Two Italians go to London…


If you’re looking for the photo albums from my trip to London, you can find them here:

Note that each photo has a short caption explaining what it is about.


I am not a traveler, in fact this was effectively my first trip as an adult. I come from a pretty small town of barely fifty thousand souls in central Italy. London always held a great significance to me, for personal reasons which I’m not going to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I visited it when I was a teenager during the summers of 1998 and 1999: we stayed in Egham (Surrey) but we were taken to London and other places nearby several times. My view of London is overly biased, and is not unlike the blind love for a soul mate; I am aware that it has many issues and that I am willingly refusing to see them. I have no interest in how it compares to other big cities: London to me is the benchmark, and nothing will change my opinion of that. And yes, I know that Tokyo has fast trains, and I couldn’t care less.

My plans for a trip to London go back a long, long way. When I say that, I literally mean that I’ve been planning this for years. Following certain personal events in 2015, I had originally planned to go in the spring of that year but I was unable to; same for the fall (or autumn, if you will). I ended up postponing it to the late winter of 2016, specifically March, due to a combination of low prices for flights and accommodation, and the fact that I found someone who would come with me. My travel companion was going to be Marco, a long time friend from school and historian. We booked a hotel in the summer of 2015 — I kid you not — and then another in the fall, leaving the decision on which one to choose to later on, since we had free cancellation anyway. We only booked the flight in December, as we would have lost the money on that, had we canceled. Spoiler alert: no cancellation took place, except for the first hotel. We decided to stay at the Victor Hotel in Pimlico. That’s about a mile from Buckingham Palace, by the way.

DAY 1: March 9, 2016 (Wednesday)

The flight was quite late in the day, at 20:45, and went pretty smoothly. It was Marco’s first flight, so I refrained from funny (?) comments such as “uh oh that noise doesn’t sound right” and I just thought “full throttle, V1, rotate” in my mind. I was concerned I might get a little sick due to my inclination to develop migraines when pressure changes suddenly, but a small dose of preventative ibuprofen, as suggested by my friend Dr. Mauro, took care of that. Not being a regular traveler, I didn’t find Ryanair anywhere near as hideous as what I had heard; then again I’m not picky about travel, plus I’m short and I fit comfortably in the tightish seat. It’s a bus with wings, really (though not an Airbus as it was a Boeing 737-800, ha-ha; ahem…)

Flying at night was an interesting ordeal. I thought I’d see more lights than I did, which was a bit of a disappointment, but when passing over patches of clear sky I could make out the pale contour of small islands of light. I found it poetic, in an odd way: I had absolutely no clue where we were (apparently “airplane mode” tends to kill the GPS as well, or perhaps I didn’t wait enough to get a lock on actual satellites) yet each sparkling light underneath us felt to me like it was telling a story. Very occasionally I was able to see some light moving, and my mind wondered: who is that? where are they going? what are they doing? where are their families? This is a game I’ve been playing ever since I was a kid, I have to admit, and it would pop into my mind pretty often during my stay in London.

The landing was, all things considered, pretty good. It took us a long time to get from the plane to the arrivals gate, or whatever it’s called, for Stansted is pretty much a labyrinth. We just followed others at a swift pace as I was concerned that someone might run away with my luggage, so I wanted to fetch it as soon as possible. Reminder: this was my first flight as an adult, so I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect at any point during the whole ordeal.

We had originally planned to go through the automated checks, and indeed we brought passports specifically for that, but we wound up at the “manual” border check. A very British man quickly checked our passports and I stood there slightly confused for a split second as I wasn’t sure what to do, so I asked and he was — this would later become a pattern — very kind and explained the next steps. I quickly found the screen with the information about the luggage retrieval, waited for my flight to be associated to a number, and ran to the belt with that number. My suitcase came out quickly and I immediately recognized it thanks to the bright green tag I had bought for this purpose, and we went on our way. We first stopped at an exchange office to ask if we could have some £50 notes split into smaller ones, but the lady only said she could split one, so I went for the £20 that was half mine and half my friend’s. Oh well.

Getting to the train was interesting: after asking the Stansted Express ticket office how to get to the train, we basically almost went out of the airport down a ramp that was barely painted at all, and onto the platform which was relatively modern. We just kept walking and an officer, or whatever he would be called, asked for the ticket, which he barely looked at and let us in. I asked if the train had a bathroom and he said it also had a kitchen and a living room; ah, British humour! It did have a bathroom, incidentally, and a science-fictionish one at that!

The trip to central London was pleasant and surprisingly bumpless. I was even able to call my parents over Facetime using the train’s wi-fi, which came in handy as I wasn’t sure how much of the 2 GB of 4G data I would use during the week.

Once out of the Liverpool Street station, I used Uber for the first time, since it’s not available where I live. We stood there waiting for a few minutes until I realized that perhaps, just perhaps, the car showing on the map as being a few hundred yards from us may have been ours. I went up to it and indeed it was: we were just standing where it couldn’t stop. Our driver, Ahmad, was very kind and told us that he’s been living in London for 28 years now and wouldn’t trade it for any other place. His wife suggested moving just out of London, and he told her: “If you want to go, you go; I stay here.” He also complained about the congestion charge when we passed 10 Downing St., saying that “they’re greedy”, and that while he currently doesn’t have to pay it as he has a Prius, he may be eventually charged too at some point. When a car in front of us got confused and he honked at them, I said “ah, that’s the same everywhere” and he quickly remarked “no, he’s from Poland!”. Only in London an Arab can have a go at a Pole! It made me laugh.

The check-in at the hotel was pretty swift: Alvaro explained a few things to us, asked which of the two breakfast sessions we’d be going to, and gave us a bunch of leaflets and maps. The room, three floors up, was pretty good… except the floorboard squeaked somewhat, and the heating was pretty high. The first night wasn’t the best, but it definitely improved later on.

DAY 2: March 10, 2016 (Thursday)

After breakfast, we went to the Pimlico station to get our Oyster cards loaded with a Travelcard. For those who have no idea what I just wrote: an Oyster card is a contactless card that’s used to get in and out of the Underground (aka the Tube) and on buses. London is split into concentric zones going from 1 all the way to 9, and a Travelcard is a weekly or monthly pass that allows unlimited travel within the zones it’s registered for. Travelcards can be paper or paperless, in that they can be “loaded” onto the Oyster. This is where things started to become slightly complicated: the machine wouldn’t take £50 notes, which we had a bunch of (well okay, not really “a bunch”, but definitely several) so we had to hunt around places to change them. That’s more easily said than done, especially at 9 in the morning when shops have empty cash registers. In any event, we managed to get the money changed and the Oyster issued and the Travelcard loaded.

We just took a first trip to the next station, Victoria, to be sure everything was fine. It was. This is also where we learned that the Tube has lots, and I really mean lots, of stairs. There are escalators here and there, but generally speaking you can expect to go up and down many flights of stairs.

We also learned that the Brits are pretty serious about rules: if you’re standing on an escalator, you must stand on the right; the left side is reserved for those in a rush who walk up or down the stairs. This struck me as odd: I would have expected that overtaking would happen on the right, just like on the streets there, but that’s not the case; apparently escalators work differently, while corridors match the roads and you’re usually, but not always, expected to stay on the left. It’s kind of confusing, really. Speaking of streets: there are lots of traffic lights, and most of them are for pedestrians. They’re everywhere, and they all have a button for pedestrian to request a red light to the cars in order to cross. In the most crowded places, pedestrians even get a countdown telling them how many seconds are left to cross before risking their lives.

During our first day, we saw quite a few landmarks: the Big Ben was almost overwhelming when we found ourselves basically right under it. We also saw the London Eye (aka the giant wheel), though from the other side of the river. We passed near Buckingham Palace — which I dubbed Duckingham Palace since the fountains had ducks in it — and took a stroll in a park whose name escapes me which had a lot of seagulls, pigeons, crows, swans, pelicans (!) and other very weird birds I had never seen before; then again it’s not like I’m an ornithologist. We then just kept browsing around and during the afternoon we went to grab a hot chocolate in a place near the Tower of London where we were served by… an Italian girl. That’s another pattern: basically no English people work in shops: the only English people I saw running shops were things like Twinings, a bookshop we visited later on, and a few others. It’s full of foreigners everywhere, and it’s a really a beautiful thing to me. Definitely different from what I’m used to. We also, as mentioned, went to the historic Twinings shop on Strand, which was another pilgrimage I had meant to do. We even half-crossed the Tower Bridge, which was so full of people (and of metal) that mobile reception was poor.

A funny moment was when we went to a souvenir shop and I asked the Arab (?) owner if I could pay with a £50 note, and he said “yes, I like fifties”. I was thankful and told him not many take them, and he said “that’s because they don’t know what to do with them.”

During the afternoon, Marco’s Oyster card mysteriously stopped working: it involved calling the customer service phone number, where we were told it could only be done the next morning, so he just got another one with some cash credit on it. On the other hand, we also saw a bunch of people chanting Hare Hare Krishna in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.

DAY 3: March 11, 2016 (Friday)

First things first: we called Transport for London again and we sorted out the Travelcard issue, which involved requesting a transfer of it to the new card the next day, and for the day Marco had to top up more cash on his new Oyster; there is a daily cap after which you travel for free, so it wasn’t too expensive.

The day involved going to the British Museum, which was a long-awaited visit for both of us. Of course we got lost multiple times on our way there, which was absolutely great because there are a lot of lovely shops around that area (which would technically be just out of Soho, or something; I’m honestly not sure), including a delightful antique bookshop — one of many, actually — where I stared in awe and bought a 1972 copy of Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men and Last Men in London. Then we found a giant shop called Forbidden Planet which could just as easily be called Nerd Paradise. I found a set of Sonic fridge magnets and a Sonic mug; could I pass the opportunity? Of course not.

Anyway, we toured the British Museum at large with great pleasure, and I have to say that going with a historian makes the visit particularly pleasant because, especially for things related to his specific area of expertise, it was like having a personal tour guide. Grazie, Marco! We spent so much time there that we even had lunch there, and this is where my brain short circuited and I forgot I’m shy and an introvert and told the beautiful Greek girl behind the counter that she had a gorgeous smile, which made her smile and prove my point further. Unfortunately my brain rewired itself before I could chicken away from saying goodbye, but hey, as someone pointed out I may have just made her day which is really all I was going for. Spoiler alert: I did this again later on, because if I don’t do things I’m not used to when I’m in London, then when am I?

Before entering the museum, by the way, there was a guy with an eagle. I kid you not, a real eagle, trained to fly around and perch on a street lamp and go back to his arm. In the spirit of talking to people at every opportunity, I just walked up to him and took a close up photo, and asked how old the bird way. Three years old, he said. I asked if it was hard to train them, and he very matter-of-factly stated that it is not, provided you know what you’re doing. Well, that does make sense, doesn’t it?

After the tour at the museum, we stopped at a small camera-themed cafe/museum; we didn’t visit it but we posted our postcards in it and I had a chat with the guy behind the counter while Marco wrote his own postcards.

DAY 4: March 12, 2016 (Saturday)

The day of “we should have planned this better”. Destination: Science Museum and Natural History Museum! South Kensington! Flower pots in the station! Springtime! Weekend! There’s the problem. An incredibly long (and, to Italian eyes, incredibly ordered) queue to enter the Natural History Museum left us surprised. We decided to skip it and come to it later, and crossed our fingers that the Science Museum wouldn’t be too bad. Thankfully the queue there was nowhere near as bad and we got in pretty quickly.

Now, you must know that the Science Museum was on the of the places I had originally wanted to see back in 1998-99, but didn’t manage to. We only had a few hours when they took us to London, and none of my friends at the time was into science as much as I already was, so it just didn’t happen then. Well, it happened this time and it was an absolute blast. We toured it all, and I’m sure I must have looked like a kid in a candy store because I caught myself involuntarily dropping my jaw open at, well, everything.

I mean… I got to see the capsule that the Apollo 10 crew flew in. That includes my astronaut hero, Capt. John Young. I got to see a Ford Model T. I got to see machine that hosted the first web server in history. I got to see an Apple Lisa. I got to see replicas of all sorts of aircraft. I got to see a machine used by the US Army during WW2 for weird psychology tests. I got to see a vintage electroconvulsive therapy device. The “Information Age” exhibit was literally the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I would go again, and again, and again because I want to read every single label on every single item there.

They had a hands-on bench where a lady was explaining to a man slightly older than me and had a baby about the history of phones. I chimed in — no pun intended — and I spent probably half an hour just talking with them about the history of communication technology. We talked about telegrams, rotary phones, GPS. The lady even told me I don’t sound Italian, which to me is a huge compliment. I absolutely, utterly and completely loved the Science Museum. I even put a pound and a penny into one of those machines that flatten and deform and emboss the penny and now I have my own custom made souvenir of it. I don’t think words can even remotely explain how much I loved visiting the museum.

After that, we peeked at the Natural History Museum and saw that the queue was still long, and opted to skip it. We went around the area and ended up in Hyde Park, which we basically crossed through. Lots of ducks and swans, and people in pedal boats in the lake, and a chilly air.

After a break in the hotel in the afternoon, we decided to go for a walk again at night. The air was a little chilly but we got to see our friends the Big Ben, the London Eye and more at night, which was a lovely treat. We also wound up by accident in the City, where we stumbled across the headquarters of Scientology — and took a funny photo which apparently annoyed the man inside, because he rushed towards the floor while we swiftly walked away laughing — and hunted for the Millennium Bridge, which turned out to be a bit of a wobbly disappointment; then again, its peculiar structure looks better from the side, not the top. I also bought another souvenir from a small kiosk whose owner greeted me in Spanish but didn’t look like he came from a Spanish-speaking country, so I asked where he was from and he said he was from Sri Lanka. I have absolutely no idea why he was speaking Spanish.

DAY 5: March 13, 2016 (Sunday)

Another day where thinking ahead might have proven a good idea. We went to Covent Garden and Camden Town, which are as touristy as can get especially on weekends. Covent Garden was absolutely lovely and we peeked at several shops (including a vintage toy shop), and we stopped to see a group of ladies playing music (they’re called Lotus Classics, if anyone’s interested). Then we just browsed around some more, pretty much randomly. Camden Town on the other hand was literally packed, and we learned that if something on sale doesn’t have a price tag, it’s best not to ask, because the sellers have a technique to kind of trap you in!

The conversation usually goes like this. “How much is this?” “Twenty pounds.” “Oh that’s too much.” “Which one do you like? I’ll give you a discount.” “Thanks but I don’t really need it.” “Don’t worry, just tell me which one you like the best” “Well, this one, but I’m not buying” “I can do fifteen for you because the boss is not around” “No, seriously, I don’t need it” “Twelve pounds” (At this point you start wondering how much margin they have if they sell for the original twenty…) Then you say something like “Look, I’ll come back and get it later” and they frown at you because they know you’re lying. This happened several times to us, including with a guy who sold very odd sound-sensitive shirts: not only the shop was basically a darkened basement, he started switching languages when I said it was too much. The sign said “originally £60, today only £30” (yeah sure!), the whole exchange above took place again, and then it went like this: “I would never wear it” “Where are you from?” “I’m from Italy, why?” “Quindici! Let’s do quindici!”…

An interesting area of Camden Town is the Stables Market, which, as you may imagine, used to be an actual barn. The only horse right now is just a bronze statue of one being shoed by a bronze blacksmith, and there are many little shops all around. We crossed it all and took the exit on the far end, except we ended up in a parking lot with gigantic satellite dishes (clearly for upstream communications). As I found out later on, that was property of the Associated Press news agency. Talk about random discoveries!

We then went to Kings Cross station to peek at Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4 and the official Harry Potter shop, which, needless to say, were also overcrowded. We also went to Waterloo just to peek at the station and I tried yet another Boots shop (a chain of pharmacies) to find Euthymol toothpaste, which I had been curious about for years, and spoke with a lovely shop assistant. I did make sure to tell her that she was lovely.

DAY 6: March 14, 2016 (Monday)

On Monday we went to one of the destinations I was really looking forward to: Highgate Cemetery. I know, it seems odd that someone would go to London all the way from Italy and put a cemetery on their list of things to see, but those who know me are familiar with my somewhat unusual relationship with these things. Highgate Cemetery is split in two halves: the east part is open to everyone without booking, subject only to a £4 entrance fee, while the west part is only available for guided tours that must be booked in advance. We left the hotel earlier than usual due to the distance, though it didn’t take that long after all. We even finally boarded a bus for just a couple of stops to avoid having to climb up a relatively steep hill.

In order to get to the cemetery from the main street you first have to cross a park, which I found to be almost a different world compared to the street we had just left a minute ago. Mind you, even that street is quite different from central London: we were at the edge between Tube zones 2 and 3, and it showed. The park however was like entering a suddenly quiet place, probably aided by the fact that it was Monday morning and it was also relatively early.

We reached the cemetery just fine and a lady in her 60s was sitting on a bench near the small “shop” at the entrance. She welcomed us and we had a nice chat with her: she gave us a map of the graves, explained where Karl Marx is, where he was, why he was “relocated”, and I asked her a few questions about how the cemetery works, whether there are new burials, and so on. She was incredibly kind and gave us a lot of information, and told us she’d be there in case we had more questions at the end.

The walk through the cemetery can be done quickly, if you follow the map and look for the big names. We decided to take it easier, instead: in part because it truly was incredibly peaceful, and in part because we had been walking a lot the days before and we just weren’t in any rush. One of the closest graves was the one I was most interested in, that is Douglas Adams’ grave. I’m a huge fan of his, and when I had read that people leave pens in a pot next to his tombstone, I decided I’d put my own in. I actually packed my favorite pen from Italy with the very intention of performing this little ritual, and it was lovely to do so. What struck me is that we actually missed the grave and had to walk back. I was expecting something bigger, but it’s literally just a small tombstone mixed with the others that only has his name, his years of birth and death, and “Writer” on it.

After two days of choosing destinations at the wrong time due to the crowd, we had nailed one: there were scarcely any others in the cemetery, and the air was a little chilly but overall acceptable. We spent over an hour just browsing around, reading tombstones, taking pictures, and just… enjoying the cemetery, if you will. We didn’t talk much during that time, as if we were both meditating one step after another.

I found myself both appreciating life (those who know me well are familiar with the mourning I had to deal with in the past) and at the same time accepting death as the only certain thing in life. A few of the tombstones were newer, but many, or I would say most, were much, much older. Some were for people died in the mid-1800s. Some were faded by time and rain and the inscriptions were unreadable. Some had been taken over by ivy and other vines, in some cases to the point that you could only guess there was a tombstone behind that veil of leaves. Many people who lived before penicillin and vaccines died very early, with many kids aged just a few months. I said earlier that I often think about where everyone is going, what everyone’s life story is: I thought about that a lot when in London, coming across so many different people everywhere, and I did so when walking in Highgate as well. What did those people do? What were their dreams and hopes? How did they cope with a six-month-old baby dying, especially in Victorian England?

I kept thinking about two things: Totò’s story in rhyme about death, “A livella”, which tells about how death is the thing that ultimately makes people equal; and Dream Theater’s “The Spirit Carries On”, especially the line where Victoria says “Move on, be brave, don’t weep at my grave, because I am no longer here; but please never let your memory of me disappear.”

After speaking with the lady again and asking more questions, we went to Euston station (we basically hit all the big stations just because we could), and just walked around the area. I entered a camera shop where a nice man noticed my camera and when I said I was just peeking in he said “That’s not a problem, conversations cost nothing.” Next to that was a small pharmacy run by an Indian couple where I did finally find the Euthymol; when I pointed out I had been looking all around London for it, the lady said “Now you know where you can find it.” Fair enough! For reference, that would be Grafton Pharmacy at 132 Tottenham Court Rd, as it says on the price sticker.

After a break at the hotel, my friend Cristina — who is originally from Genoa but has been living in London for a while — came over to Pimlico and we went to a pub near our hotel called The Constitution, which I admittedly keep thinking of as The Constipation. We had a nice night, with lots of chatter and laughter. It was nice to meet her in person after talking with her online for quite a while!

DAY 7: March 15, 2016 (Tuesday)

After the weekend experience, we had decided to skip the Royal Observatory due to it being quite out of the way: while there would be other things to see in the area in case the queue were too long or something, we preferred to give another try to the National History Museum. Had that failed again as well, we could have more easily gone somewhere else.

We got to the museum before the opening and, following the advice I had gotten from a friend online, went directly for the side entrance. The queue was relatively long, but it started moving very swiftly once the gate opened. At the door, entrance was staggered and we were welcomed by a guy promoting the official book/guide in the tone you would expect from a paperboy of yesteryear. When we got near the door, I complimented him on the good speech he had delivered!

The museum was lovely, but I have to be honest: I didn’t enjoy it as much as, say, the British Museum. Perhaps it was because we had walked a lot the days before, perhaps it was because I had seen a very nice documentary with and by Sir David Attenborough set there so it felt already familiar, perhaps it was because the place was literally overrun by primary school classes (the British Museum had many of those as well, but they were comparatively fewer and way better behaved.) I don’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did enjoy it a lot. I even got into the “Creepy Crawlies” exhibit deliberately even though I generally don’t like those that much. It’s just that it wasn’t the most peaceful of visits, as there were so many people that it was impossible to read labels comfortably, let alone use the interactive tools. Suffice it to say that walking through the dinosaur exhibit was more like crawling through it!

In any case, after that we went back to one of the most commercial areas (Regent St., etc.) and ended up in Carnaby Street, which I found to be quite different from how it was back in 1999. My memory might be failing me, but at the time it had small shops, whereas now there are bigger stores by big brand names such as H&M, Vans and the like.

We even peeked at Choccywoccydoodah, a renowned chocolate shop, which prompted a friend of mine to text me the phrase “OMG EAT ALL THE CHOCOLATE”. Unfortunately the prices are as expensive as the name is complicated, and I bought nothing.

DAY 8: March 16, 2016 (Wednesday)

The final day. We were supposed to check out by 11 am, and since the flight was at 4:50 pm, we decided to take it easy and aim straight for the airport. When checking out, I told the lady at the reception that I didn’t really want to leave, and I meant it. I would have loved to do something else on the last day, but going around with a luggage was pointless anyway and the area were we stayed was just full of hotels, so there was no way to really do that and also risk being late. The problem is that we kind of underestimated how efficient Brits are when it comes to trains, and we got to Stansted by 11. I couldn’t drop my suitcase for check-in until 1:50 pm, which meant we basically sat on the floor and got bored for two hours. After that, time went just a tiny little bit faster, until the moment the gate was slated to open. It turns out that staring at airport screens waiting for a line to change from “Gate opens at 16:05” to “Go to gate 47” literally slows time down. When I boarded the plane and the flight attendant saw my boarding pass, I begged her to “please find something wrong with this because I don’t want to go home”. She laughed and welcomed me aboard. There went my last hope!

The return flight was just as uneventful, only a bit more boring since the destination was home, not adventure.


This trip, for me, was much more than just a holiday in London. Many things happened in the past year especially that prompted me to finally get on with this long-time dream of mine. Few people know exactly what I’m talking about, and that’s fine. I am not tired of London, however, and I never will; I’m already planning another trip and I’m going again as soon as I have a chance. I owe it to myself, for various personal reasons.

For someone living in a small town like mine, London can be daunting and scary; yet for me it almost felt home after just a couple of days. In many ways, this trip meant so much to me because several small things contributed to the feeling of coming full circle, including smashing my personal record of distance walked in a single day.

I saw people from virtually all countries, heard all accents, stolen pieces of conversations between strangers, glimpsed at laughter and anger. It was a week in which I truly felt part of a world condensed in a city that, in the words of both my friend Cristina and the Uber driver, is full of opportunities if you are willing to fight for them.

The Tube is especially a cross-section of the wider humanity that lives, or works, or just deals with this amazing city that I am ever more in love with. I saw a woman get on the train and smile when reading something on her phone: her eyes lit up with love. I saw a baby wearing plastic pink sunshades in her stroller while she enjoyed a lollipop and tried take her big scarf off, then proudly show the bare lollipop stick to her mother when she was done. I saw a black woman making small talk, but the genuine kind of it (if that makes any sense), with an elderly white lady. I saw a rockabilly pinup girl fixing her makeup on the train. I saw the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen stand two feet from me and get off the train one stop before mine. I saw a clearly divorced father take his two kids somewhere on a Sunday, trying his best to make them happy and conceal a veil of sadness. I saw a guy tap another guy’s shoulder to alert him that he had dropped his wallet on the empty seat between them. I understood why newspapers tend to be smaller there: they are easier to read on the train. At the airport I saw a middle-eastern woman wearing a veil and high-fiving her son who had just finished his meal. It’s stuff that should be normal, but that I don’t get to see here. For someone like me who’s always felt more of a citizen of the world, it was beyond refreshing.

Leaving all of that to go back to my small town, my routine, my work was difficult; not just because the holiday was over, but because in many ways I had felt liberated when abroad. I have many reasons to go back, and I’m not going to wait another seventeen years this time. Who’s coming with me?


When I was there, I took notes on things I noticed that seemed unusual or peculiar to me. In no particular order, I’m leaving there in case anyone is curious about what captured my curiosity.

  • Very few people have pets. I only saw a handful dogs and only one cat, the latter in the cemetery (alive).
  • Few people smoke, at least during the day. The situation changes slightly in the financial district, probably because those people are the only ones who can afford the high prices of tobacco in the UK.
  • Many people go around with ridiculously huge headphones. The funny thing is that most of them are beats headphones, which are actually pretty low quality.
  • Everything in the UK is much more internet-oriented. Even TV adverts refer to the internet way more often than they do here. This is not surprising in the slightest; if anything, it’s saddening for those of us stuck here.
  • Biscuits/cookies are not sold in bags, only in boxes. This is very disappointing because nothing’s more fulfilling that dipping your hand into a cookie bag and digging for one.
  • Virtually every building has a basement floor that’s inhabited or otherwise used. I am not sure if that was planned from the beginning or adapted by necessity, but it’s really pretty much everywhere.
  • There is a surprising obsession with fire. Every other door is marked as a fire door. There are fire exits everywhere. Even the site of Transport for London has a section about what to do if your Oyster card is damaged by fire. I suppose that London never really got over the great fire of 1666.
  • The trains of the Tube are slowly being upgraded. Some of them are so old that they have red LEDs for the screens, most of them are amber. Some have the indications on the sides, which is a little harder to read, while the newer ones have them across the train so that they’re readable by anyone. The most modern ones have no doors between the carriages and they look like they’re never-ending.
  • Alcoholism is pretty much a social norm. There are many shops everywhere focused exclusively on wine and spirits, and I saw a woman with a can of beer and a baby in the stroller.
  • Someone should come up with a mini-roller for easily spreading jam on toasts; a small resistor would be a great way to heat up butter.
  • The air displacement caused by a train exiting a tunnel at an underground station can be massive. Note to self: such wind could be used for a photoshoot.
  • Knowing your way around the map, including cardinal points, helps a lot with the Tube. This is because most indications include the direction, so knowing if you’re going north or south can save you quite some time.
  • Old men in a pub during a football (soccer) match speak a variety of English that only they understand.
  • Street performers love Covent Garden, Camden Town, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and just big Tube stations. It remains to be seen how much it helps for their career.
  • You can spot Italians from a distance because they usually move completely randomly, stop in the middle of the way, naturally refuse to follow instructions and instinctively try to get themselves killed by crossing the road when they should not.
  • St James’s Park station stinks. No idea why. There must be a leak from a nearby sewer.
  • The big advertising banners in the Tube are probably updated overnight when a campaign is over. I wonder how that will work if the Tube ever starts operating through the night across the whole week.
  • The voice announcing the next stop also says which side the doors will open. It may seem like an insignificant detail, but on a system that carries over a billion people per year, it makes a huge difference.
  • The District line is quieter than the others.
  • There are very few old people.
  • Taking photos of famous monuments is an excruciating exercise in patience due to the sheer amount of cars and people obscuring the view.
  • There are some areas where people just run: Temple, for instance. I saw more people running there than in Hyde Park.
  • There are often small yellow signs with what looks like an H and two or three numbers. Turns out they report the distance and size of the nearest fire hydrant. London really is obsessed with fire!
  • A lot of advertising uses the same font, reminiscent of Arial Rounded.

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ABS Podcast – Episode 5: Planned Obsolescence

Did you think I wasn’t going to publish the podcast anymore? WRONG!

I’m back, and with a mammoth episode for good measure: a whopping 57 minutes that will guide you through the intricacies and nuances of how everything man-made gets old, and how we can learn to avoid the frustration caused by being unable to update a phone we bought just a few years before.

I focus mostly on technological devices, but I also compare them with cars, fridges, and even a Boeing 787 aircraft just because I love planes and I actively look for any random excuse to talk about them.

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Links of interest mentioned in the episode:

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Voxer: free walkie talkie app for smartphones

(For those of you addicted to the podcast, don’t worry! It’s not over yet. I haven’t had a chance to make any more episodes lately but I will resume shortly.)

I often talk to people about Voxer, a free app for smartphones that I find incredibly useful. I am going to describe it in a little more detail, because the official website can be slightly confusing.

The short version: Voxer is a free walkie-talkie app. But that’s just part of the story. Whereas a traditional walkie-talkie, by definition, requires that all parties involved are ‘tuned in’ at the same time, Voxer doesn’t have that requirement, and mixes live broadcasting with traditional audio messaging.

This sets it apart from any other app that supports voice messages, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and whatnot. With those, a 3-minute message requires a 6-minute turnaround time, minimum: 3 minutes for the sender to record it and 3 minutes for the receiver to listen to it, plus whatever time it takes to transmit it. There’s no way around it, as the message needs to be fully delivered in order to be played, and it needs to be fully recorded in order to be delivered in the first place.

Voxer takes a completely different approach. Person A starts recording a message (with no set duration) and Person B receives a notification immediately. At this point, one of three things can happen:

  • Person B already has the Voxer app open when Person A starts talking: the message is played live, with no delay.
  • Person B has the Voxer app closed and only opens it only when Person A is done talking: the message is stored and is essentially a voicemail.
  • Person B opens the Voxer app for instance 1 minute into the recording: Person B starts playing the message form the beginning while Person A keeps recording; of course, Person B will finish listening to the message 1 minute after Person A is done recording.

There are a few caveats, however. First of all, Voxer is not for phone calls: it’s half-duplex, meaning that you either talk or you listen. This is actually a good thing, because it’s more personal than text messages but way less invasive than calls. Also, while on iPhone the default setting is to use the record button in a “sticky” way (tap once to start recording, tap once to stop), which is arguably more convenient, on Android the default setting appears to be push-to-talk (tap and hold to start recording, release to stop); this can be changed in the settings for each individual chat, rather than for the app as a whole.

The app will automatically find your contacts who also use it when you first install it. On Android it does so by reading your contact list and own phone number automatically, while on iOS it asks for you for your number. If you don’t want to do this, you can just use a fake number, such as 555-111-2222 (note however that if anyone has that number in their list, you will show up as a contact to them.)

Other than by matching contacts, you can find people via their Voxer username. By default this is something really ugly such as “johnsmi1234”, but you can change it (or just find out what yours is) by going to “My profile”. Note that in previous versions of Voxer this required a paid subscription, but can now be done for free.

It also supports group chats up to 15 people and Apple Watch for iOS users, and you can exchange images and text messages within the app as well. As a bonus, if you have a headset with an action button (including Bluetooth ones) you can use that to control the recording.

There is also a Pro version that costs $2.99/mo and gives you additional features, but most people will be perfectly fine with the free version if they use Voxer for personal use.

Voxer is available for free for iOS (App Store), Android (Play Store) and Windows Phone (WP Store). Of course, it requires a data connection — Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G/LTE — in order to work.


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ABS Podcast – Episode 4: Patch For Episodes 1–3

Welcome to a brand new episode of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast! This is a “patch” episode, tying up a few loose ends from episodes 1–3. In particular, this episode covers lunar eclipses, daguerrotypes, and the filter bubble around you on the Internet.

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Links of interest mentioned in the episode:

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ABS Podcast – Episode 3: Privacy Today

Episode 3 of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast deals with a very complex topic: privacy. In this time and age of always-on network access, the concept of privacy is quite different.
Join me on a journey that starts at an Italian supermarket and leads you to learn about the not-so-obvious ways that big corporations are tracking you online.

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ABS Podcast – Episode 2: Photography And Ethics

Here is episode 2 of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast! Thank you so much to everyone who listened to episode 1 and provided feedback, suggestions and ideas. This is very much a work-in-progress for me from many points of view, but it’s something I’m enjoying quite a bit.

This episode is about photography and ethics: what is the line between photo editing and fraud?

There are no links mentioned in the episode, however you may find these interesting:

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ABS Podcast – Episode 1: Eclipses

And so a new podcast is born!

I have no idea where I’ll go with this, nor how often or for how long I will be making it; but for now, enjoy episode 1, all about eclipses!

External links mentioned in the article:

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Reflections of a translator

As many of you know, I am slightly obsessed about languages. About a year ago, I began turning such passion into a job, and started working for several translation agencies; I passed exams and interviews, and my work is regularly reviewed for accuracy.

Despite what some people think and claim, it’s not just a matter of reading in one language and writing in another: especially when dealing with legal or technical documents, even a short text can require a substantial amount of research. Of course, over time it becomes easier, as one learns where to look for reliable information, and simply stockpiles commonly used turns of phrases to look up in a pinch.

I have worked on projects big enough, sometimes for huge companies whose products you most likely use or have used—I cannot be any more specific due to non-disclosure agreements I have signed—to realize, first-hand, that translation is way more than that. Each individual project, no matter how big or small, has its own peculiarities. Translating a mobile app for children requires a different approach compared to the technical manual of a safety valve testing rig, for instance, and a certificate of pending charges has very little in common with the product descriptions of an online shop specialized in DJ equipment.

While mistakes can happen, translation is one field in which striving for perfectionism is a very basic requirement. It is true that once the project is delivered, never hearing again from the client is a good sign (it means everything went fine and no revision is required!), but sloppiness is never a good way to start. This is especially true for certified translations, a field I recently started working on.

Knowing that a translation is going to be certified by the agency means that, as a translator, I represent the agency; and the agency is solemnly claiming, to the full extent of the Law, that the translation faithfully matches the original text. Nothing is allowed to go wrong. And this opens up a whole new can of worms for each project: should I use the American date format, with the month before the day, or the European date format, with the day before the month? Should I use the British or the American spelling, if I’m translating into English? What is the best way to rephrase this without drifting too much from the original, while at the same time being fully clear for the reader? And what if something simply does not exist in the countries where the destination language is spoken?

It can be daunting. And it’s a good idea never to feel too confident, for overconfidence is the root cause of catastrophe (“look ma, no hands! look ma, no teeth!”). I was lucky to have wonderful supervisors and coordinators for all the agencies I work with: they guided me as I took my first few steps and encouraged me, putting up with my incredible level of early paranoia. Sometimes I still worry when I pick up a job: the customer may not be clear in her requests, or something may be unreadable if it’s a scan, or I may just have no idea how to translate a specific passage until I research it in detail.

But I always made it work, and it’s very rewarding on many levels. Sometimes I stop and think about what I do, and what it means to me—why I love it so much. Translation is the ultimate tool for communication. When you speak one language, your message has a limited pool of potential recipients: those who understand that language. By translating it into other languages, the pool grows considerably, and your message gets one step closer to being universally understood.

As a translator, I am enabling people to achieve that goal, whatever their message may be. It’s often commercial in nature: press releases, apps, websites. Sometimes, however, it’s not: I have translated texts for charities, for projects that involved or were targeted at kids. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning, when I almost accidentally picked up one such job; I couldn’t stop myself, and left a comment to the customer simply thanking them for what they were doing, and for allowing me to be a small part of it.

And then of course, there’s the other kind of material: the certified documents that end up on the desks of notaries, lawyers, ambassadors. Each one of these, no matter how small or short, make me feel honored, and that’s for a simple reason: because they all tell a story. Sometimes the customer shares a few basic details: “I need this to apply for citizenship”, or “this is for my son’s passport”. Other times I can infer it: a university transcript is the prime sign that the student is packing to work abroad, for instance.

Yet many times, there’s not enough context to tell what it is for, and my imagination runs wild. I wonder why this person with a French last name is requiring his father’s birth certificate to be translated, or what the property mentioned as being for sale looks like, or whether there is any update on the prognosis described in this medical report. I wonder, and imagine, and dream. Like when I was thrown all the way to a hundred and thirty years ago, trying to read the gorgeous but amazingly cryptic cursive of a birth certificate from the 1890s. That was barely thirty years after Italy was united into a single country. That was before the first modern plane flew. That was before the world knew what the Great War was. That was when school was something for the rich, and the common folk couldn’t even sign a certificate because they simply couldn’t read or write. I have no idea why this stuff needed to be translated, or what the customer’s ultimate goal was; I cannot come up with any reason beyond genealogy research.

But at the end of the day, as curious as I am, I do not even want to know. I’m content with knowing that someone’s communication need was fulfilled, and I was the one who enabled them to do so. That’s why I do this.

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Photography: a time capsule everyone can contribute to

On this fine Sunday morning, I discovered a website that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. It’s called Vintage Everyday, and its tagline reads “bring back nostalgia and memories”. And it does, oh if it does, although technically it’s not even nostalgia: most of us simply don’t remember those times because we just never lived in them. Still, it’s an unbelievable collection that will keep you browsing for hours.

It contains photos of times past: people dressed in the style of their time, billboards with traditional advertising, cities shaped in ways now alien. It’s mesmerizing, and in a different way from sites collecting pictures of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as the appropriately named Old HollywoodVintage Everyday is different because it collects images of everyday people and everyday places, not famous movie stars, and in a sense it shows the human side of history. A similar feeling can be had by browsing one’s own family photo albums, but in that case the familiarity of the faces prevents from observing the surrounding elements: when a photo depicts someone you know, you notice them and don’t pay much attention to what’s around them, or even to the details about themselves. Oftentimes people have pointed out things about my own photos of models that I had completely missed, despite having taken and worked on the image for a while.

A few pages into Vintage Everyday, I had an epiphany that I want to share with you. I noticed that at the time these photos were taken, they probably weren’t that special. Certainly in the 1940s having a camera was not an ordinary thing as it is now, as they were harder and more expensive to operate: I have this romantic idea of a photographer being seen if not as a full-fledged artist, at least as someone with a special ability, so to speak: you couldn’t just pick up a camera and start shooting. A posed portrait, as many of our own family albums clearly show, was a big deal. However, I’m quite confident that all these pictures at the time were just that, pictures. “Oh look, there’s a photo of a lady walking down a New York street.” “Ah, these kids are playing with a make-believe car.” These images, at the time, must have been relatively uninteresting except to the parties involved.

Fast forward a few decades, and they become treasure troves. History gets in the way and gives these photos a whole new meaning. That lady isn’t just walking in New York City, she is walking confidently in New York City; and the workers in the background, blurred in distance to the point that maybe nobody had noticed them before, are stealing a glance at her while unloading crates of fruit from a truck. Is it the first time they see a woman being that confident? It may very well be: times were a-changing. And those kids playing are blissfully enjoying their own fantasy world, oblivious to the fact that their fathers are fighting a war on the other side of the Atlantic; perhaps that’s why their mothers look at them from the kitchen window, undecided between hope and concern.

At the center — or rather at the side — of everything, always the same thing: a camera and a photographer. That’s how everyday history is documented, with rolls of film by unnamed photographers preserving reality for posterity. Every single photo that was ever taken and that will ever be taken is by its very own definition unique, because at any given moment in time and at any given place in space there is room for only one camera. Every time a shutter fires, life as it is right there and right then is immortalized. Time stops as the image becomes a frail and irreplaceable time capsule.

Even a photo that looks plain or boring at first sight may acquire significance over time. Just look around you: how many things have changed in the last ten years? How many benches have been added or removed, how many shops have changed names, how many buildings have been repainted? And how many times have you seen photos from other countries and felt that even seemingly familiar landscapes were not that familiar after all?

The ubiquity of cameras today means that we can effectively document the changes brought by history, virtually without any effort. That doesn’t mean that it’s become a useless process; on the contrary, it means that we are all empowered and we all should use this ability more often and with more dedication, once we grasp how far-reaching this may be.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop taking useless selfies and turn the lens towards the world, so that the generations to come will be able to feel the same nostalgia for a time we never lived in as we do when we look at photos from a century ago.

(Image on top: Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909 — From Vintage Everyday)

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Of art, dreams and goals

What is art? According to, “[art is] the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” That’s a pretty neat definition. Note the last part: “more than ordinary significance”. That means that the viewer, or listener — or more generally, the recipient of art — has to be influenced and affected by the work, for it to be defined art. If that doesn’t happen, it means that it’s not really art after all.

It’s a very subjective matter, of course. For instance I personally don’t like most of Picasso’s works, but I do find his Guernica quite unsettling. It affects me, so to me it is art.

Some say that you have to be “trained” before you can appreciate some kinds of art. I disagree with that: while it is true that some people may learn to “get” it after being exposed to some theory (I still don’t “like” most of Picasso’s works, but I understand them better now), it’s also true that real art should trigger responses so ancestral not to require any training. But does this make it any easier to produce real art? No, not at all; au contraire, mes amis.

It is extremely difficult to come up with something that makes something happen in the recipient’s soul. Whether it’s a piece of music, or a photograph, or a painting, or  a sculpture, or a theatrical act, or a film, or even a comic book, it is hard, extremely hard, to leave a mark.

My favorite painter of all times, Salvador Dalí, was a master at it. He blended perfect technical skills with deep thoughts that reach anybody. You will have a hard time finding someone who says that Dalí wasn’t that good. You may not like surrealism, or you may not like his subjects, but his works… work. Of course, having some training will make it even more amazing, yet it will be accessible to anybody. You don’t need to know the meaning of the melting watches in The Persistence of Memory to appreciate it, and certainly you don’t need to understand every detail of The Temptation of Anthony to be spooked by it.

Was he trying to leave a mark on people? Most likely. Was he trying to be an artist? No. You cannot decide to be an artist. If you refer to yourself as an artist, take a deep breath and think about it logically: can anybody call themselves an artist? It’s others’ response to one’s work that can potentially turn the author into an artist.

This is why I reject the idea of an “artistic manifesto.” It’s difficult enough to get rid of labels gotten by someone else; why would I want to label myself, and lock myself into such a cage?

When I have an idea for a photo, I ask myself: what kind of feeling do I want to convey with it? What is the best way to approach it, technically and emotionally? More often than not, it’s entirely unrelated to my previous images. I do have my temporary obsessions, no doubt; but I easily go from “industrial” macrophotography to astrophotography to landscapes to portraits to whatever else I feel like working with. All the photos I linked to in the previous sentence have undergone some amount of post-processing, too. If I had locked myself within a “no post-processing” movement, I wouldn’t have managed to publish any of those.

However, many people seem to think that, by merely adhering to an artistic movement or manifesto, or even by simply getting hold of a compact digicam, they become artists. Photography is arguably the most accessible of arts: cameras are cheap nowadays, not much thinking is necessarily required, and the Internet allows for worldwide instant exposure. They start taking pictures, uploading them, sprinkle some allegedly soul-deep titles and descriptions. Is that art? I don’t think so.

I am not saying that one needs an expensive camera to produce photographic art, and indeed I have taken many of my most appreciated photos with a tiny, old Canon A70. Limited equipment certainly introduces forced constraints that may not be worked around, which may actually stimulate creativity: it wasn’t until early 2014 that I got hold of my first stabilized lens, and not having such luxury forced me to learn how to use what I had more effectively. The equipment itself does not define an artist, for better or worse: a big camera won’t make you a real photographer any more than using filters on Instagram will. Would you ever think that a painter is better than another because she has a bigger brush?

For instance, many people ask me for advice about which lens to buy. They will normally have had their basic kit lens for a while and feel ready to expand their gear. That’s perfectly reasonable, but they should already have an idea of what they want to do. They should be asking me: “which lens among these do you think is the most appropriate for what I want to do?” Yet they expect me to give them a direct answer, and when I ask what kind of photography they have in mind, they shrug.

To me that just means one thing: they haven’t reached the point where their craft hits the limit imposed by their equipment, let alone try to overcome it; they just want a new toy, which is absolutely fine as long as they’re being honest with themselves. Most of them simply aren’t. And how can you impress others with what you’re trying to say through a medium like photography if you’re not being honest with yourself about the very approach you take with it? To put it in perspective: what’s the use of an expensive guitar if you’re only playing three chords and can’t be bothered to learn how to replace the strings? How can you expect me to get goosebumps if you’re disguising the sheer desire for a new toy with artistic claims that you don’t even truly endeavor to fulfill?

Too many people focus on the end result, on dreams of fame. The internet is a worldwide stage, and it makes seem easy. But why do we do this? Do we take photos, compose music, paint drawings, write stories for the fame? For the honor? For the money that might or might not come? What is our one, true goal? I would like to hope that we do this because we enjoy the process. The biggest reward should be knowing that someone, somewhere, was moved by what we made. If money and fame come, good. If they don’t, then it’s not the end of the world: we didn’t do it for that. As long as at least one person will tell me they appreciated my images, I’ll keep doing them; not every day, not every week, not every month, for bills ought to be paid and work ought to be done. But I will not quit until I’m sure that nobody ever looks at them anymore: only then I will feel like I’ve failed. I don’t need to be called an artist, in fact that makes me a little uneasy when someone ventures out and does so: it’s such a big word, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m worthy of it. I just want to share what’s on my mind, whether through words or light, with anyone who may be interested.

That is my one, true goal: I want to communicate.

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