Friday, January 13, 2012

A paper clip chose Florence

Some years back I did a thoroughly enjoyable aimless trip. I was in Vienna one early winter, and I'd just spent close to three weeks driving around Austria and Hungary. One evening, I decided I had had enough of Vienna finally but I still had a week to kill before flying to London.

I was staying then at the Le Meridien hotel right in the heart of Vienna, and it had just opened a month before. It was the talk of this very old-fashioned town that a modern luxury hotel had dared to open in this city that prided itself in continuing centuries-old traditions, and with so many innovations that are pretty standard now in design hotels, but they were certainly shocking at that time.


For example -- and, mind you, this was probably close to ten years ago -- all the rooms had touch-screen automatic everything and cloudy glass walls for the bathrooms. Yes, only floor-to-ceiling glass separated the bedroom from the bathroom, and even the door was one of those easy-swing types that never really close fully.

This was quite something at that time, although now things are different and it's not quite a novelty anymore -- although still not the ideal room for the squeamish, especially if they're rooming with someone else. But they are a dime a dozen these days, and last year alone, I think I stayed in about four such design hotels somewhere in the world; including just last month in Hong Kong.

Anyway, Vienna had never seen anything like it in the deluxe hotels category and everyone wanted to see what it was like. So whenever my friends came to pick me up for a meal or a party, they would always find some excuse to come up and see my room. The hotel was that much of a cocktail party topic when it opened.


Anyway, after enjoying myself at the auctions and the parties in Vienna -- and Viennese certainly kn0w how to party -- I decided it was time for a change of venue.

But Vienna exactly at that time was just wonderful. The Christmas markets had opened (my favorite was and still is the very large Christmas market in front of city hall), and party season had begun -- the furs, pearls and diamonds were all out of the closets.

My friends were bringing me to parties were diamonds outshone the candles and fur was de rigeur. I remember one party near the Vienna Woods were a society lady even had her accessory fur -- a tiny little dog who behaved so well -- in her handbag.

My any-occasion little black dresses were woefully inadequate and I suddenly had to schlepp over to a couple of nice boutiques off Stephensplatz to buy a some more sparkly evening wear to be suitably attired for Vienna's social life.

But, anyway, back to how I got to Florence. I was in my hotel room and I literally threw a paper clip on a map of Europe lying on the coffee table, vowing to fly to wherever it landed. The paper clip stopped just short of Florence so that same day I walked into a travel agency in Vienna and booked my trip to Florence.

Several days later, I landed in Italy with no firm plans other than a reservation for six nights for a room with a terrace that offered a perfect view of Florence's Duomo, and a vague resolution to fit a day at the Ufizzi Palace into my very empty week.

I’d last seen this great museum as a child and I wanted to get reacquainted with the fascinating Renaissance period. It was the first time since my college days that I traveled anywhere without plans, family or friends.

On my first evening in one of Italy’s greatest cities, I firmly pushed away the temptation to avoid the stigma of dining alone by ordering room service pasta and eating in front of the television. After all, Italy is a country made for savoring life, whether you have companions or not.

So instead I dressed up for a date with myself, and the hotel concierge sent me to a historical trattoria several blocks away.

It was a rainy Sunday night and the maitre’d sat me next to another Asian girl dining solo, who turned out to be doing Florence on her own as well for a week. She’d just arrived from Tokyo that very same day.


We became very good friends from the moment we began a conversation in Japanese over the first course of a rich pasta. By the time dessert rolled around, we’d made plans to meet every night for dinner at a good restaurant. It was the perfect arrangement, allowing enough freedom so that we could still do whatever we pleased in the day; but not allowing for many moments of loneliness at night.

It’s easy to sightsee or shop alone while the sun is out. However, even the hardiest of solo travelers will pine for some company once darkness sets in. Every night, my new friend Keiko and I took turns choosing a restaurant from the plethora of choices Florence offered. Then we ordered what we wanted, drank it down with a bottle of wine, and split the bill in half.


During the day, I wandered the streets of Florence alone, without an itinerary or a even a map. After seeing the city’s requisite relics of greatness, I wanted to see the city beyond the attractions that put it on the tourist map.

In the process I discovered small markets only locals frequented, quiet neighborhoods crammed with vignettes of real life, and utterly charming tiny restaurants that dished up pasta based on grandmother’s recipe to regulars at lunch for three euros a plate. This was the Florence that never makes it to postcards but it was the city I fell in love with.

Would I have found my Florence if I’d been armed with a guidebook, printouts from travel websites, and hundreds of tips and bits of information from well-meaning friends, eager that I see everything I should? Perhaps not, because my Florence came about by accident – the result of a week of walking around alone without plans. And in a purposeful life, sometimes that’s the best kind of trip.

A version of this appeared in the October-November 2011 issue of Travelife Magazine.

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.



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