I hate Florence immediately. I come in on the Regionale from Rome, the local train ambling unhurriedly past acres and acres of withered sunflowers and occasionally stopping for no apparent reason. No announcements are made in any language, and eventually the train pulls along again like a reluctant animal that isn’t used to being on a leash.
We sigh into the Florence train station at Santa Maria Novella and I drag my bags through an unfashionable neighborhood in the slanted late-afternoon sunshine, the deserted sidewalks like something out of a De Cherico painting. My thoughts, as my bags rip my arms out of the sockets: ugh and why? I can’t believe they keep all the treasures here in Florence; it’s like making your ugly sister carry your purse.
At the world’s most repulsive youth hostel, which I booked because it was cheap and near the station, I am sharing a room with three girls: an Australian I don’t meet but will later be sharing a rickety bunk bed with, a kid from Beijing who has been clearly waiting for an exhausted American to practice her English with and whose bed has a monkey-printed blanket on it which makes me feel guilty enough to give her English lessons, and a gorgeous Indonesian girl whose B.O. is like a whole extra person. Even after she showers, she stinks. Kicking like Bruce Lee, Sketch would have said. The whole city is kicking like Bruce Lee; Florence stinks like a freshly-laid turd, and I can’t find anyone to acknowledge the sewery stink of it. It’s a little lonely, feeling like I’m the only one wrinkling her nose in the cobbled alleys, which grow markedly quainter as I trek further from the hostel. Everyone else is swooning over this place, but I miss Rome.
But even I have to admit: the Duomo is pretty amazing. Waiting in the queue to climb up to the dome, where despite the many notices asking tourists not to write on the walls the old stones have been signed more times than a high-school yearbook , I meet some people. By the time we have climbed to the top to look at the red-tile roofs of Florence spread out beneath us like the world’s most uninformative map, we are friends, me and these two strangers, one gay and adorable, one Chinese and pushy but also adorable. We decide to go to Siena together, a Tuscan village that looks pretty much just like Florence only hotter and hillier. At least we outpace the smell, and I celebrate with my third gelato of the day.
Despite the infusion of sugar, my alcoholism keeps up a steady want-whine over all the vino I am passing up. “You don’t want any?” my new friends ask incredulously, as the waiter brings free shots of limoncello with our bill.
“Nah, I’m good,” I demur, as my inner alcoholic throws herself on the floor dramatically complaining that I never let her do anything.
We go back to Florence, because this is where they keep the treasures. I spend twenty minutes just looking at the massive hands on Michangelo’s David at the Accademia. I am a sucker for good hands. As evening insinuates itself in the narrow alleys, I climb to the top of the Piazzele Michelangelo with my friends to watch the sunset; Florence is one of those places where people watch the sun sink and applaud when it’s finished. I appreciate that. It’s a romantic moment, and I feel Sketch here like a phantom limb. I feel him in the museums too, all those paintings so rich and oily they look like they should be sopped up with bread and eaten.
Sketch would have loved Florence, and I can picture him here, drawing in his book from some heartbreaking marble statue, and it makes me queasy with love and longing. He is not here to love Florence with me, so instead, I hate it. Even the beautiful parts make me resentful.
At night, I go back to the hostel and sleep with international strangers; the bunk beds are so flimsy that the whole structure shakes when I turn over, and I am a restless sleeper. The Australian girl down below must hate me. I am too old to play the part of a teenage backpacker, too old to accept things like the air-conditioner over the door which has dripped a lagoon of water onto the floor, or the key I am given that is so badly-fitted to the door’s lock that I have to bang to be let in. It’s only marginally better than sleeping on the street.
I go through a whole thing to rent a towel; I don’t bother trying to get a hair-dryer, and I wander around Florence with all my hair shoved under my hat. Outside, it is so hot I am lapsing into a bovine state, staring at things and chewing.
“Go make out with some hairy Italian guys,” my friend texts me, and I feel vaguely that I am letting someone down: myself, perhaps. This blog isn’t going to write itself, I tell myself sternly. Go out there and make some stories. But I can’t seem to whip up any enthusiasm, even for tall men with ponytails, who are everywhere. I love a man with a ponytail.
France is next. Maybe Paris will be different, I tell myself. I leave Italy feeling like I missed some vital bits, like I dropped the ball, already planning my excuses for when someone asks me if I went to the Uffizi, which I failed to book tickets in advance to and thus did not visit. I don’t know what to tell the person who asks me why I didn’t hook up with any Italian men, here in Italy, except to confess that I sort of blew it.