Fifty years later, my daughter and three of her college roommates take a trip to Florence where I had gone to recover from surgery and the culture shock of living and studying in Rome. Over those four years’ study, I had returned many times. More particularly, I made it back to Fiesole, my retreat on a hill above the city. On Facetime, I convince my daughter and friends to take the twenty-minute bus ride from the piazza San Marco to the cooler, sleepier town overlooking the Duomo and the Arno river flowing below.
The next day, she emails a photo. Yes, they are there. And yes, they had lunch overlooking the classic amphitheater. And yes, my suggestion to go there was excellent. And yes, I was happy to have recommended a special place to visit. But, I was also just a little sad because I could not completely share all my emotions associated with that place and my time there so long ago.
I suppose I could, over a cool drink on a lazy afternoon with my daughter, explain how Rome had felt to me in those days: choked with honking traffic, ochre-stuccoed buildings stained black with urban fumes, lectures in Latin, full-course suppers at mid-day. I discovered that Fiesole and Villa San Girolamo, a combination retirement home for the Irish nuns who ran it and guest house for tourists, was a welcome retreat and reset.
But I’m struck by the limits of recollection shared. I suppose I could talk about how beautiful it was to ride up the hillside, standing in the back of the 43 bus as it slowly rounded the switchbacks framing pictures of the surrounding landscape I had just admired in the Uffizi gallery…minus fawns, satyrs and frolicking maidens. I could describe the friendships made with Fiesole peers, Paolo and Antonella, and their plans to marry sometime in the vague future when they got sufficiently sistemato. And Nino who wanted to impress the Americano with his new Lancia and aggressive driving skills by barreling down to the city by way of alleys barely as wide as his car. And the art to be found in the historic centro. How it felt to cower under the towering David in the Galleria del Accademia when I had previously known him only in print. And Botticelli’s Primavera live and at full scale, covering a gallery wall. And to talk about all that with an elderly Florentine connoisseur of the arts convalescing down the hall from me. And his beautiful daughter who looked like a Raphael madonna I’d just seen in the Pitti Palace.
I’ve been back to Florence recently. Ridden the bus up to Fiesole. Asked an old man, my age, if he knew a certain Paolo Tanini. I was told he never married Antonella after all and now lived in a nearby town. The villa is no longer a convent. It’s been converted to a hotel. The landmarks are all there. Brunelleschi’s distinctive clay-roofed dome still stands out below. But the stones, the walls, the river don’t know; can’t tell the intricate stories, thoughts and feelings, the memories they have for each of us. There’s a window of personal sharing with words—two, maybe three generations, just words, of our sensations in a particular place before the stories vanish with those who spoke them. While I could point my daughter to my enchanted place, I can’t expect anything like the same magic for her. Time, place, are unique for each of us. The stones can’t absorb nor echo the sentiments of all those who passed among them. We each have to make our own memories and cosset them while we can.