Memories of Italy
Missing travel this summer, I revisited my journal and found this story from June 2018.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the Great Synagogue. As I stepped through the frosted, etched doors of the shul built in the late 1870s, I wondered why photography wasn’t allowed. We were permitted to photograph the world’s first painting on canvas, The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli at the Uffizi. We captured Michelangelo’s David to remember the protruding vein along the right side of his neck. We shot Vasari’s Last Supper, just recently restored after the great flood of 1966, in Santa Croce.
The walls were covered entirely with a Moorish pattern of burnished gold and Egyptian blue against a crimson background. The pews, adorned with narrow brass plaques of congregants’ names, were built with locked boxes for storing sidurrim. Walking towards the imposing east facing ark, I imagined the loud noise of the men standing up from their old wooden seats as Torah was presented during Rosh Hashanah. I looked upwards following the cracking sounds to the upper gallery where the women would sit to hear the powerful tones of a community in connection with themselves and with G-d. The hairs stood up on my arms.
I knew in that moment why no photographs were permitted. It was my only true moment of being present with the art and history of the city of Florence.
When I first saw the sign that photography was forbidden, my reaction was disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to capture material for my Instagram feed. I was so busy sharing my fantastic trip from the rooftop of the Duomo in Milan, to the azure sea of Capri, to the ginormous Da Michele pizza in Napoli. It wasn’t until I made it to Florence that it occurred to me why I was posting. It wasn’t to inspire or to educate. I was bragging.
I was so upset with myself I deleted some posts and found that I wasn’t so quick to pick up my phone when I was in a gallery or experiencing the city. I tried to commit what I was seeing to memory as I had done in the temple. Don’t get me wrong. I have photos of the sun setting over the Arno, the private party at the Palazzo Pucci, the exclusive Roberto Cavalli fashion show at Certosa Monastery, the views of Tuscany from the hilltops of Montepulciano and Montalcino.
After four days of art, culture, fashion events, and the famous men’s fashion trade fair, Pitti Uomo, we decided to take Friday off to recharge by the pool at Palazzo della Gherardesca, also known as the Four Seasons Hotel. Three scruffy guys with long hair, beards, and tattoos sat down in the lounges just in front of us. Turns out they were an LA band in need of a relaxation day too as they had just performed the night before at the Firenze Rocks Festival. An hour later some women joined the sunbathers and we couldn’t help but overhear the conversation about it being their first time in Florence. The ladies said, “Why would we walk around town when we have this amazing pool to hang out at?”
I was gobsmacked and completely judgmental. How could they have zero desire to go out and explore?
In an attempt to distract myself from listening in, I picked up my phone and started searching for empowering quotes from the Rebbe, as his yahrzeit would begin that evening at 8:41pm. I found something inspiring that he taught that I wanted to share with others.
“When you waste a moment, you have killed it in a sense, squandering an irreplaceable opportunity. But when you use the moment properly, filing it with purpose and productivity, it lives forever.”
I didn’t have the chance to post the quote because we needed to prepare for dinner with an LA friend who happened to be in Florence visiting family. We joked that it was easier to make a plan in Italy than figuring out how to cross the 405 in LA to see each other.
Our incredible apartment was also in a converted palazzo that belonged to a prominent and influential Florentine family. It had a large common room, the library, for residents and guests to enjoy morning Americano coffee and evening libations.
We stopped into the lounge for our nightly aperitif and met two women, Emma, a resident who also has homes in Miami and New York and her friend Donatella, who is the director of Etro in Florence. We exchanged back stories and tears came to Emma’s eyes when she spoke about her late husband of two years. I invited them to light Shabbos candles with us. I explained my ritual. Light the candles and say the blessing. Then tell Hashem how you made the world better this week. Finally, ask for what you need. Afterwards two sets of strangers were hugging and toasting with prosecco and fresh, crushed white peach bellinis. Emma said to me, I wasn’t going to leave my apartment tonight. Now I know why I’m here in the bar. Thank you!” No, Emma, thank you! What a wonderful way to honor the Rebbe’s memory.
The next morning, I laid in bed for a while staring up at the heavily carved wood ceiling and the 15th century frescoes. My room had once belonged to the Pope Leon XI of the Medicis who used it as his office during his 28 days that he held office before he died. I pondered why I was so upset about the poolside ladies. And then it hit me like a bolt of lightning.
They lacked curiosity.
I always talk about how I need people to be honest, kind, generous, attentive, and passionate but I’ve never considered curious.
I’ve spent two weeks looking for answers as to why Mary is always painted in blue, why Italians that it’s sacrilegious to eat anything without cheese, and why a tee shirt with holes is fashionable. I wandered into the Busatti fabric store that was once a chapel–turned-cinema. I hiked up beyond the Piazzale Michelangelo for an even better view of Florence. I chased the setting sun up a flight of stairs atop the roof of the Hotel Tornabuoni Beacci to experience the sounds of the swallows and the church bells welcoming the night as the sun disappeared behind the low clouds. I tried a Negrovsky. I slid down a 65-foot coiled, covered slide in the Palazzo Strozzi’s “The Florentine Experiment” and I climbed up a wet calcified hill, which was surprisingly not slippery, to soak in the natural hot springs of Bagni San Filippo, even though I’m scared of heights.
I’ve always believed that travels open us up to growth, and not just in our waists. When I was in Napoli enjoying a pizza fit for a queen, my girlfriend and best travel-partner-in-crime commented that our Eat, Pray, Love trip was really just, EAT.
However, by the end of the trip it was that and pray and love (albeit unromantic) too. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, she revealed her word, attraversiamo, Italian for let’s cross over, as her lesson learned from her experiences. For her, it was letting go of the past and moving forward.
My word is curiosità. Passion to know more.
What is your word?