Dare Alla Luce
"We all know the story of Easter. Death came on Friday, life on Sunday. But there was a long, very hard day in between." - Touched by an Angel
I almost killed a man yesterday. Really. Ending a half-hour phone call to my mother in Canada, I gathered my things to head out the door, only to find it half-ajar. I thought I'd heard someone open it while I was on the phone, but the walls in these Italian villas are thin and I assumed the noise had come from an adjacent apartment.
Immediately on edge, I messaged my landlord, Eleonora, to ask if she or her mother had perhaps dropped by the apartment that afternoon. "No!" She assured me neither of them had been there that day and asked if anything seemed out of place. I did a thorough sweep, being sure to check any kidnapper-sized hiding spots while I was at it. As far as I could tell, everything was as I'd left it.
"Is very strange," Eleonora remarked when I emphasized that the door had not just been unlocked but wide open. Had someone come in, heard me talking to my mother and thought it best to try again later, when I didn't have a line of communication open? The thought made my blood run cold. Grisly images from crime shows burned in my mind. If someone had been here, what did they want? My money? My passport? Me? I never felt more alone than in these moments of complete and total helplessness, when every cell in my body ached with the knowledge that I was my own lifeline, my one and only safeguard. No one was going to get to me in time if things went pear-shaped. I only had myself to depend on for protection.
I sat in my room with the bedroom door locked that evening, lights on and Swiss Army knife at the ready, blade already unfolded. This time I heard more than the creak of the old wooden door swinging open. I heard it unlatch, heard heavy footsteps as someone turned the handle and stepped inside. A man's footsteps. Silently lifting my knife from its perch on the nightstand, I tiptoed toward the hall, the ancient, solid floors supporting my weight without a word of betrayal. I wasn't about to sit here and wait for my attacker to come to me.
There was a flurry of confusion when we finally came face-to-face. I wanted to know what he was doing here. It was clear he didn't speak any English. Lucky for him I spoke Italian otherwise chances were he would have ended up on the wrong end of my pocket knife. "Eleonora mi ha mandato!" He shouted, palms facing me in a non-threatening gesture. "Sono il suo ragazzo!"
"Ragazzo?" I repeated, catching his mention of Eleonora. "You are her...boyfriend?"
"Si!" He confirmed, the whites of his eyes still showing as I lowered my weapon. "Yes, boyfriend!"
Turns out when I reported my concerns to Eleonora about the door being left open, she'd thought it best to send her boyfriend over to check on things for me, since she was busy getting some shopping done in town (her boyfriend, whom I'd never met, who didn't speak English and who showed up unannounced). That's Italy.
When I apologized, explaining that I was travelling on my own and as such was a tad, shall we say, skittish, he laughed and said not to worry. He understood and we could forget this ever happened. You can't make this stuff up.
It was only later that I figured out the door, old an quirky like everything else in this country, didn't latch unless you pushed on it hard. I probably hadn't closed it all the way when I came in that day, and it could have easily been blown open by the wind, of which there is a lot in Florence.
I was eating in a little osteria around the corner last night, another local gem I'd stumbled upon with a seasonal menu (no English translation available) and long, family-style wooden tables. Like at Gusta Pizza, you were expected to enjoy your meal side-by-side with other diners. The only other people crazy enough to have dinner at the ungodly hour of 7PM were a mother and daughter with North American accents. Even as I relished the novel flavours of my spaghetti con bottarga (salt-cured fish row) and fresh local white beans, I found it very hard to look at them, to listen to them discussing how much wine to order, which appetizers to share. The daughter looked to be about my age, and judging from the toast they drank to her hard work and success, touching their glasses of chianti together with a resounding clink, this Tuscan holiday was some kind of graduation gift.
For the second time today, I found myself wondering what I was doing here, all alone. I'd gotten very good at answering whenever waiters asked how many were in my party. "Solo io," I replied, beginning to sound like a broken record. Only me. And most of the time this was incredibly liberating. But now I couldn't help thinking this meal would taste even better if I had someone to share it with. I thought of the phone conversation I'd had with my mother, flashed on all the mother-daughter dates we'd had in the past. All of a sudden I wished she were here, to make this dinner about something more than the food. Truth be told I hated talking to my mother on the phone. As good as it was to hear her voice, it always made me want to be home. And the last thing I wanted while I was here was to want to be anywhere else.
After a dinner lasting forty-five minutes - a fast food run, by Italian standards - I finally couldn't take it anymore.
I arrived back at the guesthouse to the sounds of Easter preparations. Apparently Eleonora's family had needed the extra oven space, and so the kitchen I usually had to myself was now humming with festivities. I heard the sounds of laughter and family banter through the closed door, the clatter of forks as cutlery was tossed into the sink to be washed. Something was baking that smelled amazing.
Not wanting to impose (it hardly seemed appropriate after I'd almost shanked one of them), I adjusted the thermostat in the hall and continued to my bedroom. Just before I closed the door I heard someone come out of the kitchen, curious to see why the radiator had suddenly thundered to life. A ghost did it, I thought. That was all I was to them. That was all I was to anyone. A transient being between this life and the next, making a fleeting appearance and then disappearing without a trace, hardly there at all.
I've been away from home for twenty days. This was my first thought when I woke up this Easter Sunday morning. It was days like today when I couldn't help feeling the slightest twinge of homesickness. Of course I always missed my family, but I was hardly ever foolish enough to waste this once-in-a-lifetime experience wishing I was home with them. Holidays, though, were family time. I knew in a few hours they would all be gathered around the table for a big turkey dinner, bowing their heads to say grace and asking if the gravy needed to be warmed up. There would be Caramilk bars from Grandma that I wouldn't get to eat, heartfelt Hallmark greetings that I wouldn't get to read.
I was trying very hard not to feel sorry for myself. I was in Florence, for Pete's sake! It seemed freakishly fitting, since I'd already decided this trip was about rebirth for me, that I would be spending Easter (a widely-recognized time of rebirth) in the so-called heart of the Renaissance (a word which literally means "rebirth"). It was almost as if the whole thing had been carefully orchestrated.
Even so, my expectations for the day weren't high. Easter being a very big deal in Italy - and Easter SUNDAY no less - I expected most things to be closed, for the city to be a ghost town with everyone in mass or enjoying leisurely, multi-course brunches with their families. Don't you love it when your expectations get blown out of the water?
Finally convinced by a complaining stomach to wander toward town between eight and nine, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the bars/pasticcerias open on the main strip. I couldn't have found a better breakfast if I tried. The honey-filled brioche and perfectly-foamed cappuccino with the hand-drawn chocolate flower on top made for a truly special start to my Easter Sunday. There was a little more spring in my step when I left the shop and continued toward the city centre.
As it turned out I was dead wrong about shops and restaurants not being open. Florence was thrumming with activity. It seemed like more people - locals and tourists alike - were out today than I'd ever seen. A large section of Piazza del Duomo was blocked off with police barricades and a crowd was already gathering. I'd read about some kind of procession that was supposed to be going on in the square this morning, but it wasn't supposed to be until eleven.
Then I heard the drums - a sober, military metronome that made me think of marching armies. I followed the beat to Piazza della Repubblica, five minutes down a nearby side street. Over the heads of the amassed crowd, flag poles arched through the air like jumping jets on a fountain, regal blue-and-white banners streaming from their shafts. An honest-to-God flag-throwing ceremony. The spectators were four and five deep, but I managed to squeeze my way to the front and watched, entranced. I think Under the Tuscan Sun summed up the magnificence of the event perfectly: "These are straight men. In tights. Twirling flags."
That, however, was just the opening act. When the flag-throwing had finished, the rousing voices of trumpets joined the drum beat, and the procession began with two mounted police riding big bay horses into the square. Close on their heels were men and women - clearly representative of nobility - in full medieval garb. Leading the parade were what I gathered to be the king and queen, she in a long red velvet gown and he in a girdled tunic and puffed knee-length leggings. Following them were other members of the aristocracy, wearing feathered hats and sword scabbards strapped to their waists. Next came the soldiers in suits of armour that glinted in the blazing morning sun, carrying spears with legionary uniformity. This was no joke. It began to dawn on me just how seriously old all of this was.
I followed the procession back to Piazza del Duomo, where it came to a halt in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Bringing up the rear, finally, was an ornate wooden wagon standing two to three stories high and pulled by four white bulls decorated with garlands and gold-painted hooves.
The "Scoppio del Carro", or "Explosion of the Cart" is a ceremony which dates back over 350 years, originating from events which are in equal parts historical and legendary and have to do with the First Crusade in the Holy Land in 1099. The ritual has not changed since its first enactment centuries ago. Starting around 10AM, the cart, built in 1622, is brought into the square and rigged with an elaborate arsenal of explosives. When the bells of Giotto's Campanile chime at 11, the "Gloria" is sung by the choir inside the church, simultaneously joyful and haunting to hear. The Archbishop of Florence then uses the Holy Fire to light a dove-shaped rocket called the "Colombina", representative of the Holy Spirit, which flies down a wire strung across the square and collides with the cart, setting off a spectacular display of fireworks.
Detonating heavy combustibles in front of one of the oldest and most beautiful Cathedrals in Europe? Was this wise? Probably not, I thought. But the Italians, I'd learned, very rarely concerned themselves with practicality. They were all about passion and pleasure with an often heavy-handed tendency toward dramatic flare. Listening to the blasts - so loud you'd think the Piazza was under siege - and watching the smoke coil up around the bell tower, blocking out the sun, I marvelled at the way Easter actually meant something here. Sure we had our family get-togethers and Easter-egg hunts back home, but it was essentially a commercialized holiday like every other holiday, an excuse to celebrate without really knowing what it was we were celebrating.
Thinking this procession may well be among the top three most spectacular things I'd seen in my life, I wondered how many people got the chance to experience Easter this way, and began to think my family were the ones who were missing out.
I took my Easter dinner at La Cantinetta di Dante e Beatrice. A tourist trap? Perhaps. But really, given the name, how could I not? It was actually a charmingly rustic little wine bar with a deli counter inside displaying row upon row of house-cured speck, prosciutto and salami as well as a host of artisan cheeses, olives, peppers, artichokes and tapenades. Their bruschetta and crostini menu was a novel in itself, designed to highlight their homemade deli products, but it was their wide selection of typical Tuscan specialties that I was drawn to.
Eager to get to know the regional cuisine and having yet to try any of them, I ordered a glass of prosecco and a bowl of ribollita to start. Originally a peasant dish dating back to the Middle Ages, ribollita is a traditional vegetable soup usually comprised of carrots, cabbage, beans, silverbeet and kale and thickened with leftover bread. Its name literally means "reboiled".
For a main course I had tagliatelle al sugo di cinghiale, or pasta with wild boar ragu, another quintessential Tuscan dish and one which I was determined not to leave without trying. The same went for dessert: Cantuccini (biscotti-like almond cookies) traditionally served with a sweet dessert wine called Vin Santo. I made sure the meal was a slow one, waiting until I finished one course before ordering the next. And, alone or not, I enjoyed every mouthful.
I fell asleep that night to the sounds of church bells and fireworks outside my window, not a doubt in my mind that this would be one of the most memorable Easters of my life.