The Other Side of the Family

After leaving Aunt Milda, K and I drive to see another relative : my late father’s half-sister, Pat.

We pull up outside the gate of the house. It’s a large two-apartment building. The front yard is basically gravel, and several dogs of various sizes are either lying in the shade or roaming around.

K does NOT like dogs. By the looks of one of them in particular (a medium-sized, Rottweiler-looking SOB named Rex), I don’t blame her one iota.

Aunt Pat appears from the upper apartment. As she makes her way down the steps, she summons her two granddaughters to move the dogs to the back of the house so we can eventually come inside.

Pat opens the gate, comes to the car, and we exchange greetings.

“You look the same,” she says through the rolled-down car window. She immediately follows this up with, “Your belly’s getting fat,” and reaches into the car to run her hand over my belly, as if she’s smoothing out a wrinkle in my t-shirt.

I’m behaving today, so despite what I’m actually thinking, I let it slide.

Inside her apartment, we take a breather from the unrelenting heat.

She shares the apartment with my younger cousin — who’s at work when we visit — his wife and their two-year-old son. My older cousin – and his family live in the unit below. One of his daughters – who’s 13 – sits in one of the chairs at the far end of the living room, looking at me every so often.

My older cousin passes by the doorway for a moment to say hi, before disappearing again.

My aunt brings K and I up to speed on what she’s been dealing with. She mentions that she heard about the family research I’ve been doing (I guess my mother had asked her on my behalf, and I’d forgotten about it), but says she doesn’t really know much about her side of the family. She’s from a generation where relatives didn’t say much and, if you asked, told you to mind your own business.

She does give me a couple of scraps of information I wasn’t expecting – my grandmother’s middle name, where her father was from (St. Elizabeth parish), and she also suggests that the woman I’d been told was my father’s grandmother (with whom he was really close) may not have been his biological grandmother, but someone who looked after my grandmother.

(Did she mean, when my grandmother was a little girl? Or perhaps when she was pregnant with my father? It’s not clear.)

Aunt Pat mentions that my younger cousin has quite a collection of family photos, both originals and scanned images. She gets my older cousin’s daughter to fetch them so I can take a look.

A few of them are of my grandmother and her husband – taken when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old. Others include photos of my grandmother, aunt and cousins through the years — at social events, at church, at the boys’ weddings.

Pat says I can take some of them, if I want. I feel kind of weird about it – they are my cousin’s photos after all. But she insists that it’s okay. She even gets ahold of the photo collage my cousin’s put together, and removes a couple of photos for me to keep.

We’re given some guineps to take when we go – and we leave … eventually.

Searching For “The Lady”

2015-07-22 10.34.06

Wednesday, July 22nd.

I’m so tired from the day before, I sleep in until 9. I get up and apologize to K for oversleeping. She dismisses my apology, saying she understands.

Breakfast is a big plate of ackee, saltfish, roasted breadfruit, dumplings and banana (which didn’t have that taste I dislike) — filling and absolutely delicious!

Then, it’s out of the house and on the road. Today’s objective: finding our great-aunt Milda.

We know she’s in a nursing home (or “adult care” home, as they’re called down here) in the community of Mount Salem, which is just outside Montego Bay proper. We don’t know the name – just that there are a couple of homes, and she’s in one of them.

After stopping several times to ask for directions, we finally pull up in front of one. Looking beyond the front gate, we see a few people sitting out on the long “porch”.  To be honest, the place doesn’t look very home-y.

The gate’s a bit hard to open, and it doesn’t open very wide, but we manage to squeeze through. We approach a guy sitting at a desk just inside the building, give Milda’s name and ask if she’s there. He says no – apparently she had been there last year, but had been moved. They don’t know where she’s gone.

I’m not immediately discouraged. But I can literally see K’s shoulders slump. She’s already frustrated.

The prospect of searching for a nonagenarian in this sweltering heat isn’t appealing in the least. But we have to find her.

And, as we’re about to find out, there are more than two adult care homes in Mount Salem.

We’re directed to another one farther down on the same street. As soon as we pull up in front of it, I take one look at what lies behind the gates and know there’s no way Milda is here.

There are a couple of residents in sitting in wheelchairs. One of them looks like he’s barely awake. A young woman is sprawled out, stomach down, on a run-down couch.

Having heard about my great-aunt’s reputation for complaining, I know she wouldn’t put up with a place like this.  But still, we try.

We approach a worker standing in a nearby doorway and ask for our aunt. She says she doesn’t know and suggests we check with the front “office”, which was a closed door just behind us.

After knocking several times, the door opens a sliver. K asks the woman behind the door if our aunt is there. She says there are no Campbells there, and closes the door.

We’re walking back towards the front gate, when the worker gestures for us to come back. She says there are two other nursing homes a couple of streets over that we could try.

Back in the car, K calls our uncle to see if he knows the name of the adult care home where Milda’s living. He calls back several minutes later with the answer.

We pull up in front of the gate at home number 3. My t-shirt is starting to cling to my back, so I’m truly hoping this is the place.

The nurse in charge confirms that Milda is there, brings us inside and finds us places to sit while we wait. We’re under the impression that perhaps they’ll bring Milda out.

But 10 minutes pass. Then 15. Then 20 …

I look around. One resident keeps trying to wander into the kitchen. Another sits slack-jawed in a chair on the other side of the room. A little boy — around two years old — runs in and out of the house.

There’s a woman sitting adjacent to me. I presume she’s visiting her relative, who’s barely awake and sitting in the couch across from me.

She tells him she has to get to the bank and needs him to sign something. He’s practically comatose. She puts a pen into his immobile hand, wraps hers around it and literally guides it along the bank form.

I turn to K, and she suggests that perhaps Milda’s sleeping and that we should return later.

I’m reluctantly agree. What can we do? She’s sleeping, and we can’t sit here all day.

When the nurse re-appears, we tell her this.

“Oh!” she says. “I’m so sorry – I thought you were here to visit with her,” referring to the lady who basically just forged her relative’s signature. We shake our heads.

“This has been a complete misunderstanding. Please let me offer my apologies. I’ll take you to her,” she says.

But isn’t she’s SLEEPING? I’m thinking …

But we’re up on our feet. The nurse walks over to a room just off the main sitting area and opens the door …

(Photo taken above is mine. Please do not use without permission.)

Touchdown in Jamaica

Tuesday, July 21st.

Sangster International Airport.

I’ve been standing in the very long customs lineup for about a half-hour. It’s still relatively cool in the airport, so that’s a small mercy.

I chat with a man standing behind me. He’s Jamaican-born, for sure, but currently lives in Virginia. As we inch closer to the front of the line, he catches the eye of the customs officers at one of the kiosks. She’s apparently his cousin.

She unfastens the cordon to let him out of line and over to the nearest kiosk. He looks at me, and I nod — I get it. He’s got an in. But just before I turn to face the person in front of me, there’s some hesitation, and with some fleeting (non-verbal) reluctance, she does me a solid and lets me line-jump, too. He gives his cousin some money for the favour.

After exchanging some currency and finding my suitcase, I finally exit.

Outside, it’s a zoo. Taxi drivers trying to get business, people trying to collect their relatives. I scan the crowd and can’t see anyone I recognize. My cousin K spots me first and gets my attention. Thank goodness!

A lot’s changed in the 22 years since my previous trip. For starters, my cousin can now drive! (She’s had a licence for several years, but has only been driving since January.) So she’ll be putting on quite a few kilometres during my short week here.

First stop on the itinerary is our uncle Eucline’s house in the neighbourhood of Flanker. He’s lived there for many years. It’s been known in the past for being a bit of a rough place, but it’s gotten better.

K parks outside the front gate. We call his name and knock on the door. No answer. Folks across the street tell us he went into town, so we’ll have to check back later.

We then drive to another neighbourhood, where her older sister (my cousin living in Milwaukee) is building a house.

Right now, the site’s a concrete foundation (above ground – there’s no basement) with a flight of steps. Rebar is sticking out everywhere.

Behind the structure, a young, shirtless guy is standing in the doorway of a makeshift plywood shelter, chatting away on his cell phone. He calls himself Feather (which sounds like “Fedda” to my untrained Canadian ear). He’s picked a bunch of fruit, some of which K buys.

We walk next door to say hi to someone my mother apparently knows. K yells through the locked gate. The woman eventually answers from just inside the house … but she can’t come out. She’s apparently house-sitting while the rest of the family is away — seems that no one’s really supposed to know that no one’s at home, lest someone try to break in.

Next, K drives us over to the neighbourhood of Ironshore, where my Uncle Egton lives.

I’ve forgotten how big and colourful some of these houses are. Not that I’ve never seen mansions before (from a moving car), but some of them are breathtaking.

We turn onto the unpaved “road” that leads uphill to my uncle Egton’s house. At the top, K stops in front of the huge gate and calls out. He eventually emerges, walking slowly, aided by a cane (not from old age – he served in the British military and was shot in Ireland in the early 1970s) and opens the gate.

As K attempts to reverse park, I gaze at my uncle. He’s wearing glasses, but no shirt (because of the heat). I’m looking for any sort of recognition. He seems to be scowling, but it’s likely because of the sun’s glare.

I’m not sure he recognizes me.

We lock the car and walk over. We say hello. I get a good look at my uncle, smile, and give him a hug. I’m not sure what he might be thinking. Maybe that’s a good thing.

We walk through the house and out to the back porch. It’s enclosed with a white geometrically-patterned iron gate, and faces his empty in-ground pool. The interior paint job is chipped and faded. Beyond the pool and chain-linked fence, there’s a fantastic view of the water. Homes of various sizes dot the hillside.

Egton’s still the same quiet guy I vaguely remember from two decades ago, and is very pleasant. While we chat, I mention that I’m also in Jamaica to see Aunt Milda and do some family research.

I think that gets his attention. He smiles, and says that he’s been thinking about doing a family tree for some time. He also says that Aunt Milda isn’t necessarily the nicest person, that she likes to cuss people out.

K chimes in, saying she has a fiery personality. In fact, because of her reputation, K refers to her as “the lady”.

Also? Unlike my mom, Uncle Egton’s technologically inclined — he has two cell phones and a tablet! I get his contact information and promise to keep in touch.

We leave and drive back to Uncle Eucline’s house. This time he’s home, and I get a big hug from him. He’s still the same – but with one exception

Where’s the rest of you?” I ask. He’s lost a LOT of weight. K and Uncle Eucline laugh.

We all chat for a bit, and I take a few photos. I give him my mom’s gifts: a short-sleeved shirt, and a little outfit for his 8-month-old grandson.

After the visit, we stop for patties, then it’s over to my cousin’s home, in the neighbourhood of Irwin. It’s a very cute house, on a corner lot.

I don’t know how I wasn’t sweaty from all the moving around. But less than 10 minutes after walking through her front door, I just start sweating – profusely. It’s as if my pores just give way.

K makes me a cup of tea, and invites me to sit out on her front porch, where there’s a bit of a nice breeze.

But not for long. We’re out the door again, because it’s discount night at the movies. There’s a line at the multiplex, but we manage to get in and catch (three-quarters of) the new Terminator movie — complete with intermission.

By the time we leave the theatre and go over to a local fast-food joint for some jerk chicken, I can’t stop yawning. I’m ready to sleeeeeep.

K skillfully drives us home in the dark, and I’m all too happy to call it a night.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to track down Aunt Milda.

We’ll see what happens.


2013-10-02 03.41.07(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, October 2.

One last stop before we head for Rome is the Tuscan town of Siena.

Outside the town gates, we pile out, and Franco takes us on a “short” tour/orientation walk.

According to Franco, there’s this horse race – the Palio di Siena – which takes place twice a year, in July and August. (Rick Steves has written about it here.)

And from what he tells us, Siena’s streets are covered with sand (or dirt, if you believe Wikipedia), all for the purpose of a race that lasts roughly 90 seconds.

NINETY. SECONDS. Think about that.

And the jockeys ride bareback, which makes it that much more treacherous.

Here’s a visual of July’s race:

2013-10-02 03.51.35We pass by a building we all assume is a church. Because after all the churches we’ve seen, why wouldn’t it be?

Nope. It’s actually a very pretty … horse stable.

We stroll past various buildings in warm, muted shades of yellow, orange and terracotta red.

Some stores and other doorways have sculpted animals – like snails – hanging overhead.

Eventually, we arrive at the main square (the Piazza del Campo), home to the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall).

2013-10-02 04.17.13 The piazza slopes downwards, dipping in its  centre like a shallow basin.

There’s a huge tower – the Torre del Mangia – with a clock on the other side of the square from us.

The sun is slowly moving overhead, so at this point in the day, half of the square’s in the shade.

Franco herds us back up the stairs, away from the square, back onto one of the streets encircling the square … passing little shrines to the Virgin Mary, stores with pastries displayed or cured meats hanging in the windows, and doors with all shapes and sizes of knockers.

2013-10-02 04.26.16Franco returns us to the square and cuts us look for about 90 minutes.

Mom and I wander about, get something to eat, then browse. I return to one of the stores we passed earlier and pick up souvenirs for a couple of friends.

Time’s up. We’ve been told we have to be out of Siena by a specific time, because of a local law which reduces traffic for the streams of school kids leaving classes for the day.

So we’re rounded up and taken to a gate on the other side of the square, where we wait. And wait. The bus appears … eventually.

We arrive on the outskirts of Rome in the early evening, at our final hotel.

We get about an hour and a half to catch our collective breaths in our tiny, minimalist hotel rooms, then freshen up and change for our goodbye dinner at a downtown restaurant.

Before departing, we meet just outside the front entrance for a group picture, then climb onto the bus, and Pierluigi drives us downtown, dropping us off around the corner from our restaurant, called Mangrovia.

The room our group’s in, is a wee bit chilly – especially for my mom, still trying fight off an imminent cold. But it’s nice, considering.

We’re serenaded at intervals by two musicians while we dine. But the real entertainment comes in the form of our two waiters, who roll their r’s and pretend to flirt with some of the female tour members.

Then, they kick the comedy up a notch.

At first, the one waiter serving our group singles out some of the older women, like Else from Vancouver, and Vi from Halifax. He presents them each with roses, then plants (partially pantomimed) kisses up their arms, into the crooks of their necks and on their cheeks.

And – for good measure – the momentary embarrassment concludes when he pinches their rumps.

This happens early on in our meals (during the antipasto and salads), am I’m finding this all highly entertaining.

But things take a turn when the pasta course is served.

Everyone except for me and fellow tour-mate Tim (from Saint John, New Brunswick) get their pasta plates right away.

I brush it off; I figure perhaps the waiters’ hands are full and our plates are coming.

IMAG0505Well, they come, all right.

Our pasta arrives on gold-coloured octagonal plates.


The waiter comes up behind me and lowers a rose into my sight line.

Aw, sheeeeit.

He starts planting kisses up my arm, warbling away in Italian, rolling his r’s in muffled tones, lands a kiss on my neck – making me squirm uncomfortably – and then *YIP!* gives me a good, hearty pinch on the meaty bit where my hip and backside meet.

My goal of visiting Italy without getting goosed … FOILED by the Kissing Waiter of Mangrovia Restaurant.

Sitting just behind me, my own mother and some of the Aussies are having a field day, and mercilessly rib me about it for the next five minutes. But I suppose it could be worse. The waiter makes Tim wear a blonde wig. (But there’s no bum-pinching [the Kissing Waiter has LIMITS] and he’s an extremely good sport about it.)

IMAG0508The meal’s very filling – and I keep getting roses from whats-his-face (I can’t tell if they’re still trying to get a rise out of me, genuinely having fun with me, or taking pity) – and ends with possibly the biggest gelato mountain I’ve ever seen, which I can’t even finish.

We eventually leave (but not without my mom and I getting overzealous pecks on cheeks from our restaurant Romeo), climbing onto the bus, which Franco pumps full of ’70s and ’80s tunes on the way back to the hotel.

The rest of the evening is honestly a blur. I remember most people retire to their rooms to pack (as a number of them have to leave extremely early the next morning).

I vaguely remember getting some of my things ready, but then returning to the hotel lobby to hang out one last time with Dallas, Randy (who’s losing his voice), Selene, Paul, Crystal and Louise.

After a handful of drinks – and once the bottle of blue wine Selene and Paul has brought has been drained – the group shrinks.

Eventually I wish the stragglers a safe trip and toddle off to bed.


Travelling with my mom to Italy has been at times challenging, but fun. I’m glad I got a chance to share the experience with her.

Would I ever do it again? Perhaps. But it might depend on her.

Maybe the next trip together won’t be overseas. Maybe it’ll be for a shorter period of time, and at a slightly slower pace.

We’ll see what the future holds.

Leather, Pizza, and More Leather

2013-10-01 09.04.52(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Our trip leader, Franco, starts this part of our day trip by first orienting us to shops and other amenities in the immediate area.

Then, some of the group takes off, while the rest of us are taken by Franco to a store called Peruzzi, which specializes in leather goods. He’s mentioned it’s the best place in Florence to find high-quality leather purses, jackets, and other accessories.

In an area near the store entrance, we’re introduced to a salesperson (I think named Roberto), who gives us a pitch about the quality of the goods, has an employee demonstrate how the company applies gold embossed patterns to some of the products, and even gets one of our American tour-mates to try on a leather jacket. It’s all a little bit dry.

We’re finally let loose to look around and see what we can find. Most of the tour group leaves shortly after.

But I’ve been waiting this moment for about four days, and I’m on a serious mission to leave Florence with something, anything, leather.

Mom and I head upstairs to the shoe section. Not much there. We move from room to room, floor to floor, not really finding anything truly affordable, never mind nice.

After going back and forth, I decide on a reasonably-sized (for me) black leather purse. It is, honestly, the most money I’ve ever dropped on a handbag of any kind. But considering all I’ve bought so far has been several pairs of earrings, I justify it as my prime splurge for this trip.

The salesperson we’ve been dealing with then tries to sell my mom on a leather jacket (including a really nice cream-coloured one), but she stands her ground and declines to buy it.

(Truth be told, the salesperson’s being kind of pushy, despite the store’s apparent “no obligation to buy” spiel from less than an hour ago.)

We wander back out into the square, running into yet another peddlar trying to sell us scarves for less than 5 Euros. We rebuff her offer … and I don’t remember what we say out loud, but it’s within earshot of a middle-aged man walking close by us.

I think he responds to our comment by first saying “Pardon?” to which I respond by voicing our annoyance at being harangued by street vendors. He says he hates them too, and asks where we’re from. When asked in return, he says he’s Italian, and a resident of Florence … and owner of a family-owned leather shop nearby.

Oh yes, of course. Trying to convince us to go into his shop. We try to worm our way out of it by saying maybe we’d drop by later, but right now, we’re going to eat lunch.

Of COURSE, we end up at the restaurant right next to his store. Which means he can check on the progress of our meal. Oh, well.  **sighs**

Mom’s not hungry, but I am practically ready to chew my own arm off, so I order a pizza with tuna, olives and onions. (Don’t judge me.)

While tucking into that potentially stank delight, a really attractive young man (accompanied by an older man) passes by, doubles back, then sits on the restaurant patio – our restaurant patio – right across from us.

(Stellar meal choice, D. Cue the “wah-waah-waaaaah” brass section.)

We get to chatting with them, and it turns out this guy – and his dad – are from the States; from what I understand, they both used to be in the army. Son is now working here in Italy (just outside Venice, to be a bit more precise – for the government in some capacity, from the sounds of it), and Dad is finally visiting for the first time. They’re spending the day in Florence, and will be visiting a couple of other places.

It’s nice being able to have a full conversation with fellow travellers from our part of the world, and fellow travellers of colour, at that. It certainly doesn’t happen to me a whole lot.

The two men leave before us. Shortly after, I excuse myself to use the ladies’ room before we continue on. When I emerge from the restaurant, guess who’s chatting up my mother?

We basically have now been cornered. So, into the store we go.

I look at an assortment of purses which, frankly, don’t really tickle my fancy. I get the sales pitch on a grey clutch, which apparently is the same brand used by Pope Francis. Given the unholy ugliness of the big, plastic, gold-coloured logo slapped on the front flap, I’m very doubtful, but keep this opinion to myself.

Then our “friend” suggests I try on a leather jacket. No obligation. And he has just the one.

He passes me this fitted, eggplant-coloured number with a decorative belt that he ties in the back.

Ohhh, shit.  It actually looks good. But I can’t. I JUST dropped some coin on a purse …

I want to protest, and I look over at my mom for an out. But she doesn’t help when she comments on how good this jacket looks on me.

It’s the death knell for my credit card. Some 300 Euros (or $430 CAD) later, I carry out that aubergine moto-styled jacket (I’m kidding myself) in a big, stapled paper bag. The total cost of my purchases today? $600 CAD. Damage: officially done.

2013-10-01 09.50.52Mom and I set off in search of shoe shops, passing sidewalk artists and various other kiosks along the way, in hopes she might land herself a good pair of leather shoes.

Of course, she wants said shoes at Canadian-sale-plus-senior’s-discount prices. Not much luck.

We stop while my mom gets a fruit gelato. Which normally isn’t a big deal. EXCEPT that when go into this one place to order and the woman behind the counter says, “Cone?” and my mom says yes … the gelato lady decides my mom needs the biggest waffle cone known to humankind. By the time I catch the miscommunication, she’s already plopped it into the cone and has charged 10 Euros. NOT. Impressed.

I simultaneously feel badly and queasy, watching my mother attempting to eat that gelato and NOT waste her 10 Euros. After getting about three-quarters of the way through, she quits and tosses it.

2013-10-01 09.55.21We continue looking around, Mom changing her shopping objective to finding a nice belt.

We pass by a small market full of purses dangling from hooks, various belts and scarves we’ve seen at other stands, as well as other touristy knick-knacks. Not much luck.

We then realize it’s getting close to meeting time. Were we supposed to meet at 5:15? Or 5:30? Or maybe it’s 5:45?

2013-10-01 09.48.22In any case, we set out to return to our meeting place – getting lost and ending up northwest of our intended destination.

And we’re both directionally-challenged. But it seems I’m marginally better at reading a map.

So it takes a few minutes more, but we find our way back to the church square.

The group eventually re-assembles and boards the bus down near the river. By the time we return to the hotel, a group of us decide to head out in search of dinner. I’m certainly game, but I’m not sure my mom is, since she’s still feeling a bit under the weather, and is also assuming we’d find something at the hotel (which I’m doubtful about).

In the end, Mom and I join Dallas and Randy from Winnipeg, Selene and Paul from Ireland, Jenna and her friend Andrea (from the U.S.) and another mother-daughter duo, Crystal and Louise, from Tasmania.

We have to navigate a couple of roadways (without getting run over) to get to the restaurant, which basically resembles like a box on sticks (for people in Toronto: it looks like OCAD’s Sharp Centre for Design, minus the fancy stippling). Thank goodness there were two elevators to the top!

We all have various dishes – a number of them pasta dishes – and leave very full.

One more day, one more hotel change. Final destination: Rome.

Sculptures Galore!

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Tuesday, October 1.

We’re on the bus by around 8 a.m. to get to Florence, and our first stop of our city tour for the day: the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo‘s David – perhaps the most recognizable sculpture in the world, if not one of them.

I distinctly remember first seeing David in a picture as a kid of seven or eight. Not in an art book. In a sexual education booklet.

(Now, while it’s absolutely not my intention to debase such a renowned work of art, let’s be real: once you’ve seen the most famous junk in the world, it’s almost impossible to unsee.)

Anyhow. I’m an adult now, and I will absolutely appreciate the experience in a completely different way.

We wait in line on the sidewalk beside the gallery – along with one complete stranger who somehow thinks he can sneak his way in with us. Too bad he doesn’t consider the fact we have reservations – and tickets, which Franco announces loud enough for him to get the hint. (Idiot.)

Today’s local guide, Giovanna, starts our tour in the first large room containing various gold-leaf medieval paintings, and the sculpture called The Rape of the Sabine Women (depicting abduction, not sexual violation) by Giambologna (not Michelangelo, as I would have automatically guessed).

We’re then taken into the next hall next door, which is lined on either side by a series of Michelangelo’s sculptures, called the “Unfinished Slaves“.

It’s fascinating seeing these works, and then hearing from our guide how Michelangelo was able to start chipping and carving from whole blocks of marble, working from NOTHING except an idea in his mind (no test runs in plaster, nothing), and even more baffling that – for whatever reason – he would just abandon them. Just … surreal.

The result makes each work appear as if they’re trapped – like ancient Han Solos lodged in marble, instead of carbonite.

Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.

This corridor leads Giovanna and our group towards the main event – David.

Full disclosure: long before setting foot in Italy, I had heard that it would almost impossible to get to see David without reservations way in advance (I took that to mean one would have to make reservations weeks ahead of time).

And, even if you made said reservations, you’d be lucky if you got to spend even five minutes getting a really good look at the sculpture.

So, two things I didn’t expect?

First: Perhaps due to both being part of Giovanna’s tour, and the other people crowded around, our group, all told, gets to spend 10 minutes gazing upwards and walking around the statue. There are even school kids seating on nearby benches, sketching with the utmost concentration.

Second: I’ve come to see something that is perhaps a little larger than life-sized (because the memory of the photo from the sex ed book has led me to assume that, well, why would it be any bigger?).

Holy CRAP. It is MASSIVE. Over FIVE. METRES. TALL. (Or 16 feet.) It’s ASTOUNDING.

It’s fantastic, seeing the sculpture – the proportions and sheer detail –  and hearing Giovanna tell us the stories behind David. The story of its creation, in secrecy under a scaffolding, while people questioned Michelangelo’s sanity. The reaction after its completion. The fact an entire wall of the Accademia had to be knocked out when they moved David indoors. The nutbar who – in 1991 – broke part of a toe on David’s left foot (and the efforts to restore it).

By the time we leave for another corridor in the building, I’m convinced that David has either set my personal standard, or utterly ruined me, for classic sculpture. But really, I’m done.

We’re led into a room where plaster busts and other sculptures by other artists are on display – to not only illustrate the sculpting process, but to show the craftsmanship and attention to detail.

2013-10-01 04.14.15Once we’re finished with the Accademia, Giovanna takes us on a little walk to Florence’s main church and baptistry.

The doors of the latter depicts some of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament, displayed in 10 bronze panels.

Past the church and down a handful of streets, we’re in Piazza della Signoria, the main square, situated in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall).

The area is well-populated with statues, including a replica of David (not as large, but – except for the pigeon sitting atop his head – just as good).

2013-10-01 04.33.29There’s another statue nearby, Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

It stands out from a lot of others –  not only because it’s cast in bronze (which I think helps it withstand the elements a bit better? Please set me straight, if I’m wrong), but because we’re told it’s been outfitted with an electric device meant to deter pigeons from perching – or pooping – on it … by shocking them.

Giovanna navigates us through crowds of tourists and school groups until we eventually reach the Piazza Santa Croce, where our tour ends, and we’re deposited back into Franco’s care.

So our cultural education has ended for the day. But our shopping adventures are just about to begin.

A “Pisa” Tuscan Hospitality

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 30.

Our morning and part of the afternoon is spent on the bus, watching the landscape of fog and rice fields morph into green fields and houses of every shape and size, nestled among hills and trees.

Also, we pass through many, many tunnels – particularly as we’re driven through the city of Genoa.

2013-09-30 07.04.47The wheels finally stop spinning when we reach Pisa. We’re given free time almost as soon as we’re off the bus, so we can grab lunch and take our obligatory pictures of the tower.

We then meet our guide, Roberto, who’s a long-time friend of Franco’s. He’s tall, tanned, bald, and the campiest guide we’ve had so far, which he uses as his secret weapon to keep us both entertained and engaged while spouting off historical facts.

Apparently Franco and Roberto have this cheesy comedy act going when it comes to tour groups.  Before releasing us into Roberto’s care, Franco “informs” us that Pisans – and Roberto in particular – have a hate-on for Florence, and should Roberto ask where we’re headed after Pisa, to say “Rome”.

So, we play along and when we get the prompt and give our rehearsed answer, Roberto turns his head to one side and bellows, “FRANCO!”

Our walking tour begins with an overview of the Leaning Tower itself, whose restoration efforts to clean the tower’s marble and fix the interior staircase, were only completed a couple of summers ago.

(Click here to listen to a July 2011 PRI radio feature about the restoration – Roberto’s the tour guide interviewed, and there’s a slideshow.)

2013-09-30 08.14.35Then, it’s a quick stop in front of the nearby bapistry, which we’re told is still used today for full-immersion baptisms.

Finally, we head into the cathedral, where Roberto speaks of the architecture, and some of the features of the design, including the light fixtures near the front of the sanctuary (which, if I recall correctly, Roberto says is actually a tribute to Galileo).

The tour concludes, we leave Roberto and Pisa, and it’s back on the road for another couple of hours of scenery before reaching our hotel on Florence’s outskirts.

We’re dropped off, assigned our rooms and left to rest and freshen up for about 90 minutes before we leave for dinner. Mom and I are absolutely pooped. Compounding this exhaustion is the fact Mom’s now fighting a variation of the cold that’s been making the rounds on our tour bus. One of the younger travellers close my age – Jacomo, from Australia – has been knocked flat on his back with this thing for the past couple of days, and so his mum/travel companion, Theresa, has been looking after him.

In fact, we’re so lethargic that we end up being the last ones to board the bus for our dinner destination. (Oops.)

2013-09-30 12.23.49We head to a restaurant located in the Tuscan hillside, where we’ll be treated to a multi-course meal.

We lag behind the others, as Mom waits for me to snap a picture of the countryside, across the road from the restaurant.

So, when we do finally get inside the dining room and look for a place to sit, everyone’s taken their seats, except for one table.

Tonight, our dining companions are: Frances and Howard, a couple from Nova Scotia (I’m sure they’re in their late 70s or early 80s); Tim and Michelle, a really fun couple from Saint John; and an Indian couple, whom we later find out are from Windsor.

The last pair, we’ve been trying to avoid for the majority of the trip, because they come across as insufferable. He’s stone-faced about 90 per cent of the time, and she has this tendency to say things or give unsolicited advice that’s completely unwarranted and rude. And now, we are stuck with them at our table. Thank God for Tim and Michelle.

We (with the exception of Mom) start our evening with this blue-tinted wine (dubbed “smurf wine” by our group), then sample the other wines on our table – white, red, and a lovely strawberry-flavoured wine – which would eventually turn out to be a hit with the group. Even my mom (normally a teetotaler) has a few sips.

2013-09-30 13.17.39Our meal starts with a nice anti-pasto, followed by two types of pasta, and then the main course.

Mom and I have the filet mignon, and ask for it well-done (rather than the medium rare) – which renders it a tad chewy, but still okay.

Between these courses, I chat with Frances and Howard – who, as it turns out, are native Newfoundlanders, but currently live in Sackville, Nova Scotia, between their two kids and their families.

As the wine continues to flow, people loosen up and become livelier (or, in the case of our table-mates from Windsor, less miserable).

There’s also some entertainment, courtesy of a couple of instrumental musicians and a male singer – an older man with a balding head, but a voice that simply soars.

2013-09-30 13.10.42He moves from table to table, selecting random female tour mates to serenade and dance with (see left – except for our table, which, in this case, is completely fine by me).

At one point, he singles out fellow traveller Jenna – one of a pair of young Americans – to dance with.

It’s quite the sight. At six feet tall, she towers over our resident crooner. This doesn’t faze him in the least – he just nestles his bald little head in her bosom like he’s ready to take a nap. It’s hilarious. (Later, we hear him mention that he had a wife who was tall, so he’s used to it.)

2013-09-30 15.02.57The musicians eventually change gears and crank out a few tunes the crowd’s more familiar with. Well, doesn’t THIS just get some of the Aussies out of their seats. They’re dancing like no one else’s watching.* Finally – some folks on this tour are letting loose.

This is actually a fun night, and no one can dispute it if they tried.

On the ride back to the hotel, the bus full of tipsy revellers turns into the “party bus” when Franco cranks some disco and ’80s tunes, while Pierluigi flashes the interior bus lights on and off for effect.

HOLLA. Now THIS is what the trip is supposed to be about!

Too bad we have another painfully early ahead of us, for our trip to Florence.

*Apologies for the blurry picture above, but I felt it best described what was happening.