Two Lifelong Friends in Firenze: The Third Time Is Always a Charm
Story and Photography by Caroline Maxcy Fox
We met the summer before third grade. She rode her shiny new red bike to the Max Long Complex where our brothers just happened to play baseball on the same team. Naturally, as a resourceful eight-year-old at the time, I knew I had to befriend her before I asked to take her bike for a spin. After some small talk, she graciously agreed to share. Within seconds, I had pedaled off, the gravel dirt billowing up into a dust behind me. She ran alongside laughing and out of breath, and we’ve been adventuring through life together ever since. It’s been over three decades since that fateful chance meeting and we have been lucky enough to face many of life’s milestones together: grade school to grad school, loves and losses, weddings, babies and the careful construction of careers. Though we haven’t lived in the same town since high school, the value we both place on spontaneity, adventure and friendship has kept us close.
I remember it like yesterday—we were both sophomores in college, me at Florida State and Radha Thakkar Bachman at Vanderbilt. The phone call from Radha where she proposed a novel proposition for us both—a summer abroad program through Florida State. The best part: the program would be in Florence, Italy. My answer was a resounding “yes.” We worked on logistics and planned our amazing summer of independence in Europe.
Our Florence “home base” apartment was a hotel that FSU had contracted out in the heart of the city, Albergo Firenze. As our accommodation was a true hotel room, we would wash our clothes in the bathroom sink and hang them out to dry using dental floss. Our days were spent in Art History classes where we met at the Uffizi and Accademia Gallery to discuss the works of Michaelangelo and DaVinci, and in Italian language classes where we would take a field trip to the local gelateria to try out our Italian by ordering gelato or cappuccino. The program itself offered opportunities to visit Sienna, Venice and Rome. We planned our weekends carefully, with independently planned trips to the beach town of Rimini, ancient ruins of Pompeii and the colorful cliffs of the Amalfi Coast. We even hopped the border to visit Interlaken, Switzerland. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, I can still smell the salty air, feel the breeze walking through the vineyards we visited and taste the delicious flavors of our time over 20 years ago.
In 2013, as Radha was making a career transition, she had the opportunity to take some time off. Though she had two small children at home, we knew this time was precious and that an adventure was in order. Another 10 days in Italy was just what we needed, this time visiting Cinque Terre, exploring the colorful villages on the sea and hiking among vineyards and olive trees. With visits to Florence and Fiesole on the itinerary, the trip felt like a farewell to Italy. Two times in a lifetime seemed too good to be true and we both agreed that we were thankful to have had a second bite at the apple.
However, 2021 had different plans for these two lifelong friends. I remember receiving the text that simply read, “Give me a call when you can, I have some summer plans I want to share with you.” Somewhere down deep I just knew there was something exciting on the horizon, hopefully one that put us back in Italy. I quickly texted back, “Are you going to Italy and renting a house for the summer? If so, we’re coming!” While I had no concept of what it would mean to fly solo, internationally, with an 18-month old, I knew this was something we could not pass up. As luck would have it, the trip materialized as planned, and in August 2022 we were again on our way to our favorite place in the world.
Radha, her husband, Michael, and their three children went on a fantastic two-week tour around Italy visiting all of the major cities and sites. At the end of the two weeks, Michael returned home while Radha and the children traveled to Florence to check into their Airbnb and get acquainted with their home for the next three weeks. Radha has been practicing law for 16 years. One of the benefits of her firm is that she has the ability to work from anywhere. Naturally, Radha decided to make her office Florence. Norah and I were invited to come along for the ride.
Days before our flight, Radha called to give me some advice on packing. She also warned me, “Just so you know, we will be walking down the street with our children and passing by young people sitting in sidewalk cafes, chatting, laughing and eating prosciutto and melon, sipping prosecco…. the city is going to feel different with our kids.” “Oh right, yes, it’ll be different, but do I also hear sadness in your voice?” I asked. “It might be a little sad too,” she confessed with a laugh. The warning was welcome as I knew I needed to prepare my heart for a new experience unlike the ones we’d had before.
I booked our flight to Florence as a single ticket with an “infant in lap.” I could write an entire book about traveling with a toddler, but I’ll just say it is an art form, and I am thankful to all the moms that offered such practical advice. Through a series of unexpected events (or good karma), we received a complimentary upgrade on the flight to Florence which was a pure luxury. Luckily (unluckily?), we lost one piece of luggage on the way: Norah’s stroller. I remember thinking, “it definitely could have been worse.”
We arrived in Florence, blurry-eyed and in desperate need of a nap before our first dinner near the Piazzale Michelangelo. The draw of this particular Piazzale is that it overlooks all of Florence. It is truly one of the most beautiful sites at sunset. After dinner, we joined the crowds of locals, tourists and children along the overlook to watch the sun dip below the horizon behind the city. The kids danced just outside the crowd to the street performer’s tunes. We walked down to the Arno River and home not without stopping for our first taste of gelato along the way. We agreed on an attainable goal for the remainder of the trip: to have gelato at least once a day. We made good on our goal. From the famous Venchi with its flowing “chocolate wall” and treats to street side shops in the lobby of our apartment, we never missed a chance to slow down and enjoy this cold, delicious Italian specialty.
To beat the heat in Florence, we planned a weekend stay in the Tuscan countryside. The 45-minute drive from Florence to Borgo Divino in Montespertoli took us through sunflower fields, ancient towns and down cypress tree-lined roads. When we arrived, we felt like we had stepped into a dream. We spent our weekend lounging by the pool in the shade of olive trees, sipping cocktails and occasionally taking a dip in the pool to cool off with the kids. Evenings were spent dining al fresco as the sun set over the Tuscan hills. Despite my love of sleep, I got up at dawn and spent the morning in Tuscany (before my toddler woke up) with my film camera in hand capturing a single roll of medium format film—photos that I will undoubtedly cherish for a lifetime.
We returned to the city re-energized and motivated to see and do it all. Over the next four days, I experienced Florence like never before carrying a 20-pound, pasta-loving toddler in a “ring sling” all along the way (remember the part where I lost my stroller en route?). I mapped out a plan that included the Boboli Gardens, outdoor markets, an antique carousel and room for flexibility. The plan also included a few museums, historic churches and art galleries, but after giving it a college try during which I had to shush my echo-loving daughter in the Medici Chapels, I wisely decided against visiting any more museums with priceless artifacts. We canceled our Uffizi tickets and opted to have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace of our apartment together instead. We skipped seeing Michelangelo’s David in exchange for extra spins on the Piazza della Repubblica Carousel. After we climbed the 463 steps to the top of the Florence Duomo for the spectacular city views (quite the physical feat) we spent an hour in the Citta del Sole toy shop that sits in the shadow of the Dome itself. Norah came away with one Italian baby doll, her bambina. Of course, we couldn’t miss the chance to wander by our old “home,” Albergo Firenze, and bore the kids with our “remember when” stories.
We planned one childless evening visiting an old favorite from our college days: La Giostra, a dreamy twinkle light-lined restaurant where the same eccentric owner from 20 years ago, Dimitri, still strolls the restaurant chatting with diners, each one with their own story about how they discovered the hidden gem. Still to this day, it’s my favorite meal in the city and a magical, memorable evening.
On our last evening in Florence, we decided an encore visit up to Piazzale Michelangelo was in order. After some photos, we grabbed dinner at a little pizza place around the corner from the apartment (pizza on the last night is a trip tradition) and walked back through the charming streets of Florence passing dimly lit restaurants abuzz with young people (probably students) leisurely eating prosciutto and melon and sipping prosecco. We exchanged glances and couldn’t help but smile as we watched our beautiful children, happily strolling, playing and taking in their last few joyful moments of Florence along with us. We were grateful for the experience and relished the gravity of being able to do it together.
We settled in for an early bedtime, resting up for the long day of travel ahead. Little did we know that a delayed flight resulting in a missed layover connection would get us an unplanned extra night in Switzerland. Not on the itinerary, but, rather, a bonus adventure together. Aren’t those always the best ones?
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