to admire a statue of Christopher Columbus in Piazza della Libertà before setting off down Via Pelstro, which my guidebook assures me is “the strolling street for window-stopping, people-watching, and studying the characteristic Art Nouveau house painting from about 1900,” which includes elaborate ornaments, sundials, pediments, and false balconies.

For now, though, I’m walking in a determined fashion toward a bakery called Panificio. It’s well past one in the afternoon and my stomach is growling for food, in particular for a square of focaccia bread I spy in the shop window, smothered in thin slices of zucchini. The strawberry tart I order next is just for good measure. The sea air makes me hungry.

I wander as I eat, first to the castle and then to the tiny church of Sant’ Erasmo, which has been blessed by the sea with oars and nets and elaborate ships’ models. Then I climb higher and stumble into the gardens of Durazzo Park, which begin with a formal rose garden overlooking the harbor before descending into a forest below, whose wild walls and twig railings follow a path lined with classical statues grown thick with lichen and moss.

By the time I emerge from the shade, my eyes are squinting into a late afternoon sun. I visit the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia and shops with a tempting array of local delicacies, but mainly I just roam the manicured streets until my legs give way and the train carries me back to Monterosso.

For dinner, I decide to try a small restaurant on a quiet street near my hotel, called Via Venti. It’s seven thirty and the heat of the sun has given way to an evening breeze that reaches my table outside and causes me to breathe a contented sigh. I fall into an easy talk with the woman sitting next to me, a fellow solo traveler, and together we strike up a lively conversation with a couple from California. They tell us they’ve eaten here eight times through the years, always in pursuit of the same dish—a plate of fagottini pasta, stuffed with pear and ricotta cheese. In a moment of divine serendipity, I realize that it’s what I’ve ordered for myself and when it arrives I can see why they’ve returned time and again to enjoy its pleasures.

As we dine together, they tell us a story. The last time they came to Italy they asked the chef for the recipe so that they could recreate the dish at home, which he graciously provided. With an equal mixture of pride and determination, the wife took a cooking class where she learned to make pasta from scratch, while her husband tracked down the most authentic ingredients and had them imported to the States. And yet somehow, it didn’t work. It just didn’t taste the same. In the end, it was easier—and verging on less expensive—for them to fly back and order it here.

We all laugh.

I understand their disappointment all too well. Through the years, I’ve tried to reconstruct the food I experience in my travels time and again, but with only occasional success. The chocolate fridge cake I made in 2006 was really quite good, but did it equal eating a slice in the cloister of Westminster Abbey? Of course not. I bought a special pan to cook poffertjes after my 2009 trip to the Netherlands, but could my tender pancakes, drenched in butter and powdered sugar, really compare to the plate I had in Amsterdam on a cold and rainy morning in June? Never. I can think longingly about a cup of Angelina’s hot chocolate on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, or the jägerschnitzel I once had in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, but no recipe in the world can bring them back.

It’s the memories we want, more than the food, and a fleeting experience we try to bottle that we can’t ever bring home. Yes, the fagottini was good tonight, but I knew it would be. I had pleasant dinner companions and a fine glass of wine. There was a cool sea breeze on my skin, and under a setting sun my tired feet gave way to a very happy heart.

Will I try to make some homemade pasta with pear and ricotta cheese when I get home to Vermont? Not a chance.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Rocambolesco (adj.) – fantastic, incredible, as in an experience

I’m walking to the train station again this morning, taking my familiar route down Via Roma and Via Feglina to the long dark tunnel dividing the “old town” of Monterosso from the “new.” When I emerge into the light and see the rows of beach umbrellas before me, I also see my fedora-wearing friend, the accordionist and his dog, and he pauses to wave hello.

Even on a slow regional train, the trip to Camogli takes only an hour, which seems well worth the effort for a village that Condé Nast Traveler recently called “one of Italy’s best-kept secrets.” I scan the article again as I make my way up the coast, the rhythmic sound of the tracks ringing in my ears. There is a description of the same “multi-story palazzi, painted in the muted pinks, yellows, and terra-cottas you find along this coast,” in towns such as Rapallo and Santa Margherita Ligure, “their deep-green shutters framed by trompe l’oeil flourishes.” But there are also assurances that Camogli is “far from the madding crowds” and “just-sleepy-enough” with its “under-the-radar calm.”

Perhaps. But not on a dazzling Saturday in June.

By the time I find the stairway that descends to Camogli’s waterfront, a wide stretch of pebble beach that arcs gracefully towards the 19th church of Santa Maria Assunta and the far more ancient castle of Dragonara, there are scores of sunbathers lounging on towels and deck chairs, and wading happily in the sea. The entire scene is so convivial that it has me rethinking the obsession American tourists have with “hidden” treasures, with experiences that depend not only on isolation, but also exclusion. Suddenly, it all seems rather churlish. I scan the crowd and see a young boy with a rod and reel fishing from a rocky ledge, a couple with a baby floating lazily on an inflatable raft, and a woman reclining with her knees bent, lost in the pages of a book.

In the late-19th century, Thomas Hardy famously used the phrase “far from the madding crowd” as the title of one of his novels, but the phrase originates with Thomas Gray, an English poet who years before had penned “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It’s become something of a derisive catchphrase that urges escape from the frenzy of civilization.

I look again at the languid view before me. Personally, I think I’m already there. And I don’t mind sharing.

I scan the shops along Via Garibaldi and find another focacceria for lunch, this time settling on a thick slice of bread slathered in tomato sauce and cheese from Revello, as well as a hazelnut cookie, rolled and pinched on the sides, called a “camogliesi alla nocciola.” I stop at a jewelry store, Robe di Cuoio, and buy a corded bracelet with two seashell charms and a silver starfish. But mainly I wish I could stay longer.

It’s early afternoon and time to push on to the abbey at San Fruttuoso, which is accessible only on foot or by sea. It’s a warm day with a blistering sun and I have limited time to explore, so I opt for the ferry.

It’s a fascinating place, nestled into a secluded cove between promontories marked by castles and lighthouses, and I wile away another hour or two discovering the monastery’s medieval cloisters and the burial vaults of the Doria family.

By the time I board the ferry again for my final stop of the day, I’ve grown weary and my shoulders and neck have reddened with a wicked sunburn. Yet as the boat rounds a bend and enters the harbor, the view unfolding before me nearly takes my breath away.

I’ve arrived in glamorous Portofino, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

There are Italianate villas perched high above the town on hillsides studded with palm trees and cypress. Tall masted yachts are anchored in the harbor alongside smaller pleasure boats that gleam with brass and polished wood. And the town itself is a gauzy confection, hung with streams of colorful flags that create an atmosphere of perpetual celebration—a holiday without end—which is, I suppose, what it’s like to be rich and summering on the Riviera.

I spend some time window shopping for diamond baubles and silk scarves in shops like Rolex, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Louis Vuitton, half expecting to see Elizabeth Taylor emerging from Dior on the arm of Richard Burton. Then I head up the long, sloping path towards Castello Brown, stopping short at the tiny, tangerine church of San Giorgio. My legs are in open revolt and the view from here is stunning enough.

Back down at the harbor, I decide to sit and relax for a bit with a fruity cocktail at Caffè Excelsior, where the steady stream of well-heeled couples passing by reminds me of the way Robin Leach used to close each episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous back in the 1980s, by wishing his viewers “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” This is, I think, the closest I will ever get.

The ferry carries me back to Santa Margherita Ligure, where a train completes my circle back to Monterosso al Mare. It’s nearly eight o’clock by the time I slide my sunburned body into a quiet seat in the alley outside of Gastronomia San Martino. It’s a no-frills kind of place, where the menu is written on a chalkboard and orders are placed at the counter, but the chef is gregarious and kind and when a young woman delivers a cardboard plate of food to my table a short time later, the pansotto in walnut cream sauce that it holds is exceptional. The entire meal costs all of €11,50—less than the drink I had on the luxurious harbor front in Portofino—and that suits me just fine.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Risvegliarsi (fig.) – to reawaken, come alive

Sometimes, I bite off more than I can chew when planning my travels. Ideas that seem inspired on a snowy day in February, at times look far different once I’ve arrived and logistics begin to take shape. Today, I had hoped to go to Genoa for the Regatta of the Ancient Maritime Republics, a rowing competition that rotates annually between the towns of Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa, and Venice. Frankly, though, I’d rather not. I have a weakness for festivals of all kinds, but the information I’ve found online is sketchy at best and without a decent strategy for how to get to the venue, it feels more exhausting than adventurous. I decide to stay here instead. After days of jet-setting up and down the Italian Riviera, a quiet day in Monterosso al Mare is exactly what I need.

I take a slow stroll about town, stopping in Gioielli del Mare to buy a silver pendant I’ve been admiring in the shop window for days, one that reproduces the Gothic rose window in the church of San Giovanni nearby. I buy a sundress hanging on a rack outside a clothing store. I sip a glass of lemon granita. I unwind and relax and the hours melt by.

It’s nearly two in the afternoon when I find myself on a park bench in Piazza Garabaldi with a fragrant slice of focaccia bread in my lap. There are children playing on a swing set behind me, and the sound of their laughter mingles with the clinking of silverware at nearby cafés, and the cadence of rapid Italian as neighbors sit in the shade and gossip. Close by, two violinists are playing for spare change under the railroad bridge, but somewhere, too, is the unmistakable strains of an accordion—my friend and his dog. It’s a curious symphony for the senses, and I’m reminded of that scene in Paris Je T’Aime where a middle-aged woman finds herself in a similar park on a similar kind of day.

“Sitting there, alone in a foreign country,” she says in a voiceover fraught with repressed emotion, “far from my job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.”

Alive.

That’s what I feel. Fully present and alive.

I think again about the woman in Rapallo, the one with the bikini who stood reading a newspaper while the sea lapped about her feet. And suddenly, I know exactly what I want to do.

I’m going to go swimming!

I rush through the tunnel into New Town and stop at a beach store facing the promenade. I have things to buy. A beach towel, €12. Turquoise bikini, €10. Matching sarong, €7. Swimming in the Ligurian Sea on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Priceless.

The sand is hot and the shimmering water cool to the touch. My toes slip in first and sink gently into the loose pebbles, and I feel the ground shift with the ripple of the waves. I inch forward little by little until my entire body is floating as light as a feather. It’s exhilarating and I find it hard not to laugh.

Much later, when I sit down to dinner at L’Osteria, the evening mass at the church of San Giovanni is just letting out. The door is ajar and I can hear the parishioners singing. On the street, a dog is barking playfully at a tabby cat, who retreats under the patio in utter indifference.

The symphony continues. And for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I am the conductor.

After dinner, I take a walk up to the statue of St. Francis of Assisi, and then down to “Il Gigante” and back, bumping into Scott and his son Ian along the way. The sun has set, the air is cool, and they’re eating gelato and brimming with enthusiasm for the Cinque Terre. They tell me it’s a magical place that will be hard to leave behind.

I smile and nod. Of course, I agree.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ondata di caldo (n.) – heatwave

It’s a beautiful morning in Monterosso al Mare, and with a reluctant heart, I’m heading back to my apartment on the Arno. When I emerge from the Old Town tunnel, I see my friend with the accordion, as I have every day, and I stop to scratch his dog on the belly and behind the ears. The man smiles, sees my luggage, and wishes me ciao and arrividerci.

It’s a hot day, so I’ve splurged on a 1st class ticket for the IC train to Pisa Centrale, which has lovely, private compartments with good climate control, but the regionale train that pushes on to Santa Maria Novella is stifling. By the time I step off, I’m drenched in sweat.

I’m back in Florence in time for the summer’s first heat wave, which already has me longing for the cool waters of the Ligurian Sea. I find myself veering towards narrow, shaded lanes on the walk back to my apartment, but along Via de’ Tornbuoni I’m grateful to Armani, Prada, and Gucci, who all have their doors standing wide open, allowing bursts of arctic air to spill out onto the street.

I spend the afternoon unpacking, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and straightening up. I eat dinner at home, but venture out later for some gelato at La Carraia, which melts nearly as fast as I can consume it. As I turn back, I retreat from the bustling lungarno in favor of Borgo San Jacopo, where the shops are dark and shuttered for the night. A wave of loneliness passes over me as I push open the door to my empty apartment and sink into one of the lime green armchairs. I send an email to a friend back home that reads: “Feeling a little homesick tonight… How are you?”

Just before I sink off to sleep, he writes back: “Looks like you’re having an amazing time! Homesick-shmomesick!”

I decide to shake it off, because he’s right. I am having an amazing time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco (idiom) – Not all doughnuts come out with a hole, meaning things don’t always turn out as planned.

Here’s an interesting fact: The vending machine at the train station in Pistoia, Italy sells underwear.

I’ve just gotten off the train and there is it. Three pair of low-waist briefs for just €9. It strikes me as an odd sort of convenience, intended for the ill-equipped traveler who either forgot to pack the essentials, or has gone too long between stops at the laundromat. What’s confusing, though, is that Pistoia isn’t on the tourist trail. Rick Steves ignores it completely in his guidebook. Lonely Planet mentions it twice, but only with the most bare-bones logistics, which begs the question: How did I find my way to Pistoia?

I suppose it’s a combination of proximity and laziness. I slept in late and it was nearly noon by the time I reached the train station in Florence with a vague inclination to go somewhere. The ride to Pistoia takes all of 37 minutes and one of the links that came up in a google search called it “the hidden jewel of Tuscany.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m flying by the seat of my pants, so maybe that underwear will come in handy after all.

I walk past the vending machine and out onto the street, using the GPS on my phone to navigate my way along Via XX Settembre to Via Cavour, and on to Piazza del Duomo. Nearly every Italian town has a Piazza del Duomo and it’s always a good place to start. There’s an octagonal baptistery and a Romanesque cathedral with a graceful arcaded façade, as well as a handsome old palazzo that serves as the town hall and civic museum, but aside from a soaring bell tower, it’s difficult to see any of it given that the square itself is overflowing with a flea market whose awnings and umbrellas radiate a claustrophobic heat.

I survey my surroundings and then flee to a restaurant nearby, La Botte Gaia, and order a selection of local cheeses as a light lunch as I assess the situation. As it turns out, the civic museum is closed on Wednesdays. Likewise, the churches in town will be closed for most of the afternoon, and the town’s most celebrated site, the Ospedale del Ceppo, with its glazed terra-cotta frieze by Della Robbia, is sheathed entirely in plastic and scaffolding. When I find an ad for a tour of the Pistoia underground, I leap at the chance. There’s not much else to do, really, and it’s in the high 90s outside. It’s bound to be cooler down there.

I’m their only visitor, so I’m sent down alone with a young guide. He takes me through a fascinating maze of arched brick passageways, but the history is largely lost on me since Giovanni Luca’s English is so broken that, at best, I only understand half of what he says. He tries hard, and asks frequently if I’m following along, but I haven’t the heart to tell him the truth. I want to prolong the tour as long as possible to avoid the heat outside.

In Italian Hours, a true masterpiece of a travelogue, Henry James writes about his visit to Pistoia in the late 19th century. He found it “drowsy,” but “full of idle vistas and melancholy nooks.” And he enjoyed himself, lounging away “in the empty streets the quiet hours of a warm afternoon.”

I’m trying, I really am. But the truth is, some places are off-the-beaten-path for a reason. Maybe it’s the heat talking, it probably is—the sign on a tabbachi shop I pass on the way back to the train station at just past five is registering 37 degrees Celsius—but for now, I think Pistoia is one of them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Meriggiare (v.) – To escape the heart of the midday sun by resting in the shade.

It’s another scorching day in Tuscany and whether it’s the torpid heat or the routine exhaustion that comes with travel, I’m slow to rise this morning—so slow in fact that it’s nearly noon by the time my feet hit the pavement of the Lungarno Torrigiani.

In renting an apartment in Florence for the month, one of my goals has been to explore new areas, especially those outside the crowded streets of the centro storico. Last week, I wandered through the narrow lanes of San Spirito and San Frediano looking for artisan workshops. Today, I’m heading east to San Niccolò, a neighborhood that rests at the foot of city’s southern hills.

I pass the Ponte delle Grazie and spot a simple silhouette standing on the bridge’s parapet with one foot extended precariously over the edge. It’s Clet Abraham’s “Common Man” and I cross to get a closer look. That the statue is here at all is something of a surprise. It’s come and gone ever since it was surreptitiously installed under cover of darkness a few years ago, functioning, as blogger Ann Reavis says, as a “poke in the ribs” to the “all-too-serious art establishment and other red-tape loving bureaucrats of Florence.” Clet, of course, never applied for the proper permit.

Later, to explain and defend the work, he said: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step.” It represents one of those moments in life where you take a leap of faith without knowing the consequences. From his perch, the next move might result in glorious flight or end with a sudden tumble into the river. “The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I’m standing on a bridge alone, halfway around the world from where I came. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Stepping off into the unknown to see where it leads? I may be a rule-abiding college professor with an aversion to modern art, but let’s just say I like “Common Man.” I like it a lot. After all, even an imprudent dive into the Arno wouldn’t be a bad fate on a day like this!

When I reach the Torre di San Niccolò, a medieval stone watchtower built in the 14th century, I think again about Clet, and not just because my route has taken me by his studio on Via dell’Olmo. A few years ago, in another of his brilliant pranks, he hung a giant nose on the tower, mentally fashioning its windows into eyes, and its gate into a gaping mouth. I’ve looked at the pictures online and now even without it there, I can’t help but see a face. Maybe it’s less impressive than seeing the Man in the Moon or the Old Man of the Mountain, the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, or Elvis Presley on a potato chip, but it’s right there in front of me, and all because of an evolutionary wire in our brains called pareidolia. Quite simply, we see faces in ordinary, inanimate objects because we crave order in a world of chaos. We see patterns in random noise that encourage flights of fancy, transforming science into art. It’s something painters have understood and exploited since the Renaissance, so why not embrace it on the modern streets of Florence? Leonardo Da Vinci created optical illusions in his drawings, and so did Giuseppe Arcimboldo, hiding faces in elaborate collages of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and shells, with nary a complaint.

Critics and curmudgeons be damned. The world needs more Clet Abrahams.

I squint up at the long, winding road leading up the hill. I’m baking here in the sun, so I climb slowly, first to a terrace of depleted rose gardens, where already many of the blossoms are curled and brown, and then on to Piazzale Michelangelo, for the finest view of the city there ever could be. I buy a tall glass of lemon granita from a street vendor and sit on the rocky ledge, catching my breath and soaking in the splendor.

I decide to walk along the old stone walls of the city all the way to Fort Belvedere, which feels like a punishing chore on such a hot day. From Via Costa San Giorigio, I seize an opportunity to use my Amici degli Uffizi card and duck gratefully into the shade and seclusion of the Bardini Gardens, which have been beautifully restored after decades of neglect. There’s a cooling stream, acres of woodland, a wisteria arbor bordered with hydrangeas, and a long patio on which to enjoy a late lunch. Before long, I’ve almost forgotten about the heat.

I descend the hill slowly, terrace by terrace, until finally I’ve reached the lungarno again. I rest for bit, enjoying the air conditioning of my apartment and not caring how much it will cost when the utility bill arrives at the end of the month.

When I venture out again later, it’s back to San Niccolò for dinner at a restaurant called Zeb’s. It’s a tiny, unassuming place that I might never had noticed if not for a recommendation from Italy Perfect and a plethora of encouraging reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. But it’s also intimidating at first, with a chalkboard menu written entirely in Italian script, and only two rows of counter seats, both facing the bar. I’m feeling nervous, like a fish out of water, when one of the owners comes by. He’s a handsome man named Alberto Navari. He winks at me, putting me at ease, and then talks me through the dishes, advising me on a primi and secondi that are tasty and well-priced, beyond the usual tourist fare.

It’s been a good day, a quiet day, a day lost in thought.

I pass Clet’s “Common Man” again on the way back home, but this time I notice not just the outstretched leg, but also the placement of the arms, which are bent towards the waist, and the hands that are curled, as if into fists. He looks confident in his stride. Unafraid.

In a book called The Art of Travel, one of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, writes that: “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” Perhaps he’s right. I’ve grown to love Florence and my neighborhood on the Oltrarno, and I take pride in the independence that I’ve felt here, and joy in the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a quite an adventure so far—not just the last two weeks, but the past eight years.

Back then, I was the figure on the bridge. I’d reached a point in my life where I was static and unhappy. In booking a flight to London on a whim one day, I lifted one heavy foot and plunged it into the unknown.

Frozen in time, Clet’s man can never be certain if his choice is the right one or not.

“The only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I did.

And it was.