Friday, October 31, 2008

From Florence to Australia

I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself. Maya Angelou 1928.

One thing I've noticed about Italians is that they tend to become friendlier once they get to know you. The first time I entered my favourite local bar for breakfast, the staff were very polite, but of course not overly friendly. I ordered a latte and received hot milk with no coffee in it as the word latte means plain milk and not a not a weak coffee like we say in Australia. I may as well have worn a TOURIST sticker on my forehead.

After visiting my local cafe, Golden View, almost daily for my caffe latte and chocolate pastry, they have become more like friends. Sometimes when I haven't come in at my usual time and there is only one chocolate pastry left, I notice they try to 'hide' it so no one else buys it as they know I love them. If husband and I don't come in for a couple of days they ask us 'Where have you been? ' with concerned expressions.

Any hopes of me practising my Italian on the staff have been dashed as they all want to speak English with me. One of the girls is particularly keen to practise her English so we have started engaging in a language tandem. We get together and speak half in Italian and half in English.

The staff are always so interested to hear about our home town in Australia. So, recently I took in some pictures of the place we have lived in for the last four years before coming to Europe for Jason's work assignment.

I had to explain that the animals in the photos were not in parks, they are actually wild. I'm not sure they believed me.

So today, I thought I would post a few pictures from the last town we lived in, Karratha in Northwest Western Australia. A place that is literally in the middle of nowhere with the nearest town about 250 kilometres away and our home for four years due to husband's work assignment. A place I hated at first, but grew to love.

When you look at these photos, bear in mind that we lived in the real outback of Australia. Don't expect these kind of sights if you go to Sydney or Melbourne. This here is like Crocodile Dundee/Steve Irwin territory. Think flying cockroaches, snakes, goanna's and dead kangaroo's lining the roads (killed by passing vehicles). I don't know many people who can say they had a poisonous snake under their desk at work , but unfortunately I can. And it took me a long time to put my feet down from my chair after that day!

It's hard to believe that it's been twelve months since we left Australia. And it's even harder to believe that in just seven months we'll be back there and Florence will be but a memory. A sweet memory. I wonder how many caffe latte's and chocolate pastries I can fit into the next seven months? My thighs shudder at the thought.

Here is husband with his number one not me his humble wife. His number one love is fishing and a romantic date with me is just never going to be as good as a day out fishing with his dad or his friends. I've accepted that and we move on. One of the reasons I have accepted it is that he always comes home with these beautiful red emperor. These are probably the most delicious fish you can catch and to buy them in a city is very expensive. Karratha is famous for it's fishing so we are lucky enough to have a freezer full of these delicacies.

Here is a relaxed kangaroo quite happy for me to pose with her. You can't see it very well in this photo but she actually had a joey in her pouch. There is a programme in Karratha where you can take on injured joey's into your home to nurse them back to health.

I haven't seen one of these signs in Italy! This was taken in Broome which is 800 km's from Karratha and one of Australia's premium tourist spots. To Europeans, 800 km's is a long way but in fact, I used to travel to Broome for work. I would drive on a Monday, do a presentation on Tuesday and drive back on a Wednesday.

Broome is famous for it's beautiful beach, Cable Beach. Unfortunately there are dangerous salt water crocodiles in it. It doesn't stop people swimming in there but I refuse to go in it. I can't imagine many worse ways to go!

Husband stops the car to say hi to a friendly local. This is probably a bit closer than you should get to an emu. But what can I say? We like to live dangerously.

Aaah crabbing season in Karratha. These beauties were made into a delicious Nigella Lawson Crab Pasta recipe. But they are most delicious simply boiled and served with a cocktail sauce. Not a good food for a first date since you end up being covered in shell and meat. But we are boring, old and married so we are allowed.

The one thing husband and I will always fight about is his love of diving. See when you are pulling up fish like this, it means one thing and one thing only: Jaws is out there. Please don't tempt him with your tasty body.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Too old for night clubs

When I was much younger, my friend Simone and I used to club hop between the best night clubs in Perth on Friday and Saturday nights. Oh ok, if I'm being honest we even did it on a Tuesday and Wednesday and slept through the next day's university lectures. Armed with our Illusion Midori cocktails, we would dance all night long in stilletto's and skirts so short that I would now consider them a belt.

Times have changed, wrinkles have appeared and I can't imagine that my poor old feet would hold up a night of clubbing any longer.

So what's a 30 year old to do when she can't go club hopping any longer? She goes terrace hopping.

On a beautiful warm sunny day, husband and I decided to visit the best terraces in Florence and admire the view. And as for those Midori cocktails? Well we substituted them for herbal peppermint tea and complained about what the youth are doing these days and how in our time we had to walk to school in bare feet through the snow.

So here's a couple of pictures of the view we took of the gorgeous Duomo from one of our favourite terraces at the Rinacentre cafe. The Rinacentre is a multi level shopping centre with this terrace on top. In the right weather, it is stunning.

Then we went on to the beautiful Continentale Hotel right on the Ponte Vecchio. You pay three times the price for a drink on this terrace but look what you get to see...

Finally we went on to the ultimate outdoor terrace in Florence - Piazza Michelangelo. We pass here on our nightly power walks and let me tell you, whether it's day or night you can not get sick of the view from this terrace.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Driving in Italy - not for the faint hearted.

Driving in Italy. Nearly every guide book warns against it. Until recently, I heeded their advice and was not prepared to have any part in driving in a country where having five cars crammed into two lanes is nothing unusual.

But I missed driving. I've loved the feel of a car and driving ever since I first got my license thirteen years ago (this doesn't add up since I'm still only twenty two wink wink). I also hated that I was scared of something I was so used to at home and something that I enjoyed so much.

So, with great fear and nervousness I attempted it. Ok so I put it off for three months (nah too tired today to drive, too lazy, too cold, too hot), but when I finally decided to start driving, there was no stopping me. I woke up one morning and announced 'This is it. Today's the day. I'm going to drive on these crazy roads, yay girl power, power to all women'. Husband opened his eyes, yawned and went back to sleep.

But sure enough I did it and now, I love driving in Italy. I never EVER thought I would say that. And a lot of my readers will be saying 'you are driving. So what?'. But you my friends have not driven in the craziness that is Italy and it's something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.

The first time I drove here in Florence, I was petrified. My knees were actually shaking when I got out of the car. Husband was ready to file for divorce as I was apparently 'not keen for advice and direction'. Read between the lines to mean we argued as I hit the side of the kerb twice and nearly ran a red light. I put it down to the crazy traffic and my nerves, but it was also that I had not driven a manual for three years, the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car and I was driving on the wrong side of the road! (remember in Australia we drive CORRECTLY on the left!).

As much as I love driving in Italy, I really hope that husband and I do not take back any of our new driving habits to Australia. If we do, I can guarantee we'll lose our license within a week. Make that a day.

So for those that have not driven on the road in Italy, these are some of the things you can expect as the norm:

- Cars double parked everywhere.
There is so little parking in Florence that if you see a spot, go for it. Feel free to park in front of cars with your hazard lights on, on top of zebra crossings or one metre from the traffic lights. Or you can do a combination of these like the police car I saw recently. He was double parked on a zebra crossing two metres away from a roundabout while he went in to a coffee shop for a cappucino.

For us, parking is a really big hassle. We live in central Florence but we don't have a resident permit which allows you to park in the street. Mind you, even with one of those you are never guaranteed a spot as it's so crowded. So, we have to park the car in a garage which is fifteen minutes away by foot. And very expensive. I know walking fifteen minutes doesn't sound so bad but it is a pain when you have just done your grocery shopping or it's raining or you have just spent the whole day out walking in the Tuscan countryside and you just want to get home (ok, I'll shut up now).

Look at how the cars are parked in the garage. You need to be very skinny to get out of the car. (joking people, they push the cars in manually like that).

- Men and women on scooters who do not hold any fear for their life.
It is very nerve wracking but not unusual to be overtaken by three scooters at any one time on either side of you. Or on a roundabout. On a side note, the men and women are very entertaining to watch on the scooters. The women wear stilleto heels and gorgeous skirts while I have seen the men stop at the lights and fix up their hair in the side mirror or admire themselves in a nearby shop window.

- Cars not stopping at stop signs.
Supposedly a stop sign in Italy means 'slow down'. I have stopped at certain stop signs before and straight away I get three cars beeping at me and overtaking me with waving hand gestures.

The biggest rule in Italy (according to the locals we speak to) is to look ahead and never look in your rear view mirror. You need to pay attention to the cars in front and to the side of you. If there is a space in front of you, it is your duty to fill it or someone else will. Never mind that there is a double line and a two centimetre gap between you and the new Mercedes next to you. The new Mercedes will be full of scratches anyway from when he tries to parallel park in a spot and physically pushes the bumper of the car in front of him to get in (I've seen this countless times).

After you finally get confidence to tackle driving, you need to worry about the camera in the ZTL zones and the bus lanes. The ZTL areas are zones within the city that you can not enter during certain times of the day for example between 7am and 7.30pm. We have a special pass attached to our windscreen that allows us to enter two certain zones in the city. Imagine our surprise when we found out that in March our pass was not working all month and we were the recipients of eighteen, yes eighteen, traffic infringements of ninety euro's apeice. That's a lot of Italian hand made leather shoes! Husband drove through the same offending camera eighteen times on the way to work each morning. We are still trying to work this out now. Here is a picture of the nasty camera (with me striking a strange pose under it blissfully unaware I'm sharing a picture with the enemy).

So, if you can get past all of the above, you are ready to drive and see the true Italy. Just be sure to have a strong coffee and a lot of patience before you get in the car. Oh, and don't forget to wear your best stiletto's and use your horn a lot. It will make you feel like a true Italian.