"Is this it?"
She squinted at me dustily, yellow ringlets snaking over a novelty teeshirt and the straps of an enormous stuffed-to-the-gills hiking pack, tossing a curled-lipped nod in the direction of the city's central park. I must have looked just as taken aback as her question caught me, because she went on.
"I mean...I don't know, it's so...small. I thought there'd be all these beautiful buildings and cafes everywhere and all that." Her nose wrinkled. "I was just expecting...more."
I turned my head and looked out in the same direction that her eyes pointed, but I still can't believe we were seeing the same scene. From the cool shadow of the heavy-beamed portico where we stood, the day's brilliant sunshine was a pinprick blow to the eyes, washing trees and cobblestones and people into a haze for a long moment. When it cleared, I saw the same heady vision of paradise in which I'd been basking for the last hour.
Sun filtered down through the leaves and blossoms of the trees that towered over the square, freckling the ancient stones with patches of warmth and wind-tossed petals. Families sat together on benches, talking and laughing, hands flying; those who had arrived at the square alone almost inevitably fell into a conversation with their own bench partners. The local women gleamed like gems in their intricately patterned, impossibly detailed shawls and skirts, and the children - locals and vacationers alike - darted laughing around the central fountain, where a ring of serene, imperturbable stone women held out their breasts, offering comfort and nourishment to any and all who took a moment's rest beneath their gaze.
Even in the scant amount of time I've spent in this town, it's begun to wind its way deeply into my heart. My first instinct was to protect it from any disparaging, and debate her, pointing out how the city is built on the bones of its ancient self and beloved ruins nestle against bustling residential areas. Just like with the bright embroidered fabrics you see for sale in the market, there is so much detail packed into every tiny space - carven wooden trim, ceramic tiles pressed into sidewalks and walls, the glimpses of terrace gardens and the masses of flowers that foam up and spill over their walls and flutter down toward the street - that you could spend hours poring over every scene. And yes, I wanted to tell her, there's your damn cafes - maybe not all lined up in one row, as you seem to have been expecting, but sprinkled throughout the city, so you have to explore to find them all.
But I didn't say any of this. She didn't seem to notice my disconcertion - she asked for a hotel recommendation and I pointed her toward the tourist guides in the square, and we parted. I wonder if she was just tired; if she'd put too much faith in a travel brochure; if this was the trip she'd been planning and putting off for years, slowly building up a daydream that outshone any reality. I wonder if she'll continue to be disappointed in the city that, a scant week in, is already inspiring a fierce pride in me - or if perhaps she'll leave her bag, her camera, and her expectations at the hotel and, as September sang so beautifully last night, put on her walking shoes and go.
And if she doesn't - if she spends every moment here complaining that it's a dull little one-horse town* and clears out for destinations more befitting her definition of exciting and worthwhile as soon as she can manage it - that's her choice. Godspeed to her.
But if this is all there is, it's more than enough for me.
*** actually there are many horses here, but not as many as there are dogs