Saturday, April 27, 2013


Gianni Berengo Gardin

I took another train excursion this week, but this one was planned. Venice is only two hours from Florence, and it’s a different world. I was there in September 2007 during the Biennale and just loved it. This time I stayed right beside the opera house, Teatro la Fenice, in a small hotel on a tiny calle (alleyway) that fronted on to a narrow canal. There were usually gondolas gliding past, sometimes with an accordion-player singing Volare or something else quintessentially Italian, or gondoliers hanging out on the little bridge just outside the hotel touting for business (80 euros for 40 minutes). All very picturesque.

Last year I read John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels, about the fire that destroyed the interior of the opera house in 1996. I didn't know then that I would have a chance so soon to have a look through the restored building. An amazing job! I had a nice salad for lunch in the cafeteria upstairs, and breakfast alongside the theatre in a cafĂ© where I set up my office the next morning.

I don’t mind having to work while I’m doing this sort of travelling. It makes it possible, and I can usually find somewhere pleasant to do it. I did whatever else I could manage in the time I had left. I was lucky that the weather was beautiful. Even the water in the Grand Canal sparkled in the sunshine!

I checked out some museums and churches I’d missed visiting in 2007: in the Doge’s Palace I really liked the armoury. I saw the big Manet exhibition that opened this week, which included Olympia and some other familiar works. 

Manet's Olympia always makes me think of Genevieve Milham's The Bitch in Bed (a portrait of her dachshund, Zsa Zsa, in this pose), which is in my collection. Why don't I have a photo of it?

Maurizio Galimberti

Two photography exhibitions that I really liked were by Maurizio Galimberti, who uses polaroids to create a mosaic-like image; and Gianni Berengo Gardin, whose pictures are mostly in black and white. I also saw a really fun exhibition by Spanish fashion designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada.

Gianni Berengo Gardin

I walked for hours, but hardly began to cover the city. I’d love to go back for a long stay and take the time to explore small areas in depth. It’s like a maze.

My third day was the anniversary of Italy’s liberation during the Second World War and a fiesta for St Mark. I missed all the action in the Piazza San Marco but I scored a free hug from a very good-looking guy near the Bridge of Sighs. The day before, I was inside that bridge looking out at the Ponte della Paglia and the lagoon. It got its name because prisoners being taken to the cells from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace had to pass through it, giving them one last glimpse of Venice. I’d had a bugger of a time finding my way out of the palace, so I was also sighing rather a lot by the time I passed through that narrow passageway, though in my case I knew I'd soon be free. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to Roma Termini

I had an unexpected free day on Friday (if I juggled my workload a bit), so I decided to take a mystery train trip. It was only a mystery between home and Florence's Santa Maria Novella railway station, because I chose my destination from the departures board when I arrived. I had just enough time to get a piadine (a pita bread pocket with prosciutto, mozzarella and salad), a bottle of water, and a ticket to … Rome! I’d thrown some basic toiletries and a clean top in my shoulder bag just in case my mystery trip turned into an overnighter. I didn’t buy a return ticket.

It’s easy to forget that Rome is only an hour and 40 minutes or so from Florence by fast train. I was last there in 2007, during a seven-week trip from Oz that preceded my becoming a full-time bag lady. 

The weather was perfect for being a tourist: warm and sunny. There were lots of street performers about. A very cheerful sort of day.

I ended up walking all over the city for about seven hours, revisiting all the popular tourist spots. Lunch was pizza and water “with gas” in a cobbled lane near the Trevi Fountain.

Just off Piazza Navona I went to a Brueghel/Flemish Art exhibition (Peter the Elder, Peter the Younger, Jan the Younger, etc.). 

At St Peter’s I climbed to the top of the basilica for views down over the piazza, and across all of Rome in front and the Vatican gardens behind. The wonderful basilica inside the Pantheon, on the other side of the river, is open to the sky and is just stunning.

Late in the afternoon I walked back along the river for quite some way before heading vaguely in the direction of the railway station and looking for a cab. In the taxi, we passed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where a huge banner hanging out the front announced a major Helmut Newton photography exhibition. “Stop the cab!” I screeched, and jumped out.

I didn’t know the timetable for trains back to Florence, but this was an opportunity not to be missed.

I spent over an hour checking out the three bodies of work: “White Women”, “Sleepless Nights” and “Big Nudes”. Fabulous. It included some works mentioned by name in a book I’ve been reading about Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in the 1970s and 1980s, and photographs of some of the people mentioned there: Loulou de la Falaise, Paloma Picasso, Lagerfeld and others. A nice way to finish off the book, too, which I’ve really been enjoying.

The station was within walking distance, and I had just a 20-minute wait before the next high-speed train left for Milano via Firenze. Perfect.

Friday, April 19, 2013

La bella vita

Ubud is going to be a hard act to follow… But I’m now back in Florence, in the little studio I rented last year beside the Duomo, for nearly two months at a beautiful time of year. Life is molto buono in Italy in the spring.

The big news among my runner friends is, of course, the terrible events at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Talk about targeting innocent bystanders... It’s just pathetic and heartbreaking. I knew a number of people running, including Marie, a good friend in New York. Some members of the Dead Runners Society, which I’ve been a member of since 1996, are planning to try and qualify for entry to Boston next year or in the coming years. Some of them have already run it multiple times. I’ll aim for 2015.

I have had only two runs since I left Asia: the Vivicitta Firenze half marathon held a couple of weeks ago, and a scenic run with Min in Paris last weekend.

A foreigner wanting to run a half marathon in Italy needs to have a Sports Certificato Medico Agonistico. This is not easily come by. I’m halfway through the process of getting one now, but there was no time to attempt it before the Firenze race so I jumped in at the start line and ran it without a number. At around the 10K mark I tripped and went flying on the cobblestones, grazing my right forearm and palm and both knees. I thought it might be a sign that I should pull out, but I didn’t want to not be able to say in future that I can always pull a half marathon out of the hat, even without much training, so I carried on. I estimated my time at around 2:05, but it’s possible I went astray for half a kilometre or so where the 10K runners took a different route.

At the finish line I put my hand out for a finisher’s medal but was shooed away when I couldn’t produce a race number. As I was walking off I decided I only had that one chance to get a medal, so I went back and made a nuisance of myself until someone finally thrust one at me and basically told me to go away. Yes!

I enjoyed the course: two loops of a meandering route along both sides of the Arno. Min and I had covered much of it last September.

I’ve just spent four days in Paris, where I went to catch up with Min and Sam at the end of their “It’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” tour of architectural highlights in about five countries. It’s a short flight (under two hours) and very pretty when crossing the Alps. I still had a heavy workload but caught up for meals and the run with Min on Sunday morning.

We met at the Pompidou Centre when it was still dark, then ran via the Hotel de Ville, Pont Neuf, the Louvre with I.M. Pei’s pyramid, Tuileries, Place de la Concorde and obelisk, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, the Princess Diana memorial by Ponte d’Alma and Musee D’Orsay before swinging back through the Louvre after we met up with Sam, Peggy and Irene on bikes.

I later met up with Stephanie J, an artist friend from Oz, and her friend Neil for a fun hour over a coffee before I went to see the film Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present for a second time.

A late-afternoon rendezvous with Min and Sam at Sacre Coeur and dinner in Montmartre rounded off the trip. I won’t see them again until maybe March next year, which is a very long break considering in the last 12 months we have spent time together in Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Bali, Italy and now France!

I stayed in a tiny garret in a popular shopping street, Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, in the Marais area. Paris was cold!

Back in Florence, we are having gorgeous warm and sunny weather. I don’t have to think any longer that I might have to spring for a winter coat. (I bought one here last year, but it’s in New York!)

It’s great to be spending time again in a city with English-language cinema options. I love the Odeon here, a beautifully preserved art nouveau cinema/theatre in a building that dates back to 1462. And I’ve also found the Fulgor cinema, which shows films in their original language. At the Fulgor I saw The Place beyond the Pines, but I struck gold with the Middle East Film Festival at the Odeon. I saw documentaries from Israel and Afghanistan, and about three features and a few short films.

As part of the promotion for Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition “The Idea of Beauty”, the Odeon had a free screening of American Beauty. A perfect venue for this wonderful film.

Another treat was seeing Madame Butterfly performed at St Mark’s Church. They do amazing things with opera in a small space. The Wees and I saw Carmen performed there in September.

My workload is starting to ease, so I’m hoping to sample a bit more of what’s on offer in Florence and the region over the next month.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Que sera sera

After falling into an unexpected but very comfortable relationship with Patrick, we're now on opposite sides of the world for the next 12 months. We spent our last four days together in Kuala Lumpur. I didn't succeed in putting all work aside, but the pressure of the past few weeks was lifted. It felt great to be able just to hang out with him. We had some good meals, but our favourite place was Sao Nan, a Vietnamese place in Bukit Bintang. We ate dinner there on our last night and went back again for lunch the next day. I continued my practice of doing an early-morning run around the park that lies at the foot of the wonderful Petronas Towers, and Patrick came along to share the sunrise.

I had a wonderful time with him. Thank you. Terima kasih. Grazie mille.

After we saw each other to our respective terminals I had quick meetups at KLIA with friends Abdullah and Siham before heading off to Europe and whatever the future holds.