So, this weekend past, I decided to try out that old truism, oft repeated with awe amongst Australians, that in the UK and Ireland, ‘you can just jump on a plane and spend the weekend in Paris/Berlin/Italy/Insert name of favourite European destination here’. This was something I had dreamed of doing. Oh, the romance of being able to flit across borders. To wake up in a new country with different road signs, different food, different language. The chosen destination for my first attempt at the European weekend was Florence. The reason: the wedding celebration of a university friend. The time frame: Literally a weekend. I was leaving Friday afternoon, and would be back in Cork Sunday evening.
The first thing to say about the ‘you can jump a plane and spend a weekend’ thing is, sure you can. Just, don’t book connecting flights. Get on ONE plane and go ONE place, should be the adage. Don’t, for example, book a flight out of Cork at 5:30pm, arriving in Amsterdam at 8:10pm and then attempt to get on a flight out of Amsterdam to Florence at 8:40pm. This is a silly idea. It won’t happen. It just won’t. They delayed my flight from Cork by 20 minutes, and that was all that was needed. I got off the plane in Amsterdam and was told I wouldn’t make my next flight. I was directed straight to the transfer desk, manned by a very tall, blonde Dutch woman, who promptly put me on another flight to Florence…. at exactly the same time the next evening.
I pointed out that my entire trip to Florence would take place within the space of 2 days, the whole point of going was for the Saturday evening celebration, and I couldn’t arrive into Florence at 10:30pm, as I would miss said celebration. This wouldn’t do. They directed me to the help desk, where another Dutch lady (again, terrifyingly tall and terrifyingly blonde) explained that there was only one flight to Florence every day, and it was always in the evening. She then further explained that all flights from Paris were full, so she couldn’t transfer me through there. The only possibility was a flight to Bologna the next morning.
This sent me into a spiral of panic. I had done so little research on Italy, as I was only going for 2 days and to one place, I had no idea where Bologna and Florence even were in relation to each other. As far as I was concerned, the terrifying Dutch lady was offering to fly me to the border of Italy and Switzerland, when I wanted to get to Florence, which was located on the very edge of the island of Sicily. Of course, she then explained that Bologna was about an hour away from Florence. This should have comforted me, but it further worried me. I demanded, on the verge of panicky tears, how I was then supposed to get to Florence from Bologna, adding, hysterically (and ridiculously), ‘I don’t speak Italian!!!’ She said, ‘there should be trains’. This was hardly confidence-inspiring. She asked if I had internet with me. I shook my head, cursing my decision to leave my computer behind on this trip (reasoning that it would be more trouble than it was worth, and I’d hardly have time to check my emails or Facebook anyway, and why else would I need the internet?), and she said, ‘oh, well, there is internet in the airport, you can look up trains.’ Completely uncertain to what I was agreeing to, I let her book me on to the Bologna flight. I asked what I did about the fact that I had nowhere to stay in Amsterdam. She replied that the airline would provide me with a hotel room, dinner, breakfast, shuttle, toiletries and things to sleep in, and that my luggage would be waiting for me in Bologna. At least I wasn’t flying Ryanair, I thought to myself, who would most likely have sent my luggage to Bratislava and sent me to sleep on the tarmac under the departing airplanes.
So, I was sent to the Hotel Ibis in Amsterdam. I had a crazy thought that I might sneak into the city and cheer myself up with some relaxation Dutch-style, but I then realised that it was 9:30pm already, so I rethought, and instead spent the night at the bar, with the cute (terrifyingly tall, terrifyingly blonde) Dutch bar tender and drank as much free Rose wine as he and KLM airlines would provide me with. Not too shabby.
Leaving the hotel the next morning I had a crazy desire to stay in Amsterdam. I loved the place when I was visiting back in 2002, for some unknown reason. Its completely flat – not at all the landscape I normally like – and its souvenir shops are full of the most disgusting, crass cheap tat of all the souvenir shops in all the countries in all the world. For some reason, legalising pot and prostitution makes Dutch souvenir designers think this gives them permission, no REQUIRES them, to attempt to fit as many breasts, penises and bongs onto tiny, travel-size objects (like shot glasses or pens) as possible. Very odd, and not really my style. But, I loved Amsterdam, I think probably because of the wonderful hostel we stayed in (vegetarian food, murals on the wall, cute, dreadlocked bartender, dance floor downstairs) as well as the (quite possibly stoned) totally bonkers cheese and clog maker we met just outside of the city. And, I loved that they put cumin in cheese. THE BEST. Anyway, the point is, I had been completely screwed over by KLM, my trip to Italy was potentially ruined, I was stressed, tired and all I could think about was, ‘Oh, golly gosh, I wish I could stay in Amsterdam.’ Maybe it was all the terrifyingly tall and terrifyingly good-looking people around. Incidentally, every time someone spoke to me in Dutch, I was totally flattered, as it meant they believed I, too, belonged amongst this race of good-looking giants.
Feeling a little blue that I had to leave the Netherlands without seeing any of it, and feeling a little blue about the fact that my trip to Italy had been altered and curtailed without my permission nor consent, I felt I was allowed to indulge in some retail therapy. I bought myself THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, long, swishy, BLUE, summer maxi dress from ESPRIT at the Dutch airport, thinking it was 50% off, but it actually turned out to be 50% off, with an extra 20% off. So, I splurged and bought another maxi-dress in denim as well (the total, if any of you care, and you thrifty shoppers out there will care, coming to less than both dresses cost individually at their original price!!) I never buy from ESPRIT, even though its clothes are beautiful, functional and well-made because its too expensive, so this was a real event for me. I went into the bathroom a stressed, tired, unattractive, overweight, spotty au pair from Ireland, put on the beautiful dress, and came out an entirely new, tall, swishy, summery, holiday-y, gorgeous, carefree European jet-set type person, ready for a jaunt to hot, hot Italy. Oh, was I ever ready.
The flight over Italy was wonderful, we flew over beautiful snow-capped mountains, deep valleys with streams and little villages. I began to get very excited. I had also visited Italy in 2002, but had left with a fairly mixed impression of the place. I’d found it hot, crowded and unpleasant. We’d only seen Venice, and there was a protest against tourists going on in the city on the day we were there. I saw more overweight Americans in Venice than Venetians (and saw clocks in the shape of American flags, made out of Venetian glass being sold in every store – an image I kept bringing up in disgust whenever I talked to people about Venice afterwards), I was overweight myself at the time and struggling to get around in the heat in tight, ill-fitting pants, painfully aware of the drop-dead gorgeous Italian men and women looking down their beautiful Roman noses at me. Not fun. But, this was a whole new city I was visiting. It was 9 years later. I was older, wiser, at least a little more resilient, and if there were still some body hangups, I was determined not to let the hot Italians upset me. I would admire their beauty from afar, pretend I didn’t even exist, that they couldn’t see me in all roly-polyness and I would most definately have a good time.
I arrived in Bologna, tired, stressed and uncertain of where to go or what to do. I was directed to a bus by the tourist information desk, and I jumped on board. Stupid things annoyed me (which is always a sure sign I am tired and/or stressed): British people attempting to speak Italian with the bus driver in bad Italian accents, Italians asking the driver whether or not the bus went to the ‘stazione’, when it was written on the side etc. But, I was soon cheered up by the bus ride. The first thing to cheer me up, was the bus making a stop on the outskirts of Bologna, a girl walking on, whacking a thick envelope into the lap of the man sitting in the front seat, and then proceeding to abuse him in loud Italian with accompanying hand gestures. He would have none of it, and started to yell back at her. She got off the bus, and he hung out the door, continuing to hurl abuse, as the bus drove off. It was divine. Such a hysterically stereotypical moment, only 15 minutes after arriving in the country. Bologna itself cheered me up, with its beautiful, ancient buildings scattered around the city, its warm, red, orange and ochre terracotta, its cobbled streets, its cyclists (who look very different to Sydney cyclists – Sydney cyclists are determined to look like Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France, Bologna cyclists want to look like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, except on a bike and not a scooter). I got off at the station and had the choice between buying a first-class ticket to Florence straight away, a standing room ticket in 2 hours, or waiting until 4:30pm for a second-class seat. I ended up taking the 4:30pm ticket, so I could explore Bologna. I wanted to go back and see all the old buildings I’d see on the bus up close. Here is one:
I was in the strange position of visiting a place that I had no knowledge of, had not read up on it at all, knew none of the history, the sights or the Lonely Planet recommendations for. I had no idea what the old buildings I was seeing were, or their significance. So, instead, I followed my nose, and found myself in a fantastic flea market, with piles and piles of second hand clothing, most of which cost between 1 and 2 Euro each (that is, less than the price of the Coke Zero I was currently drinking). I went totally bonkers and bought many pieces of clothing, coming to a grand total of 8 Euro. The only problem was, most stalls didn’t have a mirror, and as I had no travelling companion to tell me if something looked good or not, it was a bit of a guessing game a lot of the time. Not something I felt comfortable with at my current size, but it at least stopped me from spending all of my money on second-hand clothes because I just couldn’t tell if I liked something or if it fit me without a mirror. I either got wildly optimistic and imagined I could fit into something I would have had trouble fitting into two years ago, or get hugely pessimistic and assume that I must be the size of a house and search out correspondingly sized clothes. I am, officially now, however, a size ‘Large’, which is more than a little depressing, especially when you are trying on clothes in public and the Indian store owner sees you attempting to do up buttons that just won’t do up, and he shakes his head and says loudly to all surrounding shoppers, ‘Yes, is small size, is small.’ And grabs it back from you, as soon as its over your head, just in case you might foolishly put it over your head again, and attempt to squeeze into it once more. Just in case I hadn’t realised that buttons shouldn’t be disappearing into rolls of fat, or that denim seams shouldn’t be showing white, or that I should be able to take in air whilst wearing clothing. Just in case I hadn’t realised these things were not part of the designers’ original concept for the item of clothing I was currently stuck inside of.
Still, I got some great dresses, I think they are old, fat nonna work-dresses, because they’re kind of like aprons, but with full skirts, and they’re made out of this heavy-duty cotton, I think they’re the sort of dress you would put on and then do household chores in, or sew useful things in, or make tomato paste. You know, wholesome, Italian activities.
Anyways, I’m pretty exhausted, and I want to do justice to my trip to Italy, as it was full of Joy and Wonder, so I’m going to leave it there for the moment. Its pretty much the end of the shopping adventures, so its appropriate we finish there anyway. More tomorrow.