The sky was dusky as we began our pilgrimage from Oltrarno to the Duomo. Though only a one kilometre walk, the sea of people into which we were swept up set our pace, meaning it would take us almost forty minutes to reach our destination. The street was alive with chatter in various languages, my nose filled with the sweet smell of waffles and roasted chestnuts, twinkle lights hanging over us in a canopy of gold.
When we finally arrived in front of the cathedral, it took us another fifteen minutes just to press our way through the crowd enough to skirt the baptistry, until we were finally in sight of the looming tree, decked out in red Florentine fleur de lis. I noted the swish of coats brushing past one another, the stomping of hooves as horses harnessed to carriages waited for eager tourists to climb inside.
Here is good, I said, stopping in front of the nativity, though we would be pushed and pulled like the tide as we waited, ending up several metres from the spot which we had decided was ‘the one.’ There was nothing to do but laugh as we were thrust against one another, waiting for the countdown.
Dieci, nove, otto, sette… it began.
Here we go! I said, thrilled, turning my eyes towards the tree once again.
And with that, the tree came to life with thousands of tiny white twinkle lights, a myriad of diamonds tossed onto an impossibly large pine, lighting up the piazza and our faces as the contagion of excitement reached us, crushed amongst the many bodies.
Let’s go, I said, suddenly beginning to feel overwhelmed as people shouted and cheered, their breath touching my cheek as they called out auguri! to one another.
We slipped away as quickly as we could, skirting the back of the cathedral where the crowd was thinner. Soon we could breathe, and we made our way to Santa Croce, where mulled wine at the Christmas market was calling our names.
I could feel my heartbeat accelerate as we approached it. I had missed being here. My head was full of foggy memories of eating sweets and drinking mulled wine or hot chocolate while perusing Christmas wares and admiring lights…I was so relieved to be back in the city I loved, a city I had called home for three years.
We rounded the corner and once again found ourselves swept up in an impossibly dense crowd. We had to hold hands to avoid losing one another. It was too loud to talk, and the crowd was too thick for us to stop, to peruse anything at all. I could smell the sweets, chocolate and spices, but could not steer us towards them. I could feel my heart rate accelerating once again, yet with anxiety rather than anticipation or excitement. This wasn’t how I remembered it. I could hardly move. My gate was controlled by the flow of the swarming bodies surrounding me. Other people’s scarves were brushing past my long hair, making it cling to them with static. I felt hot and uncomfortable.
Mulled wine ahead! said Liz. We belined for the wooden hut, lighted by antique-looking bulbs, a large bubbling vat emanating a sweet and spicy aroma. We wedged our way to the front and held up two fingers. Due, per favore!
Hands cupping plastic cups, we took a seat on the steps of the basilica, finally able to observe the market on our own terms. As the wine warmed my stomach, I felt myself relaxing, finally able to breathe, to move. From here I could observe the happy Christmas shoppers, seemingly unfazed by the hustle and bustle of those around them. The steps were occupied by cheerful young people in clusters, each with a cup of mulled wine clasped between gloved hands. I turned back to the soft glow of the market. It was magic, from afar. I sipped happily, my bum becoming cold on the stone steps, but my heart full and content.
Maybe I’ll try the market again tomorrow.