in pisa: the quirk no one could correct ((not so) alone in italia, day four)

“Pisa is shit.”

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This is how the Italian at the hostel’s front desk responds when I tell him where I went yesterday.

I blink. “Oh. Um, why?”

He tells me it’s a nothing city. Nothing to do; a village on the map because of a big tower, not worth going out of your way.

I appreciate the honesty of Damiano’s opinion. Stuffy hotel concierge he is not. And I can see what he means. Pisa is quite small, lost somewhere after miles and miles of highway. It’s not a place to build your trip around, but a worthy stop on the way somewhere else.

And I wouldn’t call it shit.

Yesterday featured gray, gloomy skies. I left the hostel and met Victor in the car. We had no plan.

J’ai une chose à te proposer, he said.

“I have something to propose to you.” (French syntax thrills me still).

“Would you like to go see the Leaning Tower of Pisa?” He had the route marked on Maps. “It could be originale. We’re actually really close.”

Delighted, of course I said pourquoi pas. Our proximity to Pisa was not something I had considered. The location, within Italy, of the city that houses the “world’s most famous tower” (their distinction), had never crossed my mind, truth be told. It could have been on the other side of the country for all I knew.

But here we were, just an hour and a half away.

After a lot of highway, we park in Pisa and immediately buy an umbrella from a guy hawking them in the lot. I’m already shivering, dressed for Cinque Terre sun. My dress, so nice for the beach, now looks like optimism or stubborn ignorance. Vabbè.

The streets remind me of streets in Florence, all mustard yellows, dark greens and browns, rows of windows with neat shutters. I wonder if these colors are a regional thing, or just an Italian thing. I haven’t seen enough Italy yet to know.

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We walk down a long shopping street to the river, crossing occasional proud churches, looming reminders of the past. My favorite is a paradox of lacy white marble.

We find a quirky gift shop–salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Vespas–and Victor buys me a mug with a Pisa tower as the handle. I can’t remember the last time I got a souvenir so unabashedly obvious, so I HEART NEW YORK. This mug is anything but demure. Its unjaded tourism appeals to me.

img_5146 We eat at a place named for Danté, outside near a heat lamp. We have Campari spritzes (way too bitter for this American), Tuscan cheese and jam on a bed of super-peppery arugula, and finally, pizzas that we can barely finish.

Then (it feels late but isn’t, so gray) we hunt down the tower. It hides pretty well for such a big structure. You can’t see it from everywhere in town, as we had lazily imagined.

Around a corner, there’s a peek. Then there it is, the tall clumsy structure that put Pisa on the map.

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Speckled with cold rain, we take absolutely no time to learn about the history or climb the steps to the top in the bitter wind.

“Wow, it’s pretty,” and “it really does lean” are some of my scintillating observations.

Not every trip has to be educational.

Victor and I amuse ourselves by watching hordes of people trying to ‘hold up the tower’ in what is now perhaps the most unoriginal travel photo op in the world.

Not everyone is a natural. An American woman sighs and snaps, “Jim! Move to the left! No!”

Finally he gets it right, arms craned towards the sky, squinting from the effort. “Oooh,” the woman crows. “That’s good.”

I snicker, but then Victor makes me recreate this photo. It’s as lame as I expected, my hands far from “touching” the tower.

“Well,” Victor says. “It looks like it’s falling and you’re ready to catch it.”

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acs_0760-1At home, I learn that the word “Pisa” comes from the Greek for “marshy land.” 12th-century architects apparently disregarded the area’s mushy subsoil while constructing this tall, heavy belltower meant to crown the “Field of Miracles,” where the city would display the treasures freshly stolen from Sicily.

In a case of pride before folly, one side of the tower began to sink during construction of the second story. It was too late to go back, so the builders continued with some trepidation. Despite efforts to correct the problem, the tower kept its stubborn lean, and baffled builders halted work for close to a century.

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I learn too that Mussolini hated Pisa’s leaning tower, considering it, in no uncertain terms, a disgrace and an embarrassment to Italy’s reputation. His plan to fix the tower backfired, as the grout and mortar introduced to straighten out the lean only caused the structure to sink more heavily into the ground–its awkward angle even more pronounced.

Learning this makes me appreciate the structure even more. Already I admired its stacks of columns, graceful and impractical as a wedding cake. Now there’s an emotional appeal. Sweet little underdog with a quirk no one could correct. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.


Source: Walks of Italy

sleeping with strangers

I have a new favorite patisserie. Cannoli. Good cannoli, I must specify, cannoli assembled in front of you: tangy ricotta spooned into a crispy, fried shell and dipped in tiny chocolate chips or chopped pistachios.  

Cannoli tastes even better accompanied by a view of the Duomo, a cup of espresso, and a light rain. To fully appreciate the warmth of the moment, I would recommend trying the cannoli after the worst sleep of your life. It worked for me.

It was early January and my friend and I had been in Florence for a week. Our simple breakfast was picture-perfect, while behind the camera we sat bleary-eyed and bewildered, numbly chewing. We looked like we’d gotten dressed in the dark–and we had.

Let me explain. We had slept in a hostel: booked last-minute and chosen because of money constraints. It would allow Travis and I to stay a few more days in Florence and celebrate the New Year in a city I’d come to love in just a week.

I didn’t have much experience with hostels. Once I’d stayed in a Parisian hostel. I’d had a bright, white room, a big bed I’d shared with no one, clean crisp sheets.

This time around, I wasn’t expecting glamour, but, I also wasn’t expecting this.

In the rain (only rain, that week), Travis and I located the hostel after a lot of searching. It was on a seedy street near Mercato Centrale. We lugged the bags up three flights and saw a handwritten sign with the name of the hostel. The manager, a tall man with dark hair who didn’t seem to speak much English or Italian, met us at the door after a lot of knocking. He looked uneasy, reluctantly beckoning us inside.

He led us to the room. “One sleep there…” he waved vaguely. “One there.” This was no chocolate-on-the-pillow establishment. No, this smelled like feet. Our sheets, nubby from prior use, lay in bundles on the beds.

A single bare lightbulb, the sole light-source, burned from one corner of the room, lending a distinctive basement vibe. The windows, shuttered in the middle of the day, did little to impede the streetnoise: even four stories up, it sounded as if we were standing in il mercato centrale

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We followed our host to the kitchen: a long, skinny room with some cabinets and a fridge to which several passive-aggressive messages were affixed. On the table stood an open box of cornflakes. Was this the “free breakfast” we’d been promised?

The man interrupted my thoughts with a brusque: “You pay tomorrow?” We wouldn’t be leaving until the day after. “Uh, sure,” I said.

“What time? Cash only. Cash only!” He wrote the total down on a napkin and handed it to me.

I walked back to the room and looked around, sufficiently disillusioned. So this was it, the space we’d be sharing with six strangers for the next several days.

The other guests’ portable lives were stashed next to their beds or hanging out of the wall of lockers. There were phone cords, sweaters, bookmarked novels, and pajama pants. I saw a half-eaten bag of cookies on a nightstand and briefly considered what would happen if I ate one.

What would stop any of us from doing anything? How strange, this concept of forced intimacy and trust.

After a look in the bathroom (better erased from memory), Travis and I got out of there in a hurry.

That night I lay on my thin mattress and tried to will myself to sleep. It wouldn’t be easy: a bedspring cut into my spine. If I just concentrated, breathed deeply– just when sleep was on the periphery, someone crashed into the room, flicking on the reddish lightbulb mere feet away from my top bunk.

The night passed in a cacophony of street noise, snoring, buzzing cell phones and squeaking bedsprings. Every time one of us moved, an ugly eeeech erupted from the respective bunkbed, rendering the particularly restless among us Public Enemy Number 1.

Individual halos of cellphone light shone out from some of the beds. Others took phone calls or rustled around in the lockers: a sound like the antics of a large, particularly irksome rat.

By morning, I had identified a few enemies. Of course, they were none the wiser– I hadn’t even seen these people by daylight.

I stumbled to the bathroom where I discovered all the lights had burned out. Travis shone a penlight while I brushed my teeth. We grabbed some clothes at random and stumbled like drunks to the cafe.

At breakfast, we grumbled and talked a big game.

I would have been better not sleeping at all.

I refuse to pay for this.

We are not staying another night.

Of course we did, though. It was New Year’s Eve and there were no other remotely affordable options.

Quickly exhausted because we hadn’t slept, we returned to the hostel in the afternoon. There I talked with some of the other travelers. There was Mohammed from Togo, whom I spoke to in French. We listened to some Stromae songs and had an impromptu dance party. We had the teaching thing in common: except he was in Italy teaching French, spending his vacation traveling around the country.

Damien, from England, was an experienced hostel-goer. He was taking some time off from “uni” to travel around and work on a novel, he told me. He picked Florence at random: thinking all the art might inspire him.

There were a few Spanish students who were living in Paris and studying French. Altogether we formed quite the blend of cultures, origins, and reasons for starting out the new year in this pit of a hostel.

Sitting on my bed, I hummed Darth Vader’s theme–”The Imperial March”–annoyed because it had been stuck in my head for days (I don’t even like Star Wars). Damien, clearly the entertainer of the group, rummaged around in his things and pulled out a recorder: the instrument everyone “learns” to play in elementary school. He started playing the somber Star Wars song, the reedy notes wheezing and whistling in the air. It was shockingly atonal, pathetically bad, and absolutely the perfect fit for our surroundings. The room erupted in laughter.

I had tears in my eyes. Why does he even have that?! Sitting on the squeaking bed, my legs swinging over the bunk, I surprised myself by thinking: this really isn’t so bad.

There was something special about my first taste of real hostel culture: not so much the revolting bathroom and the torturous nights of sleep, but the summer-camp-camaraderie of it all. The way we were united by thrift, desperation, and dreams.

True travel, by my definition, makes you a little bit uncomfortable. This was true travel ten times over. I have learned to check hostel reviews before I book. I have also learned I am craving more travel like this: gritty instead of carefully-edited. Just, maybe, with a decent bed and a working light in the bathroom.