Monday, August 13, 2007

13/08/07 Important Health & Safety Advisory

Yes, today - thanks to the miracle of Al Gore's Internet and e-mail - this newsletter is privileged to be the first to bring you an important safety hint. Women may skip the following, but all those who leave the toilet seat up (yes, we know who you are) need to read this. It may seem obvious, but do not, I repeat do NOT, urinate immediately after massaging Tiger Balm onto one or other of your appendages. Not unless you've washed your hands 37 times with carbolic soap and sulphuric acid - or, of course, you like that sort of thing. Or, possibly, if you use tongs, or oven gloves.

In other breaking news today, I'm privileged to share with you the following instructions from a packet of spice mixture: "Slim the non-bones chiken fillets as requested large. Pour into one pot The Mixture. Fill some water into another pot. Firstly, wet with water the slimmed fillets, and then include into The Mixture. Afterwards, make hot the fat on the fire and heat on the hot oil well the chicken fillets two sides you included The Mixture. Enjoy your meals." I think that about sums it up, don't you? (It was, by the way, delicious. Given that I was unable to follow the instructions completely, I can't vouch for its authenticity though.)

We headed off to Rome on the 29th, ostensibly to pick up our friend Karens' children and bring them back to Chambery, but the sad reality is that we were looking forward to spending a rent-free week in an apartment in Rome. Not central Rome - damn good thing too 'cos I'd never have dared trying to drive around there - but at the southern end of one of the two metro lines. Basically, it was a ten-minute walk to the station (admittedly a tough job in the heat) and then a ten-minute ride to the Coliseum station.

Rome's a dump. Literally. The place is full of ruins, which apparently they haven't had the time to either demolish or renovate in the last 2000 years or so, and rubbish, which appears to have been accumulating for at least 2000 years. Our parking spot just outside the apartment came with a little notice saying that we'd better not be there the second Wednesday of the month, 'cos that was when the rubbish truck might come round - bit of a shock for us poor country bumpkins used to the twice-weekly visits here in St-Pierre. The Romans themselves blame the filth on the immigrants, a practice that also dates back at least 2000 years.

Whatever, we finished by getting used to streets that reminded me more of Africa than of Europe, and as we had but three days we thought we'd better get our money's worth out of the place. Which we did, in typical Bimler fashion, by wandering aimlessly until we got to places we wanted to be. So on Monday we emerged from the metro at the Coliseum, kicked three would-be tour-guides in the nuts until they stopped importuning us, and set determinedly off through the various forums (Jules, Augustus, Trajan ...) until we got to what the American GIs apparently called the "wedding cake": the enormous, vulgar, over-the-top and totally out-of-place white marble monstrosity of the Victor-Immanuel monument. I must admit it is worth seeing, which is fortunate as you cannot, in fact, avoid doing so.

Karen had given us detailed directions to the best ice-cream shop in Rome (and therefore the world), consisting of "find this shop" (we did, I must admit, have the name) and by dint of rather aggressive questioning we eventually found the place, only 100m down a side street from parliament. Handy, I suppose, if they get peckish. The sorbet or gelati or ice-cream or whatever was, however, excellent, and copious enough that Jeremy couldn't finish his. Unfortunately he'd picked a coconut/banana crush combination that neither of us was willing to finish, and we didn't feel up to hawking second-hand ice-cream around all the other tourists, so that wound up in the gutter (no rubbish bins - this is Rome).

>From there it wasn't too difficult to find our way to Saint-Louis des Français (or St-Luigi des Frogs, in the local dialect), which has three Caravaggios depicting - respectively - the selection, temptation, and martyrdom of - I think - St Matthew. But I could be wrong. Whatever. Churches are good. They have thick walls, and it is cool inside. In a Roman summer, this is very good, and is why you will find many people in churches. It may explain why Italians are (nominally, anyway) Catholics. But don't tell the pope I said that.

On Tuesday we did something resolutely touristy and made our way (after kicking another three would-be tour-guides in the nuts) to the Trevi fountains - you know, the one Britt Eckland jumped into in La Dolce Vita. Or whatever. I think that's what Jeremy liked best - not Britt, the fountains. Then we picnicked by the Tiber and watched the birds dodging oil-slicks and other bits of crap before heading off to the Vatican.

Unfortunately the pope wasn't actually in - not to us, at any rate - and having walked down Mussolini's hatchet-job of an avenue to the piazza in front of St Peter's we thought we'd forgo the 30€/person for a tour of the museum and the Castel St Angelo and tried to find the gardens which are supposedly on the hills on that side of the Tiber. But they hid from us (you will notice that I am not saying "we were lost" because it's not true, Rome is poorly signposted), so we went off down to the Campo di Fiori (which I suppose may once have been a flowery field, but it's difficult to believe now) and said hello to Giordano Bruno instead.

Karen's two kids and their grandmother (very Italian, despite being American) came back from the beach on Wednesday, so we waited for them to turn up before going off to the Villa Borghese and the Etruscan museum, where we spent most of the afternoon. As we went through to the Spagna metro there were no would-be tour-guides waiting for us, rather lucky really as I was starting to get cramp in my right knee. At least we got to see the Spanish Steps, and some very expensive-looking shops.

One church, one museum - I don't think we overdid things, quite frankly.

Anyway, that night we got hauled off (as honoured guests, let me reassure you) to the full Italian family dinner with various aunts and uncles. Despîte not understanding a word I like to think that we acquitted ourselves honorably, and Jeremy (being a cute blond) can go back whenever he wants.

On the way back all went well until we decided to try an unscheduled visit to Pisa, to check up on the tower of that name. As it was a no-brainer we didn't bother setting it up on the GPS, and the resultant débâcle could serve as an object lesson on thirty-minute divorces. You get off the autoroute and onto the urban expressway at Pisa nord, and follow the signs to Pisa centre. After a while there aren't any more of those, just ones to Pisa sud. Quel bummer. So you get off the expressway, and find signs pointing you to Pisa centre, and follow them. They expire at a roundabout where there are many signs, none of which point you to Pisa centre. At this point you may reasonably start to wonder whether you haven't wandered into "The cars that ate Paris" by mistake, but the inhabitants show no overt signs of cannibalism ... I hate being lost, and I especially hate being lost with only 5 litres of gas left on some godforsaken wop town where the petrol pumps won't accept credit cards and there are no street signs, so I got back onto the autoroute and left Pisa behind. Going by the souvenirs they were selling at the filling stations, the tower's not that great anyway. If it's still standing the next time we go down, maybe we'll have another go.

Unfortunately the GPS chose to go depressive on us on the tangenzionale around Turin - this seems to happen a lot. As we came up to the Fréjus exit (on the right) it firmly instructed me to stay left - which I did, as the things work so well you tend to trust them implicitly - before getting us off at the next exit so as to get back on going the other way. So we come back to the Fréjus exit, and once again the thing said to stay left. Had we followed the instructions we'd still be there, doing epicycles around a shortish bit of the ring-road until Hell froze over or they decided to shift the exit to let us get off. Maybe the place is the European equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.

At about that time the weather took a decided turn for the worse: from 35° at Rome it plummeted to 15° and by the time we got up to the actual Fréjus tunnel it was bucketing down.

For those of you who've just been waiting for a good reason to come and visit, I can now give you another one (apart from the food, the wine, the cheese ...): amongst the attractions now proposed by the Tourist Office here at St-Pierre is a guided tour, with commentary, of the wallpaper at the Mairie. I'm sure that's got you salivating.

For those that care ... Malyon should arrive (despite a lively exchange of e-mail concerning her baggage allowance, and the latest ticket I've received, which has two of her going) at Auckland around 5 am Sep 02. Should you see her, be nice, and give her chocolate.



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