Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Lily Gong)


Column: Running in the rain — traveling in Italy

Florence was supposed to be a quick, albeit dull trip — just a simple drive from Pisa to snap a few photos — a few hours at most. The plan was to visit the world-famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Based on what I saw and knew, I did not expect it to pique…
<a href="" target="_self">Lily Gong</a>

Lily Gong

February 19, 2020

Florence was supposed to be a quick, albeit dull trip — just a simple drive from Pisa to snap a few photos — a few hours at most. The plan was to visit the world-famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Based on what I saw and knew, I did not expect it to pique my interest.

Earlier that day, our tour group had visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and after what seemed like hours of walking circles around the tower and taking note of every small detail, I was eager to feel the sweet touch of air conditioning back on the bus. 

As our tour guide continued to chatter away as we neared the cathedral, I lifted my head to take in our new surroundings. I was taken aback by this whole new world composed of wide-eyed tourists, impatient bicyclists, and stroller-pushing grandmothers –– the seething mass of the city hit me like a slap in the face — a stark difference from the winding country roads and farms we had just bid adieu not so long ago.

While strolling through narrow alleyways and meandering roads, I suddenly understood the look of awe and wonder distinctly etched into the tourists’ faces upon our arrival. We burst onto the scene dreams are made of: the colossal cathedral full of rich history built in Gothic style, ensconced by beautiful images carved into stone, columns intricately etched with figures dating back to a time B.C., I couldn’t help but stand and marvel at the great sight before me. 

This place was truly a new world, a place full of juxtaposition –– the laughter of a family dining in a nearby café to the loud, angry Italian spewing from the mouth of an important-looking businessman strolling through the plaza –– a place worth exploring, remembering and mentally bookmarking.

Suddenly, soft water droplets began to fall from the sky, grazing my arms, face, neck. I twirled, laughing as I breathed in the invigorating scent of wet concrete and cobblestone. The clouds above closed in on us, blocking out the direct sunlight, and casting a warm glow on the entire square. The shrieks of shocked and sodden tourists snapped me out of my reverie and I felt a hand clamp down on my arm: my mother hauling me to safety. Under the protection of the small awning, we huddled for a few minutes and watched the rain pour through the air.

In an act of spontaneity and defiance, I started sprinting through the rain, laughing as the wind whipped through my braids and water filled my sandals. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch. My shoes slapped the ground as the rainwater sloshed around in them. I ignored my mother’s shouts for me to come back, the warnings that “I was going to catch a cold” and that “I would really be ‘in for it’ if I got sick” washing over me as my legs continued to pump, each step bringing me closer to the cathedral. I focused on the warm rain as I made my way towards the towering cathedral.

My eyes raked up and down the worn, grand doorway, and I stood there — transfixed. As I glanced up, my damp hair whipping around my face in strings, I noticed that the previously noisy square had fallen silent. The electric energy had been washed away with the rain, leaving me with the whole cathedral to myself.

And I was OK right there, taking everything in, getting more and more drenched as the seconds passed, content with the world for those few precious moments. Just standing out in the rain, by myself, gave me a feeling of calm independence. I was untouchable.

I turned around to see the rage on my mom’s face as she watched, steam rising from her head, her mouth opening and closing as she struggled between yelling at me in public or saving herself the embarrassment and letting me go as I danced around in the rain. All she could do was rage quietly for me to come back.

At that moment, I decided that it might not be the best idea to go running back to my mom, whose red face resembled a ticking time bomb. I turned around and gave her the cheesiest, face-splitting grin I could muster and turned my back on her, calling out, “No, I’m OK right here! I’ve got the best view anyways.”

My heart raced as my mom’s face turned a bright red, and I giggled, realizing that she had no power over me. As my mom leaned against the awning, choosing to ignore me until she calmed down, I noticed an older woman that had also taken refuge under the awning smiling at me with an eerily familiar emotion in her eyesIt might have been nostalgia or jealousy, but I saw her imagining herself as a child again, carelessly running through the rain, tripping all over herself as she tried to escape her parents. I smiled back at her and turned back to my mom’s awaiting glare, with the old woman’s knowing smile giving me the strength to face my furious mother.

Three years later, as I shakily stumble up to the podium in the seemingly massive courtroom, I take a deep breath and look up to face the judge. All those hours of preparation and rehearsal had given me the confidence to walk into the courthouse, but now, as I feel a million pair of eyes boring into my back, all that has suddenly evaporated — much like how my sweat from the Italian sun had evaporated in the cool confines of the air-conditioned tour bus in Italy.

I shut my eyes for a brief second as I collect my papers and awkwardly shift my feet, desperately searching for my lost confidence to guide me through the butterflies in my stomach and sweaty palms. This frantic search for my confidence suddenly transports me back to Florence, to the comforting smell of wet concrete and freshly brewed coffee swirling around me as I see myself, devilishly grinning at my mom in the safety of the canopy. One specific thing stands out in my treasure trove of memories, and as I witness my younger self exchange smiles with the woman under the canopy, my body warms and my eyes snap open with a renewed vigor.

My spine stiffens as excitement and anticipation run through my body and I return to the present. My mouth opens, and the first lines to my well-rehearsed speech tumble out, the strength and passion of my voice shocking even myself. As I delve further into my presentation, my gestures and postures become more animated, all building into a crescendo meant to dispel any doubt in the judge’s mind that my argument should prevail over that of my opponent. Somewhere in my delivery, I found myself recalling the loud insistent tone of that same angry Italian businessman, imagining his angry emotional tirade and using it to fuel my own impassioned plea to the judge. 

When I learned my team had been awarded crucial points based on my arguments, I found myself looking across the courtroom to my opponent. In that same instant, she looked up and our eyes locked together for an instant. I could see nothing but disappointment in the depths of her pupils, long nights of preparation and rehearsal all for naught. By contrast, I was feeling elated and proud, relieved that those same long nights of preparation and rehearsal had paid dividends for my team.

But in that instant when our eyes locked on each other, my heart suddenly drew upon that moment when an old woman smiled knowingly and kindly at a defiantly independent child and I found myself smiling and looking just as kindly at my opponent as that Florentine woman had smiled at me so long ago. And for an instant, I thought I could see a re-awakening of her inner spirit, rising like the phoenix of old, up from the ashes of the defeated, and vowing to live to fight another day in court.