I’m writing with the smell of tai chi oil and a familiar ache all over my body. My legs, unwaxed and so unladylike, stretch out like noodles. My arms are happily free of red spots for once, and heaven forbid the rashes return tomorrow; Benadryl is not a driver’s best friend. For a long time sweat seemed to be a foreign concept to my body, but now I believe I’m coping fairly well.
When my parents said they couldn’t remember some of their classmates, I was so confused. “I can still name EVERYONE in my first grade class,” I used to say. This was back in high school. I took out our class pictures and wrote their names on the back because I can.
Now…I’m a decade older. Now, it takes me a long moment to even remember the people around me in college: their names and their faces and how I even came to know them. I’m confused. I ask myself once in a while — is this a price we pay for getting older?
In the film Before Sunset, Jesse Wallace says that one thing he liked about getting older was how you become more equipped to handle your problems, even though they become deeper and more complicated. I want to believe that. Because one of the things I’m bringing with me into the new year is my impression that we are all just children in our twenties.
Or it could be just me? Adult is a word that I still can’t associate myself with, even at twenty five. What does it mean to be an adult anyway? I earn my keep and I pay my bills and sadly neither of them makes me one. Maybe in three years I’ll come back here and have a better answer.
But this year — if there is anything I’m grateful for, it’s the fact that I am in a much better state of mind right now than I was in January. I owe it to a few, very good people.
It took me a long time to get used to the lack of familiar faces this year. I recoiled into subtitled dramas and online forums and soft songs on Spotify. I dove into heavy traffic to kill time. I saw more blood than usual. I stopped painting for many months and I thought if I smiled more I would feel better.
But thankfully some conversations still continued, and they kept me company. Some just stopped altogether. Maybe it was for the best, because slowly, there was simply nothing left to say.
So here’s to the people we’ve met, the ones who left, and the ones left.
Some quotes that buried themselves in my mind this year:
People are strange when you’re a stranger. — The Doors
It is possible to know a lot of different things about a person but nothing about what they are actually like. — Natalie Breuer
So by all means, be your own person. But our lives mean nothing without others in them. — Squeaky Robot
Going through this life is the first time for all of us anyway. — Nam Sehee
I think being able to live, to observe more than to be observed, is important. — Adam Driver
It was the red tail lights of the slow traffic that welcomed us to Florence. We sat in the warmth of the small red Fiat — my mother in the backseat, next to one of our luggages; me, in the passenger seat, with my dry flaky nose looking like a kiwifruit; and Lavinia, our lovely Airbnb host, behind the wheel. I like Lavinia. I initially thought she had a very Winona look about her, but her eyes appeared more laidback and cool than intense and her nose was far from flaky. Occasionally she would turn to me and ask about our plans for the week. She spoke with a heavy accent in this deep husky voice that felt like silk, so it takes me a beat to snap out of it and sputter an answer.
Lavinia was driving us to her home: an apartment on the ground floor with its own tiny overgrown garden. By foot, it was supposedly twenty minutes away from the Florence Cathedral (although that would be an unfair estimate; there is a generous difference between my walk length and that of a typical European). Through the Fiat’s untinted windows, I saw cars slowly double in number. It was strange at first. Most of them were small, but then so were the streets, and yet there was always enough room to park at the curb and to drive by. Rows of similar facades slowly replaced the quirky shops of leather and magnets and
ice cream gelato. The closer we got to her building, the thinner the crowds. Until the only ones we saw walking on the sidewalk were holding grocery bags instead of maps or water bottles.
* * *
Florence is where I thought it would be a good idea to try something new as far as food is concerned. I always had very limited taste — I’m the boring type of person who orders the same dish (chicken) or latte every time. Bread filled with the cooked stomach of a cow? Don’t miss it, city experts wrote on their blogs. No lettuce, no cheese, no tomatoes. Just innocent-looking strips of meat. They called it the lampredotto sandwich. So as soon as we found a place in the maze of cafes and sculptures that offered this curious street food, I grabbed the chance.
It only took one clumsy bite before I gave up. I tried.
* * *
Grocery shopping always turns out to be a lot less mundane, if not confusing, in a foreign country. It all comes down to that giddy feeling when you look at the bread or canned food on the shelf, and you barely understand what’s written on the packaging. Some of the most interesting things we found:
- Ketchup or petroleum jelly in tubes like toothpaste (very convenient indeed)
- Tissue paper always sold together in six rolls (not that I’m complaining)
- And not a single packet of instant coffee (they do take coffee seriously). Also, we never got around to learning how to use our host’s moka pot.
* * *
At one point I sat on a stretch of cold stone next to an older man and his sketch of a boar sculpture, the one that stood a few feet away on our left. He asked me if I took many pictures that day. No, I replied, because I was too busy looking up. I was actually glad that I didn’t, and he agreed.
* * *
In general, I remember I loved Florence.
The sun had something to do with it. You know how makeup has a different effect on everyone? Someone could look like an entirely new person in a slightly jarring, pretty way, and another person would simply — light up, and not in a way that overshadows whoever’s next to them. Here the sun somehow makes even the most dilapidated rooftops and graffitied walls look grand, like they were painted in gold. The Cathedral’s famous dome sticks out from the red skyline, like a giant bonnet with buttons, glowing and blazing against a backdrop of mountains.
Then I blinked, and the sun disappeared. The wind started to bite. I stood at one of the highest points in the city, Piazzale Michelangelo, where I was trying to memorize the view… The Arno River below blinked back the streetlights, and the city was now a gradient of black and gold. On my left, four young men drank beer and talked about their vague plans for next month. On my right — couple after couple, whispering words I did not understand, their arms glued around each other. One of them decided I was harmless enough to take their picture, and after I counted to three, he grabbed his girlfriend for a kiss and I pressed the button again and again and again until they were done. Must be nice. The view, the ambiance, were very lovely. Probably the most romantic view I have ever had the opportunity to see. Especially if these tall people moved out of the way.
It made it very easy to forget many things: the frustratingly unnoticeable bus stops, the chattering of people, the smooching sounds on my right, that I was still wearing yesterday’s socks, how stagnant my work had become, how much money I had left in my bank account, that this year I was the same age as my mother when she got married and here I still feel (and look) like a fifteen-year-old.
It was hard but important for me to accept that my being here did not change anything. I was unsure and aimless then as I am unsure and aimless now. So all I can do is enjoy the moment and as always I remind myself to do that more often. ✱
– – –
The woman beside me on the train reminded me of Vanessa Redgrave. She looked comfortable in denim, and her long hair was white and stringy. When she started to write, slowly, in her journal I couldn’t help but sneak a glance (I got nothing). At one point, she’d turned to me. Where am I headed? Am I on holiday? Is the woman across my seat my mother, or are we actually sisters?
She and her husband, who sat across from her, were from Nevada, she said. Not Las Vegas, but somewhere near the famous city.
“We only knew about the shooting after a while,” she was saying. “I wish we didn’t.” ✱