A Leaning Tower and an Italian Construction Worker

When I asked other travelers about Pisa, they all said the same thing: “There’s just the tower”. In fact, I was considering not even going at all or at least not spending the night there. But because I wasn’t able to extend my stay at my hostel in Florence, I thought, “if I need to move anyway, I might as well stay in Pisa for the night.”

After seeing the tower for an hour and laughing at all the people trying to get that perfect look-I’m-holding-it-up! shot I wandered back to my hostel where I met 2 girls: Olivia from Toronto and Robyn from Australia (but lives in London). They were also traveling Italy solo.

You’re almost there!

Olivia, Robyn, and I decided to have dinner at a nearby pizza restaurant — not be confused with a “Pisa” restaurant. The dinner was yummy and cheap (9 euros all in for a fresh pizza and a third of a bottle of wine!) Everyone else there were locals. A nice breath of fresh air after hearing Americans around me everywhere in Florence. After dinner, we went to pick up some (more) wine and watch a boxing match.

I had heard about the boxing match earlier that day. As I was walking back from the tower, I saw some men setting up what looked like a stage, so I asked one of them “c’è un concerto qui?” and he responded with raised fists “incontro di boxe”. It started at 8:30.

So after dinner, we walked down the street to the big piazza where the match was held. We sipped on our wine and watched pairs of women and men rattle each other in rounds separated by stints of a female crews busting coordinated dance moves to reggaeton (Italians seem to love Spanish music). After a while, we noticed a group of attractive men watching in the crowd up ahead. We decided to go stand near them.

The match

A few sips (ok half a bottle) of wine later, I turned around and asked them why they were pretty much all (4 out of 5) wearing black shirts. How weird! What a coincidence! JK JK, no one was under the impression that I had asked the question out of genuine curiosity. I did not care.

We chatted to one of the guys, Giorgio, who spoke pretty good English . The rest did not. When I told him I was from New York, he said his friend lived there for a while. “And wait, he is calling me now… answer in English! He’s looking for us!” he said as he passed me his phone.

“Yo man, what’s going on? Are you here?” I said in a cringe-worthy New York accent that no one else there knew was absolutely awful.

A second later I hear Giorgio yell, “Giovanni!” spotting his friend in the crowd. Giovanni turns around to look at his friends and the person he is talking on the phone to (me). I wave. His bright smile and blue eyes had me smitten.

He spoke just enough English that we could have a good conversation but just little enough that he was irresistible. Every word like the beginning of a song. And his hands gestured meticulously to emphasize the music in his voice.

All Italians speak with their hands, but they way he did was impossibly adorable.

At the boxing match with our new friends

Eventually, the group of us moved over to a big square across the river with bars along all four sides in which everyone was drinking 2-Euro beer and wine. Sitting down at a table, I asked Giovanni about the big Roman numerals tattooed on his forearm.

“Oh this. Ah… this was so stupid, why do I do this?” he said while pressing his palms together as in prayer and moving them up and down slowly in a vertical motion.

He explained it was his parent’s anniversary date, and he had gotten it with his ex-fiancee. I stared at the innocent pout in front of me and burst “I like it!”

He looked confused. I continued, “Yes, it’s your past, but it’s also you, it’s who you are.”

We began to talk about the power of love and “Romeo and Julietta” in our gooey cloud of hash, booz and cigarettes. Even though we were surrounded by a hundred people, for the rest of the night, we were the only two in that square.


The next day I met one of my best friends, Sarada, at Pisa Centrale station to go to Cinque Terre. It was awesome to see her. I told her I was getting tired of site-seeing and thinking of not going to Venice anymore. As amazing as it would be to see, I could always come back to Italy for it, and I was just not ready to be surrounded on all sides by tourists again (as I had in Florence and Rome, and I would in Cinque Terre).

“There’s site-seeing and then there is traveling.” Sarada said. I nodded in agreement. She continued “Traveling is not about going places it’s about having experiences…and you could do that in the Bronx.”

It struck a chord. Travel isn’t about going places and especially in a place like New York, it’s easy to miss the hundreds of ethnicities, religions, cultures, and subcultures that exist. You don’t need to go to Italy or India to learn and experience.

I was weary of being a tourist, decided I was done with it for the time being. I have year and I honestly don’t care too much about seeing anything in particular. I just want to understand.

So on my night to kill after Sarada left me, and before I met my friend, Sam, in Genoa, I decided to go back down to Pisa (even though Genoa is the opposite direction) to spend some more time with Giovanni. What a better way to experience Italy?

After having dinner together, we sat facing each other on a ledge by the river which has separated the 2 parts of Pisa for a thousand years, watching the glow of the street lights on the water that his grandfather use to bathe in but is now “one of the dirtiest rivers in Italy” (his words not mine). He was wide open to the moment, to everything that was there, to me. I couldn’t stop smiling. I shut my eyes tight, leaned my head back, and basked in the immense pleasure I felt in this exotic place, with this person I barely knew but felt so close to just then.

The river at night in Pisa (not my photo)

And soon after, it occurred to me that how good I felt, although real and poignant and wonderful, was also a reflection of how lonely I was. And that tomorrow I’d be gone again. I looked away and stifled the tears I could feel rising from deep within me.

I listened to this 26 year old construction worker talk about how he loves the opera, the singing, the stories of passion, the rich history. Of people. Of his people. Of pride for his city. Of who he was. He talked about his love for opera in a way most people don’t talk about anything. His genuine display of passion, his exhibitionism, was exhilarating.

He had worked in a restaurant in NY for 3 months within the last year. So I asked him what he thought about my city.

“It’s beautiful, all the people, from all the different parts of the world. ” I nodded. “But there is another side to this coin.” he said, miming the turning of a rather large coin with his hands. “People are always fighting and one race doesn’t like the other. And a lot of this”.

I didn’t like his answer. “People don’t fight just because they are different races. There’s so many people in NY, in one place. With that many people, they would find any reason to fight with each other.” I added, “I’m a result of this mix of people and places, and I’m proud of that. It’s the best thing about it. The melting pot is what makes the city incredible!”

“Yes! Yes!” he replied. “That is what I am saying. That it is beautiful this mix of people. But just that there is another side to it, to everything. And it’s not just that there are a lot of people, that there is fighting. It’s because of they are all different.” Sensing my attitude turning, he added “That is my point of view. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to … how you say? offend?”

I recoiled “No, no, you don’t need to be sorry. You should tell your point of view. ” I said, knowing that it was the right thing to say but feeling dissatisfied with this conversation. I was disappointed that the perfect moment we were having was interrupted by reality and opinions. And disagreement. And the hash we just smoked was making it difficult for me to process my emotions clearly.

Although I had trouble seeing Giovanni’s point last night, or I didn’t want to see it at least, I thought about it more and about what Sarada had said about traveling within New York. I realize that even though he and I were in the same city, his experience was completely different from mine.

In the circle I am in, cultural, racial, and sexual acceptance and sensitivity is tantamount. They are the the highly educated, the creatives, and people who have the luxury of political correctness.

Giovanni’s experience in NY was that of working at an Italian restaurant in the Lower East Side. To me, he might as well have been in Pisa, living one of the thousands of lives a person can live in that city of 8 million.

Going back Pisa for that 10 hours was one of the most special experiences I’ve had in a foreign place. It was exhilarating, disappointing, and amazing all at once. Now to Genoa to meet Sam. Giovanni, ciao bello. I’m so lucky to have met you, your open heart, your passion.

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