When I was seven years old, I took a marker to the yellow label of an empty, plastic salsa jar and re-labeled it “Money for Italy.” Watching my grandparents take weeks-long trips to exotic locales, I had decided that Italy was the first place I would go as soon as I had saved enough nickels.
I made it thirteen years later, in 2006. Unlike A Valediction, which is set in the winter, I arrived in Florence in the middle of July. It was a city alive with the trill of cicadas, astir with the anticipation of the impending World Cup finals, and adrip with perspiration. Straight from a Chinese language program in Shanghai via a detour to Phoenix, I found that my years of French and Spanish allowed me to understand generally what people were saying, but the difference in tongue contortions between Italian and Mandarin left me with the feeling that my mouth was full of river rocks.
The premise of my four-week stay in Florence was a filmmaking program with New York Film Academy, and while I came away with a nice reel, Florence influenced me far more than any classroom environment could. It was my first time traveling without a group and my first taste of true independence.
When we weren’t in class, my good friend Rachel and I spent our time wandering the streets of Florence for hours preceding and following dinner. We spent our free hours climbing to the top of the Duomo, searching for the most perfect lasagna, and meandering the Boboli Gardens. Not of legal drinking age in the US, we had men buying us drinks and shouting “Ciao bella!” from their zipping scooters. We wandered almost every street on both sides of the Arno and used the Salvatore Ferragamo store as a landmark.
With the adventure I experienced the harder aspects of travel – bouts of loneliness, frustration at having the communication skills of a toddler, aggressive men. In the moment, it felt as though I had finally seen the world, and understood it; in hindsight, it was the very earliest beginning of the long, as-yet-incomplete understanding of myself and life around me.
The idea for A Valediction didn’t come until two years later. I was much more familiar with China, as I’d spent about six months studying there and was about to move back, but it seemed natural to allow July to experience some of the same feelings of freedom, awe, and humility in Florence.
An ever-so-slightly less romantic reason I set most of A Valediction in Florence was that I love being abroad, in body or imagination. I could have set the whole story in Boston, where Toby and July are, or had them go to another domestic city, but international travel creates a charged, intimate, adventurous environment. Doing new things, eating new food, speaking new words – international travel really exaggerates emotional highs and lows.
The least romantic reason A Valediction takes place in Florence is because I’d been there. Toby and July could have gone to Paris or London or Madrid, but I’d never been there. And while the advent of Google Maps and online tourism information made it possible to set the story in any of those cities, I felt I couldn’t faithfully write what it was like to be somewhere I’d never been.
I hope that for those who have been to Florence, A Valediction provides a stir of nostalgia and recognition; for those who haven’t, I hope A Valediction offers you the chance to experience its essence for yourself.
Photo by flicker user Daniel Stockman