The flag bearing the fleur-de-lys waved dementedly over the still river. The muted buildings over the Arno were all painted in the uniform colours of sunrise. A kayak rowed past as if sailing through thin air. Where the sun rose over the hills there descended a veiling haze.
It was Christopher’s last day in Florence. Soon he would have to return to his hotel to check-out and get a taxi to the airport. But he was reluctant to move. Over the last week he had become intimately acquainted with the city and it suddenly felt like leaving behind a star-crossed lover.
He was in Florence alone. He needed to be alone after what happened to him. Christopher needed to rediscover what happiness meant. And he felt it impossible to do trapped inside his own fatigued mind.
In his week in Florence he met a lot of people. Some travellers, some locals. And whenever he got talking to them, over a glass of wine or an overpriced beer, he always asked them the same thing: what makes you happy?
Now, looking out from the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge bereft of tourist crowds, as lonely as a Christmas tree in January, he thought of what they had told him.
He thought of the single father for whom happiness was seeing his children.
He thought of the young American student for whom happiness was being surrounded by art.
He thought of the teacher who spends her free summers travelling Europe to see its rivers.
Children. Art. Rivers. All of those things could make Christopher happy. But whenever anyone asked him the question back, he never dreamed of including them in his answer.
Children. Art. Rivers. Somehow, they lacked purpose for him.
There were a lot of commonalities in the answers people gave him. Love in some form was ever-present. Towards family, spouses or friends. Cliches were common too. Health, a good book, a glass of wine, peace of mind. But Christopher wasn’t turned on by the similarities.
He found the differences far more insightful.
Gazing out towards the grey ribs of the Uffizi gallery, overlooking the soft riverside, he thought of his own life, his miseries and joys and felt them intertwined like two trees joined together by a spider’s web.
Whenever people answered his question they would always, without exception, go on to explain their answer. The single father told him, “ever since our bitch of a divorce I realised how much fun I had with my children. I started missing taking my two-year-old daughter to the cinema. She always insisted on sitting on my lap for the entire film, and really it was like having a storm in your lap! But now, we rarely get to do that. I miss it like hell, you know.”
He wasn’t the only one. The American student also felt she had to justify her answer that art made her happy. “To be honest I came to Florence because I wanted a good piss-up. What’s not to like. You only have to be eighteen to drink, you’re surrounded by bars, other Americans, all the old world splendour you could want – it’s perfect. But when I came here, I really started falling in love with the place. Now I spend most of my time off walking round the Uffizi. Have you been? It’s fucking perfect in there.”
Christopher used to think happiness is an abstraction. That it was something that sprung up, unformed, from our unconscious. This would make it difficult to chase down. Because once Christopher lost everything that made him happy, finding new happiness would require something like psychological alchemy.
But for all the people he spoke to, happiness was something as visceral as their own blood. They didn’t conjure their conception of happiness from the ether. They were all little Michelangelos moulding happiness from the Carrara marble of their lives.
Happiness is the highest leaf on the tree of our psyche. The unconscious hides its roots in the deep soil and from it sprouts the trunk of our ego. Above all that, taking in the sunlight and also hanging from a fragile branch, is our happiness.
Christopher realised he had been happy in Florence. But the only way he would ever give Florence as his answer was if he were to move here. And for now, he wasn’t ready to do that. He was eager to go back home and start sculpting a new happiness from the leftovers of his life.
Saying goodbye to the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno and all the sights he had fallen in love with over the last week was a painful act. It had to be done, but Christopher was afraid.
He was afraid that this bridge, this river, this sunrise, would become merely a memory. As hazy as the sun-kissed hills. He tried then, to console himself, to remember what it felt like to be atop the Alps early in the morning as a teenager. But to remember it he had to use words. Even if he closed his eyes he couldn’t just walk through the scene. He had to keep telling himself, remember the silence, remember the way the sun hit the snow, remember how sniffly you were the whole time.
Memory doesn’t work like virtual reality goggles. It works more like a poetry recital. And yet, remembering the Alps, Christopher remembered how he had fallen in love with travel. It was his first time abroad. He was eighteen years old. And the splendour of the scene – a scene which he could now hardly recall – had made him promise himself he would keep on travelling to see as much beauty as the world had to offer.
Now, fifteen years later, he was still keeping that promise.
Maybe that was how he could remember the Ponte Vecchio. This priceless place he would probably never get to see again in his life. It didn’t matter if he never remembered the fleur-de-lys flag waving dementedly over the still river. All he needed to do was remember happiness. Remember the single father, the American student and the teacher and what they had taught him.
He promised himself he would look for happiness in the brimming pages of his life and always use it as a north star of faint hope even in the deepest darkness.
And whenever he did, he would remember the Ponte Vecchio.
Goodbye and thank you, Florence.