14. The Neighbourhood

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Apr 27th, 2011
14. The Neighbourhood

Roused by the bells of Santa Croce cathedral 300 meters away, in the morning it’s time to unpack properly and attend to the mundane – such as sorting 18 days’ worth of laundry from the ship trip. This necessitates doing battle with an Italian washing machine, which lives in the bathroom and has lots of dials and rows of lights with semi-intelligible instructions thereon, such as -
A. Manopola Programmatore
B.  Indicatore delle fasi del programma
(Pre-lavaggio • Lavaggio • Risciacquo • Anti-piega • Centrifugo/ Scorico)
Manopola Selettore Centrifugal
D. Tasto ‘Avvio/Pausa’
E. Tasto ‘Annulla’
F. Spia ‘ Apertura porta’
etc. etc…

We summon our landlady, who sends her grandpa to look after the foreigners even though he is 85 and speaks no English, Unsuprisingly ‘nonno’ (grandpa) cannot shed much light on the actual operation of the machine. I imagine that this is probably because the average Italian patriarch has no experience with washing, mechanical or otherwise, but he has a go anyway. Ciao, grazie, and off he stumps down the stairs.
Prodding various buttons produces well over an hour’s worth of grinding and bumping with no evident result in sight. Eventually, fearing for my lacy items, I try the ‘Annulla’ command. This drains the tub but leaves a pile of wet and soapy washing. I rinse it all by hand then discover there is nowhere to hang it out to dry.
The Bat Cave is a good name for this poorly lit space. The walls are so thick (65 cm) that connecting to the internet is dodgy, but is possible if we angle our laptops to line up with the window, which fortunately faces a gap in the towering walls of buildings to the left and right. This manoeuvre gives us anything from 5kb a second to 1.5 Megabits per second. Life is full of surprises and sudden gifts.

Handbag Heaven

Shopping for basics is also entertaining….. we wander about,  admiring elegant shops, monuments and buildings along the way. This is handbag heaven, and I goggle at boutique after boutique selling handbags and leather jackets (a Florentine speciality). Each shop doorway is fragrant with that wonderful new-leather smell. We pass the famous Florence School of Leather is a few streets away..

Florence's famous School of Leather

Eventually find a supermarket called ‘Billa’ which thankfully seems to stock just about everything practical …  it’s complicated as everything is in Italian but fortunately the rules of package design hold good here, and we are able to stock up on the basics – bread, butter, milk, tea, soap.

The Padlocks of Love

In the early evening we are tempted outside by the sound of church bells from all directions. We stroll down our street (the Via de’ Benci) in the other direction for two blocks, to the river Arno (which runs through the city like the Tiber runs thru Rome or the Seine runs through Paris or the Thames thru London – ok that’s enough similes). The sun has come out and flooded the whole river with soft clear light. It’s like being on a movie set, as most of the buildings are familiar, having been seen at various times in books, films or artworks. Also everywhere you turn someone is pointing a camera in your direction.
Downstream to our right in all its picture postcard glory is the actual Ponte Vecchio, spanning the river. To get to it we walk down the embankment walls, passing the Uffizi palace and other famous monuments to the Renaissance. Pavement chains in front of the Uffizi have been adorned by hundreds of brass padlocks, for some reason. Later James Googles this and we find out that has become a custom for lovers to leave a padlock attached to the chains on/near the Ponte’ Vecchio and then chuck the keys into the river as a sort of vow of unbreakable love. Suitably romantic given the location – and there are plenty of lovers about, snogging in the street – but apparently the Florentine municipality is v. grumpy about this habit (the padlocks that is), having to saw off tons of them off every couple of months just to keep the walkways clear… I expect they are recycling the brass? Could be quite a lucrative undertaking.

The Ponte’ Vecchio is a bridge as well as a shop-lined street. Every shop is a goldsmith and jeweller and sparkles with treasure from pearls to gemstones, gold, silver, scintillating enamelware and filigree – a thousand astonishing designs. Perhaps, I muse, this is where the lovers come to buy engagement rings, before adding their padlock to the collection by the river?

Sparkling Treasure Shop on the Ponte Vecchio

Our guidebook tells us the bridge also has another lesser-known function: the top layer is a private walkway, (the Vasari Corridor) built for one of the Medici Grand Dukes – so that his nibs could walk from the Uffizi palace, across the bridge, past the church on the other side (demolishing a bit of the chancel on the way) and down the road to his other palace, the Pitti, without actually having to set foot on the common street. (and probably to see his mistress in the other palace on the QT).
I am still hunting for somewhere to cash our AMERICAN EXPRESS travellers cheques. An internet search reveals an address on the via Tournabuoni – not too far on the street map from our place. We find the address at the top of an obscurely-numbered building flanked by famous designer shops. The office no longer exists. More cursing.

Designer shops near the non-existent Amex office

There’s an internet café across the street from No.18, and I use the public phone there to call American Express in Rome, to ask for their new address in Florence, and how one cashes their accursed TCs. But the Italian Amex office in Rome have NO IDEA, and NO, they wouldn’t cash the TCs even in Rome. James is obliged to swap the cheques at the railway station forex bureau, for a hefty fee.
I have also found the washing machine’s book-of-words, painstakingly transcribed it into Google Translate and taken the result over to the internet cafe for printing out. Aha, now I know which button to press and when!!
We are slowly getting sorted out. Waving our laptops around in front of the BatCave’s single window seems to help with connectivity speeds.

The TV remote has only rows of tiny buttons, with no text or symbols at all – presumably so that aliens from outer space would be able to use it without a problem. Typically, James figures it out and we surf the Italian channels while sipping local plonk in the evening.

The local wine is not very nice at all, or at least, not the cheapest bottles. We are used to SA plonk, where even the everyday Drostdy-Hof is rich and palatable. Here, a 2-euro bottle (about R20) is thin and fizzy. Eeuw. We shall have to explore the choices a little more!

 

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1 Comment

  • Connie

    04 May 2011
    Reply

    We were also disappointed with the Italian wines when we were there – found them thin and vinegary. After a few days we met Ricardo, who owned a wine shop, and we eventually opted for South African wines (which he agreed, were very different, and which he had in stock, fortunately for us). Anyway – better luck in France!

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