I’ve been in Italy this week. What’s struck me most is not the plethora of churches, bad driving and graffiti that are on every strada corner but the stylish way in which the Italians go about their daily business.
Whether it’s in Napoli and Sorrento in the south or roaming’ further north through Rome and Pisa, I’ve been goggle-eyed at the sheer amount of Vespas on the roads. They’re the great levellers, those wee scooters. Whether you’re a pizza delivery guy or a teenage girl with your boyfriend riding pillion or a businessman in a 3-button suit, open-necked shirt, scarf, loafers and no socks, the best way around town is on one of them.
You’ll hear them everywhere you go, zipping above the noise of impatient klaxons and whistle-happy Polizia, zig-zagging their way to the front of the traffic, edging forward before the lights have instructed them to go and weaving their way around goofy tourists who have one eye trained firmly on the tour guide way up ahead and the other on their bag over their shoulder. That’s been us the past few days.
The tour guides are great. For the most part funny, engaging and knowledgeable they’ll point out various buildings and suchlike in a version of English that far outweighs my knowledge of Italian. Until this week I knew just two Italian words; bella and bella. (That there is a reference to the greatest film ever made.) My vocabulary has now extended to include “Ciao!” which, much to my kids’ embarrassment I’ll say with great enthusiasm to any shop keeper, waiter and bus driver who’ll listen.
Yesterday in Rome our guide pointed out all the sights. “Behind the small cheeerch to the right is the larger Basilica. Right next to that is another cheeerch, famous for being one of the oldest cheeerches in this district of Rome.” To qualify – I love Roman history. And it’s a terrific city, where every corner turned gives you another breathtaking building to take in.
Built on the foundations of faith and fighting you have to expect what you’ll be shown as you march around the city’s high points. But as we followed our guide I couldn’t help noticing the side streets.
We might’ve been walking the tourist route but what was happening just behind the main event was where real Roman life was going on; ridiculously fashionable men; tanned, healthy, great hair and sock-less, always sock-less, smoking roll-ups while shaking on business deals. Beautiful women in beautiful heels walking beautiful dogs. Snooty teenagers, Armanie’d up like paninaro with significant disposable income hug and air kiss like the beautiful people they are.
The flower delivery van, burping black exhaust smoke in sharp contrast to the multicolours it was transporting stopped suddenly and the driver emerged to shout at 161km/h (that’s about 100mph) to the aproned shopkeeper who was standing nonplussed in the doorway of his store.
An old man, glimpsed through a door ajar onto an alleyway was dressed in a white coat, slowly and patiently sanding wood. Around him were stacked dozens of picture frames and mirrors, a master craftsman at work using the tools and skills of previous generations.
In the fashion district – until we’d been told by our guide that we were now in the fashion district, I’d assumed that the whole of the city was one big fashion district, the side streets offered up furtive-looking Africans selling Michael Kors, Luis Vuitton and Armani bags, belts and bumf, laid out on pieces of rug, ready to be rolled up and ran-off with should any of Rome’s finest happen to wander by. Round the corner the shops were closed-door affairs, opened by appointment only by 7 foot-tall security guards. I’m not much of a fashionista but I did manage to get myself not one but two pairs of Ray-Bans. The second pair the seller did the haggling for me and he gave me them for €5 without me actually saying a word to him. My wife’s convinced they’re just those 3D ones you pick up at the Odeon, with a cheap Ray-Bans transfer on the leg. She may be right but when I’m wearing them, I am Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, so I’m not bothered.
Talking of which, our tour guide pointed out a poster for the film with Peck and Audrey Hepburn sitting on the Spanish Steps eating ice cream and looking every inch the consummate 50s mods they were aiming to portray. Only half an hour earlier we’d stopped for a gelato by those same Spanish Steps, where my ice cream ran the length of my arm and onto my trousers. Daughter moaned about her salted caramel being too salty. Wife complained about the macaroon they’d stuck in hers. And son had an over-priced can of Coke as he’s allergic to egg and can’t normally go near ice cream. That was our Roman Holiday for you.
Without a word of a lie, I’ve yet to find an ice cream that can stand toe to toe with the one you’ll get in Varani Brothers’ Forum Cafe in Kilmarnock. Maybe tomorrow will prove me wrong.