by Melinda Gallo

Flashback: Walking around aimlessly

I walked around the busy streets of downtown Florence today. The hot, sticky air followed me everywhere. To find respite, I ducked into a building, which I realized was a church. There were no signs hanging outside and no tourists walking around inside. I sat down in one of the wooden chairs and took in my surroundings. The church doesn't have a crucifix above the altar and is not very well-lit. The pièce de résistance is a tabernacle with the Madonna col bambino.

I found more than soothing air in the church, but also a sense of relief. The church, which I found out was named "Orsanmichele", is like a small hidden treasure in Florence.

I leave the church only to go back outside where I once again feel out of place. I'm not a tourist as I have no map, no itinerary, no camera, and no guide book. However, I don't really live here because I'm not in a place that I can call home. I live in someone else's apartment with a bunch of strangers.

I practically live out of my suitcase and maybe that's what makes me feel so unsettled: I have no place to put my things. There's a dining room buffet in my bedroom filled with dishes, glasses, towels, and sheets. A bookshelf stands next to the door in my room with little knick-knacks and books on it. I'm thinking of asking to move a few things because I'll be here at least three more weeks.

I use a chair as a desk to put my computer on even though I have to sit on the marble floor to work. I can never work on my computer as the floor is so cold it burns. Without the Internet and work, I don't have much to do on it anyway, so it's not a huge issue for me.

I walked around the streets aimlessly, looking at the buildings as if they were each a piece of art. It looks like someone had to create a plan to build each building as on one street each one seems to look different from the next one.

I prefer to go into the larger, more anonymous department stores, like La Rinascente and Coin. I get to walk around without having to interact with anyone. The other day when I walked into a small clothing shop on via Cavour, an impeccably dressed girl came up to me and asked me something. I responded, "No, grazie." I have no idea what she asked me, but I figured that might be a good way to just be left alone. I looked at her just long enough to see how she looked like she just put on her make-up, got out of the hair dresser's and hadn't been outside in the heat for one second.

The woman followed me around while talking softly to one of her colleagues who looked as perfect as she did. When I stopped at one rack, she also stood still a few feet behind me. I parted some of the clothes on the rack and looked a little closer at a blouse. "Posso aiutarti?" (Can I help you), she asked me, taking the hanger from me. "No, grazie." I love saying that.

I walked out empty handed and realized that I needed to learn more Italian. I've been trying to talk to myself in Italian all day, but I had to look up too many words to complete one full sentence in my head. I wrote down all the new words that I found today, like negozio (store), chiesa (church), marciapiede (sidewalk), fare le spese (go shopping), vetrina (store window), and camicetta (blouse).

I refuse to speak to anyone in English. I know that I could get by with hand gestures, smiles, a few words in English, and lots of smiles. But, I am adamant about speaking Italian. I'd rather not say anything or say something incorrectly in Italian than fall back into English. If I go back to English, which would be so easy, who knows if I'll ever be ready to speak Italian?

I walked past a few places that showed off large deep-dish rectangular pizzas, but I wasn't impressed. I decided that I'd try to find a small restaurant and eat alone. Some place where I can look at a menu and if I'm not understood, I can always point.

I also didn't want the stress of standing in one of those self-service places where you have to ask for what you want and can't just pick it up and put it on your tray. Besides, who knows what the quality of food is like.

I also refuse to eat anywhere where people are standing at the door trying to talk you into coming in to eat. The last time I saw people like that was in San Francisco near Chinatown where a few men in suits called out to the passing men and women, "Live nude dancers."

I remembered that I saw a Chinese restaurant off of via Cavour. The two red lanterns hanging outside the front door were a dead giveaway.

Chinese food always makes me feel at home and maybe that's what I need. My mom, who is Chinese, used to cook it for us when she wasn't working and take us out to eat at Chinese restaurants on special occasions.

When I got out of the restaurant after my meal, the city seemed as drowsy as I was. Many of the shops were closed and I crossed even fewer people while walking the streets.

I felt great relief when I got back to the apartment. It was the first time I felt the darkness was actually a plus. Between the lack of sunlight coming into the apartment and the marble floor, it felt cool and refreshing. I welcomed the pleasant break from the heat.

I haven't seen anyone that I live with all day. The apartment is so quiet that I doubt that anyone is even home. Although it's hard to tell since we have to continually lock the door when we arrive and when we leave. I plopped on my bed to take a short nap.

I will be continuing to write about my arrival to Florence back in 1997 and will preface them with "Flashback" in the title.

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