Friday, July 15, 2011


My late Italian aunt Liana was the first I heard to describe playwrite Noel Coward's assessment of the English on holiday. As I dashed out onto her balcony during my visit back in the 1980s she sighed and muttered : "Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." She didn't understand that we English see hot sun so rarely we make of the most of it when we do.

That's probably why during my trip last week to Italy, during temperatures that rose from 32 degrees to 37 degrees, I was the only one sitting out at the Cafe Florian in St Mark's Square in Venice under glorious rays that chased most people into the shade of the porticos. It proved to be a costly mistake.

My son paid to climb the bell tower to get shots looking over the city and so I thought I'd take a few minutes to enjoy the sun and drink in the atmosphere and a glass of chilled white wine. There was a string quartet playing at a cafe in shade across the square and one playing at the one I chose in full sun. The wine came after a while with a few nibbles and it was all very pleasant - until I got the bill. I should have checked the price list first. It cost E10 Euros for the wine and E6 Euros for the privilege of listening to the quartet sat down. I could have got a case of cheap wine from Lidl's up the road for the same price but then I was in a city that needs constant renovation and the price of enjoying a unique culture is inevitably high.

Italy celebrates 150 years of unification this year and there is a lot of celebrations going on although some Venetians are unhappy about it. There was graffiti about the city calling for Venice to revert to a republic and for the "truth" of its history to be known. I wondered what they thought about being part of the EU if they didn't even like the idea of being part of Italy. I surmised that maybe they were like the Scots supporting independence - happy to be part of the EU but not Britain for historical and cultural reasons rather than economics.

My trip - with pregnant daughter No 1 and only son - began in Pisa.

I've seen the Piazza Dei Miracoli so many times I'm in danger of being as complacent about it as I am about Lincoln Cathedral in my home town.

I stay in Pisa because it's practical, close to where my family lives in Cecina and handy for rail journeys to other cities. Florence/Firenze is less than an hour away and proved to be my son's favourite.

Visits to the seaside Tuscan village of Cecina Mare and it's larger neighbouring town of Cecina will always be the highlight of my trip to Italy because of family connections and genetic roots. I learn something new each time and on this trip my mother's sister kindly allowed me to copy a photo of my Italian grandmother taken when she was a young woman.

I lit a candle for my mother at the church where she married in Cecina and paddled in the warm sea in Cecina Mare where my ancestors made their living as fishermen. I showed my kids the barracks where their granddad was stationed with the British Allies in WW2 when he met their grandmother, but I think they're too young to be greatly interested in family history yet.

My son read 1984 by George Orwell and I finished off Velvet Glove Iron Fist by Christopher Snowdon during our rail trip from Pisa to Venice. We read interesting passages from our respective books to each other as we travelled. Two non-smoker young girls sitting opposite us were very interested and cut into our conversation after I had reeled off cases of smoker discrimination at work as detailed in VGIF. The girls - one of whom lived in London - were very interested to hear what has happened in the smoking issue since the blanket ban.

They were like most non smokers - unbiased, incredulous at most of the health propaganda, appalled at the current treatment of smokers, surprised to know that anyone felt strongly enough about it to become politically active, and tolerant enough to strongly agree that there should be choice for both sides.

I would surmise that smokers are still in the majority in Italy - there were certainly a lot of them about although there is a blanket indoor smoking ban there too. The hostel I stayed in at Pisa had one sign on the inside of the bedroom door but none on the other two rooms or balcony. The hotel in Venice carried a warning that smokers caught smoking would be fined.

As the Pisa hostel had two plant pots full of previous guests' stumps, and the staff all smoked, I guessed smoking wasn't a big deal. I was happy to abide by the rules, particularly as it was too hot to sit indoors and the evenings were very pleasant on the balcony. I cleaned out the stumps from the plant pots that weren't mine because I hate to see them. I hope smokers take their own ashtrays next time.

Staff at the hotel in Venice all smoked and many were immigrant workers so I guessed it wasn't a big deal there either. No alarm went off nor smoke police busting through the door as I opened a window and leaned out as far as I could to smoke that final cig of the day before bed. I wondered if these kind of signs in a smoker friendly country are more about appeasing anti-smokers than penalising smokers.

Like we stand out in the cold, they stand out in the heat denied the opportunity to enter cool air-conditioned places. As our pub landlords supply us with outdoor heating, their bar, cafe and restuarant owners supply fans that blow a fine mist of ice water into the air to provide cool comfort.

I noted that there are many 24 hour street cigarette vending machines in Italy but I didn't see anyone using them let alone a flock of 5 year-olds queuing up to put their pocket money in to get the devil weed out.

I stopped for a smoke outside a Venetian art gallery and my son went in. I looked through the windows as I smoked. There were comic artistic interpretations on today's and yesterday's politicians. Mao Tse Tung was redefined as Ronald McDonald, Hitler and Mussolini were portrayed as Laurel and Hardy, and Tony Bliar as The Joker in Batman. I'm surprised the striking image below hasn't been commissioned as the front cover of the NuPuritans' bible.

Of course another large part of my trip was also about The Resistance and buying tobacco abroad to avoid paying UK tax on our own Denormalisation. Tobacco in Italy is not as cheap as many other countries in Europe at E5 Euros a 40g pack but still much cheaper than here in the UK. Hopefully the amount I bought will take me over to a more affordable time to get away for a cross channel trip later in the year.