Friday, 7 November 2008

Travels and Tribulations 2

The travel hassle begins again. Taxi to Rimini train station; 12 Euros. Waiting on the platform for an hour – Him Outdoors still has dodgy guts and is doing a lot of groaning. We find a seat on the train to Bologna and a place to store our luggage which is very fortuitous as the train soon fills up; standing room only.

We are at one end of the carriage and when the train pulls into the station at Bologna and the doors don’t open, it turns out to be the wrong end. We have to clatter and bang our cases (never travel with a bike!) all the way down the aisle then negotiate a way across the station to the Aerobus (5 Euros) to the airport.

Here we pick up a car and drive to Florence; quite a baptism of fire for Him Outdoors on the wrong (right) side of the road. There are lots of tunnels (of course you never check where the lights are on a hire car that you pick up in broad daylight!) and lots of trucks whizzing by very close. He keeps drifting right and we are missing the trucks by inches. I don’t wish to turn into my mother (sorry, mum), but I keep flinching and telling him to keep his eyes on the road when they are drawn to the glorious Tuscan countryside.

We find our hotel relatively easily. It’s a delightful villa, quite peaceful, surrounded by trees and a half-hour walk out of town. We dump our bags, the bike and the car and then thankfully walk into town.
I take Him Outdoors on a quick walking tour and we race through the sites – Ponte Vecchio, dazzling with its array of gold jewellers; the Uffizi , outside which I point out the Room With A View moment (there are lots of people taking photographs but the beautiful view is ruined by a massive crane in the way); and the Palazzo Vecchio, which he decides is his favourite building.

The Piazza della Signoria is as I remember, with all its fabulous sculptures including Ammannati’s fountain of Neptune, Giambologna’s statue of Cosima I de’ Medici and his Rape of the Sabine Women, and (my favourite) Cellini’s Perseus, having just slain Medusa. There are also copies of Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Mazocco, the heraldic Florentine lion.

We pass the Bargello; Casa di Dante (where the poet supposedly lived); Orsanmichelle; and the cathedral, campanile and duomo. It’s all incredibly impressive stuff, and quite breathtaking. The Lonely Planet writes,

“The French writer Stendhal was so dazzled by the magnificence of the Basilica di Santa Croce that he was barely able to walk for faintness. He’s not the only one to have felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the city – Florentine doctors reputedly treat a good dozen cases of ‘Stendhalismo’ each year.”

A very short queue beguiles us to duck into the baptistery – the first one of which was built in the 5th or early 6th century AD; this one was reconstructed in the mid 11th century. Bronze doors, marble floors and mosaics on the roof add to the majesty of the place which is credited with launching the Renaissance.

We wend our way through the streets and walk back more leisurely to the Piazza Pitti – the Pitti were the rival family to the Medici; the Palazzo now houses a number of museums – and CafĂ© Bellini where we have a beer and pizza. The pizza here are thin and crispy and swimming in sauce and mozzarella. I have one with artichokes, olives and ham – bellisimo!

I collapse into bed but I find it hard to sleep as my mind is full of images and cultural icons crowding in upon each other. Or maybe it’s the cheese.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Welcome Mr President

This is groundbreaking news - let's hope the election of Obama to president of the United States does indeed usher in "a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."

It is sentiments like these that have led some people to label him a socialist. It is sentiments like these that give me hope for America. I am proud and happy for Americans. They have made a decision which will hopefully affect the world in a good way.

He promised, "And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand." I hope so; I really hope so.

It's not going to be easy; there is a legacy of rampant republicanism and individual greed that needs to be overcome, but it gives me a thrill when I hear a prospective leader talk in terms of community and to use the words opportunity, prosperity and peace in the same sentence.

Barack Obama's acceptance speech was a masteriece. It may well all turn to custard but just now, for today, I believe in hope.

"It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to
be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands
on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.
It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this
day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."

Race Action

I watch some of the World Duathlon Championship junior and elite races in Rimini. The marshals are very officious: some with whistles; some with guns. A Brit wins the junior women’s race – it’s good to hear the anthem. Vanessa Fernandez flies through the elite race, blitzing the field and showing up the lack of depth.

I cheer on the Brits and the Kiwis and feel very egalitarian. One woman asks if I can cheer for Canadians and I don’t see why not. South Africans are cheering Brits and Kiwis; Americans are cheering their own massive team, and some folk are supporting everyone – it’s a good atmosphere.

Him Outdoors talks to everyone – Americans; Canadians; South Africans; Australians – okay, anyone from an English-speaking nation; he just smiles and nods at the others. The Brits say it is impressive we can support so many of our team by name – they don’t even know who half of theirs are.

A young American lad comes last in the junior race and promptly bursts into tears. I know how this feels. His coach says he has come from being a big fish in a very small pond and is now floundering at the World Championships – chalk it up to experience and note what you need to improve for next time.

Him Outdoors stubs his toe while practicing his transitions. I mock, I must confess, until I see it – all purple and swollen; not ideal for a race. He sits around all morning whingeing that he’s bored and wants to be on holiday, annoyed with his cold and his ‘herpes’.

I go down to the beach to watch him run and cycle up and down the front. Supposedly the folk on motorbikes arte pinging people for drafting, but I don’t see much evidence of the pinging, although there is a lot of drafting going on. It’s a good job that I’m not relied upon to count the number of bike laps because I get it wrong and stand waiting for him to complete his last bike leg when he’s already started his last run.

We race from side to side of the course for a couple of hours, especially through the convoluted and contrived running course. It is hard to know where people are placed, but apparently Him Outdoors comes first Kiwi in his race. He does really well and I’m so proud of him, even if it’s not his best race ever. At one point Dad asks, ‘He looks very white – is that normal?’ No, in a word. He runs his little heart out, or certainly his stomach, the contents of which he leaves behind a tree in the finish area.

Back at our hotel with my parents we crack open the champagne. Him Outdoors has half a glass and needs to go to bed. Committed supporters that we are, we finish the bottle for him. He gets up later and we go to the evening ‘do’. All the age group folk get awarded their medals and the bianco is soon finito – unusual for these athletic types to drink their wine.

It is customary at these functions to swap apparel and the Kiwi kit is in high demand – Him Outdoors leaves with a new Brazilian team jacket.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Guy Fawkes' Night

I interrupt the Italy reminisces because it’s time for another festival – this time it’s Guy Fawkes’ Night or Bonfire Night if you prefer.

I remember these as kids with the fireworks, toffee apples, bonfires and treacle toffee that went with it. I remember being bundled up in coats and hats, scarves and mittens, holding jacket potatoes and waving sparklers. We ooh-ed and ah-ed at the fireworks as only those bright explosion things in the sky can make you.

There used to be public announcements warning people to check their bonfires for hedgehogs as they were wont to climb in among the wood and leaves and make a cosy burrow, which got a bit too cosy when the flames started, and we ensured that all our pets were safely locked indoors.

For weeks before the event, there were collections for firewood and a penny for the guy – dad’s ‘old’ clothes were ransacked, usually with mum’s tacit consent. Him Outdoors tells me there used to be skirmishes round his way when raiding parties went out at night to nick each others wood. But then, he did live ‘up north’ where it’s grim, apparently.

Bonfire Night is celebrated in New Zealand too, although there are a myriad of heath and safety legislations about what to do with your Golden Rain (is it just me, or does that sound rude?) and where you can stick your Roman candles. It kind of surprises me that the festival is held here at all because it seems particularly British.

It was instigated to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of the 5th of November 1605 in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. It was compulsory, by Royal Decree, to celebrate the deliverance of the King in the UK until 1859. I have heard people lament the failure of the plot and in fact, celebrate Guy Fawkes as something of an anti-hero.

The conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot intended to indiscriminately kill everyone in the vicinity of Parliament which, being in the centre of London, would have been quite a lot of people. Since many of the neighbouring buildings were made of wood, they would have caught fire and much of the city would have been destroyed (as it actually was 60 years later, but by accident). This makes him a terrorist in my book, but then I’ve always been interested to see how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

And then there’s the weather. Guy Fawkes’ Night is just that – it takes place at night when the skies are dark so you can see the fireworks and the flames. You have to wrap up warm and roasting chestnuts is not just a pleasant pastime; it’s a necessity. Here you have to wait until it’s dark, by which time the kids have been kept up for several hours past their bedtime, so are even more whiny and petulant than usual. Plus they’re generally high on sugar.

And we haven’t even mentioned the wind. The fireworks displays in Wellington all have disclaimers that they will be ‘weather permitting’, which means the winds can’t be too strong. Ha! Expect to see that fireworks display sometime next February when the gale force winds subside for an hour or two. But don’t hold your breath.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Domestic chores abroad

Doing domestic chores in a foreign country can always be interesting. Here a few things we struggled with in Rimini:

  • Washing underwear in the hotel sink and trying to tie it to a line without pegs
  • Buying stamps for England and New Zealand from the post office when a policeman comes in and leans nonchalantly on the counter with a gun loose in his holster
  • Trying to explain that we want smelly foot powder and cold sore cream to the pharmacist – the man behind the counter points at Him Outdoors’ face and loudly says ‘Herpes!’ Thanks very much
  • Looking for a postcard from this beautiful village of cobbled streets and Roman ruins that doesn’t feature a woman’s arse in a thong and glitter.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Parade of Nations

Watching the parade of nations provokes mixed emotions. Him Outdoors reckons things start to get serious from here and he begins to feel the competition – if we didn’t despise the expression so much, we would probably say we were getting to the business end of the contest.

Although I am proud to see him march beneath the New Zealand flag, my heart still feels British. He tells me there are numerous Kiwis and Aussies who are representing Great Britain so I suppose that evens things out.

Some of the lads do the haka, turning round and facing the other competitors. South Africa, used to seeing this and knowing how to respond, push through Portugal, Poland and Qatar (they are lined up in alphabetical order) to front up to the challenge. It is good to see the skinny white blokes putting passion into it.

South Africa sing harmonies as they parade, Canada hand out little flags, Japan wear strange constumes, and France and Italy contest the best-dressed award.

Meanwhile the Great Britain team fly the union flag upside-down which is either a great insult (lese majeste) or an international distress signal.
Him Outdoors points out that this isn’t the best look before a race, and no one had even noticed.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


What must you break to make a mosaic?
Pottery, plates and crockery;
Memories or plain ceramics?
Do you smash and grab, gathering the fragments;
Pieces of past religions, glittering and gleaming
As the sun filters through windows
Filling the basillica with Catholic gilt.
Hurling the plates in heated debate;
Shards of porcelain passion are all that remain
At the death of a relationship
You promised would last forever.