Some years back, when I was living in Wilmington, North Carolina, I decided to take a Saturday Chinese class (confession alert!) because I wanted to meet a certain cute guy I’d seen at a Chinese community party and who I knew must be taking one of the courses. But also a little because I wanted to visit China, a desire which, for some reason, would grow on drunken nights when I would invite acquaintances I’d newly met to travel there with me. Anyway, I got the guy – who was a couple levels above me but not really that great at Chinese – to tutor me for $20 one day a week, often over beers (though I never got the liquid courage to invite him to go to China with me). He must have picked up on something and thought I was ridiculous. I never actually told him I was interested in him, although our Chinese teacher knew.
I only attended the class for one term, the tutoring lasted even shorter, and I had no further contact with the guy. I also didn’t make it to China (not yet). But one thing stayed with me. I was telling him one time about my fondness for monuments and museums, and he said something like, “I’d much rather see the food stand where my friend went to growing up.” I didn’t quite grasp that at the time; it would take a lot more travels, and even some more moving around, for me to really feel what he felt.
I have now visited probably most major museums and seen most major monuments in Europe, and I must confess that a lot of it blends together in my head. The most memorable moments have involved conversations with travel companions or people I have met randomly on the way. Surprisingly amazing little places we found together. Train, tram, (water)bus and Vespa rides together. Songs they shared with me and which will forever remind me of them. And yes, the places some of them went to growing up… even the houses where they grew up, the schools they and their parents attended, when I got close enough to earn such an entry into their lives. It is not the memory of a painting by the ubiquitous Rubens or Monet, or of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, that squeezes my heart and throat with longing for moments that will never repeat themselves, but those little intimate tidbits with people which time and distance dim but never quite erase. All despite the fleetingness of those moments compared to the durable brushstrokes and statues.
And speaking of Florence: I just went there for the second time, along with Pisa, the first having been in 2006. Back then, I only tried to speak English to the Italians and rushed from one sight to the next. This time around, though, I made it a point to do sightseeing only casually, on the way to visiting the postgrad university in Florence with my travel companion and visiting Brazilian friends who happen to be living near Florence city center. I also made it a point to try to speak Italian – actually, “Italianese” (mix with Portuguese) and “Italianish” (mix with Spanish). People appreciated it and I think they were extra friendly and helpful to me because of it. They also seemed to smile at me a lot more – or maybe I just noticed more, since I wasn’t staring up the whole time at the Duomo or Tower of Pisa (which by the way looks smaller and more crooked than when I first saw it). Our leisurely pace in Florence also led us to hang out one evening with a cool guy I’d met randomly in Milan a couple days back, and join a group of Italian girls we got introduced to randomly after getting one of them out of being harassed by a scary-looking drunk man. We finished the night at a jazz club we never would have found otherwise.
And I must not forget to mention the food. The sheer awesomeness of Italian food, its freshness and flavor and… simplicity. I had never quite appreciated it before because I’d been too busy rushing from bridge to bridge, fresco to fresco. *Sigh* Give me some more of that dolce far niente…