Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bark-O, Yankee

We couldn’t hoof it out of Florence fast enough. We wanted to see Venice, and we were tired of bad, expensive food. We knew that bad, expensive food awaited us in Venice, because I hadn’t been able to locate a single listing on Chowhound for Venice before we left and Rick--All Rick, All the Time!--told us that the best thing we were likely to eat was bar food. But it’s one thing to anticipate bad, expensive food. It’s entirely different to be told, with drooling envy, that the food in Florence will be the best food of our lives and then to be faced with Chef Boy-ar-dee. Unless the rest of our culinary lives are going to consist of soggy slices of pizza, overcooked pasta, goat testicles served tartare and the sautéed eggs of boweevils, I think that we may be able to get better food than what we got in Florence.

Of course, I am the food person. MK was just tired of the confusion and misdirection. Signs would point us toward a particular street, and then suddenly we were faced with a blank alley. Or we would climb forty flights of stairs, walk across a tightrope to another building, descend via skis and then hike through marshy undergrowth, only to find a sign at the end that said the museum/store/restaurant was closed from 9:00AM until 10:00PM every day except on the eighth day after the Sunday that follows AirItalia’s fifth flight of the month.

It would also be hard to get run over in Venice, a feat far too easy to accomplish in both Rome and Florence.

When we packed in the morning, we were dismayed to find that our luggage had been munching on chocolate chips and butter during our stay and had gained a little weight. We shoved and coaxed all of our things into our four bags, and every bag was packed to its limit. Somehow we had to transport the bags not only to the Florence train station, but also to our Venice hotel, which would not be accessible by cab. Funny thing about a place built on water--you have to haul your crap around the city because no one is going to haul it for you.

After we were all packed, MK said, “What if we ship some of the extra stuff back to the States?” We had a few gifts, and certainly most of the purses could go. We’d already thrown away our rolls of toilet paper---one never knows what one will and won’t find in a foreign country--but we had several packages of bleach wipes that could also be tossed. Still, the idea of shipping 50 pounds back to the US sounded like three vertebrae saved from an untimely demise. MK went to the hotel clerk and asked her to call a shipping company to find out how much it would cost to ship 50 pounds.

In the meantime, while we waited for the shipping company to open at 9:30--it was Italy--we unpacked. “How much could it cost?” Mk asked, as we merrily tossed books on Italian art, dirty clothes, gifts, purses, sink traps, lamps, mirrors, paintings and a mini-Cooper into one of MK’s suitcases., preparing for its trip to the packaging and shipping store We would be traveling light with just three suitcases.

MK went back to the desk and returned at around 10:00. Check out was 10:30. She looked dejected as she said, “How much could it cost? Well, it could cost $300Euros, that’s how much it could cost.” $400 just to lighten our load. Hell, Jesus could do that, and we don’t even have to believe in his story . We looked at our suitcases. Everything had been so neatly packed, the space saving bags deflated and rolled, and now everything was a jumble and we had less than half an hour to get things back into some order.

Out came the dirty clothes, the gifts, the purses, the sink traps, mirrors and paintings. The garbage can got fuller as we ruthlessly pruned our luggage. The guidebooks for Italy, for Florence, for Rome went to the desk. The olives went to the garbage. We tried to reassemble our suitcases, with my clothes in my suitcases and MK’s in hers, but in our hurry, most things simply got tossed into a bag with the purpose of balancing our loads. We anticipated getting beaten by our swinging suitcases again, an wanted to make the weapon of their weight a little less.

As we checked out, the hotel clerk made a few phone calls while waiting for our credit card to clear. “The owner, Senor Bigelletti, wanted to say goodbye to you personally,” she told us. What a sweet man. Too bad he employs Paulina at his other property. It must be some kind of penance.

Cobblestones are not conducive to rolling suitcases with duffel bags on top of them. As we rattled and rolled our way to the Duomo, I began to anticipate the yellow bag’s force as it would swing around to whip me in my shins. MK began to swear behind me. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I heard.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I asked. She has this weird thing about not letting me carry anything, because of my hernia. The hernia is as big as a 15 month pregnancy, so I don’t see how it could get much worse, but MK fears that it will somehow leap from my abdomen and rupture at her feet one day.

“No, your hernia. You can’t help.”

Since my legs were taking the same pounding as her legs, I wasn’t sure what my hernia had to do with it, but I continued to advance one centimeter at a time, click clacking over uneven cobblestones laid in the 15th century, just for the express purpose of torturing fat Americans.

Once we had crawled around the pizza stores and souveneir shops of the piazza---what better way to celebrate Jesus’ life than to build an industry around it?--we dodged five cars and two Vespas to cross the street. Only six blocks to the station. MK simply yelled out, “Taxi!” and a white Matchbox car with a taxi sign on top of it screeched its brakes, smoke billowing out its rear, and sparks flying as the brake pads wore away the last of their rubber. The driver got out and began to yell at us in rapid Italian, while we tried to walk the twenty feet to his car, the suitcases whipping around to beat us every three inches. He made no move to help, but was all smiles as he lifted each bag carefully into the small area of the hatchback. Every bag costs $1Euro more than the regular fare. For lifting four 30 pound bags, he would make $5. Nice work if you can get it.

The Florence train station had not changed since the last time we were in it. The same pigeons enjoyed their castle, the same bitter wind blew through it. The same signs told us nothing we needed to know. The same McDonald’s beckoned, promising a few minutes of warmth. I sauntered over to the McDonald’s while MK stayed behind with our bags, guarding them from thieves who were dying to steal our dirty clothes and guidebooks to Venice.

French fries and what they call Vertigo Fries--what we might call curly fries. Nothing like a little American starch and grease to fend off the pigeons.

The snack didn’t fend off the gypsies, though, who kept coming up to us to ask for money. What a hard life. But we’d read how one will be tugging at you while another is picking your pocket, so we waved all of them off--there were at least 200 flocking around us like pigeons--and vowed to make a big donation to the country of Romania when we got home.

At last, the train came, only ten minutes late (“Excuse TrainItalia…”), but a nice sleek Eurostar train again. The countryside immediately outside of Florence is remarkable for the same thing that strikes one when looking at the Florence skyline: antennas. There are short ones, long ones, big fat juicy ones. The Italians seem to think that stringing up a large amount of shortwave, cellular, tv, radio and satellite antennas takes a country right into the 19th century. Most of Italy, it seems, has gone out of its way to grace its terra cotta roofs and its more industrial areas with as many antennas as it can find. I suspect they buy up non-working models from other countries, and just plant them on the tops of buildings as faux sophistication devices.

One can’t really take the train to Venice. There are little canals in the way. The train stops at the edge of Venice, and then the tourists--that is, 95% of the people who set foot in Venice--pile into large boats. I somehow had the impression that these boats would be open aired affairs, like yachting with Grace Kelly at our side and Ricardo Montalban piloting the ship. Instead, they are city buses that float. There are the hard plastic seats, designed to conform to dwarfs’ butts, and the diesel engines that sputter and rev without any discernible pattern, leading one to believe that the entire contraption might sink at any moment. People crowd onto the bus boats, and most everyone stands, except the ladies with the fur coats, who parade their dead animals throughout the boat, their patrician noses held high. If I closed my eyes, the smell of diesel exhaust and the feel of the bus seat would lead me to believe that I was on a bus headed for the South Side of Chicago. But if I kept my eyes open, I was overcome by the beauty of the city.

MK and I gawked at the city like the tourists we were. People had told us that we would be amazed at the improbability of a city built on the water, and we were. Our friend Stephen, who has traveled extensively, told us that Venice is probably his favorite city. “It‘s all about just being there,” he told us.

“How did they build the foundations?” I asked MK, staring at the brick and stucco facades that met the edge of the water for every house.

“How the hell do I know?” she answered. It’s true. I count on her to know the most trivial pieces of information, like my own personal walking information booth, and every now and then she is unable to supply me with an answer. 95% of the time, though, I can ask her any question--let’s say the name of the current president of Nigeria--and she will know the answer. She doesn’t collect figurines, she collects trivial, useless pieces of information, which I expect to be available to me for my asking.

Looking at charming house after charming house--all built before the 1850s, most built before 1700---we both stood on the boat, staring with our mouths open .

The buses are called vaporettos, and as the vaporetto neared our stop--The Accademia, a museum---I asked MK, “Now where is the hotel?” I had All Rick, All the Time in my hand.

“Right next to the Accademia.”

“Uh, I think it’s more like five blocks away,” I said, looking at Rick’s map.

“It is?” A look of panic crossed her face. We knew that getting lost in Venice was required of every visitor--it’s one of the easiest Girl Scout badges to earn--but we didn’t want to do it while hauling half of the US GNP behind us in our suitcases.

I showed her the map. It was five watery blocks away. As we began to tentatively begin our journey again, our suitcases continued to whip our legs down narrow brick lined walkways and across a small bridge. The bridge had stairs, which meant that each suitcase had to be hauled by means of a jerry-rigged pulley up to the top, where it rested, while one of us used a clothes line and a large hook to bring another one up. Then, of course, the bags had to go down the other side.

Finally, we got to the gate of the Pensione Accademia, which surrounded a small garden and was bordered by water on three of its sides. As we walked through the gate--me still looking like Jewish Heidi, MK wearing her own flap eared hat---the concierge rushed out of the hotel to greet us. “May I help you?” he asked suspiciously. I have to say that we looked a little worse for wear. Our faces were smudged with grease and ketchup (I’d splurged and got two packets in Florence), our hats were askew, and we were working hard to breathe after the five block hike and the expedition with the bridge. Wrinkled, dirty jeans and thrice worn shirts added a peculiar odor to enhance our already troublesome appearance.

“We have reservations,” MK told him.

Suddenly he was all smiles, even in the 28 degree weather and his thin blue suit. “Oh, of course, of course. You are the Meenird party?” MK gets her last name mispronounced in the US. An Italian accent added a lively, new twist to the sound of Menard.

We entered the hotel, a converted palace of some sort from the 1500s. A bell boy appeared, and took one of our bags away as he showed us the way to our room. MK had asked for a Grand Canal view--it was $10Euro more, but how often can one afford to even think about the Grand Canal, except in the dead of winter?--and we were on the second floor. Make a right at the knight’s armor, hang a left at the medieval altar paintings. The ceilings were wood-beamed and the floors were tiled, the windows made of colored, Venetian glass. Our room was lovely, if small.

The bell boy, correctly assessing that we had as much sophistication as monkey poop, went out of his way to show us the mini bar and tell us, ”Not complimentary,” and then pointing to the teas in a basket and saying, “Complimentary.” He showed pride of place in showing us how a special hook near the door allowed us to both hang our room key and switch on the lights. Another gadget with more than one use.

After he left, I inspected the bathroom. The shower appeared to be a standing coffin, with doors that slid into each other because there wasn’t room to actually open them. There was a bidet in there--there had been a bidet in every hotel so far--and on top of it rested a small bottle of “igene intimo,“ which was nicely translated for us as “intimate care soap.“ Besides the usual assortment of complimentary soaps, lotions, and shower caps (who uses those?), we found a sewing kit with buttons in it and a shoe sponge. I hate it when I travel without a shoe sponge.

MK started to passionately kiss the bedside table, which was made sometime before 1700. Tears ran down her face. “I think this is the nicest room we’ve ever stayed in,” she sobbed. Outside our window, on our Grand Canal view, a vaporetto appeared every five minutes, spewing diesel fumes and noise. It was a beautiful sight.

It was after 4:00 by the time we emerged from our room. There was no wifi in our room, although MK thought she had made sure there would be. I went to the desk and asked about the computer in the corner. Perhaps I could load the blog from there.

I had interrupted the hotel clerk’s invigorating IM session. He looked at me with the bored, listless expression of all people who are forced to work at jobs that are far beneath them. “Prego?”

“Uh, do you have wifi?”

In a voice without any change in intonation whatsoever, he said, “We offer Wi Fi to our guests for the low rate of $32Euros for fifteen milliseconds. You can purchase the card from me. How many milliseconds do you think you will require?”

Declining with as much dignity as I could, I asked about the computer in the corner. “You are free to use your card to access the internet on that computer. But you must purchase the WiFi from us first.” He returned to his IM-ing. I felt like wrestling him to the ground for his internet connection, but instead I slinked up the four million flights of stairs to our medieval room. MK was prostate in front of the windows, opening them and closing them with their elaborate sets of fittings, carved just for each one.

We decided to stroll around Venice, as it was starting to get dark. Rick had recommended a small cichetti bar that was just down the street--in Venice, that means over five bridges and around ten alleys--and we found it without even getting lost. There were awards on the walls for winning the Best Snack International Competition of 2004. Imagine beating out Ritz. We might be in for a treat.

We were. Several of them. While I orgasmed over some pumpkin and mascarpone creation that melted as soon as it hit my taste buds, MK licked the walnut and something unidentifiable but fabulous tasting topping off another small round of bread. I was making little noises in the corner--one has to stand to eat at Allessandra DeRespini’s little wine shop---and MK told me to hush because I was attracting a curious crowd. I got some more--something with pesto and mascarpone and the best sun dried tomato I’ve ever had, and something else with proscuitto. The best, though--and there were only three--involved parmesan and a fig and balsamic vinegar. No wonder the Italians believe in God. After a couple of those, I’d believe that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Holy Ghost ran the joint.

I made a complete American fool of myself by ordering a few dozen of the walnut rounds, and by eating the rest of the parmesan rounds, reluctantly letting MK have one for herself, and then we left before the Venice police came to carry me off for indecent noises.

It was dark and it was cold. Really cold. Venice has the advantage of being on the water--many people know this--but it means that the cold is a stealthy cold, one that is not easily vanquished. We decided to go to the Accademia, which would be heated, and look at paintings.

The woman behind the counter sold us two tickets, and then as we walked away, she moved to another window and called, “Your bags.”

“We need to check them?”

“Yes, right here.”

I know that we look like terrorists, but it seems as if the tight security sometimes goes a little far. The museums send us through more security checks than airports or prisons, and then ask us to check the very things they’ve just x rayed, CT scanned and performed an MRI on. Who knows what lurks inside a wallet and a guidebook? We dutifully unpacked our offending wallets and guidebook from our backpacks, giving them the empty packs to watch (for 50cents each), and went into the museum.

There was more Renaissance and Medieval art. At this point, if I see another painting of Jesus on a cross, Jesus in his mother’s arms, Jesus with Saint Peter, Paul or the ones who come marching in, I’m going to look like the Hindenburg. I read Rick Steve’s tour, and promptly forgot everything I saw and read. The best part of the museum for me were the great radiator heaters that were in a few rooms, about ten feet of them. I bent my face down to them and tried to hump one of them like a dog on a leg, until MK made me stop.

My stomach, though, was rumbling, even though I had cleaned poor Alessandra DeRespini out of cichetti for the next year. Rick said that Saint Barnaba was the place to find decent, cheap eats. No problem negotiating Venice at night for the first time. Rick gave wonderful directions: follow the general Northwest curve of the Grand Canal, which is half a mile to your left. How was I supposed to know which way was Northwest and which way the damn canal curved? We turned left and right and I fretted while MK told me, “Don’t worry, you’re supposed to get lost in Venice.” This is a change of roles for us---normally she heaves great sighs of frustration, big enough to blow ten pigs’ houses down---and I reassure her that all is right with the world. But I was cold and my stomach had some vague hope that things were looking up for it, and I wanted to find Saint Babylon’s Square.

We found a square, with many restaurants around it and a tall, handsome grey haired man who handed us menus and told us that the food was great. By that time, dried dog doo would have sounded good, because at least it would be served indoors. We went in, the first customers of the day.

A small woman, less than five feet tall, with dark curly hair was in the back. The man ushered us to one table near the door and we intelligently moved to another one near the overhead heater. Off came the hats, gloves and scarves, though I kept my coat on for good luck. A menu was handed to us, and we saw that once again, it was a choice between spaghetti with pomodoro sauce, gnocchi or pizza. There were a few salads offered and some saute of goat gizzards. Yum.

There are small dogs everywhere, and the restaurant was no exception. A little poodle tagged along behind the woman as she set the tables nearby. MK, who is a cat person, generally ignores my “awwww”s every time I see a dog, but perhaps she felt especially benevolent when I began to coo at the little black poodle. She got out of her chair and approached the dog, holding out her hand in a gesture of trust.

Immediately, the dog began to bark voraciously at MK, as if it had just seen dinner and was telling the gang. The dark haired woman looked down at her dog and with a malevolent chuckle said under her breath, “Bark-o, Yankee.” She let out another chuckle, probably a signal to the dog to use MK’s ankles as a teething ring, and MK rushed back to her seat. These people were friendly.

The grey haired man was both a tourist hawker and a waiter, and probably the cook, as well. Turned out our food was just as bad as we feared; MK’s salad was made entirely of bitter greens, which are called bitter for a reason, and my gnocchi were soggy with watered down tomato sauce. The heater above our heads obligingly blew hot air at the rest of the room, missing our table altogether, until we sat, hunched over our plates, with our earmuffs and hats on our heads, trying to keep our scarves from dipping into the sauce. We asked the waiter/cook/hawker/floor cleaner what the square was named. Santa Margherita, not Saint Barnabas. Thanks, Rick.

After we paid our $70Euro bill, we hustled out into the square and amazingly found our way back to the hotel. The IM-ing hotel clerk barely looked up when we asked for our room key, and we went up to our room, where we could hear water rushing into the canal across the way at regular intervals. It was only then that we noticed on a map that our hotel was located on a canal called Rio de la Toletta. We tried not to think about that as we went to sleep, leaving our not complimentary mini bar alone.

Special Deal for You Today Only, Sexy Lady

On Thursday, when we woke up, MK had come back to life. Her face no longer resembled the color of a taxi cab, and she even smiled at Paolo’s wife at breakfast. Paolo’s wife doesn’t speak English, but she smiles a lot and is from Paris, although those two things don’t usually go together. We can blame her years in Italy, married to sunny Paolo, for her willingness not to spit in our food and to even speak to us in a cheerful combination of gestures, smiles and shrugged shoulders.

We went to the San Lorenzo Market, unprepared for its international flavor. The market is an outdoor affair, organized by the Italians, which is to say not organized at all. I had three objectives: a hat with ear coverings, a backpack and a wallet. Every stall keeper at the outdoor market was determined that I would buy my 3 items, plus an apron placing David’s dick at my groin, with an Italian flag in the background, as well as twenty sets of rosary beads, fifty postcards of Florence, and enough shawls to weave an acre of trampolines.

As we entered, Italians came up to us hawking their goods. “Today, just for you, this scarf will be $8Euro,” a woman told us, within the first fifty feet. We nodded and moved on. As we finished the first block, we came into the leather goods, which is where I needed to linger to get my backpack and my wallet. This was dangerous; these people were pros and I was just an American tourist.

As I fingered a backpack that I didn’t like--the leather was too stiff--a stall keeper said, “It is on special today, just for you. $79 euro.”

Not liking it, I said no and started to walk away.

But he interpreted my no, and my move to leave the stall, as a bargaining technique. “Ok, Ok, $69 Euro. It is cold today, not so many sales.”

Still not liking the bag, I shook my head and made to leave again.


“No. The bag’s not right for me.”

“No, look,: and he proceeded to show me how the backpack could be folded so small that it became a coin purse for elves, and then expanded to act as a parachute in case of an air emergency. The leather was still not what I wanted, though.


“All right, final offer. $49.”

“No, no.” I attempted to get by hm.


I was looking around for MK to save me. She was nowhere to be found, probably caught in her own version of Jovanni and the magic bag.

I had to climb over his table of purses and backpacks, and slash through the tent material with my teeth in order to escape, with him all the while cutting the price behind me. The last numbers I heard involved a $5 Euro note and some Coca Cola. I think the drop in the American economy may be having some effect here.

But Jovanni barely prepared me for the rest of the day. I found my earflap hats at a reggae shop that had big black, red, yellow and green knit hats and roach clips. The man behind the table was African, and he stared into space as MK and I approached the table. I don’t think he even noticed us--we could probably have taken forty hats, piled them on our heads, and walked away and he would still have been staring at some point on the far horizon. But to the side of the reggae paraphernalia, there was a pile of earflap hats. I chose a red, black and white hat, with a long string out its top, and a medium red pompom at the end of it. MK chose a black, grey and white hat sans pompom.

Suddenly Bob Marley woke up from whatever reverie he had been in, and noticed that we were trying on different hats. He brought me a small mirror, about the size of the palm of my hand, in which I could see either my face or the hat, but not both together. When I got the hat adjusted, without the help of the mirror, he said with a smile, “Sexy!”

I laughed loudly. I don’t think that earflaps really fall into the realm of sexy. I corrected him. “Cute.”

Confused by my apparently unusual refusal to be swayed by being called “sexy,” he said, “OK, then sexy cute!” He wasn’t letting go of sexy, even though I let go of it several years ago. Possibly at birth.

I just shook my head and we paid for the caps. As we walked away with our new purchases, he called out, “Thank you, sister,” and we felt as if we’d done something for the African nations of the world. With my new hat, which I place over my old, knit hat, I like to think that I look like a Jewish, cold Heidi. I started to yodel but MK told me to shut up before someone put a hit out on me.

Leaving the African section of the marketplace, we entered the Russian block. On this trip, we’ve discovered that many Russians are somewhat rigid. They don’t like it when we are too close during a museum tour, even though we obviously cannot understand a word of the tour guide, no matter how much we supported Perestroiska. They tend to push and shove a little more than necessary and it isn’t hard to imagine that they like to push people out of their way. When they are the ones doing the selling, at San Lorenzo market, for instance, they stand in your path and tell you what they have to sell, even though you can clearly see that for yourself. One man blew smoke in my face as I tried to pass him, and said ominously, “You’ll be back.” I was afraid that I might wake up with a horse’s head reeking of vodka in my bed the next morning.

There are enough leather stores to outfit the entire cast of “Gunsmoke,” and then some, so there were a lot of backpack choices from which to choose. One woman offered backpacks made from soft, supple leather, with silk threading. Only $180Euro. Most stalls, though, offered backpacks with the special fold-em-up design that the first stall owner had shown me. I think of most things as being best if they offer only one function:. I figure that most items barely perform one function well. Creating an item that serves two or more functions only ensures that neither function is adequate. I don’t like food processors, for instance, that also serve as a mixer, TV, bedlamp and doorbell. My philosophy extends to purses. I don’t care if it folds up handily into a coin purse and an umbrella: if I want a backpack, I want a backpack.

We soon entered Indian stalls, where Punjabi jabbering filled the air. Some woman with a shrill laugh--it put me in mind of a noon work whistle--was laughing incessantly at a stall that looked as if it might offer a simple backpack that didn’t fold and expand like some leather cootie catcher. Her laugh drove us away, and suddenly I saw the San Lorenzo Market itself, a two story supermarket with different booths for each seller, a kind of indoor Crafts Fair with food as its product.

The first thing we saw upon entering was a tripe stand, from which fresh, hot tripe sandwiches were being sold. I looked the other way, as one does when one sees something pitiful. People eating cow intestines. In front of us, though, was a chicken counter. Ten rooster heads, complete with combs, leered up at us. There is nothing like knowing exactly from where one gets one’s food. But soon we were at a deli counter, where samples of cheese with balsamic vinegar glaze were set out. I gobbled about ten of them, until MK hissed at me that there was a line of Italians forming behind me. The proprietor offered to let us buy some cheese, but I didn’t see how it was going to make it back to the US. I gestured “salami”---you try it without getting obscene---and then said “Tartuffo,” which I’ve quickly learned is Italian for truffle. And he had some! We got some sliced up, and even though it wasn’t as good as the salami in Lucca, it came close. We got a small half salami to pack and take home, and then wandered up to the fruit and vegetable stalls upstairs, where we got some truffle oil, and dried and sugared carrots and kumquats. The kumquats were wonderful, like little tart maraschino cherries. The dried and sugared carrots tasted like sugar only.

Back to the leather search, though. Our friend had bought a leather coat from Schegge, which we pronounced “Sheg ee.” We kept looking for his label. “Sheg-ee?” we would ask each stall merchant. Karen had said that Schegge sold purses, and I hoped to get a backpack made from the same thin, soft leather of her coat. Finally, someone understood my butchered Italian, corrected me (it’s pronounced “Chay jee) and walked us to the store. Indeed, there were beautiful coats, just like Karen’s coat. And purses. Fifty of those. Not a single backpack. We started to leave but Schegge or Luigi or Cesare from the store called after us, “Wait, today only, a special deal for you.” We made it to the door just in time. We heard an entire chorus of middle eastern wailing begin behind us as we sprinted for the end of the block.

We braved walking the gangplank once more, looking for a wallet and a backpack. Leather, leather everywhere and not a grain to buy. This leather was too stiff. This leather was too cheaply made. This leather had hardware that was too flashy. Nothing pleased me. The stall owners must have felt like the poor fellow that had to go house to house with Cinderella’s slipper, with nothing that quite fit.

I fingered a jacket at one stall, and the man who worked the stall told me that they had even better jackets inside the store itself, which was just down the block. I insisted that I didn’t want a jacket, but a backpack, and he cleverly told me, “Oh, we have many, many backpacks, come look.”

Once at the store, he handed us off to Ali, a young, tall man with the easy manner of someone who knows that he is attractive. His face was abnormally long, but it somehow made him look kinder. There wasn’t a single backpack in the store. I fingered a coat mindlessly, and he said, “You like it? You like it? Today it is a special deal, for you only, because you are so nice.”

“No, no,” I said, still fingering the coat.

“Here, you try it on,” Ali said, lifting the coat away from my hands and magically encasing me in it. It was about five sizes too small. “Oh, you are so small, I will get you a different size, “ he said, and called in rapid Italian to an associate Ali, who bounded away through a side door that probably led to their customer dungeon. Within seconds, a different coat appeared.

I put it on, and Ali helped me to take off my sweater, being careful to ask permission before he touched my body. He was all courtesy.

The coat looked fabulous on me. By fabulous, I mean that it took off forty pounds and added an air of sophistication to my normally frumpy look. My hair took on a new luster, my bust lifted, my skin glowed from the light of the leather.

“Ah,” he said, as if being visited by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Christ and Ed McMahon, all at once.

MK said, “It looks good on you. Do you want it?”

“How much?” I asked Ali.

A calculator arrived from somewhere. Now look,” he said, punching in some numbers on the calculator. “This is the price in Euros.” 490 appeared on the calculator’s face. Almost $700 for a coat! I think not.

Ali saw the look on my face. “No, no, “For you, today, a special deal. It is cold out, the wrong season for selling.” He punched some more buttons. “Minus,” he muttered, and suddenly the 490 was changed to 390. I started to take off the coat.

“No, no, I can make a better deal.”

“It’s just that I don’t really need a leather coat.” It gets to 115 where I live in the summer, and shocking cold weather never reaches the 20s. One would think that the Ice Age had arrived when we get frost; people wrap all their plants in newspapers and their pipes in insulation, fretting through the night that 31 degrees might herald hypothermia in the entire population of Sacramento. A leather coat, even if it made me into Brigette Bardot, was an impractical use of $600.

“Ah, you look so beautiful in it.”

It was true, I have to say. There was something about the line of the coat that did look good.

“Look, look, the hood,” he said as he deftly unzipped the hood from the coat. Another fancy leather good that could transform itself. “Ah, now look.”

Yes, indeed,it was a leather coat that had a zippable hood. For $400Euro, which is somewhere between $500 and $600, depending upon the mood of the Secretary of Finance and the position of the moon in relationship to Venus that day.

“No, I don’t need a coat, We live in California,” I said. I always think that non-Californians think that we live in a land of perpetual sunshine, and that anything can be explained by saying that I am from there.

I took off the coat and tried to make my way toward the door. “Look, look, we have a store in Beverly Hills,“ Ali said, throwing an arm toward an advertisement posted behind the cash register. On it, there was a logo for Buconi Leather, or something like that. This leather store was called Giogio’s. It didn’t matter. Beverly Hills store or no, it wouldn’t make a $600 coat practical in 115 degree weather.

As I moved toward, the door, I saw a jacket made of the same thin leather, but with a tan collar instead of the red that I liked.

“You try jacket? You try this on?” Ali asked as soon as my eye found the jacket.. He managed to move the jacket from the hanger to my body within milliseconds, and suddenly a size 2 jacket was on my size 16 body. “Just a little too small,” and he called out to Ali Junior.

There was no answer. He called again. Finally, he said, “I’ll be right back,” and he sprinted for the door to the mysterious nether-regions of the store. I turned to MK.

“Do you want a leather coat?” she asked.

“It’s so hot at home. It’s gorgeous, but I can’t imagine wearing it very much.”

“Maybe three or four months.”

“Yeah, but is that worth $400 Euro?”

Ali was back, bearing a jacket with a black collar. “This is the last one like this in your size.” He bent toward me, trying to flash his eyes at mine. “It is a very popular size, sexy size.” He looked at MK. “You are sisters?”

We both laughed. MK held up her wedding ring and then I held up mine. “No,” MK said, “We’re married.” Ali, for the first time since we met him, stopped moving, both his mouth and his body. MK added, “To each other.” Ali stared at me, bug-eyed. MK said, “California. We’re from California. We’re married in Canada, married in California, and we’re domestic partners…”

I interrupted her. Ali didn’t need to know our complex legal history. “We’re not sisters.”

Ali had finally regained himself. “Oh, it’s good, that’s good,” he said, as if he had just imagined us in bed. For most of us, imagining other people in bed is a little disgusting, and to suspect that one is being imagined is mortifying. I cleared my throat.

“Anyway, it’s hot there. I don’t need a coat.”

MK was at the door. “Thank you!” she called out with a little wave.

I moved toward her, \although Ali was between me and the door. He said, “No, no, “ looking in my eyes. “I need the money, I need to live.”

“I don’t need a coat.”

He went back to the cash register where Ali Junior had appeared. There was a rapid exchange in Italian and I could understand the words, “credit card” and “cash.” Just as I got to the door, Ali called out, “$300 Euro!” while Ali Junior made little noises of dissent behind him. “It’s a good deal!”

I was at the door. “It is a good deal,” I said, “but it gets to 38 degrees centigrade where we live. I don’t need a leather coat.”

“It’s light, the leather is so light you won‘t notice it” he said, coming toward me. I backed up. “Here, take the card, come back tomorrow,” he implored.

MK grabbed my arm. “Ok, yes, we’ll be back tomorrow,” she said, taking the card. Suddenly we were on the street again, where we could breathe air that didn’t come with a squeeze of desperation and a jigger full of manipulation.

After that, negotiating for the backpack and wallet were easy. I went back to the stall with the shrill woman, and gave her a look to wither fresh lilies, and she didn’t laugh while I spoke with the man who ran the stall. I looked at every one of his backpacks, selected the one that seemed the best, and got it for less than half the price marked. We got the wallet on the way out, and then we were free.

Back at the hotel, when we unloaded our prizes--MK had bought a few purses as well--we laughed when I told MK, “Today, for you only, sexy lady, a very special price.” We both wanted to go back.

Pitti Palace

I sometimes live in the Self Pitti Palace, but I was impressed that Florence hosts an entire building devoted to all things Pitti. This was where the Medicis lived, while they were busy ruling Florence and conquering anything else they could find.

The palace grounds include the Boboli Gardens, which were closed by the time we shambled up to the entrance. It was late in the afternoon, after 3:00, and the gardens close at 3:30. Florence only has two winter weather possibilities, it seems: raining or freezing. It wasn’t raining, so the idea of seeing the Boboli Gardens sounded like volunteering to be a lineman in Minnesota in January. Our jackets were porous to the cold. Indoors sounded good.

So we paid for our tickets and watched as our backpacks, wallets, jackets, hats, scarves, shoes, bras and earrings made their way through the x ray machine, and then we allowed ourselves to be wanded and internally examined by a person with a microscope and a penchant for suspicion. A few decades later, after my wedding ring had been determined not to hold any explosives, we hauled our butts up the fifteen flights of stairs that promised a museum at the end. When we finally crawled to the top of the stairs, our hands scratching new handholds into the marble steps, and our breathing audible in China, the woman taking tickets took one look at us and said, “You need to check your bags.” Actually it sounded more like, “You neat do jeck yole becks,” but we knew what she meant.

I managed to puff enough to ask, “Where? Is? The? Bag? Check?“ with huge gushes of wind escaping with each word. MK huffed loudly next to me, while I wrung the sweat from my hair.


MK began to whimper. Without us having to say another word--we couldn’t, even if we’d tried---she said, “The lifter is that way.” We both furled our brows, sending rivers of sweat onto the floor. “The lifter, the lifter,” she kept saying, until finally she walked us through a set of Renaissance doors. Mk dragged herself along the floor while I tried to maintain my dignity by using the wall as support while I waddled behind her. She led us into a huge, empty ballroom, where she then escorted us to the elevator. The lifter.

Bags checked (50 cents per bag, but the Stairmaster workout is included in the price of admission), we took the lifter back to the 80th floor and began our tour. Once again, we saw Jesus in Tuscany, living the high life with his mom and his best friend, John (who started out life as Saul). I’m starting to feel sorry for Saul/John. He’s like Bess to Jesus’ Nancy Drew. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

The Pitti Palace is a grand affair, full of Carvaggios, Bellinis and Boticellis, all housed in an old palace. Each room has an introductory informational sign, giving the name of the room and its purpose for the Medicis, other than displaying ostentatious wealth. The place is a little down at the mouth, with furniture and drapes not quite fully restored, and some sandbags protecting carpets from the slope of the floor and the rain that follows the laws of gravity. It’s a pity when there isn’t enough money to renovate the Pitti Palace properly. Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore.

When we entered the second room of the palace, the sound of our heaving lungs was drowned out by the booming voice of a woman speaking English with an English accent. The sound of English as a first language is so foreign to us now that at first we thought she was speaking Sengalese with a French accent. But soon we began to understand her words.

“Heeeere we have,” she yelled out, as she bent over to look at the identifying plate on a painting, “A Carvagggggggggioooo.” She elongated every syllable, like Julia Child with an open bar.

A woman with an American accent said, “I interpret this as a fallen angel. Is that anywhere in the ballpark?”

“Yes, yes, you are correct. Carvaggio, uh,” she paused,. “Carvaggio was painting John the Baptist asleep next to Jesus as a todddddddddler. A fallen angel, yes,” she said.

MK and I hurried to the next room. She sounded like an English schoolmarm lecturing a roomful of juvenile delinquents on the dangers of gum chewing: pompous and out of touch.

Or what we thought was the next room. Arrows pointed forward to the green room, and to the side for the blue room. We didn’t know which we should visit first, and to make matters more confusing, there was a rope across the throne room, although it was moved halfway to the side, making the room accessible but not necessarily by design. We went to the Green room, and decided to visit other rooms as they came up.

While we were staring at a Botticelli, we suddenly heard Esmerelda the English Lady come into the room. “This is the Greeeeeeeen Roooooooooom,” she said. I think the green walls and drapes might have given that away. The people in her tour shifted uneasily. The wallpaper is flocked, but the flocking is not something made by Korean refugees in Bulgaria but rather was woven from silk, although it is starting to fray. The drapes are worthy of Scarlett O’Hara. They could make a closet full of dresses for ten high school homecoming dances.

We moved to the next room, ready to lose Esmerelda, and were looking at the throne when we heard her boom out, “And this is the Throooooooone Roooooom.” The American woman looked at the throne and asked, “How do you know?”

Missing her sarcasm, Esmerelda said, “Why, the throne is right theeeeere. That is where the royals sat.”

The American woman rolled her eyes.

Next up, the red room. Esmerelda announced it, apparently as unaware of the obviousness of her announcement as a teenager is toward the finer points of denture selection. “This is the Red Roooooooom.”

When we got to the chapel, Esmerelda said, “Here we haaaave theeee chapel. This is where they went to praaaaaaaaay.” The Golden Room threw her for a bit of a loop, though, because it wasn’t called the Yellow Room. She had to consult the identification card for that. “Here we have, uh,” big pause while she read, “The Goooolden Room.” Looking around, she said, “And there you see they have sofas. They used them for relaxing and such..” Those funny Medicis. Imagine using a sofa for relaxing and such.

At the Blue Room, Esmerelda announced, “This is called, uh, this is called the Blue Room.” She studied the sign MK and I had just read. “Well, let’s see. This is a room where the Medicis used, oh, as a dining room.” She looked up on the wall. “Oh, and this is a portrait of the man who did all the drawings of the Dutch people, the Italian people, and soooooo on. What was his name?” She paused for a moment. “Oh, he was a Medici, I can’t remember his name.”

MK turned to me. “Next week, I’m going to become a tour guide.”

The Pitti Palace ended abruptly at an oval room, called the Oval Room, according to Esmerelda. We hurried away, after collecting our bags, back to our hotel. It was almost 6:00 and the North Wind was starting to lift people onto the rooftops. We kept our heads down as we picked our way among the piazzas, circles, squares, hypotenuses and rectangles of Florence. We are starting to understand our way around, which must mean it’s time to go to Venice, where we know we will get lost before we’ve even left our hotel.

That night, our last night in Florence, we went to a restaurant near our hotel that served awful Italian food for ridiculous prices. MK wanted salad and chicken, after being ill, and to order a la carte made the chicken cost $15Euros---just for a frozen chicken breast, grilled--and the salad was $10 Euros for a lot of radicchio that she pushed to the side. I ate overcooked linguine with truffles and butter, and I couldn’t finish it. I also had Ribboletto (spelling?), which is a classic Florence dish, a bean and bread soup that made the rest of the meal well worth it to me. I can understand why Jesus and John hung out in Tuscany, if they got to eat that soup; I’d put up with dinner with Esmerelda to have another bowl. But only a shooooooooort dinner, and in the Bluuuuuue Rooooooom.

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but it doesn’t mean never getting sick in Florence. Poor MK and the infamous cantaloupe gelato: a pair that was never meant to last. She was the color of peas in risotto, a kind of yellowy-green that did not bode well for her day. I went to breakfast alone, where Paolo, the hotel owner, was sympathetic to MK’s illness, and told me how to get to a pharmacy. Take five rights before chasing your tail around the Square of Saint Bernard’s collar, hang a left at Calle de Santa Barbara, say hello to Oprah, and then circle around Via Del Get Losto until you see the green Farmacia sign. Can’t miss it.

Everything here is arranged in spokes around a piazza, which is great, as long as you know which spoke to take. Not a single street has a number by which to gauge whether one is actually going in the right direction, and street numbers are random, with 65 Via D’Or coming right before 3 Via D’Or. In addition, all street numbers are arranged by whether the occupant is a person or a business, so that 62R (a home) will be next to 176 B (a business).

There was a light drizzle when I went out on the street, but I had packed my umbrella and managed to stay dry in my Sno Cat shoes. Fortunately, the pharmacy appeared on just the street corner that Paolo had promised it would. They gave me a handful of packets of of powder for nausea and vomiting; turned out to be Reglan, which is a prescribed drug in the US. It’s good to know that the FDA protects us from the wonders of medicine that keeps us from spending our days doubled over a toilet. That’s the frontier spirit for you--by God, if I am going to eat some bad gelato, I reserve the right to vomit freely. Give me vomit or give me death!

MK was moaning in bed while I prepared the concoction for her. As she sipped it down, trying to drink while laying down, she spilled part of it onto her pillow. “Get me that towel,” she croaked out, pointing at a towel that was on a chair next to the bed. She laid her head back down, her eyes rolling into the back of her head.

It seemed to me that getting the towel took just about as much energy as flopping her head back onto the pillow and fainting. Sighing, I picked up the towel and handed it to her. I hate sick people. That’s why I’m a nurse.

“You know what you could do?” she asked me after she finished wiping her mouth, neck, head, pillow and bed sheets with the towel. As if laying in a little puddle of reglan and water would hurt her. “You could do the laundry.” We had said that we would do laundry in Florence, and had even brought our own packets of hypoallergenic, super safe, American as apple pie All Free detergent and dryer sheets. The last thing either of us needed in Italy was hives.

I could do the laundry. In Florence. By myself. “I don’t know where the Laundromat is.”

“Here’s a flyer,” she said, sitting up, pointing to her night table, suddenly able to move all major muscle groups with nary a groan. That’s one reason I hate sick people. It’s amazing how self serving they are, always whining about their pain and suffering when it suits them, but perfectly able to remember and locate a Laundromat’s brochure when the time is right. “You could ask the hotel clerk how to find it. Or Paolo.”

I didn’t see how I could say no, especially to a dying woman. Plus, it would get me out of the hotel room, and away from acting as a handmaiden without pay.

I gathered up our dirty things and put them into MK’s Rick Steves Super Light Carry On Bag. I brought my backpack, including my notebook computer, and headed out to the desk, where Paolo’s daughter, the hotel clerk, was reading a book. Life at Hotel Axial gets pretty boring. All the cheapskates were upstairs at Hotel Maxim, and the rich tourists were at Hotel Fancy Name. We were in a middle class hotel, a kind of Down Home Best Western, Italy Style.

Paolo’s daughter gave me directions which sounded remarkably similar to her father’s directions to the pharmacy. Take a left at the Road of the Cross and then turn right five more times on Calle De Touristo Bermuda Trianglo.

By this time, it was raining, and I jauntily put up my umbrella, which I’d purchased the day before at the Ufizzi. It has The Birth of Venus on it, by Botticelli. I felt like a true Florentine. Rolling MK’s suticase behind me, clack, clack, clack over the cobblestones, hat on my head, muffler around my neck, I thought that I looked the perfect picture of an Italian on her way to do her family’s laundry. At any moment, I expected one of the tourists on the street to come up to me and ask me how to get to the Accademia or The Olive Garden.

I followed Paolo’s daughter’s directions but I got confused at the third right and then made two lefts to try to get back to the intersection where I should have turned right before turning left, but then there was a dead end on a small cobblestoned alley and I made another right, trying to correct the first right. By this time, it was raining hard, and my Boticelli umbrella was not quite so cute anymore and was getting awkward to hold.

Suddenly, in a narrow street right out of a Fellini movie, a garbage truck loomed. On both sides of it, cars were parked on the sidewalk. I think Italian high schools may neglect parallel parking in their curriculum, instead telling young Italian drivers that the entire street is actually a parking lot. During our time here, I’ve seen drivers park with the hood of the car venturing five feet into the street, seen cars and trucks parked entirely on the sidewalk, and seen cars parked and locked in the middle of pedestrian-only streets. Although it was small--- truly, these things are the size of an espresso cart-- between the garbage truck and the two cars, the entire street was blocked..

Not to be outdone by the sound of a rocket shooting off from Cape Canaveral, the Italians have invented a noise enhancing device for garbage trucks, which allows the beep beep of their back up alarm to sound at all times, except when backing up. The trucks are also equipped with megaphones, so the melodious sound of gears scraping together and metal running along concrete can be exaggerated and broadcast throughout most of Italy.

I had no way to pass the truck, and as the driver squeezed into the door, kicking the car that was parked next to it on his way, I could see that I was about to be obliterated by a toy European garbage truck. It was time for me to turn around.

By this time, I had no idea where I was, and the street signs were of little use. The rain was pelting me with ferocity and I could feel water start to run around my backpack, over my muffler, under my coat and down my back. It was a veritable preposition party and I was the wet blanket, wet coat, wet long johns, wet jeans. The umbrella was going to soak through at any moment, and I was pretty sure that Noah was on his way with a gondola. I got out the map for the fourteenth time.

Ahead of me was the River Arno. I could tell because it felt as if the wind was blowing the rain straight into my face when I looked in that direction. Perhaps that is because the wind was blowing the rain straight at me. I decided to turn my back on the river, and could feel the rain as it beat my backpack.

Five hours later, I found Via Alberghini, which was the purported street of the purported Laundromat in the purported city of Florence. By that time, I had seen the River Arno ten times, and had passed forty churches. Two separate motor scooters tried to take me out, not so much because they meant to, but simply because I was in the way. The motor scooter drivers seemed to believe that the sidewalk was simply a second, lighter colored lane on each street, and used it as such. I became adept at hearing the distant whir of an electric motor and running to the nearest entryway. Cars were another matter altogether. Although they didn’t use the sidewalk as a lane, the drivers also seemed unfamiliar with the purpose of traffic lights. There is nothing quite like being in the middle of a crosswalk, in torrential rain, dragging a suitcase and carrying an umbrella, only to look up and see six sets of headlights aimed straight at you. The words “sitting duck” take on a new meaning.

Just because I was on Via Alberghini alive, though, didn’t mean that I could find the Laundromat, even with the disintegrating map and brochure in my hand. 176B Via Alberghini was not on the same block as 175B Via Alberghini. It wasn’t in the next block, either, which became the 600B block of Via Alberghini. I walked back to the beginning of the small street and tried again. By this time, I was floating more than walking and MK’s Rick Steves bag was starting to squish more than clack on the cobblestones, because it had expanded with water into a Rick Steves Jumbo Sized Bag.

And then, just as I was about to give up and hail a taxi--not that there were any of those around, but you can’t blame me for fantasizing---the Laundromat appeared. I went in and ignored the fat white t-shirted guy that always seems to be at every Laundromat fixing machines. This was a mini Laundromat, even smaller than the garbage trucks, with about four washers and three dryers, all of which were unoccupied. I put the suitcase on the ground and opened it. Out rushed a few trout, Esther Williams, and the guy who got washed right out of my hair in South Pacific. The clothes inside were already pre soaked, it seemed, so I put them on the short cycle. Fortunately, my computer was packed closer to the back than to the front of the bag, and so I only had to put it in the dryer for a few minutes to get it to start again.

After the laundry was done--it took a quarter of the time to do it as it had taken to get to the Laundromat---I folded it and put it into the Rick Steves bag, which was now shrunk to normal, carry on size. Of course, the front of the bag--the side that had been facing the street---was still completely soaked, so I made sure to put MK’s clean and dry clothes there, to keep my clothes dry.

I got out the map and knowing that I would get lost, I tried to follow it anyway. Left, left, right, left again, right. Suddenly, within six blocks, I could see the sign for Hotel Axial. Just like Dorothy, I could have gone home any time I wished.

The rest of the afternoon was spent searching for food. Everyone told me before I went how wonderful the food would be, and I had been imagining thick slabs of fresh pasta, cheese and sauce. Instead, we’ve gotten expensive mounds of reconstituted tomato juice-soaked spaghetti-o’s. Pizza has come on French bread, reminding me of Stouffer’s pizza more than even Pizza Hut. There are no strange ingredients to explore because everything is made for the American taste, even at the smallest restaurants down the smallest of side streets. Menus are in English, with Italian translations for the few patrons who don’t speak English.

I did actually find a pizza place that sold thin crust pizza with potatoes and a dash of rosemary on it, and MK had forbidden me to eat in the room, so I munched it in the drizzle, watching the Italians jabber at each other.

By the time the evening came, I was sick of wandering and sick of bad Italian food. MK was perking up and sounded vaguely interested in Chinese food, so I found the restaurant that Devid had recommended, and brought home some lemon chicken, won ton soup, pot stickers and rice. The lemon chicken was strange, swimming in a watery sauce, but the won ton soup was good, although half of it was gone. It seems that carry out has not made its way to Chinese restaurants in Italy, and the soup was packaged in a mini loaf pan with a layer of Saran wrap over it. I might not have swung the bag quite so jauntily on my way home if I had known that. The pot stickers, though, were the best I’ve ever had. Thick dough encased even plumper filling, which literally dripped sauce on the first bite By far, the best pot sticker I have ever had. Leave it to the Italian Chinese to know how to make a ravioli.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Non, non, there is more!

We are in Paris and I have some blogs to postbut no way to post them until we find an internet cafe. The promised wi fi is very expensive and the free computerat the hotel has no other programs on it but internet explorer, so I cannot upload a Word document. Not to mention thatthe computer has a French keyboard, and the letters are all in the zrong spot. Note to self: next time I go to Europe,bring my own net.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

David's Dick

Tuesday was Art Day. One makes appointments to go to museums here, because unlike in the US, the museums are actually used . MK had made a 10:00 appointment at the Accademia, which probably used to house some rich Italians or a pope, his family, friends, goats and farm implements. Now its most famous inhabitant is David.

That is what the naked man statue is called. A friend of ours told MK a few weeks ago, “Florence is all about David’s dick,” and it does seem as if she is right. We’ve seen postcards with a close up of his dick, postcards with a close up of his dick with sunglasses on it, making it a Marx brother dick. We’ve seen t shirts with pictures of his dick on it, and one has to wonder where exactly one might wear such a shirt. Do you go to dinner at your mom’s house with David’s dick hanging on your chest like some kind of fancy bling? Or go out for a quick bite to eat, your chest dick bouncing as you walk down the street?

Walking into the Accademia, though, it is not David’s dick that draws ones eye to it. It is David himself. I’ve seen pictures of him, of course, but the pictures don’t convey his size. He is gigantic. He measures 16 feet tall, and weighs two and a half tons. He is the length of two basketball players. Michaelangelo was 25 years old when he laid down his chisel from sculpting David; when I was 25, the only thing I was laying down was that month’s copy of Cosmopolitan.

There were a few guards around David, including a woman that was about 5 feet tall-- a third of David’s height--and had a permanent expression of suspicion. She looked at every visitor as if each of us were carrying a bomb, which, given that we had passed through five metal detectors, full body cavity searches and a wanding before we were allowed to so much as glance at David’s dick, seemed like a bit of a trick. Still, our little banty rooster of a guard knew that each of us was going to go berserk at any moment and cause trauma to David’s dick. She was ready and able to throw herself at David’s groin to defend him from the bombs, chisels, rocket launchers and rifles that we had hidden in our money belts, but more importantly, she defended David against the dangers of photographs.

Now, David was in a public square for the first 400 years of his life, enjoying the desert inferno known as the Tuscan sunshine, the Tuscan cold, rain, sleet and snow, and the Tuscan bird shit. But Banty Rooster woman was damned if he was going to have to endure even one flashbulb. Not on her watch. “No peek churs! No peek churs!” she yelled every thirty seconds, and when a flash at the back of the room went off, a look of rage passed over her face before she yelled again, “No Fo dos! No Fo dos!” and made her way to the offending tourist who, with a sheepish look, tucked his camera into his pocket. That wasn’t enough for Banty Rooster, though. She got close to the man, who was probably wishing he was back home in Oslo, imbibing some glog, and she yelled, inches from his face, “No peek churs! No peek churs!”

I kept half an eye on Banty Rooster, but really, the whole show was David. Certainly his size dominated the room, but probably a talented kindergartner could hack at a big piece of marble, call it sculpture, and leave a big memento of her day behind her. But David reflects craftsmanship that defies explanation. The marble is smooth, and white like snow, and the look on David’s face seems both calculating and sad at once. David is Italy’s Statue of Liberty--he represents the fight for freedom. When David killed Goliath, the Jews were set free from one of the first tyrannical regimes which was just the warmup for a few thousand years of playing Throw the Jew Down the Well. But David grabbed that slingshot and hefted the shotput of a rock and killed his people’s oppressor. The feeling of triumph, the knowledge that his people’s fate rested in his massive right hand and the strength of his slingshot are both reflected in David’s face. His brow is furrowed, all two feet of it, and his lips are one determined line, the lips of a man about to throw his fate literally to the winds. Michaelangelo put all of that into a statue when he was 25 years old.

I would like to point out, though, that up close and personal, David’s dick is not a piece of wonder. David would not have lied to say that his dick is six inches long, although one wonders how a sixteen foot man has a six inch long dick.

“He’s uncircumcised,” I whispered to MK.

“Maybe Michaelangelo was unfamiliar with Jewish penises.”

Since Michelangelo was probably gay, it seemed unlikely that he might not have seen a Jewish penis before, but I let it go. I was busy staring at the veins in his feet. The detail that Michaelangelo infused into his David amazed me.

Next to David was large computer screeen , which had a rotating David gyrating on its screen. MK and I were staring like yokels at the real David as several tours came and went. French. Italian. Russian. German. Then a man with accented English spoke to a group of gum chewing American adolescents. While fifteen year old girls snapped their gum, the poor Italian guide talked about Michaelangelo’s career, how he chose the marble for David, and then the computer screen next to him, which he said was the “Digital David, created by Stanford University in Cullyeeferneea.” Wow. A Digital Dave. I watched as the teenage girls giggled their way through flopping David onto his head, and ran the camera up his leg. I had a perverse desire to see Digital Dave’s Dick, but couldn’t bring myself to actually use the cursor to zero in on it. Instead, I watched as several other museumgoers perused the contents of Dave’s head, as if that would allow us to understand the way great art is created.

In one corner of a bench, a woman was holding her cell phone up, and pushing buttons on it. I thought she was texting, but Banty Rooster thought she was surreptitiously taking photos of David. She and another guard conferred quietly, whispering to each other and staring pointedly at the woman, who for all the world looked as oblivious to the rest of the world as she would if she was texting love messages to last night’s paramour. She certainly didn’t see Banty Rooster or Banty Rooster’s mounting concern. The other guard, clearly under Banty Rooster’s provenance, nodded vigorously in response to Banty Rooster’s more and more heated pointing and discussion.

Finally, the other guard left and just a few minutes later, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. It was as loud as an avalanche, probably making the very molecules in David’s dick shudder and tighten as it reverberated throughout the gallery. First in Italian, and then in English. “THERE IS NO PICTURE TAKING ALLLOWED IN THE ACCADEMIA.” The woman with her cell phone looked up---after all, it seemed as if God was talking--and then went back to her cell phone. But now she held her phone lower, closer to her lap, and as she punched and poked at the numbers, Banty Rooster smirked in triumph. She stalked around the circumference of the viewing area, shaking her tail and cocking her head back and forth. That woman goes home every night, perturbed at what tourists will do to precious statues in the name of a memento. Some people are quite well suited to their work.

A few minutes later, a father approached with two school age children. In a pronounced English accent, he told them, “Now, you see David has a slingshot. Do you know what a slingshot is?” The boy, about 8, nodded vigorously and with great interest. The girl, about 12, pursed her lips. She was clearly trying not to stare at David’s dick. Her eyes kept darting up toward David‘s groin, and then back down to the floor. “If you look up, you can see the rock in his hand, Basel and Penelope,” the father said. Now was his chance to teach a ltitle biblical history to his children. “That is the sling and the rock that David used to slay the lion.”

I thought only Americans made bonehead errors like that. I didn’t know that Jed Clampett came in a British version.

As we moved through the exhibit, we also saw unfinished statues called “The Prisoners” by Michaelangelo. Having never tried to sculpt a thing, I somehow imagined that it was like doing a ceramic bowl, that one smoothed the edges in some obscure manner, using one’s hands. I know this is ridiculous, but when I imagine a sculptor, I imagine him patting a piece of stone into life. The Prisoners disabused me of that notion--I could see large chisel marks, medium chisel marks and small chisel marks on the sculptures that were only half done. It made David all that more remarkable--how did Michaelangelo create smooth marble from the rough, crystal finish that his chisel found naturally?

When we wandered into another area near David, we saw several large paintings that had small placards on them, explaining their restoration, which was made possible by the Friends of Florence. One painting depicted what I have come to learn is called the Dispostion of Christ, in which Jesus is hauled down off his cross, dead. Or seemingly dead. But wait, I wanted to yell, there’s more!

It’s amazing what pieces of information Christians keep to themselves, as if we all knew them. The annunciation, the disposition of Christ, the pieta, several other apparently well known scenes that I didn’t know had names. Call me Jessica Simpson, but I thought that when Jesus was taken off the cross, it was called Jesus being taken off the cross. This brings new meaning to a legal form at my work that is called the Record of Death and Disposition, which we use to track the bodies of people who have died

I wonder whether someone just misheard it at the time and it’s all been taken the wrong way. I imagine Saint Peter or Saint Francis or Saint Mary or the city of Saint Louis passing it on that the Romans not only crucified Jesus but also made him undergo a deposition after his death. Joe Six Pack 1 A.D. misheard and wrote it down as a disposition of Jesus. That‘s how these kind of things start. (Side note and shameless self promotion: I write about the Record of Death and Dispostion, informally known as the RDD, in the essay that The Sun Magazine is publishing in February. Order your copies now.

Next to The Dispostion of Christ, several other paintings bragged of their restoration, including one called Madonna Enthroned with Child. You guess which child. This painting was fortunate enough to have been restored not only by the Friends of Florence, but also with a major grant by Robyn and Mel “Sugar Tits” Gibson.

The rest of the gallery is full of a lot of paintings from olden times. All the religious art is starting to blend together, and all the subjects seems so damn serious. Jesus. As the song goes, he was just a man. You’d think that people could just get over it and move along. It wouldn’t kill some of these folks to crack a smile every now and then.

Jesus apparently didn’t enjoy much of a childhood. He got birthed, toddled into his Demonic period, and then jumped right to adulthood. I don’t really think it was a coincidence that no one chose to depict his adolescent years. He was probably getting drunk on water that he secretly made into wine and then going far too fast in a chariot around Bethlehem, picking up a couple of hotties for the road.

In pictures, though, he spent his demonic toddler hood breastfeeding, sometimes with teeth, while his Jewish friend John looked on. Or at least that is what it looks like from the pictures. John is always waving around that damn cross, like some kind of weirdo. You’d think that Jesus would have gotten the clue somewhere along the way.

I do have to say that all of these pictures of Jesus as a man inspire a bit of compassion for me. You can see that it hurts like hell to get crucified, not to mention beaten, stabbed and generally abused. He had to drag that cross like the Crosswalker, through some streets, up to his hill of death. Hell, I have troruble dragging my cross of a big fat ass up a couple of flights of stairs. I kind of feel for the guy. But Peter got hung upside down. You know that had to smart, not to mention making him dizzy when he got to his annunciation or coronation or disposition or depostion or whatever the hell happened to him after he finally died.

We tried to find an open restaurant after the visit to The Accademia, but it was a holiday, so most places were closed. Yes, it was the Epiphany. I always thought that the epiphany was something that happened to characters in books, when they suddenly realize that they have spent their whole lives fooling themselves about who they really are and decide to fulfill their inner dreams and become modern dancers that wear all black, go to Turkey and tiny little countries that no one has heard of, and drink very, very strong coffee while smoking cigarettes. I had no idea that Jesus did that, but I am sure black looked good on him. It went with the whole death theme.

We wandered around a lot, circling on little cobblestoned streets, until we ended up at the main drag near The Uffizzi, which was our next Art Stop. I wanted to eat at a little osteria, which All Rick, All the Time says is a word that makes his mouth water. MK kept pointing out little stands that sell pizza made with yesterday’s newspaper and the juice of turnips, the equivalent of eating from a permanent roach coach, and I shook my head. I’m a bit of a foodie--ok, I am a foodie--and the idea of eating bad pizza that has been made for American tastes makes my tongue start weaving its way to my uvula in an attempt to make myeself retch. Finally, after the last osteria we tried showed us its darkened, shuttered windows, I agreed to try Revoire, which is a huge, tourist attraction on Signore Plaza, known for its hot chocolate.

The whole place was abustle, with interesting little snacks up on the bar, which MK pushed me away from. I longed to reach right over some furcoated lady’s head and snatch an olive that was just sitting there, but instead a waiter wearing a black, short jacket came up and ushered us to a seat by a window. The real dining room was a room over, but we look like we are from Sacramento, California, so he wanted to keep us under wraps. After much discussion, we ordered an antipasto plate of mixed meats, and a lasagna. The mixed meats were great, although mortadella was on the plate, and mortadella ventures just a bit too close to head cheese, which feeds my organ meat paranoia. The lasagna, on the other hand, was amazing--thick mounds of ricotta nestled between about 90 layers of pasta, a tomato sauce that was made in the last five hours, with little chunks of meat hiding in it. After that, we both ordered a hot chocolate. It wasn’t the best meal I’d had--Lucca is still fresh in my head--but it was good. The bill, on the other hand, was not. $60 Euro for some salami, two pieces of lasagna, and two hot chocolates.

It may have been worth 60 Euro, though, to see the dog. A dandy man in too tight checked pants and a short blue jacket brought in his dog on a leash. The dog, a large, fat bulldog, sported a blue coat just like its owner. He was panting from the exertion of walking from the door to the middle of the room, and his smashed in face took on an expression of exhaustion and resignation. His most outstanding feature, however, besides his uhappiness with the indignity of having to be seen with a man who dressed with too much flash, was the further indignity of having to wear a fur collar. A huge mink collar encircled his neck, over his collar, keeping him warm. Now even the live animals wear dead animals.

At the Uffizzi, which is Italian for “offices,” named because the building was once a set of offices for the Medici clan, Demonic Jesus was out in full force. It began to strike me that Jesus didn’t live in the middle east, at least according to these painters. He was born and lived under the beautiful sky of Florence, it seems. Terra cotta dominated the background of his life, and huge stone palaces were the setting for its drama. Boticelli painted himself and the Medicis into a Tuscan nativity scene. Da Vinci painted part of the Florence landscape in The Baptism of Christ. There were pictures of Italian women praying the rosary at Jesus’ crucifixion-- a neat trick, given that from my understanding, the rosary was something that was invented after Jesus’ death-- and knights praying throughout Italy during his life. It seems as if the Medicis got a little confused and commissioned paintings that modeled Jesus’ life on their own, instead of modeling their own lives on his. Jesus was an ill tempered little tyke, but he grew up to be a Medici.

In the middle of seeing the exhibit, we heard a great drumming. By great drumming, I mean that the marble in the Uffizzi walls shook, three stories above the street, and people began to bolt for the staircases, apparently fearing an earthquake or the Rapture. I went to a window-- a great and complex wooden affair with carved marble as its sill--and looked outside.

The Rennaisance Faire had come to Florence. People in blue velvet floppy hats, and men in knickers were banging on large drums suspended from their necks. Little girls in pink cotton dresses braved the cold and tapped wooly sheep on their back legs with crooks. Women with their breasts peeking dangerously out from red velvet bodices merrily scattered flowers, while men in blousy white shirts blew on horns. Below us passed two yoked oxen who had never been yoked before, pulling and pushing at each other like the newly wedded partners in an arranged marriage. Pigs and goats and llamas and donkeys trotted the street, leaving fresh piles of animal shit for the tourists to swear at. All we needed was a big turkey leg and a good game of hacky sack, and I could have been in California. All this in honor of the Epiphany. I wish a parade like that happened every time I made some profound realization.

After the Uffizzi, we were exhausted, and we walked across the Pointe Vecchio, which is just around the corner from the Uffizzi. The Pointe Vecchio is a bridge that gleams with all the jewelry shops that line it. Thousands and thousands of pieces of jewelry are in every storefront window, and the entire bridge looks like one big Yellow Brick Road. If Italy ever needs to bring back the lire, it can just back up the currency with the gold from one of the Pointe Vecchio shops and be the richest country in the world. As we walked back toward our hotel, I heard an American girl in her early 20s say, as she viewed the gold and silver and jewels of the bridge, “Wow, it’s like Bling Street.” Yes, it’s like Bling Street.

We accidentally ran into Il Fratanelli, a deli that is no wider than me, which is plenty wide enough, and which perches improbably in an alley, with lines of Italians snaking from its counter. I got a salami and truffle cream sandwich and MK got a salami and cheese one, and then she saw some melon gelato at the gelato store next to our hotel, and had a cup of it.

There seems to be a strange obsession with garbage and street cleaning in Florence; the garbage trucks run at least once an hour, offset by the street cleaners. They are small trucks, about the size of a VW Bug on a diet, so perhaps they need to come around more often just to get the job done. I actually think, though, that it is part of the Italian need for inefficiency and keeping everyone employed. At every museum, there are two guards for every room, even the rooms that house Ancient Tibetan depictions of Jesus as a Japanese Monk, or other obscure genres. The guards, unlike Banty Rooster, generally see their primary function as smoking with their arms and face hanging out some window that says, “Do Not Open,“ just underneath the sign that says that smoking is forbidden. If they aren’t smoking, they are playing games on their cell phones, or speaking in rapid Italian to each other, probably giving each other recipes for minestrone soup or figuring out ways to frustrate the French.

We both went to bed early, although the garbage trucks woke me up periodically throughout the night, collecting God knows what. I’m not sure how much garbage is generated on a street full of closed shops in the middle of the night, but I suppose one can’t be too careful about that sort of thing. At about five, I woke up to the sound of a particularly loud garbage truck outside, only to figure out a few moments later, even in my sleepy stupor, that it was not a garbage truck or a street cleaning truck that was making all that racket, but MK in the bathroom. The melon gelato had definitely not agreed with her.

PS: We are now in Venice, where internet access has gone from bad to worse. We fly to Paris on Sunday night, but until then, I am limited to getting email and posting blogs from an internet cafe which is fifteen canals and fifteen complex dark alleys away from our hotel. So expect posts once we get to Paris where MK swears internet access will be easier. Rowing the gondola this morning was more of a workout than I wanted, especially in below freezing weather.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ex-Coo-Say the Ritardes

Monday dawned early, too early. It was 6AM when we got out of bed, and I could feel every second of the two hours more of sleep that I wanted. My throat felt congested, as if the Roman army had thrown a couple of pints of burning oil down it, and MK was clearing her throat constantly, like an old man with emphysema. Hach, hach, hach I kept hearing.

She told me that she was having trouble breathing, and also felt as if a pill had gone down the wrong pipe and lodged itself in her chest. In other words, my partner felt short of breath and had chest pain. I knew that the Italians, grateful for our willingness to stalk freedom by fighting terrorism in Iraq, would rush her to the hospital if she needed it. My only problem was how to communicate her need to them. I looked up “chest pain” in the handy Rick Steves translator, and was surprised to find it missing. MK told me that she was fine, hach, hach, hach, it just felt as if something had gone to the wrong place. Nothing to worry about. OK.

MK got on the computer surreptitiously while I ate breakfast. Not as fancy as the Rome hotel--no surprise there--but there were soft little cheeses, kind of like Baby Bels, and blood orange juice. I guzzled a couple of pints of that, trying to vanquish the Roman army that had ravaged my throat during the night, while MK researched hotels. She slid up to me in the breakfast room and spoke lowly. “The Hotel Fancy Name has rooms for $90Euros a night, after tonight because tomorrow’s a holiday.”

“Great.” I was munching some sort of cracker with an off brand of nutella spread over it. Behind me, the breakfast attendant, a woman with greasy blonde hair and a mouth incapable of smiling, rattled some dishes.

I had a good view of the hotel guests filing in for their free breakfasts. One woman wore a fantastic, tailored ochre sweater, but most of them seemed to be dressed in Early American Walmart style, which included stretch polyester pants trying to contain a few hundred pounds of woman, and sequined long sleeve t shirts that flashed in the dim light and said things like, “Montana Okie Luau” and other phrases that make perfect sense only to the Taiwanese factory owner that made them up. One man came into the breakfast room with his brown hair still longing for the pillow that matted it, and wearing some pants that only the best dressed vagrants could carry off, three inches too short with a chartreuse and pink checked flannel shirt that looked as if it had escaped from Kenny Chesney’s secret closet. He came straight to the buffet table and I could smell a slight odor of sweat mixed with a less slight odor of urine as he passed. This was one classy joint.

“We’ll tell them that unless the room is taken care of, we’ll move.”

The idea of repacking our 15,000 suitcases and bags sounded about as inviting as the idea of engaging our fellow hotel guests in a game of Truth or Dare, Italian Style, but I nodded. Back to the front desk.

There was Paulina. Didn’t the woman ever go home? It was 10:00 AM, we had a noon train train to catch, and Paulina w2as all that stood in our way. “Uh, our room? It smells like cigarettes. The owner told me last night that he’d take care of it today.”


“So it will be cleaned extra today?”

“The owner told me that it smells like cigarettes.” She leveled a knowing look at me. Yes, I've given up twenty years of cigarette sobriety to trash your trashed twlfth century century palace.

“Yes, so it will be cleaned of cigarette smoke today?”

Paulina turned toward her computer and pushed a few buttons. She had her back to me and showed no signs of changing that arrangement. I walked away. Back to the room.

MK, in the meantime, had found that the Hotel Maxim’s sister hotel, the euphonically named Axial Hotel, in honor of the famous Axial, had an internet rate of $80euro a night, for the next four nights, and availability. Hotel Axial was in the same building, but on the first floor, instead of the third. MK said, “Please?” as if I would care about $15 Euros a night to stay in a place that didn't inspire Amy Winehouse to retch. Not wanting to choke on my own tongue in the dead of night as it swelled from smoke inhalation, nor to break my hips from the bed breaking beneath my vigorous sleep habit of lying on my side, I shrugged my shoulders and told MK that I'd do anything for her health. Sure, let's change hotels to another, better floor.

That meant another trip to Paulina. “You talk,” Mk begged me. In the negotiation world, I am far more able to keep from oh, let's say, crawling across Paulina’s desk in order to strangle her slowly with her shellacked and rotting hair. Not that I've fantasized about that.

As we walked up, we overheard a short blonde American woman speaking to Paulina. “So the wifi will be free because we read about the hotel in Rick Steves?”

“Oh yes, of course. Just connect on your laptop to the network and come back and I will give you the free password.”

The woman walked away. “Yes?” Paulina smiled at me. So the other guests were getting free Wifi. We knew it. Paulina just didn't like us, anymore than we liked her.

“There is a room downstairs, at Axial Hotel, and it is available. Can we check out of this hotel and move to it?”

Paulina opened her eyes wide, resembling Michael Jackson without a face mask. “It is a three star hotel! Three stars!”

“Yes, we know. That’s ok.”

“It’s a three star hotel. It will be more expensive.”

“Yes, we checked.”

“Three stars.”


Big sigh. She picked up the homing device that might have been a telephone and spoke rapidly into it in Italian before hanging up.

“The rate will be $85 Euros a night.” She smiled triumphantly and crossed her arms across her chest.


Paulina’s mouth opened a little and then her chin tried to meet her nose as she waved her hand dismissively and said, “Go down there. You just go ahead.”

When we walked into the Axial Hotel, a beautiful dark haired woman in a dark blue business jacket smiled at us. I started to blubber, “Thank you, thank you,” but MK elbowed me into silence.

“You’d like to see the room?” the woman asked.

See the room? Why sure! We grabbed the key and went down a short, carpeted hallway to a room with large, beautiful wooden windows that were double paned. The bed, made of actual wood, with a big firm mattress, sat in the middle of the room and had a neat blue bedspread on top that looked as if it had been made in the last decade. The bathroom had a bidet, a towel warming rack, and best of all, a toilet without any strange buttons that sucked air or needed to be kept closed, but simply a large button that required a simple push to dispose of waste that I’d rather not see again. And no more Paulina.

We raced back up the elevator, ran down the passageways, up over the mountains again, up the stairs, took a shortcut across the football stadium and then around the monastery, reached our room, and threw everything into the suitcases, bags, and backpacks, willy nilly. My underwear touched MK’s underwear, my Pantene rode piggyback on her Suave. Our hands couldn’t move fast enough.

When we came back to the lobby, Paulo, the owner of both hotels was there. I smiled at him. "We're moving to the other hotel."

"Yes, yes, Paulina told me. Are you sure? Would another room here be better for you?" He seemed genuinely concerned that we might be breaking the budget with our move.

"No, no, we're fine," I assured him.

MK muttered under her breath. "I thought there weren't any rooms available for the rest of the week." She was right: Paulina had said that yesterday. No wifi for us. No hotel rooms except the decrepit one that bordered Croatia. Perhaps Paulina was the Soup Nazi of Hotel Maxim Sentence.

As we passed Paulina, she said quietly, as if incredulous, “It’s a three star hotel.”

We nodded. Later, I asked MK, “So how many stars is Hotel Maxim?””


If those are Michelin stars, we’re talking some serious retreads. And I’d hate to know what a one star hotel looks like.

Waving “Arriverderci” to Paulina, who still had her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed, we Sherpa-ed our way to our new hotel, negotiated the internet price of $80Euro a night, and threw all of our things in the general vicinity of the room, before racing for the train station.

We walked, although MK seemed to be catching the Italian stroll disease. Perhaps it was her hands pressed tightly to her chest that slowed her down, or her labored breathing, but I wanted to get going, wanted to meet Devid, wanted to get to Lucca. She seemed oblivious to the fact that our train left in 40 minutes and we had no idea where we were going.

Florence was laid out by monks on acid, I think, and it was only by sheer luck that we managed to find the train station without getting lost or hit by a car.

At the Florence train station, the pigeons have a special palace built just for them, and armed guards protect them, while vestal virgins come out three times a day to feed them, bathe them and give them massages. The pigeons love this treatment and have told all the other pigeons in Tuscany that a great treat awaits them if they just swoop through the train station and shit on train goers heads. We narrowly avoided several such gifts (regallos) from the patron rodents of Florence, but there is always a next time.

Once again, the ticket machine was occupied by someone buying stocks on the Nipon market and negotiating the price of pork bellies, but while we impatiently waited, afraid of missing our train, MK took the opportunity to hach hach hach every three seconds.

After a few generations had passed, we moved up in line and were quickly able to get our tickets to Via Reggio. There is a small yellow machine in the train stations in Italy, which stamps one’s ticket. If you board without a stamped ticket, you will be fined. Of course, no one has explained this to us, except for Rick Steves, and so after we got our ticket, we went looking for the yellow machine, and also began to scan the signs for our departure gate. Via Reggio’s “bin” number was suspiciously blank, even though it was 11:50 and the train left in 18 minutes.

The train station gives its patrons two choices of inviting options for waiting. One can stand near the doors, in order to get a large exposure to the frigid air, or one can stand near the train platforms, where the air is just as frigid but one has a view of the sky. We chose to stand by the platforms, in the misguided hope that our train would magically appear and that we could then board.

My hat, gloves, coat and long johns were like wearing a bridal veil. I was once again losing sensation in my extremities. Birds whooped and dove around me, trying to bring Alfred Hitchcock to life under the Tuscan sky. Standing there, MK suddenly asked, “Does it feel like a pill is stuck in your throat when you have an aortic aneurysm?” Living with me is not always a good thing.

Finally, at 12:25, TraneItalia announced that the 12:08 train to Via Reggio was delayed five minutes. We knew this because, unlike in Rome, the announcements were made in Italian and also in British English. The Italian version of the announcement started out with “TrainItalia ex-coo-say” (TrainItalia apologizes..), but there was no mention of an apology in the English version of the announcement.

It didn’t matter. There was no sign of a train, either. By my calculations, TrainItalia needed to return to elementary school for some lessons in the big hand and the little hand. I couldn’t figure out how a train that was already 17 minutes late could be only five minutes late. We shivered next to each other, trying to gather as much warmth from our marbleized bodies as possible. Around us, Italian people buzzed and smoked cigarettes, making MK hach, hach, hach over and over again. It sounded as if she had turned into a Canada Goose.

There was a “Hot Shop” in the station, and I grabbed MK’s hand, forcing her to follow me to the food court of Florence. They sold panini that had clearly been made as an experiment in petrifaction, and some pizza that had been shipped from Omaha, Nebraska in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial celebration. The market area sold some sandwiches that had something pink and gooey between the two slices of bread, and some milk products that advertised “Health Therapy” on the outside. We stood toward the back of the store, trying to gather heat from the microwave, until finally we felt obligated to move on when some policeman wanted to use it to heat up some caviar for the pigeons that were gathered just outside the door.

We still weren’t warm. Next to the Hot Shop stood a McDonald’s. We looked at each other. MK hach, hach, hached and then clutched her chest. “Just some fries?” I said. She nodded. In we walked.

We don’t go to McDonald’s in the US and to walk into one in Florence was rather like making fun of the pope in Rome. We could have just left behind some poop at the Vatican if we wanted to insult the Italian people more, but then I figured that if the Italian people wanted us to steer clear of McDonald’s they’d heat their train stations, and give a poor emphysemic woman a place to sit that was free of birds, bird shit and cigarette smoke. I stood in line.

The woman behind the counter was African American, but I suppose that made her African Italian. I'm just trying to say that she was black. It is strange to see black people here who speak Italian, but it is even more odd to see Asian people here who speak ITalian. Sometimes I forget that Jews are not the only diasoporic people.

I said, “Two French fries?” in my most winning smily voice. I have no idea how to say “Help” in Italian; “French fries” is way beyond my vocabulary. The McDonald’s worker looked at me with that look that means“You must be friggin’ kidding me, you dirty American, coming into a McDonald’s when you are in one of the culinary capitals of the world.” There was certainly no smile in return for mine.

Ten minutes passed while she stared me down, trying to shame me into ordering something not on the menu. “Un beefsteak Florentine,” I wanted to say, but that wouldn’t net me anything more than two orders of fries anyway.

Finally the McDonald’s worker, resigned to my wordless insistence that she give me two orders of French fries, turned around and did the Italian stroll toward the French fry holder. She scooped up some fries, and I prayed that she did not spit into them. As she handed my order to me, I asked, “Catsup?” and she laughed.

“20 cents a pack.” She could have added, “you bastard American without the taste buds allotted to a snake,” but she managed to hold her tongue. Given that she lives in a country that eats beef intestines as a delicacy, I didn’t see that she had much room to judge my request for catsup. However, I didn’t want to dig through my coat, sweater, shirt and long john top in order to haul out my secret money belt for 20 cents (which is probably equivalent to, oh, about $5 American dollars). I just waved at her. I think she and Paulina know each other.

But at least the heat from the fryer had warmed us up almost to the freezing point of alcohol. There were no tables in McDonald’s--wjy would you need those?--and so we wandered back to the Pigeon Palace. The sign on the wall now gave a track number for our train, though, and there was a train sitting at that track.

This wasn’t an Orient Express train. It looked as if it had been built in the Nixon era, when Fiat was building cars to rival the quality of the Yugo and the horse drawn carriage. There was no well dressed conductor, but instead two guys in greasy coveralls using wrenches on the wheel of a car, with one guy going clockwise and the other going counterclockwise on the same wheel. The step to board the train was only about ten feet from the ground, and after we climbed a ladder up the side and monkey barred our way into the car, we found some seats. We began to eat our fries, only to notice that everyone else on the train was staring at us. “It’s not polite not to share,” MK whispered, and so we put our bag low, where no one could see it.

The train announcer lady said, “Ex-coo-say, TrainItalia….” and then ventured into some long Italian sentences of which I could only catch numbers. I think she was claiming that we were ten minutes late. The clock said it was 12:45; our train was supposed to leave at 12:08. Ten minutes, forty minutes. What’s the difference?

The Italian word for late, by the way, is “Ritarde.” I know this because the sign on the wall kept claiming ridiculous numbers for its ritarde-ness. At one point, our train was on time. Hitler may have made the trains run on time, but the Italians imagined that they did.

Devid had arranged that he would get on board our train in Pescia, and although I fretted that somehow he wouldn’t figure out that our train was ritard-ed, he did, and we hugged each other when he boarded. Off to Lucca.

We chatted during the ride, discussing American and Italian politics. MK was disappointed to hear Devid dismiss all politicians, left and right wing, as corrupt. MK, a child of the 60s, continues to harbor some faint hope that socialism will rise and triumph, vanquishing poverty and greed forever. You’d think that the economic triumph of Cuba and the Eastern Bloc nations would give her some sense that socialism might only mean corruption by a different name, but then I sympathize because I too wish that we could all live one for all, all for one. It’s just that so often the “one” turns out to be someone who already has power and money. I’ve never heard of the homeless getting bailouts.

Devid, though, didn’t appreciate socialism any more than he appreciated the current Italian prime minister, who specializes in being a billionaire when he isn’t screwing up the train schedule. He did like Obama, and all three of us cackled in delight that a genuine intellectual is going to be in the White House. We moved to religion, which Devid dismissed . For whatever reason, it bothers him that the Vatican and the Italian government profess one belief and then act another way. Whatever happens in Italy politically comes through the Vatican in some way, and the idea of separating church and state is about as plausible here as the idea of Calvin Coolidge rising from the dead and winning the next presidential election. “They say one thing on the outside,” Devid explained. “But they are another way on the inside.” Of course, that’s unique to Italian politics. I’ve never heard of a politician in the U.S. lying for his own advancement. WMD, anyone?

Devid summarized his feelings simply. If there’s something wrong in Italy, “Blame it on the pope. It’s always the pope’s fault.” Ah, if only we had it that easy.

The train pulled into Lucca during this conversation, and then it stopped, a few hundred feet from the train station. The Italians have cleverly designed three or four stations with only one set of tracks. So if, for instance, a train is not running on time, let’s say ex-coo-say 45 minutes late (or 5, depending on how one calculates time), one train has to wait for the other train to use the only set of tracks. So we sat and waited. I do wonder if the Italian’s easy disregard for the passage of time came before or after their need to disregard time due to inefficiency.

Devid began to get nervous that the restaurant at which he wanted to bring us to eat lunch would close, and so he called ahead to ask them to stay open because the train was late. I heard “ritarde” several times in the conversation and hoped that he wasn’t presenting me as some sort of handicapped sister that had an inordinate need to eat Tuscan salami before she went back to her institution.

After the leaves on the trees started to bud again, the train moved and we got off in Lucca. It was about 1:45 and there was still ice on the ground in more than a few spots. We tried to avoid those spots, so that we could avoid being the tourists that looked like toddlers on roller skates, right before we fell on our asses. Devid led us across the street, where we saw the walls of Lucca.

Lucca is a city that has walls (ramparts) that surround it, built as defense during the 14th century. Many cities used this means of defense, but Lucca is the only city that managed to escape desturction of its walls by the very people against whom they were supposed to defend. Interestingly, Lucca’s only attack came from a flood in the 1800s; the walls served as levees, and kept the city from flooding.

The city is small, with perhaps 30,000 residents within its walls. According to Devid, there are 99 churches in those same walls, and he offered to let us tour and pray in each of them. Given that we had just seen the Vatican, we told him that we’d given up churches for Lent. He was fine with that.

We walked briskly--MK still rubbing at her chest and wheezing behind Devid and me--to the restaurant, where a tall young man quickly seated us. A shorter, older, slight woman hurled menus at our heads but missed, and they landed near our placemats. The look she shot us, though, didn’t miss its mark. We had skittled into the restaurant just before 2:00, their closing time, and despite Devid telling her in Italian that le trena was ritarde, her look mirrored the look of any worker in any country whose quitting time had come and was now going.

One of our fears in coming to Italy was the food. Sure, there’s pasta everywhere, but there’s also organ meat everywhere. The menus in front of us had words like “liver” and “sweetbreads” and “tripe” on it. That last one would be beef intestines to those who have not had the opportunity of eating the shit holder for a cow before. Seeing the word on the menu reminded me fondly f my childhood, when I’d come home from school and the entire house would smell like a manure pile that was being heated by the fires of hell, as my mother slaved over some hot cow intestines for dinner. There’s nothing like a little childhood nostalgia to kill your appetite.

MK was shaking as she held the menu. “Mmmm, tripe!” she said. “Not sure what to order. I’m torn between the diced rabbit liver and the duck brain stew.” I kicked her under the table.

“I’m thinking of having the tortelli,” I said.

“What’s in that?”

“It says meat.”

Devid chimed in. “Tortelli have beef in them. It’s a regional specialty.”

MK smiled. “I’ll have that then.”

For some reason, I thought that it would be rude to order the same thing that she was having. So she had taken my choice, and now I had to choose something else. Certainly the pork anus called to me, but I was tempted by the squid head as well. Ultimately, though, I chose some pumpkin gnocchi. As long as the pumpkin didn’t sprout some organs before it was cooked, I would be fine.

I also ordered a salami plate and a cheese plate, to share, and Devid ordered some crostini and a vegetable that he insisted was not spinach but which, if it was not spinach, looked and tasted like its long lost twin brother.

The salami came and there were huge chunks of one sort on the plate, as well as slices of another. I grabbed one of the large chunks while Devid said, “This restaurant makes its own salami. They only make 200 or 300 rolls a year, and they don’t sell it, except in the restaurant.” One bite and I knew that we would have to return to Lucca one day, so that I could have more of the salami. There was a hint of truffle in the bite, as well as some sort of spice that tasted almost like chocolate. I tried to restrain myself while MK cut into the slice with her fork and knife.

“Mmmm,” she said. “Fennel. Peppers. Oh. Good.” She was reduced to one word at a time, which is a miracle akin to Nicole Kidman making her eyebrows move.

“It’s only made in Lucca,” he told us.

I was too busy munching to hit MK’s hand as she reached for another slice. “You have to try this kind,” I told her.

“It’s a texture thing. I don’t want a chunk.” Oh, how sad. I’d only have to beat out Devid for the best salami I could imagine. I was willing to duel him for it, but he seemed slightly disinterested in the whole salami situation. Perhaps the fact that he lived ten miles away made it seem less valuable. All I knew was that I’d happily go to Mass once a week if it meant that I could eat this salami. I didn’t say I’d convert, just to be clear. But I would go to Mass.

The rest of the food was just as extraordinary. The pumpkin gnocchi were great, although by then I was so full of pork that their starchiness overwhelmed me a bit. It didn’t stop me from stealing small bites of MK’s tortelli, which had a wonderful blend of cheese, tomato and beef. Our cheese plate came last, with a small slice of tomato in the center. The old pecorino on the plate tasted of truffles, too, though MK told me that she thought that God had entered her mouth when the crystals in the parmesan reggio began to melt on her tongue. I was too busy trying not to lick my plate to fight her for a taste.

“Oh look, it’s the traditional red cheese of Tuscany,” Devid said, and we both stared at the plate in front of us., puzzled. Our quick dispatch of the contents of the cheese plate had left the plate empty. Except for the tomato. Ahhh. Clever Devid had made a joke. Very impressive. I am like a toddler in this country, unable to convey most of my needs by any other means than pointing and shaking my head yes or no. Try to tell someone that you’d like your milk warmed up in Italian. Devid, on the other hand, was able not only to communicate with us, but to also make jokes, to tell us that all Italian problems were the fault of the pope, to name not only our current president, but also our president elect and his political rivals, to discuss the economy and the weather. I couldn’t discuss the implications of “The Cat in the Hat” in Italian.

The waiter and the waitress both wore white shirts and black pants, but over their pants, they wore sweeping aprons that had slits both at the sides and down the center front and back. They looked like priests. The woman waitress continued to shoot us the snake eye. Perhaps someone had made her eat raw pork tongue a few mintues before we came in the door, or perhaps she hates fat American women. There's also the possibility that she's just a sour puss. No matter what, we beat it out of the restaurant before she could blow her nose on coats.

(I will write to Devid and find out the name of the restaurant and post it here, for those interested in eating the salami of your life. For those of you who are vegetarians or kosher, I'm sorry. )

After lunch, we walked the ramparts, with MK still feeling uncomfortable but slightly better. It was probably only a small heart attack she’d suffered, I decided. I explored the ramparts themselves, the banking above the pedestrian path, until two ladies in their 60’s or 70’s came along and told Devid in rapid Italian that I could be fined for my little stroll on top of the world. There are biddies everywhere.

Devid showed us church after church, and we began to believe that indeed there are 99 churches within the walls of Lucca. We saw several cubbies meant for cannons, and the house that Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise lived in during the making of “The Portrait of a Lady.” Devid offered to let us climb to the top of a tower that holds living trees and a garden, but MK pleaded that her chest pain prevented her from going up the stairs.

He took us to a hot chocolate café, where the drinks were made with chocolate so thick that the English are investigating its possible use as a substitute for gravy, which would make every English child happy until their teeth fell out. I tried to refrain from licking the cup like a dog, but I’m not sure I succeeded.

And then it was time to go. We braved the cold to get back to the train station, and avoided slipping on ice like the amateurs we really are.

The train station in Lucca is similar to the train station in Florence, in that the thermostat is set to off and the patrons all huddle together near light bulbs to get any warmth that might come their way. A dog, whose tag said that he belonged to the station, came to rest against my legs, and I’m not sure whether he got the better end of the deal or I did. I could feel my legs, though, which was a good thing. My nose was a goner, no matter what. When I get home, I’m probably going to need rhinoplasty , just to route some circulation to it.

One of the web pages about Lucca included these descriptions in its list of restaurants. None of these are the home of the best salami I’ve ever had, but the language made me laugh.

Ristorante Buca di Sant'Antonio is an innovative restaurant offering delicious tweeks to traditional Tuscan dishes. A must-try is the leek and ricotta pie accompanied by unforgettable chickpea sauce. Phone 0039 0583 5 58 81.
Osteria Baralla offers juicy meats in a soft tone jazzy environment, with excellent service and perfectly combined red wines. Definitely not for vegetarians. Phone 0039 0583 44 02 40.

I love it when the tweeks are delicious and the juicy meats are in a soft tone jazzy environment. Certainly red wines are best when combined.

Later, we would get off the train in Florence and try to skid our way home without slipping on some ancient icy pavement that once tripped a Roman or a Medici or two. The train, which has a sign that tells you the temperature, said that it was 5 degrees Celsius in Florence. That sounds balmy--about 40 degrees--but feels like Minnesota in, well, January. Or at least it does to our poor Californian bodies.

The train was late in Lucca, ex-coo-say TraneItalia, because there was another train in the station. One cannot come until another goes. It is a simple system, and I’m sure it works for someone. Probably not anyone trykng to get to work, but it must work for someone. It must certainly give everyone a ready ex-coo-say for being ritarde to work. If not, Devid is right. It’s the pope’s fault.