Florence at My Feet


For years, running was my way of getting to know a place I was visiting, my way of feeling at home in strange territory, of building a routine to ease my sense of displacement. This worked whether I was on a weekend trip, or if I had the opportunity to stay somewhere long enough to build a bit of a life—you know, find the grocery store, stake out my favorite coffee joint, have a desk in a room and some writing-in-progress that I could come back to after the run. In Interlochen, I had a path through woods, next to a lake, and alongside wetlands. In Prague for the first time, I ran in the blue collar neighborhood where my students and I stayed—and suffered a lot of stop-in-their-tracks staring by the locals who were more apt to pause at the local outdoor bar stand for a beer before work than to own a pair of gym shoes. Other times when I was in Prague to teach I ran in a huge park, and passed the same other runners and dog walkers each morning; enough so we actually nodded and occasionally, very occasionally, said dobry den. In Bath, England, I had a regular trail alongside the River Avon, and each morning I would look for a pair of swans that would swoop close by and skim to a rest on the water.

I ran my first half-marathon when I was 50. I ran my second (and last, perhaps) when I was 51.

Now I am burdened with a very achy and wobbly hip, and also inflamed and painful Achilles tendons. On both feet. So for about a year and a half, I didn’t run at all. In the last few months, I have begun to try to get going again, work through the wobble and the pain, do what Philip and I now call the “ruffle.” A little run. A lot of shuffle. And I walk as often as I can.

So here I am in Florence, where Philip and I came to teach a Journal and Sketchbook class to Columbia College Chicago students. There is a lot of walking here: to class, through the museums, over the bridges, into the gardens. It’s a good walking city, but a bit tricky, too, with its uneven and pocked cobbles, its narrow streets and crowds and bicyclists and quiet, electrical cars and buses. Philip has gone back home now; his two-week contract up. I will be here five weeks in total.

I run. Or rather, ruffle. On the mornings when I don’t have class, I take a path along the River Arno, and I turn away from it onto another path that moves through a more residential area with huge houses and broad drives and trees and gates. I don’t know how long the route is, and I don’t think I want to know. I don’t want to know that it takes me so very, very long to run so very, very few miles.

On the days I teach, I try to take a longer walk in the evening. (My ankles are usually a little too sore from a day of slipping over cobble and flagstones to run.) A couple of evenings ago, I decided to climb the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo, reputed to be one of the highest and best places to see Florence from. The climb wasn’t bad, really. Paved ramps and breaks along the way. It was nearly 90 degrees even though it was also close to 7 PM, but there was shade and a breeze. This is a place folks go to watch the sunset, but I knew I wouldn’t be there that long. I just wanted to get up there. See that I could, and see what there was to see once I was there.

There were all sorts of people at the top, hundreds, probably, and cars (there was a parking lot; one could take the easy way) and vendors with their cheap and crappy stuff they sell in all of the plazas below in the city, near all the museums and tourist hotspots. Mass-produced posters of bad paintings of Florentine scenes and fake reproductions of charcoal sketches of Brad Pitt, that pretty actress he used to be married to, Bob Marley. (Mi scusi? Brad, Angelina, and Bob—they were famous Florentines?) They hawked counterfeit bags and those sticky little balls of goo and plastic in bright colors that they’d fling onto a board on the ground and wait for it to lift its sticky self up from the flattened splat; those odd little wooden trains with letters on them; and the whirlygigs that they’d shoot into the air and that would light up in colors (more impressive after sunset); there were boards lined with plastic sunglasses and coolers of overpriced water in bottles.

Despite the kitsch and the crowds, it felt remarkably joyful up there on the Piazzale. And not quite so close and tight as the narrow ancient streets and squares down below us. And there was cool air in the breeze and everyone was snapping pictures of themselves, their families, and anyone else who asked and offered a camera. Among the laughter and chatter, there was music, a guitar and someone singing in English, in American, pleasant acoustic songs I can’t recall now, but felt some comfort in hearing up there—even though I usually am amused (and at times put off) by the gravitation to American pop songs in touristy places. This sounded nice, though. Melodic. Friendly.

I grabbed a spot on the wall and looked out over the view, down the river of bridge after bridge (where the sun would fall eventually) and past it all to the mountains beyond. It was hazy and cloudy, the brighter blue day of earlier replaced by cloud cover. The lines of things were not sharp, and the colors were muted, but it was still remarkable, impressive, pretty. I took a couple of not brilliant photos with my little phone camera and then set to drawing what I could in a small, hand-made pamphlet. There is so much to see up there, shapes on shapes with a few domes and spires above it all. I’d seen so much of this city already, but from down there, and almost always on the move.

And smells? Were there smells? My own self, a thick and sharp whisper that I carry with me always here, hot as it is and my body flashing and sweating and holding its own heat. Some green smells and car exhaust, but nothing more I can recall. The noises were people noises mostly, languages from here and the rest of the world. A young Asian woman close by and someone from Eastern Europe, maybe—they seemed to be together, speaking their limited English to one another. And the young Asian woman was curious and courteous, apologizing to me for getting too close (although she wasn’t.) She seemed brightly intrigued by what I was doing : “Oh wow. You are painting.” And I knew the feeling then of what the students have talked about along the way—not wanting her to look too closely, not close enough to judge what I was drawing (not very well in my desire to do it better, more accurately, prettier.) I wasn’t drawing to render precisely, but to look closely, to move my eye slowly to see the details my sweeping, taking-it-all-in glance (my run-by glance) wouldn’t let me catch. And I knew as I was drawing that I wasn’t getting it right, exactly, but I was getting it. The big shapes, and many of the small ones. But I could see, too, that there was too much for me to get, I am not that skilled (or, frankly, that patient) but I didn’t mind that. I didn’t mind thinking about what I would do if I could, and what I’d choose to do instead. Pushing things closer together to get what I saw most clearly, what I as attracted to most strongly, onto the page. The small buildings that look nearly the same from up high, squares and rectangles and terracotta tiled rooftops, the same ones that—from the ground view—have their unique details: graffito, shutters, windows, markings all their own; those I did not draw.


But I filled the page as best I could (the whole page, as Philip teaches us) and then closed the little pamphlet and looked some more. The bridges, one after another, each a slightly different shape, shadow and light and glinting, slow moving water beneath them, people scurrying over them.

I packed my few things up and headed back down, slowly on my sore ankles, my unsteady hip and feet. And as I took my time on the downward sloping paths, runners, strong, like I used to be, ran up the hill toward the view. Would they stop once they reached the top? Rest?

And I wondered—like I so often do—if  I’ll be strong again. And I wondered, too, if it matters if I run or walk. As long as I can make it to the top sometimes, to look out, to see. To remember.