Followed in Florence

My parents are often asked about me. After the typical “how is she?”, “where is she?” and “when will she be back next?” they also get the less common, but ever-present “don’t you worry about her?” Their answers vary, of course. Mom’s response is usually paired with an eye roll, shoulder shrug combo and sounds something like “not really” or “not much I can do from here”. Dad will either take a sarcastic “hell no, who the hell cares” approach or, if he’s feeling more serious, form no actual words, but rather let out a pshje! sound while soberly nodding and perhaps adding an “everyday.”

I think this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Parents worry. Everyone knows that. And because parents worry there is a certain care that needs to be taken when it comes to the sharing of travel stories with them. A good rule of thumb is to share worrisome stories with them in person. This means, of course, that you are home safe and sound and any horrible ending that “could have been” didn’t.

One such story of mine-that I chose not to share with mom n dad until I was home and safe-was the time I was followed in Florence. It was during my first trip to Italy. The team had booked my return flight 10 days after our last games of the season so I borrowed a backpack and took off to check out as many Italian cities and sights as I could in a week.

As I wandered along the Ponte Vecchio in Florence-one of the most crowded spots in the city during high season-I noticed a man walking toward me in the crowd who didn’t quite fit. He was taller than average, alone, and carried no bags. He strolled. And he looked me in the eye as he passed me. In a place ruled by tourists and avoided by locals, the sight of this strolling loner made me ask “what is he doing here?” When we made eye contact I felt the dreaded “bad feeling” in my stomach. That irrational gut reaction that is in equal amounts a traveler’s worst nightmare and best friend. After a few steps I turned around to see if he was still walking away from me. He had stopped, was looking my way again, and now started back in my direction.

That scared me. Did I think he would hurt me in this crowd or kidnap me? No. But did I want this tall, creepy stranger following me all afternoon? Double no. Especially since I had been planning to leave the touristy safety of the Ponte Vecchio and head back up the lesser frequented, wooded hill that led to the campground that I was calling home during my stay. I did not want to lose this guy in the crowd and allow him to follow me until there was no more crowd. So, I went around the next corner and waited. I pulled my courage together and put on my business face.

At a stroll it took him a few minutes to arrive, but eventually he did and when He came around the corner I demanded, “why are you following me?” He seemed a bit surprised, taken slightly aback even. So I made myself clear, “DON’T follow me.” This seemed to make him angry and when he spoke, it was in a language I didn’t understand, but he didn’t yell. I had no idea what he said, but he seemed to be waiting for some reply from me so I gave him one: “DON’T follow me!” Now he was pissed. He went off again in what was possibly French, presumably unflattering and coupled with a glare before he turned and strolled away.

I saw him talking to a street vendor, which convinced my imagination that I had just been identified by an elaborate, underground network and that the stroller would now know my whereabouts at any time throughout Florence. But just in case he was working alone, I went into a nearby shop and explained in my beginner Italian what had happened and asked the woman there if she would walk to the corner and have a look. She reported back to me that she saw no one matching the description, so I set off away from the Ponte Vecchio and up the hill to my campground.

I never saw the man again, and as far as I know I have not actually been tracked by his sinister underground network. But when I talked to my parents the next time they heard all about the Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, and the amazing view from the campsite. They did not hear about the strolling stranger or my confronting him until much later–when I was home, safe and sound.

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