When people travel to other parts of the country and beyond it is their habit to shop for items that remind them of their travels, or perhaps the things they can’t find at home. Tourists buy everything from t-shirts to souvenirs. It’s easy to mock those who flock to souvenir shops for anything sporting the name of the place they are visiting – until we find ourselves doing the same thing. This is the situation I found myself in during a trip to Florence, Italy.
When I travel anywhere I’m more attracted to flea markets than the shops. The timing for a trip to France several years ago was planned around market days in several different towns, including two consecutive Saturdays, coming and going, at a flea market unrivaled by any I’ve been to in thirty years of scrounging.
What makes a flea market find more interesting than newly purchased items is the serendipity factor. The process of finding the unknown is quite special. It’s usually something we weren’t looking for, but at the moment of discovery it is endowed with qualities it may or may not have had. For flea market aficionados (in antique parlance “pickers”), that item becomes particularly meaningful. It has survived the process of previous picking through lots of “junk” and deemed to be the pearl. Perhaps it was purchased with a bit of clever haggling, and a feeling of satisfaction unlike that of our country’s early gold diggers. Once we take the item out of its environment it becomes even more valuable to us. We reflect on our good fortune for having discovered it and the item often becomes more unique by virtue of ownership.
It was with these feelings of expectation that I approached a little flea market of sorts in Florence. It was made up of individual shops, more like rows of attached lean-to’s selling mostly lighting fixtures and chandeliers, in need of repair and thus, frightfully overpriced. It was here at stall #15, identified with a numbered tile, that I first spotted them – the ceramic doorknobs that I hoped would adorn my new office doors. They were oval with softly curved edges from years of use. Their once white color was now discolored and aged to a soft cream. The underside had a slight curve that, when grabbed fit one’s hand so it felt right and you noticed this. There were 4 sets and I needed 3, but I wasn’t sure we could get the mechanical parts needed to make them work at home. Besides they were more costly than I wanted to spend. But I coveted them. I didn’t buy them on that day, or the day after, or the day after that, although I kept going back to see if they were still there. I dreamed about them and romanticized where they had once resided. I was obsessed with those doorknobs, On the second Monday all the vendors were closed. The next day it rained and #15 was closed on the three excursions I took to the place. We checked the prices and availability of new knobs in a hardware store. They were cheaper but didn’t compare -too white, too perfect, too American.
I went back again and asked, “Quanto costa?”. Then how much less for three? We communicated on a calculator, she punching in her obstinate figures, me with a come-back. There was no give. I left determined to win this waiting game, sure that I could out stay her. Days passed and I couldn’t stop thinking about the knobs. If they were sold, I told myself, it wasn’t meant to be. If they were still there (and they probably had been for years, but that is something the “stalker” never wants to think about) I would buy them at whatever the cost and forget about it in the scheme of things.
The three sets of knobs are now in my home. I paid full price. They are even more beautiful on this side of the world than they were when I first spotted them, rusting, dripping from rain, thrown upon a heap of tools, locks and assorted non-descript items.
I like to imagine they were once on some massive wooden doors in a 15th century villa, similar to the one in which we stayed. Every time I open the French doors to my office the knobs feel good in my hands. Imagining where their existence started and is ending and how they were found among the detritus of everyday Italian households is somehow symbolic. I have taken home a piece of Florence to add to the enjoyment of my home here.
The photographs we took with Michelangelo’s David looming behind us, another in the Duomo, at the Uffizi, of the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, fill our photo album. We looked at them from time to time and then hardly at all. We have many purchases that somehow got misplaced or used up but, I am reminded of this trip many times over as I slide my hand over those doorknobs every single day.