Steyr, Upper Austria, December 2015

Steyr, Upper Austria, December 2015

The train got to Steyr before dusk, having followed a bend on the Enns that here meets the river that gives the town its name. This place was like a fairy tale town. I had to enter another tunnel, on Stadtplatz, and head upstairs to find the reception area of the Stadthotel Styria. The guy at the desk looked like Tom Petty. The room was quite luxurious. The two nights there were dearer than Linz. I had an hour’s nap and then a bath. There was even an armchair with a round coffee table beside it.

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I had to go out and find something to eat. Wandering around, I saw the streets were practically empty. Here and there I could smell something nice but the only outdoor menu I checked, on Enns Kai, had indecipherable handwriting. It was more hurried than Gothic. Finally I read the one outside the Hotel Mader, which was almost next door to mine. The girl at the first counter directed me down the back, through another tunnel, and I saw three more dining rooms, plus a bar. There was life alright but the Upper Austrian love of tunnels kept it off the streets.

A club sandwich plus wedges did the trick, despite a nearby table of yakking Germans, and then I wandered over to Steyrdorf again. Back in the hotel by ten, I didn’t even want to go to a pub that night. Crossing back over the Steyr river, I’d climbed to the Schloss. A bird was hooting in the wood of the Schloss park behind it but sounded a bit high-pitched for an owl. Empty dark alleys around there were less spooky than dreamlike.

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After no drink, bar a single dunkel in the Mader the night before, while eating, I still didn’t sleep very well. I went over to the spot at the end of the Enns bridge outside the Hotel Minichmayr to film the meeting of the waters. There were seagulls here, in a landlocked country. The wind off the rivers was icy. On the way there I sneaked a few snaps of a cute little female postie with glasses. She wore a woolly cap and a black and yellow jacket. She was young. She had a matching little black and yellow van.

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That time I didn’t stay out long. The morning was cold so I returned to the hotel for my jumper. Shirt and heavy jacket weren’t enough. Then I knew I had to get some more sleep.

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Out again in the afternoon, I wandered around to the churches. The sun was half-out. Then, in the Christmas market on the Stadtplatz, I ate another Bosner. I counted three elderly German-speaking tourist groups passing by. The dog was followed by two mugs of Glühwein, from two different huts. Next stop was the Café Werndl for a Fiaker (basically a rum shot that just smells of coffee) and what proved to be a small block of Sachertorte, with Schlagobers.

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Further wandering over in Steyrdorf ended at nightfall. In the murky interior of the Michaelerkirche I suddenly heard organ music but it was only the ringtone of a guy who appeared out of nowhere and who hadn’t even taken off his cap off. The wind near water felt like being out at sea. In the evening again someone was setting off fireworks somewhere across the Enns. Travel is a mixture of slogging from A to B and onward but also spending a lot of time thrown in bed relaxing and even writing. That was my experience. In this country, as in Italy, or even France, there always seemed to be a lot of steps to be climbed too.

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At an English pub in Steyrdorf, by the name of Sir Patrick, one also had to press a buzzer to be let in. There, an inquisitive but very inebriated Opel agent of about sixty was unimpressed by any mention of Ireland. Sepp later gave up insisting I was an Englishman, also in the motor trade (“Du bist Agent?”) for the suggestion I was from Norway. A taxi finally took him away but not before he also enquired if I was looking for a fight (“Willst du kämpfen?”), though not necessarily with him.

The place wasn’t busy and I left after three drinks. At least it wasn’t full of smoke. I tried the noisy Treff Café on Enns Kai then but (1) I couldn’t find the toilets and (2) if I wanted alcoholic Weizenbier I had to go/do somewhere/something a nice young girl behind the counter said but I didn’t catch. At a normal bar counter I shouldn’t have had to understand so I gave up and didn’t even ask her to repeat it. I was back in the hotel room by eleven. The mini-bar was going to get a little hit.

There was an ancient minibus doing the rounds outside in daylight, more magnolia than pale yellow, with “Christkindl” painted on its side, and every time it turned up in the Stadtplatz it blared the same two pairs of notes, like a ship’s horn. The first pair rose, the second pair fell. It did this again before it departed. The nearer you were to it, the more annoying it got.

In the crisp sunshine of New Year’s Eve I was heading back to Linz because it was cheaper and simpler to get to back to Vienna that way. It was gone noon. When the whole Christmas season was over – it is literally a season now in terms of how long it feels – I’d be thinking back to moments like this. The sun was shining and I was travelling comfortably on a quiet train. A little bit tired (no hangovers), I got a boost from a Semmel I’d filled again at breakfast time. It was a good day to travel.

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France on a field trip

France on a field trip

1984

March

On the night of their arrival in Paris, Quirke closed the door that led onto the dark balcony. Other boys were grabbing beds in the large room. The evening in the fourteenth was calm and quiet, with a spring chill. He gazed at the city lights and inhaled the foreign air. He listened to distant traffic. Hands on the railing, he peered down on an empty, inviting back street before looking around again. Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

As Quirke, CP and several of the girls on the trip walked down the boulevard there, two chancers appeared out of nowhere and spoke to a couple of the girls in perfect English. The casual, assured manner in which they did this took Quirke aback at first. Did they look like they were just off the boat? The girls were embarrassed and kept walking. CP was looking in windows. He hadn’t noticed. The women turned their heads away but persistence dragged some kind of answer, eventually. The pair took this as a sign of success and veered to the door of a bar but, on looking back, looked surprised to see everyone still walking. One of them held the door open a moment. Then they gave up and disappeared in the crowd.

Tina was the eldest, a mature student, but she was the one charged eight quid after foolishly ordering a gin and tonic in a bar. The rest of them settled for glasses of beer. An Arab band did a sound check. They had a dangerous-looking girl singer who stood near the door, signalling to the musicians. As the place filled up she went up to sing. They covered Baby Jane and her English wasn’t great. Some of the lines were gibberish.

The waiter who served their table seemed under pressure. A group of young Parisians sat in the corner, buying nothing, and he started to hassle them. One of them was almost too good-looking. She had a pair of expensive horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. She kept taking them off and putting them on again. She was only semi-vain.

The girls had duty-free bottles of spirits in their room back at the hostel but a mixer was in very short supply so they all stopped off at the hostel’s reception desk. Quirke was told to ask for Coke in French but the corporal on night duty wanted to know why. Tina mentioned “mixer” behind Quirke and he grasped that too but threw a little fit. No alcohol is allowed here. I will confiscate the bottle!

They said no more but withdrew to the room. The orange-walled corridors were very hot because the heating had been turned up to eleven. Tina opened a bottle of Bacardi and poured out six large measures. Whatever Coke they had left, the women got it. The boys drank the rum straight. Quirke was still a little wary of them, especially of dark-haired Ciara. He was sitting on the end of an empty bed and she reclined on an elbow on the one across from him. She looked a bit intense. She leaned her head on one shoulder but he relaxed a bit when she offered him a cigarette.

The spirits of the night were hurting in the morning. Breakfast was missed and it took the cleaners to rouse the boys. The group got on the bus again and the tour began. Down by the river cruise dock, a group of schoolgirls that had already come over to Quirke on the ferry happened to turn up at the same time. They started to wave and shout. “You’re big in France,” observed CP.

The cold breeze on the Seine made Quirke feel a bit better but he and CP sat huddled in their coats while a lot of the other field trippers leapt around, clicking their cameras, craning their necks and laughing like idiotic children. Spindly white human figures had been painted on some of the riverbank walls so he looked at them and at some pretty Italian girls who were also on the boat.

On the dust and dirt under the trees on the Champs Elysées, Tina asked Quirke the French for ‘Where is…’ so he told her and she went up to a cop. “Où est McDonalds?” The policeman shrugged. Quirke didn’t know about le McDo, which might have helped. He wasn’t in honours French, or any French, anymore. Quirke and CP got frankfurters from a stall instead. Quirke took one bite from the sausage, swallowed it, then threw the rest away and ate the bread roll.

In the afternoon he and CP slipped into the Jeu de Paume, almost by default, having grown bored sitting outside. The Impressionists were housed there in 1984 and they made for them because they hadn’t much time and those paintings were the most familiar. The number seemed endless as they walked up and down the varnished floor. The pictures that stood out most for them on that floor were Van Gogh’s Eglise à Auvers, five of Monet’s goes at the cathedral at Rouen, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit. “I like them too but we’d better go,” warned CP. Quirke made him wait a little longer, already thinking he should treasure this. It was an unexpected, accidental element to a drinking holiday.

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That evening the coach took them to Brittany, to a hotel outside Dinan. At dinner they got some long white blobs as the main course. Quirke asked a waitress what it was but he didn’t know the word she used. CP guessed it was octopus. It didn’t matter, there was bread and other bits and pieces and the hotel had a bar.

Nick Rhodes has reflected on the (real) video for Girls on Film by saying that if they had the chance again they would ease off on the porn. A strange French couple arrived that night with a tape the guy was anxious to put into the recorder under the lounge TV. The more sociable members of the Irish group already lounged there with their drinks. They watched him kneel and get it going. Among the dodgy cartoons and clips, the tape contained the chef d’oeuvre version of Girls on Film. Had the following phrase existed at the time it would have summed up the context-driven review. This is the sh*t.

In the morning, outlines of farm buildings could be made out less than a stone’s throw behind the hotel and a tractor engine was running in the cold fog. The bus was waiting. A quick purchase of jus d’orange for two in the bar was accomplished while CP took some left-over bread rolls from the dining room. Then they were away.

The professor had decided to split the party into small groups and one was dropped off in each town and village. Tina, Jess and Quirke were left in a village called Pleugueneuc. They had lunch in its one restaurant. Then the women didn’t want to do anything. They walked around the quiet village for a while before the girls told Quirke they were going to stay in the only bar, which was also the restaurant. He wasn’t really keen on bothering people either but he wanted to have something to relate at the seminar that evening.

There was a funeral in the afternoon. The church bell rang in the middle of the village and sombre people appeared silently out of doorways and side streets. He wandered off and came back to the church when the service was over. Groups of men were still standing in the churchyard. Quirke had sheets of paper with lists of products and animals in French and he approached one group to explain what he was doing there. One gruff old boy spotted donkeys on the list and jerked his thumbs at his chest. Des ânes? C’est nous.

Back in the bar, it was crowded with mourners, a lot of whom had red, peasant faces. The girls were sitting next to the mayor; a powerfully built, white-haired man in his sixties. The mayor asked Quirke the girls’ names. It turned out he was an ex-marine commando. His polite, relaxed, half-interested manner was a bit different from that of three Irish army thugs on the ferry, where the down-to-earth Jess, with the boyish hair, had wisely advised the boys not to wind them up. They’re on about communism. Just stay quiet. They’ll kill you.

When the bus came back, Ciara was lying on the back seat, in shock, having been attacked by an alsatian on a farm. The left-hand side of her face was cut and the earring had been torn from the lobe. She had bent down to pet the dog. The wife of the farmer sat her down in her kitchen and put some iodine on the cuts. To her it was an unfortunate nuisance. Quirke asked CP how his group had got on. Where they had been, le maire had received them in his nightshirt.

Back at the hotel Ciara was put to bed and a doctor was called. He tidied up her face and gave her a sedative for the night. She was given the next day off. At the seminar that evening Quirke watched a shy young man get so tongue-tied when delivering his report that he could not form whole words. It was uncomfortable but bizarrely fascinating. He seemed to be almost choking. This happened just as the rest were yawning and watching the time. Some were desperate to get to the bar.

A number of Iraqi pilots were also staying at the hotel. They were training at a nearby airbase. They carried bottles of whiskey around with them at night and liked to talk and share their drink. Every night their girls from the town and those Irish who stayed up into the early hours formed a strange kind of party set with them.

The bus meandered along the north coast the following day. It went through Dinard, which had been a haven for rich Brits in the nineteenth century. Their villas and mock chateaux remained on the heights above the town and the bay. When they reached St. Malo they walked around the damp, narrow streets of the walled old town.

In the afternoon they went to Mont St. Michel. The bus stopped on the causeway so those with cameras could get a vantage point. Some descended the bank to get a better picture. Quirke and CP went down too, to stretch their legs. A girl tried to squat at the mud’s edge to take a picture but she fell in. It was like a signal. The boys started to wrestle. CP was always a bit too beefy and awkward and, in trying to knock him in, snapped the remaining good arm of Quirke’s glasses. After calling him a f*cking this and a f*cking that, Quirke got some selloptape in one of the trinket shops up at the Mont.

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The trip’s chief interpreter, a postgrad, had a breakdown that night. Quirke had been talking to her at a dining table after the evening meal and when he stood up to leave she looked as if she was going to burst into tears. She’d been complaining about the lack of understanding the department had of the difficulties. They expected her to function like a computer and didn’t seem to grasp the bus driver was just a driver, he wasn’t an expert on the geography of Brittany.

Seven of the Iraqis left the next morning and their luggage was piled on the patio outside the front door. They were saying goodbye to the rest and all the faces were glum. The Irish were waiting for their bus at the time, in order to go to Rennes. No one needed an interpreter to get dropped off in the middle of Rennes. CP and Ciara had asked to be put with Tina, Jess and Quirke for the day. Their appointed task was to get some information on the regional bus services but the station corporal was a little bastard who ignored their existence, apart from throwing a few timetable sheets across the counter at Quirke. The girls took care of carrier bags of wine bottles, while CP had an idea and tried to copy a route map from a wall. Old women looked on sternly whenever bottles clinked or fell over, while some gorgeous little tarts hung around the photo booths.

Across the street in a craft shop, Quirke bought a black metal bracelet for Sharon, his first college girlfriend, his first any girlfriend. Another girl had bought the same bracelet for herself. On the bus back to Dinan, Tina turned and asked him if he’d bought Sharon a present.
“I just got her a bracelet, that’s all.”
It was wrapped in turquoise paper and he handed it over for inspection.
“Oh that’s really nice. It’s lovely.”
She handed it back and he smiled. The other buyer then turned and said,
“Yeah, I got one too.”
Half an hour later the latter called across to him.
“Hey Quirke, the black stuff is coming off mine.”

She had been scraping it with her fingernail. Quirke had a go at that too. She was right, it looked nice but it was shit. It was their last night at the hotel and CP’s map received great praise from the department. The Iraqis were walking around with whiskey again. Quirke had got to know one in particular. M. was a big, beaming young man with a broad moustache. They spoke a mixture of French and English. At home, long before, he’d been been taught English by an Irishman, a “Mister Ma-gow-an” who’d cried on his last day as he said goodbye to the class. M. also explained that they knew their women were in it for the money and the good time. Nonetheless the lads were far from home and had the money, so it didn’t matter. When Quirke eventually asked him about the war, in connection with the boys who had just left, he expressed natural regret but added that Saddam Hussein was a man who made no distinction between rich and poor, which was good enough reason for him to fight.

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The interpreter had recovered enough to walk around in a bathrobe and she came up with the idea of a makeshift disco in the dining room. The tables were cleared away and the Iraqis had a pile of disco records which they were ready to put on once they had rigged up some kind of sound system. The professor wanted to keep the local women out of it, muttering something about impressionable girls being under his care. He went over towards the Iraqis and said, “Just keep your prostitutes out”, at which point Tina, Jess and Ciara were horrified, even though the Iraqis hadn’t understood his accent. They urged him to go over to Quirke and CP at the bar counter and ask them for a second opinion.

The two boys, both nineteen, explained to their professor that it would be taken as an awful insult. M. wanted to know if there was a problem but Quirke told him it would be OK. Don’t mind him. Il est fou. To prove it, he went over to the part of the bar where the French women had gathered defensively. Mesdames, vous êtes très, très bienvenues à entrer. After this enchanté moment that avoided a diplomatic incident, CP and Quirke were rewarded with extra whiskey from department funds.

On the way back to the boat at Le Havre they stopped in Bayeux, where Quirke skipped the tapestry to get a café ham sandwich from a kind old lady with an aggressive little dog. He told her it was their last day and she asked was he the bus driver. Vous êtes chauffeur? Non, étudiant.

In Le Havre they went into a hole of a truckers place before catching the ferry. The last things Quirke saw were the cliffs of chalk and the obelisk and the guiding lights of the harbour before the fog came in. None of them relished the boat journey. There was a storm at sea. The ship was heaving. In their cabins they tried to sleep but the storm and the sound of the engines acted in unison and, as the vessel rose and fell, Quirke twisted and turned and finally lay miserably still.

In the morning he felt a bit better, walking around the decks. The storm had gone. To him at least, it was regrettable to overhear English spoken again. His group decided against the greasy cafeteria with its hundreds of burgers heaped against greasy glass and instead went into the proper restaurant. The waiter recommended the beef so CP and Quirke took his word for it but it was raw. The women had more sense.

The Snows of Prague

The Snows of Prague

2018

Having had to cancel a visit to southern Bohemia in January due to the death of a relative, I soon booked a replacement trip to Prague for a couple of nights in early March, thinking it would be simpler just to go there. Three friends of mine then decided to come along and I found us a hotel in the Malá Strana district below the Castle. This was the Hotel Čertovka, named after a finger of the Voltava river (‘Devil’s Stream’).

I also bought the Pocket Rough Guide to Prague and continued to learn some Czech off the web, such as:

Velké pivo, prosím (‘A large beer, please’);

Už jsem zaplatil (‘I’ve already paid’);

podvod (‘scam’);

Došlo k nedorozumění (‘There was a misunderstanding’);

and

Přišel jsem sem kvůli Švejkovi (‘I came here because of Švejk’).

Unlike in Budapest, the Czechs haven’t followed the Hungarian example of making their money-changing kiosks a state monopoly but instead they allow a free-for-all that is open to blatant fiddling. Some of the taxis remain dodgy in both places. Anyway, I’d carry a card and, apart from the beer, there were several of the pretty and historic locations I particularly wanted to see.

These included the buildings in which the Thirty Years War was hatched, both in the planning and attempted execution of the Catholic imperial messengers who were shot out a palace window, and also the balcony where, on a snowy morning in 1948, Klement Gottwald emerged to emcee the communist take-over for a massive crowd below.

The latter moment provides the anecdote of the un-purged hat that opens one of Milan Kundera’s philosophico-sexual entertainments, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Gottwald was later voted the worst-ever Czech in a TV poll, part of a light entertainment format imported and licensed from the BBC.

I wasn’t too pushed about taking in the Kafka museum, as it happens. The insect fancier Vladimir Nabokov once spent an entire essay wondering exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into in Metamorphosis but the real answer lies in the equivalent of the birds-of-a-feather proverb in the Irish language. Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile (‘A beetle recognises another beetle’).

23rd February, Friday

All day it felt a bit like snow. There seems to be Siberian weather on the way. I picked up my order of Czech crowns at the bank (2,500 of them for €104). The lady asked me was I was going to Prague. Two of my travelling companions were in a nearby café. P. mentioned a story about an inebriated NGO type crashing his new NGO jeep into a Bosnian brothel in a snowstorm.

25th February, Sunday

An east wind has been blowing for days and there’s no frost tonight but they seem to be promising us some kind of repeat of White ’47 for the coming week. At the moment Thursday looks like the worst of it but we’ll see. A lot of snow may be under the bridge by then.

26th February, Monday

The worst of it is forecast for Thursday evening to Friday morning and I’m hoping we can get up and away before that. So far, it’s cold out but nothing drastic. Plenty of people in town this afternoon went bare-headed.

27th February, Tuesday

A flake or two swirled as I arrived to pick up my father from the day centre at half past three but it was an hour later before the first sprinkling of snow. Around six there was a real shower of it that left the roofs and plants white for a starry night.

28th February, Wednesday

Still starry at half past five this morning but by half nine a thin blanket had fallen. The sun was shining then, as it did on and off, between snow showers, or during them. Sights of the day and night:

(1) empty wine shelves in Frank’s supermarket (N. told me one woman went off with a crate of it);

(2) a snowboarder down the quay, towed by a car (a fall didn’t deter him).

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I knew our hopes of travelling were snookered. I went into town tonight so I could take photos, including one I have of the old bridge, even though it’s not Charles (Karlův Most).

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1st March, Thursday

Half past six, it was snowing in the dark. Up at half eight, I knew we’d be going nowhere but looking online was still a formality. On the south coast, we just couldn’t risk a 400 km round trip in this weather for a likely flight cancellation.

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I emailed the hotel again to confirm we would not be needing the taxi at the airport in Prague. In reply, regret was expressed that we would not be travelling on this occasion. The greedy owner is still determined to charge all four of us for both nights, thus ensuring that we won’t ever be back to give that hotel another chance.

A large green tractor noisily swerved in at Frank’s but a bank girl emerged from the shop (“They have no bread or milk in there!”), whereupon the tractor roared off down the road again. There was no milk in the local Spar either.

Our scheduled 13.40 Ryanair flight got away from Dublin after all, at 16.27, thirteen minutes inside the three hours needed for a delay refund. It may have been the last of the few planes to get off the ground today. Before dark I walked to town and took more photos.

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2nd March, Friday

An awful lot of snow has fallen. I don’t remember anything like it before. Some of us may never see it again.

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Those cheeky Czech chappies are not only charging us for both nights plus an extra little cut of three euros – city tax, I guess – but now they have also told Booking.com that we were a no-show after I’d flagged a weather problem a day in advance and then emailed early yesterday to let them cancel the airport taxi pick-up in good time. Kipling has an answer for countries that claim they are not in Eastern Europe. East is east… Anyway, I was out photographing more of the best of our snowy settlement. This place here really should market its old town, its Altstadt (or Staré Město), snow or no snow.

 

 

Then I slipped into Downey’s for an hour or so. The young chap who was the sole customer there before me said he had left one of the pubs on the town square when the messing got too much (“lads dancing… fellas firing snowballs in the door…”). Then it turned out that he too should have been away in Prague this weekend, with a stag party.

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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 said 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

10th 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 at least 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 C.W.’s 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, August 2014

Orvieto, August 2014

2014

6th 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.