My eyes open in London, at 6:15, to the sound of John Bailie, gently knocking at my door. He has offered to accompany me to the train that will take me to Heathrow, where I’ll be whisked away to my home for the next few months…Florence, Italy.
I organize my luggage, while John prepares breakfast. He calls for a taxi and we hop in, it’s the lovely old-fashioned kind of cab you see in movies, and on disintegrating postcards, stored in your grandmother’s keepsake box.
(that’s me on Abbey Road – great to have an artist as your tour guide – authentic shots of famous album covers… thanks John!!)
My ticket in hand, we say a final farewell. John has been so gracious in taking me in these past four days. I’ve grown
accustomed to his quiet ways, and attention to detail. I will miss having my own personal tour guide, and photographer, but take comfort in the knowledge that I have made a new friend.
I slip into my seat, and proceed to write in my journal of the adventures in London. The train arrives at Heathrow, Station 5, and I board my flight to Pisa, Italy, then a connecting train to Florence. This will be my first day, of a 3 month stay in Tuscany.
On the train from Pisa to Florence, two elegantly dressed women, sit directly across from me. They are deep in animated conversation, from their of day shopping. Expensive packages are artfully held in their laps. Warm smiles are freely given to anyone who catches their eye, and the energy they bring with them, on this fifty minute train ride, is irresistible. Like most Europeans, they are accustomed to riding the train, as they effortlessly navigate the confined spaces of public transportation. A look of understanding simultaneously crosses their faces as they notice the English/Italian dictionary in my hand. They welcome me to their country with a wink, then continue on with the lively conversation of their days events.
The train arrives at the station in Florence, and my heart stands still as my foot touches the platform. I know this place, I love this place, I am home….
I cross the street to visit Marco, at Luna Rosa ,the Pensione/Hotel where I stayed in 2007. Marco’s beaming smile, and open arms, betray his obviously exhausted exterior. He is nearing the end of a 2 year renovation to Luna Rosa, and the adjacent Pensione, he purchased in 2008. He is a driven, and ambitious young man, and although I’m truly interested in the work he has completed, I’m distracted, and anxious, to reach the apartment in the hills, I booked 2 weeks earlier. The official tour of Luna Rosa will have to wait for another day, my mind, and feet are restless with anticipation. I promise to return, and visit once I’m settled.
I board the #17 bus, and after a bone shaking ride, I arrive at the designated stop, to meet the woman who owns the residence, I will be staying at for the next few months. Federica, my new landlady, is waiting at the Salviatino bus round. I like her immediately, with her kind eyes, friendly smile, and an embrace that is gentle, real, and welcoming.
Federica Parretti, proudly tours me through the property, and adjacent gardens. Like the photos, and description online, Residenza del Palmerino, does not disappoint in beauty, charm, or character.
My room is quaint, simple, and truly spectacular in my eyes. The view from my 4′w x 9′h window, reveals a narrow passage directly below. This two-way, winding road, can’t be more than twelve feet wide. On the opposite side of the road, an ancient stone wall follows a meandering creek, and past the creek a vineyard. Beyond the vineyard, the landscape seamlessly transforms to a hill, and atop the hill, a row of Tuscan Villas. I take a deep breath and ask myself: “is this real?”.
After briefly unpacking, I set off, on foot, to buy fundamental groceries for dinner. Federica suggests a restaurant I might like to try, however, my heart is set on cooking a meal to celebrate the start of this new, and exciting chapter in my life. Each door I close, in my new surroundings, reminds me of old Italy. Exactly what I would expect to find in a home of this era: individually unique in scale and design, with non-traditional door design. One door handle is in the centre of the door, another is off to the side. Several doors are split down the middle, requiring you to turn sideways to exit. The knobs, levers and locks, hand-crafted of steel and old brass. Thick glossy layers of paint, coat the doors from hundreds of years of upkeep.
I begin my walk, with a breathless step, each step turns into a skip, then finally a run. I can’t contain my excitement. I want to be in the square at the end of this road. I can picture myself shopping, riding a bike, and living here….
I become aware that I’m missing the experience of my first walk to the market in Italy. I slow my pace, focusing on the surroundings, the realization that this is the first of many trips I’ll make. I repeat to myself: “it’s the journey, Shauna, not the destination”. These words resonate throughout my body. I’m living true BLISS, in this moment. My smile is wide, and infectious, to everyone I pass, including myself. How can it be, that after five short weeks of hurried planning, I’m actually here, on my way to buy groceries, and Italian wine for dinner in Florence?
I’m filled with a contentment that every person deserves to feel, at least once in their life. Age and experience, both positive, and negative, have taught me that not everyone has the same opportunities handed to them. I feel fortunate, and humbled, by the circumstances that brought me here. My current opportunity came December 3rd at 3:33 a.m. I listened to the voice filling my head and my heart urging me to fulfill a dream of an extended stay in Italy. Now here I am, walking along a path lined with a stone wall marked by years of history. I see a metaphor for my life in this wall….winding, etched with character lines, worn by life but still useful and essential. Touched by amazing families, friends and strangers alike. I breathe in the crisp clean air and feel both blessed and in love. In love with my life? With myself? With this road and this country? Does it matter? I’m here!
After my euphoric five-minute walk I arrive at the square where the bus dropped me off less than an hour before. I walk contentedly down the busy sidewalk, and eventually come upon the local supermarket. It’s a modern Italian market, not exactly what I had envisioned. The produce section, although small, has all my favourites. After careful observation I discover the clever concept to produce shopping in this country. Initially, you select and bag your produce, and walk over to one of the weigh scales with a touch screen. You place your item on the scale, and touch the screen with the corresponding name and picture. It weighs your vegetables, dispenses a sticky price tag indicating the items weight, description, and cost…brilliant!!
Four small problems:
#1 The pictures don’t look anything like the items I hold in my hand.
#2 I don’t know the names in Italian.
#3 The items are not in alphabetical order.
#4 The store is packed with impatient locals on their way home from work.
I stand fascinated and exhilarated by this experience. Out of the corner of my eye I notice a small child studying me as I take in my new surroundings. I turn to her with an impish smile and a wink, she rushes back to her mamma’s leg for protection from this deranged woman. I continue to walk mesmerized by everything I encounter. My steps are slow, my breath shallow, my eyes alert to these new surroundings, my head turns at each new sound, and a shudder of excitement pulse through my body. I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirrored window, a secret smile frozen on my face, giving me the appearance of a Cheshire Cat or perhaps an escapee from an institution.
I locate, tag and gather the items on my list. Excitedly I stand in line waiting for my turn at the checkout. I take a quick peek at the euros I packed with me, remnants from my previous trip to Europe. I carry the euros in a fabric money-purse intended for credit cards, and small amounts of cash. It is cleverly designed for female travelers, attaching to lingerie with a silk ribbon, then tucking neatly into said undergarment. Much safer than a purse in a foreign country.
I roughly calculate my purchases, and now it’s my turn at the register. I eagerly hand the overworked, underpaid, 22-year-old cashier my euros. She looks up at me with impatience. She rattles off in Italian what seems like fifty words laced together. I stand dazed and confused, the smile slowly fading from my now perplexed face. The gentleman behind me tries to move things along with a loud and frustrated: “No No No!!”. The line of exhausted customers is growing by the minute, all of them keenly aware that I’m keeping them from their homes. The readout on the till clearly shows my total is 15.36 euros. With the money-purse resembling misplaced lingerie dangling awkwardly from the neck of my sweater, I nervously recalculate the money in my hand. I have .36 euro coin and 15 paper euros. What I’ve failed to notice is that the money that I hold in my hand is not euros, but pesos from last years trip to Mexico with my daughter. After what seems like an eternity I locate a folded 20 euro bill. The irritated cashier raises a thick eyebrow and lets out an audible sigh of disgust. Her obvious frustration toward me, the useless pesos in my hand, and the ever-increasing line of my new community, only add to this experience. Fortunately for me, no level of embarrassment can dampen my spirit on this significant day.
My Cheshire Cat like smile returns.
I leisurely retrace my steps to my new home in Italy, feasting on half a baguette as I stroll along. I pause to admire the creek as it dances in the moonlight. I drink in the exceptional beauty, sounds, and aromas, noticing ancient stone walls which line the path I will have the pleasure to stroll along for the next two months of my life. I delight in the muffled sounds of families visiting in their kitchens, a barking dog in the distant hills, and the familiar aroma of burning leaves. I do not feel alone or lonely as I walk by myself. Somehow this place feels like a familiar friend welcoming me home after an extended absence.
I gratefully prepare my celebration dinner while reflecting on the past five weeks. It’s late. The day has been long, yet intoxicating. I sit contentedly at my window, sipping a glass of wine, and gazing out to the shadowy vineyard. Dots of light from distant villas fracture the ink black sky. I close my eyes savouring the taste of the wine and my simple feast. The aroma of this meal and these new surroundings fill my senses. More importantly they fill my heart.
Again I ask myself: ”is this real?”