Wednesday, January 14, 2009

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.

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