It’s the route I take every day.
My feet land on the hard stone platform, dodging oily spills and other more mysterious substances as they carry me, by memory, towards the station exit. The ventless steam pot that is Florence in summer welcomes me with a hot slap to her territory, so different from the verdant patch of Tuscany where I boarded not an hour ago. Next comes the exhaust of a dozen idle trains chem-trailing through the air and landing gritty in my mouth. At luggage storage, staccato’d, too-perfumed women and Armani-suited men form a barricade; breaking through is a triumph, and as victor I want my spoils, want to tear off those designer labels and paste them to my armor.
Under the luminous mint-green cross of la farmacia, tanned feet wedged in every color flip-flop cluster and shuffle about. The shrill enthusiasm of yellow-haired girls offsets the pose of their counterparts, boys willfully slouching their cargo-panted indifference. Dude no way‘s and Barcelona! Sweet!’s echo behind me as I push on through turnstiles, waves of human bodies crashing into each other from every direction. Rushed travelers are careless; their trolley wheels just miss clipping the street-blackened soles of an unconscious man sprawled on the pavement, his head sunk in a mound of package-filler-made-pillow. An Italian girl in taupe nylons and red satin shorts so scant they could be another woman’s underwear offers me a polished promo smile and a miniature can of Diet Coke.
The escalator descent into the florescent-lit tube of recycled air brings a reprieve to the nose and lungs, yet the assault on other senses continues. McDonalds Welcomes me to Florence and, courtesy of the crayola map with bright red arrow, I know where I am. The branded, trust-me-with-your-money yellow of Western Union momentarily claims my field of vision, then recedes to allow competitors their chance. In one ear Katy Perry is croaking you’re hot then you’re cold, in the other itches a muzak version of ‘Careless Whisper’. Further on comes a gentle acoustic revelation, a fiddled tune unnamable to me yet ringing familiar in the bones. From the grinning, swarthy music-maker I receive the morning’s first true greeting: “Buongiorno!” he shouts over his own spectacle, “Buongiorno, signora!” He eyes the crumpled donation hat at his feet, lest I miss it.
Resurfacing, carefully navigating the gum-loogie-puke-and-sometimes-worse-covered stairs, the untimely tang of shellfish simmering in white wine and garlic takes a swing at the olfactory pathway; then urine evaporating off hot pavement delivers the knockout punch. Fleeting relief arrives via the baker—comforting smells that trigger halcyon memories and sudden saliva droplets on my now-alert taste buds—effects immediately squelched by a Vespa’s toxic belch that coats my caught-off-guard insides. I skirt hapless tourists concealed from torso to head by open street maps, and to myself wish them luck keeping their white sneakers grime-free today. A woman tosses a pail-full of detersive water onto a patch of sidewalk staked by Benetton, much like her medieval forbearer emptied the chamber pot.
I turn a corner, keep my eyes down while passing the do-gooders pushing their germ-ridden pens and aggressive smiles, their greed for signatures insatiable. When it’s safe to lift my gaze, it falls on a vast, plein air tableaux of human activity: grouped, paired, solitary; some dawdling, others moving with purpose; a man with malformed legs sits in a box, pleading caritas; street entertainers sleep off the night’s revelry (considerable, if judging by the Chianti flasks and cigarette butts strewn about their cardboard bed); two nubile, nearly naked girls cross paths with two nuns in baby-blue habit. A Romany woman—no, girl—spits brown in a cup, dragging her child across the sun-parched piazza like a rag doll. An amplified and accented voice turns my head and I glimpse, having all but forgotten it exists, the façade of Santa Maria Novella: a geometric riddle in marble, teasing the eye upwards, across, in circles, culminating in an apex of mosaic genius set against a sky of whipped cream tinted with ultramarine.
This bizarre fusion of sublime and grotesque behind me, I enter a non-descript grey stone building. Doors slide open, a uniformed woman greets me with a lazy smile, and a glass box delivers me to the marble-floored, air-conditioned office where I’ll spend the day.
Fast forward eight hours, to repeat journey in reverse.