I was a bookish and kind of nerdy 15-year-old in suburban Pennsylvania when a cataclysmic flood made a muddy mess of Florence in 1966. The stories and photos in the National Geographic and Life magazines that arrived in my parents’ mailbox transported me there in my adolescent imagination. When I viewed a black-and-white documentary on PBS, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and narrated by Richard Burton, it sealed the deal. The dramatic efforts of the “mud angels” and the restorers who peeled frescoes off moldy church walls and fished polychrome sculptures out of dark and oily waters in Florence’s flooded streets moved me. Theirs, I concluded, was the coolest job in the world, and that is what I would one day become.
The following summer, during my family’s first grand tour of Europe, I was allowed to make a detour on my own to meet a friend, Domenico Pasquale, who was studying at the University of Florence. As an AFS host family, we had welcomed many students from abroad into our home, including Domenico, who was on his way to university when we met him.