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.”
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.