I often find myself heading back to my apartment just as the day is starting to wind down, that quiet hour between sunset and twilight. As the sun readies itself to set and the tourists meander back to their hotel rooms to get ready for the night’s dinner, there’s a lazy, indulgent vibe in the air – much different than the hustle and bustle of the daytime. More often than not, I return from one garden or another on the Oltrarno by way of my favorite (and less tourist-crowded) bridge, the Ponte Santa Trinita. Through the piazza at the base of the bridge, I see people relaxing after a long day, leaning their heads back against the old stone walls of the buildings, taking in a lively jazz quartet or a moody violin solo. Most times, I join them for a little while before continuing on my way home. I almost always choose to walk down Via delle Terme, a tiny side street that leads straight from the square to my lovely Florentine apartment. Walking back home just as the sun is beginning to descend through the piazza, I always catch a tremendous feeling of being home.
A few short weeks ago, as I walked down the Via delle Terme after a lovely day of getting lost in the gardens, I felt a sense of deep sadness in knowing I only had a handful of these walks left before I would have to leave. In the piazza, Love Theme from one of my favorite movies of all time, Cinema Paradiso, is playing. It’s one of those songs that makes you feel how heavy love and romance can weigh on a heart, a song that evokes wistful emotion from the first note. The music follows me down the street, fading ever so gradually as I slowly make my way farther from the square and closer to my destination. I can only hope that as I make my way back home to the States it will follow me still, floating on the air as I walk away briskly with my back to it. But now, as I leisurely walk down the winding cobblestone street back to my apartment, the warm setting sun at my back, I can’t help but feel like I’m in the closing credits of a film – an epic love story. As I reach my corner, the music just a faint memory in the background of the sounds of the city, a single tear runs down my face. This is not fiction. This is love.
This isn’t a story of unrequited love. All the love I have for this place, it’s been returned to me tenfold. I’ve received it by way of stunning sunsets and meaningful relationships and things that have endlessly surprised me and left me in awe. Every time I say I love you to the city, the city nudges me back, sending a flurry of singing swallows into the sky above or a fragrant jasmine-scented breeze when there’s seemingly no jasmine to be found. I never had the misfortune of feeling alone here because even before I arrived, I had a friend in this city. She is beautiful and picturesque; she’s all the things you’d imagine and more. She’s spontaneous and surprising and funny in her ways at times. And she’s a kind and loving friend, a loyal one at that. She lifts you up when you are down and brings you higher when you’re on top. She encourages you and opens your eyes to new things, things you didn’t know existed, things that were right in front of you all along. I feel so lucky to love this city, and be loved by it.
This city has made me feel things I didn’t know a place could make you feel. Love, wonder, bemusement, tremendous curiosity, astonishment, gratitude, heartache, endearment; it’s made me feel whole and comforted. Since day one I’ve felt looked after, have been given reassurances when in doubt and signs when in struggle. As odd as it seems, I’ve felt the sensation of being physically embraced by this city and the people in it.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t adequately express my love for this place, that I can’t put into words what it means to me. I feel as if I’m the only one that can feel this great and profound love for this place, that no one can understand. And then I realize that the people living here, the people that have come from places all over the world just to be here, like me – they understand it exactly. They love this city with the intensity and voracity that I love it with. They are just as enamored by the culture and the history and the sights as I am. They love it in a way that is identical to the way I love it, and simultaneously in a different way altogether.
I wish I could embrace this city, I wish I could kiss it and tell it how much it means to me. I’ve on more than one occasion had the inclination to hug a building or a tree, just some way to express my love. Oftentimes I’ll place my open palm atop the stone ledges of the Ponte Santa Trinita, still warm from the day’s sun, and imagine that this city is a living, breathing being. Laying in the gardens, as I often find myself, I’ll gently run my fingers through the grass, a thank you for being so giving. I want this city to feel loved in the same way it’s made me feel safe and loved during my time here. It seems unfair that I’ve been so well taken care of and there’s nothing I can do aside from writing endless blog posts trying in vain to capture my gratitude.
The way in which this city has affected me, has lifted me up and energized me and showed me all the things I was too busy ignoring or avoiding, will be forever with me. I am heartbroken to leave, but grateful for the experience of a lifetime. I will be back, that I know. But even then, it won’t be the same as this, my soulful journey into the unknown, where the only friend I had upon arriving here was the city itself, and what a loyal friend it’s been.
I return to the States with the victorious feeling of having done everything I wanted to do. I truly feel in my heart of hearts that there is no stone left unturned. If I wanted to do something, I did it. If I wanted to see something, I saw it. If I wanted to eat something, well, you know I ate it. Through a healthy amount of fear and trepidation, I marched right into any and all situations with confidence and self-assuredness. I said no to nearly nothing, even (and especially) when I was scared. I didn’t wait for things to happen, I didn’t make excuses. I landed on a Thursday and was out with new friends by that Friday. I leave feeling the full-bodied satisfaction of knowing there’s nothing I would have done differently, nothing I missed out on, with no regrets whatsoever. I lived out my dream and then I dreamed some more. Now instead of dreaming of the life I want, I wake up having just dreamed of the life I’ve lived. I never knew that life could be sweeter than wistful imagination, that what you believe in for yourself can be your reality. It’s striking how comforting it can be to realize that every once in a blue moon, the stars will align to make your dreams come true. Florence, I am forever in awe of you, forever in your debt, and will never, ever forget the time that we had.
No matter what happens, there is a piece of me that will always live in Florence. Even after the long journey home, even as my recollection of the vivid smells and sights begins to fade, there will always be a part of me here that I willingly left behind. It’s a piece of my heart that I parted with voluntarily, a small personal contribution bestowed to this city in good faith, in return for the life it has given me. And even when I’m not here, I’ll think of that part of myself, weightlessly floating on the breeze somewhere over the Ponte Santa Trinita, and I’ll take comfort in that and smile. I’ll leave it here so that I can one day come back and revisit it, I’ll leave it here so that the friends I’ve made know how grateful I am for their kindness and companionship. I’ll leave it so that when I return I can feel whole again, I can feel complete, and I’ll take solace in knowing that a piece of the best part of myself remains in the city that I love. And the rest of me – a full heart, a well-rested body, an enlightened soul, an awakened sense of adventure – I’ll take back with me. They say you can’t take it with you, and that much is true. What this city does to me and how it makes me feel are for this place alone. But I’m lucky enough to be able to take the collateral with me and live a life that’s pointed and purposeful and forever changed by the great city of Florence.