I walk down four flights of stairs, fixing my new paisley scarf bought at the market by school, and out the heavy wooden doors onto Dante Alighieri. Just hours before, the same as on every other night, an accordion player serenaded customers with the melody of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" at the restaurant across the street. Heading right, I walk past the sandwich kiosk that has a Filipina serving espresso in the morning, Genoa salami and prosciutto in the afternoon, and cappucino and tripe panini in the evening to regular locals and wandering tourists in search of the Duomo. I turn left into a narrow street, passing small markets, shops, apartments, cafes, and restaurants until I emerge in the open.
Crossing the spacious Piazza della Signoria, I wonder who chose to have blue lighting around the outdoor sculptures at the Uffizi. I wonder when they'll finish renovations on the fountain in front of the Palazzo Vecchio so I can enjoy Neptune minus the ever-present scaffolding. I wonder which unsuspecting tourists will become part of the street musicians' entertaining performance as I zigzag in and out of the crowds.
Once I reach the river, I turn right and continue under the awning that is part of the Vasari Corridor. I see light reflections and water droplets dance on the surface of the Arno and thank Cosimo I de' Medici for having the corridor constructed in the 1500s. The drizzling stops after a few minutes in which I slow down to people watch -- there are always interesting characters in this area. I pass couples walking hand-in-hand, tourists snapping pictures of the shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, and the persistent men trying to make their last sales of the day with leather goods and paintings laid out on tan-colored sheets along the pavement. Coming upon the Ponte Vecchio, I consider taking a detour but remember that it's too late for window-shopping. While the shop windows are full of glittering gold and eye-catching diamonds during the day, they turn into two rows of locked wooden treasure chests at night.
After the Ponte Vecchio, the sidewalk starts to narrow. I continue along the gentle curve of the Arno, passing a slew of shops, restaurants, hotels, residences, churches, old palaces, and galleries all squeezed together on the other on the other side of the cobblestone street. I pass a school with hand painted banners streaming down from the strike a few days ago. At some point, I pass the second bridge. A friend from school lives near here but I keep walking past the third bridge across from another piazza. I could turn right here and end up at Santa Maria Novella -- the church and the train station, two of my first landmarks in the city due to their proximity to my school and to starting every non-Firenze adventure at the train station.
Tonight, however, I have no plans of leaving the city, so I don't turn right nor do I turn at the next piazza. Instead, I rewrap my scarf a little tighter to block out a gust of wind, stuff my hands in my pockets and continue walking along the river. Occasionally, I dodge an oncoming bicyclist with a basket full of groceries, a runner heading home from the park Le Cascine or a couple in the middle of their own fairytale.
I'm both lost in a million thoughts and thinking about nothing when I see it and feel my steps quickening...but just a little. I'm not in a rush. I'm never in a rush when I come here. I push open the little black gate that is unlocked as usual, and I step off the sidewalk onto the sand- and pebble-covered ground. I walk around the small wooden bench that I've never sat on and don't plan to sit on tonight. At the curved end of the semi-circle, I rest my elbows on the wall, look out towards the water and breathe deeply from the long, chilly walk.
I don't know when I "discovered" it. I suppose it doesn't matter when, only that I did. And since then, it's become my spot. Sometimes it's a place to go when I need to walk off all the pasta I consumed for dinner. Usually it's where I go to think. Or to not think. 8 PM or 1 AM. Rain or no rain. Joyful or sorrowful.
I come here simply to be.
To be engulfed with personal silence while still mindful of the whirring sound of the river moving across the constructed "waterfall."
To be mesmerized by the lights of regularly-spaced streetlamps whose reflections dance along the Arno.
To be at ease with self-induced isolation and in touch with the rest of the world moving around me.
To be in the darkness and surrounded by light.
To be in tune with my own being.
To be contemplative.
To be thankful.
And when I'm done being, I take another deep breath, open my eyes and walk back home.
"It's from the mountain springs near my home. It's the best water in all of my country," he says with a slight accent that makes me smile.
Handing me a clear, unmarked bottle, Nikos simultaneously points to the rolling green mountains behind us. He picks up an identical bottle, and we cheers before satisfying our thirst. A smile appears on his tan, leathery face as he watches me chug the water he collected early that morning.
"See? Very refreshing."
I don't need to answer; he's already nodding his head, acknowledging the truth in his own statement. After wiping the salty sweat from his brow and taking another long gulp, he pauses to look out to the blue waves surrounding us. I follow his lead in taking in the view before we both turn around to face the mountainous island coastline of Corfu. I feel the warmth of the late morning Mediterranean sun as it makes the salt and sand stick to my skin. The juxtaposing cool Ionian Sea breeze, exaggerated as we speed back to land, causes my hair to fly wild, the waves to splash and glisten, and the smell of wet neoprene to waft around his aging boat.
Over the roaring motor he asks, "Do you still have what I gave you?"
I happily unclench my hand to reveal the damp white and purple shell he had slipped into my hand as we explored the world beneath the rolling ocean surface. Just an hour before, we were swimming underneath the witch's hat alongside schools of fish dodging in and out of sparse coral formations, passing starfish that clung to rocky edges, and being hypnotized by purple, orange and green plants swaying with the ocean currents. Even as we swam up in a dizzying swirl of sunlight dancing in the waves, I made sure I could still feel the sleek, smooth curves of the shell between my fingers.
"Now you have something to remember this morning in Greece with me."
As we reach the shore of tumbled rocks and crushed shells, I hop out of the boat, letting my feet sink slightly into the sand. I follow him back to the quiet wooden shack that acts as his shop and sit at the picnic table where I pull out my dive book. After he rinses off the wetsuits, he sits across from me and signs off on my newest dive log entry, commenting on my few dives.
"I just got certified last year. When did you start diving?" I ask a bit naively.
And for the next hour or so, we talk. Well, he talks and I listen, then ask a question and absorb his story some more. About leaving his beautiful country in his late teens to work on ships and as a dive instructor. About living in Brazil, Panama, the United States, Morocco, the Philippines, and Australia...just to name a few. About his thoughts on leaving Greece again in a few weeks to work on an oil rig in Mozambique (or was it Tunisia?). About diving as a hobby and as a job, though many times it was one in the same. About his favorite places that he's dived ("the Great Barrier Reef") or been ("...many places, but I will always come back to Greece. This is my home."). About the upcoming presidential elections back home and if I thought Obama would win. About his beloved Greece.
Then, because it's only fair, the tables turn. He asks the questions and listens to whatever rambling answers come out of my mouth. About growing up in South Carolina and my studies at the university in Italy. About how at an early age my dad ingrained in me a love and respect for the ocean. About my first dive ever in the Philippines, which led to getting SCUBA certified to satisfy my physical education credit requirement. About what brought me to Europe and, more specifically, to Greece. About my plans for the rest of the day in Agios Gordis and my remaining three days in Greece.
The conversation winds down when we run out of questions, albeit with a clearer and more genuine understanding of the person sitting across the table. We get up, thank each other for the pleasant morning, and are off on our separate ways. He has another dive appointment to get ready for. I have a free afternoon to enjoy the quiet beach before returning to the Pink Palace to repack my bag for history-filled Athens.
As I walk away to bask in the midday sun, flipping the now dry white and purple shell over and over with my fingertips, his words resonate in my mind:
In all the places I've gone, I've found one similarity: the world is beautiful. Experience as much of it as possible.
The Witch's Hat @ Agios Gordis, Corfu, Greece. (c) November 2008