Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bits and Bills of Florence

The rape of a wood nymph atop
a fountain in the Liberty Plaza.
I wondered if there might be a
philosophical connection....  
Wrapping up five very full days in Florence means a lot of small stories have not yet been told. The place we rented was up in the north eastern part of town where there are no tourists and few locals who speak English. The guy at the tapas bar (not really called that, but that's what they serve - appetizers and wine....) asked us "What are you doing here? How come you're not in the center with the rest of the tourists?"

Across the street from the apartment, a small bar/restaurant is owned by a charming young woman. Irene bought the tiny restaurant over a year ago, but she had to wait till she was 21 for the license because she is her only employee! She's at the restaurant six days a week from 7:00am till 8:00pm and other than sounding a bit hoarse in the evenings, seems to be inexhaustible. She speaks rudimentary English, tutored by a blue-eyed Rastafarian Reggae musician from Portland, Jamaica, named George. His stage name is Yellow Culture. George is in Europe for two months playing at bars and clubs under a music visa.  Irene gives George lessons in Italian, he teaches her new English words, and how NOT to say them with a Jamaican accent.

Figuring out the buses has been a challenge, and not just for us clueless tourists. Streets are torn up all over the neighborhood. The signs for the regular stops have orange bags taped over with a tiny sign that says the bus has been re-routed. That's it. It doesn't tell you where to go or even what street the bus has been re-routed to. Consequently, we have hunted all over for the bus to no avail and more than once walked all the way to the center of town, a distance of at least 2 miles. One morning, around 8:00, the whole apartment filled with a horrible odor. Gagging I went outside for some fresh air and next to the front door was an open sewer pipe in the bottom of a trench. We couldn't find a bus fast enough that day!!

A delicacy: sugared roses. They taste like
eating your Grandmother's perfume! And
they cost $60 Euros per kilo!
It takes $1.30 to purchase one Euro, so an easy conversion for me is to just add $3 for every 10 Euros to get an idea of how much real money something costs. The large museum tickets cost 10 and 15 Euros, some smaller ones are as low as 6. A typical meal in a sit-down restaurant starts at 12 Euros. Many have a service bar, where you can stand and drink a cup of coffee with a pastry. If you sit down at a table the price doubles. Tips are not expected since the waiters are paid a living wage. And taxes are built into the price so the posted price is all you pay. I actually prefer this to the American system as a consumer, but it is a way of hiding from the taxpayer how much the taxes really are!!

Buildings lit up for Christmas shoppers,
and there are many of them!
My traveling companion, Derek, is an economist interested in the state of the world. In Italy he expected to see evidence of terrible unemployment, falling prices, and a collapsing economy based on what he'd read. Instead we've walked around the center of town through piazzas packed with people doing their Christmas shopping at high-end stores like Gucci, Prada, and Este Lauder. The number of tourists right now is low, so most of the people are locals. The restaurants, while not packed, have been reasonably full. He waved his arm over the crowd and said, "Remember what this looks like. This is how it looks before the fall."  I commented that the US looks like this too. "Exactly" he said.

Down a narrowing set of streets in between several churches, we came to a "y". One street was named Inferno, the other Purgatorio. Purgatorio ended at a T-intersection, you could go either way. Inferno was a dead end.

At the train station, a guy wanted to "help" us and punched the buttons on the automated kiosk, zipping through so fast that we ended up buying two tickets for about 32 Euros more than we thought. Then he expected a few coins for his trouble. Turns out he'd punched in the "base" price, which is essentially insurance that allows you to miss the train and reschedule, or reschedule to an entirely different destination. If you don't buy it and you miss the train, you have to purchase new tickets. Derek figured it out the next day by chatting with an actual train company employee. So from now on, we won't be accepting anyone's "help". So many of these kinds of hidden charges happen to us, because we don't know any better. Just this evening we were charged an extra 3 Euros on a restaurant bill. It was for the cloth napkins! Who knew? I'm a little surprised they didn't charge extra for the plate, I left actual germs on that!!