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.


jax said...

i wouldn't trust rick aagian, he's let you down a few times now.
that bastardo.

Bholland said...

Ahhh thanks for my daily fix!