Somewhere Under the Florentine Moon

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By Beth Hannon Fuller www.studiofuller.com

By Pamela Wright

I wasn’t overly concerned when I heard the shouting start in the apartment next door. I’d neglected to learn more than a few pleasantries in Italian before leaving Atlanta for Florence, so I was unable to decipher so much as the rudiments of the argument. I stopped unpacking my overstuffed suitcase and listened for a moment.

There were two combatants, one male and one female. His voice was gravelly and unsteady, hers crackled and shuddered. I smiled and imagined two adorable Florentine pensioners engaged in a harmless spat over the evening meal or whose turn it was to take out the trash, the sort of benign bickering that occurs occasionally but inevitably after many decades of an otherwise happy marriage.

As I continued sorting through piles of clothing and cosmetics, the voices became louder and more urgent. I could not understand the sum and substance of the argument, but the increasingly heated tone was universal: Aged or not, these people were pissed.

“Basta!” shouted the woman.

The old man responded with a lengthy barrage of unintelligible Italian, punctuated by something that sounded like puttana. That particular word sounded vaguely familiar, with a rather unsavory connotation. I thought it might have meant whore, or perhaps even the c-word, an epithet so vile that not even a hell-bent heathen like myself could be sufficiently enraged to utter it. I tried to imagine anyone daring to speak to my tiny but total-Southern-belle-badass grandmother in such a fashion and a shudder ran down my spine.

A loud crash erupted behind the bed. One of them had hurled what sounded like a very large piece of crockery against their side of the shared brick wall with sufficient force to launch flurries of red and umber dust into the late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the balcony. While I might have been unfamiliar with Italian culture and customs, in the rural South of my childhood, when folks got this het up, odds were pretty good that someone was going for a gun. Even my grandmother, always a practical woman, kept a pistol in her patent-leather pocketbook for quick and easy access. When compelled to brandish the weapon, she looked like the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Clint Eastwood.

Another stream of what I could only assume were expletives followed, and I stood dead still over my suitcase, a curling iron in one hand and a bottle of hairspray in the other. Neither would provide much defense unless the dispute next door was the result of an ill-considered home permanent. I heard the scraping of wood against wood, but before I could deduce its source, a  crash stilled my breath and jolted the bed a good three inches away from its original position against the wall.

Jesus Christ, I thought. This isn’t an argument, it’s a mob hit!

My parents’ twenty-year marriage had ended badly, but even amidst the escalating anger and recrimination of its wretched, waning months I never heard anything remotely like this.

I dropped to the floor and scrambled beneath the bed for cover, my heart pounding in my throat. This was not at all what I had envisioned a few weeks before when I first hatched my somewhat impulsive plan for a solo vacation to Europe.

•••

Unlike all of my female friends and relatives, I was both single and childless. Both were entirely my choice, and I was generally content with the life I had built for myself. A solitary creature by nature, the prospect of marriage loomed like a self-imposed prison sentence, and I had never been very comfortable with children. Little kids don’t drink wine and rarely follow politics, so after establishing what they hope Santa Claus will bring them for Christmas, I’m pretty much at loss for conversation.

By my early thirties, I was not merely resigned to la vita da single, I had come to revel in my self-imposed spinsterhood. I enjoyed the solitude and the independence to pursue my own interests, and I’d even developed an impressive set of landscaping and home improvement skills along the way.

Still, I did experience an occasional twinge of domestic existential angst. I sometimes watched young couples in a restaurant near my home as they fussed over cooing babies and leaned their heads close together in intimate conversation. I never wished I had that life, but every now and again I found myself wishing I wanted that life. As much as I relished my autonomy, there were moments when I wondered if the companionship and support of a life partner would be a worthy tradeoff for my independence. Granted, these moments were fleeting and almost always occasioned by such crises as the discovery of a roof leak in the wee hours of a stormy night or a dead possum in the basement, but it did cross my mind.

Men had drifted in and out of my life over the years, good men for the most part, some of whom had offered a lifetime of security in exchange for my last name. Marriage to any one of these men would have been a safe bet, and my refusals to accept boggled the minds of my married and desperate-to-be-married girlfriends. But I could not bring myself to gamble decades of my life and a kind man’s happiness against the off chance that the marital/maternal instincts would just kick in once I strapped on a wedding gown and said, “I do.” Worst case scenario, at least I have a spacious home. Eleven rooms will hold a lot of cats.

As the Big Four-Oh-My-God approached, I felt restless; I was happy but a bit unsettled. I suppose it was, at least in some small part, the realization that the life choices I had made so cavalierly during my twenties and thirties were becoming more limited. In ten years time, when the last of whatever good looks I was born with had faded and the Good Ship Fertility had sailed, what if I realized I had made a mistake?

It struck me that a change of scenery might soothe the soul, and I became intrigued with taking my first solo vacation abroad as a fortieth birthday present to myself. I spent weeks poring over a stack of guidebooks, practically drooling over the picturesque scenes of rolling Tuscan hills and quaint medieval villages. I envisioned myself, confident and self-assured, frolicking through the achingly beautiful Italian countryside on a bicycle. A long, gossamer scarf would stream behind me from my swanlike throat, a la Grace Kelly opposite Cary Grant in one of those old movies I spent entirely too much time watching.

It would be altogether perfect.

I bought a plane ticket to Florence and rented an apartment right off the Ponte Vecchio, all paid in full and non-refundable in case I tried to chicken out. It was meant to be an adventure, the trip of a lifetime, a paean to my independence. I wanted to become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone.

And there I was. In Italy. Stuck under a bed.

Perhaps I had made a mistake. I could barely ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in front of my house, let alone through the Tuscan hillside. With my luck, coupled with an inherent clumsiness, I would undoubtedly get my Grace Kelly scarf caught in the spokes and throttle myself by the short, squatty neck. Suddenly the prospect of spending every Saturday night in a greasy barbeque joint with a squalling, red-faced baby and a NASCAR-obsessed, potbellied husband who would probably sleep through the storm and pretend he didn’t see the dead possum seemed more appealing.

As the battle continued unabated next door, I cautiously snaked one hand out from under the bed and felt blindly along the edge of the coverlet until I located my guidebook. More crockery shattered beyond the brick wall. The old man unleashed yet another litany of invectives at his companion. The old woman responded in kind.

Basta! BASTAAA!!!” she spat.

I burrowed deeper beneath the bed and paged through the guidebook to the “Helpful Words and Phrases” section until I found the B’s.

Basta {interjection}: enough; “that’ll do!”

Enough? From my perspective under the bed it sounded more like “May God have mercy on your soul, you rat bastard!!!”

By the time the last dapples of sunlight had slipped into shadows, my neighbors had mercifully retreated to their respective corners. Rich, spicy aromas wafted in through the open balcony window and I was overcome with hunger. Encouraged by the fact that the armistice next door had lasted a full and unabated five minutes, I pulled myself from under the bed and headed out the door in search of dinner. Hunger always bested fear in the end.

•••

When I mentioned to people I was going to spend a week in Florence, Italy, alone, the invariable reaction (particularly from single women) was something along the lines of “Oooohh, maybe you’ll meet somebody! It’ll be just like that movie Under the Tuscan Sun!

I seriously doubted that this would be the case. I saw that movie. I liked that movie. But let me say, without a drop of false modesty, Diane Lane I most assuredly am not. Still, I could not deny the smallest, most fleeting of romantic musings in the weeks before I left Atlanta for Italy.

I had imagined spending the first night of my vacation in some lovely, out-of-the-way Florentine café, where I would while away the evening breathing in the same intoxicating air that had inspired Michelangelo and Botticelli, whilst a mustachioed waiter with impeccable old-world manners poured my wine and called me signorina with a twinkle in his eye. The music of Pavarotti would play softly in the background as a warm breeze lifted perfect waves of auburn hair from my creamy porcelain shoulders.

Somehow in this fantasy, my hair had grown about twelve inches into long, perfect waves.  I had also become ten years younger, twenty pounds thinner, and grown creamy porcelain shoulders worthy of display, as if I would somehow morph into a red-headed version of Veronica Lake as I passed through customs.

In reality, I had stumbled (quite literally, thanks to sleep deprivation and a misplaced cobblestone) into a café a few blocks from my apartment on the far side of the ancient Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The unsmiling waiter, mustachioed but with eyes more bloodshot than twinkly, barely spoke as he took my order and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. It was a lovely, late September evening, but there was not another soul to be found on the restaurant patio. For a moment I wondered what the crowds of people spilling out of the trattoria next door knew that I didn’t, and if I had just wandered into the Florentine equivalent of Denny’s.

As I dined on mediocre bruschetta and overcooked ravioli in cream sauce washed down with copious amounts of Prosecco, a nice breeze began to blow. Alas, it did not lift long auburn waves from my (modestly covered) shoulders because I was in the process of growing out a horrifically bad haircut that had left me bearing a disturbing resemblance to my fourth grade school picture. If Pavarotti were playing softly in the background, I could not hear him over the tubercular-sounding cough emanating from somewhere deep inside the empty restaurant. I elected to take it on faith that the unfortunate consumptive had not prepared my food, but I nevertheless abandoned the remnants of pasta left on my plate. I didn’t want to carpe diem myself into a bad case of food poisoning on the very first night.

I felt a bit unsteady on my feet as I stood and made my way to the street. Perhaps I had exercised poor judgment in knocking back three glasses of wine in rapid succession after being awake for thirty-six hours straight. I took my time walking back to the apartment, peeking through shuttered windows into shops I might visit the next day and stopping to admire the moonlight as it danced across the surface of the Arno River.

One of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the distinct smell that every city or country possesses. Every place I have ever visited lives in my memory according to its unique fragrance: the clean damp of Ireland, with notes of peat and wood smoke; the way the seventh arrondissement of Paris smells like butter and gruyere cheese melting into fresh, crusty bread; the metallic, energizing scent of New York City in December. Florence had a warm, ancient bouquet and a pleasant dustiness that was like breathing in the Renaissance itself.

As I stood by the river sucking up the essence of Italy, I detected a hint of musky cologne. I turned and found a man standing a few feet behind me, speaking Italian in my general direction. I looked over my shoulder. I assumed he was addressing someone else, but I was the only one there.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“You are American, yes?” he asked.

I thought it remarkable that he could place my accent based upon the utterance of only one word, but I quickly realized that as a nearly six-foot redhead I couldn’t exactly pass as a native.

“Yes, I am,” I offered hesitantly. I recalled a passage in my guidebook that warned of pickpockets and thieving bands of gypsy children who preyed upon American tourists. This guy certainly didn’t look menacing, in his well-tailored linen trousers and argyle sweater, but I was alone in a foreign country on a dark and largely deserted street.

The man quickly fell into step beside me as I began walking in the direction that my Prosecco-addled brain estimated would lead me to the safety of my fourth floor apartment. He said his name was Marco (of course it was!). I stole a glance at him as we passed beneath a street lamp. He was about my height and appeared to be somewhere in his thirties. And he was handsome … really handsome, with thick brown hair that fell in layers over a high forehead and an aquiline nose that could have been carved by an Italian master.

He attempted to make small talk as we walked, asking where I was from, how long I was staying in Florence, if I’d visited any of the surrounding towns. It took a few attempts for him to understand my name, but otherwise his English was very good, much better than my virtually nonexistent Italian. It all seemed innocent enough, but Marco was just far too good looking for this to be a pick-up. In Atlanta, a guy like this would be up to his spectacularly firm ass in co-eds and pageant girls, not scamming for a one-off with a bedraggled American tourist staring down the barrel of middle age. The only way I could conceivably draw his attention back home would be to spontaneously combust in the middle of the street.

As Marco continued to describe the wonders of Tuscany, I worked my tongue against my front teeth in a fruitless attempt to dislodge the errant fennel seed that had wedged itself there during dinner. I was suddenly painfully aware of the death grip my Spanx had around my waist, and I could practically feel the gravity pulling on my face. I certainly didn’t feel glamorous like Grace Kelly, or sultry like Veronica Lake. I felt sturdy and matronly, like Eleanor Roosevelt. The mugging scenario was starting to seem like the more likely objective.

“Well, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but it’s been a long day and I should get back…” I said and quickened my step.

“But wait, please!” Marco grabbed my hand and pulled me to a stop beneath a streetlamp.

I didn’t know if I should be flattered or kick him in the balls and run like hell.

“You are so beautiful, you cannot leave yet. Please, come and have a beer with me. I will take you to the most beautiful place in Florence.”

Please, dear God, don’t let it be the trunk of his car!

I offered further protestations of exhaustion and jet lag, but Marco continued in his attempts to persuade me to accept his hospitality. I’ll admit, they were beginning to wear me down. I had no husband to account to; I was a free agent on the loose in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. There were no children waiting at home, only cats, and they pass no judgments. Cats are good that way.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated; hell, I probably would have tried to pick him up. Recapturing a moment of the reckless glory of my misspent youth was tempting, indeed. At the very least, it would make for a saucy story to share with all of the other old maids in the state-run nursing home where I would undoubtedly spend my twilight years.

Or it could end with my god-awful passport photo flashed across CNN as Anderson Cooper, grave of voice and furrowed of brow, warned against the dangers of American women traveling alone and succumbing to the devious and dangerous charms of foreign men.

Or maybe he was a perfectly nice, well-intentioned guy who had a thing for slightly older women in need of restrictive shapewear. I had heard that European men appreciated maturity in a woman as in a good wine or delicately nuanced artisanal cheese. I had always assumed it was bullshit, but who knew, maybe there was some truth to it. I scanned Marco’s face again, trying to work out exactly how far into his thirties he might be, and wondered how well the term “cougar” translated from English to Italian.

“Well, maybe just one beer, but only if it’s not far…” I began. Maybe it was the wine, but a second wind of energy began to course through my veins. Then I turned my gaze downward where it settled on my feet.

There exists, I am certain, an unwritten but inviolable international law mandating that all women over the age of twenty-five attempting entry to any European country must be in possession of the sturdy, low-heeled, oh-so-sensible but altogether-butt-ugly walking shoe. Said footwear must be worn at all times, as evidenced by the untold thousands of pairs that carry female travelers bunion-and-blister free from the banks of the Seine to the back alleys of Barcelona every year. And there I stood, fully compliant in my size nine-narrow, round-toed, hand-stitched Clark’s.

They were about as sexy as a colostomy bag.

I found it categorically impossible to entertain even the notion of playing the femme fatale, even the Eleanor Roosevelt version, while shod in what my mother had previously described as clodhoppers that she herself would not deign to wear to a rat killing. I nearly laughed out loud as I attempted to envision myself seated on a barstool beside Marco, legs crossed, hair tossed, as I loosened one shoe and let it dangle seductively from my perfectly manicured toes. Whereupon, its full and considerable weight would most assuredly fall to the floor with a crash so loud and resounding that all conversations would cease in its echo.

“Why are you smiling? Will you come with me or not?” Marco asked and tugged at my hand again … just a little too hard.

My smile faded as I again imagined my formidable black shoe dangling from the end of my foot. But this time it was dangling out of the open trunk of a late-model sports car as Anderson Cooper sighed and shook his lovely silver head. My burgeoning second wind blew itself out somewhere over the Arno River.

The giddy effects of the wine had abandoned me with a headache, and I was suddenly so exhausted I nearly swooned. I wasn’t a reckless kid anymore. I was a grown-up woman in sensible shoes.

Basta.

I took back my hand, then I took my leave.

The sky was blanketed with stars as I walked slowly toward my apartment, admiring the architecture and reflecting on the events of my first day in Italy. I wondered what my friends were doing back at home as I tried to compute the time difference. It would be daylight soon in Atlanta, time for the early morning rush of which-child-would-eat-what for breakfast and frantic searches for car keys and briefcases.

I began to consider that perhaps I had made a mistake in declining Marco’s offer of a drink and whatever else the invitation may or may not have implied. I was guilty of over-analyzing things on occasion. Would this prove to be another experience I might someday come to regret having not embraced? Sometimes a drink was just a drink, and after all, I had become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone … carpe diem.

I stopped and looked back over my shoulder to see if Marco was still standing beneath the streetlamp, but he had disappeared, somewhere under the Florentine moon.

•••

PAMELA WRIGHT is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently working on a collection of essays titled High Hair and Low Expectations.

 

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8 thoughts on “Somewhere Under the Florentine Moon

  1. Pamela–Such a beautiful, funny, and poignant story! I laughed so hard I cried. Vivid images stay in my mind from your beautifully crafted story. Thanks for the wonderful trip. I can’t wait to read your book! – Rebecca

  2. What an amazing journey. I love hearing being privy to the author’s internal conflict as she navigates a milestone birthday and a solo trip abroad. Great sassy humor, too.

  3. What a fun frolic! Hooray…the sensibility and power of the middle aged woman rules in spite
    of the fantasies. Mesmerizing journalism!

  4. Smart, funny & dead-on with your description of being a single female of a certain vintage. :) I have Clark’s shoes too, and laughed out loud at the vision of dangling one from my crossed middle-aged leg. Adventure or safety? Good question. I love this piece of writing, & am looking forward to reading more of your work.

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