Depart from Manchester airport early Wednesday morning, taxied by my more than usually understanding wife. It's a direct flight that arrives in Pisa around 2.15. the airport is right next to the station and the next train to Florence is in 30 minutes - perfect! Having paid 6 euros for a pack of batteries for my camera, I was pleasantly surprised to see the train ticket (for a journey of 1 hour 15 minutes) was only e4.95! the journey is enlivened by the glimpses of Italian countryside, with villas built on top of hills and a mountain grange in the background. I reach Florence in the gathering dusk and attempt to follow a map to the flat of Ramin Razani, who has kindly agreed to put me up for a couple of nights. Astonishingly, his flat is only 2 minutes walk from the amazing dome in the centre of the city, in a small complex of ancient flats surrounded by the city centre shops. Inside, you'd never realise where you are, it's so quiet. Ramin and Pepita share a love of music and own the most impressive record collection I've seen in many years. Mostly classical, but there's also jazz, new age and much ethnic music in there.
We talk about origami, music, lamp design, web sites and much more over some excellent gnochi and fresh parmesan. I go for a short tour of the city by night with Pepita, ending up at the famous ponte vecchio - a wonderful old bridge spoilt (for me) by the fact that all the shops on it were jewellery stores, aimed presumably at the many tourists. The next day is spent with more web site discussions and CD burning (legitimate, of course) and a trip to the nearby food market where an impressive range of fresh food is on sale, including pasta made before my very eyes. In a bookshop I see a copy of one of my books translated into Italian, so I'm obliged to buy a copy for my bookshelf. Later on I take a long ramble around the city. Too long, in fact, since my joints are aching by the time I stagger back to the flat!
Herman Van Goubergen arrives to share the hospitality. It's nice to be able to lapse back into English for a little while. I feel guilty taking advantage of Herman's fluency in several languages - he's taken the time and effort to learn them, but then opens himself up to act as a verbal go-between for almost everyone at the convention, as does Julia Palfy - another gifted linguist. I resolve to continue my Italian lessons in the New Year! The evening takes an exciting turn when Ramin hops back in having been knocked off his scooter. Although there's no visible damage to his foot (which the scooter landed on), he's in pain, so is taken to the hospital for an x-ray. Around midnight he returns with a knee-length pot - a bone in his foot was indeed broken. Despite the accident and the fact that the person who knocked him off simply drove away, he seems in good spirits. The only problem is how to cope with the convention (about 8 kms away), since he can no longer travel by scooter. Pepita obtains both crutches and a wheelchair and Ramin books a room for Saturday night.
Friday is spent exploring the narrow streets and classic styling of Florence, avoiding the legions of scooter users whenever possible. Lots of beggars, mostly knelt in a praying position, which looks very tiring to maintain all day. Like many people, I find it impossible to distinguish real need and can't solve the world's poverty single-handedly, but I give some euros to a few people who instinct tells me are genuine. They're probably all genuine - I can't imagine people actively choose this lifestyle if other alternatives were available. What a world we inhabit. Come 6.30 I take my case and hie me to the Hotel Della Rosa, where the courtesy coach stops to collect visitors to the Holiday Inn. (or should do - more later!). I meet Robert and Diane Lang, David Lister, Andrea Thanner & several more regular convention junkies.
We are booked in for the main meal Friday evening and a friendly affair it is too. Serve yourself and a wide variety of choices on offer. As a veggy (one of only two out of the 160 odd guests!) I ask the waitress what choices are on offer - she indicates a set of 8 trays. On closer examination, 3 have prawns and one has chicken. I'm obliged to poke and prod each plate in an embarrassing fashion to see what lurks beneath the pasta or greenery. Like many places, veggy = no meat, so chicken & fish are deemed to be acceptable. Still, there was so much I managed to fill my plate without difficulty. At least twice.
Now comes the fun - what have I learned from my 8 Italian evening classes? Precious little it seems. I can easily ask where the nearest campsite is, or give directions to the post office, not to mention telling people all about myself (such fascinating data as age, brothers, sisters, where I live etc) but fail to manage anything resembling a conversation. "Come stai?" "Bene grazie". Strained silence. Still, there's no finer way to tackle a language then to immerse yourself in it.
Since the convention starts in the afternoon (it extends through Monday, a local holiday) Saturday morning is spent chilling, watching people arrive and the hordes of volunteers running about organising a wide variety of events. Unlike the BOS, there seem to be lots of people willing to devote time and energy to organising and helping, although I discover, like ourselves, it's actually the same people year after year. Everyone seems to know what they are doing and there's a list of "who to speak to for specific problems" on the wall. The organising team consists of Luigi and Raffaele Leonardi,
To give you some idea of the effort involved, every attendee is divided up into one of four teams and the first challenge is to fold your teams symbol (one of four letters). You then must identify the competition models. These consist of text instructions for two models, cut with crimping scissors so each person has one strip from 20. They must seek out the rest of their team to gather these instructions, then figure out which model they explain. To make life fun, half the text is in Italian, the other half in English. Once the models are figured out, you have to devise a play, explaining how one of these models was used as a murder weapon and the other, well, I never quite worked that out. The four plays are to be performed Sunday night and the winners will get a prize. This is taken very seriously by all the teams, who do their best to cheat and generally mislead the other teams. Our team leader, Paulo stands back whilst Sara spends the night writing a complete play from scratch. More later!
The afternoon kicks off with Robert Lang (my fellow invitee) and myself in a large room, whilst four other sessions are run in the large hall. I start to assemble a book of Italian folding phrases to work with, whilst Robert delivers his instructions in well-enunciated American. My teaching, not known for speed of delivery, slows down as I wrap my tongue round the language.
One excellent cock-up is the use of "reinterata" (reverse) - if you pronounce it "intrata", all is well. If you stress the "e" with interata", it has some thing to do with burial (interring). Still, many of those at the table help me out and we get through without tears. Two hours fly by and I break for a quick shower, followed by more folding. Robert and myself have a few tables upon which to display our wares. I have to say (and you'll be shocked to hear) , there's a fair old stylistic variation between my work and Roberts. His, consumately folded, represents state of the art in technical folding, but also shows a delicacy of touch and finesse (as much as possible on a long-horned stag beetle) not usually associated with this type of work. In short, superb stuff.
What a happy planet we inhabit where my stylised and low-tech designs can co-exist alongside these masterpieces without embarrassment. I mull this over with Robert and he is charming about my work, whilst unfailingly humble about his own. He knows the quality of his work, but as with many origami artists, lets the paper do the talking whilst others heap the praise on. How many creative types can you say that about? Saturday night sees communal eating, followed by folding until the small hours. Being an old git, I slip of around midnight.
Sunday follows a similar pattern, non-stop folding, with forays to the supplies room, where lots of Italian origami books catch my eye. In the end, I invest in Lang's new epic, Origami Design Secrets. The prospect of having it signed by the author make sit an irresistable buy. I notice they have copies of one of my books, translated into Italian. I don't have a copy in this language, so invested in a copy earlier whilst in Florence. It's sad that authors don't get these automatically, but there you go. I do a fair amount of autograph signing - it's always a pleasure to fell important, even if you aren't! during the day we rehearse our play that Sara Gian-Russo has lovingly written. In order to sway the judges, we write the script in English onto a toilet roll, which is then scrolled across the front of the stage during the performance. The star of our show is a young man called Yuri Carminati, who seems to do everything at 90 km an hour. He has a passing resemblance to Harry Potter, so is an instant leading man in the saga of "Harry Potter in the court of the Samurai". I won't go into any more details, except to say that Edwin Corrie and I are roped in as "British Samurai warriors" I bet you now wish you'd been there ;)
There's a general meeting which I catch the gist of with help from Mr Corrie. It seems that year after year, the council ask for volunteers to help with the running of the CDO. Year after year, these volunteers are thin on the ground, so the same people have to do the same work. Some of the council have been doing their job for 20 years! So this year, they appear to be announcing a mass retirement in order to get some response. We have the same kind of problems in the BOS (as, probably, do all societies) so instead of seeing young, enthusiastic people joining the council, it's the same old (and tired) faces each time. It may be that with relatively small numbers of members, you're never going to find a stream of new blood, but it would be great if people came forward more often to offer time and effort.
The plays are performed Sunday night as part of a review including songs, speeches and a genial magician from Germany who mixes all available languages to talk us thorough his illusions ("nussing here, nussing zere, nussing anywhere"). We also have the awards for the "Flower for Nilva" competition. Nilva Pillan was a much loved member of the CDO who passed away last year. Her passion was origami flowers, so we were invited to create a flower for her. Her husband was present and seemed much moved by the show of love. He earlier cut a huge cake in her honour during the meal. We also fold giant sunflowers for the group photo in her honour. The highlight of the plays (for me) is a scene where a woman is stood behind a table strewn with origami models, apparently selling them. She calls for her "magic globe" with which to predict the future and a gleaming bald head rises from the table. She carefully polishes this and peers into it, before pressing it into her groin in a moment of sheer passion. I kid you not. The fact that I can hardly follow a word doesn't diminish the pleasure one little bit. All four plays are amazing, inspired, entertaining and all worthy of winning. However, only one team wins and they get free CDO t-shirts, as well as all the glory. Pasquale D'Auria seems genuinely surprised his action-packed epic didn't take first place.
Monday is a local holiday, so the folding continues unabated, except for a few hardy souls who haven't been to sleep since Saturday morning - one shown right, lulled to sleep no doubt by my boring book. They lounge on settees looking shell shocked after a mammoth folding session. There's no formal ending (or I miss it!) and people drift away with lots of hugs and kisses. As always towards the end of a convention, the mood is subdued and even a little sad, but also joyous and fulfilled. There's always a deal of travelling to be done, but you're reliving the wonderful memories of the weekend and looking forward towards a hot bath and an early night.
I'd like to thank you all for inviting me as a guest and for giving me such
a wonderful time in Italy. I'm sure it won't be the last time visit I make!