Bella Firenze and the Turn of the Tide

by kjensen22 on September 4, 2015


This week I’ve been reflecting a lot. Exactly one year ago, I got on a plane bound for Heathrow Airport in London. I would spend 2 ½ months traveling through Europe, seeking for answers to my heart-cries. I had burned out of NYC life and, nursing a broken heart, needed a change of scenery. I knew in my gut that I needed to make this journey of heart and soul, that answers would come. So I packed up my stuff, sublet my room, took a leap of faith, and boarded that plane.

I live in Utah now. A lot has changed. I am still and always will be a highly emotional creature. But I’m on the path, and I’m growing.

What prompted me to write was an experience I had a few days ago at church. I went to a Sunday School class on relationships. The teachers challenged us to date. To ask the men out. Date. Date!!! DAAAAAATE!!!!!!!


I met a guy before the next meeting. Sat next to him. Flirted a bit. He seemed nice enough at first, and apparently he goes out with women twice a week and “isn’t afraid of commitment.” Naturally I froze up. Then he turned to me after the meeting and said, “Hey, find me on Facebook.” I laughed at him & looked away, but I really wanted to just clobber him over the head and holler, “Hey punk! You think I’m that kind of girl? Think I don’t know what you’re doing? There’s no way in Hell I’m gonna join your online posse to boost your ego, when you don’t even have the chutzpah to get my number and ask me out on a date, especially after what you just told me??? You’re seriously demoting me to online harem right now? Get a life!” But I didn’t say that. I got up and went on my way. Ew! Gross! ICK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yeah, so my triggers definitely went off. Triggers of not being enough for someone, for not being pretty enough, calm enough (hahahahha!!!!) super model enough; amidst all the life and geographical changes of the past year, my figure has taken quite the Rubenesque turn, so there’s that little poke in the side.

Triggers, triggers, triggers.

Then I saw someone I had heard about months before, and when I finally met him last week, I got all weird. And then weirder. As in, I went home thinking, “Oh man, I was so weird!!!!!”  I saw him walk by, alone for a change – he’s always talking to someone – and felt a serious pull inside to still try and connect with him. And then, all this calamity going on inside me piled up and, as we say in acting, gave me a big fat PINCH.


I got in the car and burst into tears, hollering at God, “I HATE DATING!!! DATING SUCKS!! I DON’T WANT TO GET HURT LIKE THAT AGAIN!!! I’D RATHER NOT GO THROUGH THAT PAIN AGAIN!!! DON’T MAKE ME DO IT, I CAN’T DO THAT AGAIN!!!” And other such passionate lamentations. Then I started asking questions. Why DO I wish to talk to this guy I don’t know, who doesn’t know me, except I was that weird girl who  tried to talk to him in a terribly awkward manner around the campfire that one time? Yeah, he’s Italian, from Florence. I like Italians. They seem to like me, too. Theirs is the most delightful accent on earth. But clearly, First Impression didn’t go so well on this end.

And then it hit me – it’s been a year this week since I left for Europe. I ended that trip in Florence, Italy. There’s so much I have yet to write – about my time in Europe, what it meant to me, how it changed the course of my life and my heart’s growth.

I didn’t really like the way Florence felt, honestly. It’s a beautiful medieval city with so much history and art and culture, and  I LOVE ALL THAT. But I felt a heaviness, a darkness in the city. I don’t know yet what that is. I suspect it has to do with the dark history of bloodshed and intrigue of the Medici clan. I discovered a few months ago that I have ancestry from Rome and other Italian cities, but not Florence. Perhaps there is some kind of ancestral angst associated with Firenze? I can’t say.

But what really matters is what happened to me there.

That’s why Florence is such. a. big. deal. in the anthology of things KJ.

There’s something in me that wants to grab this poor guy by the lapels and pour out my guts to him of how much that time in Florence meant to me, how I faced my demons, how I overcame deep-seated fears & weathered the worst loneliness of my life. How I pushed past that into peace and listened to my heart and truer self. How God showed me the next steps along my path, and how I started to “come home” for the first time in years, years, years. How pivotal this experience was – It changed my life’s trajectory forever. HOW HUGE is the space that I hold in my heart for Florence. And because he’s a native son, he’s somehow, by virtue of association, wrapped up in all of that. Part of me is simply bursting at the seams to spill it out to him in a wicked-hot, blubbery mess!  I don’t think that would go over too well, so instead of subjecting the dude to my emotional Vesuvius, I’m going to tell YOU.

Florence was scheduled to be my almost-last-stop in Italy. I was going to spend a few days in Rome, and take the last day left on my Eurail Pass to head down to Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast before flying home. I’ve dreamt of seeing Pompeii ever since the 5th grade, when my teacher showed us a movie about Pompeii and the tragedy of those who died in Mt. Vesuvius’s epic eruption. I was, naturally, quite obsessed with the movie’s sex scenes as a young innocent girl. But also with the history. I wrote essays about Pompeii in Junior High and dreamed of becoming an archeologist so I could dig in those ruins and find out every little detail of their lives.

But that’s not what happened. I didn’t go to Pompeii. I went back to Florence.

And I’ve not been the same since.

Backtracking a bit – I figured Florence would be the best place to go for a little sit-down. I’d not spent more than 4 or 5 days in any one place for 2 months, and finally, finally, was on the mend from a nasty upper respiratory infection that had left me unable to sing for weeks. I’d spent a month in Tuscany in 2004 in the hills close to the Apuane Alps. It was a magical time, and I have never been able to get Tuscany out of my mind since. I like to think that God saved a bucket of dirt from the Garden of Eden and spread it all over Tuscany. It is that beautiful.

So, Firenze or bust it was! I booked a week at an apartment thru Airbnb and headed down from Munich. Figured I’d use Florence as a launching pad to see more places, like Cinque Terre & Siena, and spend time just taking in the city.

Outside my flat window in Firenze

My room with a view

Inside, though, I was secretly dreading the final leg of my trip. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because for the first time in 2 months of traveling through Europe, I’d be completely on my own. I’d been jetting off from friend to friend, with the occasional solo side trip thrown in (Edinburgh and Venice). Those trips went off quite well, and I made friends. But this time, the final stretch to Italy felt different.

I had wonderful flatmates in Florence at first – there was an American guy, Dave, with his Malaysian girlfriend, Christine, and a Mormon couple from California, Meghan and Josh. We hit it off that first night like gangbusters. We sang Happy Birthday to Dave, and I told them how I wanted to make a film of me singing “O mio babbino caro” while on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge referred to in the famous aria. Dave and his girlfriend offered to film and record it for me the next day. So on Saturday afternoon I warmed up for the first time in almost a month and headed over to that beautiful, historic bridge. The crowds quieted and stood at rapt attention and seemed to appreciate the offering. It really was so wonderful – I wore my favorite blue Ralph Lauren dress and a gorgeous magenta scarf with embroidered peacocks that I’d picked up in Venice. Looked out over the Arno, back to the camera, and sang my song.

O mio babbino caro, overlooking the Arno.

And then I had GE-LA-TO!!! (Happy dance!)

But that’s not the point. Not the gelato. At least not yet. 🙂

I had visited the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia ten years prior, and would love to have spent more time in these beautiful places, but I felt that this time, the trip needed to be more about my inner journey than museum-hopping, as much as I adore Renaissance art.  I DID go busking in the Galleria degli Uffizzi a couple times, though, right where the street artists make and sell their wares. 🙂

So I wandered around Florence. I went to church on Sunday, with a prayer in my heart to find a family to lunch with afterwards. I looked up the address on Google Maps and took the bus into the northwestern suburbs of Florence. But the building I found at the intersection I was led to didn’t look like the building on the website. I looked up the phone number and placed a call to the church, only to find that I was steps away! The church was tucked in from the main road a bit, and if I had only wandered around with a little curiosity, I would have found it! But find it I did, and in I went.

It was a sweet meeting. One of the speakers recounted the story of Punchinello and the Wemmicks. The guy I sat next to turned out to be the brother of a Norwegian sister missionary I’d lived with in London while on my mission. Such a small world! Then after church as I was leaving, a blonde American woman approached me and asked if I’d like to have lunch with her family after church. Um, yes. Yes, I will be happy to join you, thank you! (Score!!!)

Heather and Dave and their 5 kids and I traipsed off to a close-by park and bonded over bologna cheese sandwiches and our life stories. They felt like family straightaway. Dave had served in the same mission as I in England, and he intuitively picked up on my internal struggles and life situation. I knew they were one of the reasons I needed to be in Florence. I needed to know them. We exchanged numbers and I went back to my flat & wandered around Florence.

At some point that day or the next, I got more gelato, this time from Gelateria Santa Trinita – a blessed holy trio of black sesame, coconut, and pistachio. I was in absolute gelato heaven!

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*cue CHOIRS OF ANGELS SINGING in a state of gastronomic delight! Aaaaahhhhh!!!*


The next day I couldn’t find Heather’s contact info on my phone. It had totally disappeared. I messaged her through Facebook and WhatsApp and heard nothing for days. Meeting a member of my soul-tribe and losing contact with her just like that, with no other familiar faces around, sent me into a tailspin of loneliness. I tried to drown my feelings in chocolate gelato. Didn’t help. (Plus it wasn’t as good as the other flavors.) Went up to Piazza San Michelangelo to see the sunset over Florence during l’oro d’oro, the blessed, precious Hour of Gold.

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But alone.


I felt more alone those few days in Florence than I’d ever felt in my life. And there’s been a lot of loneliness. But this time, I was ALL alone. Acutely alone. I ached and ached. The new girls in my flat were lovely, and I did run into nice people on my rambles through the medieval streets, but the majority of those days were spent in the company of dark thoughts and a lonely heart.

As I look back on that period now, I see purpose, and I am grateful for the deepening. I know THAT shade of loneliness. I wasn’t stranded there very long, however, and that in itself proved a valuable lesson. It was only a matter of days. What made it worse was not knowing if or how it would end.

I mean, loneliness has never been a stranger. I’ve always felt a bit on the outside looking in on others’ lives. I’ve been the small-town Mormon girl from Idaho transplanted to a strange Florida high school, second week of my freshman year. The artsy-singer/good-Mormon-girl in academic classes. The free-spirited-artsy-girl in a conservative church culture. The observant Mormon in crowds of free-spirited actors and singers. It’s nothing new, feeling the social oddball. The first time I ever felt a sense of belonging was in my freshman year of college at Florida State – about 40 of us kids in church clung together after leaving home, sprouting our wings. Several of us are still friends to this day. After a mission and finishing college, I moved cross-country to AZ for grad school, knowing only a few people. I relocated my life again seven years later to live in New York City, where I knew even fewer people. Oh, how lonely can one feel in a crowd of 8 million! Every time though, I have persisted and eventually made friends, settled in, and found my place.

For some reason, however, the loneliness in Florence felt particularly acute. Perhaps it was because I was in a foreign nation and culture with family and friends half the way around the world. Losing contact abruptly with new friends to whom I felt soul-bound. And a few other factors. It all added up to the perfect storm of Kristin is Lonelier than ANYTHING.

But enough about that.

I did finally reach Heather after a few days, and things quickly improved in that all-important inner terrain.

Heather helped me plan a trip to Cinque Terre – a beautiful, adventurous day of hiking and eating along the Ligurian coastline. A stroll along the pebbled beach at Monterosso.  A three-hour hike to Vernazza across mountains and vineyards and stunning vistas. Mussels over spaghetti that melted in my mouth like butter. A tiny little church with skeleton reliefs. A sunset over the sea. Delectably fresh calamari & gelato in Riomaggiore. The companionship of a lovely, handsome guy from Oregon, whom I probably would have kissed in the moonlight over the ocean if he hadn’t been sick and had a girlfriend back at home . . . because that. setting. was. so. wonderfully. romantic.















Looking back towards Monterosso

Looking back towards Monterosso.


I spent another afternoon and evening in Siena, sang to a little crowd of older Italian ladies at the famous horse fountain in the Piazza del Campo, then to a larger crowd as the evening wore on, and finally got booted out by a police lady as I was launching into “Je dis” from Carmen. I enjoyed a scrumptious dinner with a handsome doctor from Brazil and strolled around Siena by dark of night.


I made closer friends with my flatmates in Florence, one of whom was a lesbian woman from China, on holiday with her girlfriend. Her paramour was married to a gay man, the only way they could keep up appearances and protect each other from persecution. What a beautiful, sensitive soul she was! We talked about God and the challenges of being a woman with deep faith in a communist nation. How she doesn’t have access to Facebook or any worldwide social media platform, and how she has to hide her true self from all but her “best friend,” who is in reality her lover. Only when she is abroad can she live true to herself in all respects.

Then there were two dear girls from Malaysia, Lilin and Chery. They helped me with a little health issue – making herbal tea concoctions and blessing that little retro kitchen with their lively company and conversation. We met up the following week in Rome for an absolutely wonderful evening together of singing, pasta, and, naturally, more gelato. 🙂

But back to Florence.

I spent my last couple days in Firenze at Heather’s. We bonded like we were sisters, I loved her kids. We ate, we talked, she showed me some places around the city. But mostly I just wanted to be with her and Dave.

On Saturday I headed down to Rome for a few days, which was in itself quite the grand adventure. One thing I will say here, Rome is not, CAN not ever, be boring. And you will just have to wonder what happened in Rome . . . 😉

As I mentioned earlier, I was planning to take Nov 4, my last full day in Italy, to enjoy the Amalfi coast and visit Pompeii. But on the morning of Nov 3, I woke up in Rome, troubled in heart. I felt that I needed to go back to Florence, counsel with Dave, and ask for a blessing. We ask for blessings in the LDS church, with the faith and expectation that God will inspire the person giving the blessing with wisdom and counsel. There were matters bubbling up in my heart regarding a very difficult, ongoing family situation. I had avoided honestly facing it, keeping busy chasing my dreams, living “MY LIFE IN NEW YORK.”  In the coming months, it would prove to be a situation and dynamic that would wrench my heart in grief and pave the way for tremendous growth. At the time, though, all I knew is that this was the next step along the heart-path I was learning to follow.

So I listened to that nudge, and used my last Eurail pass day to go back up to Florence. Dave gave me a beautiful blessing, which provided my heart with wise counsel and a great amount of peace. He fixed my buggy computer. And then he and Heather pulled a fast one. The last and final summit my heart would climb in Europe. It would change everything.

Heather has a friend whose father was a well-known and respected conductor of early music opera (Monteverdi thru Mozart). She got his number, called him up, and asked if she could bring me by to sing for him.

WHAT THE WHAT!??!!!?!?!?

Oh mylanta, ALL the excuses to NOT DO THIS THING rose up within me like wildfire. I hadn’t been in lessons for over 2 years! I was into acting now, not singing! Busking through Europe  was just for fun and adventure, not for auditions or pressure! I hate opera auditions!!! My voice was in no shape to be singing for such illustrious ears! I’m not singing at a professional level right now! A massive wave of fear welled up in me and I nearly caved. I’d certainly caved before.

But this time, in the middle of the storm, I realized – these were merely fears and excuses screaming their pathetic little whines in my ears. I didn’t have to listen. Maybe they were wrong. True, I had not studied singing for some time. I had been developing another instrument entirely.

I had burned out with opera, with voice lessons, and singing professionally. My heart was grieving. I had given up hope.

I hadn’t made many inroads in my singing career, at least not compared to my expectations. I was painfully crippled by self-judgement and anxiety in auditions. I was plagued with doubts and misgivings about my skills even after being cast in productions. I fought the fear, but it overcame me more times than I could overcome it.  My former teacher was highly volatile and at times abusive, and I thought I deserved it. I thought that’s the environment I needed, and she was one of the biggest names in the industry, after all. Despite seeing improvement, I started to shut down. Once I got into acting school, where my teachers there created a safe place for us to explore our artistic selves, and I got a taste of what it was to be SAFE and NURTURED in a creative setting, where my deeply-feeling, sensitive artistic nature was no longer shamed, but celebrated, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t go back to that teacher. I was done. So singing was temporarily done, too, while I adjusted to this new orientation. I needed a rest.

So there in Heather’s apartment, after years of avoidance, I pushed through to the other side of those fears and screams and wails and torments that hurled themselves at me like shrieking banshees. I wrestled with them hard, looked them straight in the face, and told them they were stupid. I was stronger, and I was doing it. They left.  As soon as I was on the other side of that battle, the decision made, my soul filled with indescribable peace. I had beat the monsters and listened to my heart. Despite not feeling ready, I knew I needed to sing for this man, no matter my history.

We found and re-booked my return flight for under $200 for the next Monday, Nov 10. I would have 6 more days in Italy, 4 more in Firenze. I called back the opera conductor and made an appointment for Friday at noon. Dave and Heather kindly offered their spare room and meals to help defray costs, and I headed back to Rome to get my stuff and spend a couple more days, which turned out to be quite delightful.

Florence x3

Thursday evening I arrived back in Florence after a 5-hour “local” train ride up, settled in, and went to bed.

I sang for Maestro the next day. Heather and I took a bus out to his gorgeous villa in the outskirts of Florence. Oh what a glorious setting! The trees were just starting to turn, the countryside ablaze in various shades of autumnal splendor. He received us with warmth into his home, we spoke for a moment, and he asked me to sing. I had hoped to sing “Sfere fermate” for him, but realized I hadn’t uploaded it to my iPad. He didn’t have the score himself, so I sang “Piangero la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare by Handel as back-up. I was a bit nervous, understandably, but he was so gracious. I wasn’t in top vocal form, and I knew it. But still, it was a pleasure, a delight and joy, to sing with him at the harpsichord. A true master at his craft. And one so very kind. Afterwards, he pointed out several areas for improvement and encouraged me to continue to pursue my singing. I filled him in a little on my round-about journey with opera, we took a ramble ’round his backyard, he gave me a CD sample of his work and a few more recommendations, and we were on our way.


Post-Audition relief!

Post-Audition relief!



View from Maestro's back yard - beginnings of Autumn

View from Maestro’s back yard – beginnings of Autumn


Maestro passed away a couple months ago. It wasn’t until his passing that I could see this experience for what it was really meant to be – not a stepping stone to a potential European singing career and a valuable contact for when I was ready – but a beautiful, precious gift. A gift to sing at the side of so great a master. A gift of facing my fears and overcoming them. A gift of encouragement and confirmation from a loving Heavenly Father (through Maestro), that it is not for me to give up, it is for me to move forward in faith, rise up like a phoenix, dust off the ashes, and SING AGAIN.

Now, nearly a year later, after spending several months close to family, weathering more personal and family storms, making significant  breakthroughs, and going back to NYC to confirm my life chapter there was indeed finished, I have relocated to the Salt Lake City area and I’m starting over. I’m working with a supportive, nurturing voice teacher, who generously shares her heart and expertise and is genuinely and completely on my side. She’s a safe place and my voice is opening up again. I’ve accepted that my career path will be different than that of many of my peers, but it is MY path, and I’m walking into it step by step.

My heart is opening up again. I’m growing. I’m changing. I’m not the same woman who left for Europe. Yes, I’m scared to date, to get hurt again, but I am tremblingly, shyly open.  I’m singing with the Utah Opera. I’m teaching again, and it brings me such joy. I’m setting up my room to be a supportive little womb for my creative self – a haven, a place where I can shut myself off from the world and create, with my precious keepsakes, books and scores, essential oils, candles, and pictures of places and people I treasure.  I take walks in my woodsy neighborhood and revel in the beautiful mountains close-by.  I appreciate the peace of this new life so very much.

I am grateful for that pinch this week. The pinch that made me ugly-cry my way home, hollering and complaining and praying and wrestling. I simply allowed myself to feel and experience ALL that came up. Tidal waves of emotional life no longer scare me – I’ve learned how to surf them, how to use them as a launching place for growth. They always bring greater awareness. As the storm settled, a heart-thought percolated up into my consciousness: “What if there doesn’t need to be shame or judgement anymore? What if I just need to tell my truth? And that it’s time to tell this story?”


Peace always comes when my heart speaks its truth.

I’m following its guidance again today, and trusting in the One who guides my path.


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