Sunday, July 25, 2010

But I was expecting locusts next ...

Oh June, how you disappointed me! You used to be my favourite month. My birthday month, the month of summer solstice and Father's Day, planting my garden begins in earnest during June...

You began with J's lingering illness (strep throat and other issues) and her extensive absence from school then the news that Nonna was not well - a combination of the seen and the unforeseen for a 75 year old lady - problems with her feet, problems with her eyes. Worrisome. How we fear their getting old.

There was the basement bathroom that had to be renovated due to an emergency and the inevitable delays and expense that that entailed. There was the flooding of the basement just immediately before we left for Italy during that flash rainstorm with R valiantly scrambling to sort it out before we left.

There was the preparation for a twelve day trip abroad, various cat sitters to organize and keys to be dropped off, J's grad trip and graduation ceremony (dresses and shoes to be bought sometimes reluctantly), a NSNIG&F reading at Lola's Commissary and then other readings at the Annex Live and Sweet Tooth.

There was the news that I required minor dental surgery ...  ack! Oh yes ... and a tree fell on our car during a rainstorm (this was a different one than the one that caused the flooding) and even though it was a tree on city property the city wouldn't reimburse us a portion of the damage that wasn't covered by insurance.

I sent an e-mail to a friend at that time with a header that said "What next ... locusts?"

But then you redeemed yourself June. On the last day we left for Italy and you made it up to me. Oh June, I think you really do love me!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (Penguin Group, 2008) 271 pp.

Sometimes I cannot surmise why or how a book has touched me. This is such a book. So I think you will find I have little to say here of substance. But that does not reflect on the quality of the book, merely my inability to express my appreciation.

Two individuals, haunted by unhappy histories, connect (in a fashion) then come apart only to be brought together again.
In various ways both Mattia and Alice, the two main characters, are somewhat perfectly matched - two delicate flowers unable to withstand the vicissitudes of life.

Mattia is a brilliant mathematician who has a propensity towards self-mutilation which both frightens and bewilders his family. Alice, crippled by a skiing mishap when young, is anorexic and seemingly unable to connect emotionally with anyone. Her accident is linked to an aggressive and overly competitive father. But Alice is much tougher than Mattia in some ways.

When, as an adult, Alice is working as a wedding photographer and finds herself at the wedding of Viola, an old nemesis from highschool who inflicted a number of humiliations on her, she takes her revenge effectively and savagely.

Mattia is more passive, preferring to withdraw and withold affection from those who care for him and severing contact first from Alice and then from his family. He takes refuge in counting rituals - a sort of mathematical OCD

Both have terrible secrets. Mattia rarely acknowleges, if ever, the disappearance of his twin, a troubled, mentally challenged girl named Michela whom he disliked and was repulsed by. Alice hides the secret rituals which she uses to control her body and her presence in the world. This she conceals firstly from her family and then her husband Fabio.

Neither can connect nor forge emotional bonds or explain themselves. Alice never bonds with her husband; Mattia never finds a partner.

There is a meeting at the end but it is unclear that the issues are resolved.

You look at the face of Paolo Giordano with its fine features and gentle intelligence and you wonder ... how was he able to access such sorrows?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 12: Amuninni! (Let's go!)

And after such strained circumstances last night we are itching to leave I must confess. When we went down for the 6.00p shuttle to Taormina we were told that there was no point going into town as the Sunday spiaggia (beach) crowd would be clogging the roads. Sure enough, we hear that the shuttle ends up taking 1 1/2 – 2 hours when ordinarily it would take 15 minutes. We dodged a bullet there.

But no matter - we had lost interest in leaving on the shuttle because as it turned out our rented car was completely dead (likely the battery was depleted) when R went to check the GPS system for the following day’s trip to the airport. How we were responsible for this I don’t know as we drove up, parked the car and never used it again until today. My suspicion is that one of the drivers who has had to move the car twice or three times may have left the lights on and depleted the battery. 

Here the father/superhero in R kicks in and he is on the phone for almost two hours trying to sort out this mess: how to get the car back to the car rental agency sixty miles away in Catania on a Sunday night? How to get us to the airport for 6.00a to catch a 7.50a flight on Monday morning? Who will pay for this? Europcar, who rented us the car, will only reimburse us 30 euros but the trip by taxi with cost 95 euros! Davide, the concierge, tries to navigate this for us in Italian after R finds out what we need to do. But it is too complicated – his English is not great, my Italian is comparably bad. I suggest we just order the taxi for the next morning and I will ask the travel agent to fight for the full amount when we get back.

Still we have the problem of food on this last night … we were meant to get both that night’s dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. Desperate for food, we relent and agree to have dinner on the fancy terrace with the lousy service again despite my reservations about the food, service and price. The maitre d’ tries to convince us to do the buffet again which was overcooked and mediocre so we pass. Surprisingly, the risotto ordered ala carte is quite good and the salad very fresh. J has the ubiquitous spaghetti and R has melon and prosciutto to start.

Off to bed and finish packing around 9ish …We try and redistribute the weight of the luggage. We had to pay Air Canada $100 for a too heavy bag and Alitalia 40 euros on the way here. This particularly irks R as he says I advised him to pack too much stuff (true).

We try and fall asleep by 10.30p or so as we must rise at 4.30a but I, for one, am too keyed up. As I start to fall asleep the phone rings, a message from Canada, nothing urgent. Then an hour later a text comes through (again nothing urgent) waking me again and then a loud reminder that the text has not been read. J and R blissfully sleep through this. Feeling not well and tense I am aware of every sound. Arrrggh, the gods of sleep are against me tonight. I am being punished for calling my sister at 4a from Firenze when we first arrived when I forgot the time difference.

But we wake on time and meet the usual surly cab driver at 5a in the lobby. He hits the pedal at 140km practically the whole way. Tutto a posto. We reach the airport at exactly the right time and pass through the various checkpoints easily. For once, Alitalia is on time. Sneak one last cannolo from the take away restaurant and soon we board. I have to say though, the Hamilton cannoli are pretty darn close to these Sicilian ones.

At one point I buy a stamp for a postcard that has been languishing in our bag for ten days. Finally I find a post office but have no idea where to post it. The woman says in Italian to post it in the red box outside and keeps pointing but I can’t see it (because it is across the huge hallway about fifty feet away). Finally, a man intercedes and points directly to the box. Then the clerk exclaims exasperatedly, “But I thought she was Italian!” Sorry lady, I just play one on TV…

Smooth flight to Rome except the travel problems always begin in Rome – unbelievable line ups and check points and two flights to Toronto on Air Canada and Alitalia next to each other and leaving five minutes apart in the same space and it is a combination of Dante’s Inferno and the Tower of Babel at the gate - hot and insufferably loud. Finally lift off at about noon (Rome time)…we should be home by 3.15p Toronto time if all goes well.

R spots a little hipster in the airport just ahead of us – he is maybe nine and wearing a fedora, a loud shirt and a plastic guitar which he strums energetically. He is also climbing all over everything. This kind of kid makes him crazy. You watch I said, he is going to be right behind or in front of you on the plane now. Uh huh. Mama knows everything…

Finally home at 7p after fighting rush hour traffic and landing about an hour late…door to door almost twenty hours of travel!

We ask the kid, “So was it boring being with your old parents for twelve days?” She says brightly, “No! I thought it would be but it wasn’t as boring as I thought!” Ahhh, victory at last.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day 11: Diario di un’ Amara Siciliana

There is a type of liqueor called Amaro Siciliano (Bitter Sicilian) that we would sometimes get a dollop of when we were growing up – just an uccia (a little bit). That pretty much describes the Sicilian character I think. We aren’t exactly a sunny bunch of folks.

The vendors tend to be a little taciturn here unless they smell money – not everyone is like that of course – but you get the vibe that they aren’t particularly pleased to see you unless they can get something out of you. In this category I would include the hotel shuttle drivers, certain small business proprietors in Taormina, the sidewalk vendors as well as some of the wait staff in the hotel and in town.

Is this coldness the legacy of colonization and the fear of i stranieri? Is it the palpable disdain of the north towards il Mezzogiorno which makes people distrustful and resentful? Or is it much simpler - merely the weariness of the native born towards the ever present turisti who come in inexhaustible wave after wave?

When we went to dinner the other night with a voucher for our “free” dinner the sad sack waiter with the haunted looking dark eyes and the drooping moustache, who could have been a character in an old Italian film, said to the maitre d’ when he handed him our biglietto or voucher which he described as “un altro biglietto di lotteria” (another lottery ticket) – likely a reference to our lack of stature or appearance of importance on first impression. His meaning, I think, was that we had somehow lucked into this dinner. There are some very evidently wealthy people in the hotel; we, visibly, do not fit the bill.

Today, for lunch, we picked up some pizza and arancini to go from a little place in Taormina where the owner stood in the back of the shop, refused to acknowledge us and gave me a look that I recognized so well. She neither moved nor smiled yet the look said it all: “Hmmph, and who do they think they are?” Even my attempt at Italian did not assuage her nor did my purchase.

Still, as I said, il sangue chiama…the blood calls. I feel the pull. This is our last full day and I have a bittersweet feeling about leaving. I will be happy to get back to our house, our family and friends and our cats. But I will miss the gorgeous locale, the familiar voices and faces, the rugged beauty of the mountains and the bay of Taormina. The many flowers and intense blue of the sky. We all want to come back, hopefully with my brother and his family. 

R cavorting in the pool alone ...

Here at the lower “saltwater” pool in the mid afternoon, I sit on the upper level in the only shaded area at a small table. I see that I have unknowingly usurped the elderly lifeguard’s spot (he must be in his mid 50s and quite paunchy) but he has kindly let me sit at a tiny table with an umbrella and will not make me move. People are not swimming except for R and J and a very sweet young Irish couple canoodling in the pool who are paler than pale. Did you put on your sunscreen? I want to ask in motherly way. 

Soon we will go up to rest for an hour or so before dinner. Dinner tonight in town with my sister and T. We want an early night as we will be leaving the hotel very early for a 7.50a flight. Or at least we did want an early night …

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Day 10: ‘Caa … (Here)

 The patron saint of Taormina is San Pancrazio.

I wake early because I forgot to bring down the metal blinds on the window on my side of the bed and as soon as there is a bit too much sunlight in the room, I am up at 6.45a. I quietly get ready and sneak downstairs for coffee and to write in the breakfast room. I find if I don’t have these quiet times alone I get really ornery. I do feel frustrated when I can’t find time to work.

I pick a table facing the sea and have a coffee and a croissant. I gather myself and concentrate and am able to think clearly with the quiet. I return at 8.30a to find J and R getting ready for breakfast and we go back down together.

We take the noon shuttle to meet my sister at her hotel in the courtyard. I buy four arancini,  a prosciutto panino and a cannolo from Bar Pirandello on Via Luigi Pirandello for about 15 euros and we feast in F’s shaded courtyard which has lush foliage and trees sheltering the outdoor seating and a walled off little room for shade.

T, F’s boyfriend, has rented a scooter and gone to Mount Etna. We, the less adventurous, take the Funivia (a cable car) that is located almost next door to F’s hotel down the mountain to the spiaggia (beach) for 3.50 euros. My family laughs at me (callously I might add) when I shudder with every bump and jerk of the cable car which passes over a small soccer stadium and the mountain side.

My sister, who has made this trip before can’t remember how to get on the beach without going through the property of the hotels but asked the nearest pedestrian who happens to be Irish. He graciously offers to lead us through a passageway through his hotel.

When we reach the beach the view is spectacular even if the beach itself is rocky and there are cigarette butts strewn along the rocky sand. Smoking and cigarette butts are ubiquitous here. There are short rock cliffs from which boys are leaping and smart looking villas facing the water high up on the mountainside. F has smartly brought her bathing suit and plunges in while we wade along the shore. That's my sister in the foreground of this picture.

We travel back up the cable car and meet up with T for more refreshments at the Bar Pirandello. Then we go in search of gifts … T-shirts for some, bracelets for others. We decide to eat in tonight – we purchase more panini, arancini, calzone and cannoli at Bar Pirandello again as well as fresh fruit – plums, cherries and a liter of milk, which I am craving, from the Etna Market around the corner on Via San Pancrazio (the patron saint of the village) and which I don’t recommend you patronize as the proprietor is unbelievably rude.

We go to the pool and just relax a bit … foolishly I still have no bathing suit because I am uncomfortable with the styles and the prices. There are two pools on two different levels – one with salt water. The pool is to the south of the hotel and the mountain that the hotel is carved into. It is surrounded by trees bearing flowers of various types and colours: white, pink, red, yellow and purple flowers. The only flower I recognize is the bougainvillea which we saw in Roma and Firenze in abundance. Above the pools, a small terrace with tables and chairs then a rock face, more bougainvillea trees and then the elegant terrace where we had dinner last night. Behind us a walkway, the road, then the sea. The pool is deserted so we don’t stay long.

Shortly my more adventurous sister arrives by scooter with T – how chic! She can stay only briefly as the sun will soon set. We will meet tomorrow for our final dinner before we leave on Monday.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 9: My little Sicilian fantasy

After breakfast we shuttle to downtown Taormina to meet my sister. A late start to the day, we miss the 10.30a shuttle and leave at noon instead. The streets are not as busy because the smart people (the native Sicilians) are in hiding from the sun at noon.

J needs a bathing suit. Everything here is sparkly and girlie and bright so we settle on a simple two piece black bikini (to my surprise) – the plainest thing we can find at Irisblonde on Via Luigi Pirandello for 55 euros – I can tell you that that hurt. I have never spent that much on a bathing suit. As I pay J gives me a guilty look and whispers in my ear, “That’s expensive.” But that’s Taormina, I knew we would not find anything less than that and it’s my fault for forgetting the bathing suits. Is there anything plain and black for me? No chance.

I console myself with a plain, bamboo coloured fan (3 euros) from just down the street to ward off the heat. My sister smirks at me, “You’re just like mom!” What’s that I ask – menopausal?? It’s so hot here and today we saw on TV that Europe is experiencing a heat wave. I know I am experiencing one myself.

We find a little place called Tutti ‘caa Risto Pub (“tutti ‘caa” is a Sicilian phrase for “Everyone here”) on Via F. Ui Ingegnere, 12. Great food but extremely slooow service and lackadaisical serving staff – we order antipasti, paninni with prosciutto, spaghetti alla pomodoro. I ask my sister to cuss them out in Sicilian because of the slow service, as she is better at it than me, but she demurs. Her accent is much more natural than mine.

Out into the heat … the streets are pretty deserted. We make our way to the Teatro Antico, Via Teatro Greco, 40. For 8 euros you can do an unguided tour of the amphitheatre. Deep Purple will appear here in a few days and then Diana Krall next week. It boggles the mind to imagine both of those acts performing on these ancient ruins. At the top of the amphitheatre you can see the sea from under the shade of trees. We rest and take pictures at the top.

We weave our way back to the shopping core. R notices busts of Benito Mussolini for sale (later we will also see beer bottles emblazoned with his mug). If I had not read of something similar in my friend Frank Giorno’s facebook posts a month ago while he was in Rome and Calabria I would have been shocked. Now I am just annoyed and a bit repulsed. “What’s wrong with these people?” someone whispers to me. The other thing that irks us is the tacky Godfather souvenirs. If Sicilians knew how much grief we North Americans get with this mafia thing abroad I wonder if they would be less willing to embrace this schlock – not the movie, which I love, but the crappy souvenirs?

I debate buying a pale blue linen tablecloth with a white design for 75 euros from a shop called Sugar Spice on Via Teatro Antica, 35. What a perfect memento of our trip my sister says. She is right. It turns out that the shop is owned by a fellow Sicilian-Canadian named Diane Lo Coco from Montreal who has been living here for forty years. It is then I notice she is wearing a tiny Canadian pin on her dress. Now she, her Sicilian husband, her sister and her mother all live here.

“I’m going to do that!” I spontaneously exclaim to my companions as we leave the shop and my sister F rushes right in and says, “Come on, you would be bored and would return in six months! You won’t be able to stand the xenophobia and you will never, never be accepted.”

There is a truth to this that I am deliberately ignoring in my little Sicilian fantasy. I would never be accepted despite my rightful heritage. The minute I open my mouth they know that I am not native born despite my best efforts and they switch to English to assist me. Then we get into an amicable argument about which is less welcoming Toronto or parts of Sicily? I can say I have never felt entirely comfortable or accepted in Toronto either. I like being surrounded by faces and voices that are familiar to me; hence, being in Sicily appeals to me – is this racism or just plain human nature?

You rarely see black or brown people here. If you do, there appears to be very little intermingling. It might be the sole vendor of sunglasses on a sidewalk or a porter, and very few tourists that are Asian, black or South Asian. Perhaps F was right, perhaps I would always be acutely aware of the xenophobia, the lack of diversity, the impossibility of really fitting in. Sad really when you think that colonization and invasions over two millennium have resulted in a rich racial diversity in the Sicilian people which they refuse to recognize.

There is also the issue of being a part of a bi-racial family. R and J both receive curious looks here that make them uncomfortable, especially the more sensitive J – not necessarily hostile but more like “Hmm, what are you doing here?” When asked R vetoes the hypothetical move to Taormina; curiously, Firenze does appeal to him greatly probably because there is a greater mix of different peoples there and we blend in more easily. There is greater access to culture and art … And I couldn’t live here if R and J could not.

I am also searching for a symbol of the Trinacria but the ones I see are quite gruesome, many of them made of volcanic ash – black and ominous looking with a Medusa like visage in the middle that does not appeal to me. I have always loved the symbol on my dad’s membership card at the Trinacria Club in Hamilton (of which he was a co-founder) where it appears as a beautiful woman in the centre of the image. I keep looking.

Our shuttle leaves at five … quickly, we return for gelato at the centre of the shopping district. Here they charge you extra if you sit down at a table (for example: where we buy gelato they charge an extra .60 euros per person or about a $1.00). We return home and despite a late lunch we are a bit hungry.

Our hotel is a bit isolated form the downtown core and there is nothing around to serve food but room service before dinner. For a treat, we order it for J. Ordinarily we don’t do that, ever. We are too cheap and the service ridiculously expensive. But we order something simple. She says she has a craving for “salty meat” (i.e. prosciutto) so we order melone e prosciutto. It comes in a heaping mound on three spears of melon served by a handsome young waiter on a tray with a linen napkin under a silver dome. J beams like she has won the lottery when she sees the dish and we take her picture on the balcony covered in blankets with me serving her the tray.

Debating back and forth about dinner and wondering if we shall meet up again with our family but we finally decide to eat at the hotel on the fancy terrace as R has work to do that he is committed to.

We are having on-going disappointments with technology and hotel keys which is odd as J and R are both adept at these things in a way that I am not. We can’t dial out on the land-line for some reason, our cell phones don’t work here, there is no Wifi in the rooms, the DVD player won’t work when we try it and then we get locked out of our room because we forget our keys which necessitates a few back and forth trips from the sixth floor to reception. Once the concierge even gives us the wrong key and must rush back with the right one.

Flash forward an hour or two and we are on the hotel terrace enjoying a view of the pool and the sea and a so-so meal which surprises me with its mediocrity. J gripes when asked to put on a dress but the dining is a bit upscale on the terrace and R is right to ask her to do so – flip flops and jean shorts won’t do.

J is right though about the looks we get, inquisitive looks as we pass by on the terrace. We joke amongst ourselves that they are saying, “I have never seen such good looking Chinese people ever!” Even J complains about the way men look at women (and girls) here. As she gets more mature she is also the recipient of such looks and it is disturbing to her.

But they are not always necessarily unpleasant looks unlike our maitre d’ who is (unpleasant that is). One look at us and he sees that we are not high rollers like some of the other patrons of the hotel. Is it the beer and mineral water we order or our relative youth compared to other patrons? Is it the fact that we tried to seat ourselves initially because we didn’t see him? He gruffly points in the direction of the food once he takes our drink order and we never see him again. R is worried that we have not brought any money to tip. I say for what though? He seated us brusquely, talked to us rudely then disappeared never to be seen again.

The hotel is very elegant and beautiful but the food has been disappointing. In the mood for something other than pasta or pizza, my tacchino is dry and the vegetables are overcooked – hello! is my mother in the kitchen cooking these things? There appears to be only remnants of a spaghetti dish and some gnocchi warming in a tray that J and R get the last bit of. Everything looks a bit picked over. But J enjoys the antipasto. The venue is beautiful. There is a wedding party in the pool area and the DJ is playing cheesy wedding-appropriate music. We see the bride going down in the glassed elevator that leads to the pool.

I refuse to be unhappy – that will be my new mantra here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 8: Il Sangue Chiama

 View of the hotel from the walkway to the pool
Il sangue chiama literally means “the blood calls” … and it usually refers to familial relations that cannot be broken, to people that you cannot tear yourself away from because of your blood connection but here I mean it as the call that your history and people make to you that you can’t resist.

As I type this I am looking over a balcony at the Baia Hotel Taormina that faces the Baia Taormina; a number of mountains are to my right and an endless horizon of sea to my left. R spots a rabbit and its baby hopping from one scrap of shade to the next in the gold and green brush below the balcony. The heat is so intense that there is no one on the beach and few meandering about. If I showed you the pictures you would not believe how gorgeous this part of the country is. Carved into a mountain beside the sea, the landscape is wild and a little dangerous looking with serpentine roads that curl and twist across the landscape from one small patch of “civilization” or hotel to another.
Despite my pretty little speech to J in Rome, I feel that the Romans are not truly my people, not my true ancestors … my people came from land like this: rugged, wild, dangerous, difficult to navigate, full of secrets like the hidden crags in the mountains.

I love hearing Sicilian spoken between the vendors on the streets and that the face of a waiter here reminds me of a particularly handsome cousin or uncle I have. I like to think of Giuliano and his men hiding in the hills of this island from the carabinieri in western Sicily on the other side of this island.

You know how they say in Hollywood that even the cops and the salesgirls are beautiful because of all of the gorgeous people that came to Hollywood and procreated? It’s a little like that in Sicily... The face of the car rental agent or the hotel maid can absolutely knock you out with its beauty. And the physical types vary so greatly in hair colour and skin hue and physical type.

Taormina is prosperous and proud of it. The little streets of the town centre are immaculate and the shops are (for the most part) not inexpensive. It is pristine and carefully maintained which is bit of shock after the chaotic energy of Firenze and Rome, full of beautiful if decaying ruins at every corner, a glut of sweaty tourists and irritated Romans and Fiorentines. Down the main “street” of the Taormina shopping district, which is almost like an extra wide alleyway between buildings the colours of pink, lemon, pale orange and peach, if you look left or right, there is another narrow pathway ascending up to another store or restaurant with pottery or jewelry or clothing or perhaps Sicilian kitsch.

This kitsch may be Godfather souvenirs, various symbols of the Trinacria, pottery, gladiator marionettes, cheaply made ceramic tiles and plates, gaudy fans, paper umbrellas or parasols to ward off the sun, but sometimes expensive antiquaries like prints and silver, paintings, and religious iconography. But I do like the Superman style T-shirts which say “Super Siculo”. Here is a descritpion of the origins: Siculo-Arabic (or Sicilian Arabic) was a variety of Arabic spoken in Sicily, Malta, and Southern Italy between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries. It is extinct in Sicily and Italy, but it has developed into what is now the Maltese language on the islands of Malta.

Driving in from Catania and the trip in from the airport was a bit harrowing. This was the thing that I dreaded the most in anticipating this trip – the car ride from Catania to Taormina - which is relatively short (about an hour). R and I were trying to navigate Sicilian style driving, an expensively rented car that we had to pay a premium for because we can only drive automatic (which are rare here) and a GPS system that we have never used before. It is a heart attack in the making on four wheels.

R said his heart was pounding and, for my part, my clothes were drenched in sweat – the motorcyclists and the scooters are absolutely fearless (or insane) here as they charge past you on the left and right recklessly trying to get ahead of everyone else between the racing cars. A red traffic light seems to be the sign for “go faster before someone tries to cross the street”.

The address we were given for the hotel was not correct so we spent some time trawling the roads of Taormina searching for the hotel. The address we ended up at was a derelict looking faded pink building that was shuttered and dirty and looked abandoned. No answer when I picked up the heavy, blackened knocker and tapped. My heat sank. Was this to be like our hotel in Rome? Finally a local in a heavy Sicilian accent at a nearby restaurant pointed across the bay and said to go there…some ten km. away. She was right. The hotel is just outside of Taormina in an even smaller town called Sant Alessio.

The kid and the husband were mighty impressed with the hotel as the last one was such a disappointment and I’m glad I let the travel agent talk me into it. J took one look at the room and said, “Now that’s more like it!” We walked the grounds after we unpacked: a spacious courtyard, two beautiful pools, a room that faces the sea with a spectacular view, a spa, a shuttle to Taormina, a large terrace.

We took the hotel shuttle at 6.00p and were dropped off on Via Luigi Pirandello in Taormina. We walked along the main strip looking for somewhere to eat. We found a little place called Pizzeria Ristorante Rosso Gambero (Red Shrimp) where we had antipasti, pasta carbonara and R had meatballs cooked between lemon leaves (it looked quite pretty actually!). Of course this had to be topped with gelato and as we walked back towards the shuttle we saw my sister F and her boyfriend T who had arrived from Trapani on the west coast of the island that day.

What a great surprise…we were to meet her here but I wasn’t anticipating seeing her on the street. She had flown in to Trapani, traveled to Palermo and back to Taormina all in the same day – basically traveled the length of the island. We shared a coffee and more gelato at a little café before parting. She was staying at the Hotel La Pensione Svizzera which is, coincidentally, also at Via Luigi Pirandello, 26. J had a cannolo at a pasticerria before we left for the hotel – better than the Hamilton cannoli we all love she said with confidence.

We caught the shuttle back at about 9.30p. The streets are very dark and winding at night. The trip takes about fifteen minutes. It reminded me a bit of taking a roller coaster in the dark – yikes – not my favorite thing to do. J just kept saying, “Look at me Mama, don’t look at the road!” to assuage my anxiety.

Tomorrow we find bathing suits for J and I, which I foolishly forgot to pack, and take a cable car down the mountain side the beach – coraggio Michela corragio!

 A wedding couple poses for pictures in 
Piazza Garibaldi in downtown Taormina.

P.S. With thanks to my cousin Michela La Rocca, a native Sicilian, for her gentle correction of my Italian.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day 7: Across the Tibor ...

 The Tiber River, that's the Fiume Tevere to Romans 

There was one especially magical moment as we passed the Tiber river to get to Vatican city at about 7.30a ... the air was misty and golden and I thought of all the great Romans who had passed over this river: the emperors and empresses, the slaves and warriors, the great leaders of the Roman empire, the ambassadors from other states. When J did not want to do one of the tours I had to give her a pep talk. I said, this is the history of your people. You should know what great things the Romans accomplished, the art they produced, the inventions, the lands they conquered ... oh yeah, and remember, that they had to enslave half the world to do it. Gulp. What a bunch of glorious jerks they must have been.

Ai yi yi ... why did I agree to a tour of the Vatican which starts at 6.40a when we are picked up by a driver from our hotel? The spouse and the kid are shooting evils my way ... can't back out now, we are going with another family and they have two kids. It wouldn't be fair to back out - the family honor is on the line. 

Each morning we wake to a musical alarm of Claudio Villa, one of my mother's favourite singers, now one of R's. The driver who takes us to the tour bus is cranky; he obviously hates tourists. Well ... join the club buddy, so do I, especially the hundreds of people touring through the Vatican with us.

The outside of the Vatican is literally a brick fortress, likely to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art encased within. We pass through a metal detector and follow a long serpentine line of gawkers through the Vatican galleries of which there are many ... there is a gallery of the maps of all the regions of Italy (where R snapped the photo of the island of Sicily below), ancient Roman sculpture, a hall of 400 year old tapestries.

Of course everyone is waiting for the big ones: the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo, La Pietà  sculpted by Michelangelo and now in St. Peter's Basilica, St. Peter's Square ....

In the Sistine Chapel (which we learned has been newly cleaned and which took fourteen years), the guards are unsmiling and strict. Women must cover their arms lest we offend God. They want us to keep relatively quiet and keep ssshhing us ... sssh, sssh, sssh they hiss as we peer up at the "The Last Judgment" and are judged by our captors the security guards. I did not know that it is within the chapel that the Cardinals vote on the next Pope and that the famous chimney which emits black or white smoke is here.

What is the word where a female artist feels emasculated by a male artist? That's how I feel when I see Michelangelo's work and the work of the great Italian artists who dedicated themselves to religious painting and sculpture here at the Vatican.

When some weary souls sit on the marble steps near the altar they are sternly told to get up. I get it, show some respect, it's not Disneyland although some of us are dressed as if it is. The Americans are the worst. They are mostly sloppy AND loud. Followed perhaps by the Australians and the Brits. I still recall two jerks smoking on the grounds of the Colosseum during the tour. We Canadians blend in so innocuously it's hard to tell who is one although one fellow Canadian guessed from my accent that I was not American and chatted me up about how miserable she was here in Rome.

I don't understand why the tour guides, many of them women, can navigate the Vatican in stylish heels, summer dresses and lovely chiffon scarves (or the male guides in dress slacks and shirts) in this 40 degree weather without breaking a sweat while the rest of us tourists schlep around in the shabbiest of clothing and footwear, looking like we are the last people trying to get of Saigon on the last helicopter - just absolutely desperate and bedraggled looking.

We enter the Tomb of the Popes between the floor level of the Constantinian Basilica and the nave of the modern Basilica where all the popes have been interred including St. Peter who is in a special section that is glassed off. We see all the chapels of St. Peter's Basilica which is the largest Christian church on the planet and cross St. Peter's Square at 11.00a which is, by now, blazing hot. Still it is a bit of thrill to see it in person - to stand where the throngs have stood and watched history happen.

At the base of St. Peter's Square we see two Romas begging (each separately): one very old, the other perhaps J's age. Their look is so distinctive: very dark skin although they are clearly Caucasian, long heavy skirts, head coverings or scarves and long hair. It's like something out of Prosper Merimee's Carmen.They look uncomfortable and unhappy and the large group of tourists are largely unresponsive to the begging.

Our guide Ray, or possibly Rey, an older, very well educated man insists on a meticulous explanation of all that we see; hence, the tour lasts almost four hours. We reach the Vatican gift shop at 11.05a and the bus returns for us at 12.15p. You never saw so many desperate people trying to catch that bus which couldn't accommodate all of us.

Crash at the hotel mid-afternoon ... R and J sleep, I write. I am desperate some days to record my thoughts and observations so this is a perfect time. R had a difficult day, his back was really bothering him but he soldiered on as did J albeit grudgingly and with some grumbling. Still, I appreciate the effort.

Last night in Rome ... we go for one last gelato at Blue Ice, a cheesy little gelateria on Via Sistina near our hotel - not the best we've had but we have never met a gelato we didn't like. 

Tomorrow we take a plane to Catania, Sicily and drive to Taormina!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day 6: In the Temple of the Gods

We walk to the Pantheon from the hotel, which takes about 30 minutes, and is not far from the Fountain of Trevi. It gives me a chance to examine the natives, both male and female. The upscale Roman female is a surprise for me … deeply tanned, harshly made up, stick thin or thin-ish, very stylish if loudly dressed with a cell phone permanently affixed to her ear and moving very fast across the pavement.

The male of the species is equally stylish: three piece suits in 40 degree weather, designer sunglasses and great leather shoes – also looks amazing on a scooter or motorcycle. The glamorous Roman style is definitely a reality amongst a certain group of affluent people.

At the Pantheon (J is pictured sitting here at one of the massive columns), we encounter two “gladiators” yukking it up with the tourists. They immediately ensnare us – they place a helmet on little eleven year old A’s head, and a plastic, rhinestone encrusted tiara on the resistant13 year old S then insist we take pictures with them where they appear to be spearing A through the stomach. Then one sticks out his palm and says “5 euros”. I say for what? For the picture, he says. Five euros EACH he adds. While we are processing this he shoos away an older Roma woman dressed head to toe in a long black skirt and kerchief begging for money and barks in Italian to her, “O, lavoro qui!” (Ohhh, I am working here!).

The attitude toward the Roma is very unpleasant and obvious especially among the scam artists on the street. You should see the travel tips we received about watching for the swarms of “gypsy” children who might steal your wallet.

V, mother of the two kids, starts to negotiate the price down with the bigger of the two “gladiators”. I’ll give you fifteen she says. He grumbles but accepts. He’s lucky that it wasn’t my kids because I think I would have told him where to put his plastic sword.

We walk into the Pantheon, once a temple for the Roman gods, built in the 2nd c. AD then co-opted by Christians and elegantly plastered with religious iconography (admittedly it is beautiful). The kings Umberto I and Victor Emmanuel are buried here as well as the painter Raphael. The circular aperture at the top lets the sunlight in so that it hits a certain portion of the Pantheon every hour then slowly moves around the circular room resting on various paintings and sculptures. The effect is quite beautiful.

After lunch we go on our three hour tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum – three hours in the broiling sun. Rome is an inferno this day! Our guide Stefano, whom I believe is likely a German, is excellent – funny, articulate and knowledgeable – engaging all of us, children and adults alike.

We learn things we had never known about the Colosseum: how the barbarians who attacked Rome removed the metal rods from the stone columns that support the building (which were there to withstand earthquakes) and melted down the metal for weapons; what food the people ate as snacks during gladiator games (nuts, fruit, chicken!) and the graffiti they wrote; that there is no documentation proving that Christians were slain at the Colosseum; a primitive elevator operated by levers lifted elephants and lions into the Colosseum; so many lions were slain that they became rare and extremely valuable in Rome; that the gladiators had to enter the Colosseum by underground tunnels because they would be thronged by fans and the Roman equivalent of puck bunnies at a hockey game. Classy act that a portion of the tour group is, two young punks slowly smoke their cigarettes during at intervals during the tour.

One thing the Christian Romans were very adept at was "re-branding" the pagan edifices - pictured here is a plaque installed at the Colosseum presumably acknowledging Christianity or the Pope's influence much much after it was built. It was a surprise to see it there as construction started between 70 and 72 AD. At right, R standing before the Colosseum (picture taken by J).

Across the street from the Colosseum are the remnants of the Roman Forum – the Roman Senate; the place where Caesar’s corpse was cremated; great arches commemorating emperors. It’s a strange space, some buildings are entirely intact; elsewhere, bits of columns and stone lay about in piles as if the Romans have no idea what to do with them. Will they try and assemble them or are they loathe to remove them because of their historical value? R also notices columns and bits of stone by the sides of the road. I found this explanation on-line:

The Forum was the marketplace of Rome and also the business district and civic center. It was expanded to include temples, a senate house and law courts. When the Roman Empire fell, the Forum became forgotten, buried and was used as a cattle pasture during the Middle Ages. Much of the forum has been destroyed. Columns and stone blocks are all that remain of some temples. The Arch of Titus and the Arch of Septimius Severus still stand and are in good shape. Like many other ancient Roman buildings, stone blocks have been removed from the Forum and used to build nearby churches and palaces.
Excerpted from

To the left is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, one of the best preserved buildings on site. After the death of his wife Faustina, the Emperor Antonius Pius built a temple in her honor in 141 AD. It was converted in the Middle Ages into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda. 

On the last stop of the tour, we are taken to Piazza Venezia, which is dazzlingly white and immaculate, peopled with gigantic sculptures by Michelangelo. The steps are vast and impressive and our guide walks us down them to the bottom. I wonder how many Romans make this trip or are they bored beyond belief by their history by now?

From the sublime to the ridiculous ... there is no time for shopping until tonight. There is a shoe store on Via Sistina that has caught my eye. I ask 14 year old S, who is as obsessed with shoes as I am, if she and her mom would like to come. J, who has not entered into the girly girl phase yet (or perhaps ever)  demurs. Every time we pass a shoe store S and I turn to each other and say “Shoes!” I find three pairs for 32 euros in total: one cloth pair of flip flops with cream coloured rosettes; white sandals with a flower design and black sandals with a large flower atop. Shoes!

The Arch of Septimius Severus has reliefs of Septimius Severus's victories in what is now present day Iraq and Iran carved into the arch during the 3rd c. It also honors his two sons, Caracalla and Geta who fought with him in the war.  The Forum had been flooded, buried and forgotten for many centuries. During this time the half of the arch that was above ground was used to house a barber shop. Excerpted from

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 5: Do as the Romans Do ...

We take a train from Firenze to Roma which takes just over an hour. Across from my seat, I meet a lovely couple named Bob and Cynthia from Mobile, Alabama traveling with their twelve year old grandson Andrew. They told us that when each of their grandchildren turns twelve they go on a trip with their grandparents. Lucky Andrew traveled to Munich, Siena, Firenze and will go to Rome as well. They were at the rehearsal for the Palio as one of their friends lives in Siena and offered them his seats as a member of the "Istrice" Contrada. Wonderful couple - we exchanged e-mails as we parted.
Our driver picks us up from the train station. His name is Giancarlo and he is wearing a three piece navy blue suit in this blazing hot weather. He is a combination of a James Bond character and the "Italian" guy who doesn't really speak Italian played by Bill Heder on SNL ... very charming and warm and inadvertently funny.

Our hotel in Rome is the Hotel Internazionale, Via Sistina 79, near the Spanish Steps. It is a very odd place compared to the elegance of the Borghese Palace Art Hotel in Firenze. My first guess was that it was converted from a religious residence. It turns out that it was a series of chapels with attached residences. Dark wood, funereal burgundy red carpeting and an odd configuration for the hotel suites. Last furbished in the 50s or 60s with a funky smell and dirty walls. The reception area looks likes the the counter of car rental agency. One concierge surreptitiously smokes at the front desk. The lone bell hop is probably sixty and none too happy about it. The kids are creeped out by the atmosphere and I really can't blame them.

The only two positives are: a pretty outdoor terrace all to ourselves and the proximity to the Spanish Steps (also known as the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti pictured here to the right). We walk down the steps and try and make our way down to the Trevi Fountain. You can't imagine the scope of this until you see it. As we stood before it (with about four or five hundred of our closest and personal friends), I was imagining Anita Ekberg dancing in its waters in La Dolce Vita. The building began in 1732 and ended some thirty years later. It was turned off and draped in black in honor of Marcello Mastroianni after this death in 1996.

A friend back home had recommended a certain gelateria called the San Crispino Gelateria, Via Panetteria, 42, near la Fontana di Trevi, claiming it to be the "best" in Rome. Pretty darn good, pretty darn good, I would say.

We wandered towards the Palazzo del Quirinale, the current official residence of the President of the Italian Republic on Quirinal Hill, the tallest of the seven hills of Rome. It was originally built in 1583 by Pope Gregory XIII as a papal summer residence. We saw a military procession in progress. Behind it was a little park where the air was cooler and there was a gentle breeze. Children were playing soccer, people were walking their dogs without a leash and walking on the grass (all strictly forbidden according to the signs). This one time sentry box (featured to the right) was near il Quirinale.

Where to go for dinner? I spoke to the concierge and showed him a list of suggestions made by the travel agency and asked which was closer. He mentioned a couple so we went to one closest to the Trevi Fountain but it appeared to be closed. It was late (much after 8) so we settled on the first thing that we happened upon called ... Grill & Wine Restaurant, Via in Arcione 74/75. Okay, the English name should have warned us but the charming host sort of pulled us in as we walked by. Charm, they have, these Romans (when required).                                                                                

My risotto was delicious but R and J were disappointed with their pasta dishes and the bruschetta. It was too hot, a little claustrophobic, not particularly comfortable and a "live" musician played an endless series of Bee Gees and Pink Floyd accompanying himself with a pre-recorded tape. Still there was a great deal of laughter and fun.

We walked home and wanted to take a look at the Spanish Steps at night. Something to watch out for for new tourists such as us: a scam I have noticed played out several times now. A vendor approached us to ask us to buy some roses. We said no politely. Then he insisted that he give both J and I a free rose. We resisted and he insisted. He asked where we were from. "Canada," we said. Then he offered to take our pictures with our camera. I could see that R did not want to but he relented (R had figured out what this guy was after). Then the man asked for money, politely then in a more irritated manner. R said no. I handed him back the roses. He stalked off muttering angrily about Canada blah blah blah Canada blah blah blah to his colleagues. Then I saw the same scenario played out with another couple - they were nicer than us an paid the man some money. We slunk home, hot, tired and very full. And with a funny story under our belts.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 4: Don't Touch Me ... We're in Firenze

Next to the Borghese Palace is the Firenze Tourist Bureau 
with some lovely classical statuary in its doorway.

The day began with J not feeling great. It was a quiet day. The day was shaping up to be as hot as the day before so R zipped out and bought a few sandwiches for her and himself and decided to stay in while I made the trip to the Accademia Gallery with our friends. R had been there many years ago and graciously offered to stay with J so that I could go.

Down past Il Duomo, we dodge the tourists and try and stay in the shade. It is another blazing hot day. Tempers flared a bit. The phrase of the day appeared to be "Don't touch me" as we were all so hot and not a bit irritated.
A column next to our hotel

The most impressive thing about the Accademia is the thirteen foot statue of David – which is even more awe-inspiring in person. P, a notorious joker, managed to take a photo of David which included a stuffed chicken that they have been carrying around during the trip and posing in various locations.

Of course, the day’s travels ended with another trip the gelateria – this one called Festival di Gelato which has the widest variety we have seen so far.

J still not well, so R goes ff to have dinner with friends and I play nursemaid. Luckily he brings back some fantastic Japanese food from Sushi Nami a few blocks from us on Via Matteo Palmieri 9. Yes, I know, Japanese food in Firenze? But it was great! Tomorrow we take a train to Roma ...

Many buildings here in Firenze have these beautiful paintings, 
sometimes of religious images, inset in the corner of the buildings.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Day 3: Siena, Fattoria San Donato e San Gimigiano

 Siena is closely linked with Rome; hence, the many images of Romulus and Remus 
suckled by the she-wolf which is a central myth of the origin of Rome.

Today we went on an excursion for which we had a private driver and a mini-van courtesy of our multi-talented travel agent Vittorio. Siena is one hour south of Firenze and the home of Il Palio, a semi-annual horse race in which ten of the contradas of the city compete.

The city is divided into seventeen sections or contradas, each with its own flag and emblems. The Palio is held in the middle of the city in a long circular enclosure surrounded by buildings and the watching crowd gathers in the middle section. The race is run in a circle around a crowd of approximately 7,000 according to our guide/driver Marc.

We missed the Palio by one day; they were cleaning up the day we went. It was the 750th anniversary of the event. The Selva (forest) Contrada had won. Siena is divided into seventeen Contradas which correspond to seventeen areas of the town. The names of the Contradas are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Turtle), Torre (Tower), Valdimontone (Ram).

That day, we saw a small parade of the Selva Contrada’s inhabitants dressed in vaguely medieval costumes and leotards bearing the colours of their Contrada: brilliant green, white and orange with the emblem of a rhinoceros on its flag. The men played drums and pipes and were followed by a troop of women, children and men wearing scarves with the same colours.

Siena is very pretty and obviously wealthy and makes Firenze look like Toronto in terms of multi-cultural diversity. At least in Firenze you see Hispanic, Asian, African and Arabic people who are the vendors and service personnel of the city. Siena's inhabitants and tourists are almost exclusively white. The shops are expensive and upscale and the streets have a pristine cleanliness that reminds me a bit of an exceptionally clean amusement park – no garbage, no drama and very few garbage receptacles. Therefore, it also made me a little uneasy despite its charm.

We left Siena for la Fattoria San Donato. This farm/winery was built in 1100 AD – in an absolutely stunning locale. It also rents apartments to tourists. We did a tour of the cantina where they store the wine and had a “light lunch” Italian style under a canopy in the beautiful countryside reserved for guests such as us. “Light” meant: penne pasta con succo, marinated funghi, sliced pecorino cheese and Italian cold cuts, marinated peppers, barley and tomato salad, crostini, red and white wine, cantuccini (small biscotti) and a dessert wine.

Above is a photograph of a mail box once used by the fattoria many many years ago.

We were reluctant to leave but had planned to go to San Gimignano, a small medieval fortress-like Etruscan village which is forty five minutes south of Firenze. At first you think how beautiful and well preserved it is but then it seems really disturbing – Disneyland clean and organized with no sense of who really lived there – no history evident just touristy shops, some expensive, some with just tacky souvenirs and a “torture” museum.

Were R and I the only geeks who wanted to have sense of what this place was about – who lived there, how this fortified village survived? By then, the 38 degree plus weather had worn us out and we decided to opt out of wine tasting in Chianti as nice as that would have been – I am sure that the kids could not have borne one more trip.

While at San Gimignano the girls made a great video.

Our friends found another great little restaurant I Ghibellini – large, homemade pizzas, calzones and pasta per tutti! How blessed we felt last night to be sitting there with good food and good friends in this beautiful setting.

R said that he could see himself living here in Firenze. A small triumph for me. Two winters ago he refused to consider the idea of living anywhere else but Canada. Today he was looking for apartments to rent!

This a picture of R at San Gimignano ... a friend said that it looks like he is ascending to heaven. How appropriate!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Day 2: A Room and Many Views

Near the Piazza del Duomo
Up at the crack of 8.30a to have breakfast at the hotel with our friends – a great assortment of delicious croissants, cereals, eggs and bacon, breads and toast and friendly service. 

We walk to the Piazza del Duomo – and it is a surprise. It is both massive and a little shabby. It is in the process of being cleaned and looks a little like an old lady with only a portion of her makeup on. The photo on the left was taken by R from a clock tower near Il Duomo.

It is 15 euros for the grand tour which we pass on and go instead to the Michelangelo Galleria on Via Cavour.  The exhibit consists of “interactive machines reproduced from Leonardo’s codices”. The others explore, I sit and write in my journal.

On the streets, the two teenage girls we have literally stop traffic and elicit remarks from the male passersby. Nothing too risqué but the girls are to shy too respond with their usual acidic come backs. And we, the mothers, are too far behind them to respond either. Welcome to Italy.

In the afternoon, we do the first of our tours to Fiesole on a coach bus. It resides in the hills above Firenze. From Via San Domenico we see the town and the Arno valley. It is populated by beautiful villas – converted convents and seminaries as well as a former residence of Queen Victoria’s. The valley is lush, fertile and green - a lovely contrast against the peach and lemon coloured villas. On the way back to the city we pass the English Cemetery of Firenze where Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried.

Back in the downtown core our guide Alessandro shows us many of the architectural sights our friends have already shown us but the tour ends with a trip through the Uffizi and we get to see some of the classic paintings up close that we have only ever seen on TV or on coffee mugs and calendars: Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half shell” and “Primavera” as well as Tiziano's “Venere di Urbino” and DaVinci’s “The Holy Family”. But I see some beautiful paintings that I have never seen before: “Susanna nel Bagno” by Floris Francesco and “Amore e Psyche” by Spagnola. Our guide has a charming way of saying, "And now I would like to introduce you to ..." as he brings another painter to our attention.

Piazza Delle Signoria
In the long U shaped building of the Uffizi we pass a long corridor of statues in the Greek and Roman style – many of them male nudes. I jokingly ask thirteen year old J and her friend S not to look. S says to me with a mischievous smile, “But we are counting!” You can imagine what they are counting … Later I ask her how many and she replies, “Billions!”

The tour ends on the upper level of the Uffizi on a terrace facing the Piazza Delle Signoria. The guide says to us, “If you are not happy after this, I don’t know what to say to you!” He was lovely man. La Fontana de Nettuno (the Fountain of Neptune which is pictured above) can be found in the Piazza.

The Uffizi staff who man the exhibits are a surprising bunch. Their uniforms are unfortunate - they look like custodial janitors and they are a slovenly, undisciplined bunch guarding some of the most valuable art in the world. One woman sat in her dark sunglasses with a cellphone in hand and a trashy novel by her side and rose to take a call with a room full of people who were peering into a roped off room at some Rembrandts we were not permitted to see. Her role was to guard it.

After the Uffizi, we find another gelateria – the kids have been great and they deserve it.

The lobby of our hotel
Home to clean up – the tour has lasted four hours and the kids have been beyond good with a minimum of moaning. We are hot and sweating and in need of a good shower before dinner. To the left is a shot of the lobby of the hotel with some of the featured art.

We have dinner at Palatino just down the street from the hotel. The waiters act as if they have been raised from a good sleep and aren’t happy about it but the food is good: gnocchi, bruschetta, insalate caprese, tagliatelle – all well done at moderate prices.

Across the street from the hotel we find a little costume jewelry shop and J buys two rings: one for herself and one for S and then we bid all a goodnight.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day 1: Firenze Via Roma

We left on a 9.40p overnight flight from Toronto to Rome and then transferred from Rome to Florence. R is smiling at the Fiumicino airport in Rome and I know why – already everything feels different. The airport and its shops are very chic and clean and easy to navigate even though we are (primarily) non-Italian speaking.

The Toronto to Rome flight was a fine, albeit sleepless, night for me. The only glitch is a delay in the flight from Rome to Florence which should take an hour but ends up taking three hours door to door. We sit, with no explanation, in the lounge for forty five minutes and another forty five minutes on the tarmac because there are too many planes waiting for take off.

We are to meet our friends V and P and their family in Firenze; they were coming from Germany and then Venice and meeting us there. We lost a crucial piece of luggage which contains all of our clothes and some toiletries for R and myself. After trying to track down the missing luggage we consequently miss the driver who was assigned to take us to the hotel. He had been waiting for two hours. No cell service on our phones makes everything more complicated (Note: this is through Bell Mobility apparently Rogers would have been fine).

No matter, we take a taxi from the airport for €24 and luckily find our friends waiting for us in the lobby of the Borghese Palace Art Hotel at Via Ghibellina, 174 which has an intriguing mix of modern art for sale in its lobby, a winding three storey glassed staircase through a courtyard and ultra modern furnishings in the hotel room as well as a very friendly and hospitable staff. My only gripe is the absence of easily accessible wifi in the rooms. We need a internet cord to connect in our rooms which I don't figure out for a few days.

One staff member told our friends that the palace was once owned by Napoleon's sister Pauline Bonaparte who had married Prince Camillo Borghese, one of - if not the - richest men in Italy at the time and resided in Firenze (this would have been about 200 years ago). One hundred years ago it was also a brothel. Hmmm....

Our friends have already been here for a day so have poked about and have found one or two nice little restaurants to try. We walk to the Ponte Vecchio and get our first glimpse of the Arno river (this photo above was taken from the Ponte Vecchio). The city is lousy with tourists like us – gum chewing, flip flop wearing, camera laden gawkers, crowding the streets as scooters, bicycles, buses and cars race by, narrowly missing pedestrians. No wonder Europeans dislike us when they see slatternly teenagers taking off their shoes and examining their blistered feet and complaining loudly to all and sundry. I don't find the Fiorentines (except fro our hotel staff) to be terribly friendly. The locals on the street are clearly visible - they are the men wearing tailored slacks in 40 degree weather while the tourists are schlepping around in baggy shorts and dirty sandals.

The city is a visual revelation with female constables, cigarette hanging from mouth; an older woman long skirt and scarf, possibly a Romi, and her little dog on the streets begging; a tower of Babel – Brits, Germans, Northern Europeans, Italians from other parts of Italy, real housewives from New Jersey (judging by the accents), Spaniards, Americans, Canucks, pinkish red South Africans, Asian tour groups armed with umbrellas and fans.

The oldest parts of Firenze have a fortress like feel at times reflecting the medieval nature of the architecture. It is relatively clean with very little litter although the city has a worn down feeling at times. But there is something about the light here ... everything is imbued with lovely golden glow in our pictures.

We have dinner at Mamma Gina Ristorante – moderately priced and friendly if a bit dull – waited on by a server who used to live in Wisconsin, given away by his fairly good English.

We pass through the Piazza della Signoria (Rulers’ Square) and the Palazzo Vecchio and get our first taste of gelato at the Queen Victoria Gelateria. The name seems odd to me but later we learn that the queen had a residence in Fiesole, a little town in the hills just outside of Firenze (more on that later).

We saw the exact spot in the Piazza where Girolamo Savonarola was executed. On the day of his execution he was taken along with Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia to the piazza.
The three were ritually stripped of their clerical vestments, degraded as "heretics and schismatics", and given over to the secular authorities to be burned. The three were hanged in chains from a single cross and an enormous fire was lit beneath them.
Nice. A circular inscribed stone marks the place. The piazza had, that night, a troop of Spanish girls singing and dancing at one corner and many young students who seemed to be passing through the piazza.

Because I had not slept at all on the flight I crashed sideways on the bed at 11 o’clock, not hearing R’s phone call to my mother nor J’s call to a friend. R has to nudge me to sleep properly on the bed. I slept the sleep of the wicked till morning. It’s quiet and dark and verrry comfortable in our room.