Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Italian (Mis)Adventures: All Mark Twain's Fault

The French say: Man proposes, God decides; and in Muslim culture, every future tense is hedged with a precautionary 'God willing'. So it was that I had planned to spend the month of June at home in North Carolina, catching up with much that I wanted to do, when I received a phone call from London that had me on a plane to Heathrow 24 hours later in response to a family emergency. I had planned to return in a week, but had to postpone for another week in London; and at that point, finding myself on the European side of the Atlantic, a message from a friend in Tuscany tempted me to fly to Florence for ten days in Italy. I hadn't been in Italy in years; I had just visited India, the second of the Eat, Pray, Love trilogy; most of all, I happened to be reading Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, the Italian passages, specifically, when the impulse to revisit my own memories of Italy hit hard.
After cool, drizzly, civilized London, Rome airport felt like a third world country: stuffy, sweaty terminals miles apart, with no mechanized means of linking them. Arriving in Florence at night, found a taxi easily to the hotel I booked online for its location, steps from the Uffizi Gallery; an old-style place with lush velvet furniture in the spacious reception areas and a stunning view over the river and the Ponte Vecchio. Next morning, after a copious breakfast, walked all around town revisiting the bridges, the gigantic Domo, the Santa Croce, and touring the overwhelming Uffizi. It is so vast, and there is so much to see, and most of that is iconic works by the grandest masters; one reaches the saturation point within a couple of hours, whereas a single such iconic painting by Giotto or Raphael or Botticelli would have me enraptured for hours.
My friend Rebecca had come up to meet me in Florence from Greve, a nearby small town in Tuscany where she is staying. We had lunch; I ordered Vitello Tonnato, a dish a remembered nostalgically from a former visit to Tuscany, but it wasn't on the menu at one restaurant, and at the other, the chef accommodatingly offered to make it for me especially. It was disappointing but naturally I couldn't be so ungracious as to let that transpire.
Florence was a lively place that Saturday: a football (soccer) match in Renaissance costume, a race, and swarms of tourists. The French, of course, ubiquitous, but then the borough of Kensington in London, where I was staying, is colonized by the French; in Florence there were also American, German, and Israeli accents to be heard.
Next the (mis)adventures began. I was supposed to go back with Rebecca to Greve, where I had booked a hotel online in a hurry from London. It turned out that Greve is not serviced by trains, only the occasional bus from Florence. The occasional bus turned out to be a local if air-conditioned coach driven at a hair-raising pace down steep hills by a driver checking his email on his i-pad as he drove. But the real shock came when it turned out the hotel I had booked was not in Greve at all, but in a minuscule hamlet called Chiocchio fifteen minutes before Greve on the road from Florence. Faced with the prospect of being dropped off by the side of the road in this tiny place, and warned that this was the last bus to or from anywhere on this Saturday night, I got back on the bus and went on to Greve with my friend.
Next came the stress of trying to find a last-minute accommodation in Greve for the night, and to try to cancel the booking I had made in Chiocchio, paid ahead and forfeited according to the website's draconian policies. I found a room at a bed and breakfast right off the main road, and my friend took a taxi to her own residence up the hill.
I fully intended to turn around the next morning and head back to Florence, but the hotel I had stayed at there was fully booked. So I spent the night in Greve, and in the morning felt so tired, with a raging sore throat, that I decided it would be best to stay put and try to recuperate than to spend all my energy scrambling back on the bus to Florence. After all, the room was scrupulously clean, the air-conditioning worked, and the windows were double-glazed, both necessary, it turned out, as opening a window immediately let in the noise from traffic right outside.
The pensione- it hardly merits the name of a hotel- is run by two or three generations of the same family, who seem to run to unusually large size and dark hair: two sisters in their thirties; their husbands; two nonnas, or grandmothers; and two children, a teenage boy and a preschool girl, both of whom look well on their way to resembling their large, dark-haired parents. The whole family is eager to please, but voluble and loud, tending to general sans gene. Not to mention that none of them speak English, and that leaves me longing for the professional suavity of the reception desk staff at a proper hotel.
The little town of Greve is charming on a sleepy Sunday, with everything from a fruit-seller where all the fruit costs the same, by weight, or at least that's what I understood from his Italian; a newspaper shop that carries the Sunday telegraph, a piazza with ristorantes and galeterias and pasticerias galore, topped by a small church with unexpected works of art from Renaissance to Art Deco, on the walls. Not far are walks that take you into the surrounding hills.
Come Monday morning, the frustrations begin when I attempt to get an Italian sim card to make it easier to make local calls. I am directed to the post office, and duly go there. Italy must be the most bureaucratic country in the world! To begin with, to get a sim card your passport is photocopied, and to end with, after you have jumped through all sorts of hoops, the cell phone still doesn't work, and you are told that you might have to wait between an hour and 24 hours for it to work, and maybe never. And when you exclaim in frustration: 'How can that be possible?!' You are told, 'this is Italy, madam, not the United Kingdom!'
Luckily, my friend Rebecca comes by the pensione and picks me up in a somewhat battered borrowed car to drive to Siena, a glorious 40-minute scenic drive along vineyard-covered hills to one of my favorite Italian cities, Siena. Parking is a challenge, but once that is overcome, we walk along the hot dusty streets first to the San Domenico church, where St Catherine of Siena's head rests, and then to the massive Domo, like a smaller version of Florence's cathedral. The basilica guide does not know, any more than I do, why an elephant is used as a symbol of Rome on one of the marble floor carvings inside the Domo: Siena is represented by the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, confusingly, as I had always associated that with Rome; while Florence, appropriately enough, has a lion. The small library in the Domo is easy to overlook in the middle of so much splendor, but it is worth visiting for its splendid frescos.
Not far from the Domo, along winding alleys enticingly lined with shops offering leather goods, ceramics, and regional specialties- Panforte di Siena, of course, but also my favorite Ossi di Morto ('bones of the dead', light crunchy nut meringue cookies)- close to the Domo, then, is the Campo, the square- or rather elliptical circle- dominated by its bell-tower, the clock of which does not seem to keep time but mysteriously, somehow, jumps an hour at a time when your eyes are turned elsewhere. We sat down at one of the cafes that line the square where, in a couple of weeks, the Palio horse-race takes place and the Campo is covered in sand and becomes a magical place of pageantry.
The next morning, off to Venice, leaving Tuscany behind. There is a long line at the ticket window at Florence's train station St Maria Novella, which is surprising, considering how simple it is to buy the ticket from the automatic machines. There are no seats available in any class on the 11:30 train, so I wait around for the next train. A comfortable 2 hour trip during which I doze for a good part of the time. Arriving in Venice's St Luccia, there is a bit of a scramble to figure out Vaporetto tickets, and the ride itself is noisy and long, as the Vaporetto or water bus stops every few minutes and docks with a lurching, bumpy motion. The vistas around every bend, however, are breath-taking: Venice, la Serenissima, the water, the cathedrals and palaces under a cloudless blue sky, the canals, the gondolas, the bridges; it cannot diappoint.
Getting off a station too soon for the hotel turns out to be a mistake, as, once on the ground, there are no land taxis, and one has to lug one's own luggage up and down tiny bridges and across vast sun-baked Piazza San Marco in search of the hotel. Hotels in Venice can be deceptive; location and price are not always a good indicator of quality. And in peak season, during the Biennale, no less, last minute reservations are not easy. Venice, la Serenissima, is anything but serene, hordes of tourists throng the square and the narrow side streets branching off from Piazza San Marco, 'calles' lined with top designer shops, Missoni, Chanel, Botega Veneta, back to back with smelly back alleys where the stench from the canals rises.
I put on a little Italian shift dress, a hat, and sit at a table at Florian's Cafe on Piazza San Marco. I order a cappucino, and spend an hour or two listening to the music and waiting for the heat of the day to subside, while the tourist parade back and forth, eating gelato and feeding the pigeons and the waiters chase away the gelato-eating tourists who plop themselves down in the cafe's chairs. Americans are overwhelming, and one also hears a good deal of French.
It's the longest day of the year, and at 9:30 pm there is a wait for an outside table at one of the restaurants close to the square. Fried calamari, steak pommes frites, unmemorable.
The next day, change of hotel, across the water on the Dorsodura side, close to San Salute church. This side of town is much quieter, far fewer tourist, more students, less damp and less noisy than the San Marco side. The hotel is quiet and family-owned, the rooms have astronomical names but not astronomical prices, at least not by Venicee in mid-season standards. The 'Libra' room we're in has an ancient beamed ceiling and French-style period furniture. At breakfast, you are offered a choice of caffe latte, cappucino or American coffee, croissants, yoghurt, dried fruit, pastries, cheese...
A pleasant way to spend the early evening, sipping limoncello at a courtyard table surrounded by gigantic hydrangeas with music playing in the background. For dinner, the recommended restaurant turns out to be disappointing: the calamari is too salty, the scalopini marsala are drowned in butter and the marsala is undetectable.
Third day in Venice finds us back near Piazza San Marco, at a much more satisfactory hotel, in a wood-panelled suite with sweeping curtains that open to a balcony overlooking a little footbridge under which gondolas glide. The visit to the Doge's Palace is interesting, and by purchasing the tickets from the tourist office, there is no waiting in a long line under a pitiless sun. But the tour itself is exhausting, since visitors are expected to go up and down marble staircases in a particular order, with shortcuts roped off. I don't make a habit of this, but this is one time when I ignored the ropes and simply stepped over them to take shortcuts when I needed to; it seemed inane to go down two flights of stairs just to come up again on the other side, not to mention that going down into the dungeons should not be mandatory for someone who is claustrophobic!
Another visit, to the Correo Museum, is very enlightening about the history of Venice and its grandeur as a maritime nation. As part of the Biennale celebration, a modern artist, Birhan Bassiri, has his 'meteorite', large-scale black sculptures, displayed in the middle of the white marble Roman busts and funerary stellas. Quite a contrast.
Now to hunt for a restaurant for dinner...
Next morning, it's a cool, windy, overcast day as we speed by water taxi to the island of Murano. Obligatory visit to the glassblower factories, and tour of the showrooms, all kinds of traditional Murano glass but also novelties like Klimt-inspired mosaic glass, etc. There is so much variety it overwhelms. Outside to the factories, Murano itself is a pretty little town with flowerbox windows overlooking a great many trattorias and glass-souvenir shops, selling articles very similar to those of the prestigious glass factories we visited, but at a third less.
Back in Venice proper, the sun is out as we enter Giardini, where the Art Biennale is taking place: in Venice's 150 year history, there have been 116 biennales, apparently. The Giardini gardens are spacious, airy and calm after the tourist frenzy of San Marco, and the Biennale's international pavilions are spread out. You hear more Italian than other languages, unusually for Venice. In the main pavilion, the largest hall is dedicated to three huge Tintorettos, but they attract less attention than the contemporary works, mostly installations of video, audio, etc, as well as a play-dough room in which viewers of all ages are encouraged to make their own contribution.
Egitto, Egypt, has a surprisingly prime location: the exhibit this year is heart-breaking, the work of Ahmed Bassioni, a young Egyptian, whose video of the Egyptian revolution and his own performance, 'Thirty Days of Running in Place,' is his legacy: he died during the revolution.
The US pavilion is not far; an upside down tank lies beached like a whale in front of its entrance. All the international pavilions seem to have political themes. The Danish pavilion, focusing on freedom of speech, is one of the more disturbing.
Down a shady, tree-lined avenue, and on for another twenty minutes walk, lies the second venue for the Biennale, Arsenale, where edgier works are displayed in the garden and inside. By the time we get there, it hardly seems worth the 30 minute walk, as we have to rush through the exhibits before they close at 6 pm.
Back to the hotel via Vaporeto; it's surprising how quickly one tires of that particular method of transportation, especially when the ferries are packed with tourists and the water is choppy. Hard to imagine what it must be like in winter.
We consider going on the web to book and print out our train tickets for the next day, for FLorence and Milan, respectively, but the reception desk assures us there will be plenty of seats available on a Saturday morning. It turns out to be a big mistake to listen to her.
I am discouraged from going online by the fact that the hotel Royal San Marco requires you to log in with your own credit card, at 9 Euros for half an hour. At the hotel we stayed in two nights ago, at 100 Euros less, the manager, Graziella, offered to print out tickets and boarding passes free, and graciously waived the 1.5 Euros I owed for internet access.
Dinner on our last night in Venice: insalata Caprese, lasagne de verdura, Orata (Dorade) and Scalopini Milanese con patate, espresso.
I decide to go early to the Ferrovia, the train station, since I don't have a ticket. So after a quick breakfast, I catch the 8 am vaporetto, on a sunny, warm morning and take a final forty minute tour of Venice from San Marco to the Santa Luccia train station. That's when the trouble starts. I head for the automatic ticket machine, and punch in FIRENZE for the 9:27 am train: sold out in both classes. I try the 10:27 am: sold out in both classes. And so on, until the 12:27 train, which would make me too late for my flight to Rome, from which I am catching a flight to London.
I start to panick. Then I think, I'll just take a train to Rome, and catch the second segment of my flight, Rome to Heathrow. I punch in ROMA: no problem, seats available in both classes on the 9:27 train that arrives in Rome at 13:13. I buy my ticket and rush to the platform, calling the hotel to put me through to my husband in order to warn him to leave immediately for the train station to buy his own ticket for Milan.
I ask several people- of course the information desk is closed- what the number is for directory assistance- I need to call Alitalia to let them know I wouldn't be checking in for the Florence flight, but going directly to Rome. The number for directory assistance seems to be quite a mystery. Luckily, by the time I have it, I realize that the train to Rome stops in Florence, in fact it is the same train, same number, same time, 9:27 am, that showed up sold out when I punched in Florence. So I decide to simply get off in Florence, and forfeit the rest of my train ticket, 33 Euros more for Rome than Florence.
On the train, I ask the conductor to explain to me what happened, but his English is inadequate to understanding my question.
Shortly after Mestre it turns out that I am apparently in the wrong seat; luckily the man next to me, a big Italian clergyman in white collar, helps me carry my luggage and installs me very kindly in my correct seat. A good Samaritan indeed.
At Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, I am told there no train to the airport but there is a bus, but since the information desk is closed, of course, and if you ask, you are directed to the taxi stand, so I take a taxi, although I have plenty of time, and I know Florence Peretola airport is so small that you don't particularly look forward to spending three hours there.

The automatic fast check-in machine works fine, but after that it's downhill. Impossible to get your luggage checked in, as there is a technical problem; you have to hang on to it. There is, apparently, a problem with a small plane that made a disastrous landing and the airport is closed till further notice. The Alitalia people tell you all this with wide eyes and dramatic shrugs, so different from the attitude an American ground crew would have taken: tight-lipped, uncommunicative, and for that reason, all the more alarming. As the delay extends, several flights of passengers are loaded onto buses to catch their international flights from Bologna or Rome.
I am still waiting. Florence Peretola is a tiny airport, and there is no place to sit, or even to stand at the lunch counter. I order gnocchi quatro fromaggio and eat it standing up, while a German couple hog two of the seats at the counter, alternatively spotting each other so that they keep both seats while one of them is free to go and come. National character does rather seem to affirm itself in travel. In contrast to Germans, Italians are relaxed, friendly, and helpful, saving a spot for you, watching your luggage, sharing information, entirely without the suspicious attitude fostered by constant "Threat Level Alerts" disseminated in American airports. On the other hand, when you sit next to an Italian in an airplane, there is no respect for private space: his elbows jostle yours on the arm rest, he leans over to read what you are holding, etc.
Finally, we are allowed to check our luggage and go through security, herded onto one of those antiquated buses to the plane, and from there to Rome. More delays in Rome, finally take off for London.
Ah, I think, civilized London, an end to chaos and heat. At Heathrow, there is a 2 1/2 hour queue for the non-UK, non-EU passport control, and no one seems to be able to tell me, or the hundreds of others perspiring in line, why there is such a back-up. Whether it is a go-slow by passport control employees, or simply too many flights landing at once, we are not to know. It feels like Dante's Inferno as the line snakes round and round. Finally out, there is a scramble for taxis, and I call for an 'unlicensed cab' service, as all the 'black cabs'- which these days can be any color- are taken. It is nearly two a.m. when I arrive at the London flat where I am a guest, and am greeted with the comforting welcome of the doorman there.

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