Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pisa, Italy, May 29, 2011

Second post written about Pisa, Italy. I left Pisa on May 27, 2011, and wrote this post two days later. I'm finally uploading it now, exactly one month after flying out of Italy.

May 29, 2011

I was in Italy only once before, in 1997. I was about to begin my last year as a university student, and I was trying to decide what to do next. Grad school. But in what field? Where to apply? And there was a boy. He was in Japan for the summer. And I was in Italy. To think. Separately.

In 1997, I entered Italy by tour bus. There were sixty university students in the bus, one professor, an assistant, and a driver. Only the professor and the driver spoke Italian. I borrowed a tour book from another student, and learned to count to 10. Grazi. Prego.

First stop, Florence. Red tile roofs. I remember my first view of the duomo, towering over our hotel, only a few streets away. It was huge. Imposing. Stunning. I had seen images of Florence's main cathedral projected onto a screen the term before: Introduction to Architecture, fine arts core requirement, 6000 miles away.

In person, the building was an architectural marvel that a screen projection could never capture. The size, the colors, the history. The mobs of people, mostly tourist, hovering at its base. I remember feeling amazed, seeing the building in person so soon after memorizing its image for the final exam. It was so massive. And I learned that some things must be experienced in person. The view was unexpectedly transformative.

1997, we had a free afternoon. I couldn't persuade any of the other 59 to come with me, although admittedly I wasn't one to try very hard. And so I wound down the narrow streets on my own, bought a ticket, and climbed into the guts of the building, up narrow stairs beneath the dome itself, to the top of the cathedral.

I thought about this 1997 experience a little, here in 2011, just last week, while wandering alone through the streets of Pisa.

2011, I never considered climbing the leaning tower. It was expensive. Too touristy. And expensive. Paying the entrance fee was like willingly submitting to robbery. And too crowded. Expensive.

Until I overheard the older American couple trying to talk themselves out of climbing it. And then I made my way to dinner -- at the scuola cafeteria -- to find that a colleague had just been, and was grinning ear to ear.

Too expensive? I had forgotten that I was no longer the university student, who had saved every penny and lived an extra year with her parents in order to spend that summer in Europe. Too expensive is spending 30 million dollars to rennovate and restore a beautiful, striking building -- a leaning tower -- so that people like me could come and take a picture of all the silly tourists.

So Tuesday morning, just after a quick breakfast, I made my way back to the tower and bought a ticket. 9:00 am entrance.

I stood in line on my own, climbed to the top on my own.

Stepped out alone onto the top, took a picture, turned, on my own -- and clutched the rail in front of me with vertigo. The tower sloped away from my feet in the downhill direction, to the south. It was surprisingly frightening. My mind knew that the tower would not fall, but my heart felt that if I moved downhill, my weight would be enough to tip the scale and we would all tumble down.

It took me a moment to overcome the vertigo, and then, new courage, I made my way around the edge. I was the first in the 9:00 tour group to see the smaller, narrower stairs, going up even higher. And so I climbed again (slowly), and made it to the very very top, and looked out over Pisa. Red roofs. And listened, silently, to the languages and accents of the other tourists around me, as they saw, as I saw, the grooves in the marble, the ancient stone, the effort and care into keeping this beautiful building standing. And felt the vertigo. Amazing. Striking. Transformative?

I don't know what has become of the few souvenirs I purchased in Italy in 1997. The professor is 14 years dead. The boyfriend in Japan was married, to someone else, the following January. I lost touch with all 59 of the other students, within a year, and moved on to a new life in another state.*

But I remember the duomo in Florence. I remember how impressive the building was, and how glad I have been since, that I was willing to climb it myself.

Remembering that, this past Friday morning, I paid the entrance fee again, and climbed to the top of the leaning tower again, before flying out of Pisa that afternoon.

So in the end, I went up the tower twice. And the second time, I watched the way the thousands of tourists had carved grooves in the steps that matched the lean and pull of the building,

and noticed carvings on the walls I had not noticed before.

And stood and looked out over Tuscany: sea to the west, alps to the north, red rooftops. No regrets. Because in a few years, the building will need rennovating again, and I'm happy to be able to help, for some student like me.

(*While I can't even remember the names of most of the other students, I did unexpectedly reconnect with one of them a few years ago, two lifetimes later, here. Soul-Fusion, your most recent posts (as of May 29, 2011) have been on my mind a lot, too, in Pisa. I am praying for you from here.)


Anonymous said...

Very glad you made the climb up
the tower - would have been a shame to miss that.


Letterpress said...

I left the same strangeness in the tilt of the stairs. I could do a stair master if it all felt like the downhill slope, then the other side, was the uphill slope and we worked it again.

I loved that I climbed to the top--so glad that you did too.