Before I Saw the Tower

Before I saw the Tower of Pisa, I saw a Subway ad mutating the revered monument.

On the sign, the tower looked like a mozzarella stick, swarmed by submarine sandwiches in angelic light. Tourists gaped at the restaurant, their eyes buoyed with glutinous visions. Behind them, in the clear-skied horizon, sprang the tower.

A mascot ahead waved at the crowds. It was a moving, living submarine sandwich, known as Subman, according to the logo embossed above its six-pack. Layers of lettuce, meat and tomatoes bordered its cartoonish expression. Peering down, I noticed the stained sneakers and forested legs of a man.

Before I reached Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli, where an unknown architect had completed the bell tower in the late 14th century, I zigzagged through a blockade of selfie sticks.

The dark-skinned merchants hunted the street in packs. They studied and circled the tourists, waving the contraptions at them like flimsy wands. Sightseers whose eyes locked on the devices fell victim to rapid-fire sales pitches. Most visitors refused; a handful, often pasty and sporting a garish visor, caved in. Perhaps because of my height, or the stern look of my Wayfarers, the merchants dodged me.

Before I slipped out my phone to snap a shot of the tower, I photographed three pairs of tourists, who all thanked me profusely when passing me their cameras, then issued faint smiles when studying the overexposed shots.

I scrutinized the revelers who posed with the tower and took advantage of its optical effect. The assembly line of models was a strange sight. Their arms and knees all bent at the same angle as they sheepishly pretended to support a 14,500-ton structure. I pictured mustached researchers in tweed suits scribbling notes about the odd trend.   

Before I bought an eighteen-euro ticket to climb the tower’s stairs, which an Australian couple on the train that morning had sworn was the only way to enjoy Pisa’s splendor, I stumbled into a nearby gift shop.

Shelves of angled tower mugs, shabby key chains and disposable cameras smothered the walls. The cashier stared blankly when I asked for the cost of a pocket-sized guidebook.

Quindici euros,” she said.     

When I strolled in to the neighbouring bathroom, my wallet noticeably lighter, the attendant shot out his arm. “Eighty cents,” he said, blocking my path.

Before I entered the tower’s base, built atop a mere three-metre foundation set in unstable soil, I gave up my belongings. I slipped under the rope that marked the empty queue for lockers. As I inched toward the locker room, a vested woman with fat ringlets trudged out, her stumpy arms raised and thick brow crumpled. She motioned to the sign at the front of the queue: “Please wait for attendant.” She stuffed my daypack in the locker and slammed the door, warning me not to lose the key.

Before I clambered up the tower’s 296 steps, a tour guide offered my group a five-minute introduction in sixty seconds of broken English. I studied the sign behind her. Before the completion of an eleven-year restoration in 2001, the tower had leaned at a perilous angle of 5.5 degrees. It now titled at 3.99 degrees. Experts had declared the structure safe for another 200 years.

Before I reached the peak of the tower’s 55-metre height, an American couple sandwiched me up the stairs. Sweat pooled against the back of the man’s polo. His waist rebelled against his belt, squeezing rolls out of his khaki shorts. “Shoulda practiced our steps before coming here,” his wife puffed behind me. They cut their journey short at the seventh floor, steps below the bells at the peak.

For a brief spell, I nursed my aching calves while admiring Pisa’s lush terrain. A pleasant breeze filtered through the webbed fence.

I suddenly noticed, with unease, that I couldn’t make out the tower below. Adjusting my balance, I staggered back to the piazza. Nearby stood the Pisa Baptistry, which cast a swath of shade on the manicured lawn. I dropped my daypack and collapsed on the grass.

Lounging in the square, in quiet reverie, I saw the Tower of Pisa.