A Cautionary Tale or Two or Three

View of Firenze from Villa Barzini
View of Firenze from Villa Barzini

Most of my blogs have focused on the physical beauty of the cities and the land, or the art or the history of all the places we’ve seen, but before you all book your tickets. I want to give you a heads up.

The European Union has erased long-time state boundaries.  There is almost unlimited possibility to move from country to country with or without means of support or income.  Over the past several years, thousands of individuals have left the poor and less developed countries in eastern Europe and Africa and the middle east and moved to Italy, France, Belgium, Scandanavia and so on.

During our trip we have had serious and passionate conversations with native Europeans none of whom could be labeled “racist.” They are uniformly very unhappy about two things: taxes and the vast influx of people from the “east” and from Africa who have no skills and no job when they arrive.

Sadly, at least in Italy, we are told there is no social service structure which would ease the transition of the immigrant and assist with acculturation: no food banks, job training, language instruction, help with housing, and so on.  I don’t know if the foreigner is eligible for health care or public education for their children either. Like most immigrants, the newcomers rely upon friends, family and often unsavory lines of work to get them money for a place to sleep and something to eat.

Italians speak of three groups: those from Africa, the Albanians, and the Pakistanis. They identify the Africans as those who commit violent crime (muggings, break-ins, etc), they say the Albanians operate in trained, organized gangs to steal and pick pocket, and the Pakistanis sell roses at every restaurant, trattoria, and bodega all day every day, or peddle packets of tissues outside church doors, and then there are just the plain old fashioned panhandlers, usually with a dog, that can be found all over the world including Seattle.

Lesson 1.
So we take the train to Firenze from Arezzo. It costs about $15 for two round trip tickets. Takes about an hour. We step off the train both with backpacks. Nothing in mine but water, an umbrella, a coat and scarf. I do have a small handbag that goes over my head and straps across my chest with my credit cards, driver’s license, some money, and my Iphone. Ken has his Ipad, Iphone, his wallet, his change purse, and an umbrella in his backpack.

I suppose we look healthy and prosperous (possible elderly); we don’t look Italian. We don’t look Japanese or Chinese. Could be German? No, Ken has on sneakers and a Northface jacket. French? No, Northface jacket and Nikes. American? Sure. By appearances alone we have become targets but we’re not thinking about that at all. We sit on a bench and pour over the map.

Santa Maria Novella train station is very crowded. Firenze is a major hub for tourists and students visiting the art and the monuments; Dan Brown fans, and tour groups. The bench is a rare find and very crowded. Lot’s of jostling at our backs; I move my backpack to my lap. Ken remarks on how crowded it is and suggests we move on. We’re heading over the Arno and up the hill to an art show at Villa Barzini near the Boboli Garden. The streets are so crowded that we decide not to walk across the city but to take a taxi up the hill and spend our time and energy on the exhibit.

The taxi takes us to Barzini and when it stops Ken reaches for his wallet and can’t find it. I pay the taxi driver. We get out, Ken begins to pull everything out of his pack, checks all his pockets, finds his Iphone and his Ipad but no wallet or change purse having put them both in the outside small zipper pocket on the backpack. Gone! He is devastated.

He freaks out! Calls to the bank, the cards are blocked–already having been used up to the daily limit. How? We don’t know. Ken spends two hours in the police station at the train. I return to Arezzo. He returns to Arezzo later with a written police report. I don’t think it means a thing to anyone but Ken felt it worth doing. More hours on the phone. Business account must also be blocked. Yikes!

We’ve told this story to every Italian we know. They universally respond that organized gangs of eastern Europeans are responsible and that they are very skilled. Theft and pick pocketing is constant and the police cannot do anything about it. So DO keep your valuables strapped to your body and leave your passport in a safe place in your room.

Lesson 2.
Arriving at the Ravenna train station with all our luggage (two suitcases–one large and heavy–and a small roll-aboard with laptop–two packbacks and two handbags. We’re huffing and puffing and preparing to go down the stairs to take the “tunnel” to the correct Arezzo-bound binario. There are no lifts. (If there is one, it’s usually out of order.) Easy, kinda’, to bump the suitcases down the marble stairs. (By the way, Ken can’t lift or carry anything heavy.) In a flash, a young man steps up to us and says something in some language I cannot understand but by gesture indicates he’ll help us. He quickly takes all the suitcases. He’s about my height but obviously strong. He walks very quickly up two flights of stairs to the platform and then deciphers the schedule and goes to the correct binario. I’ve kept up with him–a little concerned about the small roll-aboard with the MacBook inside–and stand with him. I have three euros in my hand to give him. Ken arrives and the guy turns to Ken and holds out his hand and says 50 euros (that’s about $65)!! We both laugh; the guy’s not laughing at all. In fact, he looks quite threatening. Ken adds three more euros to mine and firmly says “This is it. Six euros.” The guy looks furious and continues to demand 50 euros. We remain adamant. He eventually walks away but looks very angry. Was it all an act? Who knows. We certainly planned to tip him and we did (about $13). So don’t enter into a contract without stating the terms before you allow anyone control over your possessions.

Lesson 3.
We’ve learned that there is no way to rely on “common sense.” By definition, customs common to your culture are just that “common in your culture.” That’s very tough to internalize because you think “Well, I’ll just use my common sense to (fill in the blank).

Very few apartments or B&B’s provide a washer, never mind a dryer. Electricity is VERY expensive. By the time we got to Arezzo we had so much dirty laundry the bidet could no longer handle the job of wash tub, so we asked where a laundry was. We were directed to a combination laundry and cleaners. We left a pile of laundry and a few pieces to be dry cleaned. Our land lady called the owners and asked them to expedite. Three days later, having worn the same clothes every day, I picked everything up, paid the 70E ($87)–after I got up off the floor–and staggered to our B&B.

When Ken got in he was delighted to see the cleaning and then opened up the laundry which was packaged in a tightly sealed plastic bag. He nearly fainted. Everything was perfumed. I don’t mean just a light whiff, I mean PERFUME1 The underwear, socks, jeans, shirts and so on reeked of cheap perfume! Our sinuses began to swell and Ken broke out in hives. Back it all went into the bag to be delivered to the laundry the next day for a redo. Did the perfume smell go away–not entirely.

Guess what, all laundries perfume everything, we’re told. “Why didn’t you say, no perfume?) “Gee,” we say, “common sense would indicate that many people have fragrance allergies so never perfume unless asked to do so.” Wrong! We can only assume that Italians have no allergies to fragrance.

So always clarify especially if you’re going to be paying for something. If you don’t speak the language, get a translation app or a native speaker!

All this said, we’ve had a great trip and almost everything has been wonderful!

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