LETTER TO A STRANGER: FLORENCE, ITALY
BY JULIA GLASS
I am dismayed to realize, just now, that I no longer remember your name—and that I have misplaced the small maroon book I carried everywhere that year, in which you wrote down, and then aggressively inked out, your address and phone number. This was way before e-mail. This was in June of 1979. I was 23 years old, nine months into a year-long fellowship to live and paint, no academic strings attached, in Paris—and to roam from city to city, looking at works of art that I had studied only in books.
Who, on such an odyssey, would miss Italy or Greece? But to travel alone through those countries as a woman was considered sheer, suicidal lunacy. So I had set out with a woman whom I thought of as a new friend. Quickly, however, we discovered that we were not compatible travelers—and I discovered that she was a bully. In the train from Venice to Florence, she delivered one of those eviscerating “Know what your problem is?" tirades. We parted ways on the platform.
The next morning, I faced the decision of whether to push on, traveling solo as a very young, very blond, not especially intrepid American woman—or tuck tail and head back to Paris. First, however, I would enjoy one day in this extravagantly civilized city.
I had read that to steer clear of "man trouble," I should dress "nicely" and, swelter be damned, modestly: skirts below the knee, sleeves to the elbow, and never, ever shorts or T-shirts (hardly my style to begin with). My tiny suitcase was packed with discreet attire, including a couple of silky dresses inherited from my grandmother, dresses you'd wear for dancing to Bunny Berigan on the victrola.
That day I chose the prettiest, to raise my spirits. So there I was, wandering the paths of the Boboli Gardens in an antique party dress patterned with green foliage, stitched with opalescent sequins, when you approached me and said, grinning, "Hello, Miss. Would you like a guide? I do not charge.” I read your accent as British, an assumption reinforced by your pale, fiercely freckled skin and curly red hair. You wore a pair of thick-lensed glasses, giving you the look of a benignly mad professor. You were neither tall nor handsome, but you charmed me instantly. The gardens were safely crowded, and saying yes spared me from brooding about my inconvenient solitude.
You were indeed knowledgeable, expressively so, about the history of the garden, the palace, and the Medicis who'd lived there. From the lilt of your phrasing and the flaws in your grammar, I realized you were Italian, not English. How pleased you were by my confusion. You lived and worked in Lucca, but your favorite pastime on days off was to take a bus to Florence, where you honed your English by introducing yourself to anglophone tourists. So we had ourselves a bargain: I would converse; you would edify. You were well-mannered, just a few years older than I, and passionately curious about my culture as well as my language.
Was the Pitti Palace closed that day? Perhaps. I don't know why we didn't go inside. What I remember is that you asked if I would like to see other gardens, have a glimpse of private villas, the homes of modern-day Medicis. You knew the hills just beyond the city, tucked in their shady folds secluded estates with ancient sculptures, even the occasional ruin.
Logically, I hesitated. But then I recalled how my recent companion had hectored me for being too timid. You awaited my answer, your blue eyes larger than life behind your glasses.
Sure, I said. Let's go.
In sandals, in my grandmother's frock, in the noonday heat of an Italian June, I followed you. Just like that, we were trekking through hedgerows and overgrown meadows, along cypress-cloistered lanes that led (as you promised) to views through iron gates of old, ornate houses, all seemingly deserted, their gardens luxuriant with oleander, poppies, and roses, teeming with bees. The sequins in my dress snagged on briars; my feet blistered; I felt my face and arms growing red (my complexion as pale as yours).
All the while we talked. You knew botany as well as art; you even knew the sky. When I marveled at the towering Tintoretto clouds—clouds I had never imagined as real—you told me their Latin name. You talked about your longing to visit America, about your only-child childhood. A good childhood: summers spent outdoors on the streets of Lucca and in the pine forests of Elba—an island I'd pictured as barren, Napoleon's final prison. I must let you show me Elba one day, as well as Lucca. Lucca, you bragged, produced the world's best olive oil. I must taste it!
When we reached a wide sloping field near the summit of our hike, we paused to catch our breath. You looked around with an impish smile. You closed your eyes and spread your arms, scarecrow style.What on earth were you doing? Now, I thought, now he turns into a psycho. Now I'm in trouble: man trouble.
But a few minutes later you opened your eyes and relaxed. You shrugged. When you were a child, you explained, sometimes you would find a field like this, no one else in sight, and you would hold your arms out straight, keeping perfectly still for a long while until butterflies alighted on your body.
No, I said. Not really.
But yes! Absolutely! This was no lie! As an adult, however, you seemed to have lost your uncanny magnetism. Still, now and again you would try.
At last we reached a hilltop village. In a dim café, we drank water and iced coffee. You asked for the bus schedule. A surprisingly short ride later, we stepped into the golden evening bustle of a Florentine street. I asked if you would join me for dinner. Alas, you had to get back to Lucca. But I must visit you there, on my way to Greece!
I handed you the book I carried everywhere, to keep track of people I met, places I wanted to see. Resting it on the hood of a parked car, you wrote your information studiously, legibly. I remember the quaint spiral of your 9’s. "When willa you come?" you asked in your quirky Britalian accent.
I told you I wasn't sure. I had to figure some things out first.
"But I must know you willa come." Your tone was urgent.
I thanked you for the beautiful day. I told you that, honestly, I could not make a firm plan that very moment. I could call you in a day or two and—
You snatched back the book, opened it, took out your pen, and blacked out everything you'd written."Wait!" I must have said.
What you said next I remember perfectly: "I will not be able to support it. 'Willa she come? Willa she not come? Willa she come? Willa she not come?' No. I prefer to say goodbye." Tearfully, but also angrily, you said that you must not miss your bus, and you walked away.
I stood on the sidewalk for a while, hoping you would return. Of course not. You were as decisive as I would never be. I told myself there was nothing tragic here, no regrets; if anything, your childlike obliteration of your name unsettled me. I didn't dare think about how lonely you were.
My grandmother's dress was ruined. I had the worst sunburn of my life. But after another two days in Florence, I traveled on, by myself: to Rome, Athens, Sounion, Delphi, Naxos, Paros, Mykonos, followed by a long, grueling train trip back to Paris.
I haven't thought of you, not attentively, in years. Still, I'm dismayed to have forgotten your first name (Marco? Enzo? Gianni?). But as I began this letter, something hit me. I am in the middle of writing a novel, and wrapped up in its convoluted plot is a solitary boy named Ivo. He exists only in a children's picture book, but it's a very famous (fictitiously famous) picture book. He survives an earthquake and wrestles with an enchanted panther. At the climax of that book-within-a-book, Ivo stands in a forest clearing and holds out his arms. Small birds and butterflies land on his body. And that's when he saves the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Glass is the author of a story collection and four novels, including the National Book Award–winning Three Junes. She is a cofounder and the literary director of Twenty Summers, a nonprofit arts festival in Provincetown, Massachusetts.