Travels: Italy, 2003
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
I'm sitting at an internet cafe in a neighborhood north of Termini in Rome, a few blocks from where I'm staying. Have been in Rome less than 24 hours. The high points so far: (a) the food, (b) me speaking Spanish to confuse the Italians who deal with me as if I were an American tourist. (It works.)
The flight from Madrid got underway late. Late, late, late. Thirty minutes after takeoff time we still sat on the tarmac, one of the flight crew announced we were delayed because "some people" were searching through passengers' luggage. Meanwhile, the strange mix of jazz and muzak-version popular songs Iberia tends to play on their inboard sound system pooted along, at one point spewing a scary lite-remake of Hey Jude, then a bit later We Can Work It Out. Somewhere in there, I glanced out the window, noticed a handful of airport personnel grouped around a large flatbed cart that contained six or seven large pieces of luggage. Talking, laughing (the people, not the baggage). After a while, an airport truck showed up, they tossed the baggage into it, it took off. The employees disappeared. We finally headed out to the runway and got going.
Next to me sat a 30ish Italian couple. Tan. Way tan. Maybe from vacation time on the Spanish coast. And big into snuggling, big into handling one another. (Which is okay by me; it's just been a while since I've spent so much time in close proximity to that much foreplay when I wasn't one of the participants.) A couple of hours later, we were in Rome.
Termini Station: the single longest railway station I've ever seen. Got off the train and began walking. Continued walking. And walked some more. Walked and walked and walked, dragging my luggage. Then walked some more. As I neared the station, I passed a couple of close-set columns between which sat two 20-something males looking as if they might have been through recent hard times, a bit soiled and street-weary. Sitting in the shadows, sharing a loaf of bread and some cheese, pouring some wine. I walked past, the aroma of fresh bread filled the air. Fifty, sixty feet away, on another track platform, the lights of a large vending machine apparently dealing in beer or harder stuff shone in the evening darkness. The illuminated words that ran across its top read "SELF BAR SELF BAR SELF."
Managed to figure out the subway, managed to find my stop, managed to get upstairs to the street, managed (with help from a kind Italian woman) to find my hotel. Checked in. Asked the man behind the desk if he spoke Spanish or English. He spoke both, didn't care which we used, we blabbed in Spanish. By this time, it was nine o'clock. Tossed my stuff into my room, went back out for something to eat. Found a neighborhood joint tucked away in a narrow cobblestone backstreet-almost-alley. Talked Spanish to them. The proprietor knew Spanish, everything was fine, though I don't think they knew what to make of me. I suspect they see me, they check me off as an American. Then I start with the Spanish.
Went back to the hotel, checked out Italian TV. Watched some of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne emoting their way through a strange version of The Three Musketeers. On shuffling into the bathroom this morning, I found me dealing for the first time with a phenomenon I've heard about: a corner of the room posing as a shower. There's the usual washbasin/mirror thing, two feet to the right there's a showerhead poking out of the wall and a drain in the floor beneath. And that's it. Got it going and, despite my elaborate attempts not to spatter water everywhere, managed to spatter water just about everywhere. (We're talking about the culture that gave birth to miracles of engineering during the days of the Roman Imperium. Can't they hang a shower curtain? Oh, never mind.) A large, beautiful bathroom, apart from that one glitch.
A cold, sunny morning. Streetside trees along the walk to the Metro stood studded with oranges.
And here's a weird feature of the local subway system: many stations don't vend tickets -- one has to find a shop aboveground to procure them, usually a tobacconist. I had to wander around the plaza until I located one, a currency exchange shop. Plunged belowground, grabbed a train, returned to Termini, picked up a train ticket for tomorrow's journey to Florence. Also picked up a Spanish-Italian dictionary.
The outing for the day: the Villa Borghesi, a sprawling, beautifully preserved estate north of here. A beautiful place -- many, many acres of wooded land, rolling expanses of lawn. Also, several enormous old buildings, one of which houses the art collection. The public is only admitted every two hours, only in limited groups. I had an hour and a half until the next entry time, picked up a ticket, found a bench out in the sun. (Temperature around 60, people from all over the planet strolling around, soaking up the rays, all kinds of languages being spoken.) Shortly before entry time, I went to the in-house cafeteria, down in the building's basement, for some chow prior to showtime. The white-costumed guy behind the counter had me pegged as an American dimwit, asked me what I wanted, his tone bored, condescending. I replied in Spanish, he stopped with the 'tude and dealt me some food.
The collection: pretty interesting. Many, many rooms hinting at a seriously wealthy lifestyle, most large with high, vaulted ceilings and marble to burn. Statuary everywhere, mostly depicting what might be called females of a robust physical aspect. (How long can one hang around staring at carvings of nymphs, goddesses and shapely, naked Roman babes? How could people live with that kind of thing in every room and concentrate on daily life?)
A strange feature: the Daphne and Apollo room. Daphne: a nymph, fathered by a river god, Peneus (pause for loud, editorial throat clearing), whom Apollo found extremely attractive. So attractive that after her rejection of his advances, he pursued her physically, deciding to have her one way or another. As he closed in, she called to her father to turn her into something else. Mid-stride, she turned into a laurel tree. The central piece in the room is an impressively crafted, life-sized sculpture of the pursuit, Apollo getting his hands on her just as she began the transformation. However: on a nearby wall is an oil painting of Apollo, seated in a rustic locale, naked, in all his virile glory, except for a green spread around his lower body. For some reason, he holds a violin, both arms thrust into the air, the one with the bow waving toward the sky. Behind him, near the left edge of the painting is a nubile babe in a white dress -- Daphne, I'm guessing -- cavorting by some trees. And off behind her, toward the horizon stands what appear to be several modern buildings, as in 20th century architecture. The two furthest toward the horizon thrust up into the sky, looking for all the world like office buildings or tall blocks of luxury flats.
I stood there for quite a while, trying to figure it out, finally gave up.
Walked back to this neighborhood from there, along the length of la via Veneto, a concentration point of stores selling expensive neckties. One -- Villi? Zilli? Gilli? can't remember -- claims to sell the finest tie in the world. Might be they do, I can't say. I hate wearing neckties.
So there you have it, Rome, day 1. Off to Florence tom'w for four days, then back here. Further updates will happen at some point.
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Sometime yesterday, I shifted into full input mode and the data/sensations have been flowing in, me scribbling as much of it into my little notebook as I can manage. How I inflict all of that on whoever stops here without reducing them to idiocy, I don't know. Plus I've discovered that internet access here in Florence -- where I arrived a few short hours ago -- is wildly expensive, so I may spend less time flogging this blather. We'll see.
The major discovery of this last 24 hours: this speaking-Spanish-in-Italy thing? It's fun. Many folks here know at least some Spanish, those that don't mostly get the gist of what I'm trying across, the languages having so much in common. They often seem intrigued by this Spanish-speaking weirdo, the few who start out treating me as your garden-variety English-speaking tourist have to switch to Spanish or ask for help, either of which induces a different 'tude. Woo-hoo!
Rome: far more chaotic than Madrid. Feels more like New York than any European city I've been in. The subway trains are covered in graffitti. Traffic is heavy and wild. Life is fast-paced, to the point where just stepping out into the street gets my pulse cranking. Much of what I've seen of the city looks more tired than Madrid, the streets and buildings in poorer repair, more dog-eared. But the people? Genuinely interesting. A good-looking bunch -- physically attractive, stylishly dressed, whether you're talking high style or low style. And then there's the language. Like constant singing. A slightly repetitive repertoire, but easy on the ears.
Last night as I walked back to the hotel from a meal, I passed through la piazza Barberini, alive with pedestrians and the usual river of fast-moving traffic. Out of nowhere, amid the usual mix of buses, taxis, passenger vehicles, five ATV's came whizzing around the corner. Moving at high speed -- each sporting two huge banners waving from poles attached to the rear of the vehicle, the riders standing up as they passed -- they whipped by then were gone, disappearing up one of the streets that feed into the piazza.
Thursday, February 27, 2003
-- Two days ago, somewhere in Rome. A young woman passed me on the sidewalk, trailing the aroma of a perfume hauntingly similar to a scent I knew from high school and haven't smelled since, an association from one of my first passionate relationships. For a minute, I vanished into times long-past, engulfed in vivid memories, moments I haven't revisited in a long time. Until I came to, on a sunlit sidewalk in a foreign city. Traveling thousands of miles and a couple of decades, just like that.
-- Yesterday morning in la estaciòn Termini, Rome -- me dragging along my monster wheeled duffel, navigating my way through the crowds of people. Two women approached and passed, apparently a 40-something mother and young-20s daughter. Arm in arm, straight-backed, dressed similarly, both wearing large sunglasses. Their gazes settled on me as they approached, walking in unison, expressions impassive, until they drew near and their faces turned away, fixing on something or someone else, somewhere off ahead of them.
-- A short time later, as I found my seat on the train that will take me to Florence, a 60-something Italian woman came flying into the coach, hugely upset and expressing it at the top of her lungs. Talking fast enough that I couldn't get the gist of the problem, nearly wailing, punctuating her words with cries of "Oh, Christo!" and "Oh, Jesu!" She continued like that for fifteen or twenty seconds, finally wheeling about and sweeping out of the coach into the neighboring one, leaving behind a car full of stunned, silent passengers, staring after her or trading perplexed glances, murmuring soft Mama mias and the like. Her voice faded with distance, activity in our coach slowly resumed, people stowing baggage, removing coats, taking seats.
-- On arrival at the station at Florence, I headed immediately to a kiosk to pick up a map of the city, maybe a guide book. A tall, sad-faced man who worked there saw me nosing about, asked if he could help. We began talking in Spanish, him listening attentively, thoughtfully, showing me maps and guide books in response. An absolute gentleman in every moment of our dealings. The exact opposite of the 30ish type in the kiosk who took money and tossed back change, making it clear he had no interest in anything well-mannered.
-- Two, three hours later, sitting at a table in a small restaurant not far from my hotel. A group of seven businesspeople sat at a table between me and the window, talking loudly. Four 60ish men in suits, all white-haired and/or bald -- one of them spoke exactly like -- I mean EXACTLY like -- Brando as Don Corleone. A fifth man, 50-something, went for the Tony Soprano look, doing a decent job of it due to his build and outfit: black sport shirt, sunglasses tilted up on his head. The final two members of the dining party: two 40ish women, putting up with the men.
-- The waiter at the same restaurant -- friendly, seemingly happy, in black pants and necktie w/ white shirt -- cleaned up after the restaurant emptied out, smiling, singing softly as he replaced tableclothes then deposited silverware at each place setting.
-- Today: I sat in a different restaurant, working on one of the most perfectly done roast chickens I have ever had the privilege of stuffing into my mouth, watching people passing outside in the mid-afternoon light and shadows. A couple approached along the street -- a beautiful, narrow thoroughfare with scant automotive traffic so that pedestrians may walk wherever they like with little interruption. Him: a tall, 30ish Italian in a long, dark winter coat, his hair a shoulder-length mass of frizzy curls, brown everywhere except in front where it is a white, extravagant tangle. Her: a mid-20s Japanese woman, dressed nicely in leather coat and flared pants. Both push bicycles, both bikes nearly identical down to the black wire baskets hanging off the front of the handlebars, his empty, hers containing a green scarf. She talked, expression serious, all the way along, him listening, looking at her, down at the street, up into the sunlight, back at her.
One final thing. Something I've noticed these past two days: the numerous stores dealing in more intimate wear for women (sexy, insubstantial, beautifully made night-wear and undergarments) use extremely lifelike, nicely-breasted mannequins, all of whom seem to have impossible-to-ignore stiff nipples. Visually striking and attention-getting, but simply not fair to those of us who find themselves brutally beset by male hormones at the drop of an erect chest protrusion.
Thursday, February 27, 2003
Florence. One busy bugger of a city. Not a huge, sprawling, monster of a population center like Rome. More compact. And overrun with (a) traffic and (b) tourists.
I will admit that overrun may be a strong a word to apply to the tourist situation here. But that's how it seems to me. They're everywhere. (Yes, I know I'm one of them.) And the city -- or at least the city center (the area around the train station, the area around the university, the areas with centuries of serious history) -- seems geared to cater to them. Unlike Rome, the city isn't so enormous that it can absorb the furriners without them affecting the basic feel of the place.
At least that's how it felt to me yesterday. I spent a bunch of time walking, to the point where one of my little feet did some serious complaining last night, sporting an angry heel blister. (Despite me wearing well-broken-in hiking shoes. These things happen.) Groups of young Japanese women everywhere, gelati shops everywhere. And most of all, traffic, including the most intense concentration of scooters and motorcycles I have ever seen, many piloted by women.
Yesterday afternoon: after plenty of poking around various neighborhoods, I found myself feeling surprisingly unenamored of the place. Went back to my teeny hotel room, pulled out a book, chilled. Darkness fell. I'd seen a handbill earlier in the day for a concert of classical music, decided to go. Went out into the evening, the city feeling a bit more sedate. Wandered off in the direction of the church where the concert was to take place. And found that Florence feels drastically different at night. Less people. More of a sense of how the city of narrow streets and centuries-old buildings feels. More of a sense of how life here must feel. Plus, you're walking along minding your own business, you turn a corner, you suddenly find yourself confronted with enormous, ancient, genuinely imposing old buildings. Churches, cathedrals, palaces, all with a sense of age that goes far beyond what I'm used to encountering in normal life. Unless you live somewhere like here. (Or Madrid -- woo-hoo!)
Got seriously lost trying to find the concert, though not minding it very much, my feet taking me along empty streets, passing entrances to winding alleys along which I could see signs for trattorias, small shops. Reached the point where I could see the road that runs along the Arno River, the waterway that cuts across the southern part of the city, knew I'd gone way the hell out of the way, turned around. Wandered further to the east, along more deserted streets, the only businesses still open being restaurants/bars. Followed impulses that led me further and further into a warren of narrow streets where I passed a sign noting Dante's home (or birthplace). The concert was to be held in the Church of Dante (la Chiesa de Dante), I figured I must be close.
Followed a further narrow street, leading me past a different church in which a choral concert was underway. Asked the woman (in Spanish, natch) sitting at the table outside about the concert I was searching for. She spewed a response, pointing, gesticulating wildly. I backed away, continued on in the direction she seemed to be indicating. The next teeny street to the right -- dark, with few doorways -- had a small table and chair positioned by one building, a man with a briefcase exiting the street as I paused and peered through the shadows. He glanced at me, turned around and loped back down that street, stopping at the table where he stopped to stare at me as I approached. A pile of handbills lay on the table, similar to the one I'd seen advertising the concert, the sound of a violin drifted faintly from the building behind the man, who stood motionless, still staring at me. I said I'd had trouble finding the place, he simply stared, almost like a junior high school teacher radiating disapproval at a student who'd shown up late for class. I brandished the money for a ticket, he came to, gave me my change. Then he opened the door, looked inside and gestured for me to enter, putting a finger to his lips.
A small church, given a sense of large space by its vaulted ceiling. Centuries and centures old, and austere, with few decorations, little of the usual Catholic frufru. Some paintings, maybe a tapestry. A display of candles off to one side, three or four burning. Dark, cold. Two rows of two-person pews, one to either side of the space, all filled with people listening, except the last one on the left side where I parked myself next to its single occupant.
A heavyset woman with a large mass of dark frizzy hair stood up on the altar playing a Bach sonata. Just her, no accompaniment, the sound filling the space. She played with assurance, the sound of the instrument coming across like a voice, seamless and rich, the kind of sound someone who really knows how to play the instrument can produce.
I hadn't been to a concert of classical music in, er, I don't know how long. A while. And I'd never been to one in quite this kind of setting. Afterward, it felt strange to see people in sneakers, jeans, etc. walking out of the place, dispersing along the narrow, dark streets. I made my way back toward the hotel, saw the Duomo of la Piazza San Giovanni looming above the buildings, headed in that direction. When I emerged into the piazza, I found myself dwarfed by the expanse of ancient structures and open cobblestone piazza. As I stood there, a bit overcome, the male of a couple walking by asked me something in Italian. I turned around, saying, "Sorry, what was that?" in Spanish. He asked again, still talking so fast I couldn't make it out, I shrugged and said "No sé." ("I don't know.") They laughed and moved on, me with no idea what the moment was about. I wandered around the piazza taking the enormity and sophistication of it in, a few other people out, mostly couples. Then I headed back to my temporary dive.
Question: why is there a bottle opener screwed to the wall of the bathroom in my hotel room? Am I supposed to hang out in there and drink?
Two cartoons from an old New Yorker (Oct. 2002), read on the train ride up from Rome:
-- A job interview. The interviewer sits behind a large desk on which rests a plaque that reads 'PERSONNEL.' The interviewee sits in a chair facing the desk. Interviewer: "How do you feel about doing time?"
-- A 60ish couple, well-dressed and well-off, in a nicely appointed home. He's halfway up a staircase, apparently on the way to retire for the evening, she stands in the foyer below. Him: "Before you come up, dear, don't forget to secure the perimeter."
Saturday, March 01, 2003
Florence is starting to get a grip on me. I felt it this morning as I made my way through a barrio of unbelievably narrow flagstone streets on the south side of the river, heading to el Palacio Pitti, the Medici's one-time stronghold. There is something haunting about this place, and I'm not sure I can get at what I mean with any other word. It's a strange city -- unique, distinctive, overrun with tourists and the ghosts left behind from many centuries of life.
Last night I went to yet another concert, in a church right around the corner from the concert of two nights previous. A different church with a whole different atmosphere. Not austere, not restrained. The more standard Catholic-Church-overdecorated-grandeur thing. And okay. A nice place to be for a couple of hours. High, vaulted ceilings, lots of paintings, little of the graven-image business (except up around the altar which, compared with the church of three nights ago, was a hotbed of graven-image frufru).
Classical music yet again, this time with three musicians: a violinist, an organist, a flautist. Started off with Summer from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, just the single violin supplying the melody with the organ providing everything else. Nice, very sweet. The violinist then disappeared, the organ player did a solo number. Again, nice, but nothing more. No fireworks so far. The organist started up with another solo piece, Bach's Toccata and Fugue, a number we've all heard far too many times. A trite, overdone son-of-a-bitch. I resigned myself to sitting through it. The instrumentalist lit into the bugger, taking it a bit fast, a bit too fast I'm thought. And shortly after that something oddly dramatic began to happen. The music began to assert itself, the organ player began to feel it. And his playing started to change, slowing, becoming stronger, filled with different energy. His bearing changed, the way he held his body, his way of moving, of touching the keyboard. Right in front of us, his performance transformed into something drastically stronger, the music streaming through him and out through the massive array of pipes up in the choir loft at the rear of the church. As if a merely competent musician had somehow connected with something far deeper within himself, something transcendent, with transformative power.
These are just words that I'm stringing together here, they do not get across what began happening. The power of that music rolled through the church, all of a sudden we were listening to something fresh, getting a glimpse of the music Bach actually wrote instead of the usual rote bit of Toccata-and-Fugue-hackmanship. The power of that creation began shaking the place and I found myself sitting forward, adrenaline moving through me. Witnessing a genuine transformation, an electrifying happening in which the performance took over, blotting out time and thought.
Blah blah blah. I can't really get across the feel of the thing, so I'll stop poking at it. Trust me, though, whatever expectations I had for the evening were surpassed in spectacular fashion. And afterward, out walking through the streets of some of Florence's older neighborhoods, passing young couples walking close together, passing clusters of chattering people outside gelaterias, looking up now and then to see looming domes and steeples, the crowning elements of beautiful structures thrown together when the renaissance was in full swing, I found myself grateful to be alive, in the middle of it all.
So, let's see -- field trips.
Yesterday: took myself to see La Galeria de los Uffizi. An enormous, majestic building just off la Piazza della Signoria, near the Arno River. Packed with a staggering overabundance of renaissance art. I mean, dear god, the building itself is beautiful. The hallways (lined with sculpture, the walls densely hung with portraits, the hallway ceilings themselves painstakingly, intricately painted) are beautiful. The galleries, which just go on and on, are packed with an embarrassingly extensive collection of renaissance art. It's unbelievable.
On the other hand, I've seen more than my share of religious paintings done by dead white males, so I burn out pretty easily on that at this point in my existence, if you know what I mean. Therefore a collection of this magnitude is a double-edged thing. The solution? Keep moving, don't feel like I have to stop and scrutinize every single "%*$^#!!! depiction of annunciations, holy families, crucifixions, doubting Thomas's, blahblahblah.
I can do that. And did.
Many, many, many religious scenes. Scenes from mythology. Portraits, scenes from history. And every now and then a bit of cheesecake, usually under the guise of mythical happenings, but once in a long while in the form of an out-and-out, no-pretense-made naked Renaissance babe.
And the artists. You got your DaVinci's, you got your Botticellis, you got your Titians, your Caravaggios, your Canalettos, along with an infinite number of pieces by lesser-known paint-tossers. Plus a bunch from outside Italy, including three Rembrandts (one a killer self-portrait of the young-20s artist), two Goyas and one lonely El Greco, surrounded by canvases of Italian religious mayhem, probably thinking to itself How in god's name did I wind up here?
An interesting note about the building: the cupula -- impressive from within, very pretty from outside -- sports a metal representation of a flag, a banner, made to appear like it's rippling, eliminating the need for something as unreliable as a friendly breeze. Possibly history's first permanent wave.
Today's excursion took me to el Palacio Pitti, as mentioned at the top of this entry. Another example of an outrageously extensive, overwhelming display of art, housed in what may be the single most grandiose example of opulence that I've personally experienced in this lifetime. Again, far too much artwork, though a few stood out, including a canvas by Titian of la Magdalena, an alluringly naked study of a religious figure that is both unassailably pious, and slyly, undeniably sensual. Pretty crafty, them Renaissance arty types.
Again, many, many ancient sculptures of naked guys and dolls from history, both real and mythical. And as you probably know, these sculptures portray males who are fully equipped, if you get my drift, usually without a convenient jock strap or fig leaf. One difference in this collection: for whatever reason, at some point during the passing centuries many of the sculptures depicting males suffered losses of an extremely specific nature, leaving them with testicles but with no bare pipe. Once I noticed this disturbing lack, I kept finding more and more examples of the same unfortunate defect. Which raises the question: vandalism? inferior art supplies? astigmatism on the part of the sculptor, leading to a very specific blind spot? or could it be that the eclipse of this ancient civilization had less to do with wars and societal entropy than the simple inability to reproduce?
Just a thought.
Two images seen yesterday:
-- a bit of graffiti spotted on the side of lovely, centuries old building in a quiet Florence street: a large image of a young woman's face, done in the style of Japanese anime, her features framed by jet black shoulder-length hair, forehead neatly covered with bangs. Next to the image, in large, spray-painted black letters: EMILY RULES
-- Florence has many, many narrow streets, so frequently traveled by the city's buses that the sight of one turning carefully into or out of one of those streets is common. As darkness fell during yesterday evening's rush hour, at an intersection of a busy main drag and a narrow side street, a bus sat patiently at the mouth of a side street waiting for the green. When the light changed and the bus began to make a slow, wide turn out onto the larger avenue, motorcycles and scooters that had been waiting behind began squirting out around it, shooting along the narrow bit of space between the bus and the curbs, flying out ahead of it. Looking like a mess of unruly, cranked-up pilot fish moving around a particularly enormous, slow-moving shark.
Tomorrow: back to Rome.
Saturday, March 01, 2003
For some reason, an entry I wrote and posted yesterday afternoon never published. This is attempt no. 2:
I continue scribbling down things seen and experienced here in Florence, sometimes at a feverish pace. How the hell I'm going to get even part of it typed into this godforsaken journal in coherent fashion is beyond me.
To begin: last night I saw God. She appeared in the form of a waiter bringing me one of the most wonderful dishes of gnocchi I have ever had the opportunity to shovel into my mouth. Once done, I slobbered all over this poor waitperson in abject gratitude, an experience he may never forget.
Prior to that, as part of the day's wanderings, I walked along the Arno River, an expanse of opaque, dull-green water that cuts across the southern part of the city, bringing me to Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). An old bridge, like the name says. Old, old, old. And interesting, mainly because it's a covered bridge, the covering including numerous shops that line most of both sides of the bridge, hanging off the sides of the structure like square-cornered burls. All high-end jewelry joints, it turns out, apart from the one or two souvenir shacks in the center of the bridge, the only part of the structure without built-on shops, and therefore the only place on the bridge where there's actually a view one can check out. And as I checked it out, I discovered that on the west side of the bridge, where the railing intersects the rear corner of the shop buildings, an electric cable runs down the side of the structure past the railing. Someone at some point got the bright idea of fastening a small padlock around the cable, who knows why. The idea caught on, there are now anywhere from one to two hundred diminutive padlocks hanging on the one cable I investigated, clustered together along a three or four foot length, many padlocked to each other in a thick wad of chunky, angular metal. Some of them have been there a long time, sporting years' worth of rust and corrosion, and most bear messages, written in pen or thin-point magic marker. Messages like:
ISA + LUCA
I read. I did not weep.
Afterward, I wandered back toward the city center, stopping to take in the ambience and eye-popping visuals at la Piazza della Signoria, one of several truly spectacular locations in the city's older sections. Just after lunch, mid to late afternoon. An enormous concentration of people swirled about the space, mostly tourists (of all ages, from all over the map, speaking all sorts of languages), including school groups moving in and out of the open space in long, ragged lines, guided by mostly-patient older folk. People of all colors, physical types, manner of dress. Continuous noise, motion, energy. And through all of that, a 20-something Italian couple threaded their way across the piazza, arms around each other, talking softly, taking little note of the scene around them. They moved from east to west, finally entering a small, narrow sidestreet and disappearing.
Two more moments:
-- Walking along a narrow street paved with flagstones that saw little automotive traffic, pedestrians everywhere. A 30ish woman in a long, dark coat and spiky hair dyed white passed through on a normal, non-racing-style bike, complete with wire basket hanging from the handlebars. She came on at serious speed -- sitting bolt upright, pedalling hard, face showing no expression, making little effort to avoid pedestrians so that it was wise to get of her way -- passing through the street with a rattle of bicycle parts, then disappearing around a corner.
-- Stopping at an ATM machine not far from la Piazza della Signoria, I noticed a sticker someone had pasted to the front of the waste container hanging below the machine. White, with a black outline, in the shape of a dialogue balloon from a comic strip. The words in the dialogue balloon: BITE AND RUN AWAY ART
Sunday, March 02, 2003
When I woke up this a.m. in Florence, church bells were ringing (along with a nearby shop's burglar alarm, apparently feeling its oats), rain fell. The rain followed me back to Rome where church bells continued to ring as showers came down intermittently.
I've had a serious urge to wander, which led me to a neighborhood north of here this evening, to a theater that shows original voice films. Saw The Quiet American (god bless Michael Caine), discovering in the process that, unlike Madrid, Rome's o.v. theaters don't use subtitles. Meaning they get a large enough English-speaking (or at least English-comprehending) audience that subtitles aren't needed. Pretty interesting.
Watched crowds of Italians out in the streets -- couples of all ages, groups of kids out together. Far less in the way of families out walking than I see in Madrid, an interesting difference. But loads of stores were open, something else not seen on a Sunday evening in Madrid, most high-end clothing and footwear joints, most closing around the 8 o'clock mark.
The streets were also crowded yesterday evening in Florence, at least as congested with people at 6 p.m. as they were at that time on a weekday. I like that.
Two things I've rediscovered that I love: cappucino and Pellegrino water. I could easily get used to having them both as part of the daily routine.
And for anyone who may have wondered: yes, Italian women are beautiful.
I blabber, I know. And not about much of any real import. Time to pack up my tent for the night.
Monday, March 03, 2003
Florence, late this last Saturday afternoon. Me in an internet joint finishing up the day's entry, positioned at the computer nearest the door, the only place in the room that gets natural light. The street outside is narrow but busy, the doors are wide open. The noise is considerable at times, but the motion, the people walking by, the bicycles passing all compensate.
I'd gotten absorbed in writing, paying little attention to the scene outside, and at some point, just before I finished, a huge amount of noise started up -- many footsteps, people shouting, and, strangely, no vehicle noise. I looked around, the street was packed with people walking by, chanting stuff, holding banners. Some caribinieri stood on the curb in front of the internet place watching the passing river of people. A demonstration, seemingly out of nowhere, probably re: Iraq. For a few minutes, the sound of all those passing people filled the shop. Then they were by, several bicycles rattled past in the sudden quiet, motor vehicle traffic resumed.
I was out of there shortly after, just the other side of 5 p.m. The sidewalks and streets were alive with people and activity, lots of whom had been involved with the demonstration. The atmosphere felt nicely energized. I walked a bit, stopping in at a café I'd been to a day earlier where a genuinely congenial counter person had prepared me a fine cup of cappucino. Two German families were in there this time, juggling all sorts of food/drink, talking German and English, their three 10 or 12-year-old boys carrying on, eating sweet stuff. The counterman recognized my face, waved, whipped me up a cappucino that easily matched the previous day's cup. I inhaled that, used the facilities (used them carefully, I might add, having committed quite a bit of comedy the previous day, to wit: (a) went downstairs with the key, discovered four doors to choose from, all locked, all without signage; fumbled with each before I find the right one, managed to get it open; (b) entered, tripped and nearly fall over a small step located a foot or two inside the door; (c) going back up the stairs, I put my hand on the bannister, it came off its mounting rods so that I nearly fell over, recovering to find myself carrying a surprisingly light eight-foot length of brass; I rest it back on its support rods, regain composure, return the key upstairs, get out of there). Then I'm back out on the street.
The city bustled, at least as busy as it was at that hour during the previous weekdays. I head into the area of the central market, a warren of streets surrounding a gigantic square market building, street vendors' carts lining every street. I walk for a while, enjoying the busyness, the sounds and visuals. I find shops that remind me of Madrid -- meat shops, egg/chicken shops, bakeries and bread shops. I spot a couple of unique places -- one whose wares consisted almost entirely of chess sets, sets of all kinds, all sizes, all colors, filling most of the shelves in the shop; another that seemed to have nothing but masks, of amazing variety, sizes and designs.
I decide to head back to the hotel, discover that I can't seem to find my way out. This was an area I'd been in and out of quite a bit, the idea that I'd gotten lost again seemed ridiculous. I bucked up, headed down some crowded streets that just seemed to bring me back to where I'd been, going around the market area in a large circle. For a while, then, I did a circuit around that building, figuring something somewhere would look familiar and lead me to freedom. Nothing doing. This went on and on, me beginning to smile in amazed disbelief, getting nowhere. And at some point, I widened the circle, moving further out into the neighborhood. Still no luck.
I'm walking slowly along, wondering what the hell is up, and I approached a corner where the neon lights of a cafe shone above the door, stopping me in my steps with a display of the universe's incomparable sense of humor. The lights read -- I swear I am not making this up -- "IL TRIANGULO DELLA BERMUDA."
I get out my notebook, begin scribbling the whole story down, groups of people walking by, brushing against me as they pass, some casting me curious glances, me leaning against a wall, writing away, a silly smile on my face. I finish up, do another circuit around the market building. This time everything falls into place, things look familiar, I head down the streets I'd been looking for with no problems.
My last evening in Florence.
Monday, March 03, 2003
I can't remember the last time I found myself getting lost as I have during these few days in Rome/Florence. (In terms of streets and such, I mean. This is not a life allegory. Then again, what do I know? Maybe it is.) Happened again last night. I decided to go to see The Quiet American, which entailed finding my way through the tangle of narrow streets around my current squat to la Via Corso, a north-south main drag. Thought I had it all under control. HAH!!! Within minutes I'd gotten myself way lost. The kind of lost you just can't fake your way out of. The upside: folks I've asked for help here have been models of good manners/good will. I speak Spanish, they speak Italian. They're patient, gracious. And I usually manage to get where I'm looking to go. Last night I got myself to la Piazza Venezia (meaning I wandered south instead of north, NOT what I'd intended), which turned out to an overgrown traffic circle wrapped around a monstrous, elevated, becolumned structure which, from the looks of it, suffers from a wild excess of testosterone. I grabbed a bus from there whose itinerary appeared promising. It pulled out, I took my Metro day pass from my pocket, ready to validate it for that ride. At which point three city employees, all dressed like Metro cops, announced they wanted to see everyone's pass, began checking all passengers.
Why, you ask? During the day, up to 9 or so p.m., passes can't be bought on the buses. They have to be bought at certain vendors (tobacconists, certain newstands, change shops). When you get on the bus, you go to the validation machine, insert your pass, it stamps it. A system that lends itself to cheating, the odds being good a cheater won't get busted.
The Metro cop who made the announcement last night hit on me first. I handed my day pass over, he scrutinized it, handed it back with a curt, "Grazi, signor." An Asian couple to my left weren't so lucky. Their passes were invalid in some way, two of the cops closed in, began grilling them, demanded ID, wrote out fines. A strange, hard-nosed scene.
Meanwhile, the bus took me nowhere near where I wanted to go so that I finally grabbed a taxi, which took me north, thick crowds of Sunday evening strollers periodically making it nearly impossible to move. We passed the Spanish Steps, one of the infinite number of local tourist focal points, continued north, finally found the theater. The evening moved along.
Something I noticed up in Florence: poinsettias were everywhere -- in store windows, on tables at restaurants -- maybe in connection with Advent/Easter. Also banners in rainbow colors, emblazoned with the word "PACE" -- peace. I first noticed them on the train ride to Florence, hanging from windows and balcones as the train entered the city. They're here in Rome, too, though they tend to get swallowed up more easily amid the city's overwhelming size, movement and concentration of visual input.
And another thing -- the streets in Rome, and especially Florence, are remarkably clean. Clean in a way that Madrid isn't. Madrid would be rapidly buried under trash if it weren't for the cleaning crews that toil away most hours of the day and night. I've seen a few street-cleaning workers here, but nothing like the number of laborers in Madrid, and the Roman/Florencian streets are far tidier. I mean no unfavorable comparison between Rome and Madrid here. I'm not sure I'd want to live in Rome, or at least I don't think I'd want to move here without knowing anyone, whereas Madrid won my heart unconditionally within 24 hours of touching down there.
Something else: the Italians seem to be receipt-obsessed. They insist on foisting a receipt on me for every single thing I spend money on, no matter how small. Newspapers, cups of coffee, an orange. Everything.
On the other hand, as with Madrid, it's easy to find good food here. A bit easier in Florence, since the city was so much more compact and easier to explore. Rome is so ^#*%!!! enormous that I find myself rendered a bit timid in the face of it, hesitant at times to try out an eating joint because there are just so many of them. There are two kinds of eateries I tend to avoid: any that use the word "American" in the name (i.e., a tony-looking dive across the piazza from here which has the words "American Bar" painted in the windows in large letters) and any that have a statue of a cute, rotund chef, face adorned with a big, curly stereotyped Italian moustache positioned out front. These sad distant relatives of garden gnomes usually hold signs emblazoned with things like "IT'S A REAL ITALIAN RESTAURANT!"
Maybe it is. Think I'll go somewhere else, though.
Today's field trip -- the Coliseum and the Forum. And a good meal or two.
It's Monday in Rome.
Tuesday, March 04, 2003
I'm in a huge cybercafe in la piazza Berberini, looking over that last entry, which turns out to contain several egregious typos and elementary writing screw-ups. I know a bunch of you read that bugger after I posted it -- I keep track of that kind of thing. You couldn't say something, maybe send a polite note? You had to let me embarrass myself by writing like a pre-schooler? Grumble, grumble.
I've said this before, I will undoubtedly say it again. It is often the case that my first drafts contain less than wonderful writing which gets cleaned up the next time or two I check in here. Sometimes posts here need a day or two before they're actually readable. Just something to keep in mind.
Today: the first occasion of blue, cloudless skies since last Thursday or so. Impossible to tell from my hotel room 'cause the ancient wooden shutters outside the window are locked closed. The alleyway outside (actually a step or two above an alleyway -- more like a narrow, cobblestone pasillo, a neighborhood passageway, clean and lovely) is deep in shadow during the morning hours, providing no weather clues apart from rain/no rain. It's only when I step out the building's front door that I get the picture, and this morning's picture is a fine one, air fresh and cool. I got out early enough that no tourists were about, only Romans on their way to work, beginning the day's activities.
My current squat is located near the Fountain of Trevi (la Fontana di Trevi), a major tourist collection point that is to a fountain what Niagara Falls is to a place where some water falls from somewhere high to somewhere lower. A mammoth grotto kind of thing, really, an enormous pool into which water falls by way of a sprawling, grandiose expanse of statuary and fake rocks, located at an intersection of narrow pedestrian ways deep within a tangle of winding backstreets. The sound of the water falling echoes off the surrounding buildings in a way that multiplies it to pleasing effect. I can see why it attracts so many out-of-towners. It's fun and, considering where it is, an example of charming, entrancing incongruity. (Did I actually write that? "Charming, entrancing incongruity"? Someone stop me, before I kill again.) Plus, the pool is actually laid out in front of a huge white building, and the statuary and fake porcelain rocks all kind of morph out of the building's front facade, which looks much more intriguing than I suspect it sounds.
Something I love about Rome: fountains. They're everywhere. And not just the big honkin' buggers with loads of water cascading down over heroic statues -- little ones also, tucked unobtrusively away on back streets or on busy corners. Teensy things, more like fonts, really -- small spigots from which a quiet, modest stream of water falls into basins of no more than a bucket's capacity and often far less, often overflowing to the sidewalk.
But I blather.
I skipped breakfast at the hotel this a.m. Yesterday morning's turned out to be a debacle -- the dining room is a cramped, microscopic space into which nine or so tables have been crammed, making it uncomfortable and nearly impossible to move around. Not a place that produced much happiness for diners or staff. I got myself out walking instead, stopping in at a neighborhood joint for a cup of morning espresso that went down in friendly fashion.
My body's had it with this trip, I think. Way too much roaming about -- miles and miles each day. Eating experiences that can vary drastically from meal to meal, from the sublime to the ridiculous (last night's dinner had both). This morning as I dragged myself out of bed it let me know clearly that it's ready to go home. I reassured it as gently as I could that we head back to Madrid tomorrow, it seemed to settle down.
So. Yesterday's field trip: the Roman Forum and the Colisseum.
The Metro, nearly packed to capacity, reminded me all over again how much I love studying people and, in particular, people's faces. They're beautiful things, faces -- living, organic canvases on which the inner life gets aired out in delicate, complicated ways. Bodies are great, too, don't get me wrong (yowza!), but faces are a whole other thing. And the Metro or a crowded bus is a prime location for taking them in. Something which has to be done carefully, of course, since it can easily get intrusive. (What's that old George Carlin line about elevator rides? Something like, "Nothing to do but not look at the other guy.")
There were a few 20-something couples on the train yesterday a.m., all in a romantic mood. Standing close, arms around each other, kissing softly, talking quietly, occasionally closing their eyes and kissing deeply. Something I've gotten used to seeing in Madrid -- open, easy demonstrations of love, affection. (Make love, not war, etc.) Other people talked quietly or endured their morning ride, eyes closed, still waking up.
Got out at la estacion Colosseo, as I passed through the exit turnstiles a guy dressed in a Roman Centurion costume, complete with fake sword, crossed in front of me toward a newstand, running into someone he knew, a person in business dress. They stopped, shook hands in loud, smiling greeting and conversed for a while. (Later, I saw more of his kind, standing in groups of two and three, calling out to tourists "Take your peecture weeth us!", resulting in some seriously funny photo sessions.)
And outside, under a low, gray sky, the Colisseum loomed. Off to the right lay the Forum, I headed in that direction, up a long slope via an old, old, old cobblestone path. The Forum and the Palatine Hill turn out to cover many acres of land, a major spread of ancient real estate planted in the middle of the contemporary city. The hill provides quieter, more contemplative wandering, at times through gardens, complete with orange and lemon trees and groups of school kids from all over running around like puppies. Other sections are more wide open, and strewn with ruins -- walls and foundations of buildings, bits of columns and statuary. All up on a bluff from which one can see modern Rome spread out on other hills, the sound of traffic coming and going on the wind.
And yesterday came with plenty of wind. In fact, it felt like a sudden return of winter. Cold, gray, somber, at times hostile. People walked around with collars up and coats zipped. The expanses of grass and clover between the ruins up on the hill were sprinkled with tiny flowers, blossoms of white, yellow, pink shivering in the chilly breeze.
At one point, I heard the sound of voices raised, turned to see a 30ish French couple having an argument. He threw an umbrella to the ground, she kicked it. He turned away, pulled out a guidebook, retreated into it. She picked up the umbrella. He wandered off out of view, she followed.
Shortly thereafter, a more placid group of four French women passed me -- two 30-somethings, two in their young 20s -- one of them reading aloud from a guidebook, her voice sounding like music in the cold air.
The other part of the Forum is down in a natural basin that covers quite a bit of land, an area crowded with the remains of large-scale structures -- temples, baths, a shell or two of what were enormous buildings, feats of engineering all. An impressive, vivid array, a place that must have been powerful and exciting in its day, crowded with people and activity. As it was yesterday, in particular crowded with large groups of high-school age kids from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, guided by patient, good-humored older folks.
And the Colosseum. Not what I'd expected. Yes, the main structure remains what I'd seen in countless images. Inside, though -- not the clean, wide expanse of sand I'd pictured. The circular lower level is filled with the remains of a network of structures, above which there was apparently a surface at the level of first ring of seats in which the blood-spilling took place. According to my 1991 Let's Go Italy guidebook, "Within 100 days of [the Colosseum's] AD 80 opening, some 5000 wild beasts perished in the bloody arena (from the latin word for sand, harena, which was put on the floor to absorb blood). The floor (now partially restored and open for various concerts and TV shows) covers a labyrinth of brick cells, ramps and elevators used to transport wild animals from cages up to arena level."
Scaffolding now provides what arena-level surface there now is -- a wide passage cutting across the middle of the arena, extremely cool to cross, with a large deck area at one end. I found that if I devoted much thought to the original use of the structure I didn't enjoy being there very much. If I simply enjoyed being present in that string of moments -- the sun breaking through the clouds, people from all over the world in generally happy attendance -- it was a great place to be. I found stairs, headed up to the structure's top level where I walked around at a leisurely pace, discovering a short flight of steps that the original builders had thoughtfully provided for 21st century sunbathing. Parked my hinder there, pulled out a copy of El País I'd picked up earlier and relaxed for a while, languages from all over the map drifting in the sunlit air around me.
One exceptional sight that presented itself to me: two 30ish German males in virtually identical black corduroy, vaguely cowboy-style suits (the corduroy of a thick, soft pile, with wide ridges). Matching black flared pants, black matching coats, vests, neckties, w/ white shirts and big, shiny buttons. Each wore a black cowboy hat, one of shiny leather, the other suede. Both wore thick-soled black shoes. They stood at the deck end of the arena-level scaffolding, leaning on the railing, studying the complicated network of structures on the ground floor, talking the entire time.
This world of ours: just one big kick in the ass.
Wednesday, March 05, 2003
Yesterday, mid-afternoon. Me, sitting at a café a few blocks from here, soaking up user-friendly afternoon sun, warm enough that I was down to shirtsleeves. Thinking Excellent Italian weather, a smooth cup of cappucino, and enough free time to explore the deadly sin of sloth in all its splendor. I could learn to live like this.
Back to Madrid today, where I will do my best to emulate the Spaniards' version of that fine state of being. (At least for a day or two.)
Thursday, March 06, 2003
12:30 p.m., a beautiful Madrid Thursday. Sunshine coming down with springlike strength, the sky nicely blue, the occasional fair weather cloud drifting by. Got to bed around 1 a.m., found myself awake just before 7, the kind of awake that I could tell would not lead me back to sleep. Got up, went to the gym. Came home afterward, got groceries. Was in the kitchen unpacking them, a Maria Jimenez CD playing ("Canta Por Sabina"), the room alight with sunshine, and I realized how good it felt to be back here. A smile spread itself across my silly face, my little heart did some cartwheels in my chest. As if I were home and feeling it. And maybe I am home, racket from construction across the street and all. Could be I am.
Some parting snapshots from Rome:
-- Two evenings ago: walking down a narrow backstreet, a couple passed, going into a restaurant. Him: completely done up in black, from his extravagant pompador, to his fringed, silver-studded leather jacket, to his vinyl pants (way shiny, way baggy), to his standard-issue black footwear. One black-clad son-of-a-bitch.
-- Yesterday a.m. Sitting at a table on the sunny side of la Piazza Barberini, watching the constant stream of traffic and pedestrians flowing by. In sitting there, I broke my own rule about never patronizing a bar/restaurant that advertises itself as American. But it was the only place around the entire goddamn piazza with tables/chairs. If I wanted to spend time enjoying sun and spring-like temperatures, I had to bite the bullet. In so doing, I bought the single most expensive cuppa cappucino I've ever sipped (three and a half euros). Which reinforced my theory about bars/restaurants of that ilk: they're tourist traps. Avoid 'em -- unless they have well-situated tables/chairs and there's no other option.
-- I sat watching people, reminded all over again about certain crimes being currently committed in the name of fashion. In this case, I refer to the faux cowboy-boot look that's in here this winter/spring. They're all over the place and they're mighty silly. Using the basic cowboy-boot template, then exaggerating the look in one way or another -- huge, high heels or pointy boot-toe that goes on and on and on, as if the footwear originally belonged to a cowboy clown, or wildly exaggerated angles, flaring outward from the heel to the balls of the foot, then sharply inward toward the toe. You get the idea. Many, many women in Rome and Florence wore 'em, as do many women here, along with many Spanish men. Not many Italian men that I saw had taken the 'this is stylish' bait. My pointy-toed boots -- black w/ soft leather uppers, little shiny mental curlicues on either side of the toe -- are nice buggers, bought back in the States, probably way more comfortable than the euro-imitations.
-- Took a bus route I'd never been on before to the train station, doing it during the morning as a dry run, a rehearsal for later in the day when I'd be weighted down with luggage and not wanting to encounter any unexpected surprises. On the way back, the driver, perhaps post-one-too-many-espressos, went as fast as possible -- stopping and starting sharply, rattling around sharp corners at serious velocity, showing no quarter to other traffic. As he neared la Piazza Barbieri, threading his way down a narrow street, he clipped a truck, his side mirror coming off with a loud noise, flying up into the air, landing hard on the sidewalk, everyone in the bus watching with eyes large as dinner plates. He pulled over at the next bus stop, sat there for a few moments before finally getting out and heading back to retrieve the pieces. Many passengers (including me) took the opportunity to exit the vehicle and slink quickly away.
-- Thirty or forty minutes later, sitting at my little table in la Piazza Barberini, the noise of a collision directly in front of where I sat announced another mishap, this one between a bus and a small blue car. The bus stopped where it was (traffic behind it honking indignantly), the car pulled over in front of the bus. The larger vehicle probably suffered little damage. The car's right rear corner, on the other hand, had been drastically altered. Both drivers got out, conferred. The woman studied her little blue buggy, apparently decided the damage had been her fault, got back in the car and drove off. All the passersby who had stopped to watch moved on, some looking a bit disappointed.
-- Four Brits sat at the table to my right, immediately stripping down to t-shirt and milk-white skin. Most of the Romans who walked by kept their winter togs on and zipped up, looking as if the idea of removing them would be an act of lunacy.
-- Went trawling for a likely lunch joint. Not a trattoria this time as my flight schedule didn't allow for the hour or so that would involve. Looked around my hotel's neighborhood, found a hole-in-the-wall that dispensed cafeteria-style lunch food, took a chance. Ordered a sandwich, then asked about the pasta. The counterman conducted me to the other end of the shop where he shoveled a mountain of linguini in cream sauce and lemon onto a plate for me. Not bad, as it turned out, leading to some serious hoovering action on my part.
-- On the nearly-empty train out to the airport, two young-20s Chinese women carried on a loud, animated conversation, punctuated by near-constant laughter. One received a phone call, talking enthusiastically to whoever called, the other finding most everything she said hilarious.
-- Leaving the city, the train passed apartment buildings whose roofs bristled with concentrations of television antennas, all sitting atop long, high masts. Also, bridges covered in colorful graffiti and patches of dense greenery, including stands of urban lemon trees.
-- Checking in at the airport, the counter person told me the flight was already delayed by an hour. We found out why when we were finally in the air and nearing Madrid: major storms had swept through the area, were moving on east as we began to descend so that we moved between huge, rolling white mountains of clouds, passing through vast airborne canyons, an amazing display. As we rounded one thick, towering bank of thunderheads, I could see long trailing streamers extended down toward the shadowed land below from the bottom of a cluster of dark clouds
To the west, Madrid glistened in evening sunlight, streets and sidewalks drying out.
And speaking of Madrid -- seen here on the Metro: a young woman reading a translation of "I, Claudius." The title in Spanish? "Yo, Claudio."
Down wit' da homies in ancient Rome.