A summer’s day in Florence. Warm, beautiful and sunny.
I had just visited the Pitti Palace, that Renaissance palace brimming with artwork collected through the generations by the Medici and the Bourbons.
I had wandered through the Boboli gardens, from whose highest balustraded park one could drink in a panorama of Florentine countryside seemingly untouched by modernity: no telephone lines, skyscrapers, tv antennae or satellite dishes, just a plain, glorious, wooded Tuscan hillside studded with terra-cotta roofs, stone houses, towers and battlements that could have come straight out of a Boticelli or Gozzoli landscape. It could have been the year 1450 and not 2008.
Earlier in the morning, I had visited the Medici Chapel at the Basilica of San Lorenzo and had been awed by Michelangelo’s sculptures there. The countless times I had pored over their reproductions in art books did not prepare me for their overwhelming actuality. Corny as this may sound, I felt a tremendous vibration passing through my body when I laid my eyes on the familiar figures. Ah, the genius of Michelangelo in creamy, shiny marble! The chapel was not crowded and so I was able to give due reverence to the place.
I also visited the Bargello, a forbidding palazzo with an open courtyard that housed sculptures and ceramics by the likes of Michelangelo, Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia. Really, I came for the bronze that Donatello cast for the Medici, the “David”, just one among thousands of famous works of art in Florence. I sat to rest on the stone staircase and pondered how a city can have a seemingly endless collection of great art when my hometown of Ormoc City, in the Philippines, doesn’t even have a cubicle to display any sort of public art. I could appreciate the fact, not without some guilt, that cultured dictators, like the Medici, had their uses.
Later, I had a lovely hazelnut gelato and tuna panini at the covered loggia in the Piazza della Signoria, right there in the company of Cellini’s bronze “Perseus”, Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women”, the Medici Lions, and on the square, Neptune’s Fountain and across it, that poor guy, Cacus, whose head is forever being sliced off by Hercules. I should mention Michaelangelo’s “David”at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, but it was only a copy. I had just finished my gelato and pannini when a policeman dashed into the loggia and confronted an American tourist, a young girl, who was just about to drink a bottle of acqua minerale.
“Proibito!” he said, wagging his finger. No drinking and eating in the loggia. I eyed the girl sheepishly, who shrugged her shoulder and returned a look at me that said: “Lucky you!”
All in all, a lovely day in Florence. Things went swimmingly in this my fourth or fifth visit to this indescribably beautiful city.
So why was I worried? Faced with all this beauty in stone and marble and architecture, why was I in a state of near-panic?
Because, when I went back to the station to take the train back to Livorno, where my ship the “Royal Princess”was docked, I learned that at exactly 12:00 noon that day, while I was happily chatting at the Boboli gardens with three college girls from Georgia, USA, a bus and train strike had suddenly been called by the Italian unions.
In the height of the summer tourist season.
I was familiar with the word.
I should have guessed it that morning when I took the train from Livorno to Florence. The train station’s ticket offices were shuttered tight. I wondered why. I thought there was a holiday of some sort. Still, in Italy, you can still buy tickets from the vending machine, and that’s what I did. I fed in my 5 euros. The machine spat out the ticket. I caught the 8:00 train to Florence. No problem.
The train was not crowded. In fact, I had two seats to myself. I felt happy and excited as I watched the Tuscan countryside roll by. The foothills of the Apennines appeared, and a little over an hour later, I was in bella Firenze. What could go wrong?
Well, sciopero, for one. In the matter of strikes, the Italians are almost as bad as the French.
I had been coming to Italy since the ‘90’s. This was the first time I got caught up in one of its infamous strikes. I uttered (to myself) all the Italian cuss-words I learned in the course of my sojourn in this beautiful, but sometimes problematic, country.
Being stranded in Florence would have been no issue for me were it not for the important fact that I had to be in the port of Livorno by 5:00 that afternoon, one hour before the ship sailed at 6 PM. If I missed the ship, there would also be the complicating fact that the next port of call of the Royal Princess was Cannes, which, as everyone knows, is not in Italy, but in France. Not only that, but all my worldly possessions (the ones, anyway, I carried and bought on my travels) and most importantly, my passport, were on that ship.
If I missed the ship, I would be fired. No two ways about that.
I pondered my dilemma. I had two choices. The first was to find where the Princess tour buses were parked and try to hitch a ride back to Livorno. That would take some time, and I was not sure if there would be a seat for me, since this tour was extremely popular among the passengers.
The second? I looked at my watch. Three o'clock pm. No time to lose.
I examined my wallet. Twenty Euros and my Visa card.
The driver looked young, in his twenties.
“Voglio a Livorno,”I said, not caring if my Italian was grammatically correct.
His eyes widened a bit.
“Ma certo!” he said. Certainly.
“Quanto? How much?" I asked.
“Beh, I turn on the meter. Maybe 70, 80 Euros.”
“Ah, you speak English! OK!”
I sat on the back seat and off we went, past the lines of stranded, frustrated tourists streaming out of the train station, through the narrow streets of Florence, and then into the autostrada.
“What is your name?”I asked the driver.
“Thomas,”replied the young driver.
“Ah, Tommaso!”I said.
“No,”said the driver, “Thomas, not Tommaso”.
“But you’re Italian, aren’t you? “ I asked.
“Of courz-o, but my fa-ather named me Thomas anyway, so I don’t have the same name as the other Italian boys.”
I chuckled, and relaxed in my seat. I breathed more easily. 70 or so Euros to Livorno. Painful, but necessary. Thank God for ATM’S.
“Tell me, Thomas, why do you speak such good English?” I asked.
“I studied English in the USA. In San Francisco. I love to go back there again.”
I don’t remember what else Thomas and I talked about. He was indeed in his twenties. I think he couldn’t believe his luck in picking up a desperate fare such as I. I was just happy that he agreed to ferry me to Livorno. I watched the Tuscan countryside roll by. Dark clouds rose over the horizon. I hoped it wasn’t going to rain. It didn’t. The sun peeked through the clouds and through the trees. Large rolls of hay lay on fallow farmland. We passed by another quintessentially old Italian town perched on a hillside. I glimpsed old buildings, towers partially hidden by trees. I saw this countryside depicted in Bellini’s painting of “St. Francis in the Desert”, the one in the Frick Museum in New York. Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Pitti Palace, the hazelnut gelato, the cursed strike: they all seemed to disappear into the blur of cypresses, umbrella pines, the hidden hilltowns, the yellowing stalks on the harvest fields of Tuscany.
An hour later, we were on the outskirts of Livorno. A dark lowering cloud hung over the ugly port. A flash of lightning. How dramatic. How Italian. How expensive.
I made it to the ship, just.