The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Italy
Bus Short of a Nightmare
Erik Van Bommel seeking
comes a point in ones role as a tourist, I believe, when
enough is enough. Sure, theres always another castle you
want to visit, another date you may want to know or another painting
you feel you must see, but really, the tiny question, why
am I here, will undoubtedly raise its ugly head at a certain
time as you live life amongst the awed and awful.
in my life or as I prefer to call it - the epiphany, occurred
when I was visiting the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. back
in 95. After lunch in a poorly ventilated, overused, understaffed
restaurant my girlfriend and I popped outside for a breather prior to
continuing our tour of American Natural History (I think!).
Wow, I said to her as we lay on the grass.
Say that again, she replied, after a long slurp on her warm
coke through a ridiculously thin straw.
Did you see the size of that grasshopper? I asked, remembering
the most amazing thing I had seen in the previous four hours.
No, what grasshopper? I dont remember any grasshopper. How
big was it?
You must have seen it. It was enormous, as long as my foot, over
by the, er. . in the, um . . . Well, it was big anyway. You dont
No, she said, flatly, as if what I had asked bore as much
interest to her as the price of whale flesh interests a Masai warrior.
Oh. Dont you want to, like, see it? Just to know what Im
She rolled over, took that last gurgling suck from the bottom of her
can, put it on the grass, burped, wiped her face, and said, Get
Real, Erik. Ive seen more stuff, more facts, more anecdotes, more
hair, and more mock-ups, more of anything this morning no, this
holiday! - than I ever want to see in my lifetime, and you want to take
me back? Think again. Anyway, I bet you couldnt find your way
back there directly.
She was right. I could not remember where I had seen it, or its name,
what had appeared before it and what had come after. Maybe it wasnt
even a grasshopper, but an ant. And I thought about it, again. She was
really right, particularly about that lifetime bit. Id had enough.
Do you remember the last hung picture you looked at in a gallery? Who
painted it? When? On what? Of who? What about that 13th century cathedral
you visited in France in 01, or was it 12th Century? Do you remember
how many years it took to build, how many people it can hold, how old
its bells are, or what its name was? What made it so different to other
cathedrals? And in Florence on that miserable February morning, do you
remember seeing the Statue of David after queuing for three hours surrounded
by hung-over American art students, in the rain? Of course not. And
I bloody dont either.
So what a joy it was to turn up in Florence on a pleasant Saturday morning
in May, having no recollections of being here before (except negative
ones, it was only three years earlier), no do-or-die urge to see this
gallery, that church, those murals. In fact, I didnt want to be
here in the first place. It just so happened that we had done the other
highlights of Tuscany in the previous eight days and felt what harm
could it be just to visit Florence. On a whim, you might say.
Florence by Night
(myself, my wife, and our one-year-old) parked the car well away
from the centre and walked the 1.5km into the centre. We had only
a photocopy of a large-scale map of Florence for a guide, a couple
of euros in our pockets and no cameras. Well, just a disposable.
For the kids, you understand. As we followed the Arno, large tourist
buses passed us almost continuously. Staring out of the windows
were faces on their way to nirvana (Day One: Arrive airport
6.30am; onto Florence and breakfast), or to the prison farm
(Day Ten: Lunch in Florence; Depart airport: 4pm). These
last faces only grew more grotesque the gaudier the liverage on
the sides of the buses got; sun-beaten skin and dreary eyes were
no match for corny, smiling, caricatured suns wearing sunglasses.
By the way, would a sun really wear sunglasses?
map marked several of the main tourist attractions but just the mere
fact they were mentioned disinclined us to search them out. Anyway,
as we meandered the streets we would surely come across the magnificent
structures we had traipsed past the last time. We were bound to come
across a little church with that striking entrance or perhaps that piazza
where we had been served such an unforgettably lovely lunch. Surely
the bronze statues of whatzisface and thingamee would naturally materialize
before our eyes on the opposing wall of a museum. And not forgetting
that street full of Haute Couture, its clients Mercedes
and BMWs parked in their doorways. I fought to remember any particularly
striking piece of Florence. I couldnt, accept for one. What easily
sprang to mind were seas of tourists, scurrying from portico to vestry
trying to keep the 200mm lens, the flimsy straw hat from that legless
vendor in Rome, and the 5ltr. fanny-pack (such a cute American word)
full of God-only-knows, dry, as spring rains failed in dampening their
Aah, yes, the tourists. Did you know that if you put all the tourists
in the world in the Grand Canyon the net result would be more tourists?
It would be the ultimate attraction. Much like Florence. With its plethora
of churches and museums and its encyclopaedic amount of history it truly
is one of the great must-dos on any tourists wish list,
and in every Tour-package brochure. And so it appears: In three-day
Tour of the Tuscan Jewels, five-day Total Tastes of
Italy, or the behemoth Marvels of the Med six countries,
thirteen cities of the majestic Mediterranean in 10 days, fully escorted
by knowledgeable, experienced guides!
The escorted and experienced are the parts that
really goad me. Imagine paying a sizeable portion of my yearly disposable
income, only to be dragged around a city containing 200-odd spectacular
things following a lethargic, little-flag-bearing guide
I cant hear, with people I would more often than not loathe, at
a pace I cant enjoy, taking photos I dont comprehend, and
all at a price that screams value! What do we expect as
tourists nowadays, what is it that drives us to be in such a hurry and
demand a product that on the whole leaves us saying, if only I
had? and If only I could?
If only I could remember that church, Sue said, pointing,
as we entered a Piazza swaying with Hawaii shirts and open guide books.
You know, I remember those stripes in the marble. Theyre
very striking. Very rare, too. What was its name?
I looked at our map and made something up. The Chiesa DelArno,
built in 1899, I proclaimed. I had already spied two identically
festooned churches at the opposite end of cavernous streets, lit up
like gods in the sun.
"Chiesa DelArno," you say. 'Yeah, I think I remember.
Just like the river.
Quite, I replied.
We travelled on, stepping dexterously out of the way of another little-flag
bearer. And do you remember this? I asked as we swung down
into a nondescript alleyway. That café, I gestured,
as we approached as yet empty chairs and tables outside on the cobbles,
was where we saw that mugging, remember?
Mugging? Here? I dont remember a mugging. Are you sure?
She caught my eye and I had to smile at her.
Thats not the name of the church either, is it? she
And it was built a lot longer than 104 years ago, too. Dont
worry about it. Just walk around and enjoy it for what it is. Drop the
pretence. Youll remember more, I promise.
We continued on our way, turning left here, right there, at random,
trying to get a feel for a city collapsing under the weight of socks-and-sandaled
feet. Even stopping by three harried middle-aged backpackers, swollen
day packs at their feet, and offering them partially misleading, yet
confident advice on where exactly their present location was, did only
a little to lift my spirits. They had got separated from the group and
had to be at their bus in less than five minutes. It seemed to me a
great deal further away than that.
Are we really that close to the river, Erik? And how do you know
where we are anyway? Sue asked, having overheard my directions,
and watched my confusing, if somewhat confident, arm waving.
Street signs, Sue, street signs. And no, were not close
at all, but they hadnt seen the Vecchia Bridge from the southern
side; they had only walked over it quickly and then moved on. I just
thought they should see it. With my directions it will take them longer
to get to the bus, but at least theyll have photos different from
their tour-group. Plus theyll probably end up buying some of those
art prints those hawkers have lying on the footpath. Do you remember
how bad they all were? Theyll love em.
With a public service performed I felt slightly better. Also, with their
map I found out where we were. There was one thing I wanted to see again
and that was the Pont ilvecchia. This was perhaps because we have
a fantastic photo in our house taken from halfway across it of the bridge
upriver. Even though it was a miserable day the colours of Tuscany still
came through, mesmerising me each time I looked at the photo. Crossing
the bridge the memories came back: The lewd gold jewellers, the gawkers,
the hangers-on, the lost, and the locals. They were all here, swarming
and shoving, shuffling and hanging, and so we carried on to the south
bank where we had failed to look at the first time.
As it contains features of Florence not so famous, this part of town
is less marked by the blight of tourism. But wait, we are still encumbered
by a tour group coming towards us following their lame little-flag,
ears straining to hear the monologue drone of its holder, all the while
heads in a pamphlet trying to ascertain where they are now, and therefore
what they were looking at two minutes ago. Just down from them we come
across an elderly couple frantically struggling to hold their oversized
map the right way between them. I make to assist them in whatever way
possible, but luckily for them Sue holds my arm back.
This breaks the spell and I stop. Dead. Come on, I say.
Lets get out of here, eh? Sue looks down at our little
charge, dozing in her pram, then back at the bickering map-holders.
Yes, lets. It seems such a pity little Annie isnt getting
to enjoy it, though. I was about to correct her, but she shoots
me a look and I renege.
In any case Annie woke up as we approached what seemed to us to be an
abandoned Merry-go-round in a large, forgotten Piazza. Passing it, we
jumped as the bells clanged and the horses juddered into life. Annies
eyes lit up, we set her upon a particularly proud looking stead and
proceeded to take photos of her tourism experience. But the carousel
stopped after four rotations and we were wearily told to get down. It
wasnt broken, thats just what we paid for.
Harangued enough we carried on back easily retracing our steps, all
the while dodging diesel exhausts from the many buses parked up along
the banks of the Arno, and just in time to spot a well-equipped playground
on the other side of the road. Here, under enormous hanging olive trees
and in tired grass, amongst real Italians and their kids Annie spent
her best hour of the whole day. She got to practise her ciaos
with other bambinos, as well as teach thank you and
please to a patient father awaiting his sons turn
on the swings. The Dads apparent joy at conversing in English
was touching. It also provided us with our best memories of Florence.
© Erik van Bommel Feb 2004
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