A World Without GPS

By Juli Kirkpatrick Leach

“Can we help you?” If my roommate Wendy and I had smart phones or even internet access back on January 7th, 1989, we might never have heard those reassuring words spoken by two young, nice-looking Italian guys on that fateful Saturday night.  Wendy and I had just arrived in Florence the day before to start a three month overseas studies program.  We were placed with a host family, the Miniati’s, in the “suburbs” and we could only get home by bus from the city center. According to my travel journal, we had gotten on bus 23C, realized it was the wrong one, and then got off, completely turned around and lost.  We found a payphone, but then realized that we needed a special token called a getone to use it, and we had no idea where to get one.  Had we had our handy dandy mobile devices, we could have done a number of things like look up the bus schedules and routes, gotten exact directions to our host family’s house and hailed a taxi, or just have even called our host family to come get us.  Instead, we just stood on the street corner not knowing what to do, laughing because it was better than crying.That’s when we heard those magic words first spoken by Leonardo, a tall slim guy with dark hair, deep-set blue eyes and an authentic Italian nose. He was accompanied by his buddy, Filippo, who was more boyish looking.  We told them we were lost and needed a getone to make a call and they got us one.  They also offered to give us a ride home.  Wendy and I looked at one another wondering if we could trust these guys, and then Leonardo offered to show us his ID.  That cinched it for me.

Us at a Pizzeria on Jan 14, 1989. From left to right: Wendy, Filippo, Me, Leonardo – photo is author’s own

The next thing we knew, we were off on an adventure to find Via Don Milani #63 in the neighboring town of Antella.  Leonardo was driving his blue Peugeot with Filippo in the passenger seat and Wendy and I in the back.  Leonardo had a rough idea of how to get to Antella, a lucky thing since we didn’t have Google maps or GPS to rely on.  Actually, our lack of technology was the lucky thing; with GPS, we never would have been able to practice our basic directions in Italian or have the most exhilarating time trying to remember which way to turn to get to our host family’s house.  “Alla destra”  (To the right).  “No scusa, alla sinestra.”  (No, sorry to the left).  “Forse e meglio indiritto”  (Maybe it’s better to go straight).  Wendy and I really had no idea, but that was the fun of it all.  Laughing the whole way, practicing our broken Italian with two cute, funny Italian guys.  Leonardo finally had to stop to ask a few old gentlemen how to get to our street.  We finally made it, but felt sorry all the laughter had to come to an end.  They gave us their telephone numbers and asked us to call them the next day.  We ended up calling them the day after (with a getone), met them on a street corner (again) to go out to dinner,  and ended up cultivating one of the most memorable relationships of our lives.

Although my stay in Florence was too short, only 3 months, I will never forget all the good times I had with Wendy, Leonardo, and Filippo.  We improved our Italian by leaps and bounds, they practiced their English, and we all made lasting impressions upon one another.  Eight years later, I returned to Florence on a trip with my mom and looked up Filippo at the old number – still no smart phones or internet access.  We met up for a drink.  He had become a police officer for the city of Florence.  My Italian came back to me and it was like old times.  I told him that I had tried to contact Leonardo as well, but his Mama had said he lived with his girlfriend and didn’t feel comfortable giving me his number because the girlfriend probably wouldn’t like it.  Enough said.  I understood.  It didn’t take away from the great memories I had.  If I ever do return to Florence again, I have two old friends and a host family to look up.  I suppose I’ll use a smart device to help me meet up with them, but thank god I remember what it’s like to meet someone new for the first time, to make a human connection with my eyes focused on a smile, a laugh and a reassuring look instead of glued to the screen of a smart device.

All these years later, I still have my “Let’s Go” Travel Diary. It’s a wonderful memento. – photo is author’s own

Featured image by gnuckx on Flickr