For those of you who think I’m still footloose in Florence, let me inform you that I’m not. I’m back in Bangalore and have been since Sunday. Sad, but true. Coming home was better than it ever has been before. The kids were so absolutely thrilled and delighted to see me, I must confess that it rather took me by surprise. They get over it much more quickly when Amit comes back from out of town, even when he’s away for much longer, like he was for Ladakh. With me, they were engulfing me with kisses and hugs the whole day long and would have carried on where they left off on Monday, except that school, office and other mundane things like that got in the way. I was delighted to see them too, of course, but that didn’t surprise me. Their enthusiasm about me certainly did! It definitely made going away for a few days all that much rosier!
Now that I’ve been back a few days, lots of jumbled thoughts and memories of Italy are jostling around in my head. Here’s a rather unsuccessful attempt at straightening them out.
- How can so many women be so thin all at the same time? Now I understand what happened to women’s clothes in India. Apparently there are parts of the world where it is quite normal for 80% of women to be size zero. And look good at it. Thank god I don’t live in one of those parts of the world!
- What’s with the hair? Granted my mousy thin hair is not the most fantastic thing that ever happened to me (it used to be sleek and thick, I assure you, until I got married), but what is with the colouring, twisting, ironing, tweaking, curling, and generally fiddling with? Doesn’t anyone have the hair they were born with, with just a regular shampooing once a week or so?
- Eyes. Specifically, upper eyelids. As with hair, nobody has the eyelids they were born with. Black, purple, green, yellow, blue… whatever, but not natural skin colour. I mean, most women in India do their eyes, but it’s not as bad as it is out there.
- Bras. Whatever happened to bras? There used to be a garment called a bra, but I think it went out of style in the last millennium. Oh, wait, that was just ten years ago. Bras were already out of sight before that! And I mean, even the over-the-hill women with substantial top storey don’t wear these outdated bits of innerwear. Oh I am so out of it!
- Boots. Mid-calf length, over the jeans or with short skirts, shiny leather or suede or anything in-between, boots are as much in as bras are out. I glanced at the price tags in shop windows. Around 150 euros and upwards, that’s all. Sigh.
- Seriously stylish overcoats. This one was no surprise, even on our previous two visits I have seen seriously stylish overcoats. Also, given the weather there, it’s not surprise. Unlike boots, overcoats are functional and they’ve had generations (and arguably some of the best designers in the world) to get their overcoat designs in shape. So it was no surprise, but it did make me green with envy. I was clad in a bulky Timberland jacket, which I love dearly, but it was completely un-sexy compared to all the classy, shapely overcoats that the women wore. And the men? Oooooh, it’s so easy to look sexy if you’re wearing a stylish blazer and/or overcoat. (It also helps to have the genes of David in your bloodline.)
- Hippie tourists. Where are they? I was the hippiest of the tourists around, with my un-coloured hair and baggy cargo pants and non-figure-hugging T-shirts. Even backpackers are being slowly phased out by the stroller-suitcase tourists. Where were the hippies with nose, tongue, and belly-button rings, matted dreadlocks, and unintentionally torn clothes (as opposed to designer torn clothes)? When did Rome become an upper-class tourist destination???
On a completely different note, I am full of admiration for the way Rome caters to tourists. The tourist maps are wonderful, every street corner is marked both on the street and in the map, so it’s really quite difficult to get lost. (I only managed it because I’m an expert with many years of practice.) Every possible building that could be of the slightest significance to anyone is labeled. The major tourist sites have loads of information printed on boards. Audio guides and tour guides are available in plenty, albeit at a cost.
Public transport is great. It is clean, frequent, punctual, and gets you mostly everywhere. The bus routes are not so easy to understand, but the metro is so well mapped at each metro station that, again, it’s impossible to get lost or get onto a train going the wrong way (as long as you can read English). You’d really have to be blind.And if you do manage it… your ticket is valid for 70 minutes! It gives you time to get back to somewhere, get onto the other side or line and get to where you thought you were going in the first place, without having to hunt for another ticket machine or shell out another buck. Likewise for bus – ticket is valid long enough to correct most errors.
But. They drive on the wrong side of the road! Ok, I mean the “right” side of the road. Whatever. For someone who’s spent 35+ years with traffic zipping by (mostly) on the left-ish side of the road, nine days is not enough to get used to the other side. Even if you’re not driving. Especially if you’re not driving.
Toilets. Well, my one complaint was that in Florence, they were tough to find. I only saw two public toilets though I walked around all the tourist centers of the city. Probably it explains why running water (for drinking) was hard to find too. In Rome, both water and toilets were easy to find. And of course, if you paid an entry fee to get in somewhere, you were guaranteed to find toilets. What I could hardly believe was how clean the toilets were. Occasionally you found toilets where someone had used it badly – not flushed or left the floor wet or the toilet bowl dirty or strewn vast quantities of toilet paper around. But the infrastructure was always in place. The toilet area was sparkling clean, plumbing worked even when put to the test by frequent use, there was sufficient toilet paper and a good number of stalls, sinks, and soap dispensers with soap. For readers from more advanced societies, this might be altogether unremarkable. Readers who have any experience of India will know what the reality here is with public conveniences. They are either non-existent, dysfunctional, or, in the best case, un-usable.
As I mentioned in a recent post, Europe is just so breathtakingly easy to travel through alone, especially when you’re coming from India, where it’s so frustratingly difficult. Finding information easily and using public bathrooms is the least of your problems in India, it’s the social and safety aspects that are so wearying.
Then there was the dorm experience. I’ve never stayed in a hostel of any kind – not in school, not in college, not as a paying guest. I went straight from staying at home with my parents, to staying at home with Amit. Very boring, in terms of diversity of living arrangement. The closest I’ve been to living with a host of other people is when I go to Calcutta to visit the in-laws. So I’ve grown up a kind of private person who’s not very comfortable sharing bedroom or bathroom with friends or family, however close they may be. If I could have, I would have preferred a guest house where I could get a room and attached bath to myself. The reason I didn’t was not entirely monetary. Travelling alone, a dorm at the youth hostel just seemed like the known devil – safe and companionable enough for both Amit and me to feel comfortable about it. In the end, I didn’t mind it at all. Sometimes I didn’t want company and I went to my room hoping I’d be alone. Often I was – youth hostellers are mostly out partying late into the night, it seems, while sedate old women like me go home when the sun goes down and stay home. When I fell asleep, happily alone (or almost alone) at 10 p.m. I was not disturbed by the lights being on and the noise of other people coming in and settling down. I usually did not even know when that happened. When I woke up before first light, I crept around in the darkness, dressed, and left without disturbing anyone (too much). But a few evenings I did spend chatting with my room-mates and even met up with some Thai women for dinner one night. It was quite nice. And in Florence, when I wanted to not talk to anyone I just went and sat out in the driveway under the beautiful poplar trees. It was cold and windy and nobody else wanted to sit outside but for me it was just beautiful.
Which brings me to the Florence youth hostel and its beautiful environs. The youth hostel is a 250-odd year old villa (I’m not joking!) set on the lower slopes of a low hill. You enter the driveway and there’s this long, curving, sloping driveway winding up, vast open countryside covered with trees on both sides, which reminds you, if you have read your PG Wodehouse, of the driveway of Blandings Castle. It’s a good 10-15 minute walk up, which is tiring if you have your luggage with you, but it’s so extremely scenic that you can’t help falling in love with it, even if you are heavily burdened. On my first day in Florence, the weather was grey and it finally started raining in the early afternoon. I hung around the train station waiting for it to stop, but when I had completely exhausted every opportunity to waste time at the station, I sadly got on to a bus to go home. By the time I reached the gate of the youth hostel, it had (of course) stopped raining. I walked up slowly, frustrated at the miserable weather and the wasted day… and by the time I’d reached the top, I couldn’t help smiling out loud. With the wind in the trees whispering sweet nothings to me and the stodgy old villa standing placidly in its fields of rolling green… you couldn’t feel grey or blue for long! That evening I sat under the trees for two hours, blogging on my phone till my fingers turned to ice and my phone’s battery died. It was sheer bliss.
All in all, it was a great trip. If only I didn’t have to be surrounded by size zero figures all the time…
Travelling alone is not something I ever thought I would like to do, but now that I’ve done it, I must say… I do!