The Box up the Stairs, Part Nine: Florence, Venice, and Generally Inhospitable Italy
In pre-EU Europe, I seldom even noticed passing through customs from one country to another; passport checks were uneventful. Entering Italy, however, train passengers were herded by ufizzi chaps demanding, “passaporte! passaporte!” I was afraid they would whip out batons to hasten our pace in the crowd. I don’t remember where I entered Italy from France, but wherever I was, I determined then and there not to go to Rome. Somehow Italy plus crowds equaled touchy chemistry.
It was only in Italy that I overhauled my itinerary, desultory as it was, based on negative sentiments I acquired on the train. I decided not to go to Greece because I’d heard the trains there were worse than the trains in Italy. The decisive moment came when my non-smoking car on a train bound for Brindisi was invaded by five slick-suited smoking gallants.
Maybe Mussolini had the trains running on time, but he was not around in 1981, and the attitude of lassitude and its smug institutional smirk tried my patience. I had been traveling on a fairly insouciant schedule, but at this point, time was no longer a matter of indifference. I had to return to France in time to sail to England in time to fly home. I mention “sail” because there was no Chunnel in those days, and I didn’t spring for the extra expense of the hovercraft, but took the slow boat both ways across the Channel.
Throughout Italy, a frequent scene from my train window was a man with a hammer who would bang on the train’s wheels when it stopped. I’ve no idea what these men were doing, but everywhere in Italy, train wheels seemed to require men with hammers to bang on them. No doubt this was the very model of government employment at its zenith.
Italian train stations still had “squatters” for restroom facilities at the time I was there. These passed neither hygienic nor aesthetic muster. I really had little desire to spend much time on Italian trains, but I did want to see a bit of Florence and Venice. And so I did. The walls of my Venice hotel hosted a gang of roaches, the only indoor insect life I encountered during my entire month in Europe. I never had to worry about crowded cafés, because I was usually the only person eating between five and six o’clock; the fashionable dinner hour in Italy is between 8 and 10 PM, when I would not have been comfortable out alone. My paternal heritage notwithstanding, I can’t say that Italy and I clicked.
Yes, Venice had water, and boats traveled along canals. An overall sense of seediness deterred my interest in walking about the city. What Florence had to commend it was the Ufizzi Gallery, the perimeter of which was lined by seated, unoccupied men. The Gallery was actually open when I arrived. However, I could not get past the foyer, because admission required lire, and I had already converted my money to francs in anticipation of going to France that day. It didn’t really matter, because the foyer contained enough things to interest me, especially some of da Vinci’s fabulous drawings. From the Ufizzi Gallery, I hiked to the train station, and looked forward to putting Italy’s scuzzy streets and generalized insolence behind me.