In the middle of Fiesole, there is a little bar that promises “the best Guinness in Italy” and takes claim to the time-honored tradition of the poorly lit Irish pub. The Guinness was okay; the rest of the beers were better. I did not speak a lick of Italian, the two bartenders spoke barely a lick of English, and we had a good arrangement going, speaking in grunts, gestures and the names of various beers and spirits. I spent a lot of nights there, usually just myself and a coalition of up to two more of the willing. When the program I was in offered a long weekend, everyone but me spread to the corners of the country, and I was alone with the villa to myself with nothing to do but research for my thesis.
Like any self-respecting Georgetown student, I was back at the pub before a book was opened. The place was packed beyond belief. The TVs, which I had assumed were for show, were all on, and dozens of people were crowded around them. One of the two bartenders caught my eye, and, while taking my order said, “football” by way of explanation. I was aware, in a vague sort of way, that the Euro Cup was happening. In retrospect, the turnout was about what I should have expected, but the variety of people in the bar was stunning. When I went to study abroad that summer, I found out that really meant a “greatest hits” tour of Florence, looking through old buildings and at landmarks. Interactions with the people who actually live in the place you are studying are heavily curated: tour guides, restaurant owners and villa staff.
People were pouring into this pub from their homes, from work, driving up and around Fiesole in tiny cars or on scooters to see the game. Businessmen were coming back from work with loosened ties and ruffled suits; mothers with broods of children running around and through their legs, trying to find darts to swing at each other; young couples out on dates; and me, the single, solitary, pasty schmuck who hates soccer in a sea of teak and swarthy fans who may have had their homes on the line for how involved they were in this game. One of the many reasons I hate soccer is that it is entirely reasonable for a game to remain scoreless well into the second half of regulation time. This game was no exception, and I grew progressively frustrated as the night went on. Who were these people, I groused, who came into my smoky little pub and were raising such an ungodly racket that I could not even be miserable in peace? Eighty-eight long minutes in, Italy scored. I have been to concerts that were quieter than this bar. A young woman on the stool next to me took it upon herself to patiently explain to me, in my own language, that Italy would be advancing out of the group stage.
I had just about seen and heard enough when the bartender plopped down a pint in front of me. I shook my head. He pointed to an older man at the other side of the bar, who was laying down a stack of bills for the other bartender. “It’s free,” he said. I stared at the older man long enough for him to look my way, nodded my thanks, lifted my pint and set to work. After an indeterminate amount of time, once the place was finally starting to clear out, I managed to get myself to my feet and slowly, slowly, meandered back down the steep hill that led up to Fiesole. By then it was dark, and I slipped past the gate and onto the villa grounds, utterly alone. At a porch overlooking the villa and the city of Florence, I sat on one of the plastic chairs to think for a while.
When the inevitable questions came after I had come home — asking myself what I liked the most, what was my favorite church, what museum had the best art — I was shocked that no one asked about that night in the bar. It was an almost religious experience: People gathering to worship in front of those TVs, and I was the foreign observer who had no right to be there. My mind grew hazier, and the things that crossed my mind as the lights down in the city slowly switched off for the night are now lost to me. I do remember with absolute clarity two things, imprinted in my mind as crystal clear images. First, the slow emergence of the stars as the lights started to dim and fade, cavalcade of pinpoints in the sky against the nearly full moon. Second, the six-dozen mosquito bites that I’d gotten along my arms and legs which I didn’t notice until the next morning, the price to pay for such an image as the first, overlooking the city and the garden.
DAN DOUGHERTY is a senior in the College.