Maybe we travel not to meet, but to become, strangers. I am 21, sitting in the lobby of a Florentine hotel with my dad. The place is all light and marble and murano glass, open and full of chatter of people going up to and coming down from rooms. My father and I are indulging in a game, if you can call it that, which we have shared since childhood. The game goes something like this:
A man stands near carrying a lady’s purse over his arm. His forehead shines with sweat and he flicks impatient eyes to his watch. Every time the elevator dings, he looks up. Inevitably the elevator spits out two or three tourists, and he shifts the purse to his other arm, uttering soft oaths.
My father leans over to me.
“He’s waiting for his wife,” he says.
I say, “mistress.” This surprises dad.
“Daughter,” he says. After all, we are here on a family vacation. The purse the stranger carries is nice, so I concede.
“Whoever it is, he bought that purse for her. Maybe it’s the daughter’s, and the wife picked it out. Maybe they are here shopping for Italian leather like true socialites.” Not a bad guess, my father shrugs.
I can’t tell you if any of our stories turned out to be true. We have been making them up for years now, and it isn’t like we can just follow these people around and ask them to verify. Hundreds of fictions, a whole history of the world, hangs between my dad and me. It is a culture of our own making, peopled by our imaginations.
But this day, in Florence, the game changes. A thought startles me: not what can I say about these strangers, but what can these strangers say about me? If I could look at myself with innocent eyes, what fanciful story would appearances tell?
The elevator chimes and my mother steps out. Together, we three walk into breakfast, breezing past the sweating man and his purse.
Before us is a truly epicurean spread: blood oranges and dried apricots and poached pears, piles of cured ham, pancetta, prosciutto and salami, great chunks of cheese and pots of soft cheese, loaves of saltless bread with flour on the crust, gleaming copper kettles of strong black coffee, carafes of orange and grapefruit juice, and several bottles of champagne on ice. We pour ourselves mimosas, feeling for all the world like King Croesus, and steal to a small table by the window.
Our hotel is so close to the Arno it practically floats on green waves. Strangers pass by on a skinny sidewalk, gilded here and there, moment by moment, in low morning sun. To them, I am sparked with light, too; sun is catching in my hair. I sense the gaze of a girl with soft grey eyes. Whether I had been watching out for her, or whether she had been for me I can’t tell. We know nothing about each other save impressions and guesses, but we connect.
I tuck into my marmalade toast and sip on espresso, elated.
I am a stranger.