Portraits of Florence

This trip was taken in October 2014, back when I still had braces and was in the final throes of a relationship. I concluded, and still conclude, that Florence is my favourite city, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been possible to be more positive about it were I able to enjoy more of the food and wasn’t overcome with crippling anxiety.

Few (large) city centres are so successful at maintaining one style as Florence. As with much of Italy, UNESCO has had a large hand in this, but I am currently writing this from another UNESCO World Heritage City which keeps its history alive at the water’s edge but as the city arches back it makes way for the dreaded modern buildings. Within the ersatz city walls Florence still has the feel of a Renaissance city, albeit one where people now shop at Zara. Being able to imagine yourself within a location in its past is the sign of a sensitive city, and this is Florence in droves. As a future city, this is debatable, and hopefully it won’t just fester as a tourist enclave.

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Smell the bloodbath of the past

Which is what it may already be becoming. This was the first time that I ever saw selfie sticks. Ah, sweet simpler times. My mother nearly bought one for me but I declined and have continued declining ever since.

It is difficult to get really immersed in Italian Florence as the language that you hear clang through the streets the most is English, specifically American English, with either drunk teenagers on tour shouting their excitement or coachloads of retired folks hollering so that they can hear each other. Nigh on all Florentines speak English. They must make a killing from us unsuspecting tourists (ice cream spend below: €20):

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After a tiring and stressful journey to our apartment – this was my first “vacation” vacation in several years and I had not yet developed my groove – I fell in love with Florence on the first night. A lovely romantic view for a meander with your mother. The rain came hard and fast as it was to do every night. Glorious sunshine in the day followed by thunderstorms at night is a happy way for the weather to be. We ducked into the pizza place where the cast of Jersey Shore worked during their time in Florence. On reflection, MTV may have wanted to send them to a more party party city.

My Florence fact, and one of my favourite facts in general, is that Cosimo de’Medici built a secret tunnel (the Vasari Corridor) from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio and to his home at the Palazzo Pitti across the Arno as he thought that he would be killed if he were to walk the streets. Ah to be so powerful and paranoid.

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My first church love. This church, which I did not and do not know the name of, just off the via de’Tornabuoni had an church service going on inside, the sounds of which drew us in. Behind a thick curtain was possibly the most beautiful church I had seen to date (but not since). The light streaming in, the smell of incense, the glorious decorations, and the sounds of the choir then the service left me mesmerised and close to tears. Churches make me want to cry. We would visit again at the end of the week and be less enamoured, but one never forgets their first love. And this success gave us the confidence to march into every single church that we passed in the city.

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Past the crowds of tourists there were a number of uniquely Italian gems in the city. Much like other big tourist cities, it would appear that the older generation are the lifeblood of the city’s inhabitants. It would be a shame if this well were to dry up.

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Our first day in Oltrarno the churches were closed but we happened upon a market. Mother always loved looking around markets but I did not, something which I have since learned the error of my ways about. To feel the real buzz of a city, the marketplace is still one of the best places to go, although again this is for the older generation rather than the young, who prefer to shop online. Still, old can equal authentic.

The marketplace hubub proves too much for some people. If you snooze on the job, you may be losing custom. As long as you are having a good time, all is well. As mother and I sat down to eat a panini and drink some water, an Italian man swirling a glass of wine (and himself) came up to us and declared “agua? No, no, no. Vino! Si! Vino!”

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Views abound as you walk the steep walks of Oltrarno up to the gaudy fake David. If you don’t fancy the walk, there is ample coach parking and the drive will give you time to reflect on how you say no to life (my life is wandering around steep streets). The churches which lie even higher are solemnly beautiful and among the oldest in the city. Toilets here are very expensive indeed.

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A quick bus ride away (and buses are very cheap) is Fiesole, a small town in the hills with exceptional views to the city and across the Tuscan countryside. There are three walks to be taken, and you can also go off the beaten track and get incredibly lost. The mixed feelings of awe of nature and fearful that you  may be stuck there is an alarming thrill, mixed with frustration. The food is good, the people slightly less friendly to tourists, the churches more desolate, and the monasteries higher per capita.

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The biggest pit of the trip was the horrendous insect bites. Florence is very buggy. We went to a pharmacist who said he spoke very little English but knew “hydrocortisone”. Science is a transnational language.

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For all the splendor of the Catholic church, museums and shopping streets, begging was still rife. There was something quite poignant about people begging in the site of an old orphanage/hospital for the poor. Place is a very powerful thing, and people’s souls are always drawn to their rightful home.

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Florentines are a fashionable folk. Aside from New York, and I mean the main shopping drags of Manhattan, Florence is the most fashionable city that I have been to. Not many tattoos there either.

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Siena is definitely worth the visit. The choice is between Siena and Lucca and I am pleased with our decision, having never since gone to Lucca. Mother preferred Florence as Siena was “too medieval”, and the steepness began to perturb her in parts. A number of monasteries and nunneries can be happened upon as you walk down the side streets, and a friendly nun plied us with literature about the saint to whom the church was dedicated to. I’m sure she wanted a greater donation than she had received.

If you go during the palio, be warned that you won’t be able to get much sightseeing done, but you will witness quite the spectacle. We didn’t see the palio, but I have seen a film about it which is pretty much the same thing. While a big square, when empty it still doesn’t seem big enough to house a horse race. Ah, the madness of the Italians.

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Italians like eating alone al fresco. We were very hungry but still took over half an hour to find a place. The main square is overpriced, pizza would have hurt my brace, and nothing else was shouting to me. Suddenly we found a cafeteria, had three types of pasta and were ready to breath deep and take in this beautiful town in the hills again.

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Main tourist stretches make me sad too. Anywhere can be a place for quiet reflection

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All roads lead to Duomo. The symbol of Florence and rightly so. The scale and detailing of Florence’s cathedral is rivalled only by a handful of religious buildings. In terms of urban planning, few sit so comfortably within the landscape and meld so naturally into the landscape, even as it billows skywards. Soak up that history and imagine yourself in a rich family with a prince brother and cardinal other brother; sister is either in the nunnery or married off to a political ally. You will never see her again but will become firm pen pals.

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Wedding photos on a bridge? Wedding photos on a bridge. The best bridges are any bridge that is not the Ponte Vecchio, a cankerous vendor up close but a wonderful feat of building and design from afar.

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Our first gelato was a rip off but we soon learned the ways of gelato. Our final gelato in Florence remains the best that I have ever eaten. I’m sure I will be able to find it again. “My happy place”. #BasicBasicBitch We are a gelato family.

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Florence is fabulous, but Pisa is a letdown. Aside from the leaning tower, the rest of the city feels very much like visiting Rochester or another town which has one or two historical landmarks and little else. It is better than Rochester in that it has an airport at least. I am glad we waited until the last day to visit Pisa otherwise disappointment may have set in early and marred our trip. Conversely, maybe had we seen it earlier it would have been more exciting as Florence wouldn’t yet be drilled into our brain with its beauty. If you are to go, head straight to and from the tower/duomo, take a few pictures then get the next bus out. Of course, in Pisa, as in life, always grab that extra gelato.

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Pho Ckoff: My Unconvincing Relationship With Vietnamese Food

The first time I tried Vietnamese food was a happy accident. Daisy and I were having a wander around Manchester and she decided that she wanted something snacky/street food-y, so jumped the gun and went for a rather unsatisfying calzone from the street food market that resides outside Halifax, Greggs and the like on the Market Street/Piccadilly stretch. Nothing struck my fancy there, so I opted for the Arndale Market knowing that I could always go for at least a Mexican or some jerk chicken there.

Then, there it was: Viet Shack. Lunch for £3.50. I knew very little about Vietnamese food, but I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame or a poor writer to an obvious cliche.

The Banh-Mi looked good, but I had braces at the time so settled for a chicken Viet Wrap. Daisy and I then went on a one mile walk to the ‘urban beach’ at New Islington for some reason, maybe just because it’s nice. And it is. It is particularly nice on a lovely sunny day with a Vietnamese wrap.

“I wish I waited for the Arndale Market. That smells amazing.”

I gave her a taste.

“I definitely wish I’d waited.”

From then on, every time she came to Manchester we went to Viet Shack. And, it turns out, she went without me, to the point that the staff recognised her. She prefers the Viet Wrap, I prefer the Banh-Mi (braces are off!) I like the peanut sauce as well, though I realised that this is probably because I like peanut butter a lot. And peanuts. Huh, go figure.

A better value lunch in Manchester is hard to find. The awards are deserved.

Other than Viet Shack, Vietnamese food wasn’t really around much in Manchester. There was at least one restaurant, but I never went.

In London, it seems to be the in thing right now. Pho is everywhere, and you hardly seem to be able to move without coming across another Vietnamese restaurant, often imaginatively named with some variation of the words: “Viet, Pho, Banh Mi, Eat, Food”. Zon Zon is an exception, although I suppose this is probably another way of saying one of the aforementioned words.

I was intrigued to try my first Vietnamese restaurant (as opposed to a food stand in the Arndale Market).

My friend DD in Chicago sent me a picture of some pho that her Vietnamese boss made her, which I thought looked awesome and would be a good place to start. My chance finally game when Debra from Manchester came to London for an improv thing and we arranged to do dinner. She said she fancied Thai or Mexican. The Thai places were full and the Mexican that we passed (Chilango) had oppressive lighting. I suggested Vietnamese food. She tenuously agreed.

I had been googling Vietnamese places earlier that day and had pre-decided upon Caphe Pho. The interior is quite welcoming, though the restaurant was empty. Of all the ‘restaurants from the orient’, Vietnamese staff seem to be the nicest.

Debra ordered some wine, a starter, and a meat dish with a side of rice. She did not realise that the rice was extra and was none too pleased when the bill came. (I hope that you appreciate the specificity of my rundown of her menu choices). I ordered pho, and pronounced it like so, because that is how I am and to be damned with the correct pronunciation. I don’t pronounce my name ‘right’ I’ll be damned if I say the word ‘pho’ like it’s a whisper in the night.

It arrived. I was impressed at the size of it. Like a ‘pho’, it tasted very much like a whisper in the night. I loaded it with the sauces that were on the table. It still didn’t taste of very much. Maybe it is unsurprising that a dish that consists mostly of rice noodles and water doesn’t taste of much.

Debra and I chatted about life and comedy, and how this was by far the smartest that she had ever seen me dress and clearly London had changed me to my very core, especially with this disappointing meal.

We both paid more than we had initially anticipated on our first meeting, but looking at the menu again now I think this was just a slight Manchester/London discrepancy and the prices are actually quite fair. And Manchester doesn’t tend to add tips to the bill. I think I didn’t pay the tip. That’s bad of me.

The waitress, who was very pleasant, told us about how Vietnamese food is a very healthy cuisine. With this little taste, I should hope that it would be. She said that she hoped to see me as a regular, as I work close by. She will be disappointed.

Due to a table mix up, I nearly revisited for a meal-before-Christmas with work, but thankfully our table got sorted and we went to Grain Store instead, where I had another disappointing healthy meal.

A month or so later, Daisy came to visit. She texted saying that she fancied either Mexican or Vietnamese. I had had my Mexican fill for the month, so thought maybe it was time to give Vietnamese another spin. Besides, last time we had Vietnamese food together it changed my world (in the most minimal way, but this is rhetoric, dammit).

After some research and consulting my spreadsheet, I decided upon Banh Mi Bay. There are two close by, but the Holborn one seems more lunch-y, and the St Paul’s one made a preferable gateway to the ensuing tour that I was to give her. Apparently she had only been to London twice before in her life. Shocking to a suave southerner like myself.

On arrival we were the only people on the restaurant. On leaving, a table of three had joined the mix. We were having quite an early dinner.

Daisy said that she had some amazing Vietnamese food when she went to Amsterdam. Spring rolls to start, as in Amsterdam.

“Are you sure not summer rolls?”

No, spring rolls. We like anything that could be healthy to be deep fried.

These came and were delightful. Taste at last. Maybe there was hope after all for Vietnamese food.

I was torn between the pho (who knows why) and a spicier noodle soup which was their daily special and marginally more expensive. I asked the waiter for his advice (earn that tip) and he said spicy was both better and more filling.

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It was filling at least.

I loaded it with everything that it came with on the side, and slathered it in sauce to boot. Still it was too watery for me. I am used to watery dishes. With my Cantonese background, I happily eat congee and the many soups that have water as a majority ingredient, but I have never come across a cuisine that I find so bland or maybe unsatisfying as Vietnamese food (bar the banh mi and spring rolls).

Daisy had a dry noodle dish.

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She said it was quite nice but mine looked better (bigger). Maybe noodle soup dishes are my downfall, although I had a wonton noodle soup at Hikari which stands as one of the most enjoyable eating experiences I had last year.

We finished and both felt still hungry. Daisy wanted to order a pineapple dessert that she had tried in Amsterdam, but alas, alack, they were out. She looked crestfallen. She paid, as she was on the dole at the time so said that it was “on the government.”

I have had better free meals.

We walked, and it turned out that we weren’t still hungry after all. Let the food settle, kids.

So there we have it. Vietnamese food: my least favourite of the Asian foods. Though I like banh mi. RIP me from three years ago, when I said I enjoyed bland, tepid food.

I don’t understand the rising popularity of Vietnamese food. Healthy people can convince themselves of all sorts of ridiculousness.

(Update: it turns out it is Vietnamese food in London that is the real let-down, as I ate the exact same dishes in Chicago and they were a marvel, and of course Daisy’s Amsterdam trip suggests the merits of the ‘Nam).