I was only 15 the first time I visited Florence, when I traveled there with class of high schoolers (and their parents) on one of those fully supervised, completely American Grand Tours of Europe meant to turn us into cultured young ladies and gentlemen in 10 days flat. Florence, perhaps the grandest city on the Grand Tour, was one of the last stops, and a new beginning for me.
In Florence, surrounded by all the beauty and art and history and things I knew little about, I bore my unworldliness like a scarlet letter. This shameful feeling was my constant companion as we traipsed through these spectacular sites, viewing the David, the Uffizi, the Duomo. I didn’t even know art history was an academic subject yet, a world of knowledge unto itself, much less the names or significance or how to look at masterpieces I found myself standing in front of. All I knew was that I knew basically nothing. And I was pretty sure everyone else could see just how out of my element I was.
Maybe my growing preoccupation with worldliness, or more specifically, with the unworldliness afflicting me, was the next phase of a related preoccupation particular to teenagers: the desire to fit in. After all, isn’t being worldly about being able to find your way in the great wide world? I wanted so desperately to be adept and nonchalant in navigating whatever surroundings I happened to find myself.
In truth, I wasn’t even doing this very well back on the terra cognita of my suburban high school or hanging out at the mall. I was anything but cool or chic or good at fitting in. But this tour had been making it clear to me: who cares about the hallways of high school anymore? Conquering this temporary microenvironment was just a distraction from the real task we were facing in becoming adults. The real setting for this is the world, to engage everything it has to offer: art, culture, history, adventure, love. None of which I had yet experienced. None of which I thought would probably every happen for me, a pimply teenager with a bad haircut and a journal full of gloomy poetry.
I thought this trip would be a giant leap forward, but these prepackaged kinds of tourist experiences tend to leave you feeling like you are looking in. I surveyed our group and thought, how could any authentic experience possibly take place for us, dressed as we were in sensible white sneakers, fanny packs, and tech vests?
Breaking out on my own wasn’t really an option. The adults who had organized the trip had issued stern warnings they renewed at regular intervals: don’t drink any alcohol, travel with a buddy, don’t leave the group, even for a minute, without alerting one of the chaperones. Anyone failing to abide by these rules will be disciplined, up and to including being sent home early.
Knowing how really lucky I was to be there and how generous the adults were with us, I oscillated between the guilt of being ungrateful and brattish for having these feelings and being maddened by the hypocrisy of adults who take us to these places telling us to fly, only to clip our wings.
One afternoon in the Piazza della Signoria, our group was standing around waiting for something, the way large groups idle without knowing quite why, and I found myself getting more and more annoyed with the inertia – of this group, of my life. I just wanted one moment to myself in this beautiful place. Something of my own.
Admittedly, it was a lame gesture of independence, but I tiptoed away from the group, keeping an eye out for an adult to notice and come squawking at me to rejoin the flock. I ended up at a gelato shop across the square. As I walked in, I smiled shyly at the handsome young Italian man behind the counter. He smiled back. Because he couldn’t speak much English and my Italian was non-existent (another reminder of my unworldliness), I pointed at the flavors I wanted and he rung up the amount on the register. I counted out the lira self-consciously, taking way too long to close this transaction. I didn’t know which bills were what, and I could see that he could see my clumsiness, but he kept smiling. I made a mental note to memorize the currency later at the hotel.
It was a completely pedestrian transaction but as I was leaving ice-cream-in-hand, the young Italian blew me an exuberant kiss and shot me a big Hollywood grin. Baffled, I blushed and waved, turning heel and scurrying away.
I rejoined the group (no one had noticed my absence) and ate my gelato furtively, my cheeks still awash with the warmth of the encounter. And then I started to smile. Yes, I had fumbled that encounter, and didn’t know how to take the opening. But I didn’t know that I could get men to do that for me. It must have been the first time someone saw me as a woman.
I still had not fallen in love or even been on a date, but when he blew me that kiss, I knew those things would happen one day, too. With any luck, in a place like this. I was off.