Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

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Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Breathing the past

CHARLIE

 

I always enjoy visiting places with interesting historical associations. For example, it gave me a thrill to enter the room in a house in Porbandar (Gujarat, India) where Mahatma Gandhi was born, and to stand in Sarajevo at the very spot where Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian Archduke and his wife in 1914.

I hope that the following excerpt from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me” can begin to explain my fascination for visiting places with great historical significance either for me or the world in general:

To reach Oxford Circus, the starting point of our trips to the West End,
we used to take the Northern Line of the Underground to Tottenham
Court Station, and change there to the Central Line. In the 1960s, there
were signs that directed the passengers from the Northern line to the
Central, but these involved using a number of staircases and walking
quite a distance. My mother ignored the signs, and headed straight for a
passageway at one end of the southbound Northern Line platform. This
was clearly labelled ‘No Entry’. My mother knew better than to obey
this because she knew that it was a shortcut to the Central Line
platform. Today, it is the recommended route. Whenever I walk along
this once ‘forbidden’ passageway, I wonder whether amongst the
billions of molecules that make up the air in that circular passage there
is maybe at least one molecule of the carbon dioxide or nitrogen that
was once breathed out of my late mother’s lungs. And, do the echoes of
her footsteps still reverberate even ever so faintly in this busy
passageway?

It is the thought that I might be sharing even one molecule of the air breathed by the persons who gave a place the historic interest for me that gives me an irrational thrill. It is for this reason that I feel unable to visit places like Auschwitz and Dachau. I do not wish to breathe the air that might possibly have been around when the Nazis and their unfortunate victims occupied such places. 

This might seem a bit ridiculous as the chances of breathing the same molecules of air that say my mother or the Archduke of Austria inspired are extremely miniscule, but what is the joy of life if not full of quirkiness.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me” by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Lulu.com, and bookdepository.com, as well as on Kindle

View of palms

I am not certain when I first saw palm trees. Maybe, it was when I was three years old. Then, my parents took me for a holiday in South Africa, where they were born.

Some of the first palm trees that I remember seeing are still growing in a small garden next to the entrance of St John’s Wood Underground station near Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. We used to visit St John’s Wood regularly when I was a child because our family dentist, Dr Samuels – a refugee from Nazi Germany, had his surgery opposite the station.

My first view of palm trees growing en-masse was from the air on an early morning in late December 1993. Our plane was landing at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were travelling via Colombo to Bangalore in India. A week or so after seeing this vast plantation of palms, my wife and I were married during a colourful Hindu ceremony.

Although I have seen many, many palm trees since then, I still find them beautiful and exotic.

Stay away from the windows

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Many years ago sometime during the 1980s, I spent New Year’s Eve in Belgrade, which was then the capital of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

I was staying with my good friend Raša. He enjoyed a good party. We set out to attend one in New Belgrade, which was built after WW2 on the left bank of the River Sava, a tributary of the Danube.

The air was chilled when we left Dorčol, the old part of the city where Raša lived. There was an odour in the wintry air that I always remember: the smell of the smoke from the lignite that was burned in central heating units in the city.

As we travelled in the tram towards New Belgrade, my friend explained that many retired military personnel lived in New Belgrade. Many of these people kept guns and rifles in their flats.

Raša advised me to keep off the balcony and well away from windows as the last midnight of the year approached. The reason for this was that as the new year began, drunken people would begin firing their weapons to celebrate. There was a good chance both of being struck by poorly aimed bullets and by others that ricocheted when they struck walls and so on.

Midnight came and went, but I cannot remember hearing any gunshots. Maybe I had imbibed too much vodka and other highly alcoholic drinks such as sljivovitz and loza!

Now, Yugoslavia is only a fond memory as is my friend Raša. I last saw him in May 1990. He passed away several years later after having done much work to help refugees caught up in the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.

A lady in Budapest

My PhD supervisor’s wife was fondly known as ‘Wink’. When she learnt that I was about to visit Budapest in the early 1980s, she told me the story of her friend Dora, who lived in that city.

Sometime during the war, Wink got her first job. She became a supervising chemist at High Duty Alloys, a company that had its premises on the huge Slough Trading Estate, which had been established near Slough in 1920. It was the middle of the war, and there was a great need for metal for aircraft and armaments. Everything was being melted down in order to extract vitally needed metals. Wink was involved in developing ways of improving the extraction of the highly reactive metals magnesium and aluminium from seawater. Everyone was donating whatever metal items that they could spare to help the war effort. A great number of metal cooking pots reached High Duty Alloys. Sadly, Wink related, many of these were so full of unwanted metals that separating the desirable ingredients was uneconomical; the cooking utensils had been donated in vain.

DORA 1

Dora Sos in 1985 in Budapest

Soon after joining High Duty Alloys, Wink was assigned a technician. She was a Hungarian called Dora, who had been visiting the UK as the representative of a Hungarian chemical company when WW2 broke out. She was briefly interned as an ‘enemy alien’ until the authorities decided that she did not pose a security risk. When she was released, she took up the job at High Duty. Wink and Dora, who was a little older than her, became close friends. After WW2 was over, Dora was given British citizenship. However, she was getting homesick and decided to return to her home in central Budapest.

Every now and then during the late 1940s, the British embassy in Budapest held parties and receptions for British subjects living in Hungary. One evening when Dora was on her way to attend one of these, she was prevented from entering the embassy by Hungarian police officers waiting near to its entrance. She was taken in for questioning, warned never to try to enter the embassy again, and her British passport was confiscated. Dora continued her life working in a scientific laboratory in Budapest, but under appalling conditions. Each night at the end of a day’s work, all of the laboratory notebooks had to be locked up in drawers for which she had no keys. The Stalinist authorities who ran the country at that time were terrified of espionage and sabotage. Conditions became so bad in the laboratory that Dora, who was fluent in German and English, gave up being a scientist, and became a language interpreter.

Wink told me that after a few years when Hungary’s Communist regime became a little less strict, Dora was issued with a Hungarian passport and was given permission to travel to the West for a holiday. She went to The Hague in Holland and visited the British Embassy there. She related her story to the ambassador and his staff, and after they had checked up that she had once been issued with a British passport, they issued her with a replacement for the one that had been taken from her in Budapest. She was told that she could use the British passport whenever she was out of Hungary. All that she needed to do was to enter whichever British Embassy was near her, and then arrangements would be made to issue her with another British passport. And, before returning to Hungary, she could return her British passport to the nearest embassy for safe-keeping. Thus, she was able to visit Wink in Britain on a number of occasions.

When I began making regular visits to Hungary in the early 1980s, Wink gave me Dora’s address, and I met her. We became good friends. Whenever I was in Budapest, I used to visit her in her first floor flat in a late 19th century apartment building near to Moskva Ter in Buda. She always asked me for news of Wink and her family. A chain smoker, she was also a good cook. Whenever I visited her, she would serve me generous helpings of her home-made chicken paprika. This was always accompanied by noodles that she had just prepared with freshly made dough that she extruded through a mesh straight into boiling water.

Dora told me that under Communism very few young people learnt English in Hungary. Learning Russian was compulsory. Therefore, there was a shortage of English interpreters in the country. Often, she was asked to interpret at scientific conferences. She was able to perform simultaneous translations from German into English and vice-versa. This is no mean feat for someone whose mother tongue was Hungarian. Before my visits to Budapest, I used to write to Dora and my other friends there, announcing my travel plans. On more than one occasion, Dora commissioned me to bring the latest editions of particular technical dictionaries from London to her in Budapest, where these volumes were not available. She told me that whenever she was able to travel to the West, she would buy copies of Solzhenitsyn’s works. These were strictly forbidden in Hungary. She told me that whenever she returned to Hungary from the West, she would be asked by the Hungarian customs officials whether she was carrying any of these so-called ‘solzhis’.

DORA 2

In the house where Bela Bartok lived in Budapest

When I visited Budapest with my wife in about 1999, we visited the apartment house where Dora lived as I had been unable to get through to her by telephone. When we reached the door of her flat, which opened onto one of the galleries surrounding the building’s courtyard, I looked at the name on the doorbell.

It was no longer Dora’s.

A fateful Friday

If you were alive then, what were YOU doing on Friday, the twenty-second of November in the year 1963 ???

My father was a visiting academic in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago during the last three months of 1963. Between September and December of that year, we lived in a flat in a two-storey house with a wooden fire escape near the university. Our address was 5608 South Blackstone Avenue. My sister and I (aged 11) attended the nearby University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (the ‘Lab School’).

I was excited to discover that our rented flat had a television, albeit one which was defective. The image it produced was double. One could see what was being broadcast but everything had a shadow, which made the image seem out of focus. Whichever way one fiddled with the indoor aerial, the image never improved. None of this mattered much to me because in London, where we lived usually, we had no television at all.

In addition to attending the Lab School, I had to keep up with the work that I was missing because I was not at school in London. Soon after returning from the USA, I had important examinations to sit. So, getting time to watch TV was difficult. I decided that the only way I could get a decent long session in front of the TV was to be sufficiently unwell for my parents to allow me to miss school.

I bought a copy of the weekly voluminous TV Guide for the Chicago area. It was the issue that covered Friday 22nd November 1963. I do not remember how I persuaded my parents that I was too unwell for school that day, but I did. My sister, aged 7, was deposited at the Lab School by my father on his way to the university. Much later that morning, my mother, a sculptress, set off for the studio where she worked during the day. I was left at home alone, ready to spend several hours watching the TV programmes I had selected from the TV Guide.

JFK

You can imagine my disappointment when the TV set had warmed up after I had switched it on. Instead of the TV programmes that I was looking forward to watching, there were non-stop news programmes on every channel. President John F Kennedy (‘JFK’) had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. Not only had one of America’s most charismatic presidents been assassinated, but also my day of uninterrupted TV viewing had been wrecked.

My sister returned from school in the mid-afternoon. She told us that her class had been led out of the classroom to the school’s assembly room. There, they saluted the US flag before being told of the tragedy in Dallas.

On the Saturday morning, while I was struggling with my Latin assignment from London, my sister and some guests who were staying with us, the art historian Leo Ettlinger and his wife, were watching our TV in another room. Suddenly, my sister came running into the room where I was trying to study, and my mother was doing something domestic. She announced that while she was watching TV, she saw Jack Ruby shooting dead the prime assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother and I rushed to the TV. We were just in time to see the footage of Oswald’s murder being replayed.

Although, as an 11-year-old, I had negligible interest in politics or news in general, JFK’s demise made me feel depressed. I am not sure why. Maybe, it was because his death had significantly dampened the mood of Americans in general.

Years later in the mid-1970s I visited some American friends, fellow graduate students, who lived in Pill, a suburb of Bristol in Somerset. One evening, we went to a theatre in the centre of the city. I do not recall the name of the play, but I can remember what it was about. The people on stage, actors, related what the characters, who they were portraying, recounted about what they were doing at the moment they learnt of JFK’s assassination.

Now, you, dear reader, know what I was doing on that fateful day.

[Image source: wikipedia]

Marine Ices

Whenever I am in a restaurant and presented with the dessert menu, I often order ice-cream, especially if there are fruit sorbets available. Ever since I can remember I have loved ice-cream, and I continue to do so. Let me tell you about three places where I have enjoyed eating this chilled delicacy. Two are in Italy and one is in London.

Marine 2

During my childhood, we visited Florence (in Italy) every year except 1967, the year the after city was badly damaged by a terrible flood in November 1966. Annually, my late mother used to visit a brassiere maker called Busti Biondi. The owner of this shop was unable to speak English, and my parents were not sufficiently confident of their Italian to communicate with him effectively. Near the shop in the same street, there was a textile merchant called Giorgio, who spoke good English having learnt it from British soldiers during WW2. He helped interpret during the often-lengthy proceedings at Busti Biondi. He also introduced us to one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever visited. This shop or ‘gelateria’ was called ‘Perché No’, which means ‘why not?’ I have not visited Florence since the late 1960s. The gelateria, Perché No, in Via Dei Tavolini still functions, selling ice creams as it has been doing when it opened in 1939.

Bar Cucciolo was a gelateria that stood next to the Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere waterfront (Fondamente del Zattere) of Venice’s Dorsoduro island. It was at the Calcina that our family stayed. Many years before we patronised the place, the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin stayed there (in 1877). Although the accommodation and food at the Calcina was not great, my parents chose to satay there because it overlooked the wide Giudecca Canal and the lovely waterfront of the Giudecca Island across it.

The Cucciolo made and sold ice creams and sorbets at least as good as those that we enjoyed in Florence at Perché No? Their banana flavoured ices were my favourite. I particularly enjoyed having a cone that contained a scoop of banana and one of lemon sorbet. Writing these words makes my mouth water.

The Cucciolo was run by two men and was always very busy on summer afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the south-west facing Fondamente del Zattere. On one such afternoon we were sitting on the Calcina’s deck that projected over the water when we heard a woman beginning to scream. Her small child had fallen into the canal. Quick as a flash the plumper of the two fellows who ran the Cucciolo dived into the canal fully clothed, and then rescued the small boy. His parents hurried away with their child, barely thanking their soaking rescuer. On the next day when we were buying ice creams, he told us that his watch had been wrecked when he jumped into the canal. Also, the victim’s parents, who were not Italian, had not been in the slightest concerned that he had risked his life, limbs, and clothes, for their child whom they had not been watching carefully enough. My mother was most upset on his behalf. Sadly, the Cucciolo closed many years ago. It had already disappeared when we last visited Venice in 2007.

Marine 1

Very recently, I visited Chalk Farm. There opposite the Underground Station, to my horror, I saw a building site where once Marine Ices used to stand. In the 1960s, when I was a child this was one of the only places in London, where good quality ice-creams and sorbets were on sale. One could sit down in the parlour and eat them, or you could take them home in boxes. As I savoured their ices, I could imagine I was back in Italy either at Perché No or the Cucciolo.  

According to its website, Marine Ices was established in London in 1931. When I returned from my trip to Chalk Farm, I looked on the internet to find out what had happened to Marine Ices, and I discovered that it still exists but at a new address, which is closer to Camden Market.

Today, London is littered with great gelateria’s serving ice cream as good as I remember eating when I was a child. There are already three high quality gelaterias where I live and a fourth (a branch of a firm from Florence) is opening soon.

If he were a dog…

dog

‘D’ had terrible teeth. Not only were they broken, but they were also worn down in such a way that they looked like an aged rodent’s teeth.

He had worked for many years in a place where there were high levels of atomic radiation. Naturally, he was concerned about how much radiation he had been exposed to over the years.  On one of his many visits, he asked me somewhat irritably: “How many more x-ray pictures do you need to take?”

I replied: “I have enough pictures to take out your bad teeth, but not enough to save them.”

D seemed reasonably satisfied with my answer. At least, he never raised the subject again.

Some weeks later, D’s wife, who was also one of my patients, asked me why her husband had to make such an enormous number of visits to my surgery. I explained that the repair work was extensive and complicated, each tooth requiring several appointments. She replied quickly:

“If he were a dog with so many problems, I’d have had him put down ages ago.”