Sunday, September 1, 2013

How I Learned to Appreciate Florence

If the two trips I've now made to Florence have taught me anything, it's how much I've changed in the 14 years between them. The first time around, like any respectable gay man on the cusp of turning 30, I was all about the nightlife whenever I was back on holiday. Up to then (and probably for at least a decade after), my appreciation for any city was directly proportionate to the number of opportunities I had to meet good-looking guys after dark (hence my unmatched love and affection for London circa 1994 to 2001 and Buenos Aires in the mid aughts). The more gay bars and gay clubs, the merrier.

On that front, Florence failed miserably in 1999. Never mind that it's one of the most spectacularly beautiful cities on earth. I was too busy looking -- hoping -- for a gay bar that was better than Tabasco to really notice. I knew that I was in a gorgeous city, but I wasn't overly concerned about any of the details. It was like being in a room full of attractive men but not zooming in on any of them. You appreciate their physical merits without remembering any of them in the morning.

And so it went with Florence. When the beauty of the city faded from my memory, all I could recall was that I had been kind of bored and frustrated by the pesky (straight) tourists. So I must admit that upon my arrival in Florence last Thursday, I was a bit surprised by all of the beauty -- both natural and man-made -- that greeted me.

There was still a surplus of tourists and way too much traffic for a city center with such narrow streets, and the architectural density made me long for the wide open spaces of Rome. But that first time, how did I miss (or forget) the dramatic interplay of shadows and spotlights on the buildings right around sunset? Were there as many joggers running around town 14 years ago, and I just didn't notice because I didn't take up running until 2006? And was that statue of Neptune (which I clearly remembered -- though more as a concept than in specifics) next to the replica of King David in Piazza della Signoria always that hot? (See, you can take the boy out of the gay bars, but you can't take the gay out of the boy.)

For the first time, I noticed that Florence, though distinct from Rome in both its look and its vibe, has one crucial thing in common with Italy's capital city: the power to evoke a vivid sense of place and time. If traffic in Florence's centro storico were banned (or even as limited as it is in Milan's), and all the tourists went home, you could tilt you head and almost feel like it's 1890, or 1790, or any given century going back to the Middle Ages.

But alas, there's no escaping the tourists and the traffic, both of which are made more imposing by the narrow sidewalks, meaning you must often step into the street to avoid bumping into passersby while risking being struck by an oncoming vehicle. At times, Florence can feel like a crowded elevator, or a packed dance floor that you must elbow your way through to get from one side of the nightclub to the bar on the other. You're too busy watching where you're going, trying not to fall on or off the uneven sidewalks, to grab magic moments. And if one were to come knocking, who would hear it, with all of the noise?

So although I was finally really noticing Florence, and I couldn't care less that, unlike Rome, it still has no thriving gay village, or that Tabasco was closed for the summer, the crowds were once again ruining it for me. They were messing with my art appreciation, too. I quickly grew tired of tourists spoiling my view of masterful works of art (like that glorious Fountain of Neptune) because they just had to pose for photos in front of it.

"Why?" I kept asking myself. Not only was I pretty sure that to most onlookers, it's probably just a naked man or something they've been told is important by travel guides, but why is art only of interest if it's interactive? Would these people go to the Louvre and pose with the Mona Lisa? If they could somehow work their way into the Sistine Chapel ceiling scene, for them, it probably would be the greatest holiday coup.

Watching them descend upon monuments to mythological, historic and Biblical figures, appreciating them only long enough to get another photo of themselves to show their friends on Facebook, cheapened what could have been so many magic moments for me. It was like sitting next to a loudmouth at a concert who insists on singing the wrong lyrics to every song.

Or like that terrible dance version of The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" that was blaring from somewhere while I was trying to appreciate the replica of Michelangelo's King David that overlooks Florence. It stands in the middle of Piazzale Michelangelo, up on a hill on the south side of Florence, otherwise known as the good side of the Arno River, if only because the fewer statues, churches and notable architecture there also means there are fewer tourists.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same about Piazzale Michelangelo, which was full of people angling to get their close ups with another replica of King David (above), as if they'd luckily stumbled onto the real thing, and locals hawking assorted trinkets. Sadly, the lady howling the Bob Dylan-written Byrds classic didn't really seem so out of place.

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And in the end, in Florence, neither did I, and I have my friend Shirley, whom I'd traveled to Florence to see in the first place, and her mother to thank for it. I'd quickly discovered that Florence is best explored at night when there are fewer people crowding the same key spaces, or via those short, dark alleys that connect the roads most traveled, or from several stories above, or from one of the half dozen bridges that aren't Ponte Vecchio. But the pleasures of experiencing Florence from these vantage points were all too fleeting.

Then Shirley and her mom led me down Via di San Niccolo. On our final night in Florence, just after sunset, we walked down the mostly deserted street that features vintage apartment buildings accented with minimalist street lighting and that's only occasionally marred by passing cars, or tourists. By the time we reached Bevo Vino, a restaurant Shirley and her mom had stumbled upon on the way back from a trip to Piazzale Michelangelo, I was completely rethinking my first and second impressions of Florence.

Even the tourists who surrounded us during dinner seemed cooler, calmer, than the ones I'd encountered in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza San Croce on the other side of the Arno. They appeared to be less interested in posing for potential Facebook profile pics and more appreciative of the local charms of an area that had no tacky bars or photo ops that they'd read about in a tourist guide. It looked and felt like Florence the way people who live there enjoy it, and that made it all the more enjoyable.

"If I lived in Florence, this is exactly where I'd want my apartment to be," I announced. And for a fleeting moment, a magical one, the city that I'd never thought much about, the one that had previously been a footnote in my Italian experiences -- seemed full of possibilities. It wasn't exactly love, but it was something damn near like it.

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