It’s five past much too early as I write, on a Saturday morning in a studio flat near the Via Sienese on the edge of Florence. It is hard for me to believe that last statement, the bit about being in Florence. I feel no different than usual. I feel no huge Italian influence. At this early hour I don’t feel the heat. I see familiar things around me. I am drinking water. So why did I travel for days on the back of a motorbike to be here if I feel just the same as being at home?
(Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence not bombed during World War II)
But of course it’s not the same. If I open the door onto the garden I can see the soil is dry and cracking from the constant heat and lack of rain. If I pick up one of our host’s books I can see they are written in Italian, even if the cover is familiar, the contents are completely indecipherable. If I open the fridge there are strange foods in there, in the cupboard also. And especially under the sink, the things in there may contain warning labels but how would I know? Even the tap in the kitchen sink has an extra colour… red for hot, blue for cold and white for…
(The huge Duomo)
And even though at this particular moment sitting on an (almost) normal chair, typing on my own laptop and drinking ordinary water (from the white section of the tap…) I don’t feel different…. But for every moment that I am here in a country I did not grow up in, I am awakened by differences all around me. And being awakened is probably a good thing.
(Jugs for sale)
Most of my life I spend asleep…. and I’m not talking about the time I’m asleep in bed. For example, I go to the shop, I walk to the third aisle, I pick up some toilet paper, I scan for the shortest checkout, I pull out some cash from my purse, I hand it over, I smile/don’t smile, I say something pleasant/unpleasant about the weather/government/price of cabbage, I walk out, I notice very little…. unless they moved the toilet rolls.
(A braille map of Florence)
Here in Italy I stop every time on the threshold of a shop and wake up. I think “is it still day or is it evening?” and search in my memory for the words “Buongiorno” (good day) or “Buonasera” (good evening), because here in this unfamiliar place everyone greets each other when they walk into a shop. I stop in front of the shelves full of unfamiliar packages and search for clues as to what might be inside. If I’m lucky and know what I want, I search for a match between my want and each package in front of me. I am awake because they have moved and repackaged everything….
(Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo)
As I walk along the street I am noticing shop windows, footpath edges, scooter sounds, bicycle sounds, pedestrian sounds, I see crossing stripes. I look right then left and then with a jolt I remember I must look left first. Wake up! The traffic closest to me will come from the left…. unless this is a one way street… I’m awake now.
(The reason Piazzale Michelangelo got its name – a copy of Michelangelo’s David)
And while I’m awake I notice what’s going on right here and I can bring a little bit back home with me for when the rain falls and I am asleep again, Mairead.