Scusi, Do You Speak English?


This past August, Georg and I joined a group of about 25 people, mostly friends from the Internet mailing list Tarot-L, on a weeklong Tuscan adventure. The trip had been suggested and organized by Brian Williams, a frequent visitor to Italy who knew the area fairly well. Following is a rather lengthy trip report I originally wrote in daily installments for the mailing list.

Part 1: "Turisti Americani"

Aside from an afternoon trip to a border town in Mexico (which doesn't count), I had never been outside the US before. So you can imagine how excited I was, and a little nervous too. Having been duly warned to pack light, I had planned to only take 3 changes of clothes (the clothes I wore plus 2 more outfits). At the last minute I added a fourth skirt. Good thing too, because our plane from Raleigh-Durham to NY (which left around 2 pm) was so tiny, I tripped trying to get into my seat, fell on the armrest, and ripped my skirt nearly in half! The whole way there I congratulated myself on my good fortune in ruining the skirt I didn't really like anyway.

The plane from NY to Milano was everything you'd expect: noisy, dry, cramped. Enough said. We arrived at Malpensa Airport at 8:30 am local time (2:30 am back home). Customs at the airport was, well let's just call it cursory. At least we got our passports stamped; I heard that some members of our group didn't even get that much attention from bored Italian customs officials.

Waiting for a shuttle outside to take us to the Stazione Centrale, who did we see but two members of our party, Robert and Gerry O'Neill. They were on a plane from Chicago that arrived at the same time. I had met Bob before, but had never had the pleasure of meeting his delightful wife Gerry. She seemed like a seasoned traveler, and helped us figure out buying train tickets. (She also warned us about cancelling your ticket on the platform before you get on the train. Thank you, Gerry!) Unfortunately, we couldn't take the same train with Bob and Gerry to Florence. They went on the super-fast train ("Eurostar" I think), while we caught a slower "InterCity" in order to meet Francesca, our long-time friend from the apa Linguiça.

Francesca Bucca, Sarah Ovenall, Alexandra Genetti, and Gaelen Genetti
Francesca Bucca, Sarah Ovenall, Alexandra Genetti, and Gaelen Genetti

As we had arranged ahead of time via e-mail, Georg and I bought a phone card and called Francesca from the Stazione Centrale, to let her know what train we were taking. She got on the train in Piacenza, giving us a few hours to get caught up before we arrived in Florence. Time that I probably should have been sleeping, but couldn't possibly because it was so much fun to talk. Francesca turned out to be exactly what I expected: funny, intelligent, knowledgable & a lovely person. No surprises there!

We enjoyed the view of the countryside very much, and commented on the beautiful red roofs on almost every building, which Francesca said are a distinguishing characteristic of that part of the country. I tried to describe the composition shingles that we use on roofs in the US, but I fear I was a bit inarticulate. The only thing I was clearly able to communicate is that American roofs are, for the most part, cheap by comparison, and need to be replaced every 10 to 15 years.

Each car of the train was made up of little six-seat compartments, with a door that could be closed for privacy. We had the compartment to ourselves for most of the trip, but a great many people got on the train in Bologna, filling every seat in our compartment. Francesca almost lost her seat when a young man came in and told her he had reserved it (after four others had already joined us, so she couldn't simply move to another seat within the compartment). Francesca went out into the hallway to talk with him for a brief while. Perhaps she explained that she was shepherding two helpless turisti americani. Whatever was said, the fellow gave up his seat to her, taking a little fold-out seat in the hall. There are some benefits, she explained, to being a woman in Italia!

I wish I could tell you everything we discussed. Unfortunately, I was seriously jet-lagged, so I can only recall that I enjoyed the conversation immensely. I do remember that we talked a bit about Illona Staller, the Italian porn star and one-time parliamentarian better known as Cicciolina. I named one of my dogs after her, and was abashed to learn that I have been pronouncing my pooch's name wrong all this time. I had been saying chick-iolina, but the correct pronunciation is actually chich-iolina (with the first two consonants the same). Oh well, I usually call the dog Lina anyway, and that at least I can pronounce!

Once in Florence, we deposited our bags at our various locations (a hotel for us, a friend's apartment for Francesca) and then went out for some all-too brief sightseeing.

We visited the Duomo and the Baptistry, two of Florence's main attractions. Because of the late hour, we were not able to enter the Duomo. Still, we greatly admired the outside, especially with Francesca's expert descriptions to help us understand it. It was made of white and green stone, a lovely combination which Francesca said is unique to Florence.

We were able to go inside the Baptistry, an ancient church historically used for baptisms. (I heard many times that Dante was probably baptized there, but no one seemed sure of this.) The ceiling of the Baptistry is decorated with an amazing series of paintings depicting the expulsion from Eden, the Passion, and other biblical scenes. We also went to San Lorenzo, but a service was in progress so we were not allowed to enter the main church. I heard later that this church houses some spectacular works by Michelangelo and Donatello. Unfortunately, we saw none of that; just some paintings in front, that frankly did not impress me too much.

Our rendezvous was set for the Piazza della Repubblica, which was historically the Roman seat of government, and now seems to be the place to sit at a cafe and people-watch. We arrived about a half-hour early so we could sit down and have a drink. There we ran into Bob, Gerry, Charlotte Porter and Joan Iris, who had all had the same idea. We chatted with them for a few minutes until Brian Williams arrived with the rest of the group in tow. By that time we were feeling a little tired, so we decided to skip Brian's walking tour of the city and meet up with them at the restaurant at 8. Florence is a gorgeous medeival city, with narrow winding cobbled streets, so we enjoyed the walk immensely. I will say though, I find the attitude towards pedestrians unnerving! Except for the busiest streets, everyone walks in the middle of the road (since the roads are so narrow with only nominal sidewalks, you pretty much have to). When you hear the whine of a scooter (motorino as they call them) approaching, everyone just moves out of the way, and the scooter weaves -- sometimes frighteningly quickly -- through the crowd.

Anyway, we ate at Da Benvenuto, a lovely little place where Brian had arranged a feast for our first meal in Italia. The only problem was that one couldn't sit next to every single person! Francesca, Georg and I sat with Alexandra and Ken Genetti, and John Williams. Alexandra and Ken had just returned from witnessing the total solar eclipse in Hungary, and had wonderful stories to tell about the experience. I had wanted to meet Alexandra for a long time, so I was really grateful to have some time to talk with her.

Unfortunately, by this time jet lag had seriously caught up with me, especially because I made the mistake of not eating anything since airplane food early that morning. So I was not feeling up to snuff, and not able to fully appreciate the meal. In fact, to be quite frank I had to leave the table and sit outside on the curb a couple of times, in order to get through the meal without being sick. After dinner we said good-night to everyone, staggered back to our hotel room, fell asleep and slept soundly until the next morning. I guess that one miserable evening is a small price to pay for no jet lag the rest of the week.

Tomorrow: our first experience with driving, Italian-style, and the drive to Montalto ("ohmigod, is that where we're staying?").

The view from Montalto
The view from Montalto on a cloudy day

Italy Travelogue:
Day 1: Turisti Americani

Day 2: Tutti gli Dei

Day 3: Behold the Power of Cheese

Day 4: Monk Mobile

Day 5: Scusi, do you speak English?

Day 6: Tutte le Direzione

Day 7: Gardens Sacred and Profane

Day 8: Ciao Ciao

il Palio: special report by Georg

Castello di Montalto official website



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