Despite a loud party going on outside our hotel window last night, .5 mg Ativan and my c-pap machine helped me sleep through the night. I woke up at 5:00 AM, which is pretty much when I’ve been waking up in Santa Cruz.
I got up, checked the weather—60 degrees and heading up to 88—and quietly put on a pair of shorts, walking sandals, a light cotton shirt and a light cover up and slipped out of my room, leaving Karyn sleeping. I stepped into the hallway to the overwhelming rich, decadent smell of fresh baking chocolate—croissants in the oven at 5:30 AM?
I dropped a pin in Google maps for our hotel, so proud of myself that I’d downloaded the map of Italy before I arrived, pleased that I actually knew how to drop a pin in my location so I could find my way back. I was now free to wander, knowing it would be easy to reroute myself to my starting point. No getting lost for me.
I took the stairs and headed out onto the street.
I love wandering through cities and towns in the early morning before the day begins, when the shops are closed, while deliveries are being made and the streets are basically empty. My father taught me to love this, by example. Whenever we traveled, he loved to go out and wander in the morning, wherever we were. He liked to explore on foot aimlessly, and as I set out on the shut-down streets between my hotel and the Duomo, I felt myself channeling him—and a shot of pure joy filled my body.
On these early morning walks, I don’t carry much: some cash, our huge, oversized room key with a brown tassel on the bottom, my favorite pocket-sized green Decomposition Book and a pen. I was ready to take my first walk as a writer through the streets of Firenze.
This is one of the first skills I’ll be teaching my students when they arrive several days from now—how to walk through the world as a writer, rather than just as a garden variety tourist.
The first step in traveling as a writer is to go out alone (or if you go out with a partner, to go in silence and to not stick too closely together) and to bring a small hand-size notebook.
These notebooks are the very first gift I give my writing students on the first day of any Write, Travel, Transform trip. They’re back pocket size, purse size, fanny-pack size, but big enough to take substantial notes in. I break out a new one for every trip, and usually fill two or three in the course of a three-week trip. I jot down everything from card game scores to directions to names I’m trying to remember to money spent to place names to notes on outings to facts from guides.
This morning, as I headed out in still cool air on the streets of Firenze, I tucked my i-phone in the back pocket of my jeans, but I knew I wasn’t going to lead with my phone/camera because I was taking this walk as a writer–so it was my notebook and pen, not a camera, I held in my hand as I walked. If I saw something noteworthy, I wasn’t going to whip my camera out. I was going to pull out my pen and describe it with words.
I didn’t have a destination. I set out wandering. I tried to remember landmarks along the way so I wouldn’t get lost, but mostly I sought to aimlessly wander.
I walked with all my senses open—looking at textures and colors and shops and dogs and doorways and garbage—everything I could see. I noted smells and sounds. And I jotted it all down in my little notebook, stopping frequently when anything drew my attention.
This kind of sensory writing walk is the first step in building a library of sensory detail that can later be pulled into a story or a vignette or a blog post—making it vivid and alive for the reader. People often read my travel blog and say, “I felt like I was there.” And this is why. It’s all those sensory details, carefully harvested and planted.
Initially, I don’t look for a story. I just notice what’s in front of me. If a story comes along, I don’t turn it down, but first, I’m just on the prowl for pure sensory detail. And when I find something odd or quirky, all the better. Those kind of odd details are the best, but ordinary details are fine, too.
I also noted things I was curious about—often with a question mark. Curiosity is a travel writer’s best friend. Occasionally I noted a thought or a feeling, but 95% of what I wrote was pure observation.
Here’s a sampling of what I jotted down this morning, scrawled across the pristine pages of my little lined book:
- Solo man in white tee shirt on a rusty bicycle with a wicker basket on the handlebars
- Empty barricaded shops
- A lone pigeon
- Everything buttoned up tight with metal grills
- An image of a missing child flashing on an ATM machine that only takes credit cards
- Old funky bicycles unlocked on a side street, leaning against a wall
- People setting up shops and making deliveries
- A bald man in orange pants with a long orange broom sweeping up bottles and plastic cups littering the streets and sidewalks
- Red tissues hearts and confetti lining the sidewalk
- Small Italian cars all parked in a row
- Two pigeons fighting over a leftover piece of pizza on the street
Then I turned a corner and saw a farmer’s market being set up. My favorite! The stalls were filled with cherries, zucchinis with their blossoms, heaps of fava beans, glistening purple eggplants, long squashes I didn’t know the name of, red onions with their green stems, huge piles of basil. I wanted to buy some cherries but felt shy. Damn it. Why hadn’t I studied Italian?
Finally, I got up my courage and bought a bag of cherries from one of the vendors, who was happy to make an early morning sale. I’m sure he overcharged me—five euros? But I didn’t care.
I kept walking haphazardly. I came to a huge street and let that be my boundary. It was filled with cars and people rushing. I reflected on the fact that my senses were wide open while those driving or running by were wrapped up in their thoughts, probably worried about plans and dreams as I would be at home—because this is their daily life. I, on the other hand, was free. I had no plans. And because of that, I felt a glorious sensual freedom. Freedom from my life, the news, planning for this retreat, must dos I had to check off my list, all of it.
At this point, I’d been walking for about an hour. I decided to head back. I pulled out my phone and clicked on the name of our hotel in “saved” locations and a map popped up, but then when I changed to “walking directions” instead of “driving directions,” I got an error message informing me that walking directions can’t be accessed in offline mode. So much for the best laid plans. I sort of knew which direction I’d come from, but not really. I tried again and again to get Google maps to route me back, certain “I’d done it right.” But the same error message popped up again and again.
I felt a little flutter of adventure and panic in my gut. I headed back the way I thought I’d come, wishing I’d paid a little more attention to landmarks on my outgoing journey. After ten minutes turning on narrow streets that all basically looked the same I turned a corner and saw the Duomo! Ah the landmark for central Florence (Firenze) and just one long block from our hotel. I picked up my pace and walked with more confidence. Within minutes, I was home!
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