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What We Did on Our Summer Vacation (2 weeks, 2 people with 2 carry-ons)

Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2005
May 16-31,(2005) Our first European trip(according to Zig): Arriving in Rome, train to Florence, Venice, Siena, bus to Elba, and train to Rome with only our carry-ons.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Travel from Kentucky, USA, to Florence, Italy!

Georgia, being the careful worry-wart that she is, wanted to be sure that our first ever Italian trip began and ended well, like a good concert with a rousing first number and a spectacular final one, no matter how badly the middle sags the audience will go home with their ears tickled. Thus, we had our initial itinerary well thought-out and established:

We landed in Rome after an uneventful 9-hour flight starting in Cincinnati. The transatlantic plane out of Philly was packed; I didn’t see any empty seats and it was one of those 2-aisle Airbuses. Georgia had pre-booked us with window seats instead of that purgatorial 5-person middle section. Crying babies weren’t a problem and since the stewardess couldn’t be bothered with cashing our traveler’s check we also had ‘complimentary drinks’ (“My, you’re looking good today!” my Johnny Walker told me.) Our first taste of Italy was Leonardo da Vinci Aeroporto outside Rome. The airport itself was like any modern airport anywhere with tons of duty-free shops and machine-gun-toting policemen manning high catwalks and balconies. Terrorism has sure changed the tourist business.

Buying train tickets was pretty easy. The agent pretended to understand my attempt to tell him we wanted 1-way tickets all the way to Florence. He said something that gave me to understand we’d change trains at the Rome “Termini” about 11:30 after a 20-30 minute train ride. This introduction to European rail travel was a revelation. Where was that (ho-ho) romantic clickity clack, clickity clack of coaches swaying back and forth like drunken sailors? These were smooth (continuous rails—how DO they do that?) and banked curves. Except for quiet personal conversations and loud cell-phone conversations the only sound was commuters rustling morning newspapers.

How could anyone ever become bored with this view rushing by? How could anyone read a paper amidst such glorious scenery? The view was everything Italy should be. Who knew that red poppies could grow like dandelions? They were everywhere and lovely: they were the weeds that infested the train yards. They were the constant foreground as you tried to take in the broad sweep of soft green fields flanked by purple mountains. Occasional solitary hills sprouted from the plains like mushrooms. Some hills were topped with cell-phone towers; others were capped by neat little walled towns of yellow pastel buildings with red-tiled roofs flown in from a nearby Botticelli. Now I know why those guys so often painted these fantastic (as in hard-to-believe) little towns in the background of their paintings. That’s the way Tuscany and Umbria actually look! It’s not fantastic at all.

Rome has more than one train station, so anxiety set in as we hoped that “Termini” was a place and not simply the local patois for any train station in the Roman district. Sure enough: after passing through several Rome-whatevers, we arrived on the outskirts of a place called “Rome Termini.”

Getting down off the train we were excited at arriving but not all that impressed with the look of the place. It looked small, with one dirty staircase heading down God knows where and one snack-bar-sort of affair selling sandwiches and beer. After consulting this enormous paper train-schedule affixed to the wall and learning that the train to Firenze (Florence) was leaving from something called “Bin 3” in 40 minutes or so we suavely ordered up some sandwiches and beer: that is, we pointed at something through the glass and announced “Si, questa,” hoping we were in fact pointing at a feminine sandwich and not a masculine one in which case we should have said “Si, questo.” “Doo-ay Beera” easily secured a couple of beers and a nearby low wall supplied the means to sit, take in our surroundings, and wonder what a “bin” could possibly be. It surely must be something like a track platform (it was: “binari” is the plural for “track”) but then where could Bin 3 be? We could only see three tracks terminating where we were and one of those (the third, presumably) was blockaded with yellow plastic warning tape and barricades announcing that something like a work crew was eventually going to do something resembling work in this general vicinity. Hard to see how we were going to board a train through that mess.

A trip down the several flights of stairs wasn’t any more helpful. The caverns seemed to contain a convenience store that issued onto a road and mysterious tunnels stretched off somewhere into the murk. We certainly weren’t going through any tunnels! Back up the stairs carrying our bags—thank GOD we only brought one carry-on bag each and one book bag. Georgia wondered aloud where the “hundreds of shops” were that she’d read about in “Slow Traveler.” (The pitfall descriptions in this web site saved us more than once!)

Back upstairs we showed our ticket to some nearby conductors and said that magic Italian word “Dove” (dough-vay, “Where?”). The man said something quite rapidly while pointing around the corner. We were given to understand that we needed to go around the corner to the “central” location. A walk around the corner was dismaying. The sidewalk went on forever alongside another set of rails. Set of rails? Hah! There were more than a dozen sets of rails terminating hundreds of yards away in some dim expanse.

Time was running out. We only had about 20 minutes before our train was to leave so we set out at a quick march toward the horizon. Maybe we were supposed to wait for our train somewhere along this stretch? Who knows. No one seemed to be stopping so we pressed on. Eventually we arrived out of breath and puffing in what was obviously the main concourse with a dozen or more “Bins.” Bin 3 was, of course, way the heck over THERE on the opposite side of the station from where we were.

Wending our way through the crowd of hurrying passengers and loitering beggars (“Sir, Sir, my daughter!” a very grubby photograph of a little girl against some indeterminate forested backdrop was pressed upon me) we managed to make bin 3 with 8 minutes to spare. The electronic sign didn’t say anything about Florence on it but another hurried conversation with a conductor let us know that this was indeed bin 3 and our “carriage 10” was the 10th car in the train. Another long walk (10 train cars plus an engine take up a lot of space!) brought us (we thought) to our final resting place. Now to find our seat. There were no seats 95 and 96 so we just picked two empty seats and sat down exhausted. Along came a well-dressed man who gave me to understand that I was sitting in his seat. I showed him my ticket and showed him clearly that I was in the right carriage and couldn’t be held responsible for the fact that Italians seemed unable to number their seats properly. After much hemming and hawing and searching for the right word and consultation with others on the train he gave me to understand that I was most certainly at the right bin (3) and correct carriage (10) but I was nevertheless on the wrong train and that if I hoped to make the right train I should exit the current carriage without delay and find the correct train with dispatch.

Off the train we bolted, located another conductor, showed him our tickets and uttered the magic word “Dove?” More consultation with other passersby, more consultation with his own wristwatch and then: “Bin Say-ee.” He further seemed to suggest that I might not want to loiter on my excursion to this bin. No more quick-march. Now we were running for track six. As I ran I contemplated the wisdom of trusting pre-printed paper schedules affixed to walls with thumbtacks. According to my watch our train had left but I could still see a train parked where we were heading. Another conductor: “No, No, bin de-ay-chi,” he said as he looked anxiously at his watch. Georgia announced for all to hear (including the Japanese girl who had somehow appeared requesting we give her 50 cents) that she wasn’t running to track 10 pulling a wheeled suitcase even if the Pope himself was handing out golden ducats.

Another quick march then, with much puffing and sweating and little lights flashing somewhere behind my eyelids. Still a train, but no one else boarding. Eek! The sign said “Bologna” instead of Firenze, but we figured that was in the right general direction at least. We were getting on, no matter what. Just another 10 train cars to go and we’d be safe.

(to be continued)

Episode 2: Florence

We swung our bags aboard the train just as the conductor spoke something into a little hand-held radio. Wherever it was going, we were going. The train began to move even before we could find our seats and when we found them we found they already had occupants. A rather beefy Italian soldier of the officer persuasion was fumbling for his cell phone when I squeaked “Scusi” with as much aplomb as I could muster. “Prego” he replied, which with “Pronto” is Italian for everything you could possibly want to say to anyone who asks you a question or calls you on the phone or thanks you for something. I showed him our tickets and pointed to the seat numbers. With an eloquent shrug directed to the diminutive swarthy civilian sitting across from him he moved.

I should note that trains in Italy are, for the most part arranged differently than we would have found in the clickity-clack days of American railroading. Italian trains are bracketed by two electric engines, one pulls you from Rome to Florence, for instance, and the other pulls you from Florence to Rome. The passenger seats therefore are basically arranged in groups of four facing each other, so that half the passengers face in the direction of travel and half imitate Ginger Rogers in the arms of Fred Astaire. You can immediately tell what kind of trip it’s going to be by whether or not the person sitting across from you is a graceful dancer and knows where to put ones feet.

The potential uncomfortableness of staring at a stranger for hours has lead to the Italian practice of traveling companions generally sitting across from each other, even if that is not strictly called for by your assigned seats. Our Italian soldier’s shrug was mute testimony to the impossibly dense Americans who were incapable of understanding even the most basic norms of civilized behavior. How embarrassing the shrug said to find oneself allied with such Neanderthals. He overcame his chagrin however since he was sitting across from Georgia and she made an appealing dance partner. And then there was his cell-phone. As best I could tell with my limited Italian he either called someone or received a call from someone to chart his moving location each and every kilometer between Rome and Bologna where he disembarked. Judging by the bored tone and lack of animation he exhibited I knew he must be speaking to someone of the female persuasion he knew well as Italian men only seem animated when speaking with other men about women they would like to know well. Italian women, on the other hand, use their hands the way Zubin Mehta uses his baton (more about that later), sometimes caressing the air, sometimes puncturing it as one would puncture a balloon with a hatpin, and sometimes slashing with such force conversation becomes a blood sport. A conversation between two Italian women bears an uncanny resemblance to a duel with parry and thrust, riposte and touché. When a man and a woman are talking you can tell immediately if they are married. Not married and there is a lot of touché, if you know what I mean (wink wink); married conversation doesn’t resemble a duel so much as a bullfight. The man, naturally, is the hapless, somnambulant bull seemingly more interested in finding another cow than dealing with this willowy well-armed matador slashing and jabbing. Behind the elegant blood-red cape there is a sword, you know, and the bull knows it too.

And so the kilometers hissed by. Poppies everywhere, a constant treat waiting for us as we emerged from the many tunnels. As we were facing where we’d been each tunnel came as an unexpected nightfall to be shortly followed by a gloriously sudden sunrise. I tried to get some photos because I knew people back home would never believe how beautiful it all was but our rocket-like speed combined with the unexpected tunnels and trackside trees absolutely defeated all attempts. I finally just had to just pack in the camera, sit back, enjoy, and try to memorize these amazing vistas.

I didn’t know that there was a line of mountains and high hills running down the center of Italy like a spine and that our train would race alongside and through those mountains at something approaching 90 miles per hour. Tunnels and bridges are essential at that speed. Even with banked turns the idea of climbing grades and going around sharp corners at this speed is out of the question. Running parallel to the mountain ridges are exquisite valleys filled with soft gray-green olive orchards and low trellised clotheslines of grapes, their young leaves still tinged with the yellow green of new growth. I wish I could see them now, a month later, with their more viridian tint and the pendulous clusters beginning to peek out from under the leaves. I can only imagine the harvest to come; maybe someday we’ll get to walk up and down those dusty hillsides sampling the warm purple grapes in the fragrant autumn haze. It’s no wonder aerial perspective was developed by Italian painters; you can immediately tell how far away something is by its fading hue. A land of claustrophobic forests would never develop such a painting technique.

Speaking of claustrophobic: have you ever experienced a city of several hundred thousand automobiles, a million vespas, two million turistas, towering stone buildings, and streets approximately 12 feet wide (including the sidewalks and gutters)? We have. Glorious Firenze. Magnificent Florence. Oh my GOD! What a city. What an uproar. What magnificent trees and piazzas. Look at that cathedral! Did you see that fountain? Where the heck are we? The bus ride from the train station to our convent was a whirl, not only because of the glorious surroundings but also because we were reaching the midpoint of a “day” that had begun 16 hours earlier, and because I wouldn’t have thought it possible for a bus to make 90 degree turns at 40 kph in this maze. I wasn’t able to keep my feet and spent most of the trip hugging the floor trying to retrieve carry-on luggage with (can you believe it!) wheels and I thought wheels on little suitcases would make them easier to secure. They evidently wanted off the bus as badly as I did.

We had instructions from the convent on which bus to take from the train station and which stop to get off at but, zipping around in this rabbit warren, who could tell which of these stops was the next-to-the-right one? We were supposed to ring some bell or other to alert the driver that he needed to screech to a stop at the next stop. From my position sliding back and forth on the floor I knew this was never going to happen. The driver took pity on me and deigned to scan the crumpled directions I held in my sweating palm then dismissed me with a wave. After 10 or 12 minutes of Tilt-a-Whirl, he signaled we should stumble toward an exit.

Out on the stone street, smack up against a wall, six inches from traffic barreling past, we huddled together on the (ho ho) sidewalk to locate ourselves on a map we’d bought in the train station. Boy, the birds-eye map view of the city didn’t look much like the city we were scrabbling around in crab-like. There was no way to orient ourselves. Was this the wall of a church or a hotel? Who could tell? Was that ancient building this museum on the map or just an incredibly ancient apartment house? Who knows? We could tell there was a sun, somewhere, but with clouds threatening rain in the 12-foot patch of sky we could see, and a steady stream of testosterone-powered Italian mini-cars, I would have just curled up in a fetal position and set out a paper cup to collect alms if it hadn’t been for one thing: MY COMPASS! Ridiculed for bringing it, it now proved a lifesaver.

Oh the joy of being able to determine in which direction to walk without having to flag down a pedestrian with stammered “helpful phrases you will find invaluable as you travel around the lush and picturesque Italian countryside.” Countryside maybe, but in the cities you take your life in your hands stepping in front of a pedestrian just as certainly as if you leapt off the (ho ho) curb to arrest a hurtling vespa. But, who cares? Who needs them? We had a COMPASS. We were masters of our own fate and captains of our own schooner. What matters a lack of sun shadows? What matters insane deer paths running at crazy angles through a forest of stone? We have a COMPASS! I hadn’t been this pleased with myself since as a Boy Sprout I’d been able to find my way back to the midnight campfire after an urgent call of nature. We don’t need a rescue party. We don’t need to stop a pedestrian at full tilt. We don’t need to enquire at the ubiquitous Tobacconist or newspaper kiosks. We have a compass!

The Casa Santo Nome di Gesu, two blocks from the bus stop, is a Franciscan Missionary of Mary Convent one block south of the River Arno (which bisects the city flowing east to west). It is roughly midway between the Uffizi to the east and the opera house to the west on the north bank of the river, three blocks from the Pointe Vecchio leading to the former and two blocks from Pointe (Amerigo) Vespucci leading to the latter. The Pitti Palace is three blocks east on our side of the river, and ice-cream shops (gelateria) are everywhere in case you’d been more than 15 minutes without a cone and needed your batteries recharged (but more about that later).

In appearance the convent was rather like a severe rectangular three-story brick and stone hatbox. I’m at a loss to date the building though it has certainly been added onto and modified for more than 100 years. It was fronted by a large piazza called the Piazza (Santa Maria) del Carmine, and it truly was full of “heart” with the convent on one side and the crumbling ancient church (from which the piazza received its name) on a second side. It was also full of cars following some arcane rules concerning where it was ok to drive and where it was ok to walk and where it was ok to park. By far most of the cars were empty and not moving. A sign seemed to announce that once a week all unmoving cars would be forcibly removed so that street sweepers and garbage trucks could remove the debris and detritus of modern civilization but we were evidently not there on the right day because the huge piles of trash and old-Europe smells of inadequate sanitation much reminded me of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

And oh the noise. I’m not sure because I never actually stuffed myself into one of the Italian imitations of a car but I think that instead of a brake pedal the cars are equipped with a foot-operated horn. You can tell that someone is in a situation where an American would probably apply brakes, not because the car actually slows down, but because the horn begins to blare. And I always thought soprano horns rather effeminate but now I know they lend just the right note of hysteria and bravado, and they carry much more easily over the Florentine din. Foghorn-like basso profundo horns so admired by Americans would never do. They would stand about as much chance in Florentine traffic as a bass trying to sing the Halleluiah Chorus with a few thousand steroid-stoked sopranos.

But then we swung open the huge wooden door of the Convent of the Blessed Name of Jesus and everything changed.

(to be continued)

Episode 3: Respite

We had dodged vespas, pretend-cars, and mud puddles as we hopscotched across the no-man’s (parking)land in front of the convent. The rain was changing from a mist to a drizzle as we realized we’d neglected to bring an umbrella. Well, no matter. We were both pretty dead on our feet by this time and figured it would be lovely tomorrow so we’d just tough it out through the rest of the day letting a smile be our umbrella (“Let a smile be your umbrella,” said dad, “and you’ll get a mouthful of water!”) There was a doorbell and speakerphone beside the door. Door?! The word hardly fits the flattened trees that towered above us, somehow mounted on hinges, guarding the convent. I can’t imagine how much these slabs of walnut (I think) must have weighed. A normal-sized door, I guess, would look like a mouse hole on the front of this fortress. My stomach lurched as I prepared to ring the bell. This was the first time I was seriously going to have to have some sort of conversation in Italian. “Sono John Zeigler: prenotazione” I muttered over and over. I wanted to let them know they were dealing with real world-travelers who knew their own names and had reservations. Steeling myself for the onslaught I pushed the bell. Nothing. I reached out to push it again when “Clack-buzz” went the door suggesting that we were supposed to do something. I grasped the oversize handle with both hands and pulled. Nothing. Silence. I pushed the slabs. Nothing. I rang the bell again. “Clack-buzz” went the door. This time I pressed the latch as well as pushed. The door swung open easily. The world travelers had arrived.

As the door swung shut behind us and thudded closed all the outside noise ceased as if switched off. We were in a plastered vestibule with stone floors. The room was about 8’ square, and another glass door faced us. We could see a comfortable sitting room just beyond. “Buzz-click” went this smaller more human-sized door. We suavely pushed on the barred handle. It clicked and the door swung open. Besides the door we had just entered there were three other doors in this room, a sofa, and two easy chairs. It must have been about 12’ square but the ceiling must have been 14-16’ tall. (They had to make room for the bazillion stairs you’ll hear about in a minute.) We hadn’t a clue which way to go when this ancient white-haired cherub in a soft-gray habit with white headscarf appeared from the doorway to our right. She said something and looked hopefully at both of us in turn. I didn’t have a clue what she said, or even what language she spoke. I blurted out my set speech. She studied me the way a little girl would study an ill-trained parakeet. Then she uttered a series of short phrases, each one ending with a slight upturn in pitch as if she was asking questions. The last little burst of speech was “Do you speak English?” We both brightened considerably at that and Georgia instantly took charge of the situation, explaining that we had reservations, and hauling out paper confirmation of the same. I realized with gratitude that I’d dodged a bullet and my “prenotazione” was not going to be needed.

Thus I had a chance to peek around corners while Georgia handled details. The doorway situated straight ahead of the glass door lead into a hallway. To the left down the hall was the chapel and the cloisters. To the right the hallway seemed to lead outside to a garden. The door to the dining room also issued off this hallway. This broad opening to our left opened onto another parlor of sorts with a small telephone booth, a coffee table and chairs and a wide staircase full of shallow 4” slate steps, ascending an impossible distance. Looking up in dismay I saw that each floor required four flights of these steps. In retrospect I really think “bazillion” is not an unfair characterization of the total number.

But now the soft gray dove was saying something to me. “I’m sorry you will be on the second floor. We have no ascensore.” Assuming that was some sort of elevator I couldn’t see the problem. Four flights wasn’t a picnic, but it wasn’t like hiking to the moon fer cryin’ out loud. We Americans are a hardy race. I told her “Non importa,” and “Va bene,” and took the 5-lb key (try to pocket this sucker and it’ll pull your pants down!) and noticed that our room was #13. How lucky, I thought, as I took the handle of my rolling carry-on and tied the book bag on top of it.

I approached the stairs with confidence: bang, bang, bang, bang. I tried to roll the suitcase up the stairs. “You’re going to break the wheels!” suggested my sweetie not so sweetly. Bang bang bang bang, I was almost to the top of the first flight. Nothing was going to stop me now but already my arm was going to sleep. “You’re going to break the handle and then what’ll we do?” I hate it when she’s right.

Bang bang bang bang, I stood on the first landing surveying the expanse of steps on my left heading up to the second landing. Since I’d tied the book bag on top of the carry-on I had to reach under the book bag to grab the handle. Untying the book bag would have been some sort of admission of having made a mistake trying to roll the suitcase up the stairs in the first place. Anyway, there were only three more flights to the second floor: shuffle, thump, shuffle thump, shuffle thump. I stepped up each step then placed the overloaded carry-on beside me. This was going to take forever!

I shuffle-thumped to the second landing as quickly as I could, admitted defeat, and untied the book bag. Now I could make some real time on these stairs. Unfortunately the little lights flashing behind my eyelids made it hard to see and caroming off the wall slowed me down. Georgia, with her experience lifting weights didn’t seem to be even breathing hard as she switched on her turn signal, pulled out over the yellow line, and passed me like I was standing still. I was standing still. I think her carry-on must have weighed less than mine.

Third landing: ready for the final assault on the summit. Lingering for just a few minutes to build up some momentum I bolted for the final staircase, losing a little of my steam about half way up but coasting to a stop at the second floor. Georgia was already searching for lucky room 13.

Trying to catch my breath I set off in search of her. We took turns leading each other up and down meandering passageways. After a 10-minute search we managed to find rooms 1 through 12, but no 13. Then I found an evacuation plan for this maze pasted to the wall. There was no room 13 on the second floor. Surely our beatific dove knew the difference between “second” and “third,” and then I remembered from high school that in France the 1st floor of a building is called the “ground floor” and the next floor up (the second floor in my book!) is called the first floor. Oh my God! You don’t think these crazy Italians could have copied those crazy Frenchmen? That would mean we thought we were scaling Mt. Everest when in fact we were only approaching base camp!

We looked hopefully up and down the stairwell. Maybe the second floor was closer to us than the lobby. No such luck. But then, that meant there were only half-a-bazillion stairs ahead. Even Wonder-Woman looked dismayed. We steeled our resolve, lashed ourselves together in case one of the pitons gave way or a crevasse opened beneath our feet, and struck out for the summit. The lack of oxygen near the peak left us gasping and rubber-kneed but good old Yankee grit would not let us give in. Step, by step, by agonizing step, we slogged through waist-deep snow and a howling blizzard to that final assault. Suddenly, there were no more stairs. We stared stupidly at each other, shed our goggles and parkas, threw down our ski poles and ice axes, and hugged each other in the sheer ecstasy of having been tested to the limits of human endurance and lived to tell about it. I didn’t dare look down from the summit for fear of vertigo: many an intrepid climber, thinking success firmly in hand, has fallen through over-confidence. We just backed away from the precipice gratefully, and set off in search of Shangri-la.

Rounding one of many corners we saw our portal. I retrieved the key from my pocket (had to hitch up my pants first) and unlocked the door. It was dark. There was a little daylight coming from the window but the louvered green shutters were latched in such a way that they were only open about an inch or so. The windows were hinged on their outer edges and partially open. They were about four feet tall and three feet wide. The windowsill was about four feet from the floor and looked perfect for leaning on if we had a good view. There was no screen, of course. We never did see one in Italy.

Georgia went to check our private bathroom while I tried to find some way to open the shutters. There was some sort of bar running from top to bottom that swiveled ingeniously to latch on a pin embedded in the sill. The shutters were also hinged horizontally about halfway up so that you could open them somewhat without actually swinging them wide if you wanted to. I didn’t want to open them “somewhat.” I wanted those suckers open. I wanted “Room with a View.” I wanted “Enchanted April.” I wanted to Dorothy opening the door to Oz. I pushed and pulled as gently as an impatient man could until finally there was a slight “ping.” Georgia had returned to stand beside me and we held our breath. The shutters swung open.

It was just like Dorothy. It was “Enchanted April” all over again. It was most definitely a glorious “Room with a View” and all the pain of the stairwell without an ascensore was instantly forgotten. Light flooded the room. The gods were kind I think. If it hadn’t been a cloudy day I’m sure we would have been instantly blinded. I’ll never be able to capture in words the glories of that sight. Remember how beautiful the pastel buildings were at the tops of the Tuscan mushroom-mountains? Well this convent was on the top of a very slight mushroom: just enough of one that we were looking down the pastel yellow and stone buildings around us. We were just about on the same level as the dome of San Frediano one block away, and then there was an open space where the River Arno must laze past, then Florence spread out below. It was like being in a low-flying plane at sunset. There were more church domes than I could count punching through the ubiquitous red-tiled roofs like perfectly rounded cumulous clouds soaring up through sunlit status clouds. Glory stretched for miles in all directions. And there in the far distance, soft purple mountains enclosed the whole. We stood arm in arm speechless.

The view so captivated me, so enthralled me, so energized and inspired me that I did what any red-blooded man would have done in the same situation. I curled up on my little single bed and instantly fell asleep.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Florence (the Dream)

And I dreamed. I dreamed that every little Italian kid between the ages of 12 and 18 was given a dozen cans of spray paint and told to go express himself. There are, after all, enormous numbers of bland old marble buildings and monuments just standing there. They need to be updated with fresh coats of day-glow orange, purple, green, and blue, but not pictures of anything special. Just paint your name, and paint it big. Let your signature be your work, as if you were the author of this church, or this bridge, or this fountain, or this statue.

Mark your territory, and like those other four-footed graffiti artists, don’t just mark stationary targets, give preference to those “canvases” that roll around the town permitting your peers (groan) to study and admire your initiative. Paint the buses and trains. But specialize in painting the Metro. Cover it again and again with continuously overlapping signatures until the whole train, inside and out, is just one huge riot of chaotic color dedicated to egoism: “Look at ME!”

I dreamt that someone was trying to protect Italy’s cultural heritage, but it certainly wasn’t the paint companies. They were making a fortune. I dreamt that Venice and Rome were sinking. Not because the underground aquafer was being depleted, but rather because of the weight of the spray paint. Asking help from the paint companies would be like asking the off-road vehicle manufacturers to oppose “logging roads” through the national forests. Or asking Ford and Chevy to apply the Environmental Protection Act to the six thousand pound “cars” they have on truck chasses.

I saw, as in a vision, that humans are naturally creative. Thousands of years of Italian glory proves that. But humans are also naturally destructive. Both impulses spring from love: sometimes my love is creative and good for the thing I love — I make sacrifices on its behalf — and sometimes I expect the things I love to sacrifice for me: I love roast chicken you know!

In my dream, my 18-year-old Michelangelo turns to me and says: “These crumbling old churches were built from vandalized pagan temples nobody went to anymore: they were only good as building material for a new generation of artists.” Art doesn’t stand still and like his namesake my Michelangelo was only covering earlier attempts at self-expression with his own attempts. Everywhere he walked he saw a canvas.

“Huh?” I awoke with a start. Georgia was standing in front of the mirror combing her hair, “I said, I’m hungry, we haven’t had anything but that tiny little sandwich since we had roast chicken on the plane.”

I rolled out of bed with a groan, straightened the twisted money belt I was wearing under my shirt, put a little cash in my pocket, washed my face in our private bathroom (it was private because they built a little wall in the public bathroom) and gave up on my hair. It was almost 5 o’clock; the idea of some supper sounded good.

When we got to the bottom of the stairs (much easier going down!) the gentle dove asked if we were going to be eating supper with them. The dining room opened at 8:00 and there was an evening Mass at the church across the piazza at 6:00. We decided to eat at the convent because it was still threatening rain and we didn’t want to try finding a restaurant without an umbrella—even if we did have a compass!

The neighborhood was actually lived in. There were lots of little food markets. We got to practice our Italian by buying some pears from a local fruit stand. His little store was not much bigger than a closet and fruit was basically all he had to sell. Wal Mart would go absolutely nuts! The Italian approach to retail seems to be: sell only what you specialize in and make it really good! The Pastry Shops sell only coffee and pastry. The fruit stands sell only coffee and fruit. The bakeries sell only breads and rolls and coffee. (I think the leather shops have espresso machines too!) Everyone specializes, and everyone’s product is truly special. I don’t even like grapes but the green grapes I had in Italy exploded in my mouth. They were so full of sweetness and the skins were so thin they’d pop like little water balloons. Georgia didn’t care for the bread as much as I did — it was too crusty for her taste but I was in bread heaven. I never have butter on my bread, but oh my gosh! The butter was slightly sweet and not salty. Magnificent crunchy crust with every bite. And the foccacia! Positively dripping in the lightest, most delicate olive oil I’ve ever tasted. Our so-called “extra-virgin” stuff is really a tarted-up strumpet. But I get ahead of myself. These pears were sweet and the skins were not the least bit tough or bitter. The flesh had no hint of pulpiness and none of the graininess you find when pears are picked too green and allowed to “ripen” in the truck (rot, you mean).

We walked and talked and slurped our pears (they were very juicy) and rubber-necked down all the mysterious alleys and through all the picturesque iron fences, and jumped on the (ho ho) curb whenever a vespa or “Smart-car” tried to get us in its sights. We tried to find the church we could see out our window (San Frediano) but never could. The problem was the roads and alleys were too narrow to let you stand back far enough to look up for the dome. I know we walked right past it several times but couldn’t see it. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, I guess, as it, like all the other churches, was kept locked until Mass or occasional tourist-hours. And those tourist hours were not always posted — you just have to be walking by at the right time. After a while we became adept at spotting an open church and making a beeline for it. They became the most accessible and least expensive museums we visited in Italy. Kind of sad when you think of it. Two other one-time churches we found on our meander had been converted to art galleries. In the first we found a nice expatriate American lady who had started an art newspaper for other expatriate artists trying to make a go of the Florentine art scene. There must have been quite a number of them. The work was nice. Large canvases of representational art with intense faces and burning eyes. I have no idea what the stained glass market would be like. I know we didn’t see any flat glass art at all, though there was supposed to be a shop in Rome. We weren’t adventurous enough to try to combine a Metro ride + a bus ride to the suburbs. Next time. The other church was a tiny parish church with ancient frescos. It must have been built around 1400 and was now being used to sell concrete lawn furnishings.

On the next block we found a nice little butcher shop that also sold cheese. We made a note to return later. Our smattering of Italian looked like it was going to keep us from starving! Questo, and Questa, and Quanto costa? worked magic.

Rounding another corner we found that we’d tracked the maze back to the Piazza Santa Maria del Carmine. The church was now open and we went in to wait for Mass. It was dank and dark and lovely. Little echoes of scraped feet, coughs, and whispered conversations. Beautiful rectangular window over the door. Spectacular chapel with amazing murals, paintings, and statuary. We saw the chapel listed in the guidebook. Mass was being held at a small altar just outside the chapel, which was far too grand for the little congregation that had assembled. High up over the tabernacle was an amazingly dirty window. Even from where I was kneeling 50 feet below I could see the spider webs, mold, and mildew that had begun to form like a Babylonian hanging garden around the leaking panes. Our priest was a white-haired Italian Barry Fitzgerald, only older. He was stooped and gnarled and obviously suffering from a cold. He managed the most spectacular sneezes and blew his nose all during the readings. The acoustics in the church were quite remarkable. One nasal blast would easily reverberate for the optimum two seconds. When followed by an enormous “braaaaatttt” and a couple of good “sniffs” he gave one the feeling of an elderly thunderstorm providing counterpoint to the blasts from Isaiah and St. Paul. That these hands were about to hand out the Body of Christ along with contagion did give us some pause.

Following the order of the Mass was not hard though the language and prayers were sometimes confusing. The order was the same as here at home and we gamely tagged along transliterating the Italian text with our partially remembered English. That’s not easy to do by the way. Try to recite English from memory while standing next to someone else reading something very similar in Italian while the Priest is blasting and blowing up a storm. But the passing of the peace brought tears to my eyes. Looking into those beautifully lined faces I was struck for the first time that I wasn’t really in a foreign country; they may speak a different language but they truly were my elder brothers and sisters. It was very moving shuffling up to take communion from Father Barry. “Il Corpo di Christ” he assured me. “Amen” I agreed — may the good seed take root and grow in me.

Still, there was an undercurrent of sadness. We had only about 10 co-communicants and we were the youngest by a good 10 to 20 years. Besides the Priest there were only three men. Together with the fact that the churches have become museums needing to be locked most of the time, I couldn’t help feeling that the church in general was becoming irrelevant in the people’s daily lives. It was still a force to be reckoned with on the national scene but was it relevant to the fish-monger or the baker or the kid with the spray paint?

Mass over we hustled back to the convent through the drizzle to freshen up for dinner. We helped open the dining room. This was our first experience with the way Italians serve a meal: Antipasto (not pasta!) is the appetizer, meats and cheese and marinated vegetables and such-not comes first. Then the pasta, and it comes all by itself. That’s called Primo for “first.” Then comes Secondo (never guess what that means) which is usually the main course. We had wonderful bread and butter and penne with the lightest tomato sauce imaginable. Magnificent parmesan/romano cheese sprinkled on it. Bellisimo! Secundo was a little pork steak marinated and cooked in a clear rosemary sauce served with French fries (no kidding!), and spinach. The dessert was apricots with a prune. Wonderful coffee, of course, and a bottle of wine. You can’t have an Italian meal without a wine — it’s everywhere and cheaper than the bottled water. And it’s good! Remember those grapes I was telling you about? Well, the good ones are used to make the wine! After we discovered the “super-mercatos” we found liter cartons of wine selling for 1,42 euros. That really is cheaper than a 12-oz bottle of Coke.

After supper our lovely dove told us to be sure to be up in time for breakfast—it was to be served at 8:00. We told her our reservation for the Ufizzi was at 8:30 and we didn’t know if we’d have time for breakfast. And so we sleepily stumbled up Mt. Everest again. The ascent was much easier without the luggage, doncha know, but we were still speechless and puffing by the time we reached the top. Georgia got the bathroom first. I lay down to rest my eyes. Next thing I knew San Frediano was striking the hour: Bong, Bong, Bong, Bong. Four AM. The room was dark and silent. Jet lag was definitely catching up with me: my poor body thought it was 10 AM and I was ready to explore. I very carefully thrashed around in the bed until I accidentally woke up Georgia. “Since you’re awake let’s get dressed.” Georgia, cheerful morning person that she is suggested someplace I could put my ‘good’ morning. For quite a while we discussed the physical impossibility of my doing that and evidently woke up one of the birds outside in the garden. It started twittering hopefully and that alerted the sun to begin thinking about putting in an appearance as well. Our window faced north, so we couldn’t actually see the sun rise but with the shutters wide open again it was obvious morning was on the way. Georgia retreated under her blankets to think this over. I got up and headed for the (ho ho) shower. I kid you not: it was smaller than the bidet. If you dropped the soap in that transparent milk carton all you could do was wave at it down there at your feet. But the water pressure was good and the water was as hot as I wanted it to be. If you held your arms tightly at your side you could turn around to rinse many of your various parts. When I emerged Georgia was blinking and stretching and seemed persuaded by my argument that it was “really” 10:00 AM at “home.”

In no time (for us) we were down stairs armed with a map and compass and ready for anything Florence might send our way. Our gentle dove was there (did she ever sleep?) as we bounded down the stairs. “Where are you doing? Breakfast ready at 8:00AM!” “Non importa,” I replied suavely, “We have prenotazione at the Uffizi for 8:30AM. No colazione, we buy coffee on the way.” You could see this look in her eyes as she looked hopefully from me to Georgia. We were only about 4 – 5 blocks from the Uffizi. After a long thoughtful pause you could tell she gave up on me and turned to Georgia: Surely a woman would understand the insanity: “Signora, it is only 6:00 AM!”

True, but it was 6:00 AM in FLORENCE!, and we had tickets to the Uffizi and to the Opera!

(to be continued)
 

Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Florence (the Uffizi, the opera!)

Wednesday, May 18th, Florence

The pavement was wet, the sky was overcast and threatening rain, the piazza looked (and smelled) like it’d been a long time since the garbage had been collected but we oriented ourselves on the map and took off east toward the Ponte Vecchio, that amazing bridge, so built up with goldsmith shops it’s called the golden bridge. As we walked we kept an eye out for coffee. A cheerful little bakery on the street beside the river caught our eye. “Buon giorno Signora. Vorrei questo e questo” and “due cappucino.” Everything was going fine until I blundered and sat at a little table instead of standing at the bar like a civilized man. Georgia hung her head in shame as if to say, “What can you expect?” and sat with me. We toughed it out, pretending to study the local newspaper and avoiding eye contact with the owner. To try to make amends we bussed our own table and left a tip as well. Even in my embarrassment I loved the cappucino, and the pastry was so light I didn’t get to chew it: each bite dissolved before I had a chance. We promised to be back the next day (“A domani”), though the simple breakfasts at the convent turned that pledge into a pie-crust promise: easily made and easily broken.

The Ponte Vecchio was empty and all the tiny shops were shut up tight. Beautiful old wooden shutters and grillwork made them look like a row of large jewelry boxes along the sides of the bridge. Each box had its own ornamental brass plate announcing the company’s name and year of founding, some from the 1700s. We paused at the apex of the bridge where there was a gap in the shops allowing a view of the river flowing placidly between its walled banks. It was a magical time. It was as if we had the city to ourselves: with only a handful of racing sculls out on the river, gliding effortlessly upstream. They moved so quickly they left a wake through the water, with each stroke of the paddles lingering like the footprints of some giant water strider. As they reached the low dams 1000 meters apart that permitted the water to step down through the town they would turn around clumsily and glide away again.

It began to sprinkle. We sauntered off toward the Uffizi snapping occasional photos. You’d have to have a heart of stone to visit Florence without a camera. The saunter turned to a quick march as the rain began in earnest. The deluge didn’t come until we were safely under the portico at the museum, having wended our way through the numerous African craftsmen trying to tempt us with photos, little paintings, belt buckles, leather goods, and jewelry laid out neatly on the covered sidewalks.

Ah, the Uffizi. How can I describe it? It is enormous, with at least 3 floors of magnificence in two gigantic limestone and marble buildings on either side of an entrance courtyard. It’s flanked on one end by the distinctive tower and by the river on the other end. The classical statuary, medieval icons and paintings, and renaissance art really is beyond description. Perhaps the best I can do is to say that I shocked myself by ignoring centuries and centuries of magnificent sculpture so I could get to the paintings, then I hurried through rooms filled with Peter Paul Rubens because I wanted to get to the Raphaels and Berninis and Fr Angelicas. And then I found myself hurrying past the Raphaels to get to the Botticellis, and then Botticelli and Fillipo Lippi got short shrift because I found a room with Rembrant’s self portraits! How could there be a place on earth with so much concentrated stupendous excellence? Why wasn’t it out in the public in parks and street corners? The answer, of course, was that such beauty and goodness would not be safe without the protection of these cloistered halls. The museum was actually a zoological park trying to preserve endangered species. Many of the statues had already been vandalized over the millennia — is there anyone who doubts what would happen to a Rembrant found hanging in the Metro?

After about three hours in the exhibit halls we were exhausted and set off through the museum in search of a snack bar. There was one located on the roof and the rain had stopped. We didn’t make the mistake again of trying to grab a table so we had our spinach pie and caffee latte while standing at one of the high tables. Refreshed, we plunged back into the collections for another couple of hours. Botticelli’s “Venus” was amazing, but Raphael’s “Holy Family” moved me even more — almost as much as the pairing of Rembrant’s self-portraits: one as a cocky young man, and one as a wizened old one. Georgia’s favorite, she said, was Lippi’s “Holy Family” including St. Margaret and St. John the Baptist. Thereafter we had fun spotting the young John already dressed in animal skins in painting after painting. We also found several renaissance paintings with little dogs and had fun chasing Spot through the centuries. And the baby Jesus was sometimes shown holding a small bird (a “cardinale” said one of the museum guards, though it certainly wasn’t a red bird): we followed Tweety through the centuries as well.

The painted and gilded crucifixes with their oddly placid Christs spurting blood intrigued me. Jesus is not nailed erect but sagging on his nails to form a graceful “C” with angels or Mary and John painted at the ends of the cross-arms. Sometimes scenes from the life of Christ were hung from the arms of the cross like banners. In size, some of these icons were less than a foot tall, and some, like the one we later saw at Santa Croce were more than 8-10’ tall. Finally, like all tourists who try to take in the Uffizi in one day we had to surrender and stumble outside. Last stop on the way was the gift shop, of course. How can a little post card capture what we’d seen? But, you have to have something — so now we can paper one of the rooms in our house with postcards.

We were exhausted and the day wasn’t even half gone. The spinach pie counted for lunch but we still needed dessert. Gelato! Someone somewhere had recommended a gelateria near the Piazza della Repubblica, only about 5-6 blocks away. We didn’t find “Perche No?” but thought “why not” as we passed our third ice cream shop without finding it. Georgia had melon and I had peach. We both agreed that we had made the better selection. Back in the piazza there was a classical guitarist entertaining the tourists. The constant threat of rain kept the crowds down but made the temperature very comfortable. The guitarist was good, from Poland I think, and seemed to bridge different styles easily. Little did I know that Franco Zeffirelli’s theme from “Romeo and Juliet” was now considered classical! When he finished a North African band performed with xylophone, accordion, violin, string bass, and keyboard. Very upbeat and cheerful music that had the crowd clapping and tapping their feet. Street musicians were often found wherever tourists gathered.

Then we set off to locate the opera house. Our broken Italian was essential again as we nearly gave up. It’s easy to let fatigue rob you of courage. But we hung on a little longer and found someone who knew where the Teatro was although he assured us the seats were all sold out. Didn’t we know that! We’d bought two of the last tickets on-line weeks before. It cost more than we’d really wanted to pay (about 150 euros) but we had front row seats and Zubin Mehta was conducting!

Mass again at Santa Maria del Carmine. This time Father Barry was replaced by a younger priest. The replacement must have only been about 70, and he was assisted by a seven- or eight-year old boy cherub. It was very moving again. I felt more hopeful and less gloomy but still was struck by the fortress-like appearance of the church, the convent, and the museum. It was a different view of humanity than Americans typically acknowledge. Civilization is fragile and must be protected from the invading vandals. I guess it’s a perfectly natural attitude for Italians to take. We Americans haven’t been humbled the way they have been, so we are still prisoners of our own fantasy of invincibility. We seem to act as if we are on a different planet from the rest of the world. I’m afraid we’re in for a very hard lesson, and I have the feeling that even our friends are looking forward to our learning it.

Before Mass we’d stopped at that butcher shop to buy some bread and salami and cheese. With carbonated mineral water and a large bottle of Munich beer it made for a wonderful picnic in the garden under our window. Pears for dessert. We sat under the wisteria vines, smelled the roses, and heard neighborhood children laughing and playing some Italian version of kick the can. The high walls muffled the sounds of the traffic and the bulk of the cars had already fled the city. “Molto tranquillo” our dove advised us. She was very right.

It was raining when we were ready to head out for the opera. The intrepid explorers braved the elements with a slightly askew red loaner umbrella. A steady rain made us practice walking arm in arm in step to an imagined Sousa march. Besides giving me an excuse to hold my sweetie close, it also gave us the road to ourselves. The Ponte (Amerigo) Vespucci was also empty and rain blowing back and forth across the river gave us a whole different view from the morning’s.

The Teatro Communale was elegance itself — the chandelier itself was several tons of sparkling glass. Our seats were the third and fourth seats on the left only about 15-18 seats from dead center. We had a perfect view of Maestro Mehta in profile. Surely he is the reincarnation of Beethoven with hands both expressive and powerful. The orchestra clung to him, hanging on each pause, and charging ahead when he gave them rein. And as powerful as they were he kept them in check, never letting them trample the singers. Tosca was especially wonderful. What a voice. The high point for us was the end of the first act when the entire company, including a boy’s choir, the chorus, the principal singers, and extras all began at the far back stage and marched toward the front step by ponderous step as the music grew and grew until it couldn’t grow anymore, then did grow again. They finished at the front of the stage immediately in front of the maestro whose hair was blowing in the wind. Oh my God, what a sound. The audience was stunned for a moment as the curtain descended then with the weather outside exploded into thunderous applause.

During the second act it became obvious the various intrigues and counter-intrigues meant things were not going to end well for our heroine. Glorious music charted a descending spiral and the curtain came down with the bad-guy dead on the settee, victim of his own lust and Tosca’s knife.

Unfortunately we were the victims of fate as well.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Florence (San Miniato, Santa Croce, Pitti Palace)

Thursday, May 19th, Florence

The “fates” in our case took the form of a lovely young woman with short blond hair working the night desk at the convent. She was trim and smart, with discreet pieces of metal imbedded in her anatomy, and knew a little English: Unfortunately she also had to catch her bus home at 11:30 just about the time our beautiful Tosca was scheduled to make her “leap of faith” off that Florentine wall. I guess it was just as well we had to leave early as walking back and forth across Florence between showers had completely unstrung us. I don’t remember falling in bed. (The doors to the Convent are locked at 11:00 each night.)

Morning came pouring through our shutters about 15 minutes later. And I’m glad the “pouring” was from sunlight not rain. The storms had swept over us to the east and now we were facing the promise of occasional puffs of white clouds and impossibly blue skies. Breakfast was crusty Italian bread, butter, Nutella or marmalade, juice, and amazing caffee latte. The sisters were impossibly cheerful. And after the rain the garden looked rested and refreshed as well.

Santa Croce was a 20-minute walk past the Uffizi. It’s stupendous interior was shackled with scaffolding because of continuing restoration. Even so, the tombs and monuments to Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Michelangelo in the main nave impressed even jaded world travelers like us. Beautiful grillwork kept everyone from getting too close. And after a thousand years of shuffling pilgrims they’ve had to rope off sections of the floor as well, to keep the imbedded tombstones from being completely worn away. The stained glass is lovely and well preserved. All in all she wears her age extremely lightly.

The Royal Pitti Palace was hard on me. Georgia adored the opulence of the splendid royal apartments. I found them oppressive and concentrated instead on the little imperfections, like the windows that had leaked yesterday’s rain. It had soaked some rugs and they had been rolled back to dry. I perversely enjoyed the fact that royal rugs would nevertheless mildew. Evidently even if you have a throne room in your house for receiving unexpected visitors you still need a toilet, and have to contend with decomposing window putty and bad drains.

The paintings were too much. Room after room after room of masterpieces. Good Lord! Did these clowns paint all the time? Didn’t they ever put the stupid paintbrush down? I don’t care if I ever see another Rubens—the men and women are fat and the cherubs look like marshmallows. I think the man must have been paid on a “per cloud” basis. Raphael and Caravaggio are another matter, but I had to suffer through way too many masterpieces between each glorious occurrence of their work.

The Boboli Gardens behind the palace were also another matter. I adored them and they nearly ruined Georgia. They are built on the side of a hill and the trek to the top, no matter how beautiful the view over the city, was really tough on someone whose blood sugar level had evidently plummeted from a lack of gelato. The views and smells from the rose and peony garden at the very top really cannot be put into words. I’m not even sure the panorama pictures we took will be adequate. The eastern part of Florence is evidently not thoroughly (over)developed. We were looking out over a beautiful narrow valley carpeted with lush bushes and poplar trees. I could easily imagine 14th century courtiers in their colorful regalia emerging from the plaster and stone mansions nestled on the hillside. It was quite a walk to our next stop: the monastery of San Miniato al Monte where there was going to be a Gregorian-chant Mass. We had to fortify ourselves with more than just gelato to make the trip. Luckily we managed to find one of the three bazillion pizza parlors in Florence. Artichoke, prosciuto, pesto. Wow! Washed down with Peroni Birra, and chased with more gelato it was a terrific stand-up lunch. We waddled east through the crowds toward the ancient gates in the medieval city walls. And what crowds! It was like shuffling through an outdoor Pitti Palace with sidewalks so crowded you all had to move at the same speed. The roads were slightly wider but filled with the ubiquitous honking vespas and pretend-cars zipping past. Pedestrian death-wish.

The crowd thinned out when we started the climb to San Miniato. It’s not called “al Monte” for nothing. A rose garden thumb-tacked to the side of the mountain was lovely and smelled wonderful. There were palm trees and lemon trees in cute little planters to entertain us as we climbed the switchbacks. Picnic tables and benches offered respite. They’d sprayed the lemons with some sort of blue something or other to discourage souvenir pickers, I guess. The Piazzale Michelangelo half way up was depressing. Huge open parking lot without any green at all. Nice view over the city but full of trashy souvenirs (who would actually wear an apron with David’s private parts or Bottocelli’s Venus’ torso?) and hundreds of idling tour buses belching smoke. The full-size replica of “David” in the center of the parking lot was sporting a fresh coat of spray paint.

We continued our climb. San Miniato is made of a lovely peach-tinted stone and the golden mosaic over the front door caught the afternoon sun spectacularly. Surrounding the church on three sides was a city of the dead. Mausoleums and tombs sprouted up like the gaudy camp houses at an old-time Methodist campground. Many sported fine stained glass windows and wonderful grillwork. There were altars visible through the glass doors complete with vases of dried flowers and chairs for visitors. It looks like various members of the Vandal clan had been there as well, but it was clear the monks were trying to be faithful custodians of this peaceful city.

The interior of the church was lovely, dark and deep — also well kept by the monks. We took mass with seven of them after a lovely solemn vespers. Several tour buses arrived during the service. We were meeting in the lower level of the church and could hear them culture-grazing overhead. There were a lot of young people in the congregation with us but most of them tiptoed out during the chants and only one or two actually took communion. It was obvious they were visiting an exotic concert, not worshipping in a contemporary religious service embedded in impossibly ancient times. It reinforced my feeling that the churches are seen as quaint relics and as completely removed from their everyday lives, as “Florence-world” in Disneyland would be. I wonder if God is also irrelevant to them. I guess I was the same way before meeting Nemetz (my philosophy professor, a Catholic) in graduate school. I do hope that there are more monks than the seven we saw. It kills me to think of the ancient monks and nuns, custodians of so much concentrated goodness, being so few in number. There are so many lost and lonely people who need their hospitality and don’t even know it. That so many of the churches have to charge admission to the tourists is also slightly sordid, but as we contrasted the number of tourists with the number of faithful parishioners it was obvious the faithful could not support those who see the church as a (very large, very old) museum.

The walk down the mountain carried us by a tiny one-room mercato where we bought a fine local wine, more cheese, foccacia, salami, and mineral water. Back in the convent garden with our picnic we met a nice lady math-teacher from Houston. She wasn’t a believer but also felt at home in the garden molto tranquillo. She was on a mission to sprinkle the ashes of her friend, Nan, who had wanted her to travel to all the glorious places they’d visited together in Tuscany. She said it was a hard trip to make. She’d actually not enjoyed her trips with Nan all that much: “It was more difficult traveling with a friend than it would be with a spouse.”

I’m not sure she was right. We are often more civil to a “friend” than we are to a spouse. With a husband or wife it’s very difficult sometimes to bite our tongues. We say things we would never say to a friend, no matter how good a friend. I guess we think a spouse will take it because they must where a friend would stop coming around. But then, of course, a spouse can emotionally “stop coming around” as well. I guess I’m just lucky the friend I travel with is so congenial. As long as I don’t let her blood sugar level drop she’s a hale and hearty companion, game for most any adventure. And gelato and local wine is not that expensive—it was easy keeping her topped off.

We spent the evening writing postcards. I have a lovely photo of Georgia sitting at our little wooden table with the dome of stupendous San Frediano dominating the open window behind her. We turned in early. In the morning there was a dispute between our blond clerk (now on day-duty I guess) and Sister Dove over where we should buy bus tickets to the train station. Finally, in exasperation, Sister walked us to the newsstand herself. On the way she said there were currently only 14 sisters in the convent. I didn’t see any sister under 70 — that can’t be good for long-term viability. There certainly is goodness in the secular community but no one, not even “public servants” are so self-consciously self-sacrificing. Not only don’t the Sisters “consume” those around them, they offer themselves as bread to be broken. I don’t think our lovely “riveted and stapled” blond is going to take vows, but you never know. God works miracles in that there are any Brothers and Sisters at all.

The train station was a madhouse of hurrying passengers with rolling suitcases, aggressive panhandlers with pictures of pathetic family members, and one well-dressed oriental woman who desperately wanted Georgia to listen to her pre-recorded spiel on a cell phone.

Thinking we’d finally gotten the hang of Italian transportation we sprinted for what we thought was the right train. It wasn’t.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
To Venice We Will Go!

Friday, May 20th

I lied. Well, not really “lied;” I read my notes wrong. We did good this time. We managed to have the right destination, the right train, the right class, and the right coach all at the same time: sort of a world-traveler’s grand slam. This wasn’t a conjunction we managed all that often. But at this point in our travels we were feeling cocky: heading to Florence you remember we’d tried to take the wrong train, then been steered to another wrong train (we didn’t actually get on that wrong train so I won’t count it as wrong), then got on the right train AND the right coach, so we were still batting 500 and figured we had this Italian transportation system pretty well under control.

Don’t sneer, catching the right train in Italy is no small accomplishment: did you know that the Italians print their railway tickets in a foreign language? Or did you know that they list the names of other cities on the right-hand side of the ticket? Usually these other cities seem to be places through which the train is going to travel and sometimes the train actually stops at one of these places, but sometimes, and apparently at random, the train is actually going to shoot off at some angle from one of these intermediate points. Unless you’re in the mood for a sudden side trip to San Benedetto del Tronto you’d better take yourself off beforehand. Thus, initially catching the right train is only part of the fun of Italian travel. This is where my second absolutely essential Italian phrase comes into play; when the conductor comes through the train punching tickets ask him (or her) “Devo cambiare treno?” “Do I have to change trains?” This is an important point. When you forget, don’t say that I didn’t warn you. But we had it in the bag on this particular day. No need to change trains. We were set all the way to Venice-Santa Lucia, so-named because of the church they’d had to tear down to build the train station.

The land between Florence and Venice is different from that south of Florence. If you think of Italy as being like a hip-boot with Rome located right at the kneecap, then Florence would be right in the center of your thigh—midway between the Mediterranean on the western (toe) side of the peninsula and the Adriatic on the eastern (heel) side. Florence is also just on the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, running like a seam down the center of the boot. Venice would be at the very top of your leg just under Forrest Gump’s “but-tocks” on the flat flood plain south of the Alps. Up there you’re almost in Slovenia and Croatia: Undeveloped Eastern Europe. That lack of development just over the border is probably a major reason why most of the panhandlers in Italy seem to be from Eastern Europe. I’m sure they make a lot more money begging on the streets of Rome or Venice or Florence than they could working 12-hour days in the Balkans. And the Adriatic Sea is so narrow and the eastern coast of Italy so long I’m sure that just about anyone in Czechoslovakia who wants to visit Western Europe can just paddle over. It’s like Arizona with a very wide Rio Grande.

Speaking of panhandling, each of the major cities we visited had their own particular style — sort of a regional variation I guess you might say. In Florence the train stations were the place for really insistent women with pathetic pictures and very high whiney sales-pitches. Our young well-dressed oriental woman with the cell-phone was an exception: her high-tech approach to the second-oldest profession was completely unique. Rome’s main station was very similar to Florence’s except for those proponents of the direct approach “You give me 50 cents?” who knew what they wanted and went right for it. We had not yet encountered the really appalling form of panhandling we would find later on the Roman streets. There were so many police at the stations I’m sure that finding a fixed location and setting up their elaborate props was impossible. I’ll tell you about that later.

In Venice, the panhandlers stationed themselves outside the churches and hit on the people entering or leaving, frequently crossing themselves and offering effusive blessings or muttered curses depending on the efficacy of their petitions. This cohort was also entirely made up of women, and they were uniformly dressed in black with black headscarves and incredibly dirty hands and faces. It was as if they’d applied dirt-colored “foundation.” Italy has plenty of public fountains where the water either runs constantly or can be easily turned on, and there are frequent public restrooms with paid attendants. These restrooms are either free or cost only a few coins. The most expensive one we found was just outside Santa Croce and only cost .75 euros. The point is that even panhandlers could practice minimal hygiene if they chose to. I can only suppose that Venetian dirt is part of the professional dress code.

Florence, as I said, was just on the western edge of the Apennines so the train first traveled through lovely mountain valleys and innumerable tunnels and shadowed impossibly steep cliffs with rocky streams and waterfalls. Of course, since we were traveling about 75-80 mph my attempted photos are little more than glorious green blurs — but then so are my memories of that magical landscape. Once through the mountains we hit Illinois. Flat as cornbread but with smaller fields than the U.S. Midwest and many more enormously tall, but incredibly narrow trees called pioppo — I had our seatmate write the word for us — we’d recognize them as poplars. They make truly amazing silhouettes. Imagine yourself in the train rocketing silently along through fields of yellowish spring-greens dotted with impossibly red poppies. In the medium distance there is the occasional pastel-yellow farm house with red-tile roof, and lining the fields and towering over the farm houses like gigantic hunter-green fence posts are these enormous feathers waving gently in the breeze. Behind them, more poppies and farmhouses and yellow-green fields likewise circumscribed, field after field stretching all the way to the mountains applied like purple smudges on the horizon.

Bologna, Ferrara, Rigno, the towns slipped past. Irrigation canals and flooded fields out the window where rice, perhaps, is going to be sown? Then more of those Sci-fi mountain-mushrooms: taller than those farther south. The poppies still roll out the red carpet for the viewer but now the towns are at the base, leaving the summits to bristle with cell-phone and microwave towers. Padova looks to be the Detroit of Italy. On the outskirts of the city graffiti covered everything that wasn’t moving. Like a game of “One-Two-Three Redlight!” You could feel it creeping toward the heart of town every time you turned your back. But as in the outskirts of Rome much of the painting is truly lovely with a wonderful use of color and shape. When these young artists get to work undisturbed it’s clear that some have real talent and they certainly understand the limitations and strengths of the medium they work in. But it was still just an enormous signature. Like a bird’s bright plumage, this cri de coeur “Look at me” is never going to be great art. Talent and technique are not enough: you need to know where to put your easel. Maybe this medium will find a way to transform itself into public murals. We can hope so. The urge to create is a good thing, and it’s as ignorant and shortsighted to think that art only belongs in museums as it would be to think that all animals should be domesticated or living in zoos. Then comes Mestre, the industrial outskirts of Venice where most of the “real” people must live, then water, and causeways, and boats, and the smell of the marsh, and then islands, and then Santa Lucia and the end of the line!

If parts of Florence felt like “Florence-land” inside Disney World, then Venice is the Magic Kingdom itself: it is the prototype for every theme park everywhere. Tiny twisting walkways, little walk-in shops everywhere, no cars inside the park, and all the major transportation on touristy riverboats. A completely captive audience with brimming wallets. Unless you take a train or start swimming you couldn’t accidentally leave Venice if you tried. If only they could arrange for gas-fired hippopotamuses to rise and sink in the torpid backwaters they’d have something. The many waterbuses are called “vaporettos,” diesel-powered boats about 60 feet long and only 10-12’ wide, with built-in chairs fore and aft and lots of standing room amidships where people enter and exit. There are hundreds of vaporetto-stops around the city and along the Grand Canal whose twisting course bisects Venice. The smaller feeder canals are serviced by much smaller water taxis or by the famous gondolas. A gondola ride costs about 40-60 euros apiece and with an exchange rate of 1,27 dollars per euro that was way out of our price range. We were willing to pay that much to watch Maestro Mehta conduct 2/3s of Tosca but not that much to be paddled along a stagnant and reeking canal by a husky young man dressed in a fetching little sailor outfit. I admit that the brightly colored silk ribbons hanging off their flat-brimmed hats were cute, but the guys didn’t even sing for crying out loud!

We disembarked at Santa Lucia and quickly rolled our carry-ons to the vaporetto stop right outside the station. We didn’t know that there was a bridge we could have used to get to our convent more cheaply but being greenhorns we just bought tickets and jammed aboard with all the other greenhorns for a trip basically across the Grand Canal. We spent more time trying to disentangle our luggage from everyone else’s luggage than we did actually motoring across the canal, but we survived our first encounter with the vaporettos. Georgia wasn’t really feeling up to a walk anyway; she was really starting to look a little green. As with some places in Florence, in Venice you travel at the same speed as everyone else on the sidewalk with you. There is no passing, and you don’t even have the option of stepping briefly into the “street” unless you are wearing water wings. All the sidewalks in Venice terminate at a bridge, and all bridges have to be tall enough to let a water taxi or gondola underneath. That means every bridge has to be 6-8 feet tall, no matter how wide the canal. Some canals were as narrow as 8-10 feet, so that makes for a pretty steep climb up and then back down. Luckily we were less than ½ a mile from our convent and only had to traverse two bridges. Georgia was definitely not her normal self and didn’t even fuss when I practiced my shuffle-clunk form of climbing stairs with carry-ons.

We found the convent pretty easily by counting bridges, and saw with gratitude that we passed two gelaterias on the way. It looked like low-blood sugar was not going to be a problem in Venice. We were going to have a different problem. Georgia was now starting to walk funny. When the train had stopped in Mestre she’d felt the first rumblings of Montezumarella’s Revenge from the cold eggplant-parmesan we’d saved for a picnic meal and her intense desire to find some facilities had now morphed into anxiety. If we didn’t get to our room quickly, anxiety was going to become emergency and then quickly escalate into catastrophe.

I’m afraid we’d discovered that except for having your pocket picked, nothing takes place quickly in Italy.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Venice (shopping at the "copa", Murano)

Friday, May 20th

Our desk clerk was another lovely young woman but this time with brown hair and no obviously pierced body parts. She also seemed a little more placid than our Florentine blond but did speak a little English. She felt no sense of urgency and wanted to visit as she checked us in. Georgia’s eyes were starting to water. Apologetically our clerk said that we were on the second-floor (our countenance falls), but there was an ascensore (our countenance rises). “We’d like a room with a view?” offered Georgia. “Non possible” she replied (our countenance falls), “But you do have a window” (countenance doesn’t know what to make of this comment).

After instructions on how to work the elevator we “ascensored” to the second floor and found our room easily. I think we could have walked up faster—this was the same lift that brought Noah down from Mt. Ararat, but with the bags and the funny walk the lift was welcome. The room did have a window (hopeful countenance) but the shutters wouldn’t open more than a crack because there were wire-mesh burglar-bars between us and the apartment house right there. We were so close we could have handed jars of peanut butter back and forth (our countenance definitely falls). Just as sweetie was heading off to see how the facilities worked the phone rang. Terror. It’s always upsetting to try to make conversation with someone in another language, but at least when you do it face to face you can fall back on gesture and pantomime and pointing and waving and writing notes. On the phone you actually have to understand what someone is saying without even being able to read their lips. We both stood there stupidly as it rang and rang. A mental coin flip: I lost. “Pronto?” I squeaked suavely. It was the desk clerk telling us, in fractured English, something about a cancelled reservation and another room available (countenance rises hopefully). The key was in the door. On opening the door we saw there were two windows and no mesh to keep the shutters from opening. As I threw them open (Georgia was not letting another facility pass her by) the room filled with the smell of roses.

Our new room overlooked the convent garden and there were roses planted in honor of the Virgin Mary. The bushes themselves were not large but the blooms were huge pink and red pom-poms and they smelled delicious. There was a long low potting shed and utility room running from the right hand side of the convent back to a brick wall at the back of the garden. On the left-hand side was the chapel where we would hear the sisters singing the hours. From the window I could see an ancient sister puttering around, watering can in hand, making sure that all her petalled charges were well cared for. The skyline was not much to admire as Venice is all flat. There are no high points except the famous towers. We could see playground equipment in the walled garden directly behind the convent and just make out a canal in the front of that house. In the distance you could see one of the innumerable cranes performing restorative work on one of the ancient buildings. By this time Georgia had joined me at the window and the first thing she noticed was a clothesline. There was one on the roof of the potting shed and one on the ground in front of it as well. The shed must also contain a washing machine. Recent forced changes of clothes had made washing essential.

There had been a pay laundry near the convent in Florence but it was going to cost us 7 euros per load for the washing machine and dryer, not counting the soap! We’d brought carry-ons with the expectation of washing clothes frequently but prices like that would definitely break the bank. Downstairs our desk clerk told us we were welcome to wash our clothes in the shower and hang them outside, but the washing machine was just for the sisters. We asked where we could buy laundry soap. With many hand signals she indicated how to find something she called a “copa,” or something like that, wherein the locals bought their food and washing powder and such-not. An ancient nun (the one I saw from the window I think) in crisply starched black habit showed us the drill for hanging up our 5-pound key and pushing the exit button that called another ancient sister who would let us out and lock the door behind us. All of this explanation was made in the most liquid and lovely Italian, with much good cheer and animation and many wonderful hand gestures. We tried to look like we knew what she was saying and nodded when a nod seemed appropriate and shrugged when it seemed we were being asked a question. After one rather long and embarrassed silence, I saw a sparkle in her eye as she mused to herself “They don’t understand a word I’m saying.” This was actually just about the only thing I did understand and she just waved us cheerfully out the door with another gesture toward the key rack as if to remind us that the key would be right there when we got back.

Georgia was in no shape to walk fast and I sauntered along thinking about our motherly sister who explained things to us as patiently as a mother does her infant child, a child who probably doesn’t understand any more what is being said to it than we did. And yet, we did understand the important things: sister cared for us and wanted us to be safe and would be there when we got back (before curfew). It was all very charming, especially so because she didn’t take herself terribly seriously either. She was very old, but she was still filled with affection and interest and concern for others, even worldly world travelers from Ken-tu-ky Usa, and the sparkle told me she was also quite full of life and mischief and vinegar as well. I want to be just like her.

Finding your location on a map of Venice is no easy matter; the place truly is a maze, but there is that consolation that it’s almost impossible to be truly “lost” in Venice either. Like Disneyland, you don’t need to worry about accidentally wandering out of the park. Our directions to the “copa” consisted basically of continuing to turn to the left as often as we could. That seemed to be getting us to a dead end and when I tried to inquire of locals they acted as if they couldn’t understand my version of Italian and tried substituting other words for the magical “copa.” I now have more empathy for my 2-year old grandbaby, Sara, when she earnestly explains something to me.

We gave up on the locals and explored on our own. Being a water city, virtually every sidewalk in Venice is also a dock. The Pizzale Roma was the main dock for the only parking lot on the island for those people who used the ferry. It was also where our first vaporetto dropped us off. If you turned right off the floating dock instead of left to go to the convent you would pass in front of a line of small shops fronting the Grand Canal. The last three shops had the signs “Coop 1, Coop 2, Coop 3.” Those crazya Italiansa, they alwaysa, enda, theira, wordsa, witha a vowela even if nature doesn’t supply one. Here then was our “Copa.”

Each store seemed to list the items for sale in that particular store so we entered the third one first and we did find the shelf containing all the different kinds of soap. But wouldn’t you know it? The labels were all printed in a foreign language! We couldn’t tell what was dish washing liquid and what was laundry soap. The pictures didn’t help—they just showed happy housewives. We stood at the shelf and studied each bottle for a long time. I know the locals were becoming impatient as we seemed to be generating a traffic jam: the aisles were much more narrow than a typical Usa grocery store. We finally selected some brand that seemed to promise excellent results when used in cold water but didn’t contain bluing. The locals looked relieved. With that major purchase made we decided to explore the rest of the store.

It turns out that the 3 stores were actually connected together with narrow passage ways located at the back of the store. Normal people would enter Coop 1 and get what they needed there then move on to Coop 2 and get what they needed there, then go to Coop 3 where the checkout counter for all three stores was located. Tourists and other feeble-minded individuals enter Coop 3 first and then, shopping basket high overhead, swim against the stream (“Scusi, Signore, Scusi, Signora,”) like hapless salmon trying to leap the churning rapids. Yet another example of the barbarity of Americans: we don’t even know how to shop correctly. Eventually we made it back to Coop 1 and had the best time shopping: picking up bread and fruit and exotic cans of something or other, and squeezing and pinching and oohing and aaahing over everything, and calling each other to come see this or that new delight. I thought the Italians pretty unfriendly — they didn’t seem to appreciate how much we were enjoying their culture, and then Georgia noticed someone putting on one of those little disposable plastic gloves before they picked up a piece of fruit or smelled a cantaloupe or tapped a loaf of crusty bread. Was my face red! Suave world traveler dips his dirty coffee cup into the party punch bowl. We seemed to be making great impressions on everybody everywhere we went.

Escaping the produce department we headed for the deli where I redeemed myself by actually noticing that there was a little machine dispensing paper numbers so the sea of humanity could be served in first-come, first-served order. While waiting I studied the many offerings. Things looked somewhat familiar, pasta salads, seafood casseroles, and puffs, and cheeses, but everything was labeled in that same ferrin’ language again. Those Italians must be really smart to be able to understand all these strange words. Questo and Questa again and lots of piccolo when they tried to give us a large scoop of something. Basta said the lady next to me and I thought I’d done something else wrong until I saw her clerk put the lid on the container and figured it must mean “enough!” It did. It became one of my favorite words in the deli sections of super-mercatos.

Back at the convent we had a wonderful picnic supper in the garden: sparkling wine and sparkling water, focaccia, tuna salad, apricot-filled cookies, pears, and mozzarella “puffs.” We shared the picnic tables with a German family. Their teenaged daughter spoke English with no accent at all—even to the point of throwing in “y’all” at the right times. She’d been an exchange student in a Dallas high school for a year. So strange to hear such superb English from someone so young when we couldn’t seem to even be able to make people understand we were looking for a supermarket. After supper it was wash time. “Wash the clothes in the shower,” our desk clerk had suggested. Only problem: the bathroom didn’t have a shower or a tub.

Far be it from me to stoop to potty stories but I really do need to say a little more about Italian bathrooms. Did I tell you about the “pull-chains” we had in some? Chains descending from the ceiling that we were too chicken to pull, not having any idea what they were for. For all we knew they would set off “Help, I’ve fallen and can’t get up” alarms and summon a squad of “code-blue” nuns to break down the doors! (That’s the problem with being a coward, now we’ll go to our graves wondering what might have been.) The public restrooms were generally pretty good — you usually had to pay a small amount to use one, though I did see some free ones in smaller train stations that were like the footprint bathrooms we had in Vietnam. You know the kind: a hole in the floor with two footprints on either side. OK for number 1, but pretty intimidating for number 2, especially if you have a history of low blood pressure that sometimes causes brief fainting spells when you stand up too quickly from a squat. Fainting in one of those bathrooms could ruin your whole day. Our best bathrooms were yet to come, but the one here in Venice was absolutely unique in that it really didn’t have a tub or a shower: it was the shower! No kidding, the whole bathroom was about the size of my kitchen table and there was a showerhead on the wall beside the toilet. You could sit on the throne and relax under a stream of hot water if you wanted. What luxury! Even the Pitti Palace didn’t have anything like that. What about the toilet paper, you ask? I’m glad you asked. There was a little metal “umbrella” for the roll of T.P. hinged to the wall for easy access, but resting on top of the roll to protect it from the elements (so to speak). That meant after a shower your paper might be a little moist on the edges, but it certainly remained serviceable. And between the toilet and the sink was a bidet. Georgia said she couldn’t figure how to use it and I knew I wasn’t going to try! I wanted no part of the thing until we needed a clothes washer. Fill it up with warm water; add detergent, and happy scrubbing bubbles! And since there was already a drain in the floor, wringing out wet laundry was going to be a snap.

At this point we had one of our infrequent disagreements. There was the one in the Boboli Garden occasioned by low blood sugar: “You can bury me right here. I’m not climbing any more mountains” (when actually she did walk on up and was glad she saw the rose and peony garden). This was the second: we’d heard some scuttlebutt from one of the other tourists that there was going to be a vaporetto pilots’ strike this evening from 8 to 12 and I wanted to take a ride before it shut down. Georgia’s intestinal situation was in no state for such a trip, she had some dirty laundry needing immediate attention (if you know what I mean), and she wanted me to stay and share the clothes-washing experience with her. Being a loving and understanding man I asked myself “What Jesus Would Do?” and then suggested that Georgia be more like Jesus and left to ride the vaporettos. I did promise I would help wring out the jeans when I returned and hang everything up to dry out back though.

The vaporetto ride was cool, but it really isn’t much fun seeing neat places by yourself. You can’t really oooh and aaah with a bunch of strangers and punch them in the ribs; it’s just not considered friendly. But the trip did give me a chance to learn the routes and see which ones we wanted to take in the morning.

Back at Casa Caburlotto, n. 316—Fondamenta Rizzi, Motherly Sister was very glad to see me and patted my back proudly when I remembered the key-drill all by myself. If she hadn’t been five-foot-nothing I’m sure she would have patted me on the head. Upstairs the room had become noticeably chillier, and the weather seemed to be cooling off as well. I suggested moving the little central night stand to the side and moving our little twin beds together to ward off the chill. Georgia suggested another place I could put my little bed. I told her I didn’t think the other guests would like having to walk around it in the hall. She wondered why I didn’t at least try, since there was obviously going to be a “strike” this evening. Remembering what Jesus Would Do, I thought it might be a good time for me to go wring out the clothes and carry them out to the clothesline. If the sisters were scandalized at men’s boxers flying jauntily from the clothesline they didn’t say so. We’d made a real effort to buy clothes that would drip dry quickly and relatively wrinkle-free. I recommend silk as a wonderful fabric for packing light and washing often. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty delicate fabric as well and the silk shirt I wore all over Italy is now probably pushing up poppies in an Italian landfill somewhere. Sigh.

We slept under the covers that evening: cool as it was we heard one pesky mosquito looking for an opening all night long.

Up early in the morning (as always) we helped the sisters open the dining room. It was bright and airy and smelled of freshly baked bread and espresso. What a wonderful smell! Georgia was not yet at full strength but really perked up when our motherly sister approached with two stainless steel coffee pots enquiring “caffee ou tea?” “Caffee per favore.” “Con latte?” “Si, grazie.” Then a lovely ritual: pouring from both pots at the same time: one espresso and the other hot milk. Delicioso! Fresh crusty bread, butter, and marmalade. Disneyland-like crowds are not going to get us down!

But they did. I loved Venice, but I liked it least of all the places we visited. The central tourist areas were packed. We panicked and stayed on the vaporetto all the way to Murano, the island famous for blown glass. The glass museum was a self-guided tour and had a marvelous collection of glass from the 1st century BC through the present. Amazing colors and textures. I took photos and notes of everything. Georgia loved the gaudy glass chandeliers—great grandfather to the contemporary artist: Chihuly. Afterward we visited a fondaire where they blow the glass but made the mistake of paying for the tour 5 minutes before the poor bored glass blower was scheduled for lunch. He made his 15-billionth pawing blue glass horse as quickly as possible and then bolted for the door. We discovered that we were also hungry and the mud off his shoes hit us right in the shins all the way out the door. On the same block we found a quiet courtyard restaurant and managed to convey to the magnificently surly waiter that we wanted to share a plate of cuttlefish on fettuccini with a cheese plate antipasto and a large bottle of sparkling mineral water. He brought bread and butter too, of course.

The cuttlefish, as everyone knows is in the squid family and like all squid and octopus it uses sacks of “ink” to escape in a black cloud when threatened. I think our cuttlefish was trying to escape from the top of our fettuccini. Not a really appetizing looking dish. Black chunks of meat in a black sauce on whitish pasta with a grated Romano snow on top. But, oh my goodness! What a taste! Sort of like squid, but more delicate—not tough and stringy at all. With the bread and cheese it was a feast. One cheese was like a mild Swiss cheese, one was an aged provolone, but the amazing one was called “formaggio verde” by our waiter: green cheese. Later we saw it in the Coop where they called it Gorgonzola. Delicious, but don’t, under any circumstances leave it on your dressing table overnight with the hope of eating some in the morning. It is not a cheese to be trifled with. And certainly not without refrigeration. The smell reminded me of my dad’s story about a practical joke he once played: putting a little piece of Limburger cheese on the exhaust manifold of his friend’s 1928 Ford. What an unbelievable smell. You wouldn’t think that something that tastes so good could ever smell so bad.

What a wonderful meal though. One of the best experiences of the trip. The courtyard had obviously once been a garden and still had ornamental plants around the base of the trees and it was flanked by an ancient potting shed. We sat at a wrought-iron table and could still see rusted garden tools through the sprung door. The sycamore we sat under must have been about 80 years old but wasn’t any more than 30 feet tall. I really do not understand why Italians prune all the trees so heavily. I guess they do love their trees but want them to be house broken. The drip line around our tree couldn’t have been more than 15 feet from the center. There was also a potted rose tree beside the door. The trunk must have been 4-5” thick but all the lower limbs had been pruned off and the entire bush didn’t extend out from the trunk more than 12-14”. I wouldn’t have thought a rose could be so heavily pruned and still live. But it did, and judging by the mass of little white roses all over it, it was doing more than just surviving.

As the restaurant became more and more busy we had to abandon our hope for an after-dinner coffee. The surly one had definitely sniffed in disapproval when we put in the initial order and after 20 minutes of letting our meal settle we were ready to be off. It really was hilarious watching others trying to snag the waiter so they could at least place their order. One couple with an obstreperous child had been trying for 30 minutes. He was magnificent in managing to look the other way at just the right instant. I would have liked to stay another hour just to see if they ever managed to order, but we hoped to see more of Murano so we abandoned our hope for coffee and bid them all Arrividerci.

Santi Maria e Donato was an amazing 12th century church with stone mosaics in the floor. I just had to sketch some of the patterns. I knew they would make wonderful stained glass. My favorite pattern produces a 3-dimensional optical illusion. One pattern uses a square and two diamonds and the other uses three diamonds. I have a feeling that some of the same workmen or schools who “practiced” in Murano came into their glory with the floors in Venice’s San Marco.

Murano probably looks a lot like what Venice used to. There are a few main canals but many more sidewalks leading to the interior of the island. We followed one through a residential area. That, for me, was the saving grace in this area: unlike Disneyland, people actually live in this theme park. We saw more lovely pastel houses with window boxes brimming full of brightly colored flowers; we saw clothes lines full of colorful shifts and shirts strung between buildings. We saw tiny courtyards full of heavily pruned trees and bushes and perennials. Italy’s answer to Japanese bonsai gardens, full of color and life and exuberance.

And then we happened on a cemetery. This was the best proof that we were walking around in a real honest-to-god community, and not a tourist trap. The cemetery was definitely off the beaten path so it wasn’t prettified for the tourists, and yet it was truly lovely. Surely we must have arrived on Decoration Day for virtually every grave and crypt and mausoleum was sporting a vase of fresh flowers. Not plastic, mind you, fresh unwilted flowers. The cemetery was only about an acre or two but rested peacefully in the sun traversed by poplar allies and surrounded by an 8’ brick wall. Many of the tombs and gravestones were works of art. The mosaics and stained glass were magnificent: these were obviously people in the glass trade receiving their sendoff from loving co-workers and family. My Italian was terrible, but the inscriptions gave loving accounts of the beautiful work these men and women had created. It was a community looking out for their own. I found it all very moving and wondered if we Americans aren’t too mobile.

Back on the water we notice a group of 10-12 French students, ranging in age from 14 to 18 in front of the glass museum on the dock across the canal from us. They were unremarkable. Except for all being slender they could have been any similar group in any mall in Anytown Usa. We really paid them no attention at all: they seemed to be laughing and enjoying each other’s company. I’m sure the banter could have easily been translated to that group at the mall, as well, and yet, there was something different about them. As we walked past we heard a yelp and then a very loud splash.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Venice (San Marco, a free concert, Lido)

Murano, San Marco, Lido, May 21st and May 22nd

Georgia turned just in time to see one of the girls, aged about 15, fall into the canal—backpack and all. We have no idea what caused the fall but she went completely under the water. By the time I’d turned she was back on the surface and two boys and one girl were already down on their knees reaching down to haul her and her dripping bag out of the water. She was completely soaked. Luckily for modesty’s sake she was wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt instead of a summer dress, but she huddled down on the dock, hugged her knees tightly to her chest and put her head down in absolute mortification. She never, as far as I could tell, uttered a word. Her misery was unspeakable and there wasn’t even a hint of laughter at her expense, which struck me as odd, but what happened next was even odder. Of the dozen or so kids standing around, about half sat down with her! This was both boys and girls. The other half stood around her in a rough circle, facing outward. It reminded me of a National Geographic photo of wild zebras, or wildebeest, or buffaloes huddled around an injured animal to protect it from predators. Somehow I found it very touching and much more civil than the more typical hyena-pack mentality I’ve seen in some malls where teenagers seem to feed off their injured members. When we returned about 30 minutes later she still sat, in frozen misery but the herd was still gathered around her, with one or two continuing their private, whispered ministrations. Amazing cultural differences. And yet, the rough and tumble of the malls would not have allowed her to suffer such mortification for such a long time. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Which is the more successful species: zebras or hyenas? Hard to say, I suppose, but not hard to say which group I’d rather have me over for dinner.

On the ride back rom Murano we got off at the Piazza San Marco to learn what time they were having Mass on Sunday. From there we walked in lockstep with the maddening crowd headed for the Ponte di Rialto. I don’t know that we could have gotten out of line if we wanted to. We did manage, occasionally, to steer ourselves into an eddy in front of some little store or other (one of them was Gucci’s!) but for the most part we were no more able to withstand the flow than would two twigs in a burbling stream. You couldn’t move faster than those around you, and you dare not try to move slower. I was miserable at the Ponte. The idea of trying to actually walk over the bridge left me weak-kneed. Just trying to hear yourself over the din of clicking shutters was difficult enough—actually walking through this quintessential photo-op was personally unthinkable. We managed to squeeze into one of the vaporettos and I swore that I would never again try to see some famous place at any time other than very early in the morning. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence at 7 AM will always be for me the way to see an Italian landmark.

We arrived back at the Piazzale Roma just in time to hear bells calling, we thought, for evening Mass. I’m not sure we actually found the right church but we did manage to stumble into Chiesa di San Nicolo da Tolentino, which had a sign on the door announcing a “Concerto, Ingresso libero.” Free sounded good to us. We didn’t see that word in Venice very often. It turns out it was the “Bellini Choral Society of Budrio,” established in 1911. There were about 15-20 people, all amateurs as far as I could tell, but in that space, with those acoustics they were thrilling. Much of the music was new to me: Animuccia, Spataro, Aichinger, Bardos, but there were also some old friends: Palestrina, Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and they finished with two spirituals Georgia and I have actually sung in choir: “Syahamba” (from Kenya, I think) and “Ride the Chariot”. The lovely young soprano who sang the solo in Mozart’s Laudate Dominum was so nervous her voice didn’t so much vibrato, as tremolo. The group as a whole, though, did so well they were called back for two encores. Did you realize what encore means? It means “again,” and that is just what the choir did. They sang two of their songs again. Not new songs, but songs they’d already performed: the first one was Lajos Bardos’ “Ave Maria Stella” “Hail Mary of the Stars (Queen of Heaven),” which really was lovely, and the second one was Anna Cremonini’s solo in Mozart’s Laudate Dominum. It was so much like the French students gathering around the mortified teenager it brought tears to my eyes again. We all knew she hadn’t done very well the first time and she blushed mightily as the choir joined with the audience to clap and ask her to sing it again. You could almost feel them close in around her as the accompaniment began for a second time—and what a difference that support made. She must have been transported by their love and encouragement. Her voice was still obviously untrained, but the clarity and joy in her voice was palpable: “Praise God” who loves us like a child (rather than like a beefsteak), rang out in that marvelous space until it seemed that the murals on the wall were responding in sympathetic vibration. Ours was a small audience but so thunderous in its applause I just know that evening will live forever in her memory — as I know it will live in mine.

The only song they really did badly was a surprise to me: Bach’s Liebster Jesu. It was awful. Not the pitch, which was fine, but there is something about the guttural German consonants that absolutely defeat the languid, liquid, Italian vowelesque tongue. No wonder the Nazi’s didn’t take their Italian allies seriously: they weren’t “manly” or “hard” enough, and I think it was all founded on different languages. Have you ever noticed how much of prejudice and class-consciousness is actually founded on accents and dialects?

But now betraying my own prejudices I have to admit that their rendition of “Ride the Chariot” sounded pretty silly as well. Much too mushy and mealy-mouthed. Nowhere near the snap and pop of a good English rendition. Maybe English is more similar to German than it is to the romance languages. Oh well.

Starving, we left right after the concert, before Mass, and headed for the Coop to pick up more picnic supplies: fish, Russian Salad (peas, turnips, and carrots in mayonnaise), and more of that wonderful tuna salad. More bread of course, and another bottle of Chianti meant another yummy picnic in the garden where motherly sister let us know we were not to throw away leftovers but leave them for the neighborhood cats (and rats I wondered). Then off to bed early where I managed to move the central end table to the end and slide our little cots close together. No mosquitoes tonight.

Sunday, May 22

Up early again with another marvelous breakfast of crusty bread, butter and marmalade, and caffe latte served by our ancient wait-staff. So far as I could judge the youngest nun was about 60, though there did seem to be more than the 14 in Florence. Georgia had seen a TV flickering in one of the downstairs rec rooms and gone in to find a circle of sisters all watching the news. Hard to imagine them sitting around watching some of the dreck we spotted on TV. It sometimes pulls us up short to realize that they, too, live in the modern world, even if at a slower pace.

Back at San Marco’s for Mass we completely bypassed the long line waiting to enter as tourists and went directly to the side door where a guard stopped us. We told him we were there to celebrate “Messa” and he let us right in. Sublime. We’d taken the “tour” yesterday when we wondered about the time for Mass and had a chance to see the fabulous golden screen behind the high altar, and listen to the choir practicing for today’s Mass. Sitting on the steps of the high altar I’d listened intently to the music bouncing around in the enormous sanctuary and had a chance to study the stone mosaics in the floor. That was when I notice the strong similarities to those in the much smaller church we’d visited on Murano. But Sunday, entering San Marco for Mass was different. This time it wasn’t a museum; magically it had been transformed into a stupendous cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Venice since about the year 1200. The golden mosaics, like the patterns in the floor, probably also began their life on little Murano.

How many different ways can you say “amazing?” Imagine walking 200 feet down the center aisle of a church with a 50’ high ceiling decorated to look like the vaults of heaven, and completely covered with gigantic golden mosaics picturing all the major events of the Bible. And all along the way are stupendous works of art at the side chapels, and the floor, ancient beyond belief, is covered with 1-ton blocks of colored stone, so settled over the centuries that as you walk you rise and fall as though walking on water. And then you genuflect toward the high altar and take your seat. An angelic multi-lingual sister comes down the side aisles inquiring of each one what language they speak and hands out programs in Latin, Italian, French, German, and English. The congregation is huge but she has time to patiently answer the questions of some rubes from Kentucky about all the iconography, and as they speak a shaft of light comes through one of the clerestory windows in the dome over the altar and falls, as surely as an arrow, on one of the 3’ carved saints lining the top of the altar screen, 12 feet off the ground. When asked, she patiently explains that the cathedral, its windows, and statuary, were so carefully designed that each saint is illuminated like that at their appropriate time of year and hour of the day. And all this marvelous design accomplished during the “dark ages.” The cathedrals with their amazing organs were the “moon shots” of the 12th century.

The Mass, itself, like the Mass offered by Father Barry Fitzgerald in Florence was not too hard to follow, but this time it was sung in Latin by the choir we’d been listening to the day before. It was a marvelous rendition, composed by one of the Bellini family, I think, though which one completely escaped my poor Italian. Whoever it was I hope they were able to lean over the parapets of heaven and hear the glorious chords reverberate in that amazing sound chamber. The Gloria (glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth) was awesome even before the tower bells began to ring their accompaniment. It was a while before there was enough momentum in the huge bass bell for it to begin to sound but when it did the full complement drowned out the choir, the congregation, and must have forced God Himself to stop up His ears. It was stupendous! That much sound inside that glorious golden chamber with those divine shafts of light shooting down through the gloom like heavenly flaming arrows was almost more than I could stand. I sometimes think the beauty we experience in this life is needed to toughen us up enough for the beauty and glory of heaven.

And then the Archbishop launched into his homily: I could not understand much, but did clearly hear him apologize for not being multi-lingual, and did hear him castigate the river of oohing and aaahing tourists who continued to flow in one door and out the other all during the service. Silencio! Silence: this is a holy place, not the Louvre! That seemed to help briefly, but soon I thought I was hearing something that sounded like muffled drum beats coming from outside the Cathedral: “Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, whoop” getting louder and louder and more insistent and making it very difficult to hear and understand the exposition of the text, until finally pandemonium itself seemed to break out behind us in the Piazza—pandemonium that His Eminence must have heard but completely ignored—what the heck was going on?

It sounded, for all the world like a military brass band marching up and down and back and forth across that huge open Piazza San Marco. Because we’d actually entered the cathedral in the middle of the preceding service we’d already stepped out of our seats onto the stone waves to shuffle forward for communion so didn’t feel bad about leaving our seats at the back of the congregation to go outside and see what the heck was going on. The guard was a little put out to have us leaving before the end of the service: Mi dispiace, I’m sorry, I told him. Honestly I was afraid it was going to be some kind of American military brass band there on a public relations trip. It seemed so insensitive to have blaring horns and bass drums right outside a Cathedral at high Mass I was sure it must be foreigners of some sort, unaware of what was going on inside. But as so often happened on this trip, I was wrong. It was a thoroughly Italian marching band. “Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp, whoop” went the bass drum marking time for a hundred or so demonstrators. I was captivated by the entire tableau. Sublime music drowned out by 1000-year-old bells inside a golden bowl. Angry Archbishop calling down the wrath of God drowned out by jauntily clad political demonstrators parading back and forth under indecipherable banners. I had to just sit on the steps and try to drink in all the absurdities and profundities of Venice. So ancient. So up-to-date. So worldly. So naïve. So sublime. So buffoonish. So beautiful. So crumbling. Such glorious smells of food. Such sewer smells. And above the whole crazy quilt a magically blue sky filled with pigeons swooping down and mobbing anyone foolish enough to buy a bag of corn, put it in their hands, and hold them out palm up. We saw little children completely disappear screaming under a gray and white whirring cloud to emerge moments later empty-handed, well spotted, and laughing. Little knots (and big knots!) of people everywhere. Enormous long snaking lines of humanity trying to get into various astounding buildings. Huge towers with hundreds of people lining the railings at the top. What a mass of humanity. This was a very different group from the one inside the cathedral, and yet it wasn’t a different group at all. What a joy to be a part of this mass as well. And just when it threatened to get boring, the brass band and drum corps would march by again. Whoop! Whoop! Whoomp! Little children joining in swinging their arms and marching. What a racket! How very Italian. Venice absolutely wore me out, I love it so, but I could never live there.

We had to escape before the centrifugal forces tore me completely apart. We saw a sign announcing an exhibit of Modigliani drawings at the Correr Gallery just off the Piazza. We found the referenced door, which had another sign sending us somewhere else where there was an open door leading nowhere! I think we’d still be wandering through a maze of empty rooms if we hadn’t found another Danish (I think) couple looking for the exhibit as well. Their Italian was good enough that they approached a policeman to ask for directions. Together we found the place. It could have been another exhausting “Royal Apartments” for me if I hadn’t just swallowed my pride and plowed through everything that didn’t absolutely stop me in my tracks. I kept telling myself I was there to see the Modigliani so passed many centuries of Venetian Art and sculpture and history, coins, maps, books, prints, and paintings. I moved through at a full tilt with my hands up like blinders shielding my eyes, but was grabbed by one “Cosme Tura,” a medieval painter I’d never seen before whose “Pieta” was moving beyond description. Mary is holding her dead son in her lap, and just gazing at his lifeless hand. The expression on her face is indescribable, serene yet so filled with pain as to break your heart. It was a small painting with very bright (egg tempera?) colors, only about 18” by 24” as I remember, but very reminiscent, in a way, of Hieronymous Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. In one corner of the painting was a tree with what appeared to have been a monkey looking down on the scene but either vandalized or subject to degradation over the centuries, paint had flaked off and the creature had been almost completely effaced. We didn’t see any more monkeys though we looked for them, but we did find Spot and the cardinales in several more paintings.

And then, just around the corner I ran smack up against Bosch’s “Temptation of St. Anthony.” Huge canvas you could easily spend an hour in front of just trying to see and study all the strange and frightening creatures that peopled his troubled universe. Surely some of this hellish vision must have been drug-induced.

Finally the Modigliani. He’d spent time in Venice and they’d put together a very nice collection of his sketches, and those of his wife, showing how their style had changed over that time, and showed the paintings of contemporaries upon which they’d obviously relied for inspiration. It was all capped off with “Boy with Red Hair.” You can’t really tell it from reproductions of his work but he was masterful at layering his colors. The faces seem so stylized but the layering puts a depth to them I had to see up close to appreciate.

After the museum we took a vaporetto across the canal to La Salute, the marvelous domed church so much identified with Venice because it dominates the view as you enter the Grand Canal from the harbor. After receiving a blessing from the beggar at the door we walked in on the most glorious illumination we’d seen thus far. The sun coming through clerestory windows illuminated the central floor mosaic spectacularly. The Titian over the altar was pretty impressive as well, but I was becoming so blasé we passed up the opportunity to see two more Titians because it would have cost us 1,5 euros! I can’t believe myself. Didn’t tip the beggar on the way out so got cursed. My blessings didn’t last very long. Doesn’t seem fair somehow — there should be some sort of “Be nice to me, I gave on the way in” badge.

Sandwiches and gelato for lunch. We’re getting good at the questo e questa school of food selection. Then we hopped a vaporetto for the island of Lido, about a 15-20 minute ride, where we saw a (drum roll) a CAR! It looked so odd, and felt strange to have to look both ways before just walking out on the streets. It was a beautiful place. I could live here I think, full of flowers and palm trees, sunlight and celebration, but not nearly as many people. There was a Fioretto Maggio May Flowers, at one of the churches with all the children dressed up in their best whites. First Communion maybe? Anyway it was gorgeous, and they’d obviously just finished some form of Italian potluck party. Wish we’d arrived a little sooner. There was so much to see in the window boxes and spilling off the balconies that we walked around with our head up. My sweetie stepped off a curb into a hole and twisted her ankle. That brought exploration to a halt, but hearing that it was important to put ice on swellings we went in search of something to apply. Couldn’t find ice to apply externally, but did find some wonderful gelato, the best we’d tasted, and applied it liberally in an internal fashion.

Back in Venice we stopped at the enormous Giardini Biannale where Georgia held down a bench and I went for a walk. There was a forest of those heavily pruned giant bonsai-like pine trees. I don’t know why they do that, but it makes for interesting shade patterns and the children loved playing soccer under them. Italian soft drinks on the park bench then vaporetto home with a stop for picnic supplies. More cheese (two kinds), bread, wine, BBQ potato chips, and little apricot-filled pies for dessert. Our German exchange student with the impeccable English shared the latter with us. Georgia watched a little TV with the sisters, I worked on my journal, and then off to bed.

Monday, May 23

Off we go to Piombino, Siena or someplace else: In the morning Georgia’s ankle was fine, thank goodness, as she was going to need it with the shuffle-thump approach to carrying bags up and down the bridges. Our motherly sister was wonderful. She’d completely given up on us understanding anything she said so she just told us everything without worrying about comprehension! As we checked out I tried to tell her how lovely I thought her convent, and how tranquil it had been, and how much we had come to love the little rose garden. Meals under the wisteria vines were a foretaste of heaven. I said none of this, of course, but she sensed in my lame Italian a real appreciation for their hospitality and a real wish I could better express myself. Georgia was much more eloquent in handing her several postcards from Kentucky, to show her where we were from. She was thrilled, and took down a photo album full of pictures of people posing with her, or posing alone. Page after page of happy faces, and all the while she explained everyone’s name and when they’d been there and what they’d said and done and what she’d said and done, and what they were doing now, and how the children in the photos now had children of their own, and through it all we let the words wash over us and pretended to understand just what she was saying. And of course, like little Sara when her Grandma sings her to sleep we understood every word: “I love you, I’m glad you’re here, you’re safe with me, you’ll always be in my heart, only distance will ever come between us.” As I said before, I want to be just like her. I’m going to put her picture over my desk.

But now the pressure was really on me. Georgia had planned the beginning and end of the trip and left me to wing it in the middle with my love of spontaneity. Well, now I had to put up or shut up. The original plan was for us to take a train across Italy to the eastern coastal town of Piombino where we’d catch a ferry to the island of Elba where there would be happy natives waiting for us on the dock begging us to stay in their luxurious guest quarters for a mere pittance. That was the plan, but as I looked at the map and checked train schedules in the station it sure looked like we’d be pulling into Elba very late at night. I suspected the happy natives would be curled up on their divans watching Italian re-runs, so we decided to head for Siena instead; it was sort of half way there and was a place we did want to see. I thought we’d have to change trains in Bologna, but how hard could that be? We’d also, apparently, be taking a train that would go through Padova as well. It was one of those tickets I told you about that had lots of cities printed on the right hand side. I figured we’d be stopping in each but wasn’t positive we needed to change trains in any (or all!) of them.

When we arrived in the station we saw an electronic sign reading Padova, so rushed for it, getting on the first car we found (there wasn’t an assigned carriage on this ticket.) We were traveling second class and this seemed to be a very nice car with a set of stairs up to seats on a second level. Pretty special second class, I thought. It also seemed to have many railroad men riding as well. I showed one our ticket and asked if this was the train going to Padova. My Italian, being what it was, must have stumped him. He didn’t seem to know what to say. He pointed at my ticket and said something I didn’t understand at all. I asked again if this was the train to Padova. How hard a question can it be? Either yes or no. He shrugged and said “Si.” We sat down and waited for the spontaneity to kick in. I saw our helper talking with one of the other train types but practiced the technique I learned from our Murano waiter and managed to be looking the other way at all important attempts to catch my eye. Finally the train pulled out of the station and I began to have second thoughts. The time we left was about an hour earlier than it seemed the automatic ticket dispenser had indicated we would leave and this really did seem much more luxurious than any of the other second-class trains we’d been on. But it was heading in the right direction I told myself.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

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Siena!

On the Road to Siena, May 22

This is the point when it dawned on me that though this train was certainly going to one of the cities on our ticket it may not be going to all the cities on our ticket. Phrase dictionary to the rescue! I told our benefactor that we hoped, eventually, to end up in Siena via Bologna. Devo cambiar treno? Do I need to change trains? “Si,” he replied with evident relief. We were going to the right city, sort of, but at the wrong time and on the wrong train. Our batting average was beginning to slip. I asked where this train was eventually going and he said Verona. We definitely wanted off, but for the moment we were riding first class, and would arrive at Padova an hour early. It also looked like we’d stationed ourselves on a car populated by trainmen taking a holiday so there wasn’t any official conductor to hassle us. How cool is that?

We had a leisurely lunch in the train station: a pizza with a very mild finely ground local sausage. It was so mild and bland that I said to Georgia before I realized it, “This tastes like Boloney,” then realized, of course, that it was bologna! Interesting flavor, but trust me, it doesn’t make a good pizza — especially as mild as they also make their tomato sauce. Sort of like ketchup on a cracker.

Now all we had to worry about was whether or not the right train would actually stop in Padova. It arrived an hour later, did stop, and we jumped on board as if nothing had happened. Are we su-ave world travelers or what? Finally, heading for the right city, on the right train.

We were having a marvelous conversation with a woman and her daughter traveling across Italy for the latter’s graduation present. We gave them the skinny on Florence; they’d been planning on only staying a day — and they set us straight on how to secure lodging “on the fly.” They told us about these little information kiosks in public places that would book you into hotels or inns or a pensione at the last moment. Look for the logo — a lower-case “i.” We definitely were going to need that information.

It was a marvelous conversation interrupted only by the conductor passing through asking for tickets. When she saw ours she scowled and announced loudly enough for St. Peter to hear that we were hell-bound deadbeats, sitting in the wrong coach and besides forfeiting our salvation should be flogged with broken clarinet reeds and chained with all the other galley slaves! That was how we learned what the number “1s” and number “2s” printed on the carriage doors meant. I swear we didn’t have a clue before then. That’s what I mean about traveling in another culture. Suddenly you realize how “conventional” everything is and how strange and bewildering it all appears for hapless outsiders.

I remember a Thai Buddhist professor we had in our department at the University of Georgia. At a party I saw him eating a piece of cheese and sidled over to warn him that though it certainly was pretty, he shouldn’t actually eat the red wax on the outside of the Gouda ball. He was very grateful. I wish I could have had enough Italian to assure the conductor that we didn’t have a clue what the numbers on the door meant, and I didn’t have enough experience of Italian trains to realize that these accommodations were more “first-class” than I should have expected. All I could do was apologize again, “Mi dispiace” (I’m getting good at pronouncing that word!) and bid our well-met traveling companions happy trails as we slunk off in disgrace.

We detrained in Bologna and knew to look for a “2” on the door of our new train. This was a much smaller one — obviously a secondary line. But, at least, the interior sported a fresh coat of spray paint on all exposed solid areas. Our artist, however, was experimenting in a monochromatic color scheme. Random squiggles and lines in a dark blue or black paint. Some boldness exhibited in canvas selection, but the definite lack of craftsmanship or color sense betrayed a novice hand. All in all one would have to say it was a disappointing installation; we can only hope that as our artist progresses his later oeuvre will show a more mature appreciation for the possibilities inherent in the medium and a more secure palette.

We were the only passengers in the car and hoped we’d have it all to ourselves, but stopped to pick up others about 2 miles out of Bologna. It was very hot on this train; evidently there was no air conditioning and all the windows were wide open as we rocketed along picking up some sort of feathery seeds blowing through the windows. They clumped together to form dust-bunny Godzillas who danced around joyously on the floor. The trip was so much fun, and the scenery was so Italy. (“See that cow?” “Yes?” “That’s an Italian cow.” “See that telephone pole?” “Hmmm?” “That’s an Italian telephone pole, you know.”) I’ll never ever tire of poppies and olive groves and grape arbors, rocky streams, amazing vistas, and mountain mushrooms.

Siena, however, was such a disappointment! It was not looking good for Mr. Spontaneity. We arrived about 4:30 and there was no one waiting in the train station to rent us a room. Plus the train station was being renovated and covered with lots of yellow “danger” tape. It was not an attractive area. We seemed to be at the bottom of a hill of some sort. I couldn’t see what all the big deal was about Siena — I certainly was unimpressed. And I was concerned. I needed to find us somewhere to sleep and my flock of happy natives had let me down. If I was concerned, Georgia was getting panicky. She’d not been in favor of traveling anywhere without reservations and now knew we were going to have to curl up with our suitcases in the train station all night.

We asked directions to the middle of town and were told we needed bus tickets, which we bought from the tobacconist and took off hiking to the bus stop. It was a fairly long hike and there were a lot of other people waiting as well — so many, in fact, that we couldn’t even squeeze on the first bus that arrived. The second wasn’t any more empty but we bulled our way on anyhow. Unfortunately our wheeled carry-ons jammed the bus doors and kept them from opening or closing at each and every stop up what turned out to be a mountain. The other passengers were very glad to see us get off when we reached the city center at 4:45.

No happy natives. A very tight-lipped wife. I’m starting to sweat. Another tobacconist. They know everything. On the train I’d written out a series of phrases that would be useful in finding lodging. Things like “Where can we find a convent accepting guests / cheap hotel / house with rooms to rent?” “Is the price fixed?” “That’s too much, do you know of something cheaper?” “How far away is it?” A whole page of things like that. The tobacconist listened to my butchered Italian of the first phrase on the sheet and conferred with his assistant. They told me something to the effect that I needed to go to the left across the street and around the corner looking for an Information Kiosk across the street from San Domenico.

Back outside I told Georgia the gist of what the tobacconist had said. You must remember that I couldn’t really understand what he was telling me. I could only rely on my impressions of what he was telling me: 1. Across the street. 2. To the left. 3. Around the corner. 4. Information booth across from San Domenico. My “impressions” were not sufficient for a panicky wife thinking she was now going to have to sleep in a doorway. She didn’t want my “impressions.” She wanted to know exactly what he’d said. I sweetly offered to hold her bag while she went back in to find that out. She ignored me. She wanted me to tell her what he’d said — exactly. I gave her steps 1 through 4 as outlined above. She then told me that I was wrong about the “to the left” bit. We needed to go to the right as that was clearly the real center of town! I suggested she might want have her head examined. She suggested that I might want to drop dead. I averred that I well might do that, but was planning on doing that while traveling to the left around the corner whether she liked it or not! She asked me if I had any idea what time it was. I told her she was the one carrying the watch and that if she wondered what time it was perhaps she could remove said watch from her pocket and ascertain the correct time. She did so.

Her voice then took on a definite edge of hysteria as she repeated that we were now going to have to sleep on the street: it was five minutes to five and we were never going to find any reasonable place still open. We needed to go to the right and that was all there was to it. Who, after all, has the better sense of direction, and who gets lost in elevators? Ignoring the drawn blood I pressed on — reminding her that I was the one who had received the directions and it seemed only reasonable that we should go to the left, since (I thought) that was what the man had told us to do, and you would have to at least suppose that he would understand where things in his own city were located better than she would since this was the first time she’d ever set foot in this blasted hell-hole and he’d probably been living here since God wore knee-pants!

She was about to ask me just how long he’d actually been living in Siena when a well-dressed and prosperous young woman approached us on the sidewalk, obviously heading home after work. She wasn’t walking nearly as fast as they do in Florence so I felt safe placing myself solidly in front of her and uttering the magic “Dove?” “Dough-vey?” “Scusi, Signora. Dove San Domenico?” “A sinistra,” to the left she motioned around the corner! Well, that settled it. A woman of obvious competence had ratified what the scatterbrained husband had foolishly thought the tobacconist had said so it must be right. We took off at a very fast walk around the corner passing several hotels along the way. “Well, I guess we’ll have somewhere to sleep tonight,” said my sweetie not too sweetly. Looking at the gold and glass chandeliers and the polished floors suggested to me that if we did have to stay in one of those hotels we were going to be living on bread and water for the remainder of the trip but I bit my tongue. As we rounded the corner there was gigantic San Domenico completely dwarfing the little kiosk with the distinctive lower-case “i” lazing in the late-afternoon haze across the street. What were they doing? It looked like they were closing up the windows and rolling up the awnings. Wait! Wait! We ran for it and arrived completely out of breath. My courage fled at the prospect of trying to negotiate with an Italian clerk at 5pm when he wanted to go home to his Italian wife and Italian children and have a big bowl of Italian macaroni. I knew I was never going to be able to punch out my little set lines, so with an opening “Scusi Signore . . .” I just tried to reach through the little ticket window and show him my first line inquiring about the availability of a convent or cheap hotel or room to rent. I used my thumb to try to cover everything else. With a look of impatience he snatched the paper out of my hand and began reading. After a moment of stunned silence he burst out laughing and said in impeccable English: “Do you have any idea what this all says?”

Well of course I knew what it said. I’d written it hadn’t I? Afraid he might have offended me, he swallowed his laughter and said with great precision: “How much do you want to pay for a room?” What a great question! We’d paid 77 euros a night in Venice and 83 euros a night in Florence, which was about half the local hotel rates so I decided to drive a hard bargain: “We’d like a room for about 75 euros a night, but it needs to be somewhere close by — we don’t have a car.” I wanted to let him know that he was dealing with an experienced negotiator. He looked kind of solemn but said, “Let me make some calls.” His assistant continued rolling up the awnings and shutting the other ticket windows. Then he turned back to me and said, “I have a place that might do. “Quanto costa?” I asked. “It would be 55 euros,” he said. “55?” “Si.” My negotiating position completely collapsed. “How far away?” “Right over there he pointed. It was less than a block from where we were standing. “We’ll take it!” I smirked at Georgia. Ain’t spontaneity grand? She just rolled her eyes. The kiosk charges tourists 2 euros per booking, which made our cost 57 euros. We gave him a down payment and would pay the rest when we checked in, which we planned to do immediately.

This kiosk had been so great we asked if they had another on Elba. They said they did and gave us the phone number and told us we’d see it when we got off the boat. How great is that? Even better than a throng of happy natives. Georgia was so pleased, in fact, that she let our clerk choose which postcard from Kentucky he’d like to have. He had to get one with horses on it, of course.

We had a little trouble finding our place. Who could have known that in Italy the street numbers on the left hand side of the road get larger, while those on the right hand side of the road get smaller. Does that make any sense to anybody? We (looking to the left) went all the way to the bottom of the hill looking for our accommodations then had to walk all the way back up to find the address. From the outside it looked like a medieval warehouse. There was a line of doorbells on the frame with little names on slips of paper beneath them. This couldn’t possibly be right. Lucky for us someone was just coming out. I showed them my receipt, pointed at the name, and wore my best quizzical expression: “Si,” they said, “Second floor.” Of course it would be. No elevator. Georgia was feeling like her old self again so I couldn’t shuffle - thump up the steps. But that was ok. The provider had provided. We weren’t going to sleep in a doorway or in the train station — now if the room just wasn’t too horrible.

The woman innkeeper met us at the door to the suites. Yes, suites. She either owned or was managing a suite of rooms that had been carved out of ancient hallways and ballrooms. This wasn’t an old warehouse. It was an 15th or 16th century palace being renovated into private offices and living quarters. Our room had a king-sized bed, a private bathroom with the largest shower we’d seen thus far, a television, a second-floor loft suitable for kiddies, and a shuttered window looking out on the ancient street we’d walked down then back up. While Georgia checked out the facilities I leaned on the windowsill and listened to people laughing and squabbling with local merchants. Except for the occasional Smart-car or vespa it could have been 1500 out there. But in here it was the 21st century and spontaneity had come out smelling like a rose. Maybe the middle of our trip wouldn’t sag after all. I started fishing for a compliment: “Well this turned out ok I guess.” Here I received a high compliment from my sweetie: “You were lucky.” It doesn’t get any better than this. In Georgia-world if it hadn’t been for the woman on the train telling us about the kiosks or the woman going home after work confirming the location of San Domenico there’s no telling where we would have had to sleep. Boy, was I lucky.

I dragged Georgia out for a quick reconnoiter before dark. For the first time, we didn’t have a curfew and we meant to take advantage of it. San Domenico, almost right next door, was just letting out from Mass, but the doors were still open. During World War II the church had evidently been heavily damaged and virtually all the windows had been destroyed. Rather than replace them with new “old” windows they had commissioned new artists to do new windows. They were truly stunning, but the signs said no photos allowed. I was heart-broken. I begged the priest to let me take some photos after pressing my card on him and trying to explain that I made such windows. “Lei facere?” you make? he asked. “Si, facero.” I replied hoping that I’d managed to get the right verb tense for 1st person present. He smiled, and waved his permission. The guard didn’t like it one bit, but would never dispute with Padre. I snapped tons of photos. These were the best windows we’d seen thus far and full of wonderful ideas on how to blend colors.

We walked to the Siena Cathedral (also called the Duomo) just before sundown to learn the time for Mass in the morning. Then we walked to the Campo, or central gathering point in Siena for all civic functions. It, like the Piazza San Marco in Venice is the place where all the people gather to watch all the people. Amazing in the same sort of way, but architecturally very different. Venice is flat flat flat. Siena is one of those mountain mushrooms.

The Campo must have been the size of about 4 or 5 football fields. At one time it was the convergence of 3 different hillsides and it still has that quality. At the bottom is the Piazza Chapel and a gigantic tower finished in 1310. It was more than 300 feet tall. The entire area is treeless and covered with 14th century paving stones laid in a herringbone pattern but divided into 9 pie-shaped pieces meeting at the bottom. It’s thus also a huge natural amphitheater for civic festivals and playground for young children who want to see whether or not they can move their legs fast enough to keep from falling as they let gravity carry them to the bottom. Human legs don’t work that way, of course, especially little bitty legs. Might as well try to run down a cliff. For that reason we sat on the edge of the fountain at the top of the hill and watched each little kamikazee crash and burn attempting a bombing run on the tower. One little boy, running with his slightly older brother crashed and just couldn’t be comforted, though the brother knelt beside him and patted him on the back, and whispered all sorts of soothing words — at least all the soothing words a 5-year old knows. But this was obviously a job for Dad, who finally came and picked up the wounded hero and reaffirmed what brother had been saying: he would definitely live. Thereupon the boy was somewhat mollified and wanted to try the bombing run again.

The sun was beginning to set and we like to collect sunsets so went off in search of some picnic food and a good lookout. Artichoke and pesto pizza (with wine, of course) on a narrow little bridge. The bridges in Siena are really interesting. They don’t span streams or rivers but other streets. This is a mountain town and the bridge we were on crossed over an ancient street leading down into the valley. Leaning against the stone wall we could see the sun set behind San Domenico as well as all the stone houses, with their colorful window boxes, on the street below. The panorama pictures just have to come out.

The sunset was lovely, but more for the foreground than the sunset itself. A brand new sunset over an ancient city makes you think about the generations and generations of people who have watched this same sun from this same bridge. Such thoughts lead you to consider the briefness of human life. Contemplating the briefness of human life makes you wonder why you swear off any of the good things in life. Thinking those kinds of thoughts sent us in search of a gelateria. Luckily we found one right next to our flat. The young man was playing rap music really loud as he mopped the floor in preparation for closing. He didn’t seem especially happy to have two more customers. The ice cream was good, even if the service was not. Made me contemplate the briefness of his life — he was a caricature of hip-hop cool. America is definitely conquering the world but not with helicopters and cruise missiles.

Eating our ice cream we strolled toward the top of the mountain where there was a 14th century castle. You could see the remains of the old city’s walls down below you. Growing up in America it’s hard for me to appreciate what it must be like living in a country where the cities were once independent kingdoms and often fought wars with neighboring cities. And not just public relations wars, but honest to go sieges and wholesale slaughter. Civic pride and regional identity takes on a whole new form in such a world. Locals are proud of their local cuisine and customs in a way very foreign to our homogenized McCulture. Since we could stay out as late as we wanted we walked right through the middle of the street party in the next block and let ourselves into our flat about 15 minutes after sunset. I tried to decipher Italian TV but had no luck at all. It makes USA TV look cultured and sensible. Some show seemed to be somewhat like Unsolved Mysteries in recreating some terrible crime and asked for the public’s help, but I’m not really sure — it may have been some Italian Queen for a Day, where the pitiful lady was going to have her fondest dreams fulfilled. That’s how much sense it made to me.

I think Georgia also came to bed — in fact I’m sure she did, as I saw her there in the morning, and I guess she turned off the TV as well, because it wasn’t on in the morning when I woke up, but I could never prove either assertion from my own memory. This spontaneity was just doing me in.

(to be continued)
 
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Georgia & Zig

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Siena (jogging, the Duomo); A bus ride to heaven

Siena, Tuesday, May 24th

The next morning I woke especially early and decided that this had to be the day I would actually use the jogging clothes I’d brought. I’d caught enough flak for the enormous binoculars. I mean really, think about it, back in Kentucky it was obvious that we’d be using binoculars all the time in such a picturesque place as Italy. Georgia thought they weighed a ton and we’d never carry them anywhere but I saw myself standing on some glorious mountaintop scanning the distant horizon. “There, there! Way off in the distance! See those spouts from a pod of whales?!” to which my wide-eyed and adoring wife would gush: “Oh zig, I’m so glad you brought the binoculars; just think of all we would have missed if you had listened to me!” But this is the downfall of imagination — it always takes for granted some little assumption it shouldn’t. The fact that I managed to fit them in my carry-on didn’t mean I’d have them as we walked around the countryside. There wasn’t going to be any car to carry us (and the binoculars) to the top of that imaginary mountain. If it didn’t get carried on our own two legs it didn’t get carried.

Georgia certainly wasn’t going to spoil her aerodynamic shape with bulging pockets, let alone bulky binoculars. For this reason I was elected pack animal for our expedition. I was Keeper of the camera, Lord of the Guidebook (though Georgia would relieve me of it whenever something needed to be looked up), and Ticket Master. This is why I look more like a chipmunk in every picture than the svelte world traveler I actually am. I did try to carry the binoculars one time — in Florence — but didn’t even make it to the head of the stairs outside our room. The thought of climbing back up Mt. Everest with them hung around my neck was more than I could bear. Georgia won’t confess to taking anything that she didn’t need, except perhaps for the coat she wore to the Opera but never wore again. Next time we must find a way to have some change of clothes that can do double duty for both “dressy” and “scuffing around town.”

We saw some tourists so afraid of “getting away from it all” that they took it all with them. I guess it is so easy to forget that if you don’t need to pack everything. We forgot to bring a nail clipper, for instance, and bought one in a drug store. It was easy, and actually kind of fun pantomiming clipping my nails so that the pharmacist could understand what I wanted. They are now one of my favorite souvenirs. We didn’t pack an umbrella either but the cock-eyed red one we borrowed in Florence gave me more pleasure because it was huge and we were able to walk under it together without getting wet. Even memories of frequently having to wash our undies in sinks and bidets brings me pleasure. The “take it all with you” tourists looked so miserable on the trains and buses and huffing and puffing through narrow streets. That’s not the way we wanted to remember our trip. I am persuaded that less is really more when it comes to packing for a foreign trip.

But I was going to use the running shorts. There had been no opportunity in Florence where the traffic was too insane and the roads were too narrow and there weren’t any “un-blind” corners. It would have been suicidal. Venice wasn’t much better with all the short stretches between all the steep bridges. We did see a lot of joggers at the Giardini Bienale but that was a 30-minute ride from the convent. It just didn’t seem worth the time and I would have felt foolish standing on the vaporetto in my adorable little red shorts. Siena was going to be the place: there was virtually no traffic and lots of interesting places close to our flat.

I took off up the mountain toward the castle we’d visited the evening before. I was able to jog the path that lead all the way around the top of the walls. Quite a vista — too bad I completely forgot the camera. Now I just have to rely on my leaky memory as I remember imagining what it must have felt like to guard the town from bloodthirsty Florentines a thousand years ago. Then I jogged through the residential part of town — the old town that is — where there were more lovely enclosed gardens. Then under our bridge and down that ancient street toward the valley.

At the bottom just inside the old city walls I found an ancient reservoir with a front of beautiful brick arches. The water was crystal clear and a strong flow evidenced well-fed springs. An old woman was standing placidly nearby smoking her cigarette while her little dust-mop dog was doing number two under the “No Dogs” sign. “Scusi Signora,” Her face suddenly screwed up into an “Oh good grief, this tourist is going to ask me some question and I’m not going to be able to understand a blinking word he’s saying” sort of look. I gestured toward the spring: “Come si chiama questo in Italiano?” This is my final recommendation as an essential phrase to memorize: “What do you call this in Italian?” She looked so relieved. “Fontana Branda.” “Fondana Branda?” “No Signore; FonTana Branda — no fonDana Branda.” Oh, FonTana Branda?” “Si.” “Mille Grazie Signora.” “Prego Signore.” All the while I patted the dust mop that had come over to inspect my strange American smells.

A completely inconsequential exchange, and yet it meant a lot to me — to be able to actually make inconsequential small-talk, the bricks and mortar of our lives, with a woman I’ll never ever see again, who lives a life so very different from my own. And yet, I know her life is probably not really so very different. She has a pet she loves as much as I love my misshapen-tailed cat. She may have children over whom she broods and worries. She probably has bills she’s not sure how she’s going to pay. She probably has a favorite TV show. She probably has neighbors who drive her crazy. Her house is probably constantly in need of upkeep and repair. She has to do laundry and dishes much too often. Strangers worry her. Each day there seems to be new aches and pains. Familiar church services move her. She likes to stand on ancient bridges and watch new sunsets. Beautiful music calms her anxieties. And above it all life goes on day by day until one day there are no more days.

The trip back to the flat was not as easy as the jog down into the valley even though, unlike the little boy, I had worked hard to keep my legs from moving faster with each step. The trip back was aided by a shortcut I found leading up almost directly under San Domenico where I pilfered an ancient rounded rock left by a river that must have flowed down from the mountain a few hundred thousand years ago.

When I arrived, Georgia was dressed and ready for Mass. I showered and dressed quickly and we headed off for the Duomo. Mass was being said in a beautiful side chapel but the church itself was not yet open to tourists. The guard watched us like a hawk to be absolutely sure we were worshipping and not touristing. When I strayed too far away from the chapel to look at some of the amazing inlaid stone scenes in the floors I was cluck-clucked and had a finger waved at me. You didn’t have to speak Italian to know what that meant. I hustled back to the chapel. We were one of six sitting in the tiny hexagonal alcove dominated by several Bernini statues. The room couldn’t have been more than 10’ across and the statues were probably 8’ tall. Even if we’d known the Italian it would have been very difficult to follow the service with such men and women and angels looking over your shoulder to be sure your mind didn’t wander either.

This cathedral was much more modern than the San Marco; it was begun about 1230, more than a hundred years after the glory of Venice was completed. As impressive as it was, and as opulent as it was, only about half was actually built. It had been intended to eclipse anything found in Venice or Florence. The rest was begun (the intended end wall is still standing) but interrupted by the Black Death at the end of the 12th century. It was this event, more than anything else that doomed Siena to second-tier status. Sic Transit Gloria.

After Mass we headed down the mountain for the train station, fortified with caffe latte e brioche. I broke out in a cold sweat at the prospect of confronting the ticket agent. Somehow I needed to determine what was the best way to get to Piombino, that seacoast town where we would catch the ferry to Elba. Was it better to go by bus or by train? Not an easy question to convey through pantomime. We entered the station with my heart pounding. My worst fear was realized: there was a long line. I would have plenty of time shuffling forward trying to memorize my speeches and trying to anticipate the clerk’s responses. Although she seemed pleasant enough she spoke no English and I just dreaded trying to ask questions with a line of impatient Italian commuters behind me.

With a hurried prayer I clutched my phrase dictionary and approached the window. (You have to imagine the following dialogue in fractured Italian): “Excuse me Signora, I want to go to Piombino but don’t know bus or train?” “I only sell the tickets for bus.” “I know, but which would be better? Bus or train?” This question gave her a long pause. SO long, in fact, that I was beginning to wonder if she’d understood me. “The train, she is faster, but the bus, he goes up and down and round and round the country. Molto Bene. Bellisimo” Having ridden the train I knew just what she meant. The trains went through the mountains, not over them. I thought we would like the chance to take a bus ride so told her I’d like two tickets. Her next question baffled me, though in retrospect I know she was trying to ask if I wanted a one way or round-trip ticket. She must have said something like “One-way, or two-way?” and I wanted to be sure she knew I planned to take Georgia with me so I said “Due.” I ended up with four tickets but supposed that we must have to change buses somewhere. I knew how to ask the driver about that. She said it would be a 2½-hour trip. I left the line clutching our tickets but not really having a very good idea where we were supposed to actually catch the bus. It sure seemed like we were supposed to wait for it right out the door where there was a constantly changing gaggle of tourist buses. But the city buses stopped further up the hill and I was concerned that maybe that was where we were supposed to wait. And then again, there was a mysterious stairway leading down somewhere, about 75 yards away. Perhaps we were supposed to meet our bus down there. All I knew from the agent was that we were supposed to look for Follonica / Piombino on the bus and that it was supposed to come at 12:30. It was now about 12:00.

We bought a sandwich and beer and sat on the wall outside in the shade and studied each of the many buses that arrived. None of them seemed to be right, but as it crept closer and closer to 12:30 I got more and more nervous. Each bus only stopped for 5 minutes to take on passengers and drop some off. If we were in the wrong place we’d never catch it, and the next bus didn’t come until tomorrow. At 12:15 I panicked and jumped back in line to double-check where the bus was arriving. She looked up in some irritation: “Si, the bus, he comes right outside to the left.” “Ground floor?” “Si, ground floor.” She looked kind of dubious about that last exchange. Back outside I was really nervous now. Did she mean “Ground floor” like I meant it, or did she mean that lower level the stairs evidently went to? I told Georgia to keep quizzing each and every bus as it arrived while I ran to check the stairs. Suddenly, the 75 yards seemed a lot farther, and the sun, “he was very hot.” They lead down to a parking garage. No buses were going to arrive down there. Back upstairs in the distance, I could see Georgia flitting from bus to bus like a honeybee. I jogged back with sweat running down my face. “Piombino?” “No, Signore. No, Signora” And now it was 12:30. No bus. And now it was 12:40, another crop of buses: “Piombino?” “No, Signora, No Signore.” And now it was 12:45. My heart sank. I knew I was going to have to face the agent again and try to explain that somehow we’d missed the bus.

A Bus ride to Heaven, May 24th

C.S. Lewis has written a wonderful little story — certainly one of my favorites — called The Great Divorce. The title makes an allusion to Milton’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis’ point was that Heaven and Hell are so very different no marriage is possible. Not even the smallest particle of Hell could survive an instant in Heaven. It wouldn’t be strong enough to withstand the weight of glory. As I said, it’s a wonderful story, and a bus figures prominently in that story as there is one that runs between Hell and Heaven each day, for anyone wanting to get on board. The hellish people standing in line are sure that it’s just a gimmick or they’ve missed it, or it’s not really going to show up. I knew that feeling as I returned to the ticket office one more time.

The clerk saw me coming. I’m sure she did, and she studiously avoided looking at me while shuffling papers. I tried to speak and she held up a finger without raising her head. What could I do? I just laid my forehead down on the ticket counter and waited for her attention. She and our Murano waiter must have studied at the same Academy. After a very slow ten-count, she said “Pronto?” and I tried to explain that the bus, “he still was not here” and the time “it was almost 1300” (they do military time in Italy, you know). “Somehow we must have been standing in the wrong place?” “The bus, he is late.” She dismissed me with a wave and went back to studying the papers in front of her. They really do have the most expressive hands.

Back outside I reported the exchange to the boss and we decided that this was good news. Evidently the drivers must have radios to call the bus stations. At 13:15 it arrived. We made a dash and found ourselves with plenty of seats to choose from just as in Lewis’ story. On our bus there were only about 5 or 6 people. Only one person caught my eye; she was a dark-haired young woman, probably somewhere between 17 and 21. She wasn’t especially slender and wasn’t especially pretty, except for that beauty that youth itself paints on us all, but she did have a quality about her that was arresting. She moved deliberately. So many young people are clumsy, like puppies, or gawky and self-conscious. She was neither. She was dressed in blue jeans and a nondescript flannel work shirt and carried a mostly-filled book bag slung over one shoulder. She sat a few seats in front of us, but on the same side of the bus as we were. After I saw her take a book out of her bag and sit down I didn’t see her again. Why I even noticed her is not clear to me. I’m sure I saw many more beautiful girls and women in our travels and I can’t remember them at all — but something told me to pay attention to this girl. I trust those instincts, or those messages from beyond, or whatever you might call those intimations. I didn’t know it at the time but this was going to be my bus ride into the heart of Heaven, even if not in the way that I might have expected.

The bus terminal was also the train terminal so it was clean and bright with a good snack bar though the way they collect the money at Italian snack bars is really stupid. In any normal snack bar you would place your order then pay the waitress then pick up your order then eat. Not in Italy. Perhaps they don’t trust women (the waitresses) with counting money but you have to pay the cashier FIRST then get a ticket from him that you present to the waitress who fills your order. This means that you have to study the offerings through the glass and ask the waitress what is what, then stand in line at the cashier — tell him what you are getting (there goes the questo e questa style of ordering), pick up your receipt then get back in line at the lunch counter and hand the waitress your ticket stub. She then generally has to holler over to the cashier for clarification. Insane. You have to stand in line three times for one piece of pizza — and God help you if you forgot to order your drink!

The bus itself was clean and comfortable with plenty of leg-room and good air-conditioning. It was also quiet, and the passengers each seemed lost in their own thoughts. It so happens that about a week after we arrived home from Italy I took a Greyhound Bus from Lexington to Athens, Georgia. The contrast between the two trips could not have been more jarring. The Greyhound was hot, dirty, packed, cramped, noisy, and expensive. The Italian tickets cost about $30, but that was for two people round trip. The round-trip ticket for one on the Greyhound cost $98. The bus terminals in the US need to be seen to be believed. The people who work in them try to keep them clean but there are too many people and too few workers. Actually, I don’t think that the number of people is the critical factor. In the US the buses are for the poor. Airplanes are for the middle-class and wealthy. In Europe the buses and trains are for both the middle-class as well as the poor. Our airplane terminals look like their bus and train terminals. When your business depends on serving the middle-class you keep a higher standard. They will not stand for lousy service and dirty accommodations. The poor seem to expect getting crapped on.

The bus terminal in Atlanta will serve as a good example. It was as packed with people as the Sistine Chapel was. We stood shoulder to shoulder in long lines stretching from numbered doorways. Each doorway had a sign indicating what cities were served from that door. Each bus that arrived had to be emptied of its passengers. Everyone was told to wait in the waiting room while the bus was (ho ho) cleaned and serviced. When the bus was ready to re-board the driver would lead you like a flock of ducklings to your coach. Because the bus lines were cutting routes and had storms to the east there were some connecting buses that had been eliminated. My bus was supposed to leave at 11pm but I was still waiting in the same line at 2am and our line got longer and longer as people were hoping to get a seat. It was all first-come first served, and it was obvious they had sold more tickets than there were seats.

Standing in line we lived on rumors because it truly was impossible to get information from the ticket agents. I think they were just completely overwhelmed with the flood of poor humanity. Lots of soldiers trying to get home on leave. Lots of young mothers with exhausted children bounced from pillar to post. Lots of mentally and physically handicapped people with no other way to move about the country. Lots of immigrants. Rather than add more buses, Greyhound just added more seats. I saw one elderly German tourist couple standing in shock in the middle of the Atlanta bus station. I was embarrassed for our country.

During one leg of the journey I sat on the front seat and had a nice long talk with the driver, especially when a woman and baby were found on the floor at the back of the bus and the driver had to call 911 in Marietta. They told him to pull over to the side of the interstate and wait for the ambulance. She ultimately refused treatment, but while waiting we had plenty of time to talk. He’d been driving for Greyhound for 16 years and was just hanging on until he could retire. He said they were cutting way back on their routes and would soon only be driving from one hub on the interstate system to another. No more would they be knitting the little Mayberrys of the US into the social fabric. Nor even the Frankforts it seems. Everyone, including the poor was on their own and must find some way to be dropped off and picked up along the interstate highways. What do the middle-class care? Middle-class people don’t travel on buses. They all drive themselves everywhere they go — over heavily subsidized highways. I remember overhearing a conversation between two middle-class commuters complaining about bus subsidies: “Who cares whether or not we have buses — nobody rides them. They had a bus strike and I didn’t see one bit of difference in the amount of traffic during rush hour. ”The poor are “nobodies” everywhere in the world except in Italy (Europe) where the buses and trains are the way the middle-class travel and that seems to benefit everyone.

As I said, the inside of the bus was wonderful but the Tuscan countryside was absolutely stupendous! Here, as from the train, we could see glorious olive orchards and grape vines trained along trellises like row after row of soldiers with linked arms, but now we were so much closer to them and traveling so much slower we could see that the olive trees were pruned to a height of about 6-8 feet year after year with only the trunk allowed to get bigger. Even the larger branches were pruned back. Some of these gnarled trunks were the size of a bass drum — ancient beyond belief — but still with the most delicate of branches and leaves. They couldn’t help but remind me of the old nuns and priests and the ancient communicants we’d met: still fertile, still supple, still full of sap and life, and yielding a bumper crop year after year.

We made one glorious winding trek to the top of some mountain where the town architecture is probably unchanged since the 11th or 12th century. No telling what the name was. It was somewhere well before Follonica. As we drove through town I saw old men gathered at the local pub drinking and arguing and enjoying each other’s company in the shade. We passed ancient churches graced with modern sculpture. There were trees whose roots must run all the way down to the center of the earth, and there were satellite dishes on some of the rooftops. I saw no graffiti and thought, “This is a place I could live.” In one section of the town we drove along a narrow winding road. It was a residential section of small single-family homes. Each one seemed to have its own olive tree and fruit trees. There was a low stone wall running along the sidewalk and flowers everywhere. It was very peaceful in the bright sun light.

We weren’t driving very fast, perhaps about 30 mph, and I saw our lovely young woman get up carefully from her seat, take her book bag from the rack and start moving slowly toward the front of the bus. She bent over slightly and said something softly to the driver. He nodded and began to slow down, coming to a gentle stop right in front of one gloriously old man sitting on the low stone wall leaning forward onto his walking cane. God was very good to me. From where I was sitting I could see both their faces as she stepped lightly down from the bus and he rose unsteadily to his feet, dropping his cane. He wasn’t going to need it, as she was going to hold him up. The years dropped away from his face as he beamed at her. And her deliberateness was suffused with a quiet joy that added bright and shining years to her countenance. They looked so much like each other they could have been twins and I heard the angels sing as they kissed each other’s cheeks and hugged. God was showing me what Heaven is going to be like. When we arrive, all the people we most want to see will be waiting on the low stone wall for us to step lightly down from the bus.

(to be continued)
 

Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Elba (Clothing Optional beaches; best pizza!)

Elba and the “Clothing Optional” Beaches

Except for the person who picked my pocket on the Rome subway, the ticket agent for the ferry in Piombino was the only SOB I met in Italy. I’m sure there must be more of them, SOBness being one of the true constants in the universe — right there with the speed of light. Every nationality has its quota. I just think that the Italian Bureau of Tourist Affairs has some sort of test they give to weed them out. This guy must have had someone take the urine screen for him.

The bus dropped us off right outside the port authority at the dock. Georgia was beside herself. She’d begun to vibrate when we first arrived in Piombino and could see the ocean through the trees. Out of the bus and able to smell the salt air she was slipping into delirium tremens. I thought she was going to swoon. Ever since that wonderful job she had studying mangrove swamps on Sapelo Island, Georgia, she’s gotten weak-kneed at the sight of large boats rocking gently in light swells. Any time I want to work my will on her I have only to whisper sweet nothings in her ear: words like “bilge-pump,” and “foc’stle,” and “poop-deck.” She’s like putty in my hands.

Anyway, she was very anxious to get on the boat. Any boat. And when we walked into the lobby there were two different ticket offices, Toremar on the left and Moby on the right. Being right-handed I went to Moby. The one on the left also had a line of people waiting to buy tickets and I didn’t want to wait in line. That should have told me something. The agent was one of those shifty-eyed types who will not make eye contact with you. Georgia had read about the hydrofoils that ferried passengers who didn’t have cars. When I asked the agent if they had such a craft he pretended not to understand English. I can’t believe “hydrofoil” has a different word in Italian. I pantomimed. I made a quick sketch. Sweet Old Bob just fish-eyed me and said “Si, Elba. Andata e ritorno?” I told him yes, we wanted two-way tickets. Forty euros for both of us. As we reached the door I realized we didn’t know what pier to wait at. When I turned back he saw me coming and started chanting in passable English “No refund. No refund. No refund.” I knew I’d been had.

As you can well imagine we were not on the hydrofoil. Nor did Moby even have a hydrofoil. But they did have the gaudy ferry that was absolutely covered stem to stern and waterline to funnels with cartoon animals. I felt like we were sailing to Elba in the S.S. Vacation Bible School. Luckily, once we were on board we didn’t have to actually look at the happy hippos and jolly giraffes. I can just hear the PR man who sold the concept: “I know Toremar’s standard boats are 10 or 20 knots faster than ours. I know their hydrofoils pass us like we’re standing still. I know they set their schedules to always leave later than we do and arrive earlier than we do so they can zoom past us on the high seas, but let’s just put our ticket agent, Sweet Old Bob here, on the right-hand side of the lobby, and cover our rusting fleet with Vacation Bible School characters so that all the kids will see them and whine to their parents ‘I wanna ride in the Ark; I wanna ride in the Ark!’” You gotta admit the guy must have been some good pitchman.

But that’s ok. Our slow boat to Elba just meant we had more time to enjoy the sea’s shifting patterns of steel gray and turquoise topped with little white caps. It was a 7-mile trip so we repaired to the galley for two caffe lattes e brioche and ate them leaning against the rail. I had some ice cream for dessert. We sailed past one of Elba’s smaller outer islands and in the distance I could see our destination. I was very surprised at the island’s size; while not as big as Corsica, a few miles further out, or Sardinia, the even larger island to the south, Elba is more than 80 square miles of mountains and beaches and tiny picturesque towns. If you’re Napoleon that might be a pretty shabby prison, but if you’re a tourist who loves sunbathing or standing on the beach watching sailboats, or climbing a mountain and looking out over a sheet of lapis lazuli, or a beach-comber who enjoys walking beside a flaming sea at sunset, or splashing around in ice-cold water then running up to lie in warm sand, then it’s pretty durn good. We docked at Portoferrario, which I assume must mean something like “Iron Port,” a tribute to Elba’s past as one huge mining operation. The mountains are ancient and composed of basalt and gneiss that provide a direct link to the center of the earth. I want to return some day with my geology hammer, but now the quarries are all closed and the island lives and dies by tourist trade. And it is very tourist friendly, especially popular with Germans. All the menus and signs were printed in facing Italian and German. Clerks and waitresses took one look at us and started speaking German. It was hard to find anyone who spoke English — except for the Germans, of course.

The port city had a picturesque harbor and pastel houses with the ever-present red-tiled roofs. The Information office was right where our Sienese friend said it would be, and they were perfect. Wanting to strike another tough bargain I told the agent I’d like to pay about 65-70 euros a night but be close to the water. She asked if we needed to be in Portoferrario. We told her no, we would even welcome the chance to see more of the island. The first number she tried kept being busy. She tried another number, said a few words, then listened and put her hand over the phone. She asked me a strange question, “Do you want a private room?” That stumped me. Did we want a private room? Of course we wanted a private room. I’m as willing to economize as the next guy, but I haven’t wanted to sleep in a dormitory since, well, since I slept in a dormitory. She must have seen my confusion: “The family, they have their own part, you, you have your own part. A private room, you come and go as you please.” Oh, I understood, rooms with a separate entrance. “Sure, that would be fine. Quanto costa?” “The price, she costs 35 euros a night.” Me: wow. I don’t ever want to hear people complain about spontaneity again. We could stay on Elba for two nights for the cost of one night in Florence or Venice. No breakfast in the morning, but hey, it’s still a lot cheaper.

The bus ride over the mountains was breathtaking, especially on the outer edges of the switchbacks. There is no way that mickey-mouse guardrail would have stopped a bus intent on careening lemming-like into the crystal sea! We just closed our eyes and hoped for the best. The sudden weightless feeling in the pit of our stomachs told us we had topped the crest. We opened our eyes to see 360 degrees or amazing blues, pristine mountains, and sparkling beaches. I would have liked to be able to pull over and enjoy the view (or even pull over and lay my head down for a moment), but our driver plunged down the other side, stopping only occasionally to let off or pick up local passengers — old ladies with bulging shopping bags or high-school students with bulging book bags. This was obviously a well-used bus, and not just used by us tourists. We passed a small sign indicating the entrance to Napoleon’s mansion. Sheesh, I guess if you conquer the world you can really score the cushy prison. Now we were back on the flat land on the other side of the island. Marina di Campo. Lovely little town with a shallow sailboat-filled bay. We saw the sign for our little “Magnolia Apartments” from the bus. It looked nice, a two-story brick bungalow with a beautiful flower garden in front and covered balconies. The walk back from the bus stop was about 3 blocks and I was relieved to see that we passed several gelateria.

Our landlord met us at the garden gate. Our room was on the first floor this time, up just one flight of outside stairs. Very swank private bathroom with a large shower. King-sized bed. Ten by twenty-foot balcony overlooking the garden. We shared it with the German couple in the next room. Each of us had our own picnic table, plastic chairs, chaise lounges, and little refrigerator! No TV, but who needs it? Our landlord actually lived in the house next door. This building was divided into 6-8 separate apartments, each with it’s own bathroom and private entrance — so much for my fear it would be a dormitory.

After unpacking, we immediately set out for the ocean. I’d heard that the beaches on Elba were “Clothing Optional” and I was pretty sure that didn’t mean just that you could wear whatever clothing you wanted to. I was hoping there might be some hardy sunbathers so I could see for sure. The beach was only 2 blocks away and composed of a mixture of coarse sand and fine pebbles. The water was clear as crystal but a chilly wind was blowing in and the sun was going down behind the mountains. I was disappointed that there were no sunbathers this late.

It seemed like a good idea to find someplace to eat — someplace warm. Because the room was so nice and so cheap we decided to splurge on a real restaurant. A nice walk along the ocean brought us to a little group of trattoria. They all posted their menus outside and we picked the one that seemed to have the nicest seafood for the lowest price. We shared our small dining room with a young German couple with a very unhappy baby boy. He couldn’t have been more than 2-3 months old by the sound of his cry, but he was a very big baby and could really bellow. Poor Mama and Papa took turns trying to comfort him and carrying him outside to give us all respites. Occasionally he would calm down and even doze off but then remember that he wanted to be somewhere else or wanted to feel different than he did and another verse of the Anvil Chorus would begin.

Service was slow. European restaurants consciously practice “Slow Food” — they even post signs. Plus, the two waitresses were trying to cover about 15-20 tables. They were very pleasant, even if they were sure that we must really speak German. Ours brought us a large pitcher of the local white wine, which was very consoling during the wait, and the bread and crunchy bread-sticks kept us from chewing on the tablecloth. The pizza I ordered, Pizza del Mar, had salmon, tuna, shrimp, green olives, squid, thinly sliced and sautéed onions, and fresh basil sprinkled on a thin crust with only the lightest of tomato sauces. Olive oil all over everything, of course, and baked in a very hot oven so that it browned quickly but still remained chewy. It was to die for, and not even any cheese on it. We sprinkled some local Romano just to say we’d tasted it. Georgia ordered risotto with minced squid in a light clear sauce. It was good, but didn’t move me the way the pizza did. It was more of a Primo than a Secundo, if you know what I mean. We both ate both, of course, and chased it all with Napoleon Spring Water, naturally frizzante product of Elba. For dessert we walked to a gelateria nearby: a strawberry cone for me, and something with raisins and nuts and Madeira for Georgia. Molto bene. We staggered off to bed at 12 midnight, a new record for us. I was really looking forward to spending the day at the beach tomorrow and fell asleep quickly with visions of Clothing Optional dancing in my head.

How very ironic that I’d brought one of my Deacon Formation textbooks: The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. Right on the first page he’d caught my attention with the claim that the fundamental “dis-ease” we all suffer from is a product of Eros. “Desire lies at the center of our lives, in the marrow of our bones, and in the deep recesses of the soul.” This desire, this fundamental restlessness, is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and serves as the spur to our creativity — physical, emotional, and intellectual. The spiritual person is not the opposite of the atheistic person, but rather spiritual people are opposed to the couch potatoes of the world. Desire is good. Apathy is bad. Sounds good to me. I bounded out of bed, put on my bathing suit, covered them with the shorts that smelled of Limoncello because the bottle had leaked in my suitcase, grabbed my sketch-pad, towel, sun-screen, and was quickly ready to carry my Holy Longing to the beach for the day. Everybody knows that German babe sunbathers are absolutely mad for the smell of lemon liqueur.

Georgia wakes up rather more slowly than I do. I remember one morning many years ago when she got up to make coffee. I lay in bed and heard muffled grunts and thumps in the kitchen followed by a loud crash and a half-swallowed purple swear word as the coffee pot shattered into a million pieces. She sighed and then I heard her shuffling back down the hall. She rolled back under the covers. I asked what had happened and she mumbled: “I should never try to make coffee before I’ve had my coffee in the morning.” That was when we invested in the coffeepot with the timer.

And now it was only 7 AM, and she was on vacation. She was not going to the beach without her morning coffee. Reminding her that this was an Italian beach I persuaded her to dress. Luckily we found a coffee bar serving cappuccino e brioche before anyone had to deal with our emaciated bodies lying in some Elban “Golden River” flowing stagnantly to the sea. (They had suspiciously luxuriant grasses growing in those “rivers” and some especially “marshy” smells, doncha’ know.) We walked along the beach and enjoyed the early morning purple shadows cast by the mountains onto the turquoise bay. All the sailboats lay at anchor. It was very peaceful. German tourists evidently sleep later than American ones — there was no Optional Clothing in sight and ours were the only footprints in the sand.

We went to Mass at the parish church after stopping in the local mercato for our day’s picnic supplies. In front of the church was a very old ruined dinghy reborn as a planter with beautifully joyous flowers spilling out. The church was made of a beautiful light brown stone with lovely blond wood rafters and modern stained glass windows. After the service I asked Father if I could take some photos: “Io faro vetrate artistiche,” I assured him, which I think means “I make art-glass windows”. The way I pronounced it might also mean my grandmother is a sneaky veteran. He smiled and said photos would be fine. I hope they come out. We stopped at a flea market on the way back to our room but didn’t like any of the dorky tee shirts. Georgia was now ready to put on her bathing suit. I was trying not to look too eager.

There were now a lot of people on the beach though it certainly wasn’t crowded. I laid out my towel about 10-15 feet from a stunning German brunette with a 4-5 year old little girl who was making sandcastles with an adorable little Pakistani girl. The Pakistani mother was dressed head to toe in flowing robes. Her face wasn’t covered, but everything else was. There was no hope for Optional Clothing there. The German mother was wearing (by modern standards) a modest bikini, dark blue, with a top that appeared to be one or two sizes too small for her. I thought she was in immanent danger of spilling out and it looked awfully uncomfortable to me — I thought she should probably declare it optional. She evidently didn’t think so. I know because I kept checking every 10 or 15 seconds. People must have thought I had some bizarre tic that caused my head to jerk to the left periodically. Off in the distance I saw a figure approaching with clearly Optional Clothing! Quick, casually put on your glasses. Oh my god! It was a 60-or 70-year-old man wearing a red Speedo bathing suit that would make your normal thong look like Bermuda shorts. That was not a pretty sight — sort of like a really skinny Jack Benny in a red jock strap and flip-flops. What a revolting development — this was not my kind of spiritual. I decided to head for the water to think this over.

Georgia was walking around in the rippling surf almost up to her ankles (they don’t have real waves). For someone who loves the water she sure hates to get wet. “How is it?” I asked. “Cold!” she said and crossed her arms and shivered to emphasize the point. As I walked out and I felt my legs go instantly to sleep I had to agree that it was a tad nippy. I thought it might be a good idea to turn around and head back for the hot sand, but decided that would make me look more cowardly than virile, so I forged ahead until my hips had gone to sleep and I dove forward. It was beyond frigid. Only a German used to swimming in the North Sea could think this water warm.

Besides the thermal shock the first thing I noticed was how salty the water was. I think I can understand why the Italians thought of the Mediterranean as womb-like. Madre and Mare. I’ve never been able to float in the ocean before, but here it was effortless. If I tried to move around I’d start to sink, but if I remained still I was like a cork. Floating put my ears under the water and the silence was deafening. My body slowly adjusted to the temperature and I very nearly fell asleep on the water. About 60 feet off shore you were still only about chest-deep and the sand became very soft and silky. The coarse sand must get dropped in the wave zone and the fine sand must get carried back out a little. The ripple patterns on the bottom were lovely, and very similar to the ripple patterns we saw in the waves off the deck of the ferry. The breeze was constant, but delicious when I came back out of the water to lie again in the warm sand.

My brunette was still overdressed and Georgia was getting bored. We left our stuff and went for a walk. As we approached the main beach I saw a number of Optional Clothings. I remember an old girl friend in high school telling me about a date she had with a German exchange student. “They have a different attitude toward the body,” she said. At the time I just pursed my lips and nodded to indicate that worldly me knew just what she meant, though I didn’t have a clue. Finally, in my fifties I think I understand what she understood at 15: the Clothing Optionals we saw were NO WHERE NEAR the beautiful bodies I was expecting. One topless woman was typical. She must have been about 45, relatively slender with small pointy breasts, and hips that had obviously known childbirth. Her husband was more gutty, but not obese — not the kind of body any woman would be anxious to see in a jockstrap Speedo. The woman watched the teenagers on the beach with, I thought, proprietary interest — I imagine her children must have been in the group. These were not “Beautiful People.”

As we walked along the sidewalk an elderly portly housfrau suddenly stopped, held on to her friend for support and pulled her shorts down. I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d suddenly sprouted wings. She then wrapped a very light scarf around her waist and pulled down her industrial-strength white panties and started struggling into a modest bathing suit. Even more shocking: among the group of teenagers playing volleyball, one young boy was wearing only a pair of white Fruit-of-the-Looms! I used to have nightmares about being trapped in the open in my underwear, and here was a 13-year-old frolicking in mixed company in his BVDs, while his mother sunbathed topless with his paunchy father. This was way beyond the current fad to saggy pants. Paula, I think I finally understand. The Germans have a very different attitude toward the body. This partial or full nudity was completely divorced from desire. How very un-spiritual. I was heart-broken.

Our picnic lunch consisted of bread and wine with some magnificent olives and a local fresh mozzarella so smooth you peel it like an onion rather than cutting it with a knife. For supper on the balcony we added shrimp and cocktail sauce, and a spicy salami about as thick as your thumb and as long as your forearm. After supper we went out for gelato, of course. We walked a long way up the mountain ridge that starts at the waterside to try to see sunset from the peak but gave up with the realization that darkness would fall very quickly and mountain paths are not fun to navigate in the dark. Back on the public dock, the darkness, when it did come, was velvety. In Elba the night sky is a real presence and darkness is not an enemy to be conquered with billion-watt floodlights. It was good to see the Milky Way again — Hera’s breast milk squirted out to give immortality to Hercules and cure Dionysus’ madness. I hope our Herculean USA can be cured of our wasteful madness and I hope her milky drops that fall to earth cause peace lilies to sprout everywhere again. I’d forgotten how awesome the night sky is.

Early Thursday morning we caught the bus back to the ferry. As we sailed away on the laughing lion and simpering serpent the steel-gray sea had more lapis rippled into it and the low sun threw the mountains into a high relief. Elba was the most paradisiacal of the places we visited, but it too has its challenges. “Golden River” waste disposal is a real problem, and at one of the playgrounds we saw a group of local boys smoking something that was probably on the left side of the law. If you are not suited for work in the tourist industry — and girls seem more employable than boys — then Elba must feel like a real prison. How do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen the Internet?

The seagulls on the ferry were very clever. They would fly along matching our speed and open their mouths when they saw someone eating something. The passengers, completely smitten, would throw 2-euro brioche up in the air for them to catch and eat. If only the birds could train people to throw cups of cappuccino they’d be on to something.

We shared the bus to Campiglia, where we were to catch the train, with two Algerians. They spent a long time talking with the bus driver about their options for reaching Rome. He was very patient with them. I truly admire the Italian cosmopolitan attitude toward “foreigners,” neither surly nor fawning. I guess millennia of pilgrims give you a healthy attitude toward outsiders. The Algerians were very thin, but one was truly emaciated and unable even to climb the bus stairs. His friend picked him up and carried him aboard with the ease of a little girl carrying a large rag doll. The man must not have weighed 60 lbs but his smile was beatific and his friend’s concern was so real and obvious it warmed the bus.

Our train out of Campiglia was not due for two hours. The station was tiny, but with a pleasant snack bar and simple tables set on the veranda under an ancient wisteria. The sun filtering through the leaves dappled the pavement in the same way the sunlight dappled the silky bottom of Marina di Campo. Traveling salesmen, bantering and laughing with the barmaid sounded just like the wrens chirping and squabbling over nesting locations in the branches overhead. Workmen, standing on scaffolding were trying to pry the Campiglia sign on the station wall for some reason apparent only to themselves. Sidewalk superintendents were plenty. There was a nearby crude statue of a dog looking up hopefully toward a missing master. I’d have to go look at it in a moment but for now the sun was hot, and the breeze at our table was luxurious. I could feel myself starting to drift off in my plastic chair. Even the crickets were chirping sleepily when a very loud crash at the scaffolding brought me fully awake again.

(to be continued)
 

Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Rome (Corpus Christi Procession, San Pietro, Pope John Paul's tomb)

Rome, the Eternal City, May 26

I looked over at the scaffolding. Curly and Larry were staring rather stupidly down at the Campiglia sign lying bent and broken on the platform beside the tracks. Curly sheepishly laid his crowbar down, neither was anxious to look at Moe standing on the other side of the tracks, hands on his hips. Lucky for them a young American couple chose this moment to walk across the tracks and climb up on the platform near the scaffold. Moe went ballistic, badly overreacting, to my way of thinking. It was only about 10 feet across the tracks and the station couldn’t have been more peaceful, except for falling signs. Moe hollered himself hoarse, blew his whistle for emphasis, and waved a red flag at the tourists. They were mortified and it was only after this barrage that they saw the under-track tunnel they should have used. There was a stairway leading down close to the ticket office that came up on the other side of the tracks.

At about this time a mellifluous recorded voice announced over the loudspeaker that a train to somewhere or other was expected in the station any minute. I knew it wasn’t for us so really didn’t pay much attention. Suddenly there was this long mechanical Scream and the Whoooosh! of a tornado blowing through. You know how people say that tornados sound like trains? Well I can attest to the fact that a Eurostar traveling 90 miles per hour ten feet away sounds like a tornado. The suction was so strong it pulled the trash off our table.

Campiglia station was located on a slight curve in the tracks so there was no way for us to see it coming for the trees on either side of the track. I decided that Moe hadn’t overreacted to the trespassing tourists after all. The girl, part of the couple blanched and had to suddenly sit down. I don’t blame her at all. I was glad to wash my underwear that evening as well. That low, calm, recorded announcement would be fine for all those people who knew what to expect; but for me (and for the poor American girl) the reality of a 30-ton train blowing by only 10 feet away can not be prepared for by a low, calm, recorded voice. They need to substitute some air raid siren or some hysterical harpy screaming that everyone needs to climb under the nearest table.

I got up, shakily, to walk around. Out in the sunlight I tried to decipher the inscription on the statue of the little dog. It was evidently some dog that waited faithfully at the train station for his master to come home from some war in 1961 “as seen in ‘This Week’ magazine.” Sic transit gloria. At least the pooch got a concrete statue; most of us won’t rate anything that permanent, and no one has ever seen me in ‘This Week’ magazine. I’m not sure the magazine itself has even survived.

The barmaid understood exactly what I was wanting when I asked if she had caffee freddo, iced coffee. “Con zucchero?” she asked. “Si,” I replied; I like sweet and milky iced coffee. “Con latte anche, per favore.” She winced as if I’d hit her. “Con latte?” she asked incredulously. I could tell I’d made another faux pas. “Si, grazie, latte molto bene.” She was appalled and refused to actually pour the milk in the coffee—handing me the carton and averting her eyes. I blushed, but poured away. Outside Georgia and I tried to understand why Italians could be so offended at such a small thing. I decided that it must be like going into the Meadowthorpe Café, which prides itself on its sweetea (always one word for real afficianados), and asking them to pour milk in it. But with the way Italians feel about their coffee I’m not sure even that extreme example captures the revulsion.

The ride from Campiglia to Rome was uneventful but the scenery was all Italy! We were finally getting the hang of Italian trains, so now it was time to master a new form of public transportation. We were about to tackle Rome’s Metro.

The Metro system in Rome consists of two lines, the red and the blue. The blue line seems to run roughly north and south about 15 – 20 feet under the streets and the red line is another 15 or 20 feet deeper running roughly east and west. Rome Termini where we got off the train from the airport and got on the train going to Florence a week ago (seems like a lifetime now) is also the place where the two subway lines cross. How clever is that? That mysterious tunnel we were afraid to explore when we first arrived actually carries you to the Metro. There are horizontal escalators to help you cover the enormous distances, and regular escalators to carry you up and down from the train tracks and bus stops to the Metro lines. It is the center of Roman transportation, wonderfully efficient with miles and miles of underground shopping malls. It is truly an underground city. But when you are brand new, it is a world of blooming buzzing confusion with hundreds of thousands of people all hurrying here and there, up and down, and indecipherable signs all written in this foreign language.

We knew we wanted to go to “Cavore” and that stop was on the blue line from Termini so we just followed the signs, going deeper and deeper. The escalator came to a stop between two sets of tracks. We know now that Termini is not only the place where the red and blue lines cross, but also in the middle of each ones route, but at this time we were completely bewildered with no clue which track we wanted. This wonderful young woman took pity on us and showed us how to read the map to see that one track went north and the other went south. We wanted south. But so did approximately 2000 other people waiting on the platform.

Georgia does not like caves, and this room was cavernous. Georgia does not like large groups of people, and this was definitely a large group of people each wanting to be first to cram into a hurtling spray-painted drinking straw already crammed with people. Georgia does not like loud noises and this place was DEAFENING. With the crowd noises alone you could not hear yourself think. When you superadded the screech and squeal of metal brakes it became a foretaste of Hell itself. Trains arrived every four minutes, and each one was as packed as the one before. We finally just bulled our way on board and hung on to the overhead strap for dear life.

You couldn’t look out the windows—they were covered with spray paint. Some of the maps showing which stations were coming up were also pretty heavily covered, but we made out that Cavore was the first stop. We didn’t even have a chance to get uncomfortable before we were standing back on the platform with the Metro disappearing into the tunnel.

Steps led up out of the station to the center of a traffic island right in the middle of Roman traffic! Were they crazy? Why didn’t they just put lions on the platform to kill us hapless tourists outright? Why toy with us? Why invite us to cross four to six lanes of Roman traffic with wheeled suitcases and a cute little blue book bag?

We stood on the precipice of the curb for a few minutes watching traffic hurtle by ignoring traffic signals. This was not your Florentine traffic. There were a few Vespas and lots of the tiny little pretend cars, but there were also lots of buses, Mercedes, BMWs, and other real cars. People seemed to just step off the curb as if wading across a shallow river. We were ashen-faced. But the cars did seem to stop for the waders. It was amazing. I turned to kiss Georgia goodbye, told her how much I’d enjoyed our married life together, and told her that I hoped I saw her on “the other side.” She started to weep gently and clutched my hand, but she knew it was the only way. Slowly she released my hand, and I stepped off the curb. Cars immediately slowed down, and one even stopped. Startled to find myself still alive after that first step I continued step by step forward toward the center of the road. Georgia, stunned that I’d tempted the fates and lived, lurched off the curb as well and grabbed my belt: “Whither thou goest, I go,” she whispered. I smiled serenely in that way only those close to death can smile. Together we proceeded from one lane toward the next. The traffic resumed behind us and we were now marooned on one of the lane dividers. I knew the traffic would never stop as long as we stood there so began inching off the mark. Georgia’s nerve fled. She white knuckled my shoulder and gasped, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta to do. I hitched up my pants and stepped out. Sure enough, cars slowed down and even stopped. You just can’t show them any fear. When they smell fear they attack. Nerve is all that separates you from the clutches of death.

The curb. We made it to the curb. We’d not only conquered our first Metro ride. We’d also wheeled two bags of luggage across a Roman street and lived to tell about it! We’d stared down grinning death.

It was a piece of cake to go down the stairs on the other side of the road to one of the lower levels and follow the alleys to the convent. These little back streets reminded me of those in Florence, but they were all paved with basalt squares laid in a diamond pattern. The paving stones must be hell to drive on, but they are lovely and add a charm that asphalt can’t touch. Plus, people have to drive slower on them and that gives us pedestrians a chance.

I was greatly relieved to see that Rome also has a few gelateria, a handful of pizzaria, three or four restaurants, and little markets as well. We passed that many on our five-block walk to the convent alone. We might get run over, but it didn’t look like we were going to starve.

Casa Il Rosario was located on a very small quiet street in the heart of the historic district. Going and coming we walked under wisteria vines stretched across the street. Unlike Florence, there was no space between the buildings. It’s not hard to understand how Roman fires could be so devastating. Each block is like one enormous building with many entrances. We’d become old hands at checking in and out and were quickly standing in our room. It was on the second floor again, on the same level as the rooftop garden. Except for the sister who came to water the plants we seemed to have it to ourselves. The elevator from the lobby was also right outside our door.

How often do tourists get their own private bathroom and their own private garden? The only noise I could hear while sitting outside was the sound of children’s laughter coming from next door. I stood on the watering bucket to look over the wall and found myself peering down into the courtyard of a parochial school. Young children playing soccer under the watchful eye of a fully habited sister made a wonderfully human counterpoint to the omnipresent traffic noise.

After unpacking and resting a bit we headed back downstairs. The young novice behind the desk looked up pleasantly. She didn’t speak English, but did speak a little French and together we worked through my questions. I asked about an internet connection. She smiled and showed us a small converted telephone booth sporting a powerful computer. It was free, with only a small box asking donations to help pay for the service. She told us the breakfast hours and warned us about the curfew. We asked about Mass times at the famous churches in the area. She admitted that she didn’t know what they were but told us we’d come on a very “propitious day.” Something big was happening at St. John Lateran, the new Pope’s church and she showed us on the map how to walk there.

The propitious event was an enormous outdoor Mass presided over by the new Pope, Benedict, and a Corpus Christi procession from St. John Lateran to St. Maria Maggiore a few miles away. John Paul II had declared this the Year of the Eucharist, and the Corpus Christi procession was the culmination of that liturgical year.

A bit of Catholic theology would probably be helpful. The words, Corpus Christi, come from the Latin phrase said as the priest hands you a little piece of the host during communion, “This is the Body of Christ.” Catholics believe Jesus is actually present in this world in many different ways. He is present in the person of the Priest, who elevates the host and says, “This is my Body, broken for you.” Deacons and laypeople don’t get to say that, and can’t stand “in the person of Jesus” in the same way. Jesus is also present in the form of the congregation, the Body of Christ, “whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there I am.” That is why there must be at least two people present before the Mass can be celebrated. Jesus, the Word referred to in the Gospel of John is also truly present in the Scriptures themselves. Jesus is also present in the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the outcast, the forgotten, what some have called His “appalling disguise.” “When you have done it for one of these you have done it for me.” But most essentially, Jesus is present in the consecrated host, that little bit of unleavened bread the Priest elevates at the high point of the Mass, when we believe he is continuing the miracle begun at the Last Supper. “Communion” is when we all take that little bit of the Body of Christ (which certainly looks like a cracker) and “in-corporate” (that is give Body to) Jesus in our own person. Catholics believe incorporating Christ is what makes the congregation the Body of Christ. “I am the living Bread . . .” Many other Christian denominations dispute one or more of these ways Jesus is actually present, but these convictions are what give Roman Catholicism its particular piquancy (“pig-headedness,” some say). You are going to have to treat your neighbor (or that beggar, or that bit of bread) differently if you believe they are really the Body of Christ, and not merely a symbol of some sort.

Well, this procession, attended by a few hundred thousand of the Pope’s closest friends carries a little bit of this consecrated host from the Pope’s own church, St. John Lateran, to another famous church, St. Maria Maggiore to introduce Jesus personally to the secular city of Rome and to encourage the faithful to show their faith with their feet not just with their mouths.

We unrolled our map of Rome and took off walking briskly past the Coliseum toward St. John’s. We hadn’t gone more than a block into our three or four mile walk when we found ourselves surrounded by little knots of black-cassocked Priests and Sisters habited in dove gray, and severe black, and crisp white, and Brothers in the Franciscan brown, and Cistercians in white robes with black hoods. It was magical. Young and old, black, and yellow, and white, and brown; religious of all races. Secular pilgrims as well; from beggars, (and probably pick-pockets), to women carrying Gucci bags. Ancient Italian matrons dressed in black from head to toe, and Mother Teresa’s daughters of charity in their white homemade robes with the blue bands, all tumbled together.

As we gathered nearer the church the crowd became more and more compact. Somehow, I don’t know how, we ended up right at the fence on the left side of the Church steps where the Mass was going to be said. As we stood there we struck up a conversation with a nice German couple on our right. They spoke English, of course. They were Lutherans, but couldn’t miss this opportunity to see their fellow countryman at his first really huge outdoor Mass.

Just then we saw a television crew moving along the inside of the fence interviewing people. Georgia turned to me and said, “How come those people are getting interviewed? Why don’t they ask me any questions?” I didn’t even have a chance to finish my sentence, “Be careful what you wish for . . .” when the news man stuck the microphone in her face, and said something to her to the effect “Where are you from?” “She turned the most lovely shade of lavender and stammered, “I’m from Kentucky . . .” and the microphone was gone! The interviewer then began speaking with our German neighbors and interviewed them for a good 15 minutes. Poor Georgia was crushed to have had only had 15 nano-seconds of fame. She’s due for another 14+ minutes someday. After the television crew moved off we asked the Germans what they’d talked about. The lady said the interviewer was from a Bavarian television station and wanted their take on this new German Pope; the fact that they were Lutherans didn’t seem to matter.

On our left I tried to speak with a Korean Monk, a Cistercian like those at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. I told him how much I loved that place, and how much I admired Thomas Merton, who was a hermit there for the last 25 years of his life. The monk tried to tell me how much he also admired Merton and choked up because his English was too limited. I don’t know of anyone who did more than Merton to bridge the differences between East and West, and I think that is what our Monk was trying to tell me. We both ended up tearing up. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling says that one knight of faith will always be able to recognize another, though they won’t be able to really communicate with each other. I understood what he meant. There must be something in common or no recognition could take place, but there must be something absolutely unique in each individual’s call and this makes perfect communication impossible as well.

As I stood there I tried to mentally catalogue all the different languages I heard. There were many, many, many. So many in fact, I couldn’t even recognize what part of the world some were from, let alone what country. There were people in clothes or habits I’ve never seen and may well never see again. And then the Mass began.

The Holy Father was dressed in gold and white and stood about 75 feet away from us surrounded by cardinals dressed all in red. The service itself was just the same as the others we’d visited in Italy, and with just the same structure as the one you’d find at the smallest parish church of Reform, Alabama, or Baghdad, Iraq, or Cairo, Egypt, or Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. All those voices. All those different languages. Though we weren’t really able to talk with each other I realized that my monk and I understood each other perfectly well, and shared an understanding with hundreds of thousands of others at this moment. It was Pentecost all over again, or maybe, the Tower of Babel in reverse. Christianity, when focused on the Body of Christ, reunites us. When we try to focus on other things, like a national religion, or theological splinters we fractured ourselves into smaller and smaller bits, and stand in danger of not being able to talk with each other at all.

I do love a parade. Miles and miles of walkers following the Pope who was kneeling in the back of a white pickup truck. He faced a glorious golden monstrance, like a sunburst, with a little crystal window, containing the Corpus Christi. We were very near the beginning of the marchers but couldn’t get within half a mile of Mary Maggiore; the crowd was so huge.

After the Pope’s blessing from the balcony we climbed the barricades and searched out a pizza parlor. Wow! The calzone and a prosciuto pizza were magnificent. Our little walk had really raised an appetite. We dropped off to sleep that night happily burping garlic. No worry about mosquitoes; we were steeped in natures own insect repellent.

Next morning, Friday, May 27th, we sent our daughter, Jenny, a happy-birthday email from the modified phone booth downstairs. We couldn’t have predicted the twists and turns our lives would take in these 30 years, nor would we have even imagined celebrating her birthday in Rome. Then we were off to the dining room. What a spread! There were two kinds of scrumptiously healthy cereal, a huge ceramic bowl of freshly made yogurt, honey, two kinds of homemade bread, jam, Nuttela, jelly, two kinds of fruit juice and a large selection of fruit, and of course, breathtaking coffee con latte, or cappuccino. We waddled out to the bus stop for the ride to St. Peter’s.

Riding a bus through Rome, I swear you just don’t know where to look. I couldn’t possibly judge what is more interesting, the amazing ancient buildings, the stunning new buildings, the beautiful ancient trees, the flower gardens, the florid graffiti, or the staggering pageant of people. A river on every sidewalk. Every race, every age, every possible body-part pierced or tattooed, every possible color of hair—from a sedate mousy brown to tennis-ball orange. I saw more from the window on a 15 minute Roman bus ride than I would have seen in a lifetime sitting at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in downtown Lexington. Not all of what I saw was pretty, mind you, but if you are a local booster and proud of your own hometown, Rome has a way of dashing your pretensions. Where else could I have seen a young nun pleasantly passing the time of day with a Sid Vicious-clone? Where else could you look down into a 25-foot excavation to see a 2500 year old road next door to a modern nightclub?

The Piazza San Pietro was just what I expected, I guess, but MUCH BIGGER. There was a line, of course to get into the Basilica, but it moved very quickly through the metal detectors. Standing on the porch, where we’d seen the new Pope’s public installation a few weeks earlier we saw signs showing the way to the main part of the church and another way to the crypt below.

We’d tried to get reservations to the crypt, but had been denied because there were so many people who wanted to pay their respects to John Paul II’s tomb, so we contented ourselves with visiting the main sanctuary.

Upon entering I felt a sudden sense of vertigo, not from brightness, but rather a feeling of “too muchness” I don’t mean that in the sense the 16th century “Levelers” would. They were deeply offended at the grandeur and pomp of the Church of Rome and felt it to be a betrayal of the humble Christ. For me, the sanctuary was “too much” in a way similar to the way God is “too much” for me, or heaven was “too much” for C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. The things I think good are only pale imitations of those things that are “really” good, and here, as I walked through the door was a place on earth where there were “really” good things.

Everywhere you looked, from huge golden mosaics, to tiny woodcarvings you saw the best human creatures were capable of producing. And it was very good. For someone who has spent most of his life trying to produce good things, and for the most part failing miserably, it was almost more than I could bear. I felt like a fraud or an imposter. How could I have the temerity to claim to make “Fine Stained Glass” when looking at the Dove Window behind the Bernini’s Baldachin. But I hasten to add, being in the presence of so much beauty and goodness didn’t discourage me. It made me want to be better, to really take my talents seriously and do something worthwhile instead of squandering or burying them.

As my eyes adjusted to the glory I saw wooden barricades leading from the crypt doorway we couldn’t enter toward steps leading down into the bowels of St. Peter’s. There was an opening in the barricades and no line of people at this early hour. Deciding that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission I grabbed Georgia’s elbow and hustled her toward the opening. Law-abiding Southern Baptist at heart, she just knew we were going to get smacked by divine wrath, or at least a lightening bolt. “How can you break rules in a place like this?” She was aghast. I replied: “Do not hold this sin against her,” and down the steps we plunged. It got darker and darker until we burst out into an enormous underground cavern, not unlike a monochromatic Ruby Falls without the water. There were stalagmite tombs and sarcophagi everywhere, with aisles crossing and criss-crossing. If you’ve had 264 Bishops of Rome I guess you have to expect a lot of tombs in the basement. We saw a little crowd of people kneeling and standing by one in particular and went to see who it was.

John Paul’s tombstone was a white marble slab, flat on the floor. It was probably 6 foot long and 3 feet wide, with only a single red rose laid on it. The guard standing nearby didn’t need to shush anyone as we heard only hushed whispers and murmured rosaries in this peaceful place. On our way out we saw the rediscovered tomb of St. Peter himself, directly under the high altar where it has laid these two thousand years. No wonder we think of “Rock” as the stone on which the Church is founded.

Besides my impression of “too muchness” I can’t describe the Vatican. I’m not even going to try. I think it must be like a stupendously huge Rorschach test; what you see is more an indication of who you are, than what it is. Back outside (after I pottered around trying to bottle some of the beauty and Georgia waited in line to rub St. Peter’s foot) we took off for the Vatican museums. The entrance must surely be close by.

It wasn’t.

(to be continued)
 

Georgia & Zig

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Rome (Vatican, beggars, Cathedrals, pickpockets, catacombs), Tivoli, Assisi

Arrivederci Roma

The entrance to the museum must surely be close to the entrance to the church itself. Wrong! We had to go completely outside the Piazza St. Pietro to join a line that was already four abreast on the sidewalk between the Vatican wall and a very busy street. The wall showed that the Vatican had once been a fortress. Slightly tapered, it must have been 80 or 90 feet tall and made of huge close-fitting stones. Up above we could see full-grown trees.

Down on the street where we shuffled in lockstep it was hot! Rome was undergoing an unprecedented heat wave and the crowd on the sidewalk reminded me of a caterpillar inching it’s way along, stretching out in the sunny spots only to bunch up again in the occasional patches of shade. Even with the heat, though, we all were in a good mood until we passed Jesus in one of his appalling disguises.

A beggar woman had positioned herself against the wall in one of the few shady places to entreat alms from such a religious gathering. She was missing the foot and ankle on her right leg and it didn’t look like it had healed very well. There was an open sore that to my untrained eye looked very angry and infected. There was a very similar sore on the side of her head where a saucer-sized patch of hair was missing. Like the women in Venice she was dressed in black from head to toe, but unlike them she had jettisoned her scarf and hiked up her dress in order to better display her wounds. Judging from the contents of her little cup (I didn’t contribute) the pickings were slim, and to make matters worse there was a very red-faced and sweating policeman standing over her. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, her accent completely defeated me, but the policeman had evidently heard the same story many times before. “Basta!” Enough! He kept shouting, but like good policemen everywhere he wouldn’t touch her unless he meant to arrest her. How he was going to remove her, arrested or not, I had no idea; I couldn’t even see a crutch for her anywhere nearby. She’d evidently been dropped off here and seemed to know her business well. I think she was wearing him down. I had the feeling this was a dance they’d had many times before and both kept one eye on the crowd at all times, like exhausted pugilists looking for someone to throw in the towel, or bored actors counting the house as they woodenly go through the motions of an overworked scene. His shouting and her keening continued unabated as we moved around the corner and out of earshot. There is no doubt the policeman had the weight of the state in his corner, but I have a feeling she would be the eventual winner. Weakness seems to have the ultimate advantage in contests of strength, if only it is willing to accept suffering, and she certainly showed she could do that. Remember the Gospel according to Cool Hand Luke? “He kept coming back to the man with nothin’.”

I wish I could say that she was the most appalling beggar we saw. She wasn’t. Rome has a contingent of women unwilling to just display pictures of their pathetic children. Outside churches and in the main shopping sections we would pass young women holding (I hope) sleeping children, as young as infants and as old as four or five. How the older children could be asleep in that bedlam I cannot imagine. Surely they were not feigning sleep, but beggars bring out the cynic in me. The worst was a three or four-year-old filthy boy stretched out in front of his mother on a rag spread out on a dirty sidewalk. Apparently asleep, he had soiled himself(?), because his pants were wet and there was a trickle of water staining the rag he slept(?) on leading all the way out to the bare sidewalk. The grimey mother gestured at him as she begged coins. There was a half-empty water bottle on the sidewalk beside her. The whole scene was truly appalling.

Later I saw the same tableaux repeated in an unintentionally funny and macabre parody: Same filthy rag, same disheveled young woman with fly-away stringy hair and torn clothes, same trickle of apparent soiling, same half empty water bottle, but this time the child was replaced by a very young German Shepherd puppy. “Must not have a kid yet,” I thought, and felt a cynical laugh bubble up then get caught in my throat. I’m pretty sure you could train a child to lie still for extended periods, but there is no way you could train a little German Shepherd to do that. The thought of how they could be immobilized made me feel sick. It reminded me of the puppies I saw in Vietnam being used to “refine” uncut heroin. All I can say is that if Jesus is determined to look so disgusting and smell so bad, He shouldn’t be surprised to have so few friends.

On the home stretch to the Vatican Museum we were entertained by two Eastern European boys, the younger one playing accordion and the older one holding the cup as he performed some sort of shuffling dance. I generously donated one euro to the budding talents; perhaps they were the ones who had grandma’s crutch.

The total wait had been about 1.5 hours. Rather than try to tell you how much we enjoyed the glories of the Vatican Museum I suggest you simply return to what I had to say about the Uffizi in Florence and put exclamation points after every sentence. I must say, though, that the Sistine Chapel impressed the heck out of me. It was as packed as an unmoving metro without pickpockets. And it was much louder than the Metro. You wouldn’t believe how quickly private whispers can crescendo into shouting into each other’s ears. When the racket became unbearable the guard would shush everyone with handclaps and a loud “Silencio!” Everyone would go back to pointing and whispering for a few moments then the crescendo would begin again.

Georgia wasn’t as impressed as I was. She opined that the ceiling was just too darned high and we would all be able to see it better if they would just lower it. Thirty feet would have been plenty; Michelangelo was just showing off.

I found Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ stunning, even though his contemporaries seemed to be scandalized by his portraying Mary as middle-aged. Georgia was deeply moved by Bellini’s Pieta from the Pesaro altarpiece where Mary Magdalene is fingering the nail hole in Christ’s lifeless hand. It’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking as she stares at Him dry-eyed. But honestly, you can only stand so many masterpieces, even Caravaggios and Bellinis.

Lunch in the cafeteria was a masterpiece too. Where else but Italy can drink your wine from little milk cartons that cost less than a euro?

We walked ourselves absolutely sick from the Vatican back to the convent in a meandering course through the heart of Rome. It took hours and we stopped at every interesting open door we saw, and there were a lot of interesting open doors. My favorite time was sitting on the wall high above the Tiber River listening to guitar music from a very talented street musician under massive sycamores that must have been pretty good sized when Julius Caesar was a pup. The sidewalk artists made me feel inadequate. I photographed all the famous statues I saw along the way and drank lots of wine to try to anesthetize my “pore feets.”

Starting at the Castel San Angelo we crossed the Ponte Umberto I to the Piazza Navonna, with more sidewalk artists whose quick-sketch portraits shamed me, to Santa Maria dell’anima with good stained glass and yet another damned Caravaggio. Cruised past Bernini’s fountain, “The Four Rivers,” then wended our way toward the Pantheon, which has continuously been a house of worship for more than 2000 years. It had been a pagan temple for almost 700 years before being rededicated as the St Maria Rotunda about the year 600. Raphael’s tomb inside made the hair on my arms stand up, and sunlight pouring through the hole in the roof was glorious beyond belief. The fact that the original gilt had been carried away to Constantinople, and the original bronze trusses melted down to make Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s only rubbed my nose in the fact that each generation decides for itself what is worth preserving, and what will only survive as food for new creations. I wonder what our generation has produced that will survive 2000 years. Perhaps atomic-tipped cruise missiles.

The glass in Santa Caterina was literally falling out of its lead. In trying to get a photo of the attempted restoration there was this statue always in the frame. What a nuisance. On the way out I learned that it was Michelangelo’s John the Baptist! Do I have an eye or what? About five o’clock we limped into the convent and put our feet up for an hour before heading out to the local supermercato for supper’s picnic supplies and enough to carry with us on the train to the mountain town of Tivoli in the morning, with its beautiful Villa d’Este water gardens. The hot olives were amazing! Bread, cheese, and wine, with sparkling water in the rooftop garden—it doesn’t need to get any better than this.

Up early (as always) Saturday morning to catch the bus from the outskirts of Rome. That meant a Metro ride to the end of the line north of the city. Two beautiful little five or six-year old girls moved from person to person laughing and begging coins. True dirty-faced barefooted urchins with matted hair. Could they really have mothers and fathers who send them out like this? After about three or four stops they hopped off the Metro to catch the one going the other way. Back and forth, back and forth, I wonder how long their shift is. I didn’t give them anything, after all, I’d spent two euros for the Metro tickets, and the round-trip bus tickets were going to cost us six and a half euros each. We needed to save our money and it would be immoral to reward begging.

The bus went right through the quarry town of Travertine, where all the best spray-paint canvas comes from. We arrived at the top of the mountain about 10 AM. The Villa d’Este was built in 1549 to provide high muckity-mucks just what we needed, some respite from Rome’s heat. The natural air conditioning comes from a thousand fountains and man-made waterfalls on a five or six-acre hillside. Hillside? I don’t think so. On a five or six-acre mountainside, but it was so wonderfully cool and splashing and beautiful, and the panorama was so amazing you forget how tired you are. Just be sure to start at the top and walk down going back and forth. Don’t try plunging straight down then backtrack to see things you missed. They’ll carry you out in a basket.

Besides waterfalls and ferns, Tivoli is the gelato capital of Italy. They have more gelateria per square foot than anywhere else, and what they have in quantity, they even surpass in quality. We know because we stopped at four different ones to compare, and I would have stopped at two more if I hadn’t married such a crab.

We saw a lovely little stone church preparing for a wedding, and later saw the bride and groom having their bridal photos made in the Villa. She was so lovely and plump and her bouffant gown looked like beaten egg whites. He was short and stocky and extremely nervous—looking for someplace to put his cigarette during each photo op. His friends’ off-color comments weren’t helping his composure. People are going to wonder why his ears were so red in every photo.

Another lovely church, Pietro all’carite, perched on the hillside was having a group baptism. The priest would grab up a squalling infant from its doting mother, douse him with water three times, and rush him from icon to icon introducing him to the assembled saints, all the while chanting Greek in a rich baritone. Then he’d return the terrorized infant to his mother and grab another. The medieval stone church was flooded with natural light and was so clean and crisp I could almost swear it was Swedish Modern instead of Byzantine Ancient. We tiptoed out, though I don’t know why, no one would have heard us if we’d left with a Venetian brass band.

The ride back on the Metro was memorable only for a very loud group of six or eight Afro-Italian youths engaging in an extended greeting-ritual wherein each male greeted every other with intricate hand-claps, finger snaps, hugs, and chest thumps of eternal brotherhood. The rest of the train watched in stunned silence. It was a 1960’s Black Consciousness Flashback moment. I took off my mountain boots in the rooftop garden while Georgia groaned in the shower. Writing down each day’s happenings has helped me remember everything, and helped me sort everything out as well. Even with the notes (and especially with all the wine) all the days and all the churches run together into one crackling blur. “The children next door have quieted down, and the young nun has left her folding chair to go inside as well. I hear thunder, and see the distant heat-lightning, and head in just as the first big messy drops splatter around me.” I fell asleep to the sound of the rain.

Sunday, we repeated Saturday’s strategy for escaping Rome’s muggy heat. But this time we grabbed a train for the mountain town of Assisi. It was lovely, with the best panorama yet. As a strategy for missing the heat it was a complete bust. After dragging Georgia up the mountain by her hair, she threatened to sit down in the middle of the street and beg one of the hurtling vespas to run over her unless I took her to a real Italian restaurant. She was sick of magnificent Italian bread and cheese and olives and milk cartons of wine. Sensing a real rebellion in the offing I lead her down a medieval alley in search of something called Trattatore la Ermanio, which I think means Herman’s Place, though the “la” throws me off a bit. Perhaps Herman is limp-wristish, if you know what I mean, or else she wears overshoes and crushes beer cans on her forehead.

Along the way we passed little knots of people making Rose Parade floats flat on the ground. They’d sprinkle dried flower petals on charcoal drawings on paper cartoons. As they worked enormous flower rugs took shape in the alley. With the window boxes brimming with geraniums it was a wonderfully colorful and charming sight. Georgia, however, was not charmed. Her blood sugar level had dropped so far that when we passed little hibachi grills filled with shish-kabobs of sausage, veal, pork, and beef intended to feed the artists, I heard her begin to snarl. If I didn’t find something pretty soon she was going to practice a snatch-and-run approach to self-preservation. I can just see it now as Assisi’s Corpus Christi procession degenerated into a Keystone Kops chase through little narrow alleys. I’d bet on Georgia; she’s pretty speedy. Luckily we found Herman just in time. Georgia’s claws relaxed and the crazed look left her eyes when the waitress promised to bring us a carafe of local wine and basket of bread, pronto. I suggested that she bring us two carafes of wine instead: white for me, and red for my now pacific sweetie. Except for the occasional eye-twitch you’d never know how close we’d come to an international incident.

We sat outside under a huge umbrella and waited patiently (and somewhat drunkenly) for Primo. It was Tagliatelle with fresh Porcini mushrooms in a clear sauce. There was only the slightest hint of tomato paste and a mere dusting of minced leeks and parsley. We split it, mostly 50/50, and after snarfing mine down I elegantly dropped my head to lick my plate, just as my grand-dog, Shelly, has taught me. It’s the universal sign of gustatory approval. The waitress smiled indulgently and brought us a third basket of bread with Secundo. That, of course, was Assisi’s justly famous grilled meat, with a side of cooked spinach. Georgia started growling again as I tried to divide the kabob 60/40, right down the middle. As her eyes began to glow again I reconsidered whose plate was whose. She smiled happily and her eyes returned to their lovely blue as we got delightfully sloshed gnawing the skewers. The waitress kindly agreed to provide photographic proof that I actually fed my wife somewhere other than at deli-counters.

After lunch we stumbled down the mountain to visit Saint Francis’ tomb. It was humbling, as hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims filed slowly through the crypt, many pausing to kneel and pray at the reliquary. In the next room we saw the Saint’s own sandals and habit, patched, and re-patched, and patched again with patches on the patches. He’d not worried about where his clothes were going to come from. He’d obviously spent himself entirely for the poorest of the poor. At the bottom of the mountain we passed a MacDonald’s where you were invited to “Drive, Take, and Go” through the “McDrive.” I wonder how the saint would have liked his MacGrosso’s.

While waiting for the train back to Rome I tried to order caffee fredo with lots of sugar and milk again. Same response as in Campiglia. You’d swear I’d asked for tripe-flavored jello. I just couldn’t face such scorn again. Next time in downtown Rome I ordered caffee frappe, a coffee-flavored milk shake. Perfect, and no clucks of disapproval from the wait-staff.

Georgia says she heard fireworks that night. I smiled modestly . . . . Oh, those kinds of fireworks. I didn’t hear a thing until those damned birds started screeching at the sunrise about 15 minutes after I laid my head down.

So now it was Monday, our last day in Italy. Today was going to be a marathon. We’d bought all-day Metro passes so we could go everywhere and see everything we hadn’t already seen in Rome. The day was going to begin with a rush hour Metro ride. We were packed in as tightly as a moving Sistine Chapel with a conveniently low ceiling. You could easily study the paintings. I felt someone bumping my leg as the train bounced along but wasn’t alarmed. What could you expect, the train was packed after all. I was sure it was completely innocent.

It wasn’t.

After getting off the Metro at the end of the Red Line I was suddenly worried that the leg bumper might not have been so innocent. Checking my left front pocket I found I now had only one of the three 10-euro notes I’d begun with. There went our mad money. Even so, we agreed that we’d gotten off lightly, and were both very glad I’d listened to my sweetie’s several sweet suggestions that I store the bulk of our stash in the money belt around my waist. We took off again on tour.

As we walked the color drained from my face as I remembered that I had lately been in the habit of carrying our credit card in that same front pocket for convenience. Have you ever surreptitiously tried to unbutton your flimsy silk shirt from the bottom-up and root around in a money belt looking for a credit card while walking beside a naturally suspicious spouse chattering about the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain? I wasn’t very good at it.

“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“Nothing? Then why is your shirt unbuttoned?”
“My shirt is unbuttoned?”
“You know it’s unbuttoned. You have your hand inside it.”
“Oh, that shirt.” (long pause) “Well?”
“Well what?”
“Well, why do you have your hand inside your shirt?”
“Maybe I’m scratching my belly button; did you ever think of that? (another long pause)
“Scratching your belly button?” I couldn’t stand the torture; I squealed like a stuck pig and we both dug into the money belt. It must have made a really interesting sight for those worldly Romans. How do you say “Get a room, you two!” in Italian?

But then we found it! There it was, safely tucked away where it was supposed to be; I was never so glad before to see a little piece of plastic. I chalked the 20 euros up to 20 one-euro coins I should have given at least half the beggars we’d last seen in the last two days. I’ll think of it as a small contribution to Rome’s underground economy, and a valuable lesson in the importance of listening to my sweetie’s several sweet suggestions.

Back on tour: The Spanish Steps were a bust; the azaleas had quit blooming and there was a four-story advertising poster attached to the scaffolding on the church immediately behind the steps. What a photo op.

The Trevi Fountain wasn’t fountaining either. Poor Anita Eckberg could barely get her feet wet. One poor Japanese couple in wedding finery was having themselves photographed trying to hit the stagnant puddle with a coin tossed over their shoulders. If they ever managed to actually hit the water I guess it would mean they would be back in Rome again some day, but against their will?

In a roundabout by the Piazza del Popolo we met a very earnest young woman of Danish persuasion, an earth-mother sort of person attracted by our English speech. She was carrying a backpack that was (honestly) just about as large as she was but a foot taller. For some reason she wanted to give us her life history, the gist of which was that her doctor had told her she didn’t need to count calories in Italy if she would only walk everywhere she went. She was just puffing up the steps of one of the subway stops as we strolled by. With characteristic Teutonic efficiency she had scheduled one whole day to “see Rome.” Where did we think she should walk first? I’m afraid I had a hard time swallowing my laughter; she probably thought my snorts were the aftereffects of some bizarre Kentucky allergy. Georgia told her the places we’d visited, without suggesting that a day might not be enough time to see it all and without even cracking a smile. She thanked us and asked if we thought her backpack might be safer if she wore it in front. There’s a little bit of the devil in my sweetie who opined that it would surely be safer if she wore it in front. The image of our Danish leiderhosen-clad Brunhilde tromping down the Via del Corso, peering around her backpack “to see Rome” will remain with me forever.

We ducked into St Marie de Popolo to escape the heat and found two more magnificent Caravaggios just right there! He and I were back on good terms as I’d found it in my heart to forgive him for painting so much. These two eight foot paintings were priceless: “The conversion of Saul” with its huge dappled gray horse towering over the struck-down church persecutor soon-to-be saint, and “The crucifixion of St. Peter,” with the saint being nailed up upside down because he felt unworthy of being killed the way his Lord was killed. I could have reached out and touched either one. They were right there. Priceless. And guarded by a single teenaged girl scout of some sort. Oh, Italy. How do you protect a place like this? You’d have to have barbed wire and chain-linked fences every three feet. As we learned in Vietnam you’d have to destroy it in order to save it.

Magnificent church after magnificent church, I began to wish that they’d lock more of them up so we wouldn’t have to tour them, and began to wish they’d cover more of the beautiful buildings with scaffolding so I wouldn’t have to stop in admiration. It was “too muchness” again on an unimaginable scale. If heaven is going to be more glorious than Rome I’m going to be smashed to bits. In desperation I dragged Georgia back down into the subway system. We were headed out of town to get away from it all—to the Via Appian Antica and the catacombs.

We took the Blue Line completely off the map. We exited in a working class neighborhood filled with small shops and huge apartment houses. There was a public bus station right beside the steps from the underground. But we didn’t need no stinkin’ bus. On the landing I tried to memorize the wall map. Like Brunhilde I knew we should walk everywhere we went. The actual streets, however, didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the map, and my compass didn’t seem to be helping as much as it did in Florence. Maybe it was also suffering from culture shock.

We repaired to a pizza parlor to think this all over. Because of the heat we ordered some of the cold pizza. Georgia’s looked like a cold shrimp-covered soft taco, with lettuce, mayo, and tomato. My tuna pizza was also served cold, sort of like an open-faced tuna fish sandwich. Interesting, but not a menu I’m anxious to duplicate at home.

I tried to ask the waitress which way we should go to get to the Via Appian. She pretended not to understand my impeccable Italian. Another customer, who looked like an Italian John Belushi, pointed down the main drag but said we shouldn’t try to walk there, “It seven kilometers,” he said. Ha! What did he know? At my urging we spent another few minutes with the map where I showed Georgia the “shortcut” we’d look for as we walked along. We could walk that far in our sleep. She looked dubious.

I took her hand and set off at a brisk pace. After about 100 yards we just had to slow down and she extricated her hand. After another 200 yards trudging in the sun my sweetie was starting to grumble and her hands were getting claw-like again. The small shops were now all gone and the huge apartment houses had given way to tumbled-down abandoned gas stations, cracked pavement, and tall weeds drying in the sun. Another 100 yards or so and there was mutiny in the ranks.

“I’m not walking anymore. You have to do something.”

Do something? Is she crazy? “Do you see someplace to catch a bus?” I asked. “Have you seen some taxi that I missed? Do I have a saddle on my back? What do you mean I have to do something?!” Just like a woman. One little miscalculation and suddenly it was all my fault.

“There’s a bus stop,” my sweetie said pointing at a sign on a telephone pole up ahead. She figured she’d solved my problem for me again.

“Terrific,” I replied gesturing toward the surrounding weeds, “and what are you planning to use for a bus ticket?”

“I don’t care; I’m not walking any more.” I could have exploded but it wouldn’t have done any good and it would have just strewn little bits and pieces of me all over the broken pavement and abandoned buildings, sort of like our Houston acquaintance without the trouble of a cremation. I unbuttoned my shirt and rummaged around in the money belt to find two one-euro coins. When the bus came I’d just buy tickets from the driver.

After a stony silent 10-minute wait in the sun along came the bus. I flagged it down. We climbed on board and Georgia headed for a seat. “Dove biglietteria?” “Where is the ticket office?” I asked hopefully. The driver just stared at me, sort of the way you might stare at a three-headed alien. He looked all around him and shrugged in wonderment as if he might be dreaming and wanted to see if anyone else was hearing this same apparition. I tried to hand him the two coins and he acted as if I had pointed a pistol at him. Both hands went up and he shook his head emphatically. “Mi dispiace,” I apologized sadly, put the coins in my pocket, and walked to the back of the bus to join my sweetie busy fanning herself. The driver waited until I sat down, then shook his head in disbelief and pulled away from the curb. We were officially stowaways.

It was a good 10 or 15-minute bus ride to the Via Antica along a narrow road through the woods. Georgia’s mutiny probably saved us both from becoming hood ornaments on Sophia Loren’s Mercedes. When the bus reached the end of the line we got off. The ancient road was still paved with the medieval basalt blocks laid in a diamond pattern stretching out of sight in both directions. There were mansion driveways piercing the high walls as this land had been parceled into estates for the fabulously wealthy many centuries ago. There was one little shop outside the bus stop. It sold everything except bus tickets.

There was a sign indicating the way to the catacombs so we started walking that way. This time there was a little more shade, but not a lot. About another 100 yards and we came to the ruins of a small ancient church across from Catacombe di San Callisto, which was not yet open. We’d have to sit in the sun for an hour or so, and that wasn’t really appealing right now, so we continued our hike. As we did we saw a very earnest, very thin, very hyperactive middle-aged American man striding in the opposite direction. He, like Brunhilde, was carrying an enormous backpack and seemed intent on seeing everything Rome had to offer in 15 minutes or less. “Anything worth seeing that way?” he inquired as he blew past us without slowing down. We informed his receding back of the church ruins and the not yet opened catacombs.

Another few minutes of walking and we found the rest of his entourage, mortified teenaged son, overweight teenaged daughter, and enormously overweight, red-faced wife, sprawled at the edge of the road. The wife looked close to death, ashen faced, and wheezing, splayed out on her back with her backpack dropped beside her. She was uselessly fanning herself with a sun visor while she tried to catch her breath. Her legs, emerging from tent-like Bermuda shorts, looked to be about the same size as the Umbrian olive tree trunks we’d seen. I didn’t know how big the catacombs would be but I had a feeling she wouldn’t fit in them. I also knew she wouldn’t have been able to get into some of the shower stalls we’d seen. Italy must have felt like Hell to her, especially with a hyperactive husband. I know they say opposites attract but how she and her mate met and fell in love would probably make a great science fiction story. Just being a man and a woman is opposite enough for me.

Strange as it may seem the catacombs of San Sebastian were very well known up to the 4th century but then were lost with the building of the church that marks their location. A church historian rediscovered them in the 1920s because he just knew they had to be around here someplace. He was right, and the original underground altar was rediscovered directly beneath the “new” church’s high altar, and the reliquary for San Sebastian was found under the old, original, underground altar. Sebastian had been a Roman soldier who quit when he was converted to Christianity in the early 100s. That was not a popular thing with his commanders and he was executed, tradition says, by arrows though another tradition says he was nursed back to health by Saint Callisto, which doubly infuriated the authorities who beat them both to death.

Anyway, the catacombs are perfectly preserved and show the transition from pagan to Christian worship in such interesting artifacts as first and second century graffiti. Now I know what will be hanging around for another 2000 years! The catacombs were wonderfully cool and there were three levels of them, unlike just two in the current Metro. It was awesome to see the preserved arrow that killed the saint in the 2nd century, and a piece of the column he was supposed to have been tied to. World powers are hard on even gentle terrorists trying to overthrow the kingdoms of this world. Still no place to buy bus tickets. We walked to the bus stop with the other pilgrims and just piled on as if we belonged, my career as a stowaway. After a harrowing ride along the narrow road we arrived back inside the city walls close to St John Lateran and took a tour in the daylight. You won’t believe it but there is even more gold inside that church than there is inside St. Peter’s. It was like being inside an enormous golden chalice. Perhaps that was the intention: “This blood is poured out for you and many.” With a short walk to the Metro we were stowaways no longer.

Getting off near the Circus Maximus we walked and walked and walked through 2500 years of jumbled Tinker Toys gasping and oohing and aaahing at every turn. I don’t want to shock you, but life is very fleeting, even the life of a civilization, and the Pines of Rome have seen them all come and go.

One last picnic supper in the roof garden under the gigantic palm tree, and beside the orange tree. I wouldn’t mind trying to get used to the semi-tropical plants that thrive in Italy. We knew that tomorrow was going to be a long day, so we staggered off to bed after going out for one last gelato at sundown.

We opened the kitchen in the morning and had our last breakfast of fresh yogurt, crunchy cereal, freshly squeezed juice, crusty bread, real butter, marmalade and enough cappuccino to keep us visiting the rest room for hours.

Our supposed “24-hour” Metro ticket expired after 18 hours so we jumped the turnstile and stowed away for the short trip to Rome Termini. We were very old hands at all of this now. I blew kisses at the Italian countryside and tried to memorize the look of wild poppies highlighting purple mountains.

The crowds inside the airport were enormous and all of them were trying to get through the same security gates, but we moved along steadily, and got to our seats in plenty of time. We had a nice meal of roast chicken on the plane and landed back in Cincinnati about 5 pm. Our biggest worry on the trip was Georgia’s insistence that Dimples, our new used green van, was sure to have a dead battery or flat tires. We were absolutely going to have to call someone in Lexington to come and get us. She rooted around in her purse to be sure she had the phone number so she could call the moment we needed to.

We wheeled our little well traveled carry-ons out to the airport shuttle and rode to the long-term parking lot, Aisle 13. There she sat on well-filled tires, wagging her tailpipe in joy at our approach. As I opened the door, the dome light sprang on, and the power windows purred open to let out two weeks of heat and stale air. Georgia sat apprehensively, clutching the emergency phone numbers in her sweaty little hand.

“Good old Dimples,” I said patting the dashboard. “How have you been, old girl?” She started up on the first try.

Afterword

So what did you learn?
  • I learned that having some money in the bank is a good thing, but if you save it up long enough it’s going to be the doctors and nursing home directors who get to take the nice vacations.
  • I learned that waiting at the station for your train, or your ship, to come in can be a good thing, and you might even get immortalized in a concrete statue, but it’s a much better thing to catch the train, or the ship that actually does come in, even if it means you don’t get mentioned in “This Week Magazine.”
  • I learned that technology is a wonderful thing for helping you accomplish the things you want to accomplish, but it’s the works of art (even including graffiti) that are more likely to last 2000 years.
  • I learned that it’s the indomitable poor who will eventually inherit the earth.
  • I learned that if you feel someone “accidentally” tapping your shoulder, or your back, or your leg, you need to grab your wallet.
  • I learned that there really aren’t any bad flavors of Italian gelato.
  • I learned that “Clothing Optional Beaches” can be very disappointing.
  • I learned that though it might be nice to drive yourself everywhere, it’s really pleasant to use public transportation and see the world the local people do.
  • I learned that while it may be nice to have an expert with you on a trip so you don’t miss things, it’s also really nice to see what you see, and enjoy the things you enjoy, and travel with someone you love and admire.
  • I learned that Georgia M. Zeigler is a very, very, pleasant person to travel with through Italy, or through life with, for that matter.
 

Barb Cabot

10+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Rome (Vatican, beggars, Cathedrals, pickpockets, catacombs), Tivoli, Assisi

Arrivederci Roma

The entrance to the museum must surely be close to the entrance to the church itself. Wrong! We had to go completely outside the Piazza St. Pietro to join a line that was already four abreast on the sidewalk between the Vatican wall and a very busy street. The wall showed that the Vatican had once been a fortress. Slightly tapered, it must have been 80 or 90 feet tall and made of huge close-fitting stones. Up above we could see full-grown trees.

Down on the street where we shuffled in lockstep it was hot! Rome was undergoing an unprecedented heat wave and the crowd on the sidewalk reminded me of a caterpillar inching it’s way along, stretching out in the sunny spots only to bunch up again in the occasional patches of shade. Even with the heat, though, we all were in a good mood until we passed Jesus in one of his appalling disguises.

A beggar woman had positioned herself against the wall in one of the few shady places to entreat alms from such a religious gathering. She was missing the foot and ankle on her right leg and it didn’t look like it had healed very well. There was an open sore that to my untrained eye looked very angry and infected. There was a very similar sore on the side of her head where a saucer-sized patch of hair was missing. Like the women in Venice she was dressed in black from head to toe, but unlike them she had jettisoned her scarf and hiked up her dress in order to better display her wounds. Judging from the contents of her little cup (I didn’t contribute) the pickings were slim, and to make matters worse there was a very red-faced and sweating policeman standing over her. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, her accent completely defeated me, but the policeman had evidently heard the same story many times before. “Basta!” Enough! He kept shouting, but like good policemen everywhere he wouldn’t touch her unless he meant to arrest her. How he was going to remove her, arrested or not, I had no idea; I couldn’t even see a crutch for her anywhere nearby. She’d evidently been dropped off here and seemed to know her business well. I think she was wearing him down. I had the feeling this was a dance they’d had many times before and both kept one eye on the crowd at all times, like exhausted pugilists looking for someone to throw in the towel, or bored actors counting the house as they woodenly go through the motions of an overworked scene. His shouting and her keening continued unabated as we moved around the corner and out of earshot. There is no doubt the policeman had the weight of the state in his corner, but I have a feeling she would be the eventual winner. Weakness seems to have the ultimate advantage in contests of strength, if only it is willing to accept suffering, and she certainly showed she could do that. Remember the Gospel according to Cool Hand Luke? “He kept coming back to the man with nothin’.”

I wish I could say that she was the most appalling beggar we saw. She wasn’t. Rome has a contingent of women unwilling to just display pictures of their pathetic children. Outside churches and in the main shopping sections we would pass young women holding (I hope) sleeping children, as young as infants and as old as four or five. How the older children could be asleep in that bedlam I cannot imagine. Surely they were not feigning sleep, but beggars bring out the cynic in me. The worst was a three or four-year-old filthy boy stretched out in front of his mother on a rag spread out on a dirty sidewalk. Apparently asleep, he had soiled himself(?), because his pants were wet and there was a trickle of water staining the rag he slept(?) on leading all the way out to the bare sidewalk. The grimey mother gestured at him as she begged coins. There was a half-empty water bottle on the sidewalk beside her. The whole scene was truly appalling.

Later I saw the same tableaux repeated in an unintentionally funny and macabre parody: Same filthy rag, same disheveled young woman with fly-away stringy hair and torn clothes, same trickle of apparent soiling, same half empty water bottle, but this time the child was replaced by a very young German Shepherd puppy. “Must not have a kid yet,” I thought, and felt a cynical laugh bubble up then get caught in my throat. I’m pretty sure you could train a child to lie still for extended periods, but there is no way you could train a little German Shepherd to do that. The thought of how they could be immobilized made me feel sick. It reminded me of the puppies I saw in Vietnam being used to “refine” uncut heroin. All I can say is that if Jesus is determined to look so disgusting and smell so bad, He shouldn’t be surprised to have so few friends.

On the home stretch to the Vatican Museum we were entertained by two Eastern European boys, the younger one playing accordion and the older one holding the cup as he performed some sort of shuffling dance. I generously donated one euro to the budding talents; perhaps they were the ones who had grandma’s crutch.

The total wait had been about 1.5 hours. Rather than try to tell you how much we enjoyed the glories of the Vatican Museum I suggest you simply return to what I had to say about the Uffizi in Florence and put exclamation points after every sentence. I must say, though, that the Sistine Chapel impressed the heck out of me. It was as packed as an unmoving metro without pickpockets. And it was much louder than the Metro. You wouldn’t believe how quickly private whispers can crescendo into shouting into each other’s ears. When the racket became unbearable the guard would shush everyone with handclaps and a loud “Silencio!” Everyone would go back to pointing and whispering for a few moments then the crescendo would begin again.

Georgia wasn’t as impressed as I was. She opined that the ceiling was just too darned high and we would all be able to see it better if they would just lower it. Thirty feet would have been plenty; Michelangelo was just showing off.

I found Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ stunning, even though his contemporaries seemed to be scandalized by his portraying Mary as middle-aged. Georgia was deeply moved by Bellini’s Pieta from the Pesaro altarpiece where Mary Magdalene is fingering the nail hole in Christ’s lifeless hand. It’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking as she stares at Him dry-eyed. But honestly, you can only stand so many masterpieces, even Caravaggios and Bellinis.

Lunch in the cafeteria was a masterpiece too. Where else but Italy can drink your wine from little milk cartons that cost less than a euro?

We walked ourselves absolutely sick from the Vatican back to the convent in a meandering course through the heart of Rome. It took hours and we stopped at every interesting open door we saw, and there were a lot of interesting open doors. My favorite time was sitting on the wall high above the Tiber River listening to guitar music from a very talented street musician under massive sycamores that must have been pretty good sized when Julius Caesar was a pup. The sidewalk artists made me feel inadequate. I photographed all the famous statues I saw along the way and drank lots of wine to try to anesthetize my “pore feets.”

Starting at the Castel San Angelo we crossed the Ponte Umberto I to the Piazza Navonna, with more sidewalk artists whose quick-sketch portraits shamed me, to Santa Maria dell’anima with good stained glass and yet another damned Caravaggio. Cruised past Bernini’s fountain, “The Four Rivers,” then wended our way toward the Pantheon, which has continuously been a house of worship for more than 2000 years. It had been a pagan temple for almost 700 years before being rededicated as the St Maria Rotunda about the year 600. Raphael’s tomb inside made the hair on my arms stand up, and sunlight pouring through the hole in the roof was glorious beyond belief. The fact that the original gilt had been carried away to Constantinople, and the original bronze trusses melted down to make Bernini’s baldachin in St. Peter’s only rubbed my nose in the fact that each generation decides for itself what is worth preserving, and what will only survive as food for new creations. I wonder what our generation has produced that will survive 2000 years. Perhaps atomic-tipped cruise missiles.

The glass in Santa Caterina was literally falling out of its lead. In trying to get a photo of the attempted restoration there was this statue always in the frame. What a nuisance. On the way out I learned that it was Michelangelo’s John the Baptist! Do I have an eye or what? About five o’clock we limped into the convent and put our feet up for an hour before heading out to the local supermercato for supper’s picnic supplies and enough to carry with us on the train to the mountain town of Tivoli in the morning, with its beautiful Villa d’Este water gardens. The hot olives were amazing! Bread, cheese, and wine, with sparkling water in the rooftop garden—it doesn’t need to get any better than this.

Up early (as always) Saturday morning to catch the bus from the outskirts of Rome. That meant a Metro ride to the end of the line north of the city. Two beautiful little five or six-year old girls moved from person to person laughing and begging coins. True dirty-faced barefooted urchins with matted hair. Could they really have mothers and fathers who send them out like this? After about three or four stops they hopped off the Metro to catch the one going the other way. Back and forth, back and forth, I wonder how long their shift is. I didn’t give them anything, after all, I’d spent two euros for the Metro tickets, and the round-trip bus tickets were going to cost us six and a half euros each. We needed to save our money and it would be immoral to reward begging.

The bus went right through the quarry town of Travertine, where all the best spray-paint canvas comes from. We arrived at the top of the mountain about 10 AM. The Villa d’Este was built in 1549 to provide high muckity-mucks just what we needed, some respite from Rome’s heat. The natural air conditioning comes from a thousand fountains and man-made waterfalls on a five or six-acre hillside. Hillside? I don’t think so. On a five or six-acre mountainside, but it was so wonderfully cool and splashing and beautiful, and the panorama was so amazing you forget how tired you are. Just be sure to start at the top and walk down going back and forth. Don’t try plunging straight down then backtrack to see things you missed. They’ll carry you out in a basket.

Besides waterfalls and ferns, Tivoli is the gelato capital of Italy. They have more gelateria per square foot than anywhere else, and what they have in quantity, they even surpass in quality. We know because we stopped at four different ones to compare, and I would have stopped at two more if I hadn’t married such a crab.

We saw a lovely little stone church preparing for a wedding, and later saw the bride and groom having their bridal photos made in the Villa. She was so lovely and plump and her bouffant gown looked like beaten egg whites. He was short and stocky and extremely nervous—looking for someplace to put his cigarette during each photo op. His friends’ off-color comments weren’t helping his composure. People are going to wonder why his ears were so red in every photo.

Another lovely church, Pietro all’carite, perched on the hillside was having a group baptism. The priest would grab up a squalling infant from its doting mother, douse him with water three times, and rush him from icon to icon introducing him to the assembled saints, all the while chanting Greek in a rich baritone. Then he’d return the terrorized infant to his mother and grab another. The medieval stone church was flooded with natural light and was so clean and crisp I could almost swear it was Swedish Modern instead of Byzantine Ancient. We tiptoed out, though I don’t know why, no one would have heard us if we’d left with a Venetian brass band.

The ride back on the Metro was memorable only for a very loud group of six or eight Afro-Italian youths engaging in an extended greeting-ritual wherein each male greeted every other with intricate hand-claps, finger snaps, hugs, and chest thumps of eternal brotherhood. The rest of the train watched in stunned silence. It was a 1960’s Black Consciousness Flashback moment. I took off my mountain boots in the rooftop garden while Georgia groaned in the shower. Writing down each day’s happenings has helped me remember everything, and helped me sort everything out as well. Even with the notes (and especially with all the wine) all the days and all the churches run together into one crackling blur. “The children next door have quieted down, and the young nun has left her folding chair to go inside as well. I hear thunder, and see the distant heat-lightning, and head in just as the first big messy drops splatter around me.” I fell asleep to the sound of the rain.

Sunday, we repeated Saturday’s strategy for escaping Rome’s muggy heat. But this time we grabbed a train for the mountain town of Assisi. It was lovely, with the best panorama yet. As a strategy for missing the heat it was a complete bust. After dragging Georgia up the mountain by her hair, she threatened to sit down in the middle of the street and beg one of the hurtling vespas to run over her unless I took her to a real Italian restaurant. She was sick of magnificent Italian bread and cheese and olives and milk cartons of wine. Sensing a real rebellion in the offing I lead her down a medieval alley in search of something called Trattatore la Ermanio, which I think means Herman’s Place, though the “la” throws me off a bit. Perhaps Herman is limp-wristish, if you know what I mean, or else she wears overshoes and crushes beer cans on her forehead.

Along the way we passed little knots of people making Rose Parade floats flat on the ground. They’d sprinkle dried flower petals on charcoal drawings on paper cartoons. As they worked enormous flower rugs took shape in the alley. With the window boxes brimming with geraniums it was a wonderfully colorful and charming sight. Georgia, however, was not charmed. Her blood sugar level had dropped so far that when we passed little hibachi grills filled with shish-kabobs of sausage, veal, pork, and beef intended to feed the artists, I heard her begin to snarl. If I didn’t find something pretty soon she was going to practice a snatch-and-run approach to self-preservation. I can just see it now as Assisi’s Corpus Christi procession degenerated into a Keystone Kops chase through little narrow alleys. I’d bet on Georgia; she’s pretty speedy. Luckily we found Herman just in time. Georgia’s claws relaxed and the crazed look left her eyes when the waitress promised to bring us a carafe of local wine and basket of bread, pronto. I suggested that she bring us two carafes of wine instead: white for me, and red for my now pacific sweetie. Except for the occasional eye-twitch you’d never know how close we’d come to an international incident.

We sat outside under a huge umbrella and waited patiently (and somewhat drunkenly) for Primo. It was Tagliatelle with fresh Porcini mushrooms in a clear sauce. There was only the slightest hint of tomato paste and a mere dusting of minced leeks and parsley. We split it, mostly 50/50, and after snarfing mine down I elegantly dropped my head to lick my plate, just as my grand-dog, Shelly, has taught me. It’s the universal sign of gustatory approval. The waitress smiled indulgently and brought us a third basket of bread with Secundo. That, of course, was Assisi’s justly famous grilled meat, with a side of cooked spinach. Georgia started growling again as I tried to divide the kabob 60/40, right down the middle. As her eyes began to glow again I reconsidered whose plate was whose. She smiled happily and her eyes returned to their lovely blue as we got delightfully sloshed gnawing the skewers. The waitress kindly agreed to provide photographic proof that I actually fed my wife somewhere other than at deli-counters.

After lunch we stumbled down the mountain to visit Saint Francis’ tomb. It was humbling, as hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims filed slowly through the crypt, many pausing to kneel and pray at the reliquary. In the next room we saw the Saint’s own sandals and habit, patched, and re-patched, and patched again with patches on the patches. He’d not worried about where his clothes were going to come from. He’d obviously spent himself entirely for the poorest of the poor. At the bottom of the mountain we passed a MacDonald’s where you were invited to “Drive, Take, and Go” through the “McDrive.” I wonder how the saint would have liked his MacGrosso’s.

While waiting for the train back to Rome I tried to order caffee fredo with lots of sugar and milk again. Same response as in Campiglia. You’d swear I’d asked for tripe-flavored jello. I just couldn’t face such scorn again. Next time in downtown Rome I ordered caffee frappe, a coffee-flavored milk shake. Perfect, and no clucks of disapproval from the wait-staff.

Georgia says she heard fireworks that night. I smiled modestly . . . . Oh, those kinds of fireworks. I didn’t hear a thing until those damned birds started screeching at the sunrise about 15 minutes after I laid my head down.

So now it was Monday, our last day in Italy. Today was going to be a marathon. We’d bought all-day Metro passes so we could go everywhere and see everything we hadn’t already seen in Rome. The day was going to begin with a rush hour Metro ride. We were packed in as tightly as a moving Sistine Chapel with a conveniently low ceiling. You could easily study the paintings. I felt someone bumping my leg as the train bounced along but wasn’t alarmed. What could you expect, the train was packed after all. I was sure it was completely innocent.

It wasn’t.

After getting off the Metro at the end of the Red Line I was suddenly worried that the leg bumper might not have been so innocent. Checking my left front pocket I found I now had only one of the three 10-euro notes I’d begun with. There went our mad money. Even so, we agreed that we’d gotten off lightly, and were both very glad I’d listened to my sweetie’s several sweet suggestions that I store the bulk of our stash in the money belt around my waist. We took off again on tour.

As we walked the color drained from my face as I remembered that I had lately been in the habit of carrying our credit card in that same front pocket for convenience. Have you ever surreptitiously tried to unbutton your flimsy silk shirt from the bottom-up and root around in a money belt looking for a credit card while walking beside a naturally suspicious spouse chattering about the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain? I wasn’t very good at it.

“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“Nothing? Then why is your shirt unbuttoned?”
“My shirt is unbuttoned?”
“You know it’s unbuttoned. You have your hand inside it.”
“Oh, that shirt.” (long pause) “Well?”
“Well what?”
“Well, why do you have your hand inside your shirt?”
“Maybe I’m scratching my belly button; did you ever think of that? (another long pause)
“Scratching your belly button?” I couldn’t stand the torture; I squealed like a stuck pig and we both dug into the money belt. It must have made a really interesting sight for those worldly Romans. How do you say “Get a room, you two!” in Italian?

But then we found it! There it was, safely tucked away where it was supposed to be; I was never so glad before to see a little piece of plastic. I chalked the 20 euros up to 20 one-euro coins I should have given at least half the beggars we’d last seen in the last two days. I’ll think of it as a small contribution to Rome’s underground economy, and a valuable lesson in the importance of listening to my sweetie’s several sweet suggestions.

Back on tour: The Spanish Steps were a bust; the azaleas had quit blooming and there was a four-story advertising poster attached to the scaffolding on the church immediately behind the steps. What a photo op.

The Trevi Fountain wasn’t fountaining either. Poor Anita Eckberg could barely get her feet wet. One poor Japanese couple in wedding finery was having themselves photographed trying to hit the stagnant puddle with a coin tossed over their shoulders. If they ever managed to actually hit the water I guess it would mean they would be back in Rome again some day, but against their will?

In a roundabout by the Piazza del Popolo we met a very earnest young woman of Danish persuasion, an earth-mother sort of person attracted by our English speech. She was carrying a backpack that was (honestly) just about as large as she was but a foot taller. For some reason she wanted to give us her life history, the gist of which was that her doctor had told her she didn’t need to count calories in Italy if she would only walk everywhere she went. She was just puffing up the steps of one of the subway stops as we strolled by. With characteristic Teutonic efficiency she had scheduled one whole day to “see Rome.” Where did we think she should walk first? I’m afraid I had a hard time swallowing my laughter; she probably thought my snorts were the aftereffects of some bizarre Kentucky allergy. Georgia told her the places we’d visited, without suggesting that a day might not be enough time to see it all and without even cracking a smile. She thanked us and asked if we thought her backpack might be safer if she wore it in front. There’s a little bit of the devil in my sweetie who opined that it would surely be safer if she wore it in front. The image of our Danish leiderhosen-clad Brunhilde tromping down the Via del Corso, peering around her backpack “to see Rome” will remain with me forever.

We ducked into St Marie de Popolo to escape the heat and found two more magnificent Caravaggios just right there! He and I were back on good terms as I’d found it in my heart to forgive him for painting so much. These two eight foot paintings were priceless: “The conversion of Saul” with its huge dappled gray horse towering over the struck-down church persecutor soon-to-be saint, and “The crucifixion of St. Peter,” with the saint being nailed up upside down because he felt unworthy of being killed the way his Lord was killed. I could have reached out and touched either one. They were right there. Priceless. And guarded by a single teenaged girl scout of some sort. Oh, Italy. How do you protect a place like this? You’d have to have barbed wire and chain-linked fences every three feet. As we learned in Vietnam you’d have to destroy it in order to save it.

Magnificent church after magnificent church, I began to wish that they’d lock more of them up so we wouldn’t have to tour them, and began to wish they’d cover more of the beautiful buildings with scaffolding so I wouldn’t have to stop in admiration. It was “too muchness” again on an unimaginable scale. If heaven is going to be more glorious than Rome I’m going to be smashed to bits. In desperation I dragged Georgia back down into the subway system. We were headed out of town to get away from it all—to the Via Appian Antica and the catacombs.

We took the Blue Line completely off the map. We exited in a working class neighborhood filled with small shops and huge apartment houses. There was a public bus station right beside the steps from the underground. But we didn’t need no stinkin’ bus. On the landing I tried to memorize the wall map. Like Brunhilde I knew we should walk everywhere we went. The actual streets, however, didn’t seem to bear much resemblance to the map, and my compass didn’t seem to be helping as much as it did in Florence. Maybe it was also suffering from culture shock.

We repaired to a pizza parlor to think this all over. Because of the heat we ordered some of the cold pizza. Georgia’s looked like a cold shrimp-covered soft taco, with lettuce, mayo, and tomato. My tuna pizza was also served cold, sort of like an open-faced tuna fish sandwich. Interesting, but not a menu I’m anxious to duplicate at home.

I tried to ask the waitress which way we should go to get to the Via Appian. She pretended not to understand my impeccable Italian. Another customer, who looked like an Italian John Belushi, pointed down the main drag but said we shouldn’t try to walk there, “It seven kilometers,” he said. Ha! What did he know? At my urging we spent another few minutes with the map where I showed Georgia the “shortcut” we’d look for as we walked along. We could walk that far in our sleep. She looked dubious.

I took her hand and set off at a brisk pace. After about 100 yards we just had to slow down and she extricated her hand. After another 200 yards trudging in the sun my sweetie was starting to grumble and her hands were getting claw-like again. The small shops were now all gone and the huge apartment houses had given way to tumbled-down abandoned gas stations, cracked pavement, and tall weeds drying in the sun. Another 100 yards or so and there was mutiny in the ranks.

“I’m not walking anymore. You have to do something.”

Do something? Is she crazy? “Do you see someplace to catch a bus?” I asked. “Have you seen some taxi that I missed? Do I have a saddle on my back? What do you mean I have to do something?!” Just like a woman. One little miscalculation and suddenly it was all my fault.

“There’s a bus stop,” my sweetie said pointing at a sign on a telephone pole up ahead. She figured she’d solved my problem for me again.

“Terrific,” I replied gesturing toward the surrounding weeds, “and what are you planning to use for a bus ticket?”

“I don’t care; I’m not walking any more.” I could have exploded but it wouldn’t have done any good and it would have just strewn little bits and pieces of me all over the broken pavement and abandoned buildings, sort of like our Houston acquaintance without the trouble of a cremation. I unbuttoned my shirt and rummaged around in the money belt to find two one-euro coins. When the bus came I’d just buy tickets from the driver.

After a stony silent 10-minute wait in the sun along came the bus. I flagged it down. We climbed on board and Georgia headed for a seat. “Dove biglietteria?” “Where is the ticket office?” I asked hopefully. The driver just stared at me, sort of the way you might stare at a three-headed alien. He looked all around him and shrugged in wonderment as if he might be dreaming and wanted to see if anyone else was hearing this same apparition. I tried to hand him the two coins and he acted as if I had pointed a pistol at him. Both hands went up and he shook his head emphatically. “Mi dispiace,” I apologized sadly, put the coins in my pocket, and walked to the back of the bus to join my sweetie busy fanning herself. The driver waited until I sat down, then shook his head in disbelief and pulled away from the curb. We were officially stowaways.

It was a good 10 or 15-minute bus ride to the Via Antica along a narrow road through the woods. Georgia’s mutiny probably saved us both from becoming hood ornaments on Sophia Loren’s Mercedes. When the bus reached the end of the line we got off. The ancient road was still paved with the medieval basalt blocks laid in a diamond pattern stretching out of sight in both directions. There were mansion driveways piercing the high walls as this land had been parceled into estates for the fabulously wealthy many centuries ago. There was one little shop outside the bus stop. It sold everything except bus tickets.

There was a sign indicating the way to the catacombs so we started walking that way. This time there was a little more shade, but not a lot. About another 100 yards and we came to the ruins of a small ancient church across from Catacombe di San Callisto, which was not yet open. We’d have to sit in the sun for an hour or so, and that wasn’t really appealing right now, so we continued our hike. As we did we saw a very earnest, very thin, very hyperactive middle-aged American man striding in the opposite direction. He, like Brunhilde, was carrying an enormous backpack and seemed intent on seeing everything Rome had to offer in 15 minutes or less. “Anything worth seeing that way?” he inquired as he blew past us without slowing down. We informed his receding back of the church ruins and the not yet opened catacombs.

Another few minutes of walking and we found the rest of his entourage, mortified teenaged son, overweight teenaged daughter, and enormously overweight, red-faced wife, sprawled at the edge of the road. The wife looked close to death, ashen faced, and wheezing, splayed out on her back with her backpack dropped beside her. She was uselessly fanning herself with a sun visor while she tried to catch her breath. Her legs, emerging from tent-like Bermuda shorts, looked to be about the same size as the Umbrian olive tree trunks we’d seen. I didn’t know how big the catacombs would be but I had a feeling she wouldn’t fit in them. I also knew she wouldn’t have been able to get into some of the shower stalls we’d seen. Italy must have felt like Hell to her, especially with a hyperactive husband. I know they say opposites attract but how she and her mate met and fell in love would probably make a great science fiction story. Just being a man and a woman is opposite enough for me.

Strange as it may seem the catacombs of San Sebastian were very well known up to the 4th century but then were lost with the building of the church that marks their location. A church historian rediscovered them in the 1920s because he just knew they had to be around here someplace. He was right, and the original underground altar was rediscovered directly beneath the “new” church’s high altar, and the reliquary for San Sebastian was found under the old, original, underground altar. Sebastian had been a Roman soldier who quit when he was converted to Christianity in the early 100s. That was not a popular thing with his commanders and he was executed, tradition says, by arrows though another tradition says he was nursed back to health by Saint Callisto, which doubly infuriated the authorities who beat them both to death.

Anyway, the catacombs are perfectly preserved and show the transition from pagan to Christian worship in such interesting artifacts as first and second century graffiti. Now I know what will be hanging around for another 2000 years! The catacombs were wonderfully cool and there were three levels of them, unlike just two in the current Metro. It was awesome to see the preserved arrow that killed the saint in the 2nd century, and a piece of the column he was supposed to have been tied to. World powers are hard on even gentle terrorists trying to overthrow the kingdoms of this world. Still no place to buy bus tickets. We walked to the bus stop with the other pilgrims and just piled on as if we belonged, my career as a stowaway. After a harrowing ride along the narrow road we arrived back inside the city walls close to St John Lateran and took a tour in the daylight. You won’t believe it but there is even more gold inside that church than there is inside St. Peter’s. It was like being inside an enormous golden chalice. Perhaps that was the intention: “This blood is poured out for you and many.” With a short walk to the Metro we were stowaways no longer.

Getting off near the Circus Maximus we walked and walked and walked through 2500 years of jumbled Tinker Toys gasping and oohing and aaahing at every turn. I don’t want to shock you, but life is very fleeting, even the life of a civilization, and the Pines of Rome have seen them all come and go.

One last picnic supper in the roof garden under the gigantic palm tree, and beside the orange tree. I wouldn’t mind trying to get used to the semi-tropical plants that thrive in Italy. We knew that tomorrow was going to be a long day, so we staggered off to bed after going out for one last gelato at sundown.

We opened the kitchen in the morning and had our last breakfast of fresh yogurt, crunchy cereal, freshly squeezed juice, crusty bread, real butter, marmalade and enough cappuccino to keep us visiting the rest room for hours.

Our supposed “24-hour” Metro ticket expired after 18 hours so we jumped the turnstile and stowed away for the short trip to Rome Termini. We were very old hands at all of this now. I blew kisses at the Italian countryside and tried to memorize the look of wild poppies highlighting purple mountains.

The crowds inside the airport were enormous and all of them were trying to get through the same security gates, but we moved along steadily, and got to our seats in plenty of time. We had a nice meal of roast chicken on the plane and landed back in Cincinnati about 5 pm. Our biggest worry on the trip was Georgia’s insistence that Dimples, our new used green van, was sure to have a dead battery or flat tires. We were absolutely going to have to call someone in Lexington to come and get us. She rooted around in her purse to be sure she had the phone number so she could call the moment we needed to.

We wheeled our little well traveled carry-ons out to the airport shuttle and rode to the long-term parking lot, Aisle 13. There she sat on well-filled tires, wagging her tailpipe in joy at our approach. As I opened the door, the dome light sprang on, and the power windows purred open to let out two weeks of heat and stale air. Georgia sat apprehensively, clutching the emergency phone numbers in her sweaty little hand.

“Good old Dimples,” I said patting the dashboard. “How have you been, old girl?” She started up on the first try.

Afterword

So what did you learn?
  • I learned that having some money in the bank is a good thing, but if you save it up long enough it’s going to be the doctors and nursing home directors who get to take the nice vacations.
  • I learned that waiting at the station for your train, or your ship, to come in can be a good thing, and you might even get immortalized in a concrete statue, but it’s a much better thing to catch the train, or the ship that actually does come in, even if it means you don’t get mentioned in “This Week Magazine.”
  • I learned that technology is a wonderful thing for helping you accomplish the things you want to accomplish, but it’s the works of art (even including graffiti) that are more likely to last 2000 years.
  • I learned that it’s the indomitable poor who will eventually inherit the earth.
  • I learned that if you feel someone “accidentally” tapping your shoulder, or your back, or your leg, you need to grab your wallet.
  • I learned that there really aren’t any bad flavors of Italian gelato.
  • I learned that “Clothing Optional Beaches” can be very disappointing.
  • I learned that though it might be nice to drive yourself everywhere, it’s really pleasant to use public transportation and see the world the local people do.
  • I learned that while it may be nice to have an expert with you on a trip so you don’t miss things, it’s also really nice to see what you see, and enjoy the things you enjoy, and travel with someone you love and admire.
  • I learned that Georgia M. Zeigler is a very, very, pleasant person to travel with through Italy, or through life with, for that matter.
Bravo! What great documentation on a first trip. What memories you have made. I loved reading about all the adventures! Great job!
 

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