Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Medieval labyrinth

If you're left in Florence's historical center without a map, you're in trouble.
Coming from Chicago and being used to living in a grid, where I can find where I am pretty easily, I was completely disoriented by Florence.
The center of the city is Piazza della Repubblica. Designed by the Romans, the blocks have mostly 90-degree angles. But when you walk three blocks away from that piazza in any direction, the medieval city starts.
You come across narrow streets going in different directions. Nothing is perpendicular or parallel, and the risk of getting lost is higher.
It may take you a month to orient yourself. A straight street may suddenly become diagonal or curvy and you may end up going in the opposite direction from what you intended – or a route that you think is a shortcut may turn out to be terribly long.

The euro store

Buying in euros sucks.
Because I had to add 60% to anything I bought in Italy, I had to be careful not to get carried away.
In July 2008, the dollar was weak. 2.50 euros for a Coke or 6 euros for detergent wasn’t making me happy. Then I found the euro store.
Everything for ONE euro! From a loaf of bread, to cereal, to cleaning supplies and even wine!
These stores are scattered in the city and offer a great alternative for people staying for shorter periods of time. What about toilet paper, soap, shampoo, jam, juice? As you suspect already, you will find mostly surplus products from various companies, but hey, it’s only one dollar and sixty cents! And you don’t pay taxes.

What’s that for?

It’s called bidet and it’s primarily used to wash your privates.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know what that ceramic sculpture-like structure was for. I used to turn it on and imagine it was an outdoor fountain.
Years went by before I found out what it was.
The bidet is a regular fixture in Italian bathrooms. I know that in the United States we are not used to this device, but it makes complete sense when you think about it. Give it a try. You'll feel like the star of one of those "nice and fresh" television commercials.

Sniff, sniff

I have heard for years that Europeans smell stronger than Americans.
It’s partly true.
“I can’t stand the French!,” Fabrizio, a Florentine told me on a very hot day.
“I have already taken a second shower,” he added. My experience walking around the city suggested that not everyone had Fabrizio’s cleaning habits.
Americans strive to have a society without body odor. Italians seem to be more in communion with human nature.
Besides that, I don’t think a person can maintain an olfactory invisibility while walking in 95-degree heat for long periods of time. I tested it while traveling by underground train in Milan. No A/C, so you can imagine. Some folks were really “ripe.”

Taxi, taxi?

Taxis are expensive in Italy. With gasoline going for 1.45 euro (US$2.25) a liter (there are almost 4 liters in a gallon), I avoided taxis and took them only from and to the airport. Just the flag fall is 4.25 euro (U.S. $6.60).
When you need a taxi, you call a cab company. Trying to set my departure from Florence, I called the cab company the evening before because I had heard from a colleague that taxi companies wouldn’t take reservations days in advance. The operator told me: “We are 24 hours [sic]; call tomorrow.”
The next day, one hour prior to the time I needed an airport taxi, I called again. Before I could explain anything, the operator said: “It will be there in 3 minutes.” When I said I needed it within an hour, he told me to call back when I was ready. I was getting a little worried I wouldn’t make it on time.
After rushing around and triple-checking that I wasn’t leaving anything behind, I called back.
“It will be there in 5 minutes,” he said. Three minutes later, I saw a taxi waiting on the street.
The driver was a middle-aged man, easy to talk to, but only in Italian. I am so glad I am able to make myself understand in that language.
He started the conversation by asking where I was going: “Parigi,” I responded, and from there, we didn’t stop talking until we got to the airport. He introduced himself as Matteo and asked me if I was going to come back to Florence. “Maybe next year,” I said. To my surprise, he said: “I’ll give you my address and next time you stay with us.”
He meant what he said. Hiding my surprise, I thanked him and paid my 23-euro ride that took 15 minutes.