On a warm but rainy day we set out to find the English Cemetery just outside the historic core of Florence. The walk was so pleasant considering how hot and humid it had been the days before. On the way we stopped for American ice cream and went into any door we saw that was open, wether we were allowed to or not. I remember that day clearer than any of the other days because it was the day I met one of the most extraordinary women we have on Earth. When we approached the road (very busy and almost a death wish) we needed to cross to get to the cemetery I became overwhelmed with emotion. Now, to regular folks, I sound like a crazy woman. But to those that know me and understand my deep respect and fascination with cemeteries then you will know that of all the cemeteries I have been to this was the one that had me emotionally in tears the whole visit there.
We cut through some bushes in order to get to the outside wall of the cemetery then we just followed it to the front of the main gate. When we approached it was closed…. It was 1:45pm and I was determined to find a way in…
We noticed an old school thick rope that was next to the gate and it ran all the way over to the main house. When we pulled it (why not?) it was a bell that brought out a lady that looked to me to be a nun, but she wasn't…
"We don't open till 3pm but I will let you in, what language do you speak?" she asked
"Thank you so much, English" we replied.
"Then I shall speak to you in English, here, take this little map of notable graves we have here" she said before handing us the lamented paper she made herself then walked away..
For me, my main grave of interest was the last descendants of William Shakespeare, no dates just names. After my husband took the photo of me at the grave we split up to explore on our own.
She came to Florence with only her social security 14 years ago and shared a corner of a room in a church until she was offered to stay in a run down neglected …cemetery…
When she moved in no graves were visible because of the weeds and decades of abandonment. If there were any graves that were visible they were blackened by the years and weather..
So here comes this intelligent woman who was not afraid to live there and bring that cemetery back to its former glory. "Cemeteries are the pulse of a place and culture" thats what she said and her goal was to bring all these people back to remembrance. "Every person is a holy place" she said and I looked like a complete lunatic with tears streaming down my cheeks. I asked her who helped her cut the weeds and clean the graves. She said the Roma helped her, she never bought any flowers because the Roma would plant them for her . The most cherished is a man by the name of Daniel who brought that cemetery back to life one grave at a time. When I asked her how she met Daniel she said she saw his pregnant wife begging so Julia offered her and Daniel a place to stay. When I asked where Daniel was she told me he was back in Romania building a house for his wife and 4 daughters but would be back by the end of the month. I like to think its because of her that Daniel has the opportunities that he has in oder to be able to provide for his family. She takes in the Roma and teaches them how to read and write and gives them a roof over their heads and most importantly HOPE.
She showed me around the building and throughout the building I saw rooms with twin beds and baby bassinet's. She said that when she has more Roma than usual, she gives them all a place to sleep and a place to eat while she sleeps on the couch.
She showed us the library and how every shelf is alphabetically placed and culturally as well. She has only been able to bring the Roma in and cleanup the cemetery 7 years ago. So there was a period of 7 years that she lived here on her own and helped whomever she could before opening it to the public so we could all enjoy. She hold us in order to be part of her society one would have to donate a book to the library. Michael was taking a look around and noticed so many books and asked her how many languages did she speak. In such a humble manner she said "Oh, Ive lost count" we started laughing and asked her to try to name a few, she named 9 that she could remember off the top of her head. No wonder she asked us what language we spoke when we first arrived.
We asked her what she did before retiring and moving to Florence. "Oh, I was a professor at Princeton University for a long time, I received my doctorate from Berkeley then went on to teach till I retired" Both Michael and I just gasped and I of course cried.. go figure, the forgotten Roma of Florence are receiving their education from a Princeton professor. Goes to show you that an educated woman has it in her all along to teach, to inform, to help humanity. Thats true education, thats true power. Thats ALL heart.
I exchanged information with her and I hope in my heart that if anyone that is reading this knows of anyone that does documentaries that they will reach out to her because that is her next goal. To inform the world of the inhumanity that the Roma experience.
This woman made my trip complete. I didn't care to see anything else after visiting her. I talked about her to Michael every day after that that we were there. We went out to a nice dinner and I wanted her there. I wanted to see her more and most importantly I really really really wanted to hug her goodbye but didn't want to intrude on her space.
Julia will forever be in my prayers and in my thoughts. I am so fascinated with her that I could sit and listen to her stories and her experiences and still crave more.
I was so thankful that my husband asked her for a photo for our memory. She was so cute and said "Oh I am not the photogenic type" but Michael and I disagreed. I can truly say, other than my own mother, I have never met a more beautiful and gracious woman.
If you are interested in reading her essays and learning about the English Cemetery then please visit her site