Bilan: 20 Thoughts About My Trip to Italy

July 29, 2013 at 2:31 am (Uncategorized)

After a two-week trip to Italy we arrived back in Toronto on last Tuesday. So, after a few days of getting over jet-lag and ruminating on the Wizard of Oz tag line “there’s no place like home,” it seemed like a good idea to draw a bit of a balance sheet on the experience. Call it coincidence, but as I was making my list, I came across this quotation from an Eric Ambler character in Background to Danger cited in an essay by Greil Marcus, The Mask of Dimitrious (another Ambler title):

People come over here [Europe] for a fortnight’s holiday and they see a lot of pretty chalets and châteaux Schlosser and say what a fine place it is to live. they don’t know what they’re talking about. They see only the top coat.

So with that thought in mind, I offer the following highly subjective observations about things I saw or learnt in Italy.

1. Life in a History Book.

I may be slightly exaggerating, but everything here in Toronto looks as if it was built after 1960. Imagine then, my reaction to walking into an art history book. I experienced something of this a few years back when I was in Belgium, but in Italy the feeling was even stronger. I gasped audibly as we drove from the train station in Firenze at the first sight of the cathedral. At the Acadamia gallery in Firenze, David leaves you with a sense of awe. It’s quite incredible. When we were in the countryside in Tuscany I kept muttering “How can people get anything done here?” (I must have said it quite a few time as my teenage daughter would say, “Dad, how many times are you going to say that?” in an exasperated tone only a teen can manage). I suppose you get used to it, but to be used to such loveliness is rather sad.

2. And Speaking of History

After touring several museums and art galleries, I realized I knew far less about Italian history that I wanted. Sure, sure, I knew my Roman history as well as the 20th century stuff, but that left some fairly large holes. There’s nothing like travel to make you feel intellectually inadequate.

3. The Food

I guess the lesson I learned is that olive oil makes everything taste better. Mashed potatoes with olive oil! Soup with olive oil! Bread with olive oil. Everyone i spoke to about this trip, said, “Oh the food; oh the wine.” And they were right. The food is pretty fantastic. Somewhat oddly though, nutella and fanta seemed to available everywhere.

4. Gelato

On the plane coming home, we were served ice cream for dessert. It was pretty good, but I nudged my son and said, “It’s not gelato though, is it?” He agreed. Our plan to eat our weight in gelato failed miserably, but you can’t say we didn’t try. The best gelato I ate was at a place called La Strega Nocciola on the south side of the Arno river.  But the thing is, with gelato, like pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

5. Cappuccino

Apparently, it’s only for breakfast. It never happened to me, but I read of people who were refused service for ordering it in the evening (I had already been warned you see)

6. Napkins

Don’t put them on your plate after the food is finished. It means the meal was unsatisfactory. In Rome, I had a tremendous meal and unaware of the custom did just that. The hostess asked me about the meal, and then informed me of the significance of the napkin. I apologized profusely and we probably gave a bigger tip. So, now I know.

7. Tipping

But here’s a mystery. The guide books all said, “Tipping is not automatic and not expected.” But who’s going to turn down money, and personally I find it very difficult not to tip. Many restaurants added a service charge to the bill. One came with two plates. One for the bill, and one for the tip.

8. Styling

Looking out of our apartment window one morning, my wife and I saw a guy who looked to be in his eighties walking along the street dressed in a brown jacket and shoes and …pink trousers. But, you know, he pulled it off. We got a lovely leather bag for my daughter, so now she can say, “Oh this thing? Just something I picked up in Italy.”

9. Traffic

But of course, there’s a downside. Driving or walking in Italy is a gigantic game of chicken. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do motorists in Italy it seems. One of the most terrifying rides of my life was the taxi to the train station in Firenze. I was sure that if we weren’t going to be killed, someone else’s life blood would be on the ground.  I can’t generalize about the rest of the country but the abundance of one-way streets in Rome ad Firenze seem to encourage this (but before you cross make sure there’s no a cyclist coming the wrong way). It’s a little like being in New York: watch the cars not the lights my friends told me; watch the lights and you’ll be killed.

10. Museum Guards.

Based on my small sample, museum guards in Italy seem to fall into one of two categories

1. Guards who never look up from their smart phones. I saw several guards who never took their eyes off their phones the entire time I was in the room. I think I could have walked off with a painting or two.

2. Guards who are super-zealous. I witnessed at least three guards yelling (and I mean yelling) at patrons for transgressions – to be fair one of them actually stroked a painting at the Ufizi.

11. The Medicis

Based on what I know of the Medicis, it seems they were bastards. Then they were driven out and came back as bigger bastards. Then they ran out of money, but when they came back again, they were even bigger bastards. They did like the arts though. I’m thinking of changing my name to Andrew Medici. It has a ring.

12. Thank you

Grazi is actually pronounced GHRAT-seeay not GRAT-see

13. Litter

Despite the number of tourists, despite the number of dogs, despite the fact you can apparently drink on the street, Firenze:

a. Is generally free of litter

b. Has hardly any dog shit on the streets (unlike Paris or Toronto)

c. Has little public drunkenness (unlike London)

14. Beggars

Maybe there’s a law against homelessness, but I saw very few stationary beggars. I did see plenty of moving panhandlers staking their plastic cups, but very few sitting. Do the police arrest you if you’re sitting?

15. Pisolino

This mad dog Englishman learn’t something. You really shouldn’t go out in the mid-day sun. Oh, it wasn’t a painful lesson. But it was probably after walking around Rome the first day we were there and sweating off pounds, we realized: get up early; have a nap in the middle of the day; go out later. You’ll live longer (and the crowds are smaller)

16. Music

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to delve into local music scenes which was a shame. I assume that both Rome ad Firenze have good local bands, but every time I turned on the radio it seemed as if they were playing US or UK pop from the 1980s.

17. Grappa

Have you ever had grappa? I’m not a big wine person (I know very little about it), but hey, Italian wine is excellent and it’s cheap. So I drank wine. Grappa is made from the skins. It’s about 45% proof. It sneaks up on you, I’ll tell you that.

18. The Communist Left

The political tradition to which I belong is sometimes called the communist left (or left communism). The left communists were those who were part of currents expelled from the Communist International in the early 1920s. The communist left is usually considered to have two distinct wigs: The German-Dutch and the Italians. Both had strengths; both had weaknesses. (The latest issue of Internationalist Perspective has an article assessing our relationship to the tradition) The Italian tradition is little know outside of Italy and little has been translated. Often the current is dismissed as “Bordigist.” Do yourself a favour and get that ICC book I mentioned previously. There is some of Bordiga’s stuff available and the collection murdering the Dead is worth reading.

19. The Old and the New

The number of restaurants that advertised “we have air-conditioning” quickly led us to realize that this meant it was an oddity. Italy is ultra-modern in some aspects, but the iron in the apartment we rented looked as if it came off of some ’50s SF show (or the Jetsons). It’s an interesting clash to say the least.

20. So Many People

Of course, with all of this great stuff, there’s a price. And that would be tourists. They (we?) are like locusts. Swarming everywhere. Masses of people crowd every square; line-ups at every exhibit. Apparently there is no off-season in Firenze any more. Still, if you get up early, book ahead and are prepared to wait, it’s worth it.  I went for a walk most evenings, and if you just want to stand in the square and appreciate the beauty of the cathedral, that’s the time to do it.

So then, when you go on holiday, you want to have bragging rights. When I went to PEI, people said that’s nice. When I went to Ottawa, people asked why. Italy. Everyone knew.


1 Comment

  1. Goodbye 2013 | Notes from Underground said,

    […] down the winner. I spent two weeks in Italy this July, mostly in Florence, but a couple of days in Rome and Arezzo. Simply put, the best vacation of my […]

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