The first sighting was at the Bargello in Florence. He was the largest man in the room, forcing human traffic to make a left towards the courtyard outside and standing with his equally tall wife. He would have been a normal tourist had he been clothed. He was a marble statue of Adam standing with Eve. Art historians and critics would have worshipped the ground he stood on, which left me wondering if I should do the same. Instead, I stared at his face in shock. The way his beard curled on the chin and equally curled chin. That curt Archaic smile. When my mom got around to him, we both came to a consensus: he looked exactly like my uncle Jeff.
Even when we left Florence, he made an appearance at almost every museum we went to. After a while, I started feeling ashamed that I wasn’t appreciating the art like an art critic would. Trips to museums became opportunities to find another Jeff. I would ignore galleries filled with priceless art just to analyze one piece with even a slight resemblance to my uncle. I came to the conclusion that my uncle was related to a famous model during the Renaissance named Fabio Cavatappi whose story of lust and deception was too dirty to publish in text books. It was the only explanation.
Most people travel to see the sights, pose in front of the popular monuments, and have the authority to say they had survived a place like Italy, where the Mafia could have you sleeping with the fishes. Maybe it was because we lived in America, but we always noticed an idiosyncrasy intermingling with the perfection that is Italy. At the Hotel Demidoff, the restaurant offers a breathtaking view of Florence. Yet, the pasta was underdone enough to eat it with a knife. The pool offers the same view, but it’s only three feet deep without any depth change. Imposing boar heads mark the meat shops in Italy, but don petite bifocals like dry college professors. As we drove back and forth from the hotel to the city we kept on walking past picturesque cottages and baled stacks of hay until we saw a condom vending machine that looked close enough to a bus ticket machine.
Italy is filled with nuances like that. Lawyers walk through St. Marks Square in Venice without noticing the pigeons. Romans still drive like maniacs without the slightest fear of crashing into the Coliseum. How does one live without realizing they are surrounded by such valuable, vulnerable artifacts? Doctors have recorded people suffering tachycardia specifically by being surrounded by insurmountable beauty. Due to times sake, we only spent three hours in Venice. But the novelty of wandering around labyrinthine streets at sundown with no idea how to get out was worth multitudes more than our three days in Rome. Sampling gelatos will always beat the gondola ride, both financially and emotionally. That is how the best travel memories are built. You start with a popular location, and then run loose, never worrying over being a disillusioned tourist.
At a gas station in Umbria, I sat in the car looking out at the green hilltops covered in cypress lined dirt roads until I noticed a collection of terracotta faces for sale in the corner of my eye. One of them was Uncle Jeff. I took enough pictures of it to make a feature length film and we blazed off along the winding freeway through the rolling hills, driving like Mario Andretti.
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