PART 1: PISA
The train ride from Florence to Pisa is a short ride, and the town of Pisa is a small one. There isn’t much to do in Pisa outside of taking a gander at Italy’s most famous architectural mistake, so we only planned on spending a couple hours there. The train station is on the south side of Pisa, and the Leaning Tower is on the north side, but we did not realize this at first, for the mounted public map had both locations scratched off, so that the symbols could no longer be seen nor could the words be read. I imagine this act of inconveniencing tourists was either performed by embittered locals, who are reasonably annoyed by the throngs of travelers who invade their underwhelming town, clogging their would-be boring, empty streets, just to see a well-preserved error in construction—or it’s a collective weathering, caused over time by a series of scratches and scrapes from coins and keys, by traveling turds from all over the world.
Anyway, it didn’t take us long to figure out that we were standing at one scratched-away landmark and needed to walk to the other scratched-away landmark, so we got a move on. The walk through town and across the River Arno wasn’t terribly exciting nor extraordinarily pretty. It was pleasant enough, but just not very interesting—it’s the cheese pizza of towns.
The most popular thing to do in Pisa, apparently, is to have your friends and family snap a photo of you at an angle where it looks like you’re propping up the distant tower, as if to suggest that if it weren’t for you and your strength, the tower would suddenly and finally be trounced by the power of gravity and crush a few dozen people, who are doing the exact same thing you are—like a subsidiary Atlas, but with a fanny pack and a shit-eating grin.
Instead of taking one of these photos ourselves, Kay and I decided to take a collection of photos of other people posing with the tower, but at the wrong angle, so they look foolish, because we’re dicks.
PART 2: BACK TO FLORENCE
After returning to Florence that day, Kay and I decided to spend the afternoon apart, and then we’d meet up for dinner that evening. It was very hot again today and so I stayed inside the hostel’s dining area, seated right beneath a whirring celling fan, and read A Farewell to Arms until it was finished.
I sort of predicted the tragic ending, but upon finishing the novel I still sat on my bench, just doing nothing aside from being affected by the book in a way I didn’t entirely comprehend. I was still trying to appreciate how so many events and statements tied together thematically by the end of the book, and I was hung up in particular by protagonist Frederick Henry’s seemingly random flashback to seeing ants walk across a burning log when he was at a camp:
“Once in camp I put a log on a fire and it was full of ants. As it commenced to burn, the ants swarmed out and went first toward the center where the fire was; then turned back and ran toward the end. When there were enough on the end they fell off into the fire. Some got out, their bodies burnt and flattened, and went off not knowing where they were going. But most of them went toward the fire and then back toward the end and swarmed on the cool end and finally fell off into the fire. I remember thinking at the time that it was the end of the world and a splendid chance to be a messiah and lift the log off the fire and throw it out where the ants could get off onto the ground. But I did not do anything but throw a tin cup of water on the log, so that I would have the cup empty to put whiskey in before I added water to it. I think the cup of water on the burning log only steamed the ants.”
I love that passage, and not only because the last sentence contains a pun. [One interpretation of this passage tells us that] Frederick Henry stoically accepts the pain that befalls him while simultaneously blaming himself for not being able to do enough to fix the uncorrectable problems, which are, of course, beyond his control. I feel like I do that, but it’s way less cool when I do it. But another interpretation is that our hero is just selfish; I’m that too, sometimes. I think Frederick Henry is experiencing something very complicated. Life eventually takes us all, so while he’d like to be a “messiah” that can protect everyone he cares for (his fellow soldiers, the ants, his wife, his child…and that is a spoiler, but you might have predicted it as I did anyway), he wont be able to, and he knows it, so he wont act, and because he doesn’t act he’ll always think he could have done more.
So anyway, I sat in that confusion for a while, with my brain trying to identify exactly what I felt and why, or at least trying to categorize the variety of emotions which those final pages had caused me.
Kay found me still sitting and informed me that she’d met a couple of fellow hostelers and that she had invited them to join us for dinner. This is when I met Stefan and Kang. Stefan was from Holland and had been riding his bicycle across Europe, carrying with him only what could fit in his backpack.
Blonde and towering, Stefan was very charming and regaled us with stories and strange health tips. For example, if one is choosing to bike across Europe for some reason, it’s best to frequently eat bananas. Or, if one’s flesh has been torn wide open and is likely infected, he or she can heal the wound by wrapping it with maggot-filled gauze. We were all audibly skeptical and/or disgusted by this. But Stefan assured us: “The maggots eat only the rotten flesh and bacterias. That way the good flesh can heal. Also, when you peel the gauze away later, they can be up to three times their original size.” And then we ate pasta!
Kang was Stefan’s opposite in many ways. While they were both charming and kind, Kang was small, shy, and at the age of twenty was already on his way to becoming a doctor, and was in a serious relationship back in Korea. He had been studying in Verona and wanted to use his traveling to help him break himself out of his sheepish shell. And Kay was facilitating a conversation to help all of us do just that.
While we ate our pasta and split a liter of wine, Kay suggested we discuss our most embarrassing drunken habits. Kay said she has confessed what would have otherwise have stayed secret love to men who didn’t realize they were crushes. Stefan said he’s also drunkenly admitted his love to his unsuspecting female friends. (Stefan also told a story about how he fell in love when he was in this same city last year. Though they fell in love in Florence, they actually lived in very distant areas of The Netherlands. Absence did not make the heart grow fonder, and after a stretch of fights, their relationship crumbled under the weight of distance. “She’d rather have casual sex,” Stefan explained, then added, “but Florence is a very romantic city.”)
I admitted that my most embarrassing habit while drinking might be the shameless shedding of clothing, which unfortunately only draws more attention to how embarrassingly drunk I happen to be—though less personal than surprising someone with the admission of concealed love, it is also less subtle, since me taking off my pants suddenly effects everyone with vision at the party, concert, wedding, etc. It’s not enough that my brain is less inhibited and fancy-free, but my entire epidermis wants to get in on the action. I should clarify, though, that my propensity towards near-nudity doesn’t stem from some sort of strange desire to be simultaneously public and pubic. In fact, the times I’ve taken off my trousers and/or my shirt—whether it be at a gathering of the intoxicated or at an internationally celebrated rally of naked cyclists—has had nothing to do with sexuality or something pervy, and everything to do with comfort. I find less clothing is more comfortable. And with a temporarily deteriorated mental filter, I’m more willing to behave like the feisty toddler I am deep down inside.
After filling up on pasta, we forced down some gelato from a nearby shop (because of that whole “stuffed dogs” thing), and headed back to the hostel. Kang bought a bottle of wine for us to share and we sat in the courtyard talking as the sky grew darker. I invited two of our roommates, an Asian-Canadian couple, to join us. Stefan bought a second bottle. Stefan also spilled some of that bottle onto his light-colored shorts, staining them, and left to change clothes.
Stefan returned with his friend from Brazil, but did not return with any shorts to replace the wine-covered ones—he sat back at our table in just his shirt, shoes, and skivvies. In support, the other men in our group all became feisty toddlers and removed their respective britches. And, of course, it was more comfortable than sitting in the muggy night with an extra layer of fabric wrapped around our sweaty legs. Kang seemed thrilled to be a part of something so carefree. The shell was being broken through. Kang taking off his pants was something like the Korean male equivalent of a white businesswoman in a rom-com finally letting her hair down (literally and metaphorically) because she’s started dating that quirky dude who’s a “free spirit.”
This would be our last night with these new friends, so we sipped wine and chatted until we were too tired to continue. At some point we realized that among us we had a representative from every continent, excluding Africa and Antarctica. But five out of seven ain’t bad, and so we celebrated the last time we’d probably ever see each other together, too carefree to notice the mosquitos eating up our bare legs.