It was midnight when the airport bus dropped me off at Santa Maria Novella station where the taxis should have been. There was a sad little line of people waiting and the scene was that of a hushed city, like a De Chirico painting where the buildings around the empty piazzas seemed to be waiting for something to happen. Nothing much did, as the taxis arrived slowly, one by one at long intervals till I came to the front of the queue. A strange, bright London taxi was approaching. As it came closer, I saw that they were like scenes from children’s picture books. A “magician” leapt out of the driver’s seat and grabbed my bag. She was as colourful as her taxi with a lime green cloak, an extravagant, flower-covered hat and oversized lemon-yellow spectacles, but what shone out most of all was her wide smile and sparkling eyes.
“I’m Zia Caterina,” she told me. It was as if she had been sent to pick me up and take me on a journey, not just through the streets of Florence, which I knew so well and now lay sleeping, but on a magic carpet, where the two of us were the only ones awake. Inside, the taxi was like a little salon in the same vivid shades, stuffed like a luxurious children’s nursery, with so much that I could not take it all in. There was a comfortable seat with cushions for me to lie back in and soft toys, dolls and balloons around and above me.
Having lived in Florence for 16 years and now returning regularly from London, I am accustomed to a stock conversation with taxi drivers who usually lament what has happened to the city: its decline, the difficulty of driving around, complaints about the new tramline, roadworks, crowds of visitors blocking their path, changes to traffic flow. But our conversation did not take this familiar route as we talked through the night on a journey suspended in time.
“What do you think of Florence?” Zia Caterina asked me.
My answer: “Florence, for me, is made up of so many memories, people, the life I’ve lived here. My son grew up here.”
“Ah,” she replied, “that makes you experience the city differently.”
“And you,” I asked her, “what do you think about Florence?”
“You know, I experience it in a different dimension. I go into the hospitals, for the children.”
We talked about all the different ways one can experience a city, this city of Florence which is always so full of visitors. Some people come for the art and museums, others for fashion or to study. We all weave through the same streets but we have different stories, our varying perceptions and interactions with the place. I was reminded of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and mentioned the book, in which we are introduced to a series of imagined, seemingly impossible cities, but which each have their own inner logic.
It was only later that I found out more about Zia Caterina and what she does and why: her partner, Stefano, was a Florence taxi driver who died of cancer in 2001 and left her his taxi. Since then, she has made it her mission to use the vehicle to help Florence’s children and their families in her own heartwarming way.
For Zia Caterina, Florence is not the medieval or renaissance city visited by millions of tourists from all over the world. It is a city of and for children: children with cancer, whose lives she makes happier and easier with her smiling presence and practical help. She calls them “superheroes”, to encourage them to draw on their own magic powers to defeat pain and illness. She drives them and their families to hospital and other places for free, entertains them in the Meyer children’s hospital and raises funds for them. Anyone who has the privilege of being picked up in her “Milano 25” taxi can add a donation for children to the fare. “With a smile, you can do it” and “With love, you can do it” are the slogans emblazoned on the outside of her taxi.
As she set me down at my destination, she hugged me and handed me a card with a game to give to a child. A little of her gold dust has remained with me ever since.