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     Volume 8 Issue 94 | November 13, 2009 |

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Italy after a Quarter Century

Nabeel Atique

Supporters of the Palio twirling banners.

My fondest memories of my childhood are from my days spent in Italy. I was 10 when my father inaugurated the Rome office of Bangladesh Biman in 1980. It still amazes me that he managed to navigate the customs and cultural labyrinths of a foreign land and all that without knowing the language. My sister and I were also challenged as we were in an environment where we didn't speak any Italian and had a hard time communicating with the kids in our neighborhood. But we caught on pretty quickly, as children usually do, and before long I was enjoying playing pick up soccer games with the local kids and riding my bicycle around town getting to know people and places. Italians are very lively and very passionate and so they always have something to say that's an advantage for someone trying to make friends and learn a new language.

My father's posting to Italy ended in 1984 and we left. It was hard to leave such a beautiful country and all the new friends we had made over the four years. I went back to Italy after 25 years in the summer of 2009. To my relief some things hadn't changed. Italians were still as animated and lively as I remember them. I took a trip down the coast of Tuscany. Summers are blazing hot in Italy and having the ocean nearby was a relief. I took a dip in the ocean almost every day. The beaches were crowded with locals enjoying the summer holidays. In certain parts of the country businesses and offices are shuttered and the people flock to the beaches to sunbathe, swim and just do nothing.

The first city I made a stop in was Carrara. Carrara is renowned for its marble. The hillsides are strewn with quarries that from afar resemble snow-capped mountains. On closer inspection one realises that it's beautiful white marble and not snow. I chanced upon an international sculpting conference and exhibition. It was fun to see the sculptors at work producing beautiful art. Carrara's beach was having a salsa festival and I enjoyed watching the locals dancing and the food at the festival was amazing I enjoyed some delicious linguini with mussels. It was one of many memorable meals I had in Italy.

From Left: A sculptor in Carrara, Monastery in Lucca and Drummers in medieval costume.

The next stop was Viareggio. Viareggio is a very touristy beach resort. Beach after beach with umbrellas strewn all over the place. It's hard to find a patch of sand to set your towel down on this crowded beach. From Viareggio I moved onwards to Lucca. Lucca is a beautiful fortified city. I stayed in a hostel Ostello San Frediano - that used to be a monastery. It was a beautiful place with large rooms and ornately decorated living quarters. The legacy of its monastic origins still exists women and men are in separate areas in the monastery and cannot stay together.

From Lucca I cruised on past Pisa to the seaside town of Tirrenia. Much smaller that Viareggio this was the ideal place to be for a couple of days. I stayed at the Hotel Florida here right up against the ocean. Just cross the street and the ocean awaits. Many restaurants abound within walking distance. Again the seafood was top notch. It was one of my favorite places in Tuscany.

From Tirrenia I made my way to Siena. Siena was hosting the Palio a horse race that is held there every year since medieval times. To this day people dress up in medieval costumes, parading and supporting their horse and rider. Competition is fierce and rivals have been known to poison another's horse or ambush a jockey before a race. It is a bareback horse race that lasts about a minute and a half, but people pay up to $400 for a spot on a wooden bench in the town square to get a glimpse of the riders going by. People queue up about 10 hours before the race for a free spot in the middle of the race course. Fights abound for space and it's a suffocating atmosphere in 40 degree weather. It shows the Italians' passion for history, culture and pride in their own people and teams. After the race, the winning horse and jockey were worshipped as heroes and made rounds around town. Their supporters paraded the city for several days after. And their rivals were plotting revenge.

Alas, my trip had come to an end. My last stop was Pisa. With a requisite walk up the stairs to the leaning tower's roof-top, I marveled at one of the world's most famous engineering mess-ups and took in one last red-sky filled Tuscan sunset. The coast of Tuscany is an incredible place beautiful people, delicious cuisine, a land filled with history and a passionate and proud people. Not much has changed in a quarter century.

Nabeel Atique is a Professor of Mathematics and Engineering at Antelope Valley College in Los Angeles County.

Photos taken by the writer

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