I didn’t realize I had a slight aversion to adventure until I had to have one.
In March of this year, I traveled to Florence, Italy to visit my best friend, Hannah*, who studied abroad there last semester. I had been dying to go; the mere thought of “Florence” would make me vibrate with joy. It was the realization that for one whole week, I would get to spend time with Hannah, and my other dear friend, Tenea, eating and laughing our way through one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
But I was still so anxious.
I was afraid of getting lost, of being pick-pocketed and stranded thousands of miles away from home, left to my own defences. I realized a while ago that my anxieties would always try to keep me from having fun or relaxing, and I had such a paralyzing fear of doing anything that would risk consequence that I could hardly leave my friend’s apartment the first day I was in Florence. That’s how bad it can be.
I was on a mission though. Scrolling through Pinterest months before to find what I simply had to do during my week in Italy, I found him. Colossus. A massive, 16th century statue of a man hanging over a lake in the Italian countryside, with rooms hidden inside the structure. I needed to see him--with my own two eyes, and feel his presence knock the wind out of my lungs. I took a screenshot and sent the picture to Hannah.
“We have to go here!” I wrote. She was just as ecstatic and agreed we couldn’t not go. It was settled.
March came, and the three of us sat on Hannah’s bed, working out the loose details of what we wanted to do. The last day of my trip, it was scheduled, it was set: we would go on a epic excursion to find Colossus. Nothing was going to get in the way. Plans were plans, nothing would change that.
Colossus was in Pratolino, not Florence, which is only half an hour away from the city by bus (but not within walking distance of the apartment like everything else we did). There was hesitation. It meant figuring out buses during a time where drivers spontaneously went on strike, and navigating a foreign country where none of us spoke the language with no easy way to get back to Florence if it came to it. I was in charge of figuring out the bus routes, and back up plans, and if there was an entry fee to visit.
My job was to minimize the list of shit that could go wrong. I was ready.
Our first obstacle was the bus. The further we wandered from Hannah’s, apartment, the more doubts she called out.
“Maybe we should have left from this bus station instead? Maybe this isn’t a good idea, I’m not familiar with this part of the city as much. But Katie, I trust you!”
I don’t know how wise of a decision that is actually, I thought to myself.
We made it to the bus station--crowded with pigeons and people--and ran our finger down the decomposing bus schedule. Pratolino, Bus 2A.
“It doesn’t say what time it arrives,” Hannah said, a little crease appearing between her eyebrows.
“And do we need to buy tickets or do they take coin?” Tenea asked, looking concerned.
A grinning, toothless man behind us, with sweat dripping from the band of his hat, caught my attention. I turned to ask him (in English, like an idiot) when the bus would get here. Without saying much, he took my two Euros and handed me a bus ticket, and did the same for my friends. They both eyed their tickets skeptically.
“Okay…” Tenea said, “We have a way to get on the bus, but no idea when it will show up.”
“We’ll know it when we see it,” I said, not totally positive what Florentine Bus 2A to Pratolino looked like. But I had to stay positive! I spotted a bench nearby and waved them on. “Let’s go sit there while we wait.”
We sat in the sun, talking and cringing away from the filthy dust/pollen clouds pigeons left behind as they flew off. All of sudden, moving rapidly into the bus station, an electric blue rectangle dashed to the curb. In bright neon red, “Pratolino 2A” registered in my retinas. I jumped up so quickly I almost scared Tenea off the bench.
“There! There! Shit! Runrunrunrunrun!”
In our best dress, we fluttered across the street and jumped aboard the bus. Our tickets were stamped by a machine, and we settled into the seats along the right hand side, new fears of not knowing when exactly to get off starting to overwhelm me.
We started-and-stopped our way to an edge of Florence we hadn’t been to during my trip yet, and Hannah, who had been here three months, didn’t know either. The buildings trickled away turning into a vermillion hillside bathed in sunlight that the bus wound through, skipping through the shadows of trees. My friends and I turned in our seats to watch everything roll along, and I remember thinking about the sound of crashing waves or an avalanche of rocks in my heart—the type of sound that’s beautiful and terrifying all at once.
There was a point where the bus went left when we thought it was supposed to go right and I thought Oh shit fifty times in a second when a road sign, bent at the corners, read Pratolino. We relaxed. The bus drove on. My heart was racing, I actually felt dizzy.
We jumped off the bus, into the sun—it was so warm, I could feel new freckles jumping up on my skin by the second. We did a few ballerina twirls trying to figure out where to go from there and found a hand-painted sign that said Parco Villa Demidoff pointing us down a hill that looked like it led to something out of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I knew from my research that this was the way to go.
Hannah let out a shriek of delight.
I was feeling pretty good then. We had made it. We were on our way and I was going to see Colossus. Nothing. Could. Go. Wrong.
We went skipping down the hill and bumped into rain soaked grass which made our boots squish. Blitzing out of that, we booked it across the street to the park—totally ignoring the literal sign—and ran into a road block, confused.
A security guard in a down coat (we were in sundresses) came out saying politely, but annoyed-ly, “Chiuso, chiuso.”
I totally deflated.
He handed me a brochure for the park and tapped one spot a couple of times.
Open from April to October.
“No!” Hannah cried out.
“Oh Katie, I’m so sorry,” Tenea said, rubbing my back a little bit.
I’ll admit it. I cried. Just a little bit.
We turned out of the closed park, our heads hung, not sure where to go from here. The plans felt ruined. Anxiety over ambiguity started to take me.
“But we made it here! And now we can go explore this weird, little town!” Hannah said finally. I smiled, but I know they could tell I was upset. This is why I panic--you can plan all you want, and things can still go wrong, and I couldn’t help but feel like this trip was suddenly too much of a metaphor for my recent life (a different, long story).
For about ten minutes I thought about how worth it it would be to jump a fence and most likely get deported just to go see Colossus, and take matters into my own hands, but that idea was scratched off the list of “Things to Do” quickly.
Hannah and Tenea started to pull me along towards a different adventure. We made our way to the other side of town and eventually found signs for a church on top of the hill.
“We have to go. I have a good feeling about this,” Hannah said.
We were quiet most of the time we walked. Mainly because we didn’t see more than a dozen people the entire day, and to talk felt like disturbing the entire town, maybe even the entire universe. Pratolino was the complete opposite of Florence: quiet, full of trees and fresh air, the kind of place that makes you think rather than distract you at every turn.
Behind the church, we pulled the bungee cord holding the door shut against the wind to walk around the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen. I was perplexed by the colors on each headstone. So much golden yellow, magenta, and baby boy blue, glowing against the white rock. It was windy walking up, but here, everything held still. Photos of the departed--some black and white and faded, other on glossy paper in color--were on most of the slabs of marble. Electric candles were turned on to stay lit in every element. After a while we slipped out the horror movie squeak door and kept walking up the hill.
We gasped when we found the meadow. We couldn’t not gasp when we saw it, and gave a collective nod, agreeing that we would have to stop here after taking it all in. A creek jumped around nearby and we saw deer do hurdle jumps away from us. We sat in the meadow, tickled by purple crocuses, writing and feeling the sun on our legs until we could hear our stomachs over the wind that affected the meadow ten times more than the cemetery. We made our way back down the hill to the only restaurant in town. I was so at peace and so happy, I thought about never leaving.
The restaurant was called Ristorante Zocchi and unlike Florence, no one spoke a word of English to accommodate us Americans plus one Canadian. My friends and I took wild guesses placing our orders, trying to pick out words we knew on the handwritten, printer paper menus. Our waitresses were adorable and sweet, and only made my point that you don’t need to speak the same language to crack jokes and be kind to one another. I had the most amazing ravioli with mushrooms, and my friends and I were sure we could spend the rest of our day in this restaurant that had plants crawling along the bar. We each ordered a different dessert (which my friends initially thought we didn’t need. I’m glad I convinced them otherwise) and shared, lounging in the sun and each other’s company some more.
It was a perfect day. A perfectly, unplanned, lovely adventure.
We eventually caught the bus back to the city, but fifteen minutes in, Hannah, who was resting her head on my shoulder, sat up suddenly and said, “Guys there’s a castle over there!” I almost had to stand up on the rapidly moving bus to see the top of this literal glass castle peeking over the top of cherry blossoms. Hannah gripped my arm tightly; I was smiling so broadly I thought my face was going to break.
“We should get off the bus! We should go see what it is!” Hannah yelled.
I, being someone of anxious tendencies out of fear something will go terribly wrong and therefore little spontaneity, was not so sure about jumping off our only bus home. Tenea, who was sitting in front of us, twisted in her seat to keep the castle in her sight.
“Ah! Ah, ah, ah,” Tenea panicked, gripping the back of her seat with white knuckles to look at us. “Shit! Someone else make the decision!”
The bus came to a slow stop and people started to file off. I hadn’t felt my heart beat this hard in my chest in a long time.
“Jump!” I yelled.
We didn’t hesitate.
We leapt off the bus, taking a running start down the block towards the glass castle. We turned one right, then another, and we came up to this stupendous park, with children playing soccer and the sun setting behind pink petals on the trees. The air was so sweet, I can still sniff and smell it, feeling so happy we jumped off that bus. We walked around for a while smiling at babies and puppies, and cupping our hands around our eyes in make-do binoculars to peek into the glass castle. We sat on the grass writing, not feeling the pressures of time or responsibility for the first time in a long time. I wrote in my journal with the gold on the edges and planets on the cover.
We jumped off our bus from Pratolino to find beautiful gardens Hannah saw out the window and they are incredible! We saw them and panicked, deciding if we should get off or not. Tenea said “Someone else make the decision!” and I can’t believe it, I was the one who yelled “Jump!” and we ran off! It was so spontaneous! We have no idea where we are, but there’s sun and cherry blossoms and people wearing down jackets staring at us in our tank tops and sundresses and I am SO. HAPPY. What a day! I am so in love with life right now. Hannah asked me what I was going to take away from this trip and I told her. “I want to be more spontaneous. I want to stop making excuses and playing it safe and just LIVE.” I need to remind myself that not only will it be okay, it will be amazing. And God. I’m just so happy. I will never forget this day. I am so happy.
* Pronounced “Ha-Nah”
Photos by Author
Katie Hankinson is the Senior Editor at Sonderers Magazine. She is the author of two unpublished books (she’s working on it), as well as a freelance journalist, photographer, social media manager, and student. Katie currently attends school in her home state of Colorado for English and Linguistic Anthropology.