Bologna

Bologna

Dr. John Flynn

2016

6 August, Saturday

Getting here was free of hassle. Stepping onto the plane, which wasn’t full, I showed two stewardesses my pass and behind me my mother said,

“I’m with him.”
“Lucky you,” said Barbara, the chief.
“He’s my son.”

Soon B. came down to us and said we could move forward into an empty row. The taxi was cheap to the centre and I found the narrow street with the hotel (Albergo delle Drapperie) handily enough on foot. Out on my own come midnight, I wandered around photographing Bologna at night. I also discovered the Mercato di Mezzo around the corner is open on Sundays. There was a lot of Carabinieri out but they weren’t busy. One carload of the Polizia Municipale turned up too, shooting the breeze on Via Rizzoli.

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7 August, Sunday

Hit my knee for the third or fourth time on the knee-high…

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Innsbruck Trains

Innsbruck Trains

August 2016

On the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Innsbruck from Verona, through the Brenner Pass, a north German family of three shared our compartment most of the way. They had just spent ten days hiking south over the Alps. The only scary incident involved having to run from lightning to reach the next rest hut. The wife was a pigtail blonde, predictably a bit literal but kind and young in spirit. Early forties, I imagined. The husband mentioned seeing the Cliffs of Moher on the Irish west coast and then the only other occupant – an Italian woman – suddenly produced a picture of the cliffs on her phone. I hadn’t the heart to mention that they had become a notorious suicide spot.

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My card worked without the pin at the hotel in Innsbruck. Nonetheless I needed to compile a few choice phrases for a review inspired by the Verona incident and the charmless reaction at the desk that morning. My mother and I had an OK meal in the Altstadt later but by the time we emerged the odd drop from the grey sky and foggy Nordkette had turned to rain. In the morning at a post office over the bridge I’d pick up €500 sent by my brother via Western Union.

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It rained again in the late morning but then cleared up to make a sunny day. Seeing the last of the cloud lift off the Nordkette meant we went up to Hungerburg on the funicular in the afternoon. I made a panoramic short video of the view but stuck my own head into it and later discovered something dark had stuck between two of my front teeth during lunch so it only looked like a visit to the dentist was on the cards.

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A lot of Italian could be heard below and a surprisingly large number of Spaniards were in town too. A few too many dogs. Canines. I didn’t think they were all local. Why do people travel with dogs? It was raining again in the morning. We had trouble finding seats on the train to Munich but eventually got in among two young blondes unfamiliar to each other. When a middle-aged English couple with too much luggage later boarded our carriage and couldn’t find seats, it led to talk in our compartment. These two Brits were in shorts and sun hats yet each had a big rucksack and a wheelie bag, each. They caused the good-looking girl at the window to roll her eyes at me as she retook her seat after a quick smoke on the platform. It was time to put some distance between us and the latest arrivals. “Ja, ich habe gehört,” I said, in reference to having heard the woman laughing hysterically and then swearing, at the end of the carriage (“Farking hell… This is farking ridiculous…” etc).

Die sind Englander. Wir kommen aus Irland.

The girl by the window was interested and happy to hear that, as was the gorgeous student with the pigtail and the anatomy book, near the door on my mother’s side. She beamed as she closed the book, took off her black-framed reading glasses and asked in German if I’d liked Innsbruck. I explained that I’d been there before too, on my own (2015), when the snowy landscape on the line from Salzburg was most enticing.

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I’ll always remember the first time heading up Maria-Theresien Strasse at nightfall, with a royal blue sky reflecting off the white Nordkette. No camera can convey how the mountain chain towers over the city, where the shop fronts glowed though all were closed.

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I went on to outline the Verona hassle to both of them. Was it Juliet’s revenge or Juliet’s curse? We didn’t go to see her bloody balcony but everything was going OK until I paid the hotel bill. We’d seen a lot that morning. There were lots of tourists there speaking German and French but not many Americans or Asians. Or Brits. Having passed the amphitheatre we crossed Ponte Pietra below the huge cypresses on the Roman theatre hill.

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Back at the hotel a young Gianna Ten-Thumbs at reception pressed something she shouldn’t have and somehow locked my pin. She looked like she didn’t know what she was doing and a sweet one (a bit older) had to give some guidance before they were, eh, finished with me. My worries started when I went out then to get some cash. It was all hassle after that. I should have brought more cash but at least my mother still had €327 in her bag.

I’d thought I wouldn’t retaliate online but the dismissive attitude of the young manageress with the glasses quickly changed that. (Hotel S. later got a roasting.) The defensive aggression kicked off with her saying (a) it wasn’t nice and (b) it was a serious matter to make such an accusation. I wasn’t accusing anyone of a crime or deliberate wrongdoing. I said it was clearly a mistake but, given she wanted to talk about seriousness, my “Siamo nei guai a causa di questo” (‘We’re in trouble because of this’) was only met with another contemptuous, f*ck-you shrug.

I told them to be careful in case it happened again but didn’t rear up on the little charmer because I still needed to get the other (sweet) girl looking on to call us a taxi. It was pissing rain outside. There had been lightning in the night, in the distance. Early that morning, heavy rain had thumped some nearby roof or awning and that woke me at half past six. Once I got back home and simply changed the pin code at the bank, the card worked as normal. There was nothing wrong with it that hadn’t happened in Verona.

The two girls in the compartment on the train to Munich in contrast were very sweet and curious. The one beside me had lovely varnish on her toenails – somewhere between pink and orange – and expensive sandals. These ladies were open-mouthed again when I explained that we lived on the south coast and so I’d have to drive 200 km after Dublin. The girl with the anatomy book got off at Kufstein and sweetly said Auf Wiedersehen not just to us but also to the one beside me, who softly replied to her with Tschüss.

There was a chap in mountain boots on my left who never said anything except one whispered “F*ck” at his phone but he didn’t look like another Englander. He even smiled once or twice, for example when I had to stick my head through the compartment doorway to retrieve my mother who had walked past after a toilet break. We got off at Munich Ost and the girl at the window bade me farewell twice, to be sure, as I stood in the corridor with our bags, without swearing, waiting for the train to stop.

Inside Rome

Inside Rome

Photo: the only exterior photograph of the weekend

March 2008

On the airport concourse a man in his sixties was gathering passengers to fill his people-carrier and in the throng we shrugged and ran with that. The driver occasionally named something important we passed in the dark, such as “Terme di Caracalla”, but his speed didn’t slacken when he took to narrower streets. When he barely missed a second car I looked around to gauge if this really was normal Roman driving. Over my shoulder a dark young Italian man silently buried his shaved head in his hands.

The two girls had a few drinks while waiting for us and the blonde looked tipsy but with her rangy, athletic frame she wasn’t under any pressure. We had a meal first. I ate very little, needing to unwind after the delayed flight, in the presence of a girl just as attractive as she had seemed in Budapest.

That’s how we ended up in a restaurant in Rome. Then there was a long taxi spin to somewhere with a bunch of clubs. In a place called Coyote, the redhead was true to form, messing with Italian gropers, while K. stuck very close to me. E. disappeared on more of his own adventures and, in the end, the blonde and I had to wait while R. was neither fish nor flesh to a couple of Italians outside. “They’ve asked her what I’m doing with an older guy but f*ck ’em, I don’t care about that,” my squeeze murmured. Finally I got both girls to agree to come back to the hotel, which had for some reason upgraded us to a suite with a terrace.

The taxi driver’s Italian I could grasp. He looked like a decrepit version of Benny in Crossroads. In the back seat, the redhead started on about her car, which she’d parked near Piazza Venezia and which she didn’t want towed away. Then, at the hotel, the night porter wouldn’t let the girls upstairs without passports. Even the theoretical mention of money wouldn’t make the issue go away. I should have simply put down Miss Smith and Miss Jones as an addition, when checking in. As this was going nowhere, K. sighed and said she’d do the driving and rescue the car. She kissed me goodnight in a way that doubled the issue. She asked me to call the next day. I was still only on the first few steps of the stairs when E. got back. When he heard what had just happened he gave the porter a long and very large piece of his mind.

“I have never been so insulted in my life!”

“But, Jesus Christ, I keep telling you, it was obvious they weren’t prostitutes. Couldn’t you see that?”

“Why you keep talking about prostitutes?”

It was then that E. picked up a pen from the counter and threw it at him. I told my barrister to take it easy and apologized for the flying biro (“Sorry about that”) but added that I had informed the porter’s colleague when checking in that we would have company later but all he had done was nod and smile without mentioning any Italian law or cops or passports.

Then we went out again and found a couple of bars on a street within sight of the nearby Santa Maria Maggiore, which was lit-up, all alone across the square. Though I’ve technically been to Rome, the Mezquita in Córdoba remains the most impressive building Ive ever actually been inside.

Spain may never be one of my favourite countries but there is something awe-inspiring about the key sights down there. I didnt get into the Alcázar – the queue was long – and so missed the gardens but the triangle the fortress forms with the Mezquita and then the Calahorra tower across the Roman bridge over the Guadalquivír is sensational. The Romans took the city from the Carthaginians in 206 BC. The Moors took it from the Goths in 711 AD. The Christians took it back from the Moors in 1236. The great mosque, youd almost get religion in there, in the sense of understanding it.

The next Roman afternoon we went to Piazza Navona and he found a place called the Abbey Theatre bar where he’d been at the time of his sister’s second wedding. Watching sports and getting hammered was the order of the day. It was the last year I made any kind of habit of that. Two years later I quit smoking for good.

The girls didn’t show up until the early evening and before long E. took it upon himself to take K. outside for a nominal cigarette, to explore her intentions. He came back in and said “No” (“He’s too old for me”). It was a bit like a nut in the face. I investigated further.

“Why did you say what you said to him instead of me?”

“Because he asked.”

“But…”

“If I were even five years older, there’d be no problem.”

“Why, how old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Oh. Oh God. Now I understand. I thought you were, maybe, twenty-seven, and I was willing to chance it.”

I was forty-three. One can’t always be sure about the age of Americans. When I told her I wouldn’t have asked her to marry me she looked at me sceptically and smilingly (“Come on, John”). I changed my story to say I wouldn’t have asked for a while and the look that passed between us then said it all. We kept in contact for some time afterwards and then she got married in a land far away and more power to her for that.

In the morning E. introduced a new comrade with whom he’d stayed up all night. This was Jim, a wired American tour guide, and a passport carrier. We went to a place called Finnegan’s after checking out of the hotel. There was no mention of any nocturnal pen-throwing and I even got my phone handed back. I’d left it in the taxi that had brought me home but I remembered tipping the driver well, from relief at getting out of a long night, and praising his good job, his buon lavoro.

There were always tour guides in and out of Finnegan’s. Shooting the breeze of trivia for the afternoon, I showed off by naming every emperor up until 235 AD. There followed thirty-five years of havoc until Aurelian knocked some sense into that world again from 270. Jim said I could be a guide too, no problem. He added the codicil that he tended to tone down the anecdotal content of his tours if there were children present.

A Thunderstorm in Florence

A Thunderstorm in Florence

Dr. John Flynn

Florence is an anthill. Swarming with tourists, especially Americans, it can be difficult to get out of but the last time I was there, I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down at him and pleaded, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”

That last time, on a waiting train at Santa Maria Novella, my head and torso melting after a hot Florentine afternoon, I was giving out about a young prick from Portugal or Brazil taking up three seats with three cases. His two nearby buddies removed theirs but, just then, we got seats behind him, directed by a cooling suggestion from three Italian women seated together in the carriage. Later I enjoyed seeing him…

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Lucca, June 2013

Lucca, June 2013

17th June, Monday

Going commando in the shorts was a good opening move for the trip to Lucca, where the heat was intense.

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On Piazza San Michele, I fell for the buccellato bullshit (€18 for two grande loaves). They weren’t even fresh. My mother and I later stopped at a café outside the Puccini house.

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She’d mentioned leaving (the Puccini house) first but I have to wonder if working there with the constant piped music in the background would lead to undying hatred of the maestro.

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A German sat down beside us with a Middle Eastern guy and the latter’s kid. When we mentioned a flight from Cork, the German knew of Ryanair but then he said that he was only the driver and the others were off a cruise ship at La Spezia. The client’s (American?) wife had f*cked off – shopping – but he and his kid were kind. The boy offered some of his Pringles to my mother. The man then said, “What about him?” He meant me.

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Escape from Italy

Escape from Italy

2014

10 August, Sunday

Fiddlers Cross [a short film, co-scripted] won first prize for Best Screenplay in Rhode Island. My mother and I had boarded a train to Pisa in Santa Maria Novella in Florence when D. rang briefly with the news. I’d just been giving out about a young f*cker in shades and a baseball cap who had taken up three seats with three cases (“Uomo gentile! Tre valigie sui tre posti!”). His two buddies removed theirs but we got seated behind him upon a cooling suggestion from three Italian women sitting nearby.

Later I enjoyed seeing him bang his head off the overhead rack, blinded by his cap and shades. I don’t think he was even Italian, just some twat from Portugal or Brazil. My head and torso were melting after the hot Florentine afternoon. Like an anthill it was, apart from the relaxing couple of Bacardi & Cokes (a fiver each) at an Irish pub called The Fiddler’s Elbow on Piazza Santa Maria Novella.

I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation in Florence today. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down and said, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”

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The hotel here in Pisa is more like a hostel and we had to cross the river to find a place to eat – somewhere that looked better than it tasted, at least where my plate was concerned. I was just demoralised, having to walk that far and for some sh*t (prawns) too but what was I thinking? My mother was a bit happier with her (tough) steak choice (with homemade… crisps!), after I’d wondered would she ever find something on the menu. We’re tired of Italy now and this time Pisa looks or feels more like the C.W. verdict (“a dump”). She even slipped off a step near the hotel on the way back but thanks be to Jesus neither she nor her camera broke anything. Even if I sleep a few hours, this last leg always seemed like it would be a chore.

11th August, Monday

Up very early to get out of the kip of a ho(s)tel, we were still stuck with a plane an hour late, so again we were spared the Ryanair on-time fanfare on landing in Cork, where the pilot must have fancied he was doing it on an aircraft carrier.

Orvieto

Orvieto

2014

6 August, Wednesday

We had to wait two hours for a train in Siena but getting to Orvieto took a little less than that. Up we went on the funicular to this table-top town in Umbria and I took the luggage as we marched up Via Cavour in the heat. The Valentino is a nice hotel. We got air-conditioned rooms with a view, though not over the edge.

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In Italy you could spend your life with a crick in your neck, looking up at church ceilings and other lofty positions. In the Duomo my mother spotted The Preaching of the Anti-Christ (“I thought it was Our Lord at first”) before I came across it in the Rough Guide, which has a lot more numbers in the key than in the actual diagram (I filled some in). In the background the original men in black seem to be rampaging around the temple.

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After that I brought her down to the vertiginous wall near San Giovenale but went back there on my own later to make a video that captured the drop. On one of the narrow, stony, shady lanes a guy passed whistling Baker Street very melodically. His day was done.

Perugia & Assisi

Perugia & Assisi

2014

7 August, Thursday

Round Lake Trasimene, we got to Perugia by three. The lift is needed to get up to reception (third floor off a narrow, sloping, side street). After another shower I slept for an hour and then we went out to eat and walk about a bit. The old city is high up, as we realized from various angles.

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We had a good meal with a bottle of Grechetto at Merlin’s on Via Fani beside the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where we were the first to sit down, and then we sat on the crowded warm steps of the Duomo.

8 August, Friday

Assisi: it was hot on that holy hill (I didn’t try to take Rocca Maggiore) and we had a long wait for our lunch in La Lanterna, where the breezy air-conditioning was too much.

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I’d sleep now only for the nearby angle grinder. Maybe the f*cker has stopped. Yes, he can. Roberto the Builder.

This evening that my mother thought she had locked herself into her bathroom while I was getting her a spare shower cap from mine (and there delayed a little to figure out where we might go later). She just didn’t put enough effort into turning the door knob and instead resorted to banging on the door “with a can” for a while. She said ten minutes but it was probably two or three. Today she wandered off inside the St. Francis Basilica too. St. Clare’s was quieter.

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Anyway, we’re not going anywhere tomorrow and tonight we found a decent restaurant called Da Peppone on the far side of the Duomo. Spaghetti carbonara (& more Grechetto) did me fine and a pork chop was something she would eat off the menu but I couldn’t really relax, looking at her and wondering was she half-dead or what. Try to remember she’s 74.

She came back to life after we sat on some steps on Corso Vannucci (she had an ice cream cone) and we got talking to a French couple from Lyon, with two young daughters. She told me to offer to take a picture of all four. Madame, si vous voulez, je peux prendre la photo.  A pigeon went on to shit on the bare shoulder of one of the girls. The father and I later exchanged email addresses and by the time we separated it was almost ten and I had to rush back to get our keys before they closed the door and made it un po’ awkward to get in. It took a few minutes to find my mother again, outside.

9 August, Saturday

Rest day. Instead of grinding, Roberto is banging today, towards 5 pm. By noon or so we had Perugia done. An open window on the weird Via Ritorta revealed a woman calling a guy a “fascista” but, if ever a street gave a feeling of being down a well, that was it. Later I had to go back and video it. At the other end, I caught some of a guy playing the Godfather theme on a concertina.

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A note on the blonde at reception today (whom I’d already briefly seen at our first breakfast, in a black dress, smiling when I passed her the milk for some other guests): she’s someone to put most in the ha’penny place but also probably a demon if crossed. I don’t think she liked me when I accidentally pulled my mother’s finger when reaching for the other key, earlier, to hand it in with mine. Anyway, who cares, she’s a receptionist with Italian pop buzzing on the radio somewhere behind the counter. My mother is relieved at not having to go anywhere today. “A whirlwind out of this world” was a description I saw in a text to M., sent yesterday.
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At half past seven, I discovered my mother had been at her room door so much (a genuinely faulty knob) that the (elder, peroxide, I think) blonde rang from reception to see was she all right. At the desk I explained to the babe, who was there then, that it wasn’t my fault as I’d told her to text if there was any problem. After the evening meal we were sitting on the warm cathedral steps again. My mother said it wasn’t the first time there had been an issue with that doorknob because the peroxide one had been too quick to pick up that phone. From Giardini Carducci, Assisi looks closer in the dark than it did in the light, looking east.
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The Spell of Siena

The Spell of Siena

2014

La piazza di Siena è la più bella che si vedda in nissuna altra città.

Five hundred years ago Michel de Montaigne thought the Piazza del Campo in Siena the most beautiful square in the world. Travel books in our time mention the shell or scallop shape but often give no idea of the hollow that’s in it or the great size of it. The Campo at night echoes with children’s voices while in the surrounding streets there are bound to be some banking suits still out and about after late hours at the accounts.

The Campo sits where the three ridges of the medieval city meet to make an inverted y on the map. On the northern ridge at nine, on an August evening, we chanced Ristorante Vitti with its tables in a street nook with dark statuary on the back wall, on Via dei Montanini. The food was fine, no problem, but I remember most enjoying the house white. The waiter went over to a modest cooler bin familiar from shops in any Seventies childhood. He slid aside one of the two metallic shutters on top and pulled up a bare bottle, with no label.

It’s the kind of place that gets very mixed reviews and, the second night, we got there a bit later, and the bill was handwritten (a scribble) and, though still modest for its location, a little bit dearer than expected from the menu choice. Nevertheless, if ever you lose a fiver or so like that, you might remember it’s late and these people want to get home after another day sprinkled with fussy demands and bores not making eye contact but photographing their plates.

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Going into buildings is, in a place like Siena, of less interest, to me at least, than the exteriors but there one can always make an exception for something like the marble pavement on the floor of the Duomo.

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The Madonna and Child part of the Maestà in the Duccio room of the Museo dell’Opera is like a class photo, with all the heads in the picture, and it was no harm we gave up waiting for access to the Panorama del Facciatone. A French child (a girl) emerged in tears, terrified of heights, as I deduced from quickly checking the guide book.

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At 12.30 we got finished with interiors. As for lunch, by then we were on the southern ridge and I chose Osteria Cice just for the hypnotic aroma out of it. Following one’s nose is usually the smoothest of guides. From nearby one can see across to the dark green of the cypresses in front of Santa Maria dei Servi, the monastic site that dominates the south-eastern ridge.

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That area or terzo brings the final conviction that Siena is an extraordinary place, roof over roof, all the reddish brown (i.e. sienna) bricks and green shutters piling up from ridge to ridge. That part has the most beautiful, quiet streets and steps and the view back to the south ridge appears magically now and then, starting from the rise by the monastery.

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A Thunderstorm in Florence

A Thunderstorm in Florence

Florence is an anthill. Swarming with tourists, especially Americans, it can be difficult to get out of but the last time I was there, I wasn’t the only person showing some exasperation. A tall American father was pulling his little son along past the Duomo and the kid was singing or chanting something – something very repetitive, I guess – and the American dad looked down at him and pleaded, “For Christ’s sake, will you knock it off!”

That last time, on a waiting train at Santa Maria Novella, my head and torso melting after a hot Florentine afternoon, I was giving out about a young prick from Portugal or Brazil taking up three seats with three cases. His two nearby buddies removed theirs but, just then, we got seats behind him, directed by a cooling suggestion from three Italian women seated together in the carriage. Later I enjoyed seeing him bang his head off the overhead rack, blinded by his baseball cap and shades.

On 24 June 2013, the bus tour in contrast hadn’t even taken an hour in the fresh air. It sped around a shorter, darkening route, minus Santa Croce, but at least it was over before the deluge. The omission of Santa Croce was due to the annual Calcio storico ‘sporting’ free-for-all, which the impending thunderstorm also rained off inside the hour.

The banks of the Arno are the part of the city I like to look at most. The river holds the story I remember most. In 1304, the arts of Florence included a forerunner of reality TV. A staged performance of Hell had been advertised to take place by the Carraia bridge in a theatre that was set up on boats in the river. There were fires, naked souls screaming for mercy, master demons and henchmen devils wielding pitchforks. Overloaded with spectators who had crowded onto it, the bridge collapsed. All who fell in were drowned, apparently. It was said afterwards that those who’d gone to see Hell had got exactly what they were looking for.

As we got off the open-top bus, my father asked for chips, having developed a taste for the McDonalds variety in his eighties. The rain started during a shared quarter-pounder meal beside Santa Maria Novella, where I took the burger. At the table my mother rustled in her bag and produced a baby Bacardi and put it into the Coke. Then she revealed he had expressed to her a wish to see the Duomo.

Outside, the rain was getting heavier by the minute. She rustled in her bag again. They donned plastic macs and I got the umbrella, which was broken. A few hundred yards away, the piazza was by then a pond, ankle-deep under thunder and lightning. The authorities had shut the door of the Duomo. I told my father to go back to the door of the Baptistery, where she had ducked into the doorway. A young man there with a clipboard told her she couldn’t stay because there was a christening on but then he let her be after she used the one phrase of the English-speaking nations that is understood by all others.

By then my father was holding another broken umbrella, after a failed investment by my mother. An African hawker tried to sell him a third one but had to laugh when my father asked him a question. Is it as good as this one?

By the time we made it back to the station the elements had eased off. At first I couldn’t find a ticket validating machine on our platform. I asked two inspectors who were talking at the far end. One of them just waved me away with words that included “schermo” and “binario” but where was the schermo on the binario? That was what I wanted to know.

It turned out to be half-concealed at the entrance to the platform but then another train delay invalidated all the urgency. On the train I asked a glamorous, dark young woman across the aisle in order to make doubly sure it really was the one for Viareggio. When she learned we were Irish and I was the minder, she looked at my father and said something that made him say, “Eh, she doesn’t like me”, but she’d only offered her impression that he looked a bit Italian.

The inspector with the wave showed up with his Germanic eyes and his short beard, a spaghetti western type, a dodgy Franco Nero or Gian Maria Volonte. His first move in the carriage was to eject an African hawker (“Scende da quà”). After punching our tickets he gave a sinister smile and politely said “Grazie”.