He was sitting on the step of an old barn high in the olive groves above Firenze. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat, baggy trousers, and a white linen shirt, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, under a dusty woollen vest. He was sanding something metal—some sort of farm tool, I thought.
I pulled on the brakes and gestured towards him with my camera. “Photo?”
“No.” He laughed, pulling his hand in front of his face, before waving me towards him.
It wasn’t a farm tool he was sanding; it was a bicycle frame.
“Photo?” I pleaded.
“No.” He waved me into his barn.
It took my eyes a second to adjust to the light. Sun shone in through slatted windows, lighting up rays of musty dust particles.
In the centre of the room, an old celeste frame was perched on top of three wine barrels, along with a pair of leather cycling shoes. Other frames lay scattered over the floor in various states of repair. An old Bianchi poster was tacked to the wall beside framed photographs of Eddy Merckx and a drawing of Miguel Indurain’s multicoloured Pinarello. It looked like some sort of shrine.
I gestured towards it with my camera. ‘Photo?’
I raised the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter. Thunk.
I waved him towards it to see if he would stand in the frame.
“No. No.” He pulled his hand in front of his face.
“There you are.” My friend had poked her head in the door. She exchanged a flurry of words and hand signals with him.
“Bene.” She turned towards me.
“He is from Cuba. He believes that if you take a picture of him you will steal a part of his soul. He came here with the Cuban national team many years ago for a race and stayed here. Now he fixes bikes.”
He picked up a bare frame and handed it to me. A neatly filed lug joined the top tube to the head tube. He waved towards another bike on the wall: a beautiful, dark green one with flat, chrome bars.
I asked my friend to ask if he had a website.
He shook his head.
An email address?
I asked again if I could take his picture.
He smiled and shook his head again. “No.”
We had to get going, my friend said; the others were waiting.
It seemed like such a silly superstition.
How could a reaction between silver and light capture a person’s soul?
What the hell was a soul?
I shook his hand and thanked him and wished him luck.
He followed us out into the warm sun and sat back down on his step to work.
A cool breeze blew through the air. The olive groves smelled of flowers and smoke. Men were cutting dead branches from the trees and throwing them on to smouldering fires. Poppies, corn marigolds, and Stars of Bethlehem bloomed red, white, and yellow in the grassy banks that joined the road to the fields.
I turned the pedals over. The brand-new rental bike felt dead underneath me.
I was still thinking about pictures and souls.
I had wanted to take his photo. It would have gotten a thousand likes.
Plato, I remembered, said that the things we perceive are but representations of what actually exists in the realm of Ideas; painters and poets are but imitators of imitations, twice removed from the truth.
I do not know the truth about the man I met up in the hills above Florence, but his bikes contained more of his soul than any picture I could have made.
I wish I could have ridden one.
Cover photo: Keir Plaice