My grandmother’s unlikely trip to Italy
The woman in the picture is my grandmother, Sofia. You may wonder what is so special about a woman standing in the rain in front of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence? Well, the fact that in 1977, when the picture was taken, my grandparents lived in the Socialist Republic of Romania. It was almost impossible to travel to the “decadent’ west. Luckily, my well-connected grandfather was able to pull some strings. They were granted permission to join a bus tour of northern Italy. They weren’t allowed to take my father (who was 17 at the time) with them. The authorities feared that they might defect, so one important family member had to be left behind.
My grandparents were not allowed a lot of foreign currency, either. Not even enough to satisfy little whims. For instance, a few days before this picture was taken, my grandparents had been in Venice and it was very hot. After much hesitation, my grandfather bought himself an ice-cream cone – and it was the best he had ever had! Unfortunately, after only a few bites, he dropped it on to the pavement in a moment of inattention. My grandmother told me, many years later, what a long look he threw the splayed icecream, as if considering whether to scoop it up again. He didn’t – but nor did he buy another one. This story always broke my heart.
In 2003, my father and I visited my grandmother in Constanţa. We talked of travelling to Italy that year. She remembered her own extraordinary trip and told us how, of all the cities she saw, Florence had been her favourite. Florence. Yes. We would go to Florence. Except we didn’t. My grandmother died a few weeks after our conversation; my parents cancelled all our holiday plans.
We didn’t travel to Tuscany until 2011. It was the last holiday I ever went on with my parents – but I could not know then about the heart attack that would brutally tear my father from life not long after. However, at the time, we were terribly happy to walk the same streets and piazzas my grandparents had walked 34 years before, as unlikely as it seemed. We fell in love with bits and pieces of Florence: the Uffizi, the Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, but, most of all, with Santa Maria del Fiore. I remembered my grandmother saying it, as if it were the name of a long-lost love: “Santa Maria del Fiore. Santa Maria del Fiore.” Sophie van Llewyn
Snapshot … Sophie van Llewyn’s grandmother, Sofia, in Florence, 1977