The Italians are still celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. Apparently that is more than a song here, although there are no lords a leaping anywhere that I’ve seen. With only a few days left until the Epiphany, the ladies wearing dead animals on their backs have a lot of shopping to do, and their husbands appear to have a lot of cigarette smoking to handle.
We let ourselves into the massive doors of Hotel Maxim and dragged our suitcases up a few steps. The guidebook-promised elevator was even larger than we’d imagined, almost big enough for the two of us, our luggage, and a celery stalk. I pressed the 3 button with my frozen nose--did I mention that Florence is even colder than Rome?-- and the elevator made some rolling sounds and then deposited us upstairs.
The clerk--let’s call her Paulina--perched behind the desk, speaking into the telephone. She looked at us with large green eyes and then whirled her chair so that her back was to us. “Blindini balistrano Giuliani….”she rattled into the phone. We waited.
Finally, she said, “Arrivederci,” and turned her chair around. Paulina looked like a cross between Diana Ross and Eddie Izzard, which is not to say that she was a particularly attractive woman. Her reddish hair hung in hanks of processing, as if she’d tried to straighten it a few months ago and now simply deep fried it in oil before coming to work. Her mascara made each eyelash the width of a telephone pole, which was a good thing, because they offset a Karl Madden nose.
We gave her the particulars and she recited the rules. No coming in after 1:00AM. Internet access only until 1:00 AM. No smoking. No talking. Fifteen minutes on the computer, maximum. Then she smiled. “Would you like a map of the city?” She handed one over.
“You’d like another?” Well, there were two of us, and unlike Siamese twins, we were separable.
Big sigh. She reached to the pad of maps and painstakingly tore off another. Clearly each of them cost less than 10 Euro cents, but she had a point. With the exchange rate, that would buy a house in Santa Barbara.
Paulina gave us directions to our room, which involved fording a few streams and then rappelling down the Alps before finishing off with a ten mile forest hike.
There would also be a few stairs. “How many?” MK asked.
Rock hard smile. She turned toward MK and her hair bounced off her head, like a broom's bristles on concrete. “A few.” This could take longer than it would take Israel to negotiate a relationship with Iran. I changed the subject.
“We’ll get wi fi?”
Ah, yes. “For a fee.”
The guidebook had promised free wi-fi for its readers. “We booked through Rick Steves.”.
“Wi Fi is for a fee.”
“But it’s supposed to be free.”
Paulina nodded and smiled. “There is a fee.” The proof of our guidebooks were buried somewhere deep in our backpacks, beneath small bags of biscotti, travel rolls of Charmin and bleach wipes.
We gave up and packed up our sacks and suitcases and satchels and backpacks and headed off in the direction in which she’d pointed. Dragging and toting our bags, we scooted sideways past cleaning products, leftover torture devices from the 1400s, a catapult and a few boulders from Jesus’ tomb. The stairs appeared. Perhaps Paulina meant a few flights.
Our room smelled of cigarette smoke. The diamond shaped veneer inlays that held our bedside lights were slowly prying themselves off the wall. The bed sagged in the middle, and the window had clearly not been restored since 1800. The north wind blew through the room, making the peeling paint flap against the walls. We heaved our bags onto the bed.
“This was my bargain find,” MK said.
“This is a cheap room? I wouldn’t have known.” I tried to sound sweet.
When MK is tired, as she might be after five hours sleep and 14 hours awake, and an interaction with the Rome train station, a taxi cab and Paulina, she begins to get a little edgy. She looked as if she might either throw her suitcase out of our garret, or cry. “$65 Euros a night, for five nights.”
“You know, I like it.” I tried to smile.
I went to pee. There was a button on the top of the toilet that I pushed, expecting a flush. I tried again. There was a sucking noise but the yellow water and the lone piece of toilet paper waved at me.
I finally called to MK and she came into the bathroom and stared at the water lapping at the bottom of the toilet bowl. She opened the tank and wiggled things. She pushed the button on top, and sucking noises led to a gentle wave-like action in the water, but the toilet paper and the pee remained behind.
We knew we had to talk to Paulina.
“I’ll go,” I volunteered. If one of us had to sacrifice ourselves for a toilet, it might as well be me. Let MK carry on and provide for the children.
MK went with me, though, primarily because she didn’t want to stay in our little prison room alone. MK was nearing the end of her ability to cope with either walking or talking, let alone both. She was exhausted and we were staying in a room that looked like it doubled as a crack den, and which smelled like a casino.
On the way down, she sat at the bottom of the stairs, near tears, trying to breathe. The cigarette smoke in the room made her feel wheezy, she said. I urged her to carry on; we were only a few miles from Paulina.
Paulina stared at me blankly when I told her the problem. “I don’t fix toilets. The owner will be back around 6.”
“And he’ll fix it?”
“I don’t fix toilets.”
“The owner will be back around 6 and he can fix it?”
Paulina wordlessly went to a rolodex and then picked up the handset from an elaborate telephone system that probably communicated with NASA in 1963. She punched several buttons before hanging up the handset. “He’s not answering his mobile."
"But he'll fix it tonight?"
"I don’t fix toilets. He’ll be here after 6.”
“So if we go out and come back around 7, our toilet will be fixed?”
“I don’t fix toilets.”
I gave up and grabbed MK, who was now whimpering in front of the “internet point,” a spot that was off limits after 1:00 AM, according to signs posted in front of, above, under and on the computer. We went downstairs in search of a sight or two.
We’d passed the Duomo earlier. Each city’s main cathedral is called a “duomo,” but this duomo had been built without a dome, until Michaelangelo figured out how to engineer one, three hundred years after the cathedral was erected. Talk about faith. Sitting in an open cathedral in winter or in the heat of summer would surely make one feel so much closer to God.
We wanted to get another look. The exterior was covered in diamond-shaped emerald green and white marble, like a bathroom floor from The Wizard of Oz. There were little nooks, with statues of saints and popes peeking out, jack in the box style. If you don’t like one holy figure, you can just look at a different one, carved from marble and immortalized on little perches. They looked down at us from their turrets, while we shivered in the cold square beneath them. The Baptistery (this building may produce Southerners that want to fry up squirrels and deny me the right to marry) has doors that depict various Bible scenes, including ones from the Old Testament, known by my kind as the Five Books of Moses.
Faced with staring at the bronze doors--lovely, but unfortunately they were still doors and thus outdoors--or going inside the cathedral, we figured that in a cold snap, everyone’s a Catholic. The cathedral, though, wasn’t much warmer. Cavernous, it had its own nativity scene--set in a Tuscan village--and a few thousand statues of Jesus, Mary, and assorted popes. We wandered, subtly going as far away from the doors as possible, until we could no longer feel our earlobes or noses. Time to go back to Paulina.
Once we traversed the barren ice fields known as Via Calzaiuoli, past the Gucci shop and the Lady Bar, we got to our little home-away-from-home (next door to the Disney Store), which we were now calling Prison Maxim. Paulina still sat at her desk, but there was a man in a navy blue suit in front of her. Since no one visiting Prison Maxim would wear a suit, unless he was the warden, I broke into a smile. “The owner?” I asked Paulina.
“Si, he can fix the toilet. I don’t fix toilets,” she added in a whisper.
“Buon Giorno.” Paolo looked like an older cherub with wireless glasses. MK was prostrate, coughing on the couch. “I’m going to check my email,” she croaked, her eyes pleading for a reprieve from the torture chamber of our room.
So Paulo and I went through the passageways of the ancient building, around the moats and over the ramparts. As we entered the room, Paolo turned to me, shocked. “You SMOKE?”
“No! But we didn’t want to complain. But my, uh, my friend”--we were in a Catholic country and I don’t have a partner or a wife here--”my friend, she was having trouble breathing, but we don’t want to make trouble…”
Paolo sighed. “Lately, we get a lot of young people. Parties.“ He shook his head. “We’ll fix it. In the morning. It’s too late tonight, but in the morning.”
MK came in the door. I related the news to her. She nodded wearily, exhausted from her hike through outer Siberia and to the Duomo, and the problems with the hotel.
Paulo fiddled with the toilet, clucking. He held up a black wire, and then pushed into the tank, lifting small pieces of knights’ armor out of the way as he worked. Finally, he pushed the button and whoosh, the water rushed into the bowl. Later it might come out of our sink, but that was later.
Paolo began to reminisce. He told us that the building was constructed in the 1200s. Our room was located in the modern portion of the building, built in the 1700s.
Paulo remembered when Florence was served by horses and carriages, until the mid 1960s. Since it is a pedestrian-only city, few people actually live in it. Living without a car, in an ancient city that consists of museum and Gucci stores is difficult: city life without any access to modern conveniences such as day care, air conditioning or dentists. Parking one’s child so that one can go to work might mean setting them out on the street with a leash tied to a street lamp.
After Paulo was done---half an hour later, since Paolo loves to talk--I dragged MK down the stairs to get dinner. We ended up in a Sardinian restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. Like everyone else, we ate wearing our coats and hats. The waitress brought us bread, which we think might have started out life as a snowshoe. The food was edible. Florence was turning into Rome with ice up our noses.
MK’s head fell into her soup, so I pushed her onto the sled, and mushed my way back to the hotel with her. She coughed and hacked her way right to sleep and I followed without a fuss. It was 9PM and our little prison cell reeked of cigarettes. But at least Paulina was gone for the night and our toilet flushed. It’s the little things that count.