Wednesday, January 14, 2009

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.

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