Street signs in Firenze hide. As we disembark from the train, people push by, rushing to somewhere they know. We know nothing, just a hotel, Kraft, like the macaroni-cheese product we bought for forty-nine cents when our children were small. We see the hotel on our group I-phone, an indistinct symbol. We see ourselves, a throbbing red circle. But we don’t know which exit to take, up or down, east or west. It’s cool and raining. We follow our throbbing selves, eyes down, single file. We are almost run down three times by scooters and Fiats. I still can’t see the signs, and when I do find one, I don’t know anything more than “Via Lorenza.”
To access our room, we must go up one floor. The elevator fits one person with a suitcase comfortably, but three of us get in. When I look out from our window at the street below, more people are wandering. My wife and I will sleep on two twin beds pushed together with a noticeable gap in between—a gap big enough to fall through. Our daughter says “And look at my bed,” a day bed with cushions. “It’s like your grandmother’s,” I say. Her look says, “An old-lady-bed.” She is kind, but twenty-five, sleeping in a room with her parents on a bed she can’t place. The bureau tries for art nouveau but needs painting. The hair dryer works for only five minutes and tires.
We go exploring. We don’t need a phone-map now because we have no real destination. The beloved couple and their daughter, whom we’re traveling with, believe we need to see Il Duomo. We pass plazas of late afternoon diners, those waking from the long afternoon’s sieste. We search for the one place that has fresh gelato, cold bierre, something more than just sandwiches, and find a café owned by two late middle-aged women who speak to us in Italian as if we understand. The sandwich we get is mainly bread with a thin layer of cheese. The gelato is not fresh. The Moretti is cold and plentiful, the cappuccinos, just the opposite. Our bill comes to thirty euro.
We find Il Duomo. The entrance is dark, though many walk through. “Who wants to go inside?” one of our friends asks. “I do,” our daughter says. “I’ll go with you,” I say, because I want to be where she is. “Well,” our friend says, “you don’t know the price yet, and anyway, you have those stairs to walk.” We look up at the dome tower. People stand out looking down and out. I am afraid of heights, but feel uncomfortable backing out. “I don’t think so,” my daughter shakes her head. We circle Il Duomo, and on the opposite side, we find a leather store owned by two Persians, the ethnic origin of everyone in our party but me. We buy a leather purse for our other daughter, who worries about us.
“It’s my feeding time again,” our friend says. We see a Magnum chocolate shop. My wife orders a dark chocolate bar with dark chocolate sauce topped with sprinkles of dark chocolate, a concentric circle of Magnum. “Dark chocolate is healthy,” she insists. I try a bite, and feel as if I have fallen through a gap between two single beds. It begins to rain, and we must protect the leather, so we walk faster, heavier, once more in single file. Though it is only five o’clock, my wife greets everyone with “Buenos Noches.” She knows where we are, or at least says she does. We pass Gucci, Zara, and many market stalls. In one, I see a plastic pink child’s purse. It says “Ciao Bella,” costs five euro.
We pass a doorway to a small shop. An attractive woman stands in the doorway. In front is a scruffy black dog, a spaniel-hound mix. The dog seems friendly, or at least passive. I stop and let him or her sniff my hand. I miss my dog, whom I almost refused to leave in the days before our journey. I pet the scruffy dog’s head. We have a moment. The owner smiles and then as my party walks on, she helps me by calling the dog to her. “Ciao bella,” I say to the dog. He barks and runs back to me. Tail and body wagging, he circles my legs. I look at the owner. “He doesn’t like to hear ‘Ciao,’” she smiles. “Arrivaderci, then,” I say as he quiets and considers my passing.
The Uffizi gallery is sold out. Undaunted, we pay double the amount for a tour led by Firenzen art students. Our guide, Martina, tells us she is really from Sienna, Firenze’s traditional enemy. The sign at the entrance says “Beware of Museum Touts,” meaning the ones guiding us. Martina says, “The one thing you must not lose is your ticket. There are two checkpoints at the beginning, one at the end. The end doesn’t matter, because the worst that will happen is you will spend the night in the museum, pacing from hall to hall, while I am having my dinner.” I am uncommonly afraid of disobeying any direct order, and we have paid 100 euro for this tour. My daughter says, “Should I hold your hand?”
At the first checkpoint, two of our group can’t find their tickets. We wait ten minutes while the tall, white-haired husband searches through the same pockets that continue to produce nothing. He speaks sharply to his wife who, my daughter testifies, has undergone numerous facelifts. Martina finally intervenes with the guards and obtains two more tickets. “Now, please hold on to these.” At the next checkpoint, the same man searches again though his pockets. This time, after only two minutes, he produces the duplicate pair. Later, despite Martina’s warning, he stands too close to a Botticelli while shooting with his phone, and a siren blares.
We checked our hotel umbrella in at the cloakroom, for long umbrellas may not exist where we are traveling. Martina says that Raphael stole from Leonardo and Michelangelo to paint his “own” Madonna and child. Martina prefers Michelangelo. Art is political, and so is its criticism. We thank her for the tour and proceed to exit through the bookstore. A sign says, “Cloakroom” but points ambiguously to our left. We retrace many steps, through hall mazes and Carvaggios, and then descend again. Other ambiguous signs appear. Finally my daughter sees the cloakroom and retrieves our red umbrella, though the clerk shows her others like it, abandoned by forgetful wanderers.
A crowd gathers before a two-story house on Via Dante Alighieri, a sign I see easily. It is his house. “I’ve taught Inferno many times,” I say. “That’s why I love you,” my wife responds. “Because I teach Dante?” We pass a young American family. “Dante lives here,” the wife says. “Who’s Dante?” her husband replies. “Ughhh,” she rolls her eyes, and then catches mine. I smile, so does she. My daughter sees the husband’s sheepish grin. So many sheep here in Firenze, lost in the continuing rain. The next day, our flight is delayed; the incoming pilot cannot land in a thunderstorm. We lose connections, keep circling, and land days later in the Carolina summer, lost no longer but sweating still.
Terry Barr’s essays have been published in storySouth, The New Southern Fugitives, Under the Sun, Coachella Review, and Lowestoft Chronicle, among other journals. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family, and blogs at medium.com/@terrybarr.