He looked at me long and hard. Was I an international criminal or just some old bloke on his holidays in Italy? A long delay followed after I had given my passport to the passport control officer at Pisa Airport. He consulted his colleague and they talked animatedly, pointing at the computer screen. I could see Linda on the other side of the glass partition looking worried. The last time this happened my passport was confiscated and I was detained for two days before being deported back to the UK minus my dodgy passport. Then Linda had a week in Rome without me – her main gripe being she didn’t have me to carry her various suitcases – other than that she enjoyed a Harry-free holiday. Now with a new passport I hoped there would be no repeat and after about five more minutes of discussions between the passport officials they relented and gave me back my passport and then with a grunt that suggested they wished they could have detained me, I was waved through. Phew.

Behind me was an elderly and rather well fed and red faced (and dare I say badly dressed) couple who were extremely irritated by the delay I had created. There was much tut-tutting, and stifled grumblings about the ‘bloody Europeans punishing us Brits’ – and about the already lengthy queue in comparison to the EU one. The implication being it was some kind of payback for the UK leaving the EU. But then I didn’t vote for Brexit so I couldn’t be blamed for that one – but I have often cursed those that did vote for it – wishing them to be hunted down and forced to listen to the theme tune to The Archers for eternity.

It was a holiday with two days in Pisa and four days in Florence with Linda to make up for the previous year’s passport nightmare. And yes, I now had a new passport. It was going to be hot, the forecast was even hotter and the heat coming off the walls of the city’s buildings was even hotter. You could fry an egg on the walls – except I suppose the egg would fall off – but you know what I mean. I had packed vests, long socks, jackets and track suits as I didn’t want to catch a chill but hurriedly took off my trousers in the airport’s cafe (raising eyebrows and laughter amongst the customers) and put on a pair of shorts. I was and am an unreformed Englishman on holiday abroad. Despite learning several Italian phrases, mugging up on the local customs and asking where you can buy a copy of The Daily Mirror in Florence I appear to have a label on my head saying ‘English idiot’. Unlike Linda who can pass off as a local due to her heritage of being half Italian it seems there’s an immediate recognition she’s one of them and I’m not. If I ask in a shop for something in Italian (or for instance where is the lavatory in a café) the staff answer in English adding something along the lines of ‘I hope you are enjoying your holiday,’ before making an aside to a colleague in Italian – making them both laugh. It’s staff one, Harry nil.

Pisa was a surprise. A workaday town with its crazy traffic, industrial buildings, hammer and sickles painted on the walls of building sites, its Pam supermarket and above all an air of getting on with life. The epicentre of tourism is of course the Leaning Tower – defying gravity in the vast Piazza dei Miracoli, or field of miracles, complete with the cathedral, the eponymous tower, the Bapstistery and Camposanto Monumentale – now a museum. Four spectacular 12th century-something cream medieval marvels pictured against a clear blue sky in the heat of a Tuscan afternoon. For once they looked like the photos in the tourist brochures.

Thousands of visitors giggling and gossiping as they meandered out across the piazza with the majority excitedly taking photos and selfies – with many doing the ‘holding up the tower pose’ with one hand seemingly preventing it toppling over – to the person taking the picture. It was impossible not to join in except in our photo I looked like I was holding up one of the miniature versions on sale in the market outside the entrance. It was compulsive viewing to sit and watch family after family, boy and girlfriend after boy and girlfriend all taking the must-take snap.

And Pisa also had the non-touristy Corso Italia – the very long shopping street where you felt you were in Italy as there were no huge groups of Japanese or American tourists following someone with a small flagpole talking into a microphone.  Although on several occasion I pretended to join the groups in an effort to find out where I was and which Tuscan family had murdered another Tuscan family 500 years ago – but had the indignity of having a pigeon pooping on me as it knew I was not legit – which was not as bad as the mosquitoes who also had it in for me.

In the adverts for Vrbo ‘you get the whole place to yourself’ which in our case was not true – as the noise from the people in the flat upstairs meant you felt they were in the room with you – even at three in the morning. And although the photos showed a spacious and modern apartment the images didn’t show the broken washing machine, locked electric hob and malfunctioning dishwasher, or complete lack of instructions, bin liners and cooking utensils. Perhaps nobody previously had cooked anything or washed their clothes there. The only thing the owner cared about was being paid in cash when we arrived. He insisted the amount listed on the website was wrong and was now a higher figure and stuffed the Euros into his pocket and disappeared. We couldn’t help feeling we were unsuspecting tourists ready to be ripped off.

Health and safety or ‘elf’n’safety’ is a byword for bureaucracy but it is sorely needed in Florence as I found to my cost as I tripped over a loose paving slab and was nearly run over by about 30 Vespa scooters. First impressions are often accurate: an unbearably overcrowded railway station gave way to unbearably overcrowded narrow pavements and nose to tail traffic in the narrow streets of uneven cobbles outside. All of which meant it took several hours to cross the road and even to walk down the unbearably crowded streets pulling a couple of suitcases behind me.

Florence is over hyped, over-priced and overpopulated with tourists just like us taking selfies in front of the famous landmarks and in the piazza. However, go two or three streets away from the popular areas around the cathedral and palaces and there’s another Florence that is altogether more peaceful and more Italian. A place where overheard snatches of conversations always included a reference to someone’s mother, and a place where the rumble of suitcases pulled along by legions of visitors was absent. A place that is called Italy.

Rapscallion Magazine is an online publication edited by Harry Mottram

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc


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