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May 03, 2007

Getting Respect From the Florentine Hordes

Ciao, baby!

Things started going wrong for Florence about a thousand years ago, when a very important man named Hugo--a margrave, no less--decided he wanted to live in Florence instead of the then capital, Lucca, a decision which brought on a period known as The Golden Age of Florentine Art. Half a millennium later, A guy named Lorenzo di Medici started running the show and throwing serious money at local artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci (best known for his thrilling novel, "The Da Vinci Code") and Botticelli. Pretty soon, all the talk was about Florence: The architecture! The paintings! The sculptures! The ravioli!

They're still talking about it, and the result is that walking down a a street in Florence poses a serious challenge. The first ten to fifteen steps are fine. But then you run into your first tour-group, a herd of usually middle-aged people following the guide. The guide walks and the herd follows. If the herd strays, the guide raises an umbrella and the lost and now agitated members of the group are able to once again enjoy the safety of numbers. If you've ever been driving in a car in Yellowstone National Park and had to stop and wait for several minutes thanks to a bunch of Bison crossing the road, then you already know what it's like to walk down a street in Florence.

Too cool for school? Or just another dork
on a Segway?

Fortunately, almost exactly a thousand years after the Margrave Hugo called his Florentine real-estate agent and relegated Florence to more than a millennium of "it" status, an inventor named Dean Kamen invented something that neatly solves the walking-in-Florence problem. My guess is that you've heard of it. It's the Segway PT, the two-wheeled human transporter that was unveiled to massive fanfare in December 2001. The Segway hasn't yet turned out to be the epoch-marking breakthrough in human transportation that a lot of people thought it would, but it's just the thing for navigating through tourist hordes.

For one thing, using one is dead easy. A Segway follows the same principal as human walking--that of a controlled fall. Lean forward while standing on a Segway, and it moves forward. Lean back, and it stops. If you can walk, you can use a Segway. And if you're used to walking, Segwaying turns out to be a whole lot more fun.

Where the device distinguishes itself, however, is in the social aspect. Walking is a game for equals. If you find yourself walking towards someone, then the rule is that both of you make some attempt to accommodate the other. If you are walking behind someone that is walking slower than you, the rule is that you break into a little trot to overtake them. You do not order them out of the way.

Now consider the Segway. You stand something like six inches above the ground and the immediate effect is that you realize what a fool you've been for walking all these years. Not only can you see over the heads of the crowds in front of you, but those very same crowds part as you approach. They give you respect as you approach, and they shower you with envious stares as you pass. Renting a Segway in Florence costs $80 for a three-hour guided tour. That translates to less than $0.50 per minute for respect and envy. You'll find that price hard to beat.

Bought in Florence

Thanks to my slow but relentless pace of travel, I found myself with only a single morning in Florence. I had come here almost five hears previous with my wife to begin our honeymoon, which was a ten-day eating contest set in Tuscany with some museums and shopping thrown in. My hope was that, in a period of three hours, I could accomplish the broad strokes of what it took my wife three days to do.

I started with the sightseeing: The Palazzo Strozzi, a palace built by the Strozzi family, rivals of the Medicis. (It would be like Martha Stewart putting up a skyscraper across the street from the Trump Tower. Personally, I welcome the idea.) Next, the Duomo. A coffee. And finally, Michaelangelo's David.

The sightseeing portion of the tour was now completed, and I still had almost two hours of Segway time left. In other words, it was time for a quick bite to eat, something that is difficult to find in the land of slow food, but not impossible. I ate a Florentine specialty: a tripe sandwich. Most of you are screwing your faces up at the thought of tripe. Do not. Tripe is delicious and, just like the Segway, loved by too few. And when tripe is nestled inside a soft and crispy bun and drenched in tomato sauce, you never even see its gill-like texture.

Delicious tripe sandwich

I also wanted to buy a shirt. I bought a shirt here in Florence back on our honeymoon. It was reasonably priced and fit beautifully. When I started wearing it back home, it received so many compliments that I began taking measures to ensure its longevity: I wore it sparingly; I washed it on the delicate cycle; I considered storing it in one of those oxygen chambers like the kind that Michael Jackson sleeps in. That shirt was found at some out-of-the-way store on some narrow little Florentine street. There was no chance of finding that same store again--especially since I couldn't remember its name--so I found another out-of-the-way store on a narrow little Florentine street. The man behind the cash register told me his grandfather had started the store more than 70 years ago, and that the shirts were hand made in Tuscany. More importantly, the shirts looked good.

Setting new standards in traveling

Now I had the most important task to attend to: a gift for my wife. My wife has spent the last week at her parents house, and our daughter has been waking up in the middle of the night--every night--and crying. She goes back to sleep okay, but no one else does. (It was the prospect of these sleepless nights that led me to take this around-the-world trip in the first place.) I can't be there to help my wife, but I am able to feel guilty about it. Science has shown that purchasing expensive presents neutralizes feelings of guilt.

I bought my wife a lamb's-leather purse. A gift would probably be a good idea for her parents, too. But I would feel strange buying a purse for my mother-in-law, and even stranger buying one for my father-in-law.

My mind enriched, my stomach filled and my bank account diminished, I returned the Segway and made my way on foot to the Hertz office, to pick up the rental car that would take me north to the South Tyrol. The crowds did not part. At the rental-car office, I handed over my credit card and was presented with the keys to a Renault Clio, a four-door hatchback with no radio. As a mode of transport, it would do the job. But as for respect and envy, I would have only memories.

Posted at N 43 46.328 E 011 14.725

Get the hell out of the way!



In the last picture, are they looking at the Segway or your Derrière???

We have a gang of Segway enthusiasts who ride up and down Congress Ave in Austin and,umm, they do look a bit dorkish but they also look like they're having a lot of fun. Keep those pictures and literary gaffes coming.

I had a good laugh at the Bison symbolism (I am guessing American tourists)....

You may have garnered respect, but something tells me it wasn't MAXIMUM respect.

There is still something about people on Segways that still freak me out.. they are very tall, and seem to float by, like ghosts. Also, I saw Ronald McDonald on one once... thats probably what did it.
PS I LOVE this blog - your writing is so funny, and so interesting. Thanks! Kim

Can you confirm a rumor that Florence would soon be home to a Duff's Wings?

Do you remember where you picked up the tripe sandwich?? Possibly in a piazza near the rental car agency around the corner from the main train station. If so, I lived in apartment overlooking that tripe stand for 7 years. Could not stand the smell!!

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