It happened so long ago it seems like a dream now. I was in Florence, Italy, with family who are no longer my family, in a life that is no longer my life. It was a good life, when I lived in Prata di Pordenone. Florence was only a 4 hour train ride from Pordenone, a trip I frequently took in those days. It was a city that held some of my favorite haunts at any time of year: Piazza della Signoria; Gallerie degli Uffizi; the Mercato Nuovo with the lucky Porcellino fountain featured in the movie Hannibal; and Bartolucci, the toy store off the main piazza where I always purchased some tiny piece of furniture for my dollhouse as a souvenir of each visit. One year, my husband’s parents had come to Italy for the Christmas holiday, and we decided to take the train to show them around Florence. I had carefully researched hotels and found La Residenza del Proconsolo with a peek at the majestic Duomo if one leaned far enough out the second floor windows of our rooms. I had been warned that the church bells would seem loud at that hotel, but at Christmas, it just added to the festive atmosphere. I remember dining in a cozy restaurant one night with a view of rare Christmas snow falling outside the window. I remember walking along slushy sidewalks and window shopping on a sunny winter day. My favorite memory of all, a story I have told over and over, involves a couple of total strangers, to whom I felt more connected in an instant than I did to my in-laws and their son striding his usual 10 feet ahead of me on the sidewalk as I straggled behind trying to see the contents of shop windows decorated for Christmas.
There we were, in Florence, walking along a sidewalk crowded with holiday shoppers, a situation appreciated by pickpockets and therefore a little tense for tourists. In Italy, and many other countries, the holiday shopping rush lasts until January 6th, Epiphany, a popular day for gift giving. Traffic on the street was also heavy, with impatient taxi drivers honking, probably some out of towners, and, central to this story, at least one Vespa driver. We crossed the street, in-laws way out in front with their son, and me lagging some distance behind them. Just as I got across, I heard some honking and angry yelling behind me. I looked back and saw the Vespa had stopped, just after turning at the intersection, with several gift wrapped packages strewn all over the muddy street around him. I guessed the unfortunate scooter driver had done some holiday shopping and tried to balance too much at once on his two-wheeled transportation. Behind him were an angry taxi driver and some unhelpful onlookers. The Vespa driver was a typically well-dressed Italian man, who was trying to quickly gather his fallen packages without parking his scooter. Just then my soon-to-be-former husband, irritated, called to me, “What are you DOING??” I called back, “I think I want to help that man.” At that moment, I noticed someone standing next to me, a tall fresh-faced young man. He was smiling down at me, and said in a distinctly British accent, “Then you most certainly should!” I looked up at him, then back at the Italian, and ran back into the street. I picked up the packages he hadn’t reached yet and handed them to him. When our eyes met, I found myself staring into the very green eyes of a ridiculously handsome man. He smiled and said, “Grazie!” I managed to breathe the words, “Buon anno…” and he smiled bigger and said, “Buon anno!” (Buon anno is the Italian way to wish someone a happy new year.) I don’t know if I merely felt the impatience of my husband waiting for me up the sidewalk, or if he actually called to me, but I tore myself away from that unforgettable gaze and jogged back to my group. As I passed the British man, whom I have started to think of now as a guardian angel, appearing out of nowhere and encouraging me to do good things, he called out, “Good job!” I grinned and called back over my shoulder, “Thanks!”
Out of everything I experienced that Christmas in Florence, I never forgot the exact shade of the Italian Vespa driver’s green eyes as he smiled into my soul, or the voice of the kind stranger on the sidewalk (Who knew my guardian angel was British??), or how good it felt to follow my heart and engage with others during a time in my life when I often felt very alone. It was a lesson for me, to do that more often, and a memory I know I will savor as long as I have memories to recall.