Skip to content →

An Italian Journey

I just returned from 6 days in Florence and then 2 days in London.

In Florence I saw lots. It rained every single day there, no kidding, and just about every hour. Yahoo Weather had warned me of this, but I chose to disregard it before I left.

Churches generally leave me a little cold, and so the highlights I remember (it all blurs a little) were Donatello’s David in the Bargello (the first free-standing nude sculpture, I’m told, since the Romans), frescos in the Palazzo Vecchio, Paolo di Francesca, Bronzino & Memling portraits in the Uffizi, the Tizian Venus d’Urbino which reminded me of Manet’s Olympia, and a Raphael Veiled Woman in the Palazzo Pitti. My son pointed out to me how the stylized portraits of the biblical figures in the early Renaissance paintings quickly evolved into portraits of recognizably real models with their own anatomical idiosyncrasies only a few score years later. For reasons of weather and weariness, I didn’t get to see Michelangelo’s David.


I report on all this so that no one can get me to fall into the Sarah-Palin-what-newspapers-do-you-read trap that travelers fear:

You: What did you see in Florence?

Me: Oh lots.

You: But what for example?

Me: Just about everything really. Everything worth seeing.

You: What was your favorite sight there, would you say?

Me: Any of them, really. Most of them, actually. I have a vast variety of favorite sights.


In London, where I went for work for the (N+1)th time, I no longer try to see anything much, not because I’ve seen everything but just out of some cocooning instinct. I almost invariably give in to the regrettable tendency to stay in my hotel room when I’m free and spend my time skyping and googling. The nice thing about hotels, someone once told me, attributing it to V. S. Naipaul, though I’ve never been able to corroborate it, is that nice hotels disembody you but they don’t depersonalize you. Provided that you don’t have to worry about the cost, they remove the anxious heaviness of physical existence and its corollary needs, and leave behind only the lightness of being, at least for a little while. You become wifi rather than wired. I suppose that’s what it must be like to be in heaven — no body to worry about, pure spirit.

Having now established my cultural credentials, I can proceed to the more mundane stuff.

1. A bad experience — feel free to skip this, I don’t know why I’m even imagining you need my permission.

I left Florence at 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning to head to London for work, taking a bus to Pisa to get a 12:50 flight to Gatwick on British Air. I went through passport control, got my passport stamped for exit, and waited at the gate. My cellphone was low on gas, but I wasn’t worried since I was soon to take off.

The sign for the flight indicated nothing out of the ordinary, but I noticed I was the only person at the gate. Someone then explained to me that there had been a belated inaudible announcement that the flight was cancelled. One suspicious British man claimed the airlines were trying to save money by cancelling half empty flights. Unfounded as it turned out. Pisa’s nice small airport was fogged in (floods in Venice, bear market rallies in the US and Europe) and the fog never cleared. Planes that were there could in fact take off in the fog, having the whole sky to aim for, but planes that wanted to get there couldn’t aim for the landing strip through the fog. Someone claimed that Pisa doesn’t have instrument landing. Sounds implausible, but who knows.

I stood in line for an hour to get a boarding pass for the 4:30 flight to Gatwick, as well as a food voucher. I bought a 10 Euro Vodaphone cellphone voucher.

The airport WiFi didn’t really work in Pisa, though I tried to pass some time that way. The Vodafone service didn’t take you to the web page you needed to enter your credit card on. I tried using my iPod Touch but that didn’t connect either. (More in the future about some of my disappointments with the Touch, loath though I am to acknowledge them.)

I wanted to use my cellphone to let my coworkers know of my inability to get to London. There was a sign for a Business Center, but no Business Center there. The WiFi area had no electrical outlets. The Vodafone booth wouldn’t let me use theirs, no matter how many times I said Scusi and Prego. The rest of the airport seemed to have no need for electrical power outlets in any visible place.

Then I saw a sign for the Chapel, which I entered, and Thank God (sic) it had two electrical outlets. I plugged my phone in at the outlet behind the altar and laid it down unobtrusively on the floor. Then I sat down on a chair and closed my eyes and prayed for an end to the financial crisis, a doubling of stock market levels, and a reduction in CEO compensation. I threw in an extra prayer for the end of crises of all kinds. Five minutes later a woman came in, crossed herself, apologized in Italian for disturbing me (I was flattered), and then left, shutting the door behind her. Ten minutes later my phone was half charged and I departed.

I bought another 10 Euro cellphone coupon from Vodafone. At 3:30 I went through passport control for the second time, and got a second Pisa exit stamp. I waited until 4:30 at the gate with several well-dressed Italians. Tthere was no indication of any problem, but no plane. Then I heard the sound of my name faintly issuing from the loudspeaker to go out again and return to checkin. There I was met by a man with my suitcase who told me the 4:30 flight had been forced to land in Genoa rather than Pisa because of the weather, and that the bus taking us to Genoa was about to leave. News to me. We took a two hour bus ride to Genoa, and there finally boarded a flight to Gatwick, twelve hours after I got to Pisa. I now have proof in my passport that I departed from Italy three times on the same day, and will have to get more pages inserted. It always irritates me that passport stampers don’t aim for the corner of your passport page, but like to hit the center and force the next stamper to start on a new page.

2. Some bad things about Italy, aside from the above.

My son’s Italian academic colleagues were unanimous in admiring the relatively meritocratic hiring in the UK and the USA, saying that Italian universities are binefficient and ruled by nepotism, and that all the historical measures taken to enforce fair play in hiring are now used to avoid it. You knew in advance, they said, who was going to get a job that was advertised, and jobs were given to friends and family members.

3. Some really good things about Italy, aside from the Renaissance.

When you order a cappuccino, anywhere, it has beautiful fresco-white foam streaked with yellow ochre and burnt sienna. Even better than the color, I noticed after a few of them, was the temperature: it was drinkable the instant you were handed it, just warm enough to make you feel good inside, not hot enough to make you choose between a sip and spit or a burnt palate.

Coolest of all the things in Italy were the IVRI at Genoa airport, muscular Mel-Gibson-like men with a little stubble, tough but not showily muscle-bound, and lithe but full-figured Emma-Peel like women with flowing hair (sorry if you don’t know who Emma Peel is), all dressed in navy flannel pants tucked into leather boots, guns on their hips, and with the white letters I.V.R.I emblazoned on the backs of their navy flannel bomber jackets. The IVRI, it turns out, are not one of the ten lost tribes as I mistakenly first assumed, but the Istituti di Vigilanza Riuniti d’Italia, Italy’s private security force. They look efficient and purposeful and glamorous, even when they Xray your luggage or wave a metal detector over the puzzlingly beeping parts of you. They don’t look distracted like American airport security checkers, who often seem like they’d rather be somewhere else, and already are in their heads — the IVRI look like they mean business, like in a movie. They look like they can run and chase and shoot and fight, unlike the guys and gals you see checking your luggage on American airports, who sometimes look like they can barely move.

(Why hire unathletic security guys? I was in Hong Kong once watching the Rugby Sevens, and a spectator vaulted over the crowd barrier and ran onto the pitch, and the security guys tried to catch him, but they were very small and very pudgy and breathless, and the streaker outran them effortlessly for minutes — I suddenly understood what it meant to run circles around someone — until he finally ran back to the crowd barrier and hurdled it, and disappeared. Give me the IVRI anytime.)

I finally got to London at 10 pm, 15 hours after I left Florence.

Published in blog