Issue 6- 6 June, 1998
In this issue...
After our experience in Istanbul, I must confess that the prospect of Italy filled me with a bit of dread. After all, Italians are short and dark like the Turks, so I figured it would be third-world-ish, with inadequate facilities and people always trying to sell you things.
To all Italians everywhere, I apologise. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The Italians are a warm, hospitable, friendly people. The food is great, the wine even better. True, they tend to be a little, er, dramatic at times - railway stations appear to be only slightly controlled mass pandemonium - but you soon realize that a benevolent order underlies it all, and learn to go with the flow. They're easygoing and forgiving if you can't figure out the procedure for things - at our first (of many!) ice-cream shops, the server didn't take our money, but motioned us instead to a cash-register at the other side of the store -- I'm still not sure if we needed to pay before or after being served, but they didn't seem to mind either way. And, best of all, while there are plenty of touristy trinkets to be had (you can get a Tower of Pisa in brass, faux marble, as desk lamp or a bottle opener), they're far too refined to be constantly shoving it in your face.
PISA: Funny thing - Florence doesn't have an international airport. Rather, you fly into Pisa, and take a hour's train ride to Florence. The Italian railway system allows you to make intermediate stopovers on your journey, so we figured, why not add another city to our collection?
Worried a bit at the Pisa railway station. No map, no language skills, and just a vague idea that we had to take a city bus to the Tower. We boarded a likely-looking bus, the number 1; Jane was concerned, "Are we on the right one?"
"Do you see any Italians on this bus?" No, the other occupants were all Japanese, clutching cameras and video recorders. Fifteen minutes later, we were at the Leaning Tower.
The Leaning tower of Pisa is quite impressive, but come on, it is a botched construction job after all (can you say, "lowest bidder"? ...thought so). Equally impressive, and much straighter, are the cathedral and Baptistry in the same piazza.
Facade of the Duomo (Cathedral) in central Florence
FLORENCE: Wow. Art, art and more art. All the names you learned in school - Michelangelo, Boticelli, Donatello - come alive in this city. And there's so much of it - enough for a lifetime of contemplation. We, unfortunately, had only two days, so we gave it the old "tourist's try". (One hint from our experience: to avoid the queues, go later in the day. By 8:30, the lines at museums for a 9:00 opening are a block long. But, at 3:00 the same day, you can stroll right in.) Yes, we saw Boticelli's Venus and Michelangelo's David, and yes, they are both quite impressive, but it's all the lesser-known treasures that really make the city special. Like the frescoes on the ceiling of the Pitti Palace, an amazing example of the Medici trying to outdo everyone in ostentatiousness. Or the statuary in the Boboli Gardens. Or the gilt icons displayed in the smallest of churches.
With so much art, so accessible, it's easy to have a diet of nothing but Florentine Renaissance Masters. Of course, that would leave other needs unattended to. The food in Italy is spectacular - evening meals especially, with garlic, wine and pasta mingling in a symphony for the senses. And then there's all the sweets and ice creams - even though we were on our feet practically all day, it's doubtful that we've lost any weight.
From the water, as it's meant to be seen: the Rialto Bridge in Venice
VENICE: This city lives on the water -- its master, but also its slave. With 170 canals, waterways aren't an alternate mode of transport - they are the mode of transport. I'm certain that you cannot walk for 500 feet in any direction without having to cross at least one canal. There may not be a road from point A to point B, but there's always a canal. At a mere 30 inches above sea level, though, you're always at the mercy of the tides. We were sitting in the bar of our hotel one evening enjoying a glass of wine, when we were politely asked to move to a higher level -- apparently the tide was coming in, and the hotel staff needed to remove the furniture and take up the carpets. Most amazing though, was the attitude - ho hum, no urgency, we're just expecting a high tide tonight. Been there, done that...
All the water makes for a unique method of public transport. Instead of buses and subways, Venice has boats. There are floating boat docks every few blocks, and the various bus lines lumber along the canals along their appointed paths. It's great fun, and a top-notch way to see the city - with a multi-day travel pass, you will not want for sights to see. While the service itself is reliable and comfortable, the numbering scheme makes no sense at all. The number 1 is the main line. (Out of deference to travellers and tourists, the Italians seem to reserve number 1 for main lines everywhere.) There's a 3 and a 4, and then it gets really wierd. There's a 52, a 52D and a 52/ (yes, fifty-two slash), all with different routes, and then the numbering jumps to 84.
This city uses boats like the rest of the world uses cars and trucks. During a 10-minute water bus ride, I managed to see a garbage boat, a liquoir delivery boat, a police and ambulance boat, and a moving boat - stacked high with boxes and with chairs and furniture lashed to the top.
Not that Venice is a slouch in the art department, either. We didn't go out of our way to look for museums in Venice (we were a bit, shall we say, arted-out by Florence), but it's still amazing to wander into a nondescript neighborhood church and find masterpieces of painting, sculpture , frescoe and mosaic.
One of the most amazing things about Venice is that it really does look exactly like you imagine it would. The gondoliers really do wear striped shirts and straw hats. St Marks Square, complete with pigeons, really does look like all the pictures you've seen. The Rialto Bridge is as spectacular as you would imagine. All of the city is a postcard come to life.
And the Italians, not just in Venice, but everywhere, have a joy of life that is incredibly infectious. One can't help but feel happy, even on the dreariest of days, when you're surrounded by folk who seem to believe that, like a child, every new experience should be a cause for celebration.
Return to Holland
Bloomers everywhere: a riot of color at the Keukenhoff Flower Festival
As omens go, it did not bode well for the rest of the trip.
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time, and were told that our nice little KLM flight to Amsterdam was actually the first leg of an Air Kenya flight, continuing on to Nairobi. Oh yes, and could we please check in at the Air Kenya desk...
Queing with the yammering, toga-clad masses, we felt more than a bit out of place. We had one small carry-on satchel between the two of us (just a weekend hop to visit Jane's friend on maternity leave), while everyone else in line had cartfulls that clanked and thudded ominously when placed on the floor. And everyone was over their weight limit and insisted on arguing loudly with the frazzled check-in clerk. I know now why you are told to arrive two hours before flight time -- it took us over an hour and a half to check in! Dashing to the gate, I consoled myself with visions of exotic in-flight meals -- wildebeeste stew and pickled gazelle -- but no, once settled we got crackers, cheese, fruitcake, and soft drinks. Oh well.
Rather an inauspicious entry to a country where the inhabitants' tolerance, neatness and love of order extends to every aspect of life. (Well okay, maybe not to the color of our rental car: Think of a sickly chartreuse, then make it irridescent and give it a clearcoat.) The rest of our trip went off without so much as even a minor inconvenience. Every need, it seems, is anticipated and provided for: driving over a 10-mile-long levee that seperates the North Sea from the Ijselmeer, or inland sea, it was surprising (but not totally unexpected) to find a filling station and restaurant at the halfway point. The Dutch are like that, and wouldn't have it any other way.
By staying away from the overtly touristy areas, we were rewarded with a truer picture of these gentle folk. Instead of Amsterdam, we stayed at The Hague, the capital of Holland. On our last day we discovered that our hotel backed on to the park surrounding the royal palace which, like everything else in this country, is unassuming and approachable. (Funny how national characters are reflected in how they treat royalty -- English with great pomp and ceremony, Dutch and Scandinavians as just regular folk, and French behead theirs ...)
Jane's friend lived about a two-hour drive into the north country, in a tidy little village. "Boring", she calls it. When asked what there was to see or do in the immediate area, she told us about the sod museum in a neihboring town. Thanks, we'll pass. On the way up, we did pass lots of windmills - not only the centuries-old trademark four-bladers, but also ultramodern tri-bladed wind turbine generators -- with flat land and no impediments, they can continue to capitalize on the breezes coming in off the North Sea.
On our previous trip, we were too late to see tulips in bloom. This trip, however, was timed perfectly. The Keukenhoff flower festival - the grandaddy of all tulip shows - was in full swing. Over a million tulips in bloom, and seemingly almost as many flower-lovers out to see them. Curiously though, when we tried to buy bulbs, there were none to be found anywhere. You could order them for delivery in the fall, but not now. They were all in the ground, working their little buds off to produce next year's crop!
A guidebook on Holland states,"In this well-ordered and efficient country, nothing much is likely to cause any grave dissatisfaction." How right they are. After a day or so of everything working exactly as it should, you suddenly realize just how many worries are normally carried when traveling: ...will the bill be correct? ...will I find a filling station? ...can I navigate to my destination? ...will there be a hassle when I arrive?
And when you acknowledge that such worries are totally unnecessary here, you can appreciate this charming country for the gem it really is.
We are very lucky to be where we live, right in the thick of things. Many of the nicest things about London are only a walk, or at most, a short Tube ride away from our front door. Of course there are a few minor tradeoffs - our apartment is quite small - barely 600 square feet in total - but it's definitely worth it. After all, you don't spend too much time indoors when the whole world beckons just outside.
Part of my standard Saturday-morning routine involves a walk up the length of the Portobello Road market. Yes, the Portobello Road. As in, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Dick Van Dyke putting on an appalling imitation of an English accent to sing, "You can get anything on Portobello Road".
And you really can get just about anything at the market. Imagine more than a mile's worth of street closed to vehicular traffic, lined with small stalls on either side. The south end of the market is populated mostly by antiques vendors, with shiny baubles to draw in tourists. Their degree of specialization is truly amazing: one stall carries nothing but antique magnfying glasses, another, antique cameras, and there's stalls dealing only with lace, buttons, silverware, cigarette cards and sculptures made out of aluminum beverage cans. Yes indeed, the bloody tourists will buy just about anything.
Further north, the street changes to a fresh flower and food market. (At this point I usually buy several pounds of oranges, which I cheerfully munch during the rest of my journey. With any luck, there are a few left when I return home.) After several blocks, the complexion of the market changes radically again, and it becomes the Mother Of All Boot Sales / Yard Sales (British / American). Shoes, shirts, and leather jackets; televisions, video recorders, and computers; fans, kettles and rugs - anything and everything can be found there, if you're patient and look long enough. The more upstanding sellers actually pay for space and set up along Portobello Road proper, while the shadier ones simply throw a tarpaulin down in the side streets and spread their wares out on it. Most everything here is used, and of dubious origin -- you really don't want to know where it came from. But, it's great fun to browse, and sometimes there are bargains to be had.
Brass merchant getting ready to sell his wares
After traversing the length a number of times, you begin to recognise the vendors. There's a lovely older couple that sells horribly overpriced household goods. Nice people, but, 50 pounds for a used table fan? -- I think not. There's a rather odd Russian gent at the north end with an even odder assortment of bargain hand tools. If you ever need a left-handed metric flutterbumper... But my favorite has to be the Indian brass merchant by the M40 underpass. Stocky and swarthy, he's quite imposing as he bellows out, "Have a look, any item, five pounds here!" at a volume that carries for a block. But stop and talk to him, and the voice drops to a just a bit more than a whisper, as he politely explains his wares to you.
I needed a desk lamp - and picked up a perfectly good one for 4 pounds - or about 7 dollars. (That particular lamp is also the subject of this issue's Random Lines, below.) Another time, I got a NetPort Ethernet printer sharing box for 3 pounds. What am I going to do with it, you say? Well, I dunno, but it was such a good deal ...
It's wierd. Before we came here, we imagined "Europe" as a rather homogenous entity. In reality, each country has its own distinctive personality, of which it is justifiably proud. On our first trip out of England last year, to Paris, we imagined that it would be much like London. Immediately after stepping off the train, though, we felt the difference. And so it's been with every country visited.
The hot topic of discussion here these days is "European Unity". But don't worry, everyone won't suddenly drop their differences and become a monolithic disneyfied morph. It's economic unity they're talking about -- a single currency, reduction of trade barriers, those sort of things. The cultural differences, the languages, the national characters, will never be legislated away. And a very good thing that, too.
I remember reading a comment some years ago that talked about the differences in national temperaments:
The European version of heaven would have:
Chefs that are French;
Police that are British;
Car mechanics that are German;
Lovers that are Italian;
and Bankers and Administrators that are Swiss.
The European version of hell would have:
Chefs that are British;
Police that are German;
Car mechanics that are French;
Lovers that are Swiss;
and Bankers and Administrators that are Italian.
... And remember, in every aphorism, there's a germ of truth ...
The Brits are champion queuers. (A queue is a "line" to the Americans.)
It's a point of national pride. A recent comedy-drama showed a large extended family on holiday in France, with youngsters milling about, when the father shouted, "We're British! Form a proper queue!" and everyone instinctively fell into line.
The entire decline of Western society has been linked, more than once, to the loss of queuing etiquette. "Breaking the queue", or cutting into line out of turn, is a crime worthy in some minds of capital punishment. Queues are social occasions to the normally reserved and quiet Brits. Ticket queues for major events like Wimbledon tennis matches or Royal Albert Hall Proms concerts can form days in advance of ticket availability. And these aren't teenyboppers, either, but retirees and middle-aged folks. They keep order amongst themselves, and bring thermoses full of tea and sweets to share with all. An incident at the Proms concerts last year required police intervention, when a young couple joined the queue a day ahead and then went home to sleep (horrors!). The police backed the all-nighters, and the yuppies were summarily dispatched to the tail of the line.
A television program the other day showed British, American, German and Japanese tourists at a remote resort, with actors of each nationality secretly planted in the groups doing uncharacteristic things. Hidden cameras then recorded reactions. It was a xenophobic documentary that reinforced national stereotypes, but quite funny nonetheless. One of the actions involved an actress breaking into a lunch queue. The Germans gave her a stony stare. The Americans got sarcastic. ("What, you hungry or something?"). The Japanese allowed it once and said nothing, but on her second try, bodily blocked the actress.
The British actress couldn't do it. Film segments showed producers pleading with her, cajoling her, and even threatening her. When her time finally came, in both instances, she ran up to the food table before the queue had even formed, grabbed a plate, and scurried away in shame. Such is the power of the conditioning here.
As the saying goes, "When the going gets tough, the British form a queue."
For an article about British queuing, by a British queuer, follow this link.
More language stories...
I really do have great respect for electrical things in Britain. Everything - connections, plugs, wiring - just feels more solid and safer than that in the US. But, like most things British, it's also a bit ... quirky. Take their light bulbs, for instance. Here, they have four different types in common use: the standard screw-type, identical to the American except for voltage, but also a small screw-type, and two sizes of bayonet types. Makes the ordinary task of replacing a light bulb quite an interesting outing, made all the more complicated by the linguistic differences. For instance...
I recently bought a table lamp. (See the above story on Portobello Road.) It came set up to accept bayonet-type bulbs, and I wanted to modify it to handle screw type bulbs. Simple, right?
Not quite. First of all, those little widgets that you insert the bulb into are not called "sockets" here. A "socket", to Brits, is what we Americans would call an "electrical outlet". The aforementioned widget is called a lampholder. Then, the bulbs are not screw-base, but screw-cap. (It makes sense; just depends whether you insert them pointing up or down). So, when I explained to the hardware store person what I wanted to do, he looked at me darkly and said, "Oh, no sir, not only is that illegal, but it could be quite dangerous! Do you want to run something heavy, like an iron, off your lamp?"
Well, we eventually came to an understanding, I converted my lamp, and yes, it was all quite legal, moral, and non-fattening.
But, misunderstandings work both ways. I chuckle to think what Brits coming to the southeastern US (the Carolinas and Georgia) must think. There, "the Shag" is a dance.
Really. And a very popular one, too.
You can get shagging lessons. People often have shag parties. Fridays are shag nights. And there are even shag clubs, where you can dance the night away. So, to our UK friends: if a pretty girl/guy approaches you and asks you if you would like to go shagging, don't let down your traditional reserve and get too excited. It's not at all what you think...
* sigh * Bad news. They're sending us back to the Colonies. So, our next issue will also be our last.
So, we'll tie up loose ends, opine on this and that, and say our good-byes.