Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Looking at Florence through a tourist eye

The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo." (Mark Twain)

Recently my father visited us from Australia. I put on my well worn tourist cap and took him to see Cinque Terre, San Gimignano, Siena and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is always interesting for us to have visitors as I find myself looking at Florence through their tourist eyes and seeing things that I now take for granted as daily Italian life, but to an outsider seem quite strange.

So here is a list of things that show some differences between living in Australia and central Florence. I remember being surprised at these points when I first got here. It's funny how I had forgotten about them until my dad pointed some of them out to me.

uno) Italians are not big breakfast eaters. I am not even sure that there is a cafe in Florence that serves the traditional 'big brekky' that consists of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns and sausages. I used to cook bacon and eggs every Sunday for us but have only just realised that I haven't made it in over six months. Now our breakfast consists of a pastry and cappuccino eaten while standing up in a pasticceria. I do wonder what Italians eat when they have a hangover as everyone knows that a big greasy breakfast is the only cure.

due) Italians eat very late. Restaurants here do not open until 7pm and we (along with some other tourists) are generally the only ones eating at that time. Around 9pm when we are finishing off our dessert, the Italians slowly start coming in for their dinner.

tre) The driving situation here really is horrendous. Italians have little regard for road rules and not many of them observe the marked lines on the autostrada (freeway). Parking is also a problem. I remember driving home in Australia, parking in our private driveway and walking ten steps to our front door. Now our car is parked a ten minute walk away. However from what I see of the cars that are allowed to park on the road (they have a special residence permit) there is very few without scratches or dents. The parking on the street is so tight that sometimes a little nudge to the front car is necessary to parallel park your car.

quattro) Beach space is at a premium. At the Cinque Terre this week, I was shocked to see so many people cramped together on one beach. Not only that, but you had to pay to sit under the beach umbrellas one metre away from a complete stranger. In Florence, there is a fake beach set up on the banks of the arno river so people can tan. (You can't swim as the water is dirty). Only now do I understand why Australian beaches are so appealing to tourists.

cinque) You have to pay for plastic bags at shopping centres. I don't think I've ever come across this in Australia.

sei) When at the supermarket, you have to weigh your own fruit and vegetables before you take them to the cassa (cash register). I was very embarrassed the first time I went shopping with a trolley full of fruit. I held the queue up for five minutes while the lady waited for me to go back and weigh them myself.

One thing I also learnt this week is that Italians don't believe in pampering or 'niceties'. Last week I had an appointment for my first Italian haircut and back massage, both at different salons. Let me describe a massage at my local Australian beauty clinic:

Customer shown into beauty room. Serene rain forest music is playing softly. Candles are lighting the room up with a gentle glow. Masseuse asks you to take off your clothes when you are ready and get under the covers. Masseuse politely knocks on door to ask if you are decent and whether she can come in. After the massage, masseuse thanks you and hands you a glass of water and tells you to relax as long as you want.

All sounds good doesn't it? So, I decided to try an Italian massage. Now before I go on, I have to point out that this was not some kind of backyard beauty shop, it was not exactly a cheap place. I walked into the room and noticed the Italian pop music playing. Not relaxing, but fine. The masseuse hasn't made any obligatory small talk so at this point I'm not sure she speaks English. Then she says loudly in English 'take off your clothes and bra and lie down.' I wait for her to leave the room. She looks at me and repeats the sentence. I realise she isn't leaving. She looks bored as she watches me get completely undressed. I'm quite sure I looked really attractive (not) trying to hoist myself up on the tall massage bed with her looking on at my boobs and half bare bum. Mental note: make sure I always specify a request for a female masseuse in the future. For the next hour I ponder how such a small and lean Italian woman could have so much force and power to do such a brilliant massage, perhaps the best one I have ever had. After she finished,she said finito and left the room. And that was my Italian massage experience. Not relaxing but damn good.

The next day I went to get a haircut. Again at a very reputable place. The hairdresser who cut my hair chatted to his colleague the whole time he was cutting and he even stopped midway to have an espresso. Then it was time for my shampoo. In Australia this is my favourite part as they massage your hair, wash it and give your head some pampering. Not here. They pulled at my hair and twisted my neck around so that they were comfortable in washing my hair, not me the paying customer. Then they proceeded to brush it so forcefully that I had tears in my eyes. I realised I had wasted my money the day before on that massage as my neck was already throbbing. Again no small talk and a quick exclamation of 'finito' and I was off.

The next day, on my way to the English bookstore, I ran into my American friend Melinda who has been living in Italy a few years. I asked her whether this beauty regime was normal or whether I had just gotten two people who really did not like me. She confirmed that that Italians don't believe in pampering and would definetely not be shy about seeing you getting undressed in front of them. I'm not a shy person so I wasn't really bothered but I can imagine my mother-in-law being mortified and leaving the beauty salon altogether.

On Thursday I'm going to a different hairdresser to get my hair colour done. I have been putting it off as going to a new hairdresser is bad enough, but going to a hairdresser that speaks a different language to you could turn out to be a molto interessante experience.

With our vast spaces, backyards and private garages, it is nice to be reminded of how easy life is at home in Australia - after all, we do have to return in ten months! But where in Australia can you have the experience I had this morning. Slice of pizza in hand, I walked past the statue of David to my favourite traditional Italian market and bought some fresh porcini mushrooms. The seller was so excited when I told him I had never cooked with fresh porcini's before so quickly added some fresh herbs that he told me I must use to enhance their flavour. Then walking home, I stopped at my favourite gelateria and had Florence's best gelato. Everyday Florentine life might be crazy at times, but it is also a wonderfully unique experience that we'll treasure forever.


erin :: the olive notes said...

oh please can I come back :( I really miss it when I read your posts. But, please don't tell me that hair guy was the one I recommended...?!

Anonymous said...

I would have left the beauty salon too....love reading your blog entries. My mouth is watering for a slice of good italian pizza though....pizza hut unfortunately doesn't cut it!

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