It has been
3 weeks 3 months 12 months 17 months since I left Florence, and the separation sadness (not anxiety) is hitting me especially hard these days. I’ve tried to write this thing ever since I got back, and I’ve just been editing the number of days or months until I actually finish and publish it. Now it’s been 17 (seventeen!!!) months since. The harsh jerk back into the smoggy confines of Manila is one that can ruin the best of moods, and while deep down I knew it was time for me to leave Italy (temporarily, I hoped), I also didn’t relish being back in the concrete dump that is Manila. Everything that I hate about this city seems to have worsened in the short year that I was away, and only serve as reminders of all the great things in Italy that I left behind.
I had the urge to write about some of the things I’d learned/realized from my time away, but it felt so melodramatic to phrase it that way. It sounded more apt for me to just call this, “Post-Italy”, which encompasses not just stuff learned but also the immense sort of hollowness I felt after leaving a city that had become my second home, brief as my time was there.
Getting Duped, and Getting Kinda Even
I’m no sucker, by any means. Years and years spent in an all-girl Catholic Chinese school has toughened me up against mean girls and unforgiving teachers and taught me to be generally suspicious of people and their intentions; but it does still surprise me when someone turns out to be a monstrous cliché of the awful sorts of people I try to avoid in life.
Let’s just say I met an American girl who turned out to be a paranoid con artist, and after months of trying to get her to talk civilly and rationally with me, and trying to get my money back from her to no avail, I decided that the amount wasn’t worth it–she wasn’t worth it, more like–and I sent her a nice, long, friendly message voicing my sympathy for her paranoia, and my hopes for her ‘recovery’. It’s not exactly the sort of justice some people seek, but it was justice enough at the time.
I think if I had kept it (the anger/need for revenge) with me, I knew I’d be wasting too much energy on something that was, in big picture terms, so stupid. What did I learn from that? Never pay for something in advance unless you’ve got some sort of contract that protects both parties. In writing. Always get stuff in writing. It’s better to be sure, even if the other person seems honourable.
Italians and Filipino-Chinese are Basically Family
There is a “gai xiao” mentality that exists in both cultures, so I found myself oddly familiar sometimes with the way things were done in Florence, much like the way things are in the Chinese community in Manila. The “gai xiao” thing is basically like gaining introductions and/or connections via people you know, and people trusting that connection more versus an un-vouched-for connection. In the Fil-Chi community, for example, someone building a house might choose a contractor that a friend recommended over another contractor. Parents might prefer a family friend’s child as a potential in-law over others. Things like that.
In Florence, when I was looking for a potential internship, none of the “cold call” type of blind submission ever worked (where I would just submit my application online or something)–what worked was when I had a teacher vouch for me and introduce me, and the factory owners met me in person and basically got to sense for themselves whether or not I had good juju (turns out I did). Same goes for transactions at shops, looking at real estate, etc.
All three cultures (I include the Filipino culture in this) have very strong family ties, and have a very strong relationship with food. Food, family, friends, and friends-of-friends: the fil-chi-talian connection.
It’s a little bit reassuring at times, but also frustrating if you’re on the outs and looking for a way into the community. The only real solution is to get to know more people and build connections that way–which, honestly, is a petrifying challenge for me because I am extremely introverted and private and am not used to being super friendly and gregarious and buddy-buddy with everyone I meet (if I’ve ever seemed that way to you then please know it was with great unnatural effort on my part hahaha)
I Felt the Effect of My Taxes So Much More in Italy than I Ever Did in Manila
In Manila, it always feels like a dark cage, where nothing good ever happens and where things always seem to get worse. It feels more so especially now with a scary new administration (have you seen news about the Philippines lately?) running things, and stability/sanity all seem to be up in the air. I feel more and more sure that I can’t stay here for much longer, and more certain that I belong elsewhere. I find myself always eager to leave, always looking for a way out. Manila just never really felt like home to me.
In the ads and tourism blogs or whatever, you always see the Philippines portrayed as some sort of paradise–pristine white sand beaches and friendly locals and delicious food. And while all those things exist somewhere in this country, I almost scoff at the idea, because I know there’s so much shady shit going on, and the “paradise” that they seem to be selling is a far cry from the everyday reality, at least in the city. We work long hours and then pay so much in taxes but we never seem to see any real change.
In stark contrast, I was a resident in Florence for only a year, but I saw my taxes at work every single day. It wasn’t all perfect–I mean, I’m sure the locals have problems with one thing or other, the government, life, etc., and I’m sure that there are problems that I might not have encountered or understood because I had only lived there for a year, but compared to where we’re at in the Philippines, Italy is golden.
One of the things that I love most about Florence is that the entire city is maintained like a museum. It’s music to the ears of artists like myself, but also amazing considering the insane volume of tourists that pass through the city each day. Apart from the odd waste bin here and there that have been unfortunate enough to be placed near rowdy foreign students who’ve been out partying or whatever, the city is amazingly clean. Every few blocks, there is a set of garbage sorting bins, and almost everyday, there are giant mechanised garbage trucks that pass by these to empty them. Smaller garbage trucks with cleaning people service the smaller streets where the large trucks can’t fit, and cleaning people manually service the tiny streets and alleyways where vehicles can’t fit. They are quite meticulous and dedicated in their work. At night, there are scrubbing trucks which pass through to clean the cobblestoned streets, as well as garbage-sucking trucks with giant rotating brushes that also help buff the cobblestones.
Florence’s historical buildings are also amazingly well-maintained. For the click-happy part of me, it can sometimes be annoying if something I want to take a photo of is covered with scaffolding because it’s undergoing some sort of renovation or restoration, but in the long run, constant preventive maintenance will help ensure that these treasures last, and I really can’t fault them for that!
And if you think about it, there really is so much history and value that need to be protected and preserved in Florence (and in Italy, and in Europe!)–historical buildings, art, museums and everything in those museums, villas, gardens, streets, bridges, churches, cobblestones, signages, documents, monasteries, chapels, houses, etc.
I’m now kind of amazed that they have money enough to maintain them all, although it also helps that there are big fashion houses and companies that pitch in, i.e. Salvatore Ferragamo (who helped restore Ponte Santa Trinita after it was damaged in a flood, I think), Fendi (who paid for the restoration of the Trevi Fountain in Rome and that’s probably why they were allowed to have their runway show there!), Fuji (who helped restore/maintain the Musei Vaticani in Vatican City, which is why they’re supposedly less strict about Japanese tourists taking photos inside), etc.
Florence also wins over the VM in me (I used to work as the Visual Merchandising Design Specialist for Levi’s), because it’s always well lit. And, having paid for utilities during my time in Florence, I know just how expensive the city’s electricity can be, so lighting it all up is no small feat. There is maybe a teeny tiny window in the wee hours of the morning when some of the lights are shut off for a bit (like 1-2 hours?), but during the day, the city is golden like no other city is golden. And at night, the street lamps make everything warm and romantic and mysterious, and important sculptures and buildings have spotlights to make them always instagram-able :))
I always feel super safe walking in the city at night, even by myself. I am still duly cautious of course (while violent crime is not big in Florence, there are still incidents of petty crime–such as pickpocketing), but it’s not like in Manila where I would always be uneasy, and try to avoid walking at all costs, especially by myself, and especially at night. Manila is not only super crime-infested; there is now the added danger of having a government and a police force to be feared, because of all the extrajudicial killings going on, and all sorts of shady shit. I mean honestly. I cannot freaking stay here.
And so, now what?
For the last year and a half or so, I’ve basically been working on setting up the bag business that my sister and I had been planning for a while. We started Quiddity when I was still at university, doing smaller crafts like stationery and notebooks, but always with the intention of expanding into bags and maybe even shoes and other leather goods, all inspired by traveling and by our own travels. It’s basically why I ended up going to Florence in the first place. Since then, it’s been a long and somewhat slow process, mostly because of the insane (okay, neurotic) perfectionism we’ve imposed upon ourselves. But there you go. È così.
Through everything that has happened, what I’ve learned–and this only served as a re-confirmation to myself (and to my sister) of a certain idea I’ve had in my mind since I was a tween– is that I don’t belong here in Manila. Here, my soul is dull and gray, with dreams of escape and that inescapable feeling of going nowhere. It sounds pretty melodramatic, however I put it, but I really feel Florentine, Italian, European at heart.
Florence, and Italy in general, feels like home to me. The walks I go on, the food I eat, the museums I visit, the people I talk to–they all feel more home-y to me than my actual hometown ever felt. Even the language feels more natural to my tongue than Filipino or Chinese ever did (just check my report card from school)–although, funnily enough, my speaking Filipino and Hokkien Chinese is ultimately what’s helping me speak Italian, so maybe that’s just life working itself out, in this case.
I don’t know, maybe I’m just assigning too much meaning to all these little things, but I sometimes think these little things are signs of sorts, and so far all signs point back to Florence. Maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist in that regard.