‘Talking to Strangers at the Duomo’
Over the past two years, I’ve focused on solo international travel. As a person of color, specifically an African American, this is an ambitious project. The joy comes in proving to myself my unforeseen capabilities; developing thoughtful, productive conclusions from challenging situations; and, most important, showing other people who look like me, especially Black men, that traveling of all kinds, specifically solo, can be done. The downside comes in my constant fear of being the only Black around. Couple that with a fear of heights and flying and one would wonder what the hell I’m doing — a question I, too, ask myself prior to boarding planes.
Being me in any context means being on guard at all times. Being me in another country, alone, is enough to have all of my senses on high alert. Once, while on a trip in London, I was practically turned away from a restaurant because, according to two people who worked there, “The dishes on the menu are expensive.” I’d taken only two steps into the front door of the establishment before being informed of this.
“That familiar scenario — being the only Black — had an outcome I hadn’t expected”
Just this past winter, however, I traveled to Italy. Of all the countries, cities, and towns I’ve visited, Italy, hands down, has the best food. Eating in Florence reminded me of eating at a friend’s place back home in Atlanta. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company. The energy was positive and welcoming. The waitstaff and cooks loved watching me eat. The portions were generous and the ingredients were fresh.
Midway through my trip, I’d begun to let my guard down. One day, I decided to visit the Duomo — aka the Florence Cathedral. Outside the Duomo, it was so cold that if you stood still longer than two minutes, your hands went numb. The line was long; ahead of me, people grew impatient. A call went out for people with an 11:30 a.m. reservation. There weren’t many of them, and those of us in the noon group figured there was room, so we should be allowed in too.
’m not sure why I felt I could make my way through that door. Maybe it was the folks around me who wanted in as well. Maybe it was the cold. It didn’t matter. The door attendant wouldn’t let us enter, meaning we were stuck outside for another half-hour.
Just then, a father in the group ahead turned to me and said, “You’d think since there’s not a lot of people in that last group they’d let us in.” I was surprised. I didn’t expect anyone in that line to talk to me. In fact, it was the first time someone who wasn’t a barista, waiter, leather-goods seller, or museum employee had said something to me the entire trip. Not that I had chatted anyone up myself, either. Growing up, I was told over and over again, “Mind your own business,” especially out in public. As a Black man, this survival technique kept me out of trouble in a variety of situations.
“Midway through my trip, I’d begun to let my guard down.”
But like I said, I was lowering my guard. I recall mumbling something in agreement, then commenting on the temperature, figuring that might warm the father to a conversation. It did. He introduced me to his wife and their daughter. He and his wife were from Syracuse, he said, and their daughter was a college student in the UK. I told them I live in New York, and we all laughed about how New Yorkers always manage to find each other in other countries. They asked me about my creative writing, the Airbnbs in the city, and if I’d had an opportunity to visit any wineries.
Before I knew it, the attendant was calling for the noon group to enter. Moments later, I was climbing the Duomo dome with this family of three. Along the way, we talked about what New York is and what it once was, and the Mets and the Yankees. Their daughter talked to me about her studies. I periodically stopped with the dad, who’d need a break every once in a while as we climbed more than 400 steep steps. If it’s one thing I know about fear of heights, it’s that it brings people together.
At the top of the Duomo, we saw all of Florence, its rivers, its hills, trattorias, red-tiled roofs, and the sun that hung above it all, and smiled. I asked the father to take a photo of me with the city in the background. In hindsight, I wish I’d had him and his family in it. That familiar scenario — being the only Black — had an outcome I hadn’t expected. And I’d love to have been able to look back at the photo and see the why — why, though I must continue to be hyperaware, my expectations must be curved. The proof of what’s won and lost when we’re moved by fear. But I had the father take the photo of me alone, solo, though I hadn’t been alone in that moment. Not at all. Not even a little.
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