Friday, 20 November 2009

The Great Name Change and subsequent Embarrassing Incident

I'm currently in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare. For once though, it's entirely of my own making. In a stubborn English way, I decided to take my husband's surname. Before you start waving burning bras in my face, let me make a few things clear: (a) it wasn't his idea, (b) it doesn't mean that I'm bowing down to him in any way and (c) I believe it's what you do in your life that shows whether or not you're an independent woman, not how you chose to call yourself. So there. Why should I one day have a different surname to my children? Not fair.

The problem lies in the fact that in Italy, by law a woman CAN'T take her husband's surname, so there's no official procedure to follow. As it is, the ancient rusty cogs of bureaucracy here have their own unique concept of time - one Italian bureaucratic minute represents an hour of normal human time, an hour is a couple of weeks, a month is a year etc. In Italy, new name means new tax code, which leads to a series of startling and terrifying trips to the tax office. New name means informing banks and getting new bank cards. I've sent numerous faxes and letters by recorded post with photocopies of my passport, ID card, national insurance card, great-grandfather's inside leg measurement, list of my favourite types of cheese etc. I've been waiting for my new bank card for a month.

Now that I'm almost at the end of the Great Name Change, I'm thinking about writing a book on the experience. I could fill several volumes on the tax office alone and I'm still not entirely sure that I'm not registered twice. I'm waiting for a letter in the post informing me that I am actually two people and that the government is sending a priest to my house to perform some kind of identity exorcism.

New name also means re-registering with your doctor. I was at the hospital recently, about to have a rather intimate medical test, when the nurse who was filling out the forms told the nurse with the freezing cold metal instrument to stop because it appeared that I was not myself, but someone else. An imposter.
'Don't worrry,' I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as a half-naked person in the company of two fully dressed people can sound, 'I've changed my name and this test was booked in my old name. I have all the documents in my bag.'
'But where has your old name gone?' replied the nurse at the desk, eyes narrowed.
'It's just gone.' I shrugged (not easy to shrug with your legs in stirrups).
'But where has it gone?' She wasn't giving up.
'It's just gone.'
'But where?' I was starting to feel really silly at this point. She looked at me hard. I wanted to say: 'Yes, my old name decided to swim to Elba and never came back. That bastard. I did get an anonymous postcard from the Bahamas last week and I have my suspicions that it was from that crafty old name, but I can't be sure so I had to get this new name.' Instead, seeing no way out of the impasse, I reluctantly got down, put on my knickers and retrieved all my ID documents from my bag.
'But your old name has just gone,' she gasped.
'Yes.' I said, with what I hope was an air of finality. Knickers came off again and the test was completed in awed silence.

Bureaucracy can be really fun.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2009


I'd like to throw a quick question out to any expat readers. There are a few posters around Florence advertising language classes with the slogan 'chi parla due lingue vive due vite', meaning 'people who speak two languages live two lives'. Am I the only one to find this a disturbing concept?

I often have the nagging feeling that when I speak Italian, I'm not quite the same person as when I speak my native English. And just to be perfectly clear, I don't actually enjoy feeling of there being two people in my head. There's not that much room in there as it is.

The Italian-speaking me is, well, a bit more Italian. I yell at people who cut me up on my bike, I talk to strangers on the bus, I chat to the fruit and veg man about the different ways of cooking pumpkin (it's his favourite vegetable too). The English-speaking me, on the other hand, is all please, thank you, yes sir, yes sir, three-bags-full. Would you mind terribly if I inconvenienced you - I'm really awfully sorry - but could I trouble you to move your shopping trolley off my foot? Terribly sorry to be such a bother. Thank you. Sorry. Etc, etc.

Nonetheless, I behave differently here than I would in England because (and I know how ridiculously pathetic this sounds) the English me is nervous of not knowing how things work and of making a fool of myself. Brutta figura may be a quintessentially Italian concept, but I seem to live permanently in its shadow. I can't seem to shake off this round peg/square hole feeling.

I recently signed up at my local swimming pool, which I had been putting off for about two years for fear of being different. Will I be the only one who doesn't take a dressing gown into the pool area? (yes) Do they all chat and shout and laugh together naked in the showers? (yes) Do I look completely stupid in my swimming cap? (oh yes). I now have to contend not only with helmet-hair, but also goggle-eyes in the morning. Beautiful. The thing is that despite being different and foreign and thinking way, way too much about this stuff, the swimming pool is great. I don't know why I waited so long to join.

Next year will be my 10th year in Italy and the Italian me is finally and inevitably starting to get some ideas about supplanting* the English me. My other half (my other 'other half'?) has heard me talking in my sleep in Italian, which is both bizarrely discomforing and wonderful. What still throws me completely off kilter is if I end up randomly having to speak Italian in England. Or, as happened at a Brit/It wedding I went to recently, I speak Italian all night to Italian friends while surrounded by English people who are round pegs like me, but complete strangers. That kind of situation can lead to some seriously confusing schizophrenic feelings.


* As this is absolutely the first time I've ever used the verb 'to supplant' I looked it up and found the following definition: To usurp the place of, especially through intrigue or underhanded tactics, which sounds like just the sort of thing the Italian me would try to do.

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Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Free chocolate is always a good thing

What a bizarre, random and wonderful morning yesterday. G and I got up at 6.30am (yikes) and dragged our sleepy selves to viale dei Mille to give out free chocolates to complete strangers on bikes. As I said, bizarre and random.

You could be forgiven for not knowing that yesterday was European Car Free Day. Of course, Florence was as grid-locked and smog-filled as ever. The avenues were playing out their usual early morning symphony of honking car horns. I often think how pleasant it must be in countries like Denmark or Sweden, where everyone cycles and where wearing a cycling helmet isn't the social equivalent of admitting that you spend your evenings putting your DVDs in alphabetical order (ie: something that most people would rather throw themselves off the Ponte Vecchio than confess to doing themselves, no matter how much of a good idea it might be). Of course, this is car-loving Italy, not some Nordic paradise where people actually stop and give way at roundabouts (give way at roundabouts?). The first rule of the road here is 'It's always my right of way', shortly followed by 'I'm bigger than you, so it's definitely my right of way' and then 'If you don't get out of my way then I'm going to grate you through the grill of my SUV'.

Nonetheless, as part of European Car Free Day, the FIAB - an Italy-wide cycling association - organised volunteers in cities across the country to stand at important junctions at rush hour and hand out free chocolates to anyone cycling past. The idea was to reward all those people who leave their cars at home, as well as to promote local pro-cyclist groups, like Florence's 'Firenze In Bici'. We had fluorescent vests and signs hanging round our necks explaining that we weren't complete lunatics, although most people looked at us us with suspicion at first.
'Free chocolate?' They would say, eyes narrowing, 'What's the catch?'. Once they realised we weren't trying to sell insurance or help them find God, they loosened up. Everyone smiled and chatted. One elderly gentleman, who was approximately half my height and rode an ancient creaking bike, told me that unfortunately, he couldn't eat chocolate anymore. He wobbled off his bike and informed me that he had been born on 17th January 1918. He then proceeded to slowly trundle across the busy intersection diagonally, completely ignoring the traffic lights, to go to a bar on the other side. 10 minutes later, he crossed back to his parked bike, going diagonally again across about 20 lanes of traffic, waggled his finger at me and cycled off.

So it was a bizarre morning. What was wonderful about it was the feeling of giving something away for free, telling people how great they are and making so many people smile. Wow. I was buzzing for the rest of the day. The most difficult part was worrying about my Italian while explaining what we were doing to complete strangers. By the end of the morning though, I could even pronounce 'associazione' without getting tongue-tied or spitting in people's faces. Result.

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Friday, 4 September 2009

Houston, we have a problem

The first couple of weeks of September are known in Italy as the period of rientro, or re-entry, referring to the fact that the whole nation returns home to work after the August holidays. The word rientro somehow brings to mind astronauts re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The sudden force gravity burns up their space ship and nearly tears them limb from limb which, funnily enough, is almost as traumatic as re-entering the work-atmosphere after the holiday. Your body cries out for the non-gravitational freedom of the beach or the mountains, but no matter how hard you cling to the feeling of sand under your feet, you can't do anything to stop yourself being dragged back to work. It doesn't help that the suffering is universal, as nearly everyone in Italy is forced to take their holidays in August. September is like a time of national mourning for holidays lost.

This means that September is also a time for re-assesment. Resolutions are made for the new work-year. A whole host of new crappy TV shows start. Christmas seems a hundred years away, it's still hot enough to melt tarmac and everyone knows some lucky bastard who's still on holiday. One of my rientro resolutions is to stop moaning, but it's tough. Especially after such a lovely holiday.

We spent two weeks in August walking in the Dolomites and I loved it, despite getting lost in the woods on our first short hike. There's nothing I enjoy more than clinging to a slippery branch over a rocky precipice with an icy mountain river thundering below while G shouts,
'Come on, I think I've found the path up ahead!' And then, just as I make it across, 'No, I think it must be back the way we came.'
We did several day hikes, including one to the startlingly turquoise Sorapiss lake.
'I wonder what makes it that colour?' I wondered outloud.
'Toothpaste' said G without pausing for thought. He should be a mountain guide.

On the way to Sorapiss, I had my first brush with a Via Ferrata. The Via Ferrata are more difficult paths with metal cords embedded in the rock so that you have something to cling onto (or, more sensibly, attach yourself to with ropes and clips and other mountaineering bits and bobs). We took a different path coming back from the lake and found another short stretch of Via Ferrata, as well as a terrifyingly narrow path across a massive scree and a couple of hundred metres of descent on a still very mobile rocky landslide. I discovered vertigo and couldn't look up from the path for fear of tumbling down the valley floor hundreds and hundreds of metres below. Or vomitting up my polenta and grilled cheese lunch. My nerves and my aching, knocking knees may never forgive me. Of course, G loved every minute.

Apart from day-walks, we also spent three nights in rifugi, sleeping in dormitories and then lugging our backpacks over several kilometres and several hundred metres of descent and ascent for the next night. Our first rifugio, Biella, was a teeny bit basic. No hot running water and the toilets were of the hole-in-the-ground variety. I know, I know, it's no big deal, but after walking all day and squatting in the undergrowth, it would have been nice to find a proper loo. You might say "well, little Miss Fussy-Pants, they're much more hygenic and easier to clean", but if that's the case then why do they always stink so bad? The toilet at Biella didn't even have a lock on the door so if someone had barged in, then the opening door would have knocked me down the hole, bare bottom first. Eugh.
The best thing about Biella was that it made the next two rifugi seem like 5-star hotels. And the polenta and strudel were exquisite.

The holiday taught me yet again that Italy is a strikingly diverse country. In terms of landscape, culture and traditions, the Dolomites are another planet compared to Tuscany and another solar system altogether compared to somewhere like Sicily. Their first language isn't Italian but Ladin, a Germanic-sounding mix which is apparently closely related to Swiss Romansh. What other country in the world can boast such striking variety? It makes me feel proud to live here and priviledged to share in the diversity. I hate admitting to such a cheesy TV movie feeling, but it's true.

In the Dolomites, the landscape above 2000 metres is very lunar, so coming back to Florence did in fact feel like coming back from an expedition to the moon. Now, I miss the feeling of comradeship you get with other walkers, I miss the fresh air and I especially miss the polenta, cheese, strudel, canederli (dumplings), casunziei ravioli, wurstel ... You get the picture.

Buon rientro a tutti!

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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Il mare

I just lost a toe nail. The second one from the left on my right foot. It had a long and bravely fought battle with my walking boot on a recent three-day hike. I almost thought it might hang on, but alas, it came off at the beach on Sunday near San Vincenzo where we were camping for the weekend. We gave it a full sea burial in the Mediterranean - nail varnish and all.

San Vincenzo is an hour South of Livorno and we got there by taking our bikes on the train. Moving around by bike is especially handy on the coast because each weekend in the Summer every Italian drags his kids, dog, mother-in-law and collection of sunglasses and speedos to the seaside. Everyone drives there, so no matter what direction you arrive from, you end up stuck in sweaty traffic jams both on your way there and back. When you eventually get to the beach you have to find parking, which is almost as much fun as crawling down the Fi-Pi-Li motorway towards the sea at 10kms an hour for 6 hours with all your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues in the overheating cars all around you.

Another oddity about the seaside in Italy, is that the coast is lined with private beaches. You have to pay for the use of a sun umbrella and sun loungers and, unless you're Fabio Briatore and can afford a place in the front row, you usually end up in the middle of rows and rows of identical sun umbrellas and sun loungers, surrounded by other people and far from the sea. To put it bluntly, people go from their cramped hot apartments in the city where they are surrounded by neighbours on all sides, to a cramped hot space on the beach where they are surrounded by people they don't know.

This isn't a problem for most Italians though because (a) there's hardly any concept of personal space here and (b) they just love the sea, il mare. Just say the words 'il mare' and most Italians get this misty look come over them. It doesn't matter if the only sunbathing space is a jagged 40cm wide rock, as long as you are at il mare.

There are also only two tanning options during the Summer months here. Golden brown or dead. If you're not tanned then you better spend the Summer hiding in a cupboard, or at least have the courtesy to look sheepish around your mahogany-coloured superiors. Don't get me wrong, I love having a tan, but it's such hard work for me - being so pale and English - that most years I don't bother. The down side to this is that so many people, including complete strangers, have a habit of staring at you and exclaiming,
'My God, you're so white!' As if they've just found out you have some terminal illness. Mention premature aging and skin cancer and there's a general kind of fingers in ears and shouting 'lah-lah-lah-lah I can't hear youuuuuuu' response.

Anyway, our cycling weekend at the beach was a success, despite being the whitest creature on the beach; despite the tent nearly taking off during a wind-storm at 5am Saturday morning; despite nearly getting lost in the dark in the woods when my other half coerced me into a bit of off-roading (my poor bike, my poor knees); despite cycling 10kms on a busy main road at midnight with no proper lights; despite whacking myself between the eyes with the head lamp while trying to read my trashy Vampire lit in the tent and most of all, despite losing my toe nail. RIP.

After all, (see a misty look come across my face) I just love the sea.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

I've found a new hero

I nearly choked on my falafel the other night in the kebab shop when, during a popular quiz show on channel 5, the camera zoomed in on the very pert rear end a 'show girl' climbing some stairs in a bikini. It was gynaecological. Viewers were treated to alternating shots of the girl's highly waxed private parts and the sweaty faces of young men ogling and applauding her from the studio audience. This was before the 8 o'clock news, by the way.

For those of you who don't live in Italy, let me tell you that terrestrial TV here is aimed at (and apparently made by) 15 year old boys. Italian TV is an avalanche of breasts, bottoms and cringe-worthy Carry On-style innuendos. Nearly all the Italians I know complain about it, but it seems such an ingrained tradition that nobody is REALLY surprised to see a half-naked woman in a cage used in an advert for anti-rust paint. Absurd botoxed lips are a must if a woman wants to stay on TV beyond the age of 35. Live here for long enough and you start to lose perspective yourself.

Reading 'Io Donna' this morning though, I discovered a blog and documentary all about how women are represented on TV in Italy and the ramifications for us normal women on the street. The documentary makes very interesting viewing (there's even a version with dodgy English subtitles)and asks why we put up with such drivel on our TV sets. Watch it and send the link to your friends! Author of the blog and documentary is Lorella Zanardo, my new hero.
What bothers me is that in 'Io Donna' magazine, the interview with Lorella is only on page 55 and is next to an advert for a hair-removal cream that shows a sexy tanned woman with 3 metre long legs dancing and smiling innanely. Is there any hope?

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Thursday, 18 June 2009

Testa di Casco, or Helmet Hair - Part deux

Just a quick update on the bicycle helmet. This evening, as I panted home on my bike with my helmet firmly clamped to my head, a guy on a scooter asked me out. Without stopping. He slowed down next to me and introduced himself.
'My name is Salvatore,' he grinned. 'I'm an Engineer' (Italians have this thing about formal titles and announcing their qualifications - apparently even when crawling up hill on a scooter next to a sweaty girl on a bike). 'Do you want to go for a coffee with me?'.

He slowed down to accompany me up the hill, pointing out what a lovely coffee bar there was at the top. Then he whizzed off and waited for me further on to ask again. Talk about speed dating. I managed to politely put him off by the time we got to the crest of the hill and he shrugged, smirked and drove away.

However, the moral of the story is that he wasn't put off by my helmet, which means that either (a) my helmet is really sexy and I just didn't realise, or (b) he was a wierd fetishist. I'm going with option (a) and will be wearing my helmet with a bit more pride tomorrow.

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Saturday, 13 June 2009

Testa di Casco, or Helmet Hair

Enough people tried to kill me on my bike ride home on Thursday evening to make me completely lose faith in mankind. There's something about the sight of a cyclist that turns ordinarily calm drivers into lunatics who swerve all over the road, ignore give-ways and stop indicating. Oh, I forgot, that's just normal Italian driving. What I meant to say is that 'normal' drivers become mysteriously enraged by cyclists who obviously have no right to take up so much of the road and who are guilty of that most heinous of crimes: delaying a driver's journey by about 30 seconds. Grrrrrr.

Last week I bit the bullet and bought a cycle helmet. I know it's the right thing to do, but that still doesn't stop me from looking and feeling like an arse. Unfortunately, feeling like an arse makes me doubly mad with inconsiderate drivers. At a crossroads the other day, a guy in a Mercedes turned in front of me and almost knocked me over. I yelled at him in a mix of English and garbled Italian (Italian swearing is great and much more creative than Anglo swearing but hard to do when you can't think straight from being all fired up). Do you know what he did? He stuck his tongue out at me. A grown man. Wanker. (Which is what I yelled at him, funnily enough - if only he knew what it meant...)

Fortunately, on Wednesday morning, my other half and I met some other like-minded people at the 'Firenze In Bici' dawn bike ride around Florence. It was well worth the 5am alarm to cycle round a traffic-free city with other bike-lovers. Some of them were even wearing helmets! We finished at a bar for cappuccino and croissant at 7.30am and were back home at 8.30am, surprisingly full of energy for the rest of the day. Firenze In Bici have a lot of bike-friendly initiatives and campaign to improve things for cyclists. Their website is the first place I've seen anyone complain about Florentine bike racks which are built in such a way that you can only attach the front wheel of your bike, not the frame. Considering that someone with the mechanical skills of a five-year old (ie: me) could detach the front wheel of most bikes, it would be much more reasuring to have bike racks which allowed you to attach the frame too. Check out

Anyway, if you live in Florence and want to know who I am then just look out for the only person wearing a helmet. Actually, my colleague Elizabeth also wears a helmet, but she cycles in the Le Cure/Campo di Marte district, where I'm sure she is also the only other helmet wearer. My mother-in-law informs me that in Milan, a lot of city bikers wear helmets. This is very comforting and also confirms my theory that the further north I go, the more at home I'll be. Arse or not, I'm going to keep wearing my helmet and the next person who tells me that it won't protect me from a broken arm is going to get a broken arm themselves.

One final interesting point: the Italian word for helmet is casco, which coincidentally also means 'I fall down'. Very reassuring, isn't it?

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Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Jasmine & grazed elbows

I fell over two days ago. I actually properly fell over, in the street and all by myself. I was pushing my bike backwards on the pavement (don't ask) and managed to get both feet caught on the pedal. My bike, which weighs about twice as much as me, lurched out of my hands and I went crashing down on top of it - on my back. Right in the middle of town. Do you remember me mentioning that I'd like one day to be mistaken for a chic Italian woman? Well, we're still a long way from that day it seems. Chic Italian women don't walk around with grazed elbows and a tyre print on their backs.

My bike basket contained a huge bag of strawberries which I had just bought from a guy with a truck at the side of the road. They were totally crushed by the fall and some strawberry juice, which looked alarmingly like bright red blood, leaked onto the pavement. As I scrambled to my feet, thinking I had got away without being seen, a man came rushing out of a shop, saw the strawberry juice and started flapping around,

'Ah signora! Are you ok?' He gesticulated.
'Im fine, thank you,' I replied crisply (why oh why can I not be a signorina for a bit longer?). Then I saw the strawberry juice and tried to explain that I had a big bag of strawberries and that they were now all squashed but he just looked at me like a I might have knocked a couple of brain cells loose during my fall. I dusted myself off and rushed away as if I had a very important meeting somewhere. Oh, the shame.

The reason I was backing up on the pavement in the first place, was that I had spotted a nice shady road to cycle down, out of the blazing sun. Summer has arrived in Florence and it's HOT. It's also that time of year when allergy sufferers are trying to figure out if you can actually scratch the inside of your eyelids (you can, sort of, but I'm not sure it's recommended) and you can get sunstroke just walking to buy some milk. The mosquitoes are also starting to stretch their little wings, in fact, I can hear the irritating little whine of one right now. That whine will be our soundtrack for the next 5 months.

However, all that aside, the best part of this season is that for a couple of weeks, Florence doesn't smell of exhaust fumes and dog pee, but rather wherever you go there is the most amazing smell of jasmine blossom. This is what I tried to focus on after falling over and completely humiliating myself: the fact that no matter what pickles we get ourselves into, nature comes into its own every year and takes over the city with this great smell. I can't believe I'm ending this blog post in such a cheesey way, but there it is. Either I'm getting sentimental or maybe the fall really did loosen a few brain cells.

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Friday, 8 May 2009

Be green in Florence!

Check out my new eco-friendly page in The Florentine and keep your eyes peeled for more in future issues! Let me know if you are aware of any interesting environmental initiatives in Florence, or if there's anything you'd like to see in the column. Let's make Florence greener!

(By the way, under this sentence is says Read more! in a really excited way, but actually this is the end of the post and I just don't know how to take the Read more! away...)
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Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Where did you come from?

I don't know how to break it to him, but I think my brother may have been switched at birth. The red hair and blue eyes in an otherwise brown-haired and green-eyed family should have been enough of a sign, but last Sunday I got the final confirmation. Not only did he run in the London Marathon with one day's notice and no training, but he also managed to finish in 4 and a half hours. Actually, he's embarassed that it took him so long.
'How did it go?' I stuttered on the phone to him that evening.
'Well, the first 18 miles flew by,' he replied nonchalantly. 'Then I hit "the wall" and it was really tough.' 18 miles? The only time I ever run is for the number 28 bus and I usually hit "the wall" after about 18 metres.

Matt was always the sporty one when we were growing up, which totally let him off the hook academically and meant that I had to become the clever one, or just be an embarrasment to the whole family. He successfully stamped out any seeds of sportiness in me by ridiculing all attempts I made to throw a ball over-arm, pick up a badminton racket or correctly identify off-side. For example, after one surprisingly good athletics lesson at school, I ran home to tell my mum that the PE teacher had said I leapt the high jump like a gazelle.
'Not sure exaclty what a gazelle is though...' I continued, enjoying the compliment nonetheless.
'A gazelle?' snorted Matt, 'I wouldn't be so pleased if I were you.'
'Why not?'
'Well,' he said with a tone of great authority, 'a gazelle is a bit like a koala - but with no arms and no legs. It's a bit like a furry acorn.'
I was devastated and avoided all forms of athletics for some time.*

I am slightly less gullible now, although only marginally sportier. The only exercise I get is to cycle to work. However, in Florence, cycling is something of an extreme sport: the moment you sit on your bike, you become invisible to all other forms of transport, SUVs in particular. To improve matters for cyclists, there are a few cycle paths in the city and the local council has launched a new advertising campaign to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and cycle. Their slogan is '+ bici + baci', which means 'more bikes more kisses'. I fail to see the connection. Having said that, I nearly kissed the pavement recently when, distracted by a '+ bici + baci' poster, I didn't see that the brand new cycle path I was on abruptly ended in a brick wall.

Still, I keep cycling and hoping that the hill up from Piazza Leopoldo will get easier, even though it never does. My brother, on the other hand, now wants to do the New York Marathon. How can we be related? I remember a couple of years ago, having a cup of tea in my mum's kitchen and Matt unexpectedly showing up at the back door.
'Where did you come from?' I asked him.
'Same place as you,' he replied.
We have the same sense of humour, at least.

* I grew up in the Hampshire countryside where the main animals were cows, sheep and squirrels. I obviously didn't pay much attention at the zoo.

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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

He's a Good Fork

My other-half is himself split into two halves, English and Italian. Half cold, damp drizzle and orderly queues, and half fiery Ferrari and wild hand gestures. People often ask me if he’s more English or Italian. This blog posting is dedicated to him.

He drives like a lunatic and likes his steak still moo-ing (Italian), but takes milk in his tea and says ‘whoops-a-daisy’ when he drops something (English). He says that he can’t multi-task like women can, but will cross three lanes of traffic at eighty km per hour, swear down the phone and light a cigarette at the same time (Italian).

He generally has the table manners of a badly-trained monkey (Italian, sorry) and twice as much body hair (Italian again). His hair is brown, although he insists it is ‘blond’ (English for the colour and Italian for insisting it’s blond), and he has size 46 feet which are even uglier than mine (English). The other day I came home to find him waiting to show me his big toe nail which had rotted off, again (this is the rogue Yeti gene coming out, the one I hope won’t be transmitted to our children). The other morning he was reading and asked me,
‘What’s a ‘bassoon?’
‘I think it’s a large wind instrument,’ I replied. ‘A bit like you.’(English)
He didn’t think this was as funny as I did (Italian).
He thinks it’s normal to have a blocked kitchen drain for six months and to have to tip the washing-up water down the toilet. It gives our house a kind of campsite atmosphere which appeals to his puritan side (English). One of his biggest heroes is Magnum, who he could rival for chest hair (Italian) and dress sense (English). Two Christmases ago he bought me a oven dish from Lidl wrapped in newspaper (English). He has no clue where the iron lives (does any man?).

He whisked me to New York to propose, which he did on one knee at midnight in Washington Square Garden (Italian). He secretly asked my dad for my hand in marriage first (English). He will take me out for dinner to celebrate the tiniest triumph at work (Italian) and will make me a hot water bottle and cup of tea, just how I like it, if I’m feeling poorly (English). He spontaneously offers massages that last forever and asks for nothing in return (I don’t know where this comes from, I just hope it never changes). He gets excited about baked beans (English) despite being a buona forchetta, or ‘good fork’, meaning someone who loves great food (Italian).He likes to keep magazines in the bidet (English – it’s true, us English rarely use the bidet for it’s original purpose).
Every morning in the shower, he sings made-up songs about me (Italian) and then tries to make me dance with him in his bathrobe and slippers in the hallway (eccentric English). He tells me how beautiful I am ten times a day (Italian - this one outweighs almost everything else), and says he really fancies me in my new reading glasses (English). Finally, he regularly whispers two of my favourite phrases into my ear:
‘I love you, baby’ (Italian) and then, ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ (English).

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Thursday, 26 March 2009

WAX (for female readers only, no men - especially not my brother or dad - you have been warned)

This week has been all about exploring uncharted territory. Firstly, there's the bottom of the dirty washing basket, which I haven't seen for over a year. Very satisfying to find all those odd socks. Secondly, I've got to know the inside of my local beauty salon. Thirdly, my new friend Valentina, the beautician, has got to know an awful lot of me.

Like every Spring, I decided to start getting my legs waxed, ready for Summer. Unlike every other Spring, I actually phoned and booked an appointment to have it done. Having my legs waxed is part of the Great Italianisation Of Self project: in my head, it's up there with getting Italian citizenship and knowing when the asparagus season is. Chic Italian women do not fumble around in the shower with a blunt Bic razor every morning and if there's one thing I want, it's to be mistaken for a chic Italian woman.

It's not the fist time I've had my legs waxed. My mum treated me to a leg wax when I was sixteen and I was so traumatised (thanks mum) that I didn't make any further forays into the world of grown-up depilation until I was twenty-one and decided to wax my own bikini line. I bought the strips and read the instructions which suggested doing the waxing in a warm, relaxing environment. My flatmate was out so I commandeered the living room, put the TV on and turned the gas fire on full blast. Half naked, sweating and nearly fainting from the fumes, I stuck one strip on and then took twenty minutes to find the courage to pull it off. I think they heard my screams in France. I couldn't face repeating the kind of agony that I hadn't expected to encounter till childbirth, so I went around lopsided for a few weeks.

Now, aged thirty, I decided it was time to try again. I called my local beauty salon and stuttered something about 'legs' and 'wax'.
'Do you also want your inguine done?' the beautician, Valentina, asked. I hesitated, no idea what inguine meant but not wanting to fail this first test of my Italian-ness.
'Yes', I replied firmly, I hung up and then immediately went on Google to find out what inguine meant. Maybe it means 'big toe', I thought (I have the feet of a Yeti, another stumbling block to Italian-style grooming). Unfortunately, I had heard her say linguine which is a kind of pasta and not something you'd want to apply melting wax to. I fiddled around with the spelling and eventually got the horrifying translation of 'groin'. Images of me writhing in agony on my living room floor in front of Eastenders nine years before flashed before my eyes. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound of hot wax.

Well, I can safely report that I survived - although there are parts of my body which may never forgive me. I knew it would be tough when I walked in and Valentina told me to take off my trousers and put on the most pointless paper thong I have ever seen. She has now seen more of me than my gynacologist and I could barely look her in the face as I stumbled out with my eyes watering an hour later.

This was one week ago and thankfully my other half doesn't mind the freshly-plucked-poultry look (now starting to fade and become a lot of ingrown hairs that hurt when I get goose bumps). Apparently, I have two to three weeks until I have to repeat the experience.

Unfortunately, I don't feel very Italian yet, just a bit itchy.

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Saturday, 14 March 2009

White Week (white face, weak knees)

So it turns out that I can do the splits. Both ways. I just got back from a white week* skiing in the Dolomites where I wowed everyone with my stylish snow plough and creative ways of crashing to the ground, despite not ever exceeding 2 miles per hour. To have an idea of what I looked like, imagine an ostrich on skis wearing someone else's badly-fitting clothes.

We were staying just outside Cortina. For me, Cortina is an old school Essex-boy car, maybe with fluffy dice and probably with 'Sharon&Darren Foreva' written across the windscreen. However, Cortina is also a very chi-chi ski resort in North-East Italy. It's the kind of place where B-list celebrities get photographed sipping champagne in leopard print dresses at parties thrown by aging playboys. If Ford Cortinas are tacky kitch, then Cortina the ski resort is rich kitch. If you don't have the right diamante sun glasses, blond hair extensions and D&G ski gloves then forget it. (Remember that as a rule in Italy, the concept of kitch doesn't exist - mothers take their kids to school wearing the kind of leather boots that you usually only see in S&M porn. This is, after all, the country that gave birth to Roberto Cavalli.) On the slopes, this means that the ten-year-olds whizzing past me were not only laughing at my potruding bottom but also at my ancient borrowed ski trousers, rain coat and €3 woolly hat from the market. It was like being the geeky kid at school all over again.

Surprisingly, by the end of the week and with the help of Alfonso, my fantastic ski instructor, I could make it down the blue slopes without posing too much of a threat to myself or those around me. Of course, I managed to end up with the only instructor over the age of 65 - I suspect my other half had a hand in making sure that was the case. Chain smoking Alfonso saw me through a couple of days of skiing in a snow storm too, which is a bit like skiing with a white sheet over your head. He even got me doing the fabled parallel turns and after that I was unstoppable (almost literally). The worst injury I got all week was when I nearly cut the top of my thumb off while chopping vegetables for soup one evening, so that's a result too.

After a week at home my knees still feel like a couple of rusty hinges and my calf muscles have only just lost that feeling of being filled with concrete, but I find myself missing my time on the slopes. I'm planning next year's trip already which I'm sure will be even more successful because (a) I know I can survive the ski lift as long as I don't get cocky and start rummaging in my pockets and (b)I now know how to casually walk in ski boots without looking like a total twit.

*Literal translation from Italian. A week spent in the mountains using muscles you didn't know you had and humiliating yourself in front of people you pray you'll never meet again is called a 'settimana bianca'.

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Sunday, 22 February 2009


Hold onto your seats because I’m going to shatter a myth: not all ex-pats living in Tuscany live in bougainvillea covered mansions on olive oil producing country estates. I know this is upsetting and difficult to understand but for most of us, there is no olive grove, no hunky local gardener getting his hands dirty in our herb garden and no Martini sunset overlooking the gently rolling hills. Forget ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and by the way, I recently read that Frances Mayes now lives back in California – which really tells you all you need to know about the Tuscan dream.

In reality, most of us live in condominiums, which is a kind of Latin-based fancy way of saying ‘block of flats’. In fact, ninety-nine per cent of people in Italy live in flats, even in the countryside which is bizarre. Rich or poor, nobody considers it shabby to live in a place where you can hear four sets of neighbours sneeze, burp or sing ‘O Sole Mio’ at 3am if the fancy takes them (Italians don’t really sing ‘O Sole Mio’ either, by the way).

I have the fortune of living on the ground floor in my condominium. This means that although I’m three thousand times more likely to be burgled and have so many problems with damp you’d think I lived in a swamp, I nonetheless boast a small garden. And I never have to buy pegs because the old ladies who live in the four flats above me just shower them down into my garden like confetti daily.

My neighbours are a mixed bunch. There’s Lorenzo next door – you’d never think that a guy who sings in a Black Sabbath cover band would have a little black and white dog called Rosy, would you? He also has two commando tortoises who must have jetpacks or something because no matter how many times I put them back over the wall, the moment I look away they’re back in my garden and munching on my flowers. Last Summer, one of the cheeky fellows spent two hours making rather obvious amorous advances on an old teapot I have on the patio and which I use as a flower pot. Then there’s Lorenzo’s granny who lives upstairs with Attila the cat. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen this tiny, grey haired, stooped lady out in Lorenzo’s garden calling for naughty Attila to come back upstairs for some lunch. It must be a cat with a severe identity crisis too because although Attila is a female, she has a (scary) male name and everyone uses masculine word endings when talking about her. I will never understand Italian. There’s also who Paolo lives on the first floor. He’s mid-fifties and the tallest, skinniest man I’ve ever seen. He looks like a daddy-long-legs spider when he’s on his motorbike. He gets so worked up when Fiorentina play that everyone within a two mile radius can hear the score and our window panes shake when they get anywhere near the goal.

I normally just write the rest of the inhabitants off a ‘nice old people’ but I found out something amazing about Duillio from the second floor at the condominium meeting last Thursday night. (FYI: a condominium meeting is when everyone in the block of flats gets together and decides thrilling things like when to have the septic tank emptied. Every condominium has an ‘ammisitratore’ who’s paid handsomely by us to chair these meetings and then do things like call the septic tank people.) (By the way, did you notice how I just slipped in there about septic tanks? You didn’t think a modern city like Florence would have mains drainage did you? I’m really telling it how it is today). After the meeting last week, Duillio, who’s ancient and almost totally deaf, told us that he had just been awarded a gold medal of honour by the German government in recognition of the time he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany at the end of the Second World War. After much shouting of questions, he told us how, as a soldier, he was captured here in Italy and taken to Germany to work in a factory for a year. He told us how the factory was bombed by the Allies and he spent 48 hours under the rubble. As he quietly said, that’s like from now to tomorrow night and then the same again. Not knowing if he’d live or die. He lost so much weight during his time as a prisoner that it caused permanent damage to his stomach and he had to be operated on after the war. He told us that when he was presented with the medal in Livorno, a journalist asked him if he had any good memories of his time in Germany. He had answered that there was a man there, a manager in the factory, who had lost his son in the war. Diullio told us that being tall, blond and blue-eyed himself, he must have reminded this man of the son he had lost because quite inexplicably, he took Duillio from the factory to his home for Sunday lunch with his family nearly every week.

It’s hard to match Duillio as I see him today, watery-eyed and shuffling off to the take the rubbish out, with this image of a fresh faced, golden haired young man. It made me feel extremely sheepish about having taken a day off work that week for something so silly as a stomach bug. I also realised that I hardly know my neighbours – and I’ve lived in this flat for four years. Florentines aren’t so expansive as everyone thinks Italians are (another myth out the window I’m afraid) and let’s face it, I’m far too English to make the first move to get to know everyone myself. Who knows what stories the others could tell.

I wouldn’t mind having a chat with the tortoises too, actually. Having said that, I secretly suspect that they already understand me perfectly well but think I’m too stupid to notice their plotting.

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Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Incu bus

Sheer joy aboard the number twenty eight
When schools are closed for two-week Christmas break.
No squarking gangly boys in gobbling flocks
And no teen stink of ancient mouldy socks.
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