FLORENCE — “This taxi is a revolution of love: I’m rediscovering life thanks to death ...”
Caterina Bellandi’s words are nearly as colorful as her coat. For the past 12 years, this exuberant Florentine taxi driver has turned off the meter to give joy rides around Florence to child cancer patients, or simply accompany them for a hospital visit.
The air of Mary Poppins with a bit of Patch Adams mixed in, the 48-year-old drives a car that looks like it’s straight out of an amusement park, delighting kids and giving them a little ray of hope on every trip.
Tourists and other customers are amazed and often don’t understand what they’re traveling in, and sometimes prefer to not get into the cab — Auntie Caterina says they’re afraid of all the positive energy!
“My partner, Stefano, always told me that driving a taxi was the best job in the world because you can let people into your life and go on a little journey with them,” says Bellandi. “I teased him about it, but I was wrong: Each client opens up a whole new world to you.”
Caterina’s life took a tragic turn in 2001 when her husband died of lung cancer. He left her his taxi license and his car, the "Milano 25," asking her to continue his business. She didn’t think twice, leaving her sales job, and soon after caravaning across the city.
A family's fate
Fate was just around the corner one day when Paolo, Barbara and their 3-year-old daughter Costanza got in the taxi. They chose her car because Costanza liked the large flower on the dashboard. Chatting with them, Caterina discovered that their other child, Tommasino, died from a brain tumor and that the parents had founded a charity to research childhood cancer.
A lightbulb went off, and she instantly realized that those who have suffered are often the best at helping others through times of trouble — and confronting hardship with a smile can actually make you stronger and braver.
She wanted to give hope to sick children, so she painted her car in bright colors and gave herself a dazzling uniform. She began to give free rides to the young pediatric patients of the Meyer Children’s Hospital in Florence. After just a few journeys, her taxi turned into a benchmark and she became Zia("Auntie") Caterina for everyone.
Often the children and teenagers that come to Florence for a year of special treatment need to come back in the following years for checkups. “They become children of this city,” Bellandi says. “I go to collect them from the train station, bring them to eat a gelato. A relationship comes from this, a friendship: I’m their favorite aunt, friend, fairy godmother and they know that they can trust me because they can joke around with me.”
She adds: “I always tell them the truth, nothing but the truth.”
Since then, the "Milano 25" has become a non-proft organization and in 2007, the original car was made a monument of the city by Mayor Matteo Renzi, and now stands in a civic park.
Today, she drives Luca’s cab. “It was Luca’s dream to have a London black cab: When he died we thought of him and dedicated the new car to his memory.”
Bellandi calls the children "superheroes" and asks them to draw pictures of themselves with special powers, which are then taped all around the car. She asks her superheroes to be true, to not get lost in self-pity, but neither to put on an act or wear a wig to cover signs of chemotherapy. Above all, she tells them not to be afraid of showing their fears.
“They’re all afraid of death, but you have to tell them that they can get better. This way they can bring that confidence and hope into the ward with them,” she says. “I ask the older ones to show me their scars and prostheses as proof that life still prevails inside of them.”
If you asked Zia Caterina how many children have gotten into her taxi, she wouldn’t be able to tell you. She’s interested in stories — not numbers. She guarantees everyone 24/7 availability and at any given moment she’s ready to turn on the engine, put on her colorful costume and open her umbrella, her Mary Poppins-esque symbol of power with which you can fly away from fear.
“I’m free to choose to do good, and that’s what I am here for, however I can,” Bellandi says. “My revolution comes from an encounter. From curiosity, and the ability to wonder and give space to any possibility. My taxi is all of this: something to be seized on the fly, because the journey is always better than the destination.”