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An Italian Journey

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This is my first book, first published in 2005.
This book describes our adventures and misadventures as I, accompanied by La Belle Dame Sans Merci, go in search of culture on a week-long bus tour of Italy, visiting such places as Naples, Pompeii, Assisi, Florence, Siena and Rome.  For lovers of Italy everywhere, this book gives a wry look at the country and the Italians, not to mention my fellow travellers, as I lurch from one embarrassing crisis to another.

And did La Belle Dame Sans Merci succeed in her mission? You be the judge!
In this extract, I have a strange encounter in Florence.

A group of people is coming towards me and I can see that the pavement is not going to take us all, so being less numerous than they, I step off into the road, but just as we are passing, one of them, who is carrying a map, addresses me.

“You speak Italian?”

He must be in his thirties, with straw-coloured hair, stout and perspiring with the labour of carrying his extra avoirdupois in the heat.  He looks as if he has caught a bit of sunburn.  He’s obviously a tourist.  No one else would wear a bashed hat like his in a place where people would know him.

I say no and am about to pass on when he says, “Do you speak English?”  We’ve been talking English all this time and it’s a pretty safe bet that someone wearing a Panama hat and dressed like Robin Hood probably does speak English like a native.

“Can you tell me the way to the railway station?”

“I’m afraid not.  I’m a stranger here myself.”  How thick is he that he’s asking someone dressed like me the way to the railway station?

“Well, in that case, can you tell me where we are now?”

That’s something I can do. 

“Oh, that’s easy!  That’s the Ponte Vecchio over there.”  I turn to point it out to him.

He seems to be straining to see it. 

“Can you show me on the map?”

“Certainly.”  I know I’ll be able to do that easily.

“Let’s cross over the street,” he says. 

I suppose it is a bit narrow here and the other side may be fractionally wider, but I presume he doesn’t know that I’ll be able to tell him where we are very quickly and it’s not worth crossing the street, but he’s already moving off so I follow him over.  I peer at the map while he stretches it out.

“Right, let me see…There’s the river so the Ponte Vecchio must be there… there it is, so we must be here.”  Simple really. If we hadn’t crossed the street, he would have been able to see it for himself.

“Show me your papers.  Police.”

What?  The speaker is a young swarthy man in a baseball cap with two days’ growth of stubble on his face.  He’s dressed in black trousers and a navy polo shirt.  He’s got a companion who looks older and stouter, wearing lighter clothes and a straw hat, like a tourist, but I don’t get much of a look at him before he disappears behind my back.

Oh, no!  I am cursing myself for not bringing my passport with me.  It reminds me of the time in Nice when I was looking forward to a nice cold beer (and a warm shower) after a day of sight-seeing, only instead to be threatened with the police by the bus inspectors.  Although I had bought my tickets, I did not realise I had to validate them. I stuck to my guns and feeling that justice and right were on my side, my only crime being ignorance, I steadfastly refused to pay the fine.  In the end, I got out of that one by doing a runner. 

Now I have visions of being hauled down to the police station and it taking hours to get it sorted out whilst La Belle Dame Sans Merci loiters increasingly pinkly at the rendezvous wondering what has happened to me this time.  She should never have let me out of her sight.  I always seem to get into trouble when she is not with me.  I remember the double moon of last night.  It was an omen after all. Nothing seems to be going right this afternoon.

To my astonishment, my new companion with the map has produced his passport like a conjuror.  I don’t have any time to look at it, but it seems to be the same plum colour as a British passport but I think the writing on it was in the Cyrillic script.  The young cop takes it wordlessly and flicks through it.

“Your papers,” he repeats.

“I don’t have them with me.  At the hotel.”

He looks me up and down, distastefully, it seems to me, as if I were some sort of tramp or illegal immigrant.

“I have the right.  I’m an undercover cop.  Your papers!” he says again, this time with a hardened edge to his voice.

By this time I have a tight grip on my camcorder.  I have no money as Iona has that, and I don’t even appear to have a watch as it was getting a bit tight and sweaty, so I had slipped it into the pocket of my swimming trunks.  It’s not worth very much anyway.

I consider myself very lucky indeed that the cops should have swooped just at that moment, because I realise now that all this rigmarole about the station has just been an excuse to keep me occupied so I could be pick-pocketed.  Only I am wearing swimming trunks and they don’t have any pockets, or so it seems.  But before he had a chance to find out, Mapman, who must have been under surveillance, had been interrupted by these cops. 

But are they?  A sudden thought comes to mind.  What if they are crooks too and they are all in it together?  In this blistering heat, my blood suddenly runs cold. I tense myself, ready to strike back as soon as any attack is made.  I may be outnumbered three to one, but I’m not going to let them rob me without a fight.

“I’ve told you, I don’t have them.”  Then, with a boldness I don’t feel, I add, “If you are the police, show me your papers.”  

If he really is what he claims to be, he could well be dressed like this, and maybe this is how they operate, on the lookout for pick-pockets.  But why here, in just about the quietest part of town?  He looks tough enough to be a cop, yet there was something about his telling me he was working undercover that jarred. 

He is still studying Mapman’s passport.

 “Show me your papers,” I say again, more boldly this time.

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