Sunday, July 22, 2007

11/7/07: Tuscany, Italy - Last Day

Montagne ItalianiOur last day was pretty uneventful. We packed. We sat and read in the garden. We took pictures of the hills. We played 40-40 with one of the family nieces. We practiced our Italian in context for last time.

Cath's "ciao" and general pronunciation was praised a couple of occasions. Mine was not praised. "Ciao," as everybody knows is a general greeting meaning hello and goodbye. What less people know is it literally means "(I'm your) slave." This came as a mild surprise. I checked, and there seem to be no more surprises. For example "Buonasera" does not mean "beat me like the unworthy slime that I am," and "Arrivederci" does not mean "Arrange my vital organs in a dirty pile in the corner for you own me."

Keean says goodbye the only way he knows how by eating a leaf. And, yes, his shirt does say 'are we nearly there yet?'Then it was time to go to the airport. We said our farewells (or "flay me well" as it possibly meant) and thank yous ("thrust a plank up my behind for being unworthy of you") and allowed ourselves to be driven to the little airport that services the mostly upright city of Pisa.

We were early enough to have time to scan the duty free to find a pricier Limoncello which seemed to be free of additives. The flight was initially delayed for an hour, but the delay mysteriously disappeared and we headed off pretty much on time. It being midweek, the flight was reasonably empty, but both of us would have happily suffered a full flight for a few extra days in the glorious Tuscan environment.

It had been great to spend so much time with my brother. We hadn't spent this much time together since we were teenagers and the conversation back them was a lot more antagonistic.

One thing is certain from this trip. Having spent one week in the company of a small child, two cats are a piece of cake, no matter how needy one of them is. And if you lock a cat in a box, nobody is horrified at you the same way they are if it's a child. I think there's a lesson there for us all.

Your Detestable Slave,

Saturday, July 21, 2007

10/7/07: Marina di Pisa, etc, Italy - Squids In

Another hot, quiet day. Because only mad dogs, Englishmen and their American girlfriends go out in the midday sun, Cath and I borrowed the bikes lying around the beach flat garden and cycled along the coast to Marina di Pisa. The bikes were a little small, slightly aged and mine had a wobbly wheel. They were just like Amsterdam, in fact.

We got to see all the various beach resorts along the coast. Ours looked the most select. After a while, they stopped and there were public beaches. Most of these did not have sand but rocks. But hey, they're free. Marina di Pisa was rather quiet at this time of day. The supermarket (a Co-op) was open, as foretold, and we chained up our bikes with tiny locks that would have got laughed at in Amsterdam, but were probably superfluous in this quiet seaside town.

In the supermarket we stocked up on a few things to take back including orzo (hot barley drink). We also looked at the sheep's cheese as there are some great ones in Italy. We tried to find Limoncello that was free of "natural flavours" but to no avail. We did, however, see huge whole, frozen squids in the freezer department, but decided it was impractical to bring them back. Plus, they would defrost en route and run amuck like on that film, "Motherf***ing Squids on a Plane." (Or was it called "From Here to Calamari"?)

In the evening we were back at the family house and drove out to an awesome pizza restaurant with about 30,000 pizza choices on the menu, all of them great. At the meal were myself, my girlfriend, my brother, his girlfriend, their son, my brother's girlfriend's sister, my brother's girlfriend's sister's boyfriend and my brother's girlfriend's sister's boyfriend's cousin. Got that?

Friday, July 20, 2007

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 3: Every Church has its Thorn

nubi lanuginose bianche (White, fluffy clouds)Back out in the heat, we walked through the throngs and throngs of tourists that gorm around such tourist webs as this. We wandered down the main street away from the square to find somewhere off the tourist path to eat. We thought we found somewhere, but when we read the small-print of the menu, we realised we were definitely on the tourist path. A one euro cover charge and a 20% service charge. This in a country where tipping seems not very common and in a place that had 2% worth of service if I was being generous. We had some passable attempts at Italian food and coffee. I guess we were paying for the shady bushes around their terrace, which admittedly were pleasant.

Pisa street sceneWe had a bit more of a look through the guidebook and its stoner's history of the area. Catherine commented on how often fascism plays a part in Italian history, and sometime later I wondered if there was any relation between fascism and fashion. Fashion is actually a form of fascism, or at least dictatorial pressure from a self-appointed few. They sound like they should have the same verbal root, but it seems they don't.

We did some more wandering after this, taking in the town and avoiding the sun. We stopped and bought a pocket dictionary and a book of local recipes, including cecina (see earlier entry), in the local language to help us with our new fascination with Italian that we hoped to continue. Even then we knew, fascinations with languages of travel destinations are like holiday romances. They seldom continue for long after the trip is over. However, I still say this one is different.

River Arno yet again. It's a nice river, leave me alone.On our way back out to the station, we went past La Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina (the church of Mary of the Spine). I guess the translation is more like thorn than spine. The story is the church was built to house a thorn brought back from the holy land. This thorn was supposedly one of those from the crown that Jesus wore on his last day. (Well, the last day not including the bit where he came back.) It was obvious that this happened in the Holy Land and not Italy, otherwise the Bible would recall some Mary or other coming up to Jesus and saying "Do you really think that's fashionable?" Perhaps even adding, "That so 5 BC."

The Thorn(y) issue caused an animated discussion (by our standards) about belief in those days and whether people really thought this was one of the real thorns or whether it was hedging their bets, building a church because you didn't want to be disrespectful if it really was one of Jesus' thorns. I personally believed that everyone up the line believed it was true, but do wonder if the stall keeper in the Jerusalem market might have had a wry smile on his face during the transaction.

Relics from the crucifixion was one of the big industries in Palestine in the early part of the first millennium. It's been estimated that if all the bits of wood sold as official parts from The Cross were put back together, you could build a crucifix that could deal with Godzilla or any of his disciples.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della SpinaAnyway the church was shut so we have nothing more to go on. The guide book gave no indication if the thorn was still in the church. Thorns don't tent to last 2000 years. (Editor's note: The interweb is in some doubt as to whether the spine is still in the church, has been moved or was lost down the back of the altar after a particularly heavy sermon.)

We bought our tickets back and waited for the bus. The public transport is remarkably easy here, except that you have to buy your tickets for the bus before hand, usually from tobacco shops. But once you know that...

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina as seen from over the Ar-Ar-no

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 2: On the Pisa

St. Caterina's - facelift in progressJust over from the park was our first post-brunch port of call. Il Chiesa di St. Caterina was supposed to have a nice interior plus being named after one of Lady Catherine's namesakes. However the building was having its façade worked on and we had to leave it be.

We walked a bit more, past some random ruins, not in the guide, of a former Roman baths. It was one of those things where if there hadn't been a plan and description with diagrams of what it used to look at, the uneducated in ruins such as ourselves would have just looked at it and said, "looks like a bit of a castle."

Heroes of Prog RockAfter a short bit we saw the crooked top of one of the world's most recognisable landmarks peering over the buildings. Within a couple of minutes we were staring at the full drunken glory of the Leaning Tower.

Pretty soon after the tower was completed in 1370, and it was already leaning, I'm certain a poor potter whose work was not good enough to be selected for one of the many churches, made a miniature potted copy of the tower. Nowadays there are factories and factories churning out scores of these every day. And its not just statues any more. Lamps in the shape of the tower are popular. That is popular with the stall holders. I never saw anyone actually buy one. Also common are T-shirts, leaning mugs and I wouldn't be surprised if I saw leaning platform shoes. Stalls selling such prized works of art form the gateway to the Piazza di Duomo and suggest the likelihood of there being a higher than normal concentration of tourists in the following neighbourhood.

Leaning Tower of Pisa Left Side
Leaning Tower of Pisa Right SideIt's quite impressive to see it up close, but it is one of the world's most used images so it somehow doesn't feel new. I was expecting it to be more disorientating. Unfortunately, the wonder of "How does it stay up?" has long since gone. There are explanations everywhere of the procedures that have been put in place to keep it standing but leaning enough to still bring the tourists. In many ways the tourist industry has done very well out of what was basically bad planning and flawed surveying. But what we are often much more interested in the freakish than the beautiful.

someone having picture taken in classic poseWe didn't go in the tower, as it's quite expensive and we would have had to wait until the evening before a slot was free. Plus, I would have only gotten up a few flights in such a twisted building before vertigo kicked in. There is no way I could have appeared at the top and stood there looking down at the leaning world. We didn't even do the classic photo of us holding up the tower. We watched a few people doing it, all duplicating pictures taken since the dawn of photography. My idea was to take one with my having done a karate kick from the other side, but I'm sure this would be duplicating pictures taken since the dawn of kung fu movies.

Pisa Cathedral
Pisa Cathedral doorWe did go in the cathedral near the tower. This is because it was a lot cheaper and Cathedrals are always cool. Cool as in cold. Plus there were no high bits you had to go into.

The cathedral is a big affair thrust full of art and artefacts. To go in, men had to remove their hats, and ladies had to cover their shoulders. This is pretty typical in Italian cathedrals, as I recall. For the purposes of the latter, there were blue coats provided which looked like the sort of thing you have to wear in hospitals. The blue really didn't fit in well with the sombre twilight of the interior. The shoulders of young children were perfectly allowed to be visible as far as we could see. I expect there's a passage in La Bibbia that states this rule exactly. "And upon entering the house of God, all heads shall be laid bare and the shoulders of women of marriageable age shouldst be covered by sheets of the holiest blue."

Pisa Cathedral Emergency Room Blue smocksEven when the theme is religion, there were a great deal of subjects for the pictures that lined the walls of the cathedral. There were ascensions to heaven; martyrdoms, sermons being given. Something Catherine pointed out is something that is common for a great many such pictures. Often when such and such a person is saying or doing something important, the picture has lots of other people in them. However, these people, for the most part, are paying no attention to the main action of the picture and are doing their own thing. It seems odd that something that was an important moment, perhaps one of the plot points in the Bible, instead of everyone looking and heightening the importance of the event, practically everyone else is looking away, and in some cases even looking bored. I'd have burned them all as heretics.

Pisa Cathedral main altarWhat we did not seem to have a photo of was a picture of a rather malevolent looking Jesus being carried by a particularly worried Mary. Maybe we took it and it didn't come out. Anything is possible with a painting like that.

Sculptures are also prevalent. One of the smaller pulpits was surprisingly modern and cubist, depicting Jesus and two other characters, one of them looking highly doubtful. Probably Simon. The main pulpit was a large cage sitting on a forest full of lions killing gazelle. The message here was clear. Listen to what the guy up there says, or be pounced on by the Lions of Satan. The Lions of Satan are Pisa's premier Heavy Metal band. Not to be confused with Leaning Tower, who are definitely Prog Rock.

Pisa Cathedral ceiling
Pisa Cathedral side altar
Pisa Cathedral Saint in a box

9/7/07: Pisa, Italy - part 1: Awesome Area for an Aria

Houses on the Arno in PisaFrom the coast there are far more buses towards Pisa than from the village, so we took the opportunity to sample public transport life. It's a nice ride, along the sea side, through quiet fishing villages and along the grandiose river Arno. The Arno is familiar to Catherine from her days singing Italian opera tunes. Many are the poor lovelorn souls who had proceeded to throw themselves into this stretch of water after a lengthy song on that very subject. Promptly followed by the man or woman who actually loved them after all and then pretty much the rest of the family. My understanding is that if anyone is left standing at the end of an opera, the audience pretty much tears the chairs up and demands their money back.

The Arno in Pisa againThe bus drops you at the bus station a little out from the centre, but not quite "the middle of nowhere" as the guide book puts it. Admittedly it's not right underneath the Leaning Tower, but it forces you to study the geography of the town and exercise those legs.

The first thing we did when we got there is had our morning coffee. However, this being Italy and because we didn't specify any further we got espressos. Espressos so strong they gave us twice the recommended daily dose of coffee in a cup the size of a boil. It was tasty coffee, however.

The Famous Upright Building of PisaOnce the coffee had been downed, we moved on. We walked up to the Arno, peered in, looking for fished and drowned tenors, and then wandered up to and over the next bridge. Over the bridge and you are in the city centre. Streets are narrower and tourists wider.

The very outskirts of the town had been horrible in that dirty and dusty, industrialised way a lot of small towns are. The centre is much, much nicer, and bits of it are architecturally wonderful.

narrow shopping streetWe wandered for a bit in the narrow part of town until we found a small park where we had the brunch we had made that morning. There we planned our attack.
Facade of old church
door of old church
Pigeon in tree knot

Thursday, July 19, 2007

8/7/07: Tirrenia, Italy – Frutti Di Bosco

A pretty lazy day due to heat and Keen not feeling 100%. Cath and I went for a walk through the woods just before the heat. There are two parts to the woods. In one part, according to local rumour, escaped Albanian prisoners hide out and attack everyone who enters. In the other part, on the other side of the road, animals scamper freely and birds eat seeds out of your hand. We went into the latter part. We didn't see many animals, especially not the wild boar that the posters promised, and nothing ate out of our hands, but on the other hand, we didn't see any escaped Albanian prisoners and were not robbed, kidnapped, raped or made to sing the Albanian national anthem under pain of death. I'm a bit sceptical as to the truth in these rumours, by the way. But not knowing the Albanian national anthem, it was best to be on the safe side.

In the evening, we walked into Tirrenia town centre. Keean decided he only wanted to be pushed half the way and would have loved to crawl the rest pushing one of his toy cars. As this would have made the journey last an hour, we (that is his parents) carried him.

In the trees, many a cicada (Italian: cicala) chirruped. We don't really have cicadas in the UK. They sound like crickets, but in the US they act more like locusts and every few years descend en masse to carpet the streets with their carcasses.

There was a funfair in Tirrenia. We all went on the kiddie roller coaster. It was about as cramped and bumpy as an easyJet flight, and Keean decided very early on it was not his thing. In a few short months, he'll probably be screaming to get on them, but not just yet. The merry-go-round was more to his liking. We then found one of those nice sedate racing cars they have outside random places that move about for 50 cents. Keean loved just sitting in it, spinning the wheel like a pro, but when we put the money in and the thing started moving, it was a different story. This he didn't like. He's certainly a cheap baby, in this respect. However, after a few more minutes just sitting in the thing, we had to make room for paying customers.

On the way back, we stopped off for a drink and a delicious home-made ice cream. I had fruits of the forest (Frutti Di Bosco, who sounds like one of the girls from the TV show) and pistachio (Pistacchio, who sounds like a little wooden boy with a nut for a nose).

Our evening hot drink of choice in Italy soon became orzo. This is a hot barley drink which tastes remarkably like coffee but with zero caffeine. That's less than decaffeinated coffee, which does have some caffeine still. Obviously during the day we were on the coffee which is great in Italy, of course, but usually served way, way stronger.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

7/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – A Different Fashion

My brother gets by pretty well with his Italian, picked up over the years. Neither Catherine or I had any experience of it before, but were able to understand quite a bit considering. Catherine spent a few years on Spanish which helps; we both studied French which is useful; and Italian has a pretty simple grammar, a frequently familiar vocabulary and pronunciation that is pretty straight-forward and actually related to the spelling compared to say English or French.

It was quite refreshing to be somewhere where people generally only know a couple of words of English. It was remarkable how well we could understand and how well people could understand us. Mind you we only knew a few words which were all pretty basic. Catherine took to it especially well, and I made her official translator. It helped that most of the time, we had my brother and his girlfriend around.

Fashion is a big thing in Italy. That morning a stylish septuagenarian friend of the family wandered into the house. She told my brother's girlfriend that if she was her daughter she would cut off her dreads as they are no longer fashionable. She told her sister that she was to dark to be fashionable, being as she was a sumptuous chocolate colour. Cath and I weren't brought into the conversations, but I doubt we would have come out well. I miss the days of heroin-chic, when I, pale and emaciated, could was in vogue.

Italian RiverTo avoid such human follies, Cath and I went for a walk along the river. It was getting towards midday and the sun was pretty darn relentless. Still nature continues unperturbed by the things that make us weary. We passed several all-black bees and some others that were black except for a sleek, yellow mark. Very stylish. Even the bees are chic here. Although I had expected the neighbour to reappear and tell the bees that all black was so last summer and they should get into the retro craze of orange and black stripes.

Where's the Butterflies?Several butterflies fluttered by gaily and crickets ground their legs musically. But for us the midday sun was getting too much, and we turned back to the shade of the house.

Later, once the sun had eased off, Keean was rested and fed, we drove to the seaside. It's not too far, but Keen hates being confined, so car journeys can be fraught because he has to be strapped in his chair by law (the law applies to all babies, not just Keean). Often they are a battle to keep his attention away from the fact his mother or father is in the front and not next to him and that he is strapped into a chair. It's hard work as babies have the attention spans that make teenagers look like research scientists.

BeachThe family has a flat very close to sea side. With five minutes walk you can be on the gorgeous sandy beaches around Tirrenia. This part of the beach is privately owned and you must pay money to have a spot there. So for a couple of thousand Euros a year, you have your own changing closet and a fixed umbrella you can call your own. It seems a lot, but the beach is gorgeous and divided between a large family, it's not much to have a guaranteed spot on a beach that if public would be swamped at the height of summer. It does mean this beach can be a bit snobby, and sitting there amongst the holidaying middling-to-moderately-well-off Italians, I have never felt so pale in my life.

Scene from The Thing that Came out of the Swamp and ate TijuanaThis picture is one of Catherine's favourites. She seems to think it looks like it's from a James Bond movie. It's the sunset that does it. Without that it would look like a scene from The Thing that Came out of the Swamp and ate Tijuana.

We even had a chance to look after Keen today. The parents went shopping and we watched him in the pool. As stated before, the little tike loves all things splashable, and for the first 20 minutes he was as happy as Larry (the merlamb). But with time came the realisation, we were not his parents. Once he realised this, there it was very difficult to stop him screaming. Looking at next door's pool would work for a few seconds, so would kicking a ball up the driveway, but soon he was back to screaming. I felt bad as it was during siesta time and lots of people take them during the day here.

It's not easy to deal with screaming children. Logic states that considering he wasn't really going to stop screaming until his parents arrived because nothing else was going to comfort him, you may as well shut him in a box to keep the sound down. But there seemed to be an unidentified flaw in this and an objection on emotional grounds, so we soon rejected the idea.

For dinner we have various vegetarian dishes, including spelt (an ancient form of wheat), whilst Keen spread his pasta over his face and table. He was perfectly content now he had his folks.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

6/7/07: Lucca, Tuscany, Italy – My Name Is…

After LunchLucca is a walled city not too far from Pisa. To get there we caught a train from a delightful station at San Giuliano Terme. The train was a slow, fullish commuter service, which even the fact it was in Italy didn't make it more exciting. What did make it more exciting was that it leaned really far over on corners.

The core of Lucca is surrounded but a great big wall, thick enough for there to be a very wide path on it and many trees to keep you shaded. In these times, when much of Europe is unbothered by the needs for defence of this sort, it has become the perfect place for joggers to tickle their hearts and dodge between the tourists. Bikes are common in Lucca, especially along the wall. Several gorms (that's the official term) of tourists passed us on our walk. At least one female American stated that this was "like the best bicycle path, ever." I have never seen the best bicycle path ever, but I now know I have seen one like it.

Fruit of DamaclesActually, the wall was the last thing we did. First we wondered around the inner part of the city. We found the main shopping street, wondered up and off it, and eventually, settled for lunch in a café with a small, well foliated garden. The branches and leaves formed a natural roof that kept out most of the harmful sun. Strange fruit hung from them. Many unripe and green, others huge and orange, ready to drop on your head at any moment. None of them fell the whole time we were there. It was later discovered these were called caca or something like that.

Buildings built on an AmphitheatreAfter lunch we went to find the part of town that was built on an amphitheatre. Basically, what this means is that the shape of that square and the streets around it conform to the shape of a Roman amphitheatre that used to be there. If you didn't know, you would not have noticed, except the streets there are called via amphiteatro and things like that. It's really not as exciting as seeing a real amphitheatre.

The town is not so big and doing a full circle of the wall is pretty easy. The trees make it very pleasant even in the heat of the day. It also allows you to look over a small part of the town.

Pfanner residence as seen from wallWhen we got back, we found that we should have taken in one of the churches which was quite splendid inside. I know from a trip to Venice some years back that when Italians want to do up a church, they don't just dash a bit of paint on a brush and have a different coloured skirting for variety, they really go to town. Given that back in the old days, the only place to exhibit your paintings to a wider public was in a church, it's no surprise that not only did all the great Italian artists spend much of their time painting pieces about The Madonna with Child, Saint This Rising to Heaven or Such-and-such of Someplace being Martyred by God-knows-who, but also that churches are chock-full of art. We didn't go in any churches despite here being about 100 within the walled area of Lucca. That seems to be about one church per 20 people.

some tower as seen from the wallAfter the wall, it was well into the start of evening. We caught the train back to San Giuliano Terme and were driven up into the olive-covered hills above the town. Here lives one of the uncles. A long line of trestle tables was laid out and a barbeque was lit. There is another cliché of Italian life: of a large extended family eating a hearty meal in the open air under olive trees. Again, in the one week we were there, we got to witness this as well. It was as wonderful as you would expect. A real slice of the good life. Obviously, much of the conversation passed us by, as very, very few people speak English. But we felt very welcome and it was great to see my brother really welcomed as part of the family.

Monday, July 16, 2007

5/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – All Kinds of Bimbos

Where we are staying is one of those places where everybody knows each other. Actually, as we are staying in one of three villages that have grown and now over lap a little, I should say, where we are staying are three of those places where everybody knows each other, but that's just weird. On the street, in the bars and shops, people greet my brother and girlfriend warmly and make a great fuss of the little one. Along back streets are houses of cousins or aunts. It's a very cosy community. It's so welcoming that people have no problem to come into your garden if they want to speak to you and will turn up on your door and ring only if the door is not open. It's very different to the north of Europe, and in particular the Netherlands, where some families require several weeks notice of a visit, even if you are a son or daughter.

It helps if you have a toddler around. Babies and toddlers are great ice breakers. People who might have just said "hi," and wondered off, stop and inform the young-un how adorable he is, and how big and clever he is going to be. The kid, who on his most fluent days is only at the stage of shouting "car" repeatedly, accepts this with good grace, and will laugh whole-heartedly if he approves.

Even the house we're staying in is a big friendly place, where several parts of the family live on different floors. We were kindly put up in the room of an elderly relative who spends part of the summer upstairs with another relative. The room is full of pictures of Himself, as he is called in Father Ted. That is Jesus. A few are of him with his mum, the Virgin Mary. It's interesting that in many pictures we have seen of the two of them together, how big and grown up Jesus looks. It's presumably to give him some gravitas, but it does make it look like he is being carried around and breast-fed well into his teens.

We had never before experienced home Italian cooking. The stereotype is that there is lots of it, it's delicious, one portion is pasta and that as a guest you are encouraged to eat and eat. This all is fact.

Italian TV show like the one we saw

The only stereotype I have for Italian TV is game shows with very hot women wearing very little. Again, the little we saw seemed to confirm this. One show that was on every night had two such women whose job was to smile at all times and wear negligible amounts. In between the bits where they presented things like prizes and doors to be opened, there were variety-style musical acts such as one-man bands, women who danced in an old style or tenors. There was also a confusing man in a Muppet-style suit who gallivanted around Mr Blobby style. Because he is not human (externally) he is allowed to molest the women, where as they are off limits to everyone else except the odd flirty peck on the cheek from the host. This law whereby Muppets are allowed to molest the womenfolk only applies in Italy, as those of us who remember the case of the State of California vs Mr Snuffalopogus will know.

It was interesting to note that in the UK, we would call the girls on that show, with the big smile, large chest and vacant expression, bimbos. It’s a word we heard a lot in Italy as it means baby or small child. In English, it wasn't always a derogatory expression towards women, it originally meant a bloke. By coincidence it came up in this context at this time as Catherine's holiday reading was a couple of PG Wodehouse novels. It's quite alarming how many words start off harmless enough but end up as derogatory expressions for women.

After dinner, we were introduced to a local lemon liqueur called Limoncello. Its a sweet after-dinner drink and is a wonderful way to wind up dinner and the rest of the evening. Ours was made by someone in the village so was pretty darn authentic.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

4/7/07: Tuscany, Italy – Looking Good

We arrived at Pisa airport to a good heat and were picked up by my brother and his mother-in-common-law. On the way back, we stopped off to buy several slices of pizza and two smells of cecina, thanks to a mix up in vocabulary. Cecina (pronounced checheena) is a flat Tuscan flan made of chick-pea and olive oil.

small car under blue flowersThere are many stereotypes about Italy. One is that they drive small cars like crazy people on narrow streets. This is actually very true. The older people are, apparently, the more crazily they drive. The opposite to how it is elsewhere. We were told how recently a friend of the family was knocked down (but fortunately not too badly hurt) by an 83-year-old woman. The woman didn't even stop, or at least she wouldn't have if she hadn't hit another car. Fortunately the octogenooligan has since had her licence removed.

In the UK, it is the youngsters who drive likes bats out Surbiton and people get slower with respectability, perhaps with a brief fluctuation for some guys in their 40s. In Italy, young people too busy looking good to drive fast. It is the old folk, still vital due to good diet, who speed around like bats out of Livorno.

Another stereotype is that everyone is very stylish. Again, this is fact. Even in a small village, outside of a small town, people are stylish. Out for a walk on our first day we bump into a friend of my brother's girlfriend out walking her dog. She was better dressed than the average northern European girl on a night out. We later pass a jogger, perfectly colour-coordinated in black and white.


I should mention that the trip to Italy is not random. It was in part to visit my brother who's staying there a month with his Italian girlfriend and their one-year-old son. Being half Italian, the kid usually looks pretty stylish, and even wears his nappies (diapers) in a jaunty, modish fashion.

Keean LookingOver the last couple of years, we have managed to just miss my brother several times when visiting the UK, and in fact had only managed to see the young-un once, shortly after he was born and merely a machine for turning milk into chemical weapons. Catherine had indicated it would be nice to see the little tyke before he starts college.

Keean is one. He loves animals, especially dogs, toy cars, digging and water. He also enjoys tasting local vegetation such as leaves and moss. He enjoys water so much that the lady next door calls him il pescino (the little fish). If there is a pool he can sit in, scoop stuff out of and pour elsewhere or lean in and simply splash, there you'll find little Keean.

4/7/07: Schiphol – How They Turned a Storm into a Tea Cup

Accurate depiction of a stormOver night were some of the brightest and loudest thunder storms we've had for a while. At least one burst was slap-bang overhead. Suddenly, sleeping on the top floor didn't seem so cool. But the storm passed and did not disturb too much of the short night.

In the morning, a light blue sky peered through a benetton of black, white and grey clouds. The streets, although puddled, were pretty dry. The storm had, however, left her mark. Due to a direct hit somewhere important, the metro was not running on our little stretch. It scuppered plans 1 through 8 for getting to the airport. We moved on to plan 9, which involved reviving the recently deceased using cosmic radiation. It was soon rejected as being too complicated for the time we had and we jumped in a taxi.

Our friendly taxi driver dropped us off at the heart of one of Europe's busiest airports on a pretty busy day. A melee of travelling souls, many resembling the recent deceased revived using cosmic radiation, stood in front of the Transavia counters. We were able to avoid the first throng because we had checked in online. I haven't quite understood the purpose of this for the airlines, but it can save you some time at the airport. Obviously we only missed the queue for the check-in area, but still had to queue at the luggage drop-off desks, which is in an identical area to the check-in area, but the queues are smaller. In theory the processing is quicker, but not by so much that you could do anything useful with the time saved.

This time there was extra processing because the flight was delayed. Somehow this meant that the seats we had selected online had been reset. We weren't able to change them at the luggage-drop desk we could have at the check-in desk, even though the girl presumably had the same computer system in front of her. Instead we had to go round the corner and petition another woman. Fortunately, we had to go and see this woman anyway as she had to give us a voucher to compensate for the fact our flight would be nearly 3 hours late.

The voucher was for the value of EUR 2.50, and next to a picture of a cup of something warm into which you could mutter. The following three boxes (for more money and depicting food items) were all unchecked to show you how concerned they were. I shouldn't complain. If you want to be treated like royalty, you shouldn't pay budget-airline prices.

Our mistake with the vouchers was to redeem them at Whorebucks where no coffee is as cheap as EUR 2.50.


Airports may once have been filled with happy, smiling travellers the way they are on the adverts for duty free (i.e. airport inflated) shopping, but not these days. Too many queues, too many delays, too many unforeseeable threats. Plus the glamour and rarity of it has long since gone. There is one group of people who do gad about with bright grins and playful demeanour. These are the ground crews who drive the carts that ferry around the old and handicapped. These buggies are basically golf carts, and always speed around the airport at a jaunty pace. There's no reason they should speed. Old or handicapped people don't need to be there any quicker, they just need to be there before the gate opens. No, the reason these carts speed around is because they can. Because they have license to speed through the crowds and through the spindly spider-arms that almost reach the planes like a royal chauffeur.

Almost as cheerful are the guys that go around on Segways, these space-age pogo-stick things on wheels. I think because there is some balance required and the fact they still look odd to most people, the drivers don't yet have as much fun as the buggy drivers. Its hard to be inconspicuous on them. In fact they conspick quite a lot.