Travelogues Part IV and V: Florence

This month marks 10 years since the big Columbia Seminary Jan Term in Geneva. A couple dozen of us went that year, along with a group of DMin students. It was a spectacular trip and thanks to that experience, I still get the urge to travel each January. Several years ago I wrote some memories of the experience. I’m posting them this week in the hopes that it will inspire some of the other Geneva folks to reminisce as well.

Part IV: The Train The morning before our Dachau day trip we checked out of our hotel, schlepped down to the train station, bought tickets for travel to Florence, and crammed our bags into oversized lockers. By the time we retrieved our bags and boarded the train, it was several hours later, although it felt like years. I remember being vaguely surprised that my bags were still there. I don’t know why. I guess in a world where Dachau is possible, it seems like a silly leap of faith to believe that people would respect that cheap lock that stands between them and your stuff. Yet there it all was… and we were off to Florence via overnight train.

MaryAnn's Principle of Jet Lag: The first night in a new time zone is fine. You’re tired because you’ve been up all day (after dozing on the plane all night), and you sleep fine, even though biologically it’s the middle of the afternoon. The second night in a new time zone is the killer. You’re tired but can’t sleep because your body doesn’t know what time it is.

MaryAnn's Principle of Jet Lag is made worse when you are on a decrepit former East German sleeper train with squeaky brakes and narrow bunks.

I shared a compartment with two other girlfriends and ended up in the top bunk. I had just gotten settled when, from somewhere below me, I heard the following exclamation: “Oh my God is that a human tooth in my bed?!?!”

It wasn’t, but damned if it didn’t look like one. And that pretty much set the tone for the evening.

The train made abrupt, screeching stops all night that slammed me repeatedly against the wall of the train car. I swear, it was like Wile E. Coyote with a Eurail pass. Luckily I was on the side of the sleeping compartment that faced the front of the train; otherwise I surely would have rolled out from behind the blue privacy curtain and plummeted to the floor.

My gals and I didn’t sleep a wink. Unfortunately, each of us thought the others were asleep, so each of us laid there in annoyed isolation (when we weren’t getting smashed into the side of the car). At one point I decided I might as well listen to some music, so I fumbled in the pitch black for my portable CD player and a random CD (again, remember: 2001). The first song on that mystery CD—hand to God—was called, “Sleeping Beauty.” Nothing like a little mocking from the universe.

Florence made up for it though.

Part V: Florence After the herky-jerky train trip, the time in Florence was effortless. Our hotel rooms overlooked the Duomo. Overlooked. The Duomo. How does that happen to a bunch of broke seminarians, I ask you?

After checking into our rooms, we all napped in the shadow of the enormous cathedral, framed by quaint blue shutters. Afterward, we split up and explored on our own. I relished the time to myself—cradling a cappuccino as I meandered through the piazzas, watching disconterting street mime (is there any other kind of mime?), bartering for a burgundy wool shawl that I adore to this day.

The group got back together for dinner. The hotel had made reservations at a little bistro that provided a family-style feast for us, including gnocchi with marinara, rustic greens, crusty bread, and a variety of desserts. Afterward we found a carousel on a side street, and how could we resist? (See above photo.) We strolled late into the night, along with the rest of the city. The white Christmas lights, still draped across the tops of the narrow walkways, created a canopy of radiant glow.

Why yes, Florence was enchanting, why do you ask?

The next day we visited Michelangelo’s David. It’s housed in an art gallery in town (and what an insult to call this sculpture an “it”). I turned a corner in the gallery and there he was, at the end of a long corridor, and one just… gets pulled toward it. There are no words to describe him, so I shall shut promptly up about that whole thing.

We also visited the ginormous baptistery across from the Duomo. The previous semester we had just finished a class called Baptism and Evangelical Calling, a team-taught monstrosity of a survey course. One professor had talked about how Martin Luther, during times of trial and adversity, would touch his forehead and remind himself of his identity in Christ: “I am baptized.” This reminder would give him courage for the journey. Another professor had later cracked a good-natured joke at another professor’s expense while patting her forehead and rubbing her belly… so yes, there now exists a photo of ten or so ridiculous Americans rubbing our tummies and patting our heads in front of the baptistery’s enormous gilt doors. Here's one:

The happy surprise of our time there was the parade that came from out of nowhere. We were leaving the Uffizi gallery when we first heard the drums, booming along a dark side street. Men, women and children appeared in medieval costumes, flags flying, trumpets trumpeting. When we saw the three riders on horseback, wearing crowns and carrying small ornate boxes, we remembered—today was January 6! This was an Epiphany parade. We followed the parade to its end, when thousands of balloons were released in front of the immense cathedral.

We were there over January 6, Epiphany, Three Kings’ Day, when the magi arrived from afar and presented gifts to the Christ child. But this time it was we, the travelers, who received the gifts. Florence had been gracious to us, but it was time to move on to Geneva.