What I did on my holidays
Myself and my good lady have just come back from a few days in Tuscany, staying in Pisa with a trip to Florence by train (about an hour) thrown in. We went from Birmingham with a low-cost airline, which seemed unfeasibly cheap until the extras (ÃÂ£16 for booking with a debit card, ÃÂ£24 to take a case) started to pile on to the price, then it just seemed cheap. The restful trip didn't start too well when we found out that the airline has baggage weight restrictions much lower than you would normally expect, which lead to us swapping clothes between bags and at one point weighing a pair of jeans to see if they would have to be hand-luggage. After two hours of being mercilessly sold scratchcards we arrived safely, but with unresolved desire to rub coins over all silver paper we saw.
I like flying, especially now with airports so full to capacity that you get to walk out to the plane over the tarmac and feel like The Beatles or the Pope. I also really enjoyed overhearing "It looks just like Google maps" from someone looking out of the window as we took off. No doubt Google and the airline have a plan for overlaying adverts for local businesses.
I also like Italy although, at the risk of coming over all Clarkson, I've never understood the European obsession with Snoopy. The dullest character in a fairly dull comic strip, and yet the first bit of graffiti we see beside the train track is the small white hound. He's also on many a sweatshirt to be sold around tourist attractions, with his twin pillar of American marketed cartooniness Bart Simpson (the dullest character in what I'll admit is/was a brilliant show). What Bart and Snoopy are doing here is called 'Pisa Posing' or 'Pushing the Tower' - that is standing in between your mate with a camera and the tower and trying to line yourself up so it looks like you're interacting with the round leany thing.
The odd person pretends to hold it in their hand, some hug, but most either hold it up or push it over (an interesting psychological distinction, anyone want to fund a long research paper into it?). Of course, they're only trying to look as if they're doing it from the angle of their mate taking the photo. Which means the area is filled with people doing crap tai-chi. It looks like the biggest mine convention in Italy. It looks brilliant. I spent a good couple of hours taking pictures of them from the 'wrong' angle, and chuckling manically to myself. There's a Flickr group dedicated to it, as there is these days for everything.
Pisa is a haven of independent shops, only a Vodaphone and a 3 shop showed any signs of franchising or chains. Like the rest of Europe, demarcation between shop types is carefully managed. A tobacconist will not sell sweets nor newspapers, sweets are sold in sweet shops, air compressors are sold in air compressor shops, utensils for hobby-craft are sold in a 'Utensilaria'. Newspapers, of course, are sold from huts that sit in the streets shuttered at night, taunting you with back issues of 'Dylan Dog'. Come dawn these huts transform into huge pavement newsagents, staffed by little old ladies and selling copies of niche publications across the foreign language spectrum. I counted no less than three Italian magazines dedicated to the joy of watches, and niche indeed is the Ill Duce Calendar 2009.
From the spread and density of 'Fotocopiarias' the need to duplicate pieces of paper in Pisa is a pressing one. Almost every side street has a tiny boutique offering photocopying and very little else. There was even a photocopying service on a train station platform. I can only assume Italians are forever wandering about desperate to have more copies of everything. I can just imagine an Italian tourist in Birmingham, wandering round going "where the hell do these people photocopy stuff? Damn I need to have more than one copy of this sheet of paper". In Italian obviously.
The Tuscan area doesn't seem to have got the internet bug yet, maybe necessitating all this photocopying - are the locals blogging by writing their diaries, duplicating and then handing round to people in the street? They're certainly out on the streets a lot (there were endless protests relating to a teachers' strike while we were there), which is no surprise as Italian TV seems to be one constant rolling panel show on all the channels, all the time. I did see a stand up comedy show were the mustachioed comic was doing a Sienfeld-eque "Life huh? What's that all about?" routine - it was about how kids had it different these days, playstations were mentioned, and not one of the live audience cracked a smile. The Italian Jimmy Carr it seems.
Michelangelo's David in the Academia gallery in Florence is stunning and much bigger than expected, huge hands - he would have made a fantastic goalkeeper, but the rest of the gallery is pretty much filler. Plaster renderings of statues that might have been made for Scottish gardens, plus a few old musical instruments. Much better is the Uffizi (famously home to Bottichelli's Birth of Venus) where the works are arranged chronologically from the European Gothic (the religious paintings that can't do perspective) through to the Renaissance stuff. The overarching theme is the baby jebus, he's adored by all sorts (all who look suspiciously Western-European) but even though techniques improve over the years no-one gets the face right. JC looks like a kid who's had an old blokes face grafted onto him. Forget improvements in brush technique, or the dawning realisation that things further away got smaller to the eye, hundreds of years of arts could have been improved by giving them a real baby to look at.
The most strange sight we saw in Italy wasn't a sculpture, it was a vegetable. Despite my Latin O-level, finding anything on a menu in Italy that I - as a fussy vegetarian - could eat was impossible without asking for more details. Once pasta sauce contained "cream of pumpings". "Pumpkins?" we asked, "No, pumpings" and we were shown this:
We've christened it Pac Man Ghost fruit. I had pesto.