I under-estimated the scale of the map. Spots look nearby on the map are in fact quite a distance apart. By the second day my foot was full of blisters, which left me immobile. I decided to explore Firenze by hopping on local buses. Having failed on several attempts to get hold of a bus map, I decided to forget about it, to do it blind by hopping on buses which happened to stop closest to me, and which happened to be there when I was there. The random rides brought me to absolutely breathtaking sites, including Michelangelo, where locals and tourists were enjoying panoramic views.
I also visited Ufizz. Came home wondering how the distinctive features could uniquely identify one male sculpture from its fellows. Ufizzi also brought me to the awakening of what a culture-less life we workaholics live, that a balanced-vs-unbalanced lifestyle is more an issue of the lack of culture rather than on the volume of work/chores/stress. I would need less holidays and breaks if I live a cultured life everyday.
I scouted around the tourists-packed centre. Outside Dante's house a young gentleman in full costume and make-up and exaggerated tones was acting out a Dante scene; I didn't understand the script but found the sight ticklish and hilarious; the scene impressed upon me as something to recall in moments of stress and anxiety in the future. That's a perpetuating entertainment and comfort an entertainer could offer his audience (or rather clients, in modern professional terms).
If I ever learn Italian it shall be for the sake of reading Dante's Divine Comedy.
After the trips I did bring Firenze home with me, by making it a point to walk along Grand Rue on Sunday evenings, when it is not infested by tourists. I enjoy the cobble stones, the slope, the art galleries and the designer shops. Window-shopping closed shops is like watching babies sleep -- those are unique moments of its own. As a matter of fact, not just babies, but anyone.
Firenze is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I was in Ischia for a summer school. At dinner, the school organiser came round from table to table whispering to each of us who was wearing shorts, "You are not supposed to wear shorts for dinner!" "And you also!" Before he reached our table I pulled the table cloth forward to cover my lap. The next morning, an official announcement was made: the hotel staff don't like to see us wearing shorts for dinner, so please don't do that. Every Thursday the hotel has a gala dinner where formal attire is expected. Goodness, who would carry smart suits for holidays?
Returning to my room each evening, I found a little card with the weather forecast hand-written in pencil. The card was always complemented by a sweet or two serving as paper-weight. I found the gesture rather sweet. A cozy touch. It reminded me of the daily supply of big red apples in the hotel in Lindau.
The extravagance disturbed me somewhat. I found the place too posh for comfort. Bottles and bottles and bottles of drinks, trays after trays after trays of food prepared and served in excess like nobody's business. The gentleman from China said if I found that wasteful, it's even worse in China.
The summer school differed somewhat from conferences I normally travel for. This spanned a good fortnight, which was long enough for participants to get to know each other. Long enough to make a few good friends. There was no lack of mischief in the classroom: during lessons the boy sitting in front of me was playing football on his laptop. I could see the red ball on his screen. Every now and then he made the "Goal!" gesture in a controlled manner, with excitement he couldn't contain so much so that he had to shake his mate on his right to look at his screen.
I enjoyed being in the classroom once again, probably because we had a great classroom experience in Surrey. Some students felt offended for being given a name badge tagged with the word "student". In some European countries postgraduates are considered working, not studying. So, being called a "student" was an insult.
I also met a few characters among the instructors, whom, were I a computer scientists, I would have liked to work with. There was a quiet, non-showing-off character or two, who has the heart to build up students. There was a charismatic figure who knew the grand picture as well as the fine details, who has the vision as well as the know-how, who asserted enough to be able to accept opposition and challenge even from students.
During the summer school there was a one-day event related to Grid computing, but industrial and commercial. Some of us sat in, as we were allowed to. I sat there, watching men in big suits presenting Microsoft Powerpoint slideshows: slides after slides of bullet points and flowcharts. It flashed across my mind whether they enjoyed what they were doing, was it their vocation in life, or was it just a money-making career?
To get to Pompei from Ischia, I found no reasonable way of avoiding Naples. Oh well. Naples put me off enough that I considered doing Pompei via a tour operator. But I decided not to; I held on to my principle -- no arranged/guided tours, no sightseeing buses. Being chauffeured to the spot kills the whole purpose -- I might as well watch a virtual tour on video. Much of the joy of travelling is in finding the place myself. So I found Pompei myself, blessed my pair of booties with Pompei's dust, and survived Naples unscratched.
The special Circumvesuviana train, not Trenitalia, was the way to get from Naples to Pompei, a return trip was only 4,50 Euros. (Note: the decimal point was given as a comma in European notation.) The Circumvesuviana station (one station away from the central: Piazza Garibaldi) in Naples was surprisingly peaceful, nothing typical of Naples. On the train, mobile music makers got on with their portable instruments, playing and singing continuously from "Oh Susanna!" to "Magarina" without a pause in between.
Is Napoli a thorn in Italy's flesh? I planned my trip trying my best to minimise the transit time in Naples. It actually turned out to be even worse than I thought. Thankfully I managed 4 transits without getting into trouble. Some students had their things stolen, as entirely expected. Somebody was given a false coin by a shop in the airport.
Naples instantly reminded me of India. That interplay of total chaos, heat, traffic, danger and poverty. People sitting on the ground selling cheap goods along pavements. Every vehicle seemed destined to run over somebody. And then I recalled how Indian drivers are more skilful than anybody else: as much as cars appear to be constantly about to collide, they simply don't. This thought made me felt better in Naples.
Yes, people warned me to be careful in Rome as well. But I've been in Rome several times (can't recall how many), so what's wrong with Rome? I feel completely comfortable in Rome. But Naples is different, and I do raise a level of warning.
Pompei Scavi is the station to get off if you are visiting the ruins. The entrance to the ruins is just a few steps away.
At the entrance I was greeted with some stray dogs. That's a sight I have grown less accustomed to since living away from Malaysia. But never mind, it is southern Italy.
At the entrance where guests queued up for tickets, sweaty local tour guides were lobbying loudly for customers in different languages: "Last chance! Last chance! Tour starting in 2 minutes! 3 places left!" On one of the tour guides' name badge I found his name beginning with the title, "Professor xxx". I was alone and had no one to laugh with!
O site, there were not only ruins and ruins and ruins... but tourists and tourists and more tourists. Pompei is less ruined than Rome's Ancient City, in that the walls of the buildings are still erect, which means:
Rome's Ancient City is different. It is ruined enough for me to stand there and see all - a sight which took me out of this world. Perhaps Rome's impressed me more because I was unprepared, I didn't know it was going to be like that, it caught me by surprised, I stumbled upon it as I walked around the area. If I had a dozen jaws I would have dropped them all.
From that moment the experience set a standard of expectation for me. Visits elsewhere could never match up to Rome's Ancient City. Nowhere as ruined. Nowhere as breath-taking.
Pompeii as much as Rome's Ancient City are UNESCO World Heritage Sites
At the entry point to the Vatican Dome, there was a printed warning: there would be 350+ steps and the weak shouldn't attempt. To me, steps were mere steps, and 350+ was just another number -- no problem! What the warning didn't mention were:
The climb was one-way because the closed spiral staircase was too narrow for anything else. There was a steady stream of people coming up. Under normal rules, obviously, there was strictly no turning back. However, if I plainly couldn't manage, there was this least-preferred option of raising a SOS call for a staff to come and help me. Or, if I attempt to carry on, I could get even more stuck. So, how?
I hesitated and hesitated. The problem was that I had no clue what was ahead except for the stretch of rope hanging in front of me. OK, in the end, I asked a passer-by to hold the info sheet for me so that I had both hands free. And I carried on. The top turned out not to be too faraway. At the top, I enjoyed the 360-degree view which took everyone beyond Rome. And I got down safely.
Sometimes life is like that, isn't it? We stop, we hesitate, but eventually trot on because that is the way to be.
To me, Perugia was like a multi-layer wedding cake. At first, the layout of the town completely confused me. It then completely surprised me. Sites drawn side-by-side on the map could in fact be so far apart in terms of altitude that one needed to take flights of escalators. So interesting and so cute! Sometimes it's really better not to know before you go.