Italian Horror Story

A personal narrative about living alone for a week in Florence, Italy.


Illustrated by Rachel Lee.

Eugene Hu, Staff Writer

It felt like a horror film: I was always alone and not alone at the same time.

After a full day of treading through Florence’s art museums during the one-week field trip with my scholars’ group and witnessing Jesus being born and perishing millions of times, I wanted nothing but to take a separate field trip to the hotel bed and sink into the mattress. However, living alone sometimes gives you second thoughts about lying down.

I wasn’t living alone in the literal sense, it’s just that vocal conversations with my roommate consisted of nothing more than questions about bedtime and alarm clocks. He had a patrician presence that proclaimed, “I’m not interested in small talk,” which I was able to respect. It’s like what Uma Thurman said in “Pulp Fiction”: “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullsh-t in order to feel comfortable?”

It felt like a horror film: I was always alone and not alone at the same time.

Outside the hotel room, most of the other scholars were either in a clique or reveling in a moment of silence which I did not wish to disturb. I just tagged along and served as the fifth wheel of a friend group I found because it contained the one person I thought I knew relatively well. If someone else made a rare comment about a painting or statue that they could barely remember the name of, the rest of the posse turned our heads. When I did the same thing, their necks became stiffer than their frozen cheekbones. Maybe it was because the cynicism in my sense of humor had festered under jet lag, seeing as how when someone else told a joke, the rest of the group laughed just fine.

There were also interlopers who generated far brighter grins with a few seconds of mindless chatter about the weather in Florence than I did when I offered one of the girls a magic trick as a birthday present. Perhaps the offer felt unexpected, but after three or four “laters,” I could take a hint.

I stopped waiting for them and asking them what they wanted to do during the free hours and instead ventured into the city to videotape bronze statues, towering trees, pigeons fighting over bread, Fiat hatchbacks dominating Italian streets, Florentine street musicians that had an affinity towards the song “Hallelujah” and graffiti that spoke to an edgy teenager more than Michelangelo ever could. After witnessing a painting of a skull wrapped in a tiara of thorns, divulging its bloody teeth as its inaudible screams filled the flaky canary gold walls, I stopped paying attention in the museums.

It felt like a horror film: I was always alone and not alone at the same time.

Illustration by Rachel Lee.

Of course the streets got narrower as night fell and my phone’s battery percentage drained. The wall cartoons were closing in on me. Every street turned into an alleyway. I began scrounging for food, and saw trattorias and osterias everywhere, which made it all the more infuriating when, on the next day, I overheard a scholar complaining about having nothing to eat.

As always, “For one, please,” I told the receptionist. Instead of forcing me to stare into an empty opposite seat at a table meant for two, the lady showed me to a large table that fit eight. There was a French couple there, and they spared a moment from their sweet talking to cast me a smile. We were later joined by another pair of tourists, as American as two hot dogs in a Chevrolet pickup. All of us became spectators in a waitress’s performance. She flambéed a cheese wheel in preparation for the cheesy, phoenix-like entrance of another table’s penne. When dinner theater was over, I looked over the shots I got on that day: a few with flocks of flying pigeons, multiple long takes of the view of a statue through the gap of a single tree’s canopy …

The scholar who complained about the lack of food did not provoke me nearly as much as the fact thateven discounting the friendly countenancethe act of the receptionist showing me to the table for eight exuded more tenderness than what I felt from all the scholars combined. The same went for the tourists, the street musicians, the graffiti artists, the pigeons, the trees and the historical figures. As much as the gestures and the sights defrosted my cheekbones, only stage musical protagonists like Blanche DuBois could see counting on the kindness of strangers as a blessing and cause for feeling loved.

Then again, like many people who refer to themselves as “pretentious artists,” I was miserable simply because I allowed myself to be. I latched onto a different friend group among the scholars when I realized that one of its members was my dorm mate back at NYU and that the others were film enthusiasts like myself. We talked about the anthropomorphic animals in “Bojack Horseman” and how “Joker” was just a “sh-ttier version of “Taxi Driver” as we traversed through more alleyways. Ironically, the company of movie zealots made the subjects of videotaping distant. Instead of long takes that were each more meticulous than the last, my videos of the robins and goblins painted on the walls soon resembled the efforts of a child Dickens brandishing a tripod-mounted camera as a weapon. I suppose even if I wasn’t struggling to keep up with the walking pace of this new clique, my shots would have felt erratic and desolate nonetheless.

The random encounters became menacing. The nearly flirtatious enthusiasm of street charity workers soon felt like the work of seductresses. The demands of souvenir workers that I stop recording in their shops now had the bitterness that would render the most seasoned New Yorkers envious. Lastly, it was only towards the end of our one-week stay in Florence that I recalled the lifeless face of the hotel concierge worker.

I already knew that many words in European languages had extensive connotations. I later learned there’s an Italian word for my odyssey: “Passeggiata,” its full definition being “a walk with the purpose of seeing and being seen.” 

If I was to give the name Florence a definition, I’d regard it as “a place where strangers become friends and friends become strangers, endlessly.” At one moment, the bleeding skull was my soulmate. At the very next, I would have given my life to see Christ in a museum once more. At one moment, I leaned into the arms of anonymous Florentines. At the very next, I wanted to punch myself for having turned my back on and condemning my scholars’ group.

On the last day, one of my newfound friends asked me as I fell behind, then caught up with their pace: “Why are you so obsessed with these videos?”

I froze. All that came out of my mouth was “I like films, and filming stuff, I guess.”

It feels like a horror film: I’m always alone and not alone at the same time.

Email Eugene at [email protected]