Days in Florence

Suddenly all I could think of was that I wanted that time of my life again, to go back, to be there again.

In the summer of 1934 I travelled to Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and the cradle of civilisation. In some ways I had left the best until last, and I arranged to stay there for a month. Of course, the city was beautiful, and my visit was everything I hoped it would be. But while I was there, something happened, something changed me, and the way I had been feeling. It came from an unexpected direction, but I think it helped me begin to find what I had probably been looking for more than anything else - peace of mind without my beautiful Genevieve.

My hotel was close to the Piazza della Signoria, and I soon realised that I had found the most ideal place imaginable for a tourist to stay. Each day I would set out on a new quest, and I would almost always find other interesting things along the way. The grandness of the Palazzo Pitti, the serene creations of mankind in the Uffizi, the Galleria dell'Accademia... where most cities had one or two places to visit, Florence had dozens. I took numerous photographs, but after a while I felt that using my camera was too much of a distraction, so I just surrendered myself to my experience. And every street was a postcard. Each fountain I passed seemed to invite me to throw a coin, to add to the stars that were wished upon in the galaxy at my feet. What could I wish for? At my age, were all my wishes behind me? But I would throw in a coin anyway, as if in unspoken gratitude for all the wishes in my life that had come true.

One afternoon, after returning from a visit to the cathedral, I found a quiet, empty café where I took a chance to rest. The large shutter windows were open to allow in the warm air, and the walls were decorated with large posters advertising various condiments and wines in whimsical ways. The waiter had a bizarre moustache and a spotless apron, and he darted back and forth, leaning forward and singing out the orders with a sycophantic cheerfulness. I loosened my tie and sat there in front of a café au lait and a cigar, and watched the world go past for a while. I saw a beautiful young girl in a floral dress, with a battered bicycle, stop at the fountain and splash her face with water. After she had finished she saw me, and smiled, then clambered onto her bicycle and rode away. On the other side of the fountain I saw an artist sitting on a box in front of his easel. I paid my bill, left the café and wandered over to have a closer look. He was an old man, older than me. He had a huge mop of wiry hair and a beard, dark but peppered with grey. His face was lined, with sun, age and worry, yet the slow and careless way he carried himself seemed to radiate apathy. I suppose a man of his age will often lose an interest in what people think of him - he was dressed in a ragged smock, filthy bandanna, red socks and worn sandals. Pinned to his easel was a small studio photograph of a beautiful girl and two little children. He noticed me, and with a grand sweep of his arm he presented his painting.

"Have a close look," he said with an American accent. "I throw the paint on the canvas. Just smudges and smears. But when you step back, you see something! Well I hope so, anyway."

He gave me a grin which faded into indifference, and went back to his painting. I watched a little longer, then went on my way.

The next day, after more sightseeing, I ended up at the same café. The waiter smiled and said,

"Same again for the signorrrrr?"

I nodded, wondering if he would remember what I had yesterday. He did, and just this simple thing made me happy.

As I sat there, I became aware of the occasional faint scent of some lovely perfume, a smell I knew, but one that evoked some strong emotion, moments before I could summon the memory of how I knew it. I didn't move, trying to capture the scent again. My memory awoke, and I recognised it as a perfume that Genevieve had worn, in the early years of our courting. I was transfixed by the scent, by the emotion, by the memory... the memory of our first meeting.

I had smelled that scent before I had seen her, all those years ago. It was also in a large room, in a library where I worked, and I had been unable to move, except to look about me, to see where it came from. She was the prettiest girl, the most beautiful girl there, and it was almost as if I knew that the scent was hers. Then she turned, to look at something, but saw me, and she smiled. Somehow I had overcome my shyness, and we had talked, awkwardly at first, but then we had gotten to know one another, and as time went on, we didn't have to say anything, we knew. It was all here, again, that time, that feeling.

It was then that I noticed the girl with the floral dress I had seen by the fountain - she was sitting at a table in the corner of the café, by herself, reading a book. Surely it was her wearing the perfume. Then a young man came over to her and called her name - she looked up, and returned his smile, and he sat down beside her. They kissed and began to talk with the unmistakable wonder and raptness of new love. Suddenly all I could think of was that I wanted that time of my life again, to go back, to be there again. For a long while, I closed my eyes, and lived in my memories.

The artist was in the square again, as if the day before had been so lovely it had decided to repeat itself to avoid being forgotten. Today he was painting a picture of the fountain. He had described his craft succinctly - the work was rough, yet it copied the tones and shapes well, and conveyed a beauty that would never wane.

"I say, would you like something to drink?" I asked him.

"Sure, thanks! They have chinotto at the café. You should try one!"

I bought two small bottles and returned.

"It's rather bitter," I said.

"Yeah, it's an acquired taste."

"Oh, I don't mind it. Anyway, the only way you can acquire a taste is to taste it."

"Hey, can't argue with that!"

He drank half his bottle in one go, then we talked while he painted.

"I know I'm a bum artist," he said, "but I sell enough to feed myself, so maybe I'm not so bad. I used to be the head of a big company. 'Foxwood's American Boxes'. You heard of them? I was wealthy and powerful. Does it sound arrogant to say that? I don't know. Anyway, as you can see, it ain't true now!"

He kept painting for a while.

"Sure is nice weather," he said, looking across the sky. "Happy, somehow. When it's like this, it reminds me of the special days. You know?"

"Well there's very little weather like this in England," I said. "But yes, I know what you mean."

"The day I first met my wife was a day like today. Beautiful day, beautiful girl. Beautiful time in my life. She was the daughter of a Colorado farmer. We used to wander far out into the fields, through the long grass... we'd look at the mountains far in the distance, and wonder what was beyond them... I wanted to be with her forever..."

He stopped painting for a few moments, and watched as the people passed by.

"We had two little sons, and we decided to move to London, to make it easier for me to work there. I went there to organise the deal, and they followed me a few days later, to meet me in Liverpool. But they sailed on the Lusitania. We'd talked about the Germans, but in the end we felt that nobody could be so heartless as to sink an innocent ship. Nine hundred of them were never found, including my wife and little boys."

He returned to work on his canvas. What could I say about such a tragedy? Every reply I could think of sounded glib, I could only shake my head. After a time he smiled briefly at me, as if to say, don't worry, it's okay, it was a long time ago.

He finished his drink and placed the bottle on the ground under his easel.

"They give a return," he explained. I gave him my empty bottle.

"Thanks. Of course, most of us went through something like that during the war, but knowing that didn't help. I don't remember much of the time after that. I think I must have turned into a real tippler, 'cause my life collapsed like a house of cards. After the war was over, I was living on the streets, lining up for bread and broth. For years I wanted to take my own life. I kept thinking how simple it would be, I wouldn't have to worry about anything, no problems to solve or things to do. As if I was... released. But I didn't have the spine to do it. After a while, my emotions kind of... dried up, I guess. Was I healed? I don't know. Even though I had nothing, I decided to make the few years I had a bit more dignified. There's a memorial in Ireland to all the people lost in the Lusitania, but for the ones who were never found, it doesn't matter where it is. I could lay roses against a pile of stones anywhere - the place doesn't mean anything. I wanted to go and live somewhere that made me feel like I was honouring the ones I lost, if only in a small way. So I came here."

"Is there something special here?"

"Sure," he said. "We lived here for a few years. Both the boys were born here. You might have thought I'd want to avoid reminders of them... but no, it just feels right in a way I can't put into words. Sometimes I almost convince myself that I'm gonna see them running up the street towards me, squealing and waving their arms, and their mom would wander along behind them. The boys would both be men if they were still alive, maybe they'd be married, and I'd be a grandfather."

He resumed his painting, in a listless, distracted way. I watched him paint for a time, then asked,

"Could I buy this?"

"Well... it's not done yet."

"Tomorrow, perhaps?"

He nodded. I gave him some parting words, observing the likelihood that we would chat again soon, and left him.

I wasn't aware of it at first, but something had taken hold, some feeling that began to grow. Perhaps it was born from the peacefulness of the city and all the people I had met and talked to in my travels. My thoughts kept returning to what the artist had said... Why does grief have to hurt, and hurt so much? Is the ability to forget maybe a blessing, to forget so that we can keep living? And yet, aren't memories perhaps some of the most precious and beautiful things we have?

Each day after that I looked for the artist, but I didn't see him again. Perhaps he never wanted to sell any of his work - perhaps he felt he had lost too much already. But as the days passed, and then the weeks, his words stayed with me, and somehow I began to feel at peace, in a way that I had not felt for some time. It was as if he was the voice of what it is to be human, and how the pain of loss is the price one pays for love, and perhaps reminds us how lucky we were to find love in the first place. Even though I would never stop missing my Genevieve, and would always wish that she was still with me, I had begun to feel that perhaps my grieving was over.

May, 2016

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