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Travels Through Time in Italy

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From Pompeii to Pisa, this book whisks the reader back to the glories of ancient Rome and the Renaissance, as well as offering a wry look at what I perceive to be the eccentricities of life in present-day Italy.  It is a tale of culture and popular culture; of adventure and misadventure, all leavened with a good dose of laughter.

But there was nothing funny about what happens in this extract – except in the funny, peculiar, sense of the word.

We have not gone far past the non-diminishing queues at the Uffizi before Iona says she can’t take the heat. She wants to walk through the town so she can get some shade from the buildings, whilst I, on the other hand, want to walk along the banks of the Arno, where the sun can beat down on my back and the backs of my legs.  We agree to meet at the end of the street which we came down this morning.  She shows me it is the third street on the left, takes the map and a slug of water because the bottle is too heavy for her to carry and disappears into the maze of streets on our left while I set off along the riverbank. 

It’s a bit annoying that the parapet is just a little bit too high or I’m too short to see the river easily but the sun is very warm and it’s quite pleasant and uncrowded here, which is just as well, as the pavement is very narrow.  A group is coming towards me and seeing the pavement is not going to take us all, I make room for the advancing party.  However, just as we draw abreast, one of them, who is carrying a map, addresses me.

“You speak Italian?”

Stout and perspiring profusely, he must be in his thirties.  He looks as if he has caught a bit of sunburn. Shocks of straw-coloured hair are escaping from a bashed and disreputable hat. Obviously a tourist.  No-one else would wear such headgear where there was the slightest chance anyone might recognise him.

I say no and am about to pass on when he says, “Do you speak English?”  That’s what we’ve been speaking up to now and it’s a pretty safe bet that someone wearing a Panama hat and dressed in swimming trunks that look like shorts and a shirt of Lincoln green probably speaks English like Robin Hood. “Can you tell me the way to the railway station?” he continues without missing a beat.

“I’m afraid not.  I’m a stranger here myself.”

“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 although he is taller than me.  “Can you show me on the map?” he asks.

“Certainly.”

“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 he doesn’t know I’ll be able to tell him where we are very quickly and it’s not worth crossing over, but he’s already moving off so I follow him.   He opens the map 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 the bridge for himself.

“Show me your papers.  Police.”

What?  The speaker is a swarthy young man in a baseball cap with two days’ growth of stubble.  He’s dressed in black trousers and a navy polo shirt.  He’s with a companion who looks older and stouter, wearing lighter clothes and a straw hat, like a tourist, but that’s all I see of him before he disappears behind me.

Since my passport is in the hotel, I have visions of being hauled down to the police station and it taking hours to get sorted out whilst Iona loiters increasingly pinkly at the rendezvous wondering where I have been all 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.

To my astonishment, the man with the map has produced his passport out of nowhere like a conjuror.  I only had a glimpse of it as he handed it over, but it seemed to me the writing on it was in the Cyrillic alphabet.  Wordlessly, the young cop takes it and flicks through it.

“Your papers,” he repeats.

I shake my head.  “I don’t have them with me.  At the hotel.”  My mouth has suddenly gone dry though strangely, I suddenly feel sweatier than ever.

He looks me up and down with a stern expression.  “I have the right.  I’m an undercover cop.  Your papers!” he says again, this time with a hardened edge to his voice.

Until a moment ago I was considering myself very lucky indeed that the cops should happen to have swooped at that moment, it coming to me in a blinding flash that all that rigmarole about asking the way to the railway station had just been a ruse to preoccupy me whilst I was pick-pocketed.  But no sooner had I thought this than another, more worrying thought sprang to mind.  What if they are crooks too and they are all in it together?  I swallow hard and tighten my grip on my camera.

“I’ve told you, I don’t have them,” I reply.   Then, with the boldness of age and a confidence I don’t feel, I riposte, “Show me your papers.”   If he really is an undercover cop, he could well be dressed like this. And maybe this is exactly how they operate, mingling with the crowds, on the lookout for pickpockets which Angela had warned us to be on our guard against.  But here, in just about the quietest part of town?  He looks tough enough to be a cop, yet there was something about the way he told that he was working undercover that jarred somehow. 

He is still studying Mapman’s passport, or appears to be.  “Show me your papers,” I repeat, more boldly.  More than ever I have a feeling something is not right.


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