This is Tuscany

florence instagramFrances Mayes hit the nail on the head with her book and subsequent movie about Tuscany. I won’t even mention the title here because everybody knows it. While some things in those classic portrayals of Tuscany may be exaggerated here and there, the essence is the same. All of it is true. I’ve experienced it first hand – sleeping in a renovated farm house in the countryside surrounded by olive groves; taking a stroll down to the piazza of a medieval village, waiting for the annual fair that celebrates the village’s hundreds of years of history to start. But there are other, more subtle details that define this culturally rich and stunning region. Away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Florence Duomo, and the myriad medieval villages, how do you know you’re in Tuscany?

Some hints: It’s being at the beach, standing on a lookout point and enjoying the view of the island of Corsica in the distance, then looking down to see a woman with bleached blond hair performing fellatio on her boyfriend. It’s the couples, mostly young, who linger against walls and fences in public places, unashamedly dry humping in broad daylight.

It’s noticing that there’s a lot of bleached blond hair, often complemented by bright blue mascara. It’s the 80’s fashion that’s not worn ironically. Doc Marteens, New Wave, asymmetrical hair cuts, nose piercings. And then there’s the ubiquitous leopard print worn by a large percentage of the female population, from young girls to old nonna. Sexy underwear, leggings, scarves, bags, jackets. Shoes, even.

It’s having dinner at a hundred-year-old restaurant (Italian of course, are there any other kinds in Italy?) and having your Italian dining companions burst into traditional Tuscan folk songs at the top of their lungs. It’s having the chef come out and join in.

It’s the 20- and 30-somethings who live in Florence and have to work three jobs to make ends meet. It’s the overqualified professionals who have worked abroad and returned home to find no place for them in the Tuscan job market which is a kind of mafia in itself and as dynamic as a dead boar.

It’s walking through Florence’s surprisingly ugly and shabby train station and seeing a feisty Italian couple in their late 20s having not only a screaming match, but punching and slapping each other. Nobody looks twice and my Italian companion tells me that it’s normal.

It’s the North African refugees/immigrants who walk around with loaded with piles of  random trinkets and other useless things. It’s nearly always men hawking these things, moving from bar to restaurant to street corner. As they can’t work legally, it’s the only way for them to get an income. The locals are annoyed but they usually remember their manners and shoo them away.

As a tourist, Tuscany offers many incredible things to see and eat. ‘Picturesque’ is far too diluted to describe the beauty of the region and its heritage. But lurking around the piazzas and castles lies a place that is living off the glory of its past. Soon, the region needs to realize it can’t capitalize on this forever.



Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that this  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’

Italy beyond the pizza

Italy sonninoAbout five weeks ago I tumbled out of a plane into the fashion/food/history capital of the world – Italy. I am here for an extended vacation/look-see, to learn the language (ha!) to explore possibilities for the future and to spend time with my nearest and dearest. Given the fact that I have been here three times before over the past 15 years for brief stints as a tourist, you would think that I would know something about the place. However, I can assure you that while I can alphabetically recite every gelato flavour ever invented, it turns out this extremely beautiful country is rather mystifying. This, coupled with my laziness, idealism and naivety means that I am often left scratching my head about how the country functions (or, rather, doesn’t).

The first curious aspect that was brought to my attention (or, more accurately that I paid attention to because I have become cluckey for them) is the presence of dogs. Everywhere. It seems that every man and his dog has a cute little pet dog, the most common being yappy poodles and fat, pregnant sausage dogs. It seems that dogs are given special human privileges here and are basically allowed everywhere. I’ve seen well-behaved dogs in clothes stores, restaurants, bars, public transport, on Vespas and even at a wedding. I assume they’re also given access to cinemas, churches and public swimming pools too, but I will need to confirm and report back. While the dogs are, for the most part, obedient, the same cannot be said for their cousins, the children, who are left to run wild everywhere and are tolerated in all their caffeine and wine induced revelry (yes, wine drinking starts here at 7 years old I am told).

The next striking thing is the fashion. OK, so everybody knows that Italy is the fashion hub of the universe. But knowing it intellectually and living it are two very different things. I only realized this after I found myself in a sobbing heap one day as a tsunami of insecurity that I haven’t felt since I was like, oh I don’t know, 13 and unable to afford any of the clothes the cool girls were wearing, washed over me. And by ‘washed over’ I mean pummeled. No, wait. It’s not the fashion that is so insecurity-inducing. It’s the whole industrial complex of beauty that places a disproportionate emphasis on appearances. This means that designer glasses, sunglasses, handbags and shoes are the norm. And that’s just the children. Imagine the sense of discombobulation and cultural confusion one feels when faced with the fact that what the average woman in New Zealand wears to a wedding is what the average Italian woman wears to supermarket on Saturday morning to buy milk. Imagine how one feels, when during a job interview in Milan, the interviewer says, ‘you have to up your dress game. I don’t agree with the importance of appearances here, but it’s the reality. It matters more than you think.’ Yip, that happened to me. This does not bode well as I have always been someone who has avoided heels and make-up like the plague (chronic clumsiness is debilitating, people) and who would rather spend an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning than waste time putting together a nice outfit. The times I have put in a lot of effort I just look like I raided the dress up box at 3am after too many shots of tequila.

So, the point is that Italian women, 80% of whom are incredibly naturally beautiful anyway, have upped the game by spending all their money on designers clothes and accessories in an aggressive effort to outshine women of other nationalities in a kind of Darwinian survival of the most beautiful. This means I must dust off all those old pretentious books I bought and actually read them, so that I can compensate for my frumpiness. War and Peace, anyone?

But, it could be worse. One of the most eye-opening things here has been the presence of prostitutes. While I’m no stranger to seeing ladies (and ladyboys) of the night – I’ve walked through the red light district of Amsterdam and passed by the girly bars of Bangkok. What makes Italy different is that prostitution is illegal. So, how have pimps and police gotten around this? There are two solutions. The first is to set up massage parlors with names reminiscent of a spa in Asia, like ‘Zen Dreams’. Decorate the exterior with pictures of water flowing over rocks, jasmine flowers and a lot of pink. This might be the sort of place I would consider going to for a mani/pedi, but luckily locals in the know set me straight. The second solution is somewhat more bizarre. The sex workers (women – often very young –  and transgenders, who are often from Africa and Eastern Europe and are in all likelihood working against their will) stand on the roadside of busy sections of highways on the outskirts of cities in their heels and skimpy, blingy clothes, at roundabouts and outside gas stations. Day and night a prospective client will drive by, slow down and pick them up and they’ll do the deed in the car or a nearby field or forest. Sometimes on the car in broad daylight and in public. The reasoning goes that it’s just a woman standing on a street and a man stopping to give her a ride, so to speak. There are so many reasons why it’s wrong and is a good example of the hypocritical Italian government turning a blind eye while people find a way to dance around the laws.

These observations have caused a kind of splitting in my mind – perhaps there are two Italies – the one enjoyed by tourists and the much more complex and bizarre society that I am trying to understand every day. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg – I could go on about the obsession with hygiene but the lack of public bathrooms, causing one (OK, me) to pee in the street, the arcane politeness and formalities, the homogeneity and xenophobia. But no, it’s time to take some more gelato and literally put my head in the sand.