The Self Portrait

Two weeks from now I’ll be on the plane to Paris. I’m flying on SAS and for some reason I have this idea that the plane is going to be decorated in IKEA. Probably that’s not true, and probably there will be no blonde buxom Swedish flight attendants to bring me gravlax and aquavit with a naughty grin and a suggestively raised eyebrow. Sadly. I will certainly report back on that, though.

I’m having really mixed feelings about the trip right now, for reasons I can’t quit understand or explain. I’m finding myself thinking a lot about the last time I went to Italy, which was in 1998 with my dear friend Marah (Jacob’s mom). We were out of college about a year and I was working a lot and living in Claremont and she was living in Miami and we were talking on the phone one day and we just sort of said, Hey, want to go to Europe together? She, as it turned out, was going on this big European Adventure trip, and I, being a working stiff, could only go for a couple of weeks. Still, we decided to go and got tickets and I flew to Miami and we got on the plane and there, all of a sudden, we were.

Considering how much of a control freak I can be, it’s amazing to me now that we didn’t talk very much about how we wanted the trip to go beforehand. We arrived in Italy and we just sort of went various places and did various things. (The first thing I did in Italy, as a matter of fact, was have a breakdown in a sandwich shop because I was scared to speak Italian.) If I recall correctly, we just sort of looked at the guidebook and decided what to do that day. We had a big disagreement about whether or not to go to Florence, which I thought would be stupid and she thought would be great. She was right; we liked it there so much we stayed five days and met some Australian girls who liked A Room With A View as much as we did and could quote from it as well as we could. I had the interesting experience of walking around Florence, Siena, and Venice with three extremely pretty blonde girls; Italian men loooooved them, and I felt like a cross between their stern English governess (“Step smartly girls, let’s not draw attention to ourselves! Spit-spot!”) and their native Italian guide (“This duomo, it is very beautiful, yes? My people are great architects.”).

There was one day in Florence that Marah and I spent apart; she went to take a bike tour of the Chianti hills or something and I spent the day walking around and doing little errands and eating three or four gelati and generally enjoying myself. We were supposed to meet at the Uffizi. I got there about an hour early and sat outside on a wall next to the building and wrote postcards and looked at the people in line. Marah’d already bought our tickets at the train station, another idea I thought was stupid, but when I saw how long the line was I was grateful to her. At one point one of the guards came up to me and told me that I could go in now, they were letting all the art students in, and I was so happy that he thought I was an art student that I spent the next half hour at least constructing a finely rendered fantasy in which I was an art student in Florence and my painting was fiery and impassioned and I was always breaking the rules and also always looking really cute and speaking flawless Italian, and when Paolo asked if he could buy me a coffee I thought to myself, perche no? and then as we strolled over the Arno Bridge he leaned in close and brushed a tendril of hair from my forehead and…

While I was sitting there in sort of a daze, occasionally people would come up and take pictures of the wall against which I was leaning, right to the right of me. I didn’t think they were taking pictures of me, really (“Who is that darkly mysterious painter? She…intrigues me. Send her a lemon gelato with my compliments.”) but I couldn’t imagine that they were just taking pictures of a blank wall, either. Finally a guy told me that I was sitting next to a little drawing…carving, I guess, of a face, in the wall. I looked over and boy hokey, I was. I asked what it was and the guy told me that it was a picture of Michelangelo, a self-portrait. I didn’t understand the Italian perfectly so I didn’t think I’d got what he said, but the man told me that one day, as he was working on David, Michelangelo was taking a break and leaning on the wall. Someone came up to talk to him and while they were speaking Michelangelo stuck his arm behind him and essentially doodled, in stone, a picture of his own face on the wall. And I was sitting right next to it!

I don’t know if it’s true or not; I don’t think it can be, really, but I didn’t care. I had someone take my picture next to it and to this day it remains one of the best photos of me ever taken. Marah showed up and we went into the Uffizi, but because we were both pretty tired, we ended up sort of zooming through the picture galleries to the cafe on the roof, where we drank sparkling water and sat in the sun and looked out over the red roofs. It was one of the best days of our trip, and one of the better days I’ve lived, period.

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