Thursday, June 21, 2007

bring your brollies

All I knew of Torino before I came here was the Olympics and the original Italian Job movie. Other than that, the city was a blank canvas. No expectation – no disappointment. I arrived at the central train station a little later than expected and met up with Catia, my first host for the city. On the walk back to her place, I find out she is from another part of Italy and is living in Torino, studying translation at the local university. After dumping my bags at her apartment, Catia took me for a walk around the local area, showing me the river and a castle some crazy rich guy built at a time when turrets and dungeons weren’t usually included in architecture drawings. Just outside the grounds of the castle, I was convinced that I saw the little dog with the manky paw Martine and I encountered in Prague and chased the owners across the park to ask them. No. There was something very unnerving about that Chihuahua whose paw looked like a windsock on a calm day and like to bite and bark everything around it. Within the castle walls it was if I had gone back in time to a primary school excursion to Sovereign Hill, a trip many Australian kids will tell you that's not even worth the permission slip. It was a faithful recreation, but being in Europe where plenty of this stuff exists for reals, I couldn’t help thinking what the point of it was. Soon after we left the castle, it began to rain, with giant raindrops soaking us to the bone. It was awesome. Thankfully Catia didn’t mind getting wet and we both walked through it, enjoying the fresh smell of rain on parched earth. The rain reminded me of something more suited to the tropics and the smell reminded me of when it rains in summer back at home. We get back to her flat and while dripping wet, I met her flatmates and the fat house cat. We changed and then went to a cool bar around the corner and met some more locals. There’s a bunch of food laid out on tables, but I assume it’s for a private function and don’t take any. We discuss the not so mundane topic of the weather with some of the others at bar amd all concur that humans have broken the earth.

The next day I spend exploring the city by myself, dropping into random clothing stores, record shops and art galleries and chatting to people. I climbed hills, checked out a bunch of churches and lapped up the warm weather in the many public spaces on offer (Which the locals use for alfresco dining, illegal parking and ice cream). There are archways all through the city (12kms of them), which are beautiful to walk through when the novelty of getting rained on wears off. Near to the University, I walk into a little clothing store called Psiche. I chat with Simona, the girl who runs the place for about 20 minutes about what I should do and see while here in Torino. She makes a little list for me and circles points of interest on the map. I make friends with Bruno, the store dog. The guy who supplies the T-shirts comes in and tells us that he spent a couple of years living in Australia. Soon after, the other guy, Maurizio, who runs the store turns up and we chat about t-shirts and travel. We had a pretty cool conversation, I take their photo and as I’m about to leave, they give me a free t-shirt. Torino is off to a good start.

Later, I meet up with Catia and she takes me to a buffet bar. Like the bar on the previous night, this one has food laid out on tables, but when I buy the drinks, the woman behind the bar instructs me in the ways of the locals: “grab a plate and enjoy as much as you like”. Torino buffet is the best deal in Europe I've found. Depending on how close you are to the touristy bits, you pay around 4 to 7 Euro for a drink (any drink), which gains you access to a huge variety of food that looks like it has just come out of your adopted Italian nanna’s kitchen. The variety and shear volume of food found in a buffet puts any of the Tapas found in the south of Spain to shame and easily makes for a complete meal. Allegedly Torino is the best place for buffet, with only a handful of other Italian cities recognising the practice with equal gusto. If I lived here, I would need to buy a bike.

Over the next couple of days, I take it easy. Still recovering from the intensity of touring with mum, I enjoyed the much needed chill time. I spend parts of my day writing, editing and photoshopping, walking around between cafes and using the flat's kitchen as my office. The stove at Catia’s place has three little Italian coffee makers loitering near by and I try coffee made in each one. My dormant addiction to strong coffee awakens. Here’s to headaches and lack of concentration without the black doctor. After wandering around, meeting people and exploring the city, I come to the conclusion that Torino is a thoroughly enjoyable place. It has a really colourful past, a great small town/big city feeling with an energetic yet humble vibe, is close to the snow during winter and has that beautiful European city thing I’ve grown to love over the last year. It would be a great place to live for a little while and the thought of stopping and teaching English makes another appearance. Hmmm.. Good food, cheap booze, a strong connection to the national affinity with motor sport, close proximity to the rest of Europe and girls who touch your arm when they talk to you - Doesn't make for the clearest of minds for making such decisions.

On Thursday, Catia had a mate from her home town coming to stay with her and helps me get to my next couch. We meet up with Guiliana and straight away I’m reminded of my good mate Jules back at home and the 80s music and pop culture references fly thick and fast. Guiliana has something to do with media sales to broadcasters and occasionally does work for the city helping to set up art exhibitions. After dumping my stuff, we go back to the centre, say goodbye to Catia and join a Couchsurfing meet up. I’ve gone to a couple of these while travelling, but as a traveller rather than a host (which usually makes up the majority of people at these events), I felt a bit out of place. A few other travellers and out of towners join the meeting and we exchange tips on the nearby towns of interest. I chat to a couple of people that seem to have joined CS to travel vicariously through the travellers they have come stay, and convince them that second hand travel (lounge chair couchsurfing if you will), never compares to the real deal. As I’ve said before, I like to inspire people to see the world, not make them jealous.

The next few days, Guiliana shows me around the city. On Friday we go to the National Film Museum, which is hosted inside the Mole (pronounced moul-ee). The building was supposed to be a synagogue, but half way through construction, the Jewish community ran out of money to keep going, and sold the uncompleted building to the city. At the time it was completed, it was the tallest building in the world, and still towers above most of Torino. The film museum is great, with the first floor dealing with the technical history of cinema. As Guiliana proudly pointed out the stuff she worked on, the museum begins with shadow puppets, moving in loose chronological order through POV animation, early photographic techniques, stereophotography and the introduction of film. It’s amazing what a bet between rich men about whether or not a horse has all four feet off the ground at one moment can achieve. There some funky old projectors, a tonne of stereophotography equipment, peep shows (of the PG & non-PG variety), samples of early films and enough English for the Anglophonic tourists to interact with and understand the exhibits. Once the first floor is done with, we went up to the next section, which is the gigantic space within the dome of the Mole. An exhibition of Ferrari in Films is currently showing and two big screens showing clips of Ferraris doing burnouts, wheelies and making people look cool hang from the walls. With some cheeky editing, Elvis looks like he's in The Fast and the Furious, Nicolas Cage is being chased by Will Smith and Fangio is racing against Magnum PI. The rest of the Ferrari exhibit lacked somewhat, with only pictures of famous rich people and their Ferraris lining the giant spiral walkway lining the walls of the dome. Instead of the posters showing each model of Ferrari, I would have like to have seen the model of Ferrari and a list of the movies it appeared in. Oh well. I was still happy with the petrol guzzling. The rest of the museum is made up of permanent exhibits paying tribute to different genres of films, with separate sections focusing on directors, filming technics and actors. Great interactive exhibits for the kids with plenty of memorabilia for the oldies. But the big highlight with visiting the Mole is the elevator to the top. Made of glass and suspended between a shaft made of cables rather than concrete, it seemed that the elevator’s occupants were being taken up by an alien ship for a bit of friendly probing. The ride up is great, with the detail swap between the floor and the ceiling a bit of a mind flip. Looking directly up the hole in the roof where the elevator is about to slip through, I think, “even though I know this fits through, I think we’re going to get stuck, the cable will snap, the elevator will fall and smash into a million pieces of glass, blood and metal”. It doesn’t and the view of the town is amazing. To think, this has been here for over 100 years.

On Saturday, Guiliana and I took the trolley up to the Basilica of Superga, where in 1949 a plane carrying the Torino soccer team, while flying back from Portugal crashed in heavy fog, killing everyone on board. Since 9 of the players from Torino were also a part of the national team, the whole country went into mourning. The museum system here is a little weird, with the only way to see the exhibits is by joining a guided tour in Italian. As Guilanna quietly translates important details to me, a couple of the oldies on the tour give us nasty glares. We break away from the main group (a hard thing to do when there are only 3 rooms), and take stuff in at our own pace. It’s clear that Guilianna knows her Italian history and I suggest that she should offer up her services and become a freelance tour guide for English speaking tourists. Alledgedly this is next to impossible in Italy as the requirements for setting up such a business make it difficult for smaller companies and individuals to do so. I say sod it and just accept cash.

Did you know the last Italian Pope (John Paul I), was only in office for 33 days, before being found by a nun, dead in his chambers of an unknown cause. He was in the midst of separating the Vatican banking system from the Italian system, which was going to financially fuck a bunch of influential catholic big wigs and a few mafia types. John Paul II (Pope - The sequel), got the position next and the whole banking kafuffle evaporated overnight, swept under the carpet in true Catholic style.
On my last day in Torino, I went out in the morning to check the Olympic area out and cross the big suspension pedestrian bridge near to Guilianna’s flat. But as soon as I reached the park it began pissing down with rain, and I spent the next 20 minutes taking cover in the hut at the top of kiddie slippery dip. After waiting a bit, I braved the run to a nearby cafĂ© and enjoyed some tasty Fonzies. I got back to Guilianna’s place and then we drove into the centre and checked out the Egyptian museum. This place is fully stocked with mummies, treasure and is one of the few museums in the world to hold the entire contents of one complete tomb. Due to the sloppy work of other thieves; sorry archaeologists; the majority of tombs were only staked out for their valuable things like gold and treasure, and were usually robbed by those in the know a few months after the important person was buried. There were mummified cats, monkeys, crocodiles and 3,000 year old bread. Impressive collection, with the museum boasting that it is second only to the one in Cairo. I make a beef jerky joke, and we leave. Next on the list was the castle, full of artwork and old things collected by the city over time. Then the last thing we went to was the World War II museum, which houses many interactive exhibits, featuring people of Torino telling their story from the war. This by far was the best thing I saw the whole day, with the presentation and layout of the museum really impressing me.

Later Guilianna and I meet up again with Catia and we take Buffet at the cool bar that Catia took me to on my first night in town. I ask for a surprise from the bar tender (who is half French, super friendly and absolutely gorgeous), and I get this amazingly tasty and dangerously strong mixed berry daiquiri. We eat our fill of salads and lamb cutlets (another fantastic 6 Euro Torino feast), and then say goodbye to Catia. Guilianna and I grab Thank you for Smoking from the DVD store and laugh ourselves silly. Katie Holmes does surprisingly well in it. Perhaps that’s because she isn’t on screen for that long.

The next day I’m on a local train to Milano.

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