I’m used to having people come up to me in the street in France and Spain and ask me for directions – .  Being Black Irish in coloring, I could pass for either depending on the light and state of jet lag.  But never before have I been mistaken for Italian.  What gives?

Here’s what got me thinking:

In the Uffizi, I was taken under the wing of a very nice docent who explained to me in great detail all about the ancient Roman statuary. All in Italian without even asking me which language I spoke. Thank heavens for my French and Spanish teachers.  Between the two languages, I was able to follow 90% of the conversation and respond in such a way as to make this lovely lady happy.   Mission accomplished.  I figured it was a fluke.

Florence Duomo

Next, I was happily prowling the streets of Florence mapping out all the places Vlad wanted to see the next day.  I was asked directions several times in halting Italian.  One very nice French family approached me in excreable Italian and the look of surprise when I responded in French was priceless. I then got into a long discussion of how I learned French at University, along with the obligatory smirks on the other side.   Always flattering, but I am convinced they only said it because they were embarrassed at mistaking a dreaded Californian for an Italian.   Not sure why.   I think we Californians are pretty nice people, and the more I travel, the more I’m sure of it. Don’t look at my passport. I came to California as a mere infant, and consider myself pretty much a native.

Piazza in Florence

The following day at the Pitti Palace, in one of the galleries, I was taken under the wing of a very nice, extremely elderly gentleman docent who explained in detail about the subjects of the paintings in the Ducal wing, as well as a good deal of history surrounding Botticelli, Rafaello, Fra Bartolomeo and other assorted artists that executed the masterpieces. He was a dapper gentleman who reminded me of my grandfather, so I let him chatter away. The strange part was I understood him perfectly (which is making me a bit suspicious) and was able to respond in a mixture of pseudo-Italian and French that made him happy.  When Vlad caught up to me, he gave a very gallant bow and went off to find other newbies to educate. What a dear man.

Florence Street Scene

There has to be something here.  There were just way too many coincidences to make it a random occurrence.  Hey Dad – are you sure you’re not part Italian?? Really sure??

Artists gather in the Piazza Della Republica

After an incredible dinner at a lovely little osteria in Florence, Vlad and I were wandering slowly back to our hotel. OK – slowly is all we could do after the dinner we just had.  We were admiring the sights, and laughing at the other tourists as they were trying to herd gaggles of children and keep their sanity.  We empathized, but were glad we weren’t in the same condition.

Strolling through the Piazza Della Republica, we stopped to listen to a street musician playing tired American ballads.  Sounded nice, but a bit pedestrian for the lovely medieval setting.   Then, during a break in his warbling, we heard the voice of an angel in the distance singing Verdi. The Siren Song to Opera fanatics and much more appropriate to the setting.

Piazza Della Republica

Pulled in the direction of this golden voice, we saw a lovely young lady singing to the accompaniment of an accordion. Now we’re firmly in the camp of “play an accordion and go to jail – it’s the law”, but in this case we both decided to make an exception. It was a perfect blend of a mezzo-soprano who had considerable training and a very good musician. She belted out ‘Canzone di Azucena’ as if she was on stage. What’s more impressive, she followed it up with an ‘Ochi Chornye’ in perfect Russian. She had several CD’s on a rack, and I went up during her break and bought two of them. She was that good. She asked me if I’d like to hear anything and I asked her for Shubert’s ‘Ave Maria’. Her rendition was marvellous. Full of feeling and pitch perfect. Andrea Bocelli, meet your younger replacement.

Vlad and I then looked at her CD in the street light, wondering why someone with her incredible talent was singing on a Piazza in Florence. Her name is Natalia Lopushanskaya, and according to the back of the CD jacket, she trained at the National Conservatory of Music in Kiev. Her husband is Anatoly Grischuk, and he’s an accomplished and highly trained musician who plays the accordion only because it’s easier to carry than the piano. OK – I’ll give him that. I wouldn’t want to lug a piano around Florence either. You’re off the hook, dude.

If any of you like opera or good music, I highly recommend emailing this duo for their CD’s. They ship all over the world. email is tolikkiev@rambler.ru. Ask for their Duo and their Firenze Sogna albums.  You’ll be happy you did.

Simon Cowell, where are you when you’re most needed? This girl is better than anything you have on Idol this season! Or last season, or the season before that…..

It’s not unusual for someone to get sick on one of our family holidays. In fact, it’s pretty much par for the course and one of the favorite gotchas used by the Travel Gods. As a result, I take with me on overseas travel a medicine kit that is the stuff of legend. Many a trip with colleagues had them ignoring my warnings about drinking the water and ended with me sending a few Lomotil and a couple of bananas up to their room prior to my handling the day’s meetings solo or hitting the local museum for a lovely day on my own.

So this trip, I had antibiotics,  decongestants, antihistamines, tamiflu, lomotil, pepto, nyqull, dayquill, robitussin, ibuprofen, and every size bandage made in America.  I was prepared for just about anything.   So what happens?   I get sick.  Not just sick – embarrassingly sick, and I didn’t have the correct stuff with me.

On the flight over to Italy, I noticed it was difficult to pop my ears. Gotta love pressurization,so I didn’t think anything more of it. Until the second day in Florence. Never having had  ear problems in my life, I wasn’t sure what this was. No problem, I thought. I took a couple of ibuprofen and a sudafed, and figured all would be well. Ear stuff is for other people’s kids – not me.   I left all that behind more than years than I care to admit.

Halfway through the Pitti Palace museum, I realized I was wrong and admitted defeat. Remembering pharmacists in Italy could prescribe medications for most minor ailments, Vlad and I hot-footed it to the nearest Farmacia. Two very nice gentlemen were behind the counter. The younger spoke some English, and the elder (obviously Papa) was the one with the most experience, but with little language skills. After a lot of back and forth about my symptoms, (how many ways can I say “it hurts!” in English, French and Spanish pointing to the ear?) the two gentlemen went off to caucus. The younger man soon returned with a box and said “two drops three times daily. 7 euros”. That was it. No request for my insurance card, or arguments about coverage. Apparently if you get sick here, you get medicine. What a concept!

Gee – at home I would go to my GP and listen to a lecture about how it was my fault I was in this situation, and if I would just cut back on my salt intake, all my problems would be over. I almost felt cheated.

We went back to the hotel and I put the two drops in and immediately the pain decreased. Wow. Bliss. All without an argument. I either need a new GP or a new health plan.

Gotta go do my drops. But I can have salt with my dinner! It’s not too bad, all things considered…

The Travel Gods weren’t as kind to Vlad as they usually are.  A long and bumpy flight to Frankfurt left him sleepless, and a bit concerned about catching his flight to Milan. After a considerable time in customs the passport control guy announces right before Vlad gets to the top of the queue that it’s his break and everyone must find another line. Vlad was convinced he wasn’t going to make it to Italy this week – or ever.

Fortunately, the flight from Frankfurt to Milan was late, so he made it with a few minutes to spare.  A pretty nice flight showed that the Travel Gods were done with him for the day.  The bus ride to the train station and the train ride to Florence were equally uneventful.  When Vlad arrived in Florence in the  late afternoon, he went straight to the Hotel Santa Maria Novella, thanks to a cabbie who knew what he was doing.  Things were looking up for him.

It turns out they were just saving it up.  When Vlad went to check in at the hotel, the guy behind the desk couldn’t find the reservation.  That’s not really something a jet-lagged guy wanted to hear.  Especially after 24 hours of pretty nonstop travel.  Vlad’s usually even temper was about to fray, and he told me that he was thinking some very unkind thoughts at that moment.  He never thought about turning on his mobile phone and calling me.  That’s what mobiles are for, sweetie…

Fortunately, the manager came up, and got the idea to ask Vlad what my maiden name was.  Good thing – the lady at the desk when I arrived the previous day obviously felt Pizarev was too much for her, and decided to pick Gorry from my passport as much easier to input into the system.   Thank heavens for that manager. Otherwise, Vlad would still be wandering around Florence.  It always reminds me of that joke about how many Engineers it would take to change a light bulb.  I need to revise that to ‘find a hotel reservation’.

All’s well that ends well. Vlad made it to Florence, and in a few days he was de-stressed enough to remember my name as well as his.  After 25 years of marriage, you just go with it.

Well, I made it. After a mercifully uneventful flight across the Atlantic, we landed in Milan 40 minutes early. Italian passport control is lovely. No forms to fill out – just walk up to the guard, smile, hand in your passport for him to stamp, and you’re on your way. No questions about what I’m doing in their country, arguments about where I’ve been in prior trips and why, nothing but a smile and a soft ‘buon giorno”. Now if I could only get my ears to pop, I’ll be one very happy traveler.

Collected the bags and off I went in search of an ATM in the Malpensa airport. There is only one machine on the arrivals floor, and it wasn’t working. What else do you expect in Italy? A herd of American passengers went looking for another machine. Having been here before, and in this same situation, I knew the only other one was up on the check-in floor – 2 floors up. I scampered up the escalator, and sidled up to the other machine cleverly hidden behind the hawkers cello-wrapping suitcases for 5 euros. I guess they don’t have a TSA here – that would be like waving a flag in front of a bull at home – they’d slit that stuff just for the fun of it.

Back to the arrivals floor, flush with euros, and a newly-purchased bus ticket to the train station in town, and I see the gaggle of tourists still looking for an ATM machine that works, and asking if the bus ticket offices take credit cards. They don’t. As a result, there were only 6 of us on the huge coach to the train station. Ah, a nice quiet ride to the Centrale Stazione with a few locals.

A woman alone is a target in these train stations, although at my age and state of jet lag, I didn’t think I’d be much of a draw. Either these guys are blind, or they see me as an easier target than I thought I was. Flattering, really, in a pathetic sort of way.

The train ride was lovely. A nice young man about my son’s age drew the seat opposite me, and when I offered to move so he could sit with his friend told me he’d rather sit opposite a pretty lady than he would his friend since he sees him all the time. It is nice to see the younger generation of Italians have not lost their charm or penchant for untruthfulness. I’m sure I reminded him of his mother, or aunt, or someone. Whatever it was, it made my day. This would never happen at home, more’s the pity. Alex – are you taking notes?

Santa Maria Novella church

Made it to the hotel Santa Maria Novella in Florence, unpacked and I was starting to nod off. Nope. Can’t do that. If I succumbed, I’d be messed up on timing for the next 3 days. Gotta stay awake. The hotel and room were lovely – I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Florence.  I had two nice balconies out the french windows that overlooked a quiet courtyard, and I could hear multiple church bells on the hour and half-hour.   Hmmm –  I found myself wondering if the bed was as comfortable as it looks… No – must be strong.

Off I went to visit the Galleria Uffizi. A nice long walk by the Arno was what I needed to stay awake. It was a free Sunday, but I paid the extra 4 euros for an advance reservation.  Glad I did.  The line of people stretched down to the Ponte Vecchio. I marched up to the entrance with my ticket, and in I went for 2 hours of picture and statue gazing bliss.

River entrance to the Museo Uffizi

I felt so sorry for the docents in the museum rooms. Those poor people are trying to maintain order and a certain level of hush in the hallowed halls, and with all the tours of high school and college aged kids, were not having much success. A group of rowdy middle-aged Americans who imbibed too much wine at lunch were also reinforcing the stereotype and ruining it for the rest of us.  I hope the hangover on their way was a lulu.

On my way back to the hotel in the late afternoon, I found myself stopped twice by tourists asking me in bad Italian if I know the direction to various sites. When I responded in English that I really have no idea, and pull out my street map to see if I can help them, the resulting laughter made it a fun experience. I’ve been mistaken for French and Spanish while in other cities in Europe, but it was the first time anyone thought I was Italian.  Maybe it wasthe new haircut. Trés chic, or so I thought.

Forget dinner. It was time now to get cleaned up and discover if the bed really was as comfortable as it looked.  I found myself hoping my ears would pop soon.  This was most unusual, and not something the Travel Gods usually send my way.   It looked like they’ came up with something new, and I decided I must watch this.

Vlad was arriving the next day, I couldn’t wait to see him and start our holiday.

View of the Arno River in Florence