We arrived in Prato, hot, tired and crumpled, about noon on Saturday 23 June. There were just two cabs at the train station and we nabbed the second one. The driver was friendly and spoke (his description) a ‘leetle English’ – far ahead of Henry’s Italian.
Mrs Thornton had secured by internet and telephone the last available two bedroom flat within the walls of the old city, and within an easy walk of Monash University’s Prato campus. The taxi driver obligingly phoned the person who was to meet us and he came running up Vicole Della Zecca as we unloaded our luggage. The driver seemed pleased with his two Euro tip and returned in 10 minutes with a bag we had left in his cab.
The flat was a revelation. Both bedrooms large with comfortable beds, clean linen, a nice kitchen and internet connection. After a day the negatives we have discovered are as follows: TV has several hundred channels but NONE in English and no CNN or other globally relevant channel; the Internet only works when it is used on the balcony, (but The Australian’s clunky site will not even open); and (curiously in an Italian establishment), no corkscrew.
We quickly unpacked, showered and changed, and hit the streets. When one has flown for 30 hours and traveled on three trains for several more it is vital to keep awake until the sun goes down, longer if one can stand it. As usual when Mrs T is leading the charge we tried to do too much, in this case partly by accident. First step was a late lunch, pasta and beer at a good restaurant close to the flat. Then we set out to for the supermarket which we eventually found, after much walking with the help (if this is the appropriate word) of the highly schematic map our host had provided. We filled four plastic bags after holding up several people because we had failed to weigh the fruit for ourselves, a function performed by the checkout chicks in Australia.
The poorly dressed African man ahead of us had selected only a few items and doled out individual Euros and Euro cents very reluctantly, a process that the middle-aged checkout bloke handled with great patience. When the same checkout person discovered our mistake he was far more brusque with us, although we had spent far more than the poor African and were more polite. We mused on the joys of Eurosocialism, and the advanced attitudes of European people generally to the illegal immigrant. Fortunately we could not understand the checkout bloke's tirade, so far as Henry could tell in an obscure Tuscan dialect .
We eventually escaped with the necessities for a day or so, which was just as well as there are few supermarkets in Prato and this one was closed when we returned on Sunday. In fact, on both Saturday and Sunday the shops most often open were (in this order) clothing shops, which are easily the most numerous shops in Prato, tabacs and restaurants and bookshops. Our impression is that food, wine and cloths are cheap by Australian standards, reflecting perhaps the relatively high Australian dollar and the wealth of our mining boom. A glass half full.
One should add that the young girls sighted in Prato are generally gorgeous, and beautifully dressed, and walk with that special strut seen in Australia most frequently among West Coast footballers. There are many Africans in Prato, the young women often the most beautiful off them all. Interestingly, when we were lost, or trying to figure out how the bus system worked, it was the young black men who were universally helpful.
Anyway, we decided, it being very hot and us still feeling bu**ered, to catch a bus that would drop us close to our flat. We had already been fooled whilst walking by the intricacies of a road system constrained by an old city wall with only a few entrances and exits. After careful study of the map provided at the bus terminal, we leapt onto a yellow bus. This suddenly veered away from the route we expected it to take and went off into what was clearly the wrong direction. We also discovered by watching others that, unlike us, travelers all had tickets when they boarded, which they validated on the bus. Sadly there was no friendly black man sitting near to us to help, and several moments of sharp private discussion followed.
Finally, Henry lead a charge off the bus, which turned out to be at a point about as far away from our abode as it was possible to be on that particular bus route and (we discovered after more acrimonious debate and false starts) about 50 metres before the bus turned to travel back into the old city, only to pass close to our flat after all. We followed the bus route and after several hours (I exaggerate only slightly) we arrived home, provisions safe but Henry in a state of near complete exhaustion.
The good news is that night we slept the sleep of the good, the dead and the agricultural laborer. We awoke to another clear blue sky and the sound of bird song and church bells. Greatly rested, we headed off for another exciting day window shopping and walking about. We briefly also attended masses in a couple of churches, including the extraordinarily beautiful Duomo. We left in each case when the singing and chanting was over, there being little benefit likely to be acquired from a homily in Italian or a Tuscan dialect. Along the way we found the Monash University campus where tomorrow at nine AM Mrs T will report for duty.
After finding the supermarket closed we decided again to try to find a bus to take us home. This time we studied both the map and the timetable, and concluded that we needed a blue bus with ‘Republica’ on the front, due in 12 minutes. (There is a second type of blue bus, with a distant destination on its front, according to the timetable not due for 20 minutes.) The ticket machine however defeated Henry. One inserted one Euro 20 cents and pressed 1 or was it the other way round? A kindly French speaking young black man offered to help, which gave Henry the chance to use his near forgotten schoolboy French. ‘Merde’ was especially useful when it seemed the machine had taken the money without producing a ticket.
Finally, Henry and the boy discovered the ticket was nestling in a well-disguised outbox, and we prepared to buy a second ticket. Just as we were trying to recall in which order to do various things, a blue bus arrived. ‘Ask the driver to wait’ Henry ordered and further fiddled with the machine. Mrs T had to be reminded twice to request a delayed start, being a person who hates to be part of a public spectacle, but she eventually complied. The driver agreed to wait but then it seems the machine HAD AGAIN TAKEN THE MONEY and this time there was no ticket in the hiding place.
The kindly bus driver beckoned us onto the bus with a smile that suggested she had previously dealt with tourists defeated by the ticket machine. We sat down but just as the bus was about to start a black lad sitting near the driver asked her to stop and open the door, whereupon the French speaking lad handed him the missing ticket with a look of triumph, Then as Henry took the ticket and thanked everyone concerned, another black lad said with a smile, ‘now you need to validate the tickets’.
This Henry did this without further incident before collapsing onto the seat beside Mrs T, who was trying to look as if she had never met him. The bus finally moved off as Henry reflected on what a man of action could achieve with firm, decisive leadership. Mrs T had that ‘you blithering idiot’ look on her face, but for once Henry felt confident that she would eventually recognize the importance of his achievement.
Sadly, however, further confusion was in store. Before long, the bus again seemed to depart from the intended route, this time heading into the distinctly industrial outer suburbs, then into the countryside. It became clear that we had boarded the wrong blue bus. Mrs T was generous with her evaluation: ‘You assumed the buses would run to the timetable’, she pointed out, ‘This is Italy, not Germany’.
In the event, for the modest cost of two Euro 40 cents we had a wonderful return tour of several small towns through lovely countryside. We learned not for the first time, that the consequence of a wrong assumption is not always negative. On the return trip, Henry finished reading the weekend International Herald Tribunal.
The most diverting item was an extraordinarily pompous statement from Professor Robert Schiller, who some people think will one day be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics. ‘My colleague Karl Case and I showed in 1996 that when the value of a home falls below the value of a mortgage debt – what is termed being under water – a person is much more likely to default the mortgage’. Cor Blimey brothers, a stunning insight that, a conclusion of the bleeding obvious all economists would love to have discovered. No chance of a false assumption, or of an unexpected discovery, for Professor Schiller.