From time to time we’re all inclined to ask ourselves, Well, how did I get here? It’s a timeless and universal question that invariably pops into the mind of every adult when they realize that their life is moving more quickly than they can comprehend. Yet as the past begins to stretch away behind me, the easier it becomes to recognize and make sense of the answer. I can pinpoint a moment in my life — a chance meeting with a total stranger over ten years ago — that rapidly sent my life in a certain direction. I can state with some confidence that the ensuing years would have been quite different had this apparently innocuous event never taken place. The funniest part is I wasn’t even there.
The unlikely setting for this encounter was Pisa Airport, officially named Aeroporto Galileo Galilei, where my parents were waiting to catch a return flight home having just spent a long weekend in Florence. If you’ve ever traveled from Pisa you’ll be aware that there’s not a lot to do there besides down an espresso or two and wait to board your plane. My parents were doing precisely that when my father happened to notice a young man across the departure lounge, for the sole reason that he was wearing a Juventus tracksuit. Dad kept his eye on him from afar, and soon discovered he was on the same flight. Though he didn’t recognize his fellow passenger as a player for the bianconeri, he wasn’t about to rule it out either. In any case he presumed he must have something to do with the famous Turin club to be dressed that way. The man in the tracksuit was traveling with another man of similar age. A teammate? A journalist? An agent? My dad usually needs little incentive to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and now his curiosity had been suitably piqued he proceeded to do just that.
Much to my father’s surprise (and perhaps disappointment), the young man wasn’t a professional footballer for Juventus, nor did he have anything to do with the club. He wasn’t even Italian. His name was Jamie and he was a former footballer from Wales who had been forced to give up the game because of injury. Now he and his plain-clothed partner, Lee, ran a football academy that offered custom soccer tours to fans and amateur youth teams. They were returning from a visit to Italy where they’d met with former Juventus striker and club director Roberto Bettega. That explained the tracksuit.
This sparked a chat about Italian football, which is when my dad happened to mention me. Evidently intrigued by my apparent interest in calcio and Italy, Jamie gave handed my dad his card and told him to tell me to get in touch. I’d graduated the previous summer and was living back at home without a job or much clue as to how to go about getting one. After hearing Dad’s story I didn’t need much prompting to pick up the phone and rang Jamie’s number. Quite what the purpose of the call would be I didn’t yet know, but the conversation quickly took on momentum when Jamie explained that he might be able to offer me some work in Italy.
A couple of weeks later Jamie and Lee came to visit me at home to fill me in on their project and discuss the idea further. They explained that they had people working for them in Milan and Rome, but their agent in Florence had little time to devote to the project now that she was raising a young family. The pair suggested I go to Florence to help her out, with a view to eventually taking over the operation throughout Tuscany. Having studied in Italy I’d been itching to move back ever since; now I had an excuse in the form of a real opportunity. I could hardly believe my luck that after months of boredom and frustration I was now being handed the possibility of a football-related job in the country I loved.
There was no game plan. Nor had there been any mention of money. Jamie had essentially done little more than ask me to go to Italy and introduce myself to his agent in Florence. Precisely what would happen after that nobody seemed to know, but with appealing alternatives not forthcoming I went along with the idea. Though completely aware that the whole thing could very possibly turn out to be a big waste of time, that wasn’t enough to deter me from finding out.
* * *
Less than two months later I found myself living in semi-rural Tuscany as the semi-permanent guest of a family-friend. When I wasn’t giving ad hoc art history lectures at the local high school or hanging out with the ragazzi at the bar in town, I was attempting to find a real job and a real apartment in Florence, and arrange a meeting with this mysterious agent of Jamie’s. Incidentally she was also Welsh, and her name was Rachel. What seemed a fairly straightforward task proved more complicated than expected, my elusive contact repeatedly postponing our plans for increasingly bizarre reasons. On one occasion she failed to show up at all, later sending me a text with the following as explanation: “I was in my Buddhism class and we were doing our chant.”
Eventually Rachel and I did meet. She came across as a fairly bubbly character, although I sensed an edgier side to her. How she’d ended up working for Jamie I wasn’t sure, but I don’t think it had anything to do with an overwhelming passion for the beautiful game. She seemed wholly disinterested in talking about the job, clearly preferring other topics such as how her husband had written a book about the life of Masaccio and was now in talks with RAI over the film rights.
Though I wasn’t learning much about Jamie’s football academy, Rachel was happy to help me out with other pressing issues in my life, such as accommodation. On one of our first meetings she took me to the American Church of St. James in Via Rucellai. She told me it was something of a hub for Florence’s ex-patriot community (I later found out that it was also where David Bowie married the supermodel Iman). Near the entrance was a small notice board with a smattering of handwritten notes left by people looking for work or roommates. Rachel suggested I leave one myself since I was looking for both. I remember thinking that it seemed a pointless thing to do, that no-one would see it, let alone respond. But Rachel was right. I needed a job and somewhere to live, and the sooner both happened the better. Later, over coffee at Caffé Giacosa, Rachel mentioned she had a friend who was looking to rent out a room in her spacious apartment in the affluent Campo di Marte neighbourhood. Not keen on the idea of sharing a flat with a bunch of students oltrarno I told her to put us in touch. A couple of weeks later I moved in with Rachel’s friend, a divorced doctor named Olivia.
Not two weeks had passed since I’d left small-town Tuscany behind that I received an email from an American student named Jessica. She’d seen my ad at the American church and wondered if I was still looking for roommates. I was amazed that someone had actually read my little handwritten note, and replied explaining that though I’d already resolved my living situation we should meet anyway. Jessica was working at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and the following Sunday afternoon invited me to a screening of Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. I sat through the film waiting for the infamous eyeball scene, all the while looking for my new acquaintance, who’d promised to be wearing a chartreuse sweater. We eventually spotted each other after the film, and after the inevitable exchange about what exactly constitutes “chartreuse” was out of the way) we took a short walk along Via Verdi where we ended up at a café called Riff Raff (I felt this was appropriate since clearly we weren’t). Jessica was not your typical Italian-American: quick-witted, funny and fascinated by the art world, she was a million miles from the provincial types with whom I’d spent the last six months routinely sipping coffee. For instance, during our first meeting she revealed that she slept on a Morrissey pillowcase. After some more correspondence I learned she signed her emails by turns “Jessicroix” and, most intriguingly, “The Director” (a reference that has never been explained to me).
The next time I saw Jessica was a week or two later in her part of town (a ten minute walk away), at a bar called Sant’Ambrogio. She was with her friend Kaitlin, a fashion student from California, who introduced herself however as “a semi-retired contortionist.” Several cocktails later we went back to Kaitlin’s place on Via dei Pilastri, a surprisingly spacious apartment filled with her own artwork, mannequins and various objets. Evidently an appropriate intake of Jose Cuervo was all our wiry host needed to come out of semi-retirement, and we were treated to an impromptu performance. Through the semi-darkness I was able to identify Kaitlin’s legs, which seemed to point in directions that defied anatomical logic. (I grew to discover that shows like this were exceedingly rare, but Kaitlin casually demonstrated her extraordinary flexibility in more mundane circumstances everyday.)
Jessica and I saw each other a few more times, but her period in Florence was drawing to an end. That September she was to embark on a masters degree in museum studies in New York. On her last evening we went to see the Botticelli exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, and when we parted I became sad suddenly. Jessica had been my first new friend after moving to Florence but now, barely a month after we’d first met, she was gone. Such is the transient nature of international twenty-something relationships.
As for Rachel and the supposed football job, things hadn’t worked out quite as any of us had expected. Jamie and Lee did bring a small group of clients over that spring, a trip that I organized almost single-handedly. I booked their hotel in Florence, scored free tickets to a Serie A match between Empoli and Inter, and even arranged for a private visit to the Museo del Calcio at the Italian FA’s headquarters in Coverciano. Once the group had arrived in Italy I was quickly called upon to act as both guide and interpreter. While the trip was a success, similar occasions never materialized, and I slowly let my involvement in the project fizzle out. I now had a steady teaching gig and was also in the middle of writing a portion of a travel book about Tuscany.
Meanwhile Jamie no longer showed the same enthusiasm he had a year earlier. The previous September he’d flown with Lee and their families to Milan for a Euro 2004 qualifying match between Italy and Wales. After the game Jamie’s brother was crossing the street when a car struck and killed him. That spring Rachel had gone back suddenly to Wales, apparently to attend to some kind of family crisis of her own. My attempts to get in touch proved futile, and I never saw her again. Yet in a handful of short encounters she had — though quite unwittingly and unbeknownst to her — changed my life.
* * *
Kaitlin and I continued to see a lot of each other despite the departure of our mutual friend, and over the next two years she became one of my dearest and most loyal pals in Florence. For someone so outwardly eccentric, she was extremely organized and very responsible. She was an early riser and never stayed out too late, and her ability to always show up on time certainly made a nice change (this is Italy, remember). Even when I made an effort to be early I’d find here there waiting for me! Our meetings invariably involved an aperitivo, dinner, a movie at her place, or some combination of all three. Sometimes we’d go down a tiny side street around the corner to listen to live jazz at a dark and smoky subterranean boite, the imaginatively named “Jazz Club”.
A little over two years after I’d moved in with her, Olivia casually announced one morning that she was selling her apartment. Despite her suggestions to the contrary there seemed no possibility of me joining them in their new place. Not only was it further away from town, it would also be significantly smaller. While relieved to be moving out (domestic life had become strained) I’d been given very short notice to find somewhere new. When I relayed this development to Kaitlin she immediately suggested I move in with her. She was about to spend the next four weeks in Barcelona, leaving vacant her studio on Via della Pergola (where she’d moved the year before). That would buy me a little bit of time to find a place of my own. Yet again the timing had proven perfect, and I instantly took her up on her offer.
Though the two apartments were separated by just a ten-minute walk down Borgo Pinti, they may as well have been different worlds. Overnight, my freedom had been restored. I had regained control of both my schedule and lifestyle, and I found the novelty rejuvenating. When Kaitlin returned from Spain she didn’t kick me out. Instead she patiently tolerated my boxes of clutter and even gave up half of her bed. I was hugely thankful to her but was aware the situation could not continue forever, and I began house hunting with greater urgency.
One Sunday night, following a disappointing weekend of several fruitless visits to apartment prospects, I was feeling frustrated and decided to go for a short walk (we were also out of milk). In the hall I ran into a student stacking large boxes into a pile by the front door. Evidently she was moving out. When I asked where she had been living she gestured upstairs to the first floor, and told me that the landlady there now if I wanted to take a look. I hopped up the staircase and knocked on the open door. “Permesso?” I entered a large kitchen and dining area, where I was greeted by a woman in her late-thirties named Paola. She confirmed that the apartment was now vacant, before giving me a rudimentary tour. The place was beautiful, with high ceilings and old stone floors. It also had four bedrooms, which I would have to fill were I to afford to live there. Paola briefly explained the terms and the deal was essentially settled there and then. I returned to Kaitlin’s with a fresh carton of milk and a new apartment.
When I told her about what had happened Kaitlin asked to see the place for herself, and didn’t think twice about moving in with me. Her studio was on the ground floor and I think she was tired of living alone. We’d now have to find only two roommates. The city was permanently littered with announcements advertising apartments, which were usually designed with those little tear-off strips containing the relevant contact details. So I set about making my own. Rather than risk having our flyer become lost in the sea of tatty typed documents, I hand-drew the poster myself, describing Kaitlin as a “fashion student/contortionist” and myself as an “English teacher/writer/deejay” (I had recently begun spinning discs at a popular local watering hole). I threw a stack of freshly-printed flyers and two hefty rolls of masking tape into the basket of Kaitlin’s bike and set off, stopping every few feet to tape our ad to every lamppost, phone booth or billboard that I passed.
My supply of posters severely diminished and my hunger mounting, I returned home for lunch. I’d finished eating and was about to ignite the Bialetti when the phone rang. I picked it up and an American woman’s voice spoke to me. “I saw your poster,” she said, before quickly adding that she was interested in seeing the apartment. It worked! I asked her a little about herself. She was studying Italian Literature at the university and currently commuting from Bologna. Previously she’d lived in Barcelona, to which I immediately jumped on the fact that had Kaitlin had too. We arranged for her to come by the following day. I took down her phone number but almost forgot to ask for her name. It was Hillary. I hung up and returned to my coffee, blissfully unaware that I’d just had a first conversation with my future wife.
Hillary arrived as planned the next day and moved in the day after that. Kaitlin and I liked her immediately, and a rudimentary online search of her name (more out of curiosity than a need to background check) produced only one result: a photo of her playing jazz vibes taken in Jamaica. Such evidence was enough to reassure me that I’d made a good decision. After living with Hillary for a few days I grew increasingly happier that she’d walked into my life. Out of the rolling mountains of West Virginia she had already packed in a lifetime of exotic adventures. In addition to her recent experience in Barcelona she’d spent some of her high school years in Seville, and had also lived in Hungary and Cuba. We shared a lot of tastes: she sang opera and knew a lot about music, especially jazz. Most endearing of all was her love of cheese and preference for drinking Campari Soda straight from the bottle. As was perhaps inevitable given our shared quarters, Hillary and I began an accelerated journey towards domestic routine. It began with one making the other coffee, or a bowl of pasta for lunch. Soon we started going to the supermarket together. Then one afternoon, as I stood pressing a shirt, she dumped a stack of her own clothes for me to iron.
I was the happiest I’d been since arriving in Florence; in the space of a couple of months my life had once again changed dramatically, and for the better. We had such fun in our new place that we soon nicknamed the apartment “Il Teatro”, both as a nod to the famous theatre a few doors down and to the Felliniesque scenes of rampant intellectual debauchery to which we aspired to play host. We threw a long overdue housewarming party in October, after which Hillary and I stayed up until dawn. As we finally retired to our separate rooms she gave me precise instructions as to when she wanted to bring her coffee in the morning. She may have been only half-joking, but when she saw me place the tray down next to her bed at the requested hour it must have been a turning point.
* * *
In December Kaitlin left Florence for good to return to Barcelona, leaving Hillary and I on our own with two roommates, neither of which — for one reason or another — were the easiest of people to live with. Thank God we had each other. We retreated into ourselves, and decided to move out in the summer. We ended up moving in with an acquaintance of mine who sold leather jackets on San Lorenzo market (he’d also deejayed with me before). His apartment was on the top floor of an old building in Via Porta Rossa, literally around the corner from Piazza Signoria. Moving out of Il Teatro into the next apartment was not easy. I arrived home in the late afternoon having just got back from Rome, where I’d spent the week giving art history tours to a group of Mexican high school students. Hillary and I then spent the night carrying our belongings on foot to the new place, which was in a building so old its narrow stone staircases had been unevenly worn smooth through centuries of use, making them all the more arduous. When we eventually completed the job around dawn, Hillary immediately cracked open a beer. We then staggered into the nearby bar for breakfast. Catching a glimpse of myself in the pasticceria’s elegant mirror I was horrified: I looked like death warmed up, and began to seriously wonder what the hell I was doing with my life.
Though I still loved Florence, I felt like I’d outgrown it, and my life there was becoming a parody of itself. For as much as I enjoyed drinking Campari or reading la Gazzetta with an espresso I was barely surviving. Meanwhile, in New York, Jessica had completed an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. On a whim, I applied to the same program myself, and towards the end of the summer they called me up. The next thing I knew I was armed with a J-1 visa on a jet bound for JFK.
Somewhere over the Atlantic, as I anxiously pondered what I was in for stateside, I started to look back at where I’d been. For the first time I was able to trace the most significant events of the last few years back to that meeting between my parents and Jamie at Pisa Airport. As an ardent Fiorentina fan, it pained me almost to concede the role that Juventus had played in the proceedings:
If Jamie hadn’t been wearing a Juventus tracksuit my dad wouldn’t have spoken to him.
If my dad hadn’t spoken to Jamie I wouldn’t have gone to Florence and met Rachel.
If I hadn’t met Rachel I wouldn’t have met Jessica or Olivia.
If I hadn’t met Jessica I wouldn’t have met Kaitlin (nor would I have had the idea to apply to MoMA and therefore wouldn’t be on the plane now).
If Olivia hadn’t sold her apartment I wouldn’t have moved in with Kaitlin.
If I hadn’t moved in with Kaitlin I wouldn’t have found the apartment upstairs.
If I hadn’t found the apartment upstairs I wouldn’t have met Hillary.
Not to say that any of those things couldn’t have happened under other circumstances, but both Jessica and Hillary only came into my life because they responded to announcements I’d left in public places. The chances of either of them seeing the ad let alone responding must have been only slightly greater than zero.
While thrilled at the prospect of what awaited me it pained me to leave Florence so quickly, and I felt awful for having abandoned Hillary. Rather than join me in New York she moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she began training for a job in yachting, eventually being placed on a luxury vessel in the Bahamas, aboard which her responsibility was to cater to the whims of millionaires and clean what was already clean. That November, halfway through my MoMA experience, I went down to see her. We spent a memorable weekend in Miami staying in a cheap bed and breakfast in South Beach. I loved the colours and the laid-back vibe, but the uncertainty of our situation hovered over us like a cloud. Both of our lives had changed yet again. We didn’t know if we would stay together, or even when we’d next see each other. Two months later we were married. But that’s another story.