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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