That Pungent Flower in Florence

Remnants of my luggage: a wheel which fell off.
It was in Florence when my wanderlust wandered off.

Well, it didn’t actually wander off. It ran away with an implosion, leaving a puff of sulphourous distaste.

The two handgrips on my luggage threatened to fall off. The topmost handle rebelled with sinister cracking sounds before it broke off. Six months worth of luggage, about 20.3 kg, was too much to handle. Then, one wheel fell off. Great, now I’ve to buy a new luggage.

And so I dragged and heaved the entire stupid thing along the Croatian streets of Zadar, onto a ferry to Florence, aboard a bus, then a train, then another train, then another bus, then through the Italian streets. I huffed and I puffed, becoming as sticky and miserable as a mudskipper on a dry, concrete pavement.

Surely, there must be a silver lining in these non-events. My army fitness test is coming. And I need to become fitter. What better ways can there be to increase my arm strength?

I was on a holiday; I wanted to be happy. I was determined to be happy even when I had to delude myself into feeling so.

Surely, this must constitute one level of torture in hell. It was sheer pain, the desire to take a cab, being unable to afford it and having to drag a luggage across asphalt almost endlessly.

Finally, I reached my host in Florence, dirty and scruffy, proud that I didn’t get lost. I had booked this stay with airbnb, an online service platform matching local hosts with backpackers. Tired, I sat on the luggage – it was a revenge, you see, for having to drag it – and waited for around half an hour.

Many people walked past me during that period and I tried to work up the courage to ask for help from strangers.

Eventually, I asked a young girl for help. She was really polite, very sweet and fifteen years old. Hmm, not that young. Age is relative; to an aged, shriveled up creature (like me), everyone is young.

It turned out that she’s the girlfriend of the host’s brother – I think – and she helped me contact the host.

“Sorry, I can’t speak English well.” She smiled shyly.

“Well, please don’t be. I can’t speak Italian at all. Thanks for your help, grazie!”

I was grateful to the many strangers who had helped me along this month-long solo trip. In Marseilles, France, one stranger walked past me for almost five meters before he turned back and offered to give me directions. In Zadar, Croatia, another stranger got off his bicycle to advise me even though I already knew my way. And now, this teenager helped me to contact my host. People could be really wonderful, even surprising, with their unreserved help for strangers.

Then, this host in Florence – let’s refer to him as Antonio – he helped me to put things in perspectives.

After being contacted, Antonio drove by within five minutes in a red Fiat number, got off, screamed at me then drove off.

When I first saw him, I was relieved. Yes, finally, the opportunity to clean up and rest presented himself. 

“Do you think this is a hotel? That you can come as and when you wish?”

Flummoxed by his questions, I paused.

“This is somebody’s home. This is my home. You cannot come when you feel like it.” He was screaming, “call airbnb, call them! I tried to contact you and couldn’t. Call airbnb!”

“Please, let me explain –“

“I sent you emails and you didn’t reply. I tried to call you and it didn’t get through. Airbnb couldn’t contact you. Call airbnb! Call them.”

“Please, let me explain. I tried to send you two emails and three other airbnb messages but you didn’t reply. Really – “

“Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I’m stupid?!”

This was a misunderstanding. He called the web host to ask if I’ve received any email from him. The web host said ‘yes’ BUT I really didn’t receive any email from him. In fact, I’ve sent him other messages but he didn’t reply.

This was compounded by the fact that that the only email that he responded to was the one which I had mistakenly indicated that I was checking in a day earlier. In his email reply, he said that I wasn’t supposed to check-in when I preferred. It was a typo error and I apologized for it. I didn’t make much of it until that moment when he was screaming at me.

Antonio thought that I was a lying, conniving scammer, trying to cover up for my ‘mistake’. He was very nice about it, I suppose, to drive all the way from work to scream at me before driving off.

The young girl – she helped me to contact Antonio just moments ago – walked past me, this time with a partner. From the prior conversation, I gathered that the young man was the host’s brother. They appeared to be arguing over me. She seemed to want to offer help but her boyfriend – my host’s brother – didn’t know what to do despite giving me apologetic glances.

What a tragedy this has turned out to be. I was the unwilling cause of a domestic dispute.

So, I waited, stranded along a street in Florence. What could I do?

I took out my sketchpad and started drawing a tree. It was a magnificent pine, with branching ribbons of needled leaves.

I waited, waited and waited. Two hours.

I sat on my broken luggage bag and continued to wait, hoping that I could still stay in this home which I paid for and couldn’t withdraw from.

 “My mother is cleaning your room.”

“Antonio, please let me explain. Let me sign into my email and airbnb accounts to show you that I didn’t receive –“

“Do you hear me? Do you hear me?” He tugged his left earlobe, “I said, my mother is cleaning your room now.”

I’d have taken the bulk of the responsibility, for not trying harder to contact him. But him, bandying  the ‘do you understand me?’ twice, smacked of racism. Yet, I’m a Chinese but I’m not a moron. I could understand his English.

Wealth was a concept I never understood. Unlike other friends, I never wanted to be rich. Some middle-class aspirations by a middle-class child – a decent income, sufficient for living expenses; a no-frills, quiet existence – that was all I wanted. I had been willing to fit into the social narratives constructed for middle-class citizens. I had been willing to be an anonymous face among a flock of ambitionless people – at first, with an uneasy acceptance, then with an increasing comfort. Be satisfied, be contented. Write, draw. Don’t ask for more. Treasure what I have. Those cheap aphorisms, I believed in all of them.

But at that moment, I wished with the great vacuum that was my heart, to be wealthy, to just walk away, to take a cab with my screwed up luggage, pay a handsome price for a 3-star hotel at the very last minute.
 I wished to preserve my dignity, to shout it aloud. To shout something aloud, whatever thing aloud. Maybe, even a string of expletives.

But, I didn’t. I was a poor student on a limited budget. And pride didn’t carry any financial worth. What’s pride? What’s dignity? Without a quantifiable parallel, without money, they aren’t worth nothing. Pride and dignity are privileges for those with the financial means.

So, I waited.

I was sick of sitting along a foreign street, being subjected to curious gazes from pairs of green or brown Italian eyes. And, I realized, with a sick awareness, that I was ashamed of my foreignness.

It was strange, me being embarrassed of being Chinese, being ashamed of my manila skin tones. Those books – The Bluest Eye, Dreams from My Father, A Small Place – I couldn’t relate to them. I had been puzzled by their pain, puzzled by those stories of black people bleaching their skin with poison, wearing blue contacts and blushing their umber cheeks with candy pink makeup. I was repulsed and doubtful of colonial imperialism or white suprematism or racism – why had these populations of people been subjugated so easily? I could read about their pain but I couldn’t empathise.

Then, I realized how easy it was, to make a person feel worthless.

I tried not to think of it as racism. I tried to leave this sensitive parameter – race – out of the matrix of equations running across my mind. Discussions about race were always treated with velvet gloves back in Singapore. I tried to leave my race out of the incident but it wasn’t easy.

If I were a white woman – preferably young and sexy – would this have had happened? 

This was supposed to be a trip to see the world and I guessed that I’ve seen more than I wanted to. It was a mistake – a miscommunication between my host and me – yet he automatically attributed all the blame to the hapless me.

His mother turned out to be really sweet and very apologetic. She kept asking me to drink water. I was extremely dehydrated, a toad left out in the hot sun for three hours – well, I actually did wait for three hours – and I was famished since I only had two miserly buns, 1 apple and some biscuits for the entire day, from 6 am to 4 pm.

The wanderlust imploded and I withdrew into my Chinese skin, longing to be back where I won’t be treated like scum by a stranger.

That night, I stayed in Antonio’s home.

My kiasu spirit tried to comfort me as I attempted to drift into sleep. Come on, you’ve gotten what you wished for. Come on, you ought to be satisfied. Singpaorean leh, getting more than what you’ve paid for. Should be good lah. What more do you want? With time, this could be an informative experience.

I tried to remind myself of the many beautiful experiences I had, to let the garden of memories remain unsullied by one twisted mutagenic weed. I realized that all the social conditioning in Singapore has painted an unrealistic mindscape of different races and ethnicities living in a lovely harmony. I tried to frame this as part of growing up and as an exciting experience that I needed.

But, why, why did this happen to me? I’m not racist. I have fairly close friends from China. I defended foreigners whenever people made unreasonable comments. I lived my life, quiet and prim, meeting all the requirements for being proper.

Then, I thought, why not? C'est la vie. It’s always about power, exerting it, maintaining it, expanding it. It’s always about survival, many times at the expense of other people. I’m but a cog in the greater Darwinistic wheel. Such is life.

The next day, Antonio apologized. I said sorry too.

The day after, his mum smiled at me while she was watering her plants. She pointed to her flowers and said, ‘fiore, fiore’. I smiled at her, perhaps with less awkwardness.

It turned out that the Italian name of Florence is Fiorenza and this city was supposed to be a blooming city.