‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why. You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)
The people are still here. Of-course they are. Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away. Are there more Americans than Italians here? Or are they just louder? I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe. This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly. They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see. I am a hypocrite. The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine. On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits. It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day. Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it. It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time. The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach. I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that. The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on. I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.
The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture. It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom. The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring. It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man. The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.
I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier. It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor. In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction. The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists. There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus. I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that. It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass. When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems. It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask. Those stores are horrifying enough already.
In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners. Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks. To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’ I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too. When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear. Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die. The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices. I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap. Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces. At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them. An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.
Travelling alone is a peculiar experience. I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone. Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing. With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too. The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible. Food digested, I felt like sleeping. A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers. In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up. My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere. I went back to sleep.
The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning. People interrupting my peace again. I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre. Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake. Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route. The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing. This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.
I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip. There does not need to be a reason, but I want one. Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha. It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned? The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever. As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones. It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza. It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence. Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead. Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy. Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment. The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo. Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time. At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town. To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace. The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.
Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this. Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty. The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks. It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely. That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival. Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses. Fuck it. Did David Foster Wallace care? I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by? None of it matters. There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going. I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly. It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep. I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much. I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment. It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza. Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.
I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant. A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table. It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road. My shoes were already filthy. There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD. A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar. I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain. These towns full of people continue to puzzle me. I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns. There must be some – there are universities and offices. I feel bad for those people. The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year. Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum. I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France. This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before. Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it. Take me away.
I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods. Running scared rather than escaping. I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling. What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.