Machiavelli and a Bag of Chips

by Addis Goldman; illustration by Kelsey Skordal

I was alone in Florence this July, staying at a friend’s flat. On a gloomy day, I took one of his bikes out and stopped at a café down the road and past a park. I bought a large bottle of Birra Moretti—the Tuscan equivalent of Budweiser—a basic ham and cheese sandwich with tomatoes and basil and a bag of plain potato chips. I rode through some narrow, winding streets to the center of the city. 

I arrived at the Uffizi Plaza, where some Michelangelo sculptures guarded the entrance. I stared up at them for a while before I rode into the square, a sprawling rectangular arcade shaped like an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Encircling it were an elevated walkway and 20 foot-tall concave arched ceilings, forming a “C” shaped corridor around the area. 

I maneuvered my junky bike through the droves of seasonal tourists, nodding to the vendors, musicians and beggars. I walked over to the edge of the archway that covered the steps leading up to one of the walkways and propped my bicycle against the wall. I sat on the 600-year-old cobblestone stairs and observed my frantic surroundings. I took the food and beer from the bag and ate and drank for a while. I closed my eyes.

I focused on the aural experience of eating and listened to the food mixing in my mouth. The salt of the chips enhanced the carbonation of the beer and the watery tomato juice. The basil was floral and stung the bases of my molars. The beer soured and pricked the pink flesh underneath my tongue. Behind my ears, I felt and heard the rigid potato chips cracking. 

A panorama of sounds swept through the echoing corridor, reverberating around the arched concave spaces that loomed over the walkways. I heard the sounds of argument and agreement amongst families and friends, tour guides wrangling groups, bicycle chains spinning, wooden canes scraping against the chalky cobblestones, plastic water bottles being tossed into overflowing garbage cans. I heard what I imagined to be a small group of elderly Italian women arguing. Their legs might have been close together, their attitudes modest, their arms closely folded, their heads uniformly inclined and somewhat to the side, their hands carrying plastic bags with clothes in them. 

I continued to chew my food, eyes still closed. The internal sounds of my swallowing and chewing competed with the external noise of the corridor in a curious way—it reminded me that my life depends on a delicate system of functioning organs. The food that I was eating, beyond the pleasure it gave me, was immediately transformed into a nurturing substance, absorbed by my vital tissues and distributed throughout my body to be converted into strength. I gulped some beer and imagined the carbonation settling in my stomach, the giddiness of the bubbles now suppressed by the darkness of my churning belly. 

I heard the screeches of children and pictured a group of young ones running around the group of old women I had heard before. The children were probably biting and slapping each other, darting between hordes of tourists. I heard a group of old men too, drawn towards the company of those women, forming a small cohort, energetically making wild hand gestures. 

I opened my eyes to the bustling scene. I experienced that feeling of somehow standing outside yourself for a moment, of seeing your own face from the perspective of some spectral ghost. The feeling of having kept your eyes closed for a long time while remaining wide awake, and then of opening your eyes and being startled not by the sensation of having been blind, but by the splendor of what can be imagined in the absence of vision. 

I needed a cigarette and another beer and maybe something sweet. I got up and walked about 10 feet to a nearby vendor and bought the same beer, a large bar of dark chocolate, another bag of chips and bummed loose tobacco and a rolling paper from some old guy standing there. I went back to my spot on the staircase. 

I lit the cigarette, broke off a large chunk of the bar and let it melt in my mouth. I tucked a coil of loose hair behind my ear. I dragged on my cigarette. I noticed how the smoke that I drew through it was warm and full as it passed through the neat cotton filters I had inserted into the tip—much better than the wisp of yellow acidic vapor that packaged cigarettes produce in the smokers mouth. The smoke was wooden and earthy and enhanced the chocolate, making it spicy and savory. 

Ten or so sculptures were distributed evenly around the circumference of the plaza, each tucked away into bowl-shaped vestibules. I fixed my sight on Machiavelli’s marble figure, of the infamously provocative trickster staring sternly downward, drawing a wry smile across his beak-like face, turning thoughts over, his left hand gesturing out with his wrist and fingers unfolding into a kind of spiral staircase. 

 I needed to move, so I wheeled my bike around and rode down a narrow street to get away from the frenzied plaza. A ways down the road, I spotted a sign for “Espresso” and locked my bike up outside the quiet café. I took a seat at a table in the back. It was dimly lit. The ceilings were low. A young woman and an old man worked the counter. The woman looked bored, preparing sandwiches. The old man wore a vacant expression and stared out into the street, tapping his ring finger on the register. I sat and opened my book, Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies” and ordered an espresso that tasted like almonds, raisins, steak brine and roasted pumpkin seeds. 

The espresso made my mind agile and Barthes’ pithy statements were witty company. I chewed on his curt epigrams, each one forcing me to raise my eyes from the bookw. I wanted the equivalent of a philosophical snack, an aphorism, that’s all. “Philosophy as food for the mind.” 

I read for a few minutes longer and then my eyes closed. Suddenly I awoke, startled and disoriented. The espresso had shot me up and shut me down, making my brief dream frantic. I don’t remember what I saw. A river and a carriage, a small woman in a blue blouse, I think it was. The cigarettes had given me a headache. I gathered myself and gazed out towards the narrow, busy street outside. And then I decided that the only natural thing to do was to go and find somewhere else to sleep, drink, smoke and perhaps eat again.