The Italian city of Florence has a very special Patron Saint.
Her name is Saint ReFrainius.
She is the Patron Saint of the Vendors of Firenze.
Specifically, she is the Patron Saint of Vendors Who Suffer the Plagues of Bewildered Tourists.
The innocent Vendor, upon seeing you, a Bewildered Tourist, approach humbly, map in hand, desperate for directions, will immediately begin to pray.
“Oh, dear God, not me, don’t choose me, dear God, another one, dear God, why must you cast this burden upon me three thousand and fourteen times a day, haven’t I suffered enough, please refrain from asking me, please refrain, smite me now, God.”
Followed by a sigh.
“At least, dear God, make this one buy something from me, but no, oh no, that would be too considerate.”
Yesterday a vendor wept when she saw me coming.
Then she threw herself to the ground and prayed the prayer to Saint ReFrainius.
After several hours of this, during which time I did not go away, she arose and humoured me, as they do.
Drew squiggles on my crumpled map with a pen all the while thinking: “Poor little fool. Of course I will appear to be offering something useful. But nothing in Firenze goes in a straight line and therefore this will almost but not quite get you anywhere. Anyone knows that the streets of Firenze arrange and rearrange themselves daily on whims known only to the Gods and Goddesses. Why must you persist in seeking logic? Why do you not stay home and read a book? Why do you not go and get needles and stick them in my thumbs because that is how much fun I am having just this moment.”
Which is how Amy and I came to spend two hours circling the city centre, looking for our boyfriend, The David, who lives in the the Galleria dell’Academia, which in theory was only a ten minute stroll away from our Hotel City. Ha ha. Along the way we saw the Duomo, The Capelle Medicee, The Museo di San Marco, and encountered a hostile Mime.
All by accident.
If we had deliberately been looking for any of those things we would not have found them. Things in Florence have a habit of retreating slightly out of view if you look directly at them.
Also, there are no signs in bad taste which proclaim: This Way For the Naked Statue Guy!
In the book” Mrs. ‘Arris goes to Paris” the London charwoman of the title has saved all of her money to buy the perfect Parisian dress. She has one made especially for her at The House of Dior. But once she has it, the experience of owning the couture gown turns out not to be as wonderful as she had thought. The book is written by Paul Gallico, and when I began to plan my trip to Italy I felt more than a little like Mrs. ‘Arris.
Thinking if I bought only one thing for myself, it would be the perfect Italian dress.
I have had an image of the perfect Italian dress in my head ever since I knew I was coming to Italy.
I cannot find it. I cannot get the images in the shops to line up with the image I have in my head.
In the high fashion world that is Italy, anything goes and everyone looks wonderful.
But the dress I seek is not high fashion. Nor is it cutting edge. I will know it when I see it, and in the way of all things in Italy, I have probably been looking for it too directly and will have to sneak up on it from the side.
In Montecatini Alto there is an old hotel, which is invisible.
It is a situation very similar to the tale of the Emperors New Clothes. Except in the case of the Emperor his new clothes were invisible. In the situation of Montecatini Alto the old hotel really is there, but everyone pretends not to see it.
Montecatini Terme is a small precious town which lies between Lucca and Florence. We over-nighted there at the charming Hotel Alforno, made even more charming by our host there, Ricardo.
Ricardo is debonair, handsome, and completely courteous in an old fashioned manner. He suggested we take the Funicolare (Amy said “Oh! A Gondola?!” and he said “No! A Funicolare!” in charming yet stern way.) A Funicolare is a tiny little trains that trundles up and down the huge mountain which is Montecatini Alto.
As soon as I arrived at the top I could not stop asking:
What is that giant ugly thing on top of the mountain?
Random resident: What giant ugly thing?
Me: The big brick ugly institutional looking building sitting right on top of this mountain.
Random resident: Oh, I do not see that. Hmmm. Look over there. An apparition of Da Vinci.
Me: I don’t want to see an apparition of Da Vinci.
Random resident: Hmmm. Look! An Italian count wants to kiss you!
Me: How do I go see that thing?
Random resident: What thing? There is no thing. There is only the soft breeze gently riffling your hair which makes you long for Prosecco.
Finally we found someone (who must remain anonymous!) who told us that the big ugly brick building which no one sees perching on top of the mountain is the Hotel Paradise. It (allegedly!) used to be owned and operated by the Mafia. The government closed it down and now it sits abandoned, a monument to shame and denial. And no one, but no one will admit to it being there.
Except the one person who did and I am not allowed to disclose who.
Like Mrs. ‘Arris, I am discovering the search for my dress is sweeter than actually finding the dress itself. There are so many wonderful things about Italy that can only be found when lost, with the map turned upside down, and the even sweeter realization that although we will never pass this way again, we will wear these experiences upon our hearts and faces and hips. The ultimate and most beautiful garment ever made.