I managed to get my errands done in the center before the deep blue cloud swept over the city. I wanted to stop in the market in Santo Spirito, but even the few Florentines bagging their vegetables kept one eye on the clouds, so I hurried back to the bus. I got on near the Ponte Vecchio on the other side of the Arno. The piles of sticks and trees and debris still stuck to the columns under the bridges left over from the high water. The tiny banks were still a mess of mud. The cloud loomed closer as I got off to switch buses. A man came up to me holding out his hands. “Ho fame,” he said. I’m hungry. I had time now, even if the rain was going to start.
“Do you want to come with me to the store to get something to eat?” I asked in Italian. It was either an unwanted response or he didn’t understand and moved on to the next person waiting for the bus to ask for change.
The rain started as the next bus pulled around the corner near our old house. The Duomo took up the skyline at the end of the street. I do miss that view, though not as much the apartment with no heat. At each stop more and more people boarded the tiny 12 seat bus, I had been seated so far, but as an older couple boarded and the wife sat in the seat next to me, I started to offer up mine to the man so he’d be next to his wife.
“Nono stay, stay,” he said, passing me with a gentle pat/squeeze on my shoulder and wedging himself past another passenger and into the corner seat behind me. See, here is when some women would be offended, I felt like I just got a hug from my grandpa. I was riding the bus till the end of the line, and soon space opened and I moved back until eventually, the seat opened up next to him. As I sat down he looked at me and smiled.
“See, all worked out,” he began, “everyone got a seat. But I have to say, I was thinking about your gesture and, you know, it just shows you are one of the young ones that was well-educated.” Props to my parents here – and everyone I grew up loving and respecting. You made an old Italian man happy today because I physically cannot keep myself in a seat on public transportation if people older than me are standing. He talked about how he’s seen such a change in the culture, with respect for the community, respect for each other. I had to agree with him, even at my “young” age – and I wondered how old he saw me at that moment – because when I look at the new 18 year-old-students floating around this city I feel like they look about fourteen.
“I’m great-grandpa old,” he nodded happily, “I’m 86. I’ve been all over traveling. Singapore! Not a cigarette butt on the street. Here, ” he gestures lazily out the window and makes a noise that sums up everything in Italian that doesn’t need to be said. “And the worst of all, is that the problem is mostly men. Look at you, offering up a seat to me, and in this country, we have a problem with men abusing women…” he looked over to his wife across the bus, “I just don’t comprehend it.”
The rain was pouring down on the roof of the bus as we rounded the corner to the last stop. He told me about his daughters, how tough they were, how proud he was, how one got a job in Switzerland. At one point he stopped himself and asked if he was bothering me. It was the opposite. This is the Italy I love. As the bus stopped, we both got up and stepped out into the rain. He and his wife huddled under an umbrella and started to head off in the other direction but before they left we shook hands. “Era un piacere!” They smiled. It was a pleasure.