To Say That I Love Florence Is An Understatement

It was love at first sight between Florence and me, and the fascination has lasted for thirty-six years. I heard about Florence in conversation with another traveler during my first trip to Europe in 1979. It was one of those conversations where I got caught up in the excitement of someone else's experience. "You must see Florence. It's beautiful. Being there is a life-changing experience." I believed him, and I am still enjoying the treasures of this beautiful city today. It is one of those places where you can never get enough of the food, the art, the history, the surrounding environment, the people and the adventure that you can find there. This article will focus on some adventure I enjoyed over three days in Florence, but first I must share some background so that you get the full flavor of my story.

The food was the aspect of Florence that first caught my attention. It was not that the other beauties were not evident but every night I would sit down to eat a multi-course dinner, and was swept away by the flavors, the creativity and the joy associated with having dinner. Let me give you a taste of what I mean.  During my first trip to Florence, my new girlfriend and I went to eat dinner at a Trattoria on one of the back streets in town. We walked in, got seated and reviewed the menu. The mixed pasta dish looked good as an appetizer, so we decided to start there and work our way through the main course to desert. What we expected was an assortment of pasta served with meat sauce.  What we received was very different. The waiter brought a plate of Tagliatelli pasta with tomatoes and basil in a meat sauce. We enjoyed it but thought that it did not seem very mixed. To our pleasant surprise, the server cleared our dishes and brought some tortellini in a cream sauce with broccoli. He repeated his routine, this time; it was a serving of linguine in clam sauce. As we finished the linguine, we began to realize what the restaurant meant by mixed pasta. We had six servings of different types of pasta in an assortment of sauces. We were delighted, but when the waiter returned and asked us to order a meat course, we surrendered, "No mas, no more." We were full and bursting at the seems but happy. We had just spent another beautiful evening in Florence.

 

Four of the five times I visited Florence; I  stayed at the Hotel Balestri. The Hotel Balestri, a sophisticated boutique hotel which overlooks the Arno river,  is a 3-minute walk from the Uffizi Gallery, 500 meters from the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and a stone throw from the Piazza Del Signoria, the main square in Florence, where tourist convened at night to have fun. I filled my days in Florence with photography. I would sit at the feet of the local artists as the sketched tourists in the corridor between the Arno and the Piazza Del Signoria, right in front of the Uffizi Gallary. This passage was a good place because it seems like the world passed through there on their way to see the art, enjoy entertainment, shop or just relax. One evening, as I sat capturing pictures of entertainers and families getting portraits of their loved ones, a  stunning young black woman showed up. She was tall, slim with rose red lips and big eyes. I could hear a stir among the artists as she moved around. Every artist wanted to sketch this exotic beauty; so I seized the opportunity to play the black card since I was the only black man there. "Hello!  How are you?  I am Baron from New York. Where are you from?" She smiled and answered, "I am from Houston, Texas, and I am traveling with my mother."   I went over met her mom and found out that she was also marketing representative from IBM.  I worked for IBM too. This connection relaxed her, and we became immediate friends, and I introduced her to my favorite artist who was excited to make his sketch of her. 

Florence is a magical city for me with so many delightful experiences.  As  I walked off a train from Milan and was exiting the train station in Firenze, I heard someone scream, "Baron Stewart!"   You can't imagine my surprise. I am so far away from home, and the last thing I expected was for someone to call me by name.  I looked around with my mouth wide open to see one of my ex-students from Rockland Country Day School standing there.  He was on a Bike tour of Europe, and we just happen to be passing each other in Florence.  Another unexpected event occurred when I spent Christmas in Florence with fifty young people on a soccer tour of Italy a few years ago.  As we were on our way to the Duomo for the Chrismas mass, a bus full of men wearing Santa Claus costumes stopped in front of us.  About thirty of the Santas formed a ring around us and began to dance and sing the Jingle Bell Chrismas Carol. Wow! How crazy was that?  However, one of my best memories of Florence was on my honeymoon when my new wife and I were invited to spend an evening with my artist friend, his brother and his friends in the woods outside of Florence. His brother picked us up as he was riding German bike with a sidecar which carried a girl in a wheelchair who was seeing Europe with a friend. We drove into the Italian countryside not really knowing where we were going but trusting that everything would work out. We arrived at a vast meadow full with people eating, drinking and playing music. I was not sure why they were celebrating, but I found out later that this was a communist festival. I ignored the politics and enjoyed the opportunity to see the country through the eyes of an Italian. We ended the wonderful evening listening to guitar music as bats flew by overhead which caused us to duck ever so often as they came too close.

The First Night - Jocelyn and Amare

Crowds gather almost every night, during the summer, in the Piazza Della Signoria to listen to the sounds of street musicians. If you are lucky, you might even enjoy voices of a children's choir or hear the strumming of a classical guitar. It's a very festive environment where vendors sell their wares and tourist take pictures next to Neptune and other sculpture. It is also a very relaxing place to be after a good dinner with wine and before a late night at a club. Routinely, I sat in the plaza to took in the entertainment and indulged in chit-chat with fellow travelers.  On a balmy summer evening, I met Jocelyn, a lovely English girl, and her boyfriend, Amare from Ghana. Jocelyn and Amare were camping around Europe and had the appearance of people who were roughing it. Amare wore short pants with an open shirt and Jocelyn had on flip flops and loose dress. As we rocked to rhythms of the band, we would exchange stories of our adventures of the summer.   I was traveling alone this summer and had just spent a wonderful week with an Italian family in San Martino where I was celebrated by the Mayor of this communist community because I was an unusual black American rarely seen in this rural farming community. The most common question they asked me was about the television show Dallas. People wanted to know if America was just like the show. I felt like I was an American ambassador to San Martino. The highlight of my visit to San Martino was when the Mayor throw a party in my honor,  where all the local Cubans and other communist came and celebrated my presence by singing Russian songs and drinking vodka. Jocelyn and Amare, both well-educated people, shared stories about their lives in London as a mixed race couple, and experiences they had during their camping adventures around Europe.   We continued our chat over dinner and decided to finish the evening at a club dancing. 

There are not many clubs open during the summer in Florence because most of the locals are elsewhere on vacation. However, after some searching, we found a club on a dark cobblestoned street and excitedly tried to enter. "No." Said the security in a loud commanding voice. "Each man must have a woman to come in." There were three of us, so we were one woman short. Undaunted, we scurried around to find a free woman who would join us for the evening. Surprisingly, we quickly found a group of girls who agreed to join us. We marched proudly back to the club to present our results to security. "No." He shouted. "This girl cannot enter the club wearing Flip Flops."  Wow! What will we do now? Our new girlfriend had the answer. She had pair shoes in her car. We retrieved the extra pair of shoes which fit Jocelyn correctly. We returned to our tormentor wondering what new requirement he would have this time but instead, he reluctantly let us in. The club was full to capacity but the four of us danced exuberantly all night.

The Second Night - English Break Dancers

 

During the early eighties, Breakdancing was still a rather new dance technique, and so whenever street dancers would perform breakdancing, it would inevitably draw a large crowd.  In the summer of 1983, the crowd in the Piazza Della Signoria watching two black teenagers from a dance school in England was massive.   The two young men were experts at their craft, and the huge crowd was enjoying their every move. You could hear the groans of approval from the crowd at every end of the plaza. The kids had a huge boom box, dressed in all black and had one pair of black glove between them. Their performance lasted for about an hour, and after the crowd had dispersed, they walked over to me because I was another black person there. We had chatted for a few minutes before two Italian young men came over to congratulate them to inform that they could make a good amount of money performing at night clubs. In fact, they could take them to the best place for them to show their moves for real money. 

The boys gathered up their backpacks, and I picked up the boom box and tagged along. When we arrived at the club, it was closed for August like many other local run places because the owners were on vacation. The Italians apologized for the disappointment, but this misfire gave me a bright idea.  They could perform at the club that I visited last night. But, how would we get by security?  We had no girls, and we were all dressed inappropriately. We had to come up with a plan.  After some minutes of deliberation, we decided to perform in front of the security. And, since these boys were so good, the security would get the owner who would certainly let us in.

I picked up the boom box and off we went along the dark cobblestone streets towards the club. When we arrived there, the only light came through the entrance door. In the dark, we reviewed our plan.  I would walk in front of the security guard and put down the boom box and turn up the volume. Out of darkness would jump each boy doing incredible dance moves and they would dance until the club manager came out. At that point, we turn off the music and discuss if we could perform at the club that night. We were ready to go as I walked in front of the guard calmly and turn up the volume of the boom box. I could see the curiosity in the eyes of the security, but they did not move. Before he could speak, out of the darkness leaped one of the boys and landed with a slit. Then the other boy appeared spinning on his head on the hard cobblestone street. The security stood there with his mouth wide open. Immediately the loud music attracted a crowd, and the performance was in full swing. I could hear someone inside the club screaming, "What's going on out there?" That had to be the manager. He came running through the doors with disbelief covering his face. He was immediately taken back by boys skill, so it was time turn off the music. Everything stopped, and the manager came over and said that he would love to have the kids perform at his club but not tonight because the club was full and he would have no space for the performance. However, he could arrange it for another night. He then turned to me and asked about my involvement with the boys. I answered that I was their manager. He then asked us to be his guest at the club tonight and make a performance later in the week.  We accepted his offer and had fun at the club for the rest of the night.

The Third Night - The Jamaican Reggae Band

 

 It was lunch time in the Piazza Della Signoria and in front of me, was a charismatic Jamaican singing Bob Marley songs with his flowing dreadlocks and colorful Rasta garb. It was beautiful to see a brethren from the rock, and I was so excited as I ran over to greet him.  "What's going on, Mon?" blurted out of my mouth as I embraced him.  "I am Baron; Mon. It's great to see you here."   He told me that he was Tony, and he was traveling throughout Europe with a group of musicians and dancers trying to make some money during the summer. "Sit-in with the band, Mon and sing along. You know Bob's songs." I jumped at the idea and spent the rest of the session singing along with the group as they performed during the mid-day siesta.

After the lunch time session, Tony and I swapped stories about our travels, and he invited me to return for the evening performance. Being so included in the group brought up some deep seated desires.  I have always had a need to be creative, and I was secretively envious of people can sing and perform well. I have always wanted sing and as a child, I was a good singer but I lost my voice as a teenager and as a way to deal with the disappointment, I suppressed all my feelings for full expression. So, sitting in with the groups made me realize how much I missed this part of me. I was glad to have the opportunity to sing and dance with the band.

Later that evening after a fabulous three-course dinner and a full bottle of red wine, I headed back to the Piazza to meet up with the group.  When I got to the Piazza, I was happy to see that a massive crowd was surrounding the band. The people were rocking to the reggae rhythms, and since I was already tipsy, it was easy for me to jump in and dance. I was out front with dancers dancing. I remember a woman jumping out of the crowd to dance with me. We rocked for a while and until she jumped back. It was my brief moment to shine. I joined Tony at the front of the band singing, "Get Up! Stand up!  Stand up for your rights."  Tony was very so gracious to give me that brief moment in the lights.  I will always remember this. At the end of the night, Tony offered me a cut of the nightly earning. I refused it, but it was an excellent compliment to me.

 

 

Kind regards

Baron Stewart