Italy sucks…if you’re deaf, dumb, blind, and in addition, clinically dead. No, still you would be stimulated by Italy: a skull devoid of any brain cells at all would be the only excuse NOT to feel more alive in this place (OK, I’ve just insulted amoebas: even they enjoy a Chianti and prosciutto with melone on the patio in Italy).
So what’s new, you say? You’ve heard all this before? OK, you can stop mid yawn upon your expectation of another “Bella Italia” spiel because the positive stuff ain’t coming. Not from me. In fact, I’m here to warn you: warn you about the insidious dangers of Italy; the stuff that ISN’T in the tourist guides. I’m here to warn you about the prospect of your brain turning to mush, about you wanting to rant, scream, and kill someone within hours of your arrival…about you wanting to throw yourself off the Ponte Vecchio or anything higher than a garish 2nd floor balcony, with its plastic Madonnas side-by-side with satellite dishes and pots of nasturtiums swimming in a rigid sea of concrete.
You see, the Italians have a secret weapon. Forget the wine, the weather, the seductive Italian men, the food…yes, even the buffalo milk mozzarella, there is something far more powerful in their arsenal: greater than the hydrogen bomb, quantum physics, Justin Bieber, or any WMD known to humankind…is the Italian secret weapon. What is it? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the Italian LACK OF LOGIC.
This is how it works. You and I have an inherent weakness. By “you and I”, I mean us Anglaises (the French word for all of us in the predominantly English-culture/English-speaking countries. This means YOU: yes, Australia, USA, UK and Canada, it’s a shock I know, but to the Latins we have no separate identity and are all clumped together into one…er…CLUMP). You see, without realising it, in our daily lives us Anglaises follow a relatively logical, linear style of thinking…some view it as the proud backbone of our culture…and so, even when placed in an unfamiliar situation, we can use this thinking to work things out and solve the problem, which results in our days and lives running smoothly. And when we travel to places like Italy (AND France: more on that in another blog) we are fooled into perceiving the people there as being just like us. I mean, the Italians, in general, look like us (apart from that annoyingly smooth olive skin), they sound like us (OK, except for the fact they’re speaking another language), and on the surface they act like us (except for a tenfold increase in hand, arm and body gesticulation) … anyway, you get my drift. We naturally assume they think like us. To all extents and purposes we figure we are holidaying WHERE WE LIVE except for better weather, wine, food and leather.
And this is when they strike. The Italians. Once they know they’ve got you believing them to be logical like you…they strike. It may be within minutes of your arrival, or, if you’re a harder nut to crack and they need more time to lull you into a false sense of psychological security, it could be hours. But they will strike.
Take my last trip to Rome. Travelling alone and with extremely heavy cases (it was in the days before e-books, OK? And I was foolish enough to believe that my library of books would be somehow lighter in a large suitcase) I arrive in Rome after an arduous train trip from the Abruzzi mountains. Alighting from the taxi at the hotel-a respectable, middle-of-the-road hotel not far from Termini station-and watching the kindly taxi driver precipitate what is likely his third hernia as he helps me haul my cases from the boot (“trunk” for you Americans), my first instinct was ENORMOUS RELIEF that the lugging of these painfully heavy suitcases was now over. I wheeled the cases into reception. After booking in to my second-floor room, the man at the desk (the only service staff around at the late hour of 8pm) turned his attention back to the queue of people checking in. I grabbed my bag handles and looked around me. Where was the lift?
I went back to the counter. It was several minutes before I could interrupt him. Do you have a lift? Si he says, going back to the other guests. I look around again. I can’t see a lift: there’s a chipped walnut pot stand, a slightly wilting aspidistra, some lame art on the walls, and stairs, plenty of stairs, but no lift. I wait again to interrupt, excuse me, but WHERE is the lift? On the second floor. Excuse me? I thought you said the SECOND floor? Si, the second floor. Excuse me, but did you say the SECOND floor? Si. He is looking at me like I’m stupid…like I should have taken more lessons in broken English spoken with an Italian accent, I could see it in his face: idiota Anglaises. I had to ask again, this made no logical sense (this was before I knew), are you saying that yes, you have a lift, but that the lift STARTS on the SECOND FLOOR? Si. But…but…I have heavy cases and my room is on the second floor. Si. He went back to booking in unsuspecting guests.
Then there were the bus tickets. This occurred just before my Rome arrival. Staying in a remote village in the Abruzzi mountains: the delightful village of Collemare from my first book, I decided to go down to the city of L’Aquila for the day, where they had an internet café. Certainly I was enjoying the peace and slow living upstream, the rustic ambience of the villages, and the incredible natural beauty of the Appennini Mountains …but I was going through technology withdrawals. I needed a hit, OK? I was desperate for an online injection, I was getting the jitters: I needed to relax back into a manic pace. But what I needed first was l’autobus…one of the regular buses that ran down the mountains to the city of L’Aquila some thirty minutes away, and therein began my problem. It wasn’t the bus that was the problem. It was the tickets.
Perché? Upon leaving for my journey I told a local woman, born and bred in Collemare, that I was about to get the bus. She asked if I had a ticket? No, I didn’t. You need a ticket. Of course, I will get a ticket on the bus. You can’t do that. Why not? You buy them at the shop. OK…where is the shop? In L’Aquila. But hang on, I’ve no doubt there is a ticket shop in the main city of L’Aquila, my aimed-for destination some 30kms away…what I’m asking is where do I get a ticket AT THIS END? In L’Aquila, she repeated. Clearly there was a language problem. I reiterated: I am GOING to L’Aquila, so where do I get the ticket to go there? In L’Aquila. There is no shop HERE to get a ticket? No. OK, having established there is no shop within the village or its surrounds to purchase a ticket, I will buy it on the bus. You cannot, she said. What do you mean? You cannot buy a ticket on the bus, and you cannot board the bus without a ticket…you buy the ticket in L’Aquila. But I am IN Collemare, I emphasized, and I want to GO TO L’AQUILA…I was almost crying by this stage…she looked at me as if there was something wrong. What part of this illogicity was I NOT understanding? She then pulled out from her apron pocket a precious bus ticket, and proffered it to me as I sat on the white cobbled street stones, sobbing.
I had almost recovered from the Rome hotel incident when I arrived at Termini train station once again; this time to board a special airport train that would take me to my international flight: my flight back to Australia. I would like to emphasize here the words INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT and AIRPORT. What do these particular words denote? If nothing else, surely, that heavy baggage would be involved. I mean no one goes across the world without luggage, capisce? And surely, going across the world means at least baggage to a weight intensity that any great lifting of it to a height would result in back trouble, or once again, a hernia. So I get to Termini station where I have booked the special international airport train, the Leonardo Express. This train, I would like to emphasize, does NOTHING ELSE other than take travellers from Rome city to the international airport. I look along the station platform: yes, all people with large suitcases, bags, hand luggage and going-somewhere looks, people about to catch international flights. I look down ominously at my heavy bags: thank god, a simple train trip and then the bags are the airline’s problem.
The train pulls up and the doors open. Steps. STEPS. Several very steep steps, a wall of steps almost a metre in height to reach the train floor level, and a narrow doorway; so narrow that any heavy case has to be lifted and twisted, in a gut-wrenching way, to fit within its narrow confines. This has to be a joke. Surely? This HAS to be a joke: a train SOLELY for international flyers with heavy baggage that has a high stretch to floor level and a narrow doorway? I look down the train: no, no platform-level entry anywhere and no specialized baggage compartments. This must be a joke. I look at the other travellers on the platform. They’re not laughing. Oh god. Just when I thought I had gotten away from it. Just when I thought that at last I’d escaped this torture of the Anglaises by the Italians, they have me again. Surrounded by grunts and groans and agonising cries from the men, I finally manage to get my heavy bags up and into this confined space. There is a tiny baggage compartment at the end of each carriage that is already filled. With so many now on board with cases, and nowhere to put them…we all fill the aisles with our bags, our detritus and our large suitcases. Just as we start to relax, and begin to address any internal bleeding, we hear a cry. It is the sweet/refreshment vendor who pushes in front of her a large trolley…a trolley that will travel continuously from one end of the train to another, a trolley that snugly fits the width of the aisles. Could we please move all of our offending baggage?
Ah yes, and you think that all of this is accidental: the naturally evolving quirks of a more relaxed culture, a simpler way of living, of innocent Italian-ness? It is not. There is a direct link between this and the bloodthirsty slaughter in the ROMAN COLOSSUEM. It is true. But more on this soon: in my next blog.
And as for the Italians, whether they drive you crazy in a psychological sense (they will), whether they send you over the deep end with their sensuality: be it through food or wine or love (and they will), they will make you feel alive. They will make you feel alive as you’ve never felt before. Why else does the rest of the world long to visit, to play with, to immerse itself in, this mad, bad, frustrating, yet rich and wild culture? I spoke to an American businessman who regularly visits Italy, he said: despite work, despite money, despite anything, the Italians PUT THE JOY OF LIVING FIRST. So yes, the Italians do irritate, they do frustrate and they do suck: they suck on what we all long for…the juice of life.
Coming next … SEX WITH A VESPA
Cheryl’s BLOG appears Tuesdays and Saturdays