Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Visit to London at Weekend

Having caught wind of a certain rumor, that I had picked the lesser of two certain cities in which to spend my time, I took haste, to London, in order to rectify my mistake if it was indeed a mistake, or to prove my conscience free of any fault, in the more likely eventuality. As it turns out the means of travel least costly was to fly Air France on a ticket coming to $250. Surprisingly, every other airline ticket was over $1,000, one direction, despite the fact that there are fares from Paris to New York and New York to London that, combined, cost hundreds of dollars less. "Oh Markets You Are So Efficient! Let Me Count the Ways. . . ."

At check-in, I was given an occasion to choose which seat I wanted on the plane. I took a moment's pause. It seemed that there were about ten seats left on the plane, including four at the very back, and an entire row in the middle. What could be special about this row? It was above the wing. To be sure, a distinguishing feature. But what could it be about the wing? The noise. But could the noise in the seat adjacent to the wing really be so different from the noise in seats only slightly less adjacent to the wing? Mystery, intrigue, is everywhere in France. I had grown used to it, but always a thicker waft lies behind a yet undiscovered corner. I wondered, would I find any of this same quality of intrigue and seduction across the channel? L'air de France--it suffocates me sometimes, and yet without it, I wondered, how could I breathe?

For the moment I put such questions aside, and steel myself against the grueling carry-on baggage inspection process. A Bulgarian woman in front of me in security forgets her hot-pink purse, leaving me to argue with a French security officer, who seems to think it very strange that I didn't want to take it with me. "It's not mine," I say. "But how could it not be?" she says. It just came out of the security, and so did you. "Really? Am I such a person as to have the bag? Quelle genre de person pensez-vous que je suis?" A worried Bulgariess comes running back, and takes the purse. The confused officer begins to argue with her, saying she shouldn't take what isn't hers, giving me bon chance to steal away without the bag. 

The only other piece of amusement in the airport was the discovery that perfume in French is "Eau de Toilet" which literally translates to "Toilet Water." 

After sitting down in my seat, a stewardess m'approaches. She tells me that I will be the only one in this row today, and asks if I would be prepared to help people in the event of a water landing. "Ah," I realize, "so that was the problem." The idea of helping others in time of crisis sufficiently disappeals to the French that they would rather take the really bad seats at the back of the plane. "Why didn't I think of that?" I wonder. What part of the American soul is responsible for our indifference to this uniquely (or possibly non-uniquely) French dilemma? My first answer: we don't care about sitting in the wing aisle because in time of crisis we are the first to jump to someone's aid; we Americans are always ready to help. But then I realize, no, this is propaganda we tell ourselves to tell to others. Really, the source is our fierce pragmatism. We know that in the event that the plane crashes into the ocean, we'll probably have bigger problems than helping children leave a shattered plane.

One cannot really comprehend how overpriced this ticket from London to Paris is until one has actually flown it. The distance between the two cities is so short that by the time drink service had just started, the captain was already telling us that we were beginning our descent into London. Hooter's Airlines operates a longer flight, between Chicago and Cleveland for $39, and Air France has, how shall I precise, none of the advantages of Hooter's Air. 

I left the airport fine, despite the most grueling Customs Card I've ever had to fill out. It included the question, "Place of Issuance of Passport." This information, thanks to the great foresight of the U.S. Departmen of State, is nowhere to be found on the passport. Frightened by the prospect of being denied entry to the country, I decide to take the safe route and copy my answer from the South Asian man filling out the form next to me. I could only pray that "Islamabad" wouldn't raise any eyebrows.

Apparently it doesn't, although the officer does give me a hard time about whether "Friday afternoon through Monday Morning" counts as three days in London, as I said, or whether it would be "more proper to say four days." None the worse for wear, I arrive at the Tube Station and try to buy a ticket, when I realize that I had left my credit card in Paris, and I had only brought a hundred Euro with me--a hundred Euro, which I realized that I now could not find in my bag. A horrible thought flashes: "What if I have no money? I won't be able to leave the station." This is to be my vacation then: I shall stay here in Heathrow airport for three days, unable to leave because I have no access to money and no way of communicating with the outside world. Probably I'll be ejected sometime during the middle of the night and left to fend for myself amongst wild dogs and cockney vagabonds in the English fen. How to avoid this turn? I could get pick a fight with a police officer; they don't have guns, so they couldn't shoot me, and afterwards they would probably end up depositing me at the American Embassy, likely in downtown London. But no, something might go wrong--better to find an ATM and pray that my Chase Bank card actually works in the airport. 

Somehow it does work, only charging me a reasonable 14% transaction fee. I pay the four pound Tube fare (London -1) and ride it to the Tate Modern stop. I am supposed to meet my friend George Tobias at his dorm which is called Bangside House on Summer Street. After a prolonged period of wandering around, I ask someone, "Do you know where Summer Street is?" "Summer street, oh yeah, sounds familiar. What are you looking for?" "Bangside House." "Oh yeah, that's near the Robert, go that way." I make my way back basically to where I started, and take something called "Sumner Street" for a couple blocks, and then I see what looks like a hotel called "Bankside House." After looking at the people coming out of the building I realize that most of these people are young people, and it has the same street number as the place I'm looking for. At the front desk I ask if George Tobias has a room there. They call his room immediately, saying that he has a visitor. 

We walk around London a bit afterwards, and get dinner at a chain restaurant called Wagamama. As it turns out, London is full of wonderful chain restaurants (London +0). George goes to play soccer while I visit the Tate Modern (or Robert as I later find it's known). Lots of wonderful stuff in the Tate, including a room with a giant dining room table one can walk around and underneath. I try to take a photo of a painting and an attendant rushes up to me and grabs the camera, saying "No photo" slowly and loudly, as if I'm a retarded Italian tourist. Seizing the opportunity to actually speak coherently in public for the first time in five weeks, I say, "I see, but is it permitted to take pictures if I don't use a flash?" Surprised that I speak English, the attendant lets go of my camera and says, "No." 

Afterward I return from the museum I meet up with George and we go down to a bar that is in the basement of his apartment. There I meet some of his British friends, have probably the world's least expensive/least carbonated Guinness, and play pool while the British are wowed by my feats of exploration of the "Ghetto" of Chicago. They express their most heartfelt desire to one day also have the chance to visit the Ghetto, and possibly see someone "do a shooting."

The next day I arise bright and early, and walk like a crazed maniac over the city. I have a croissant for breakfast at a place called "Pret A Manger," to which I reply, "Nope, not quite yet." Then I go to the British Museum, a beautiful building, with lots of wonderful objects to look at, although for some reason the British museum has no compunction about fulfilling the stereotype that all the African Art should be shoved into the bottom level. (London -1) 

After the British Museum, I meet George for lunch at the National Gallery. Afterward, we wander the gallery, which packs a good deal more quality to quantity than the Louvre (London +0). George returns home to watch a soccer game, while I continue my walking journey, seeing the historic sights of London: Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park Corner. I try to take the train back and find out that the London Subway to my stop is such down for "Improvement Works."(London -1) This doesn't sound like such an improvement to me, in fact it sounds like bullshit.

In fact, the signs on the train "Improvement Works may affect your travel at Weekends" struck me as a very concise example of the difference between British and American English. We can note that this sign is a perfect example of the British penchant for deeply evasive affrontery. "Improvement works" is certainly an Orwellian euphemism. Affect seems like an affectation too, as in, "Oh, I see, will the train ride have a more pink affect today?" Of course, the British are, narrowly speaking, grammatically correct. Affect actually means to have an effect. Why then not say just that, "to have an effect," and avoid the confusing bit of affect v. effect grammar.

After some thought, I concede that "at Weekends" is probably more reasonable to say than "on weekends." Point taken. I try to think how we would rewrite that sentence in American English, and I find it hopeless. No, it must be completely rewritten, what we would say is "Construction Could Delay Your Travel." Direct, clear, and without passive aggression. 

In any event, rather than pay the ridiculous four pound fare (which by now I have determined works out to $6), I walk back from Hyde Park. It takes an hour and I see a ton of the city on the way, so no worse for wear.


After a short rest at Bankside house, George and I head out to get Indian food. George warns me that the Indian food is very different in Britain, and I say "I hope so," since Indian food in America is usually an over spiced, gastronomic disaster. We get off the Tube Stop closest to the Indian neighborhood, and immediately find a restaurant. Rather than go into the first restaurant we see, we decide to keep walking. And walking. And it turns out that after fifteen minutes of walking we've entered some kind of Cockney-Arab melting pot for the semi-destitute. George suggests that we've made a wrong turn. So we turn around and ask for directions, and it turns out we missed the turn about ten minutes ago. We keep walking, and finally we find the street we were looking for, and what should we find on the corner but the restaurant we started with. We go down the street. We are solicited by more Indian men than in any part of the world outside the Ben-Chode District of New Delhi. Finally, we settle on a place that gives us a free beer with our meal.

The Indian food is excellent--not too spicy, but very flavorful. Afterwards we pay and go to a pub for a Pint, and barely make the train back home. On the train there was a beautiful French couple sitting across from us, and next to us two incredibly drunk English women, the kind that are squinting at each other and struggling to form phrases like, "And that Bitch, that Bitch, She was a cunt." The French people are clearly amused, a little smile tugs at their cheeks. I remark to them, "Quand à Londres." They sont d'accord.

The next day it was much less clear what I should do since I'd already seen all the main tourist attractions. I went to the British Imperial War Museum, which is a museum that is not in existential crisis over its purpose, but probably should be. Ostensibly created to serve as a memorial for the war dead and to chronicle the horror of the two World Wars, actually we find that it serves as an exhibition for lots of cool war shit. Big tanks, big guns, the phallus in a panoply of manifestations. You get to see all the uniforms that people on both sides were wearing with mock ups of trenches, etc. Some of the most interesting stuff in the museum was the room where they show pictures and tell stories of people who won Britain's highest Medal of Honor. One person received the medal for running like a maniac towards a German machine gun turret that was firing at him, then somehow capturing the turret, and afterwards single-handedly capturing 43 Germans in a trench. That doesn't sound possible. The other good medal winner was some police officer without a gun who chased three bank-robbers carrying uzis and finally captured them.

I was just about ready to leave when I realized that there was also a Holocaust memorial in the museum. And then I looked at the time, and realized that I'd already been in the museum for as long as I'd intended, and I was really ready to move on. But then as I was walking to the door the guilt started talking to me, in the form of an excessively Jewish voice in the back of my head:

"What, you're not going to go to the Holocaust memorial? You can't take five minutes to remember the Holocaust? You're so busy, you don't have time to remember your people?"

"But I already remember the Holocaust."

"Remember! What do you remember! Nothing Happened to You For You to Remember! Oh no, I see what this is. You just want to forget! Don't you!?"

"No, I don't. . . I just, have other things to do . . ."

"Other things. Other things. Listen Brian, if you don't remember, who will? The goyashas! Those fucking anti-semites! Those fucking pricks!" Finally I relent to my guilt, and go to the exhibition.

Certainly it was not one of the best Holocaust exhibitions I'd ever been to, and much of it I didn't need to see. I found myself watching five minutes of a documentary, "Who are the Jewish people?" for example. Much of the exhibit was explanations of what the holocaust was, how it worked, and how horrified everyone was to discover what happened.

Holocaust memorials are unique in that the expressed purpose is always the same: "Recognize How Horrible This Was." The question is, does all the explanation really help us to recognize the horror, or does it just give us a little story to carry around in our heads. I thought that the most effective and interesting part of the museum was a large wall at the end with pictures of people who died in the Holocaust. In terms of making people feel the crime, nothing is as effective as pictures. They make the problem of the Holocaust very concrete. We can't think of the numbers and be horrified, we can only see the faces of people who look just like normal, good natured people, and then feel sorrow that they were murdered. If I were to make a holocaust memorial, I think at the very front entrance I would include an enormous, nearly endless installation of photographs of people who died. 10,000 large photographs would be enough to create the effect of near endlessness. And then we make the observation that this is really just scratching the surface. And then the expositions, the documentaries, what have you, should come. Otherwise what happens is, "Okay kids, get in the car, it's time to go see the Holocaust."

Anyway, I finally leave the museum and go back to meet George. Then we go to go by tickets for a play. We get Standing Seats for "Madame de Sade" by Mishima, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature. The standing tickets cost ten pounds, but what we don't realize is that you literally had to stand for the entire performance. I sit down and cross my legs, and after three seconds some guard comes up to me and says that I have to stand. After another five minutes I bend down on my knees, kind of in a crouch, and then she comes over again and says I have to stand. Another five minutes and I'm kind of half-crouching, and she's looking at me like, "Don't you dare, don't you dare crouch any more." And then , looking into her eyes, I crouch a little bit more, a little bit more, and then "Sir." And I stand back up.

The play finally starts, and Judy Dench is in it as the mother of Madame de Sade. The play is extremely strange. It's full of rambling monologues about "the glint in the Marquis's eyes as he touches the red face of God, and blows the great divinity a kiss with the lacerated whip he uses to torture ecstatic 17 year old prostitutes – now dead." After the first scene ends, one of the guys standing with me hops over the back of a seat in the last row of the theater and sits down. The guard comes over and is whispering furiously in his ear for two minutes, but he ignores her. Finally she goes away. Score one for the standing aisle.

After the play ends we wander around London together. We get a meal of Tapas for dinner, and then I go my separate to walk through London for the last time. Then it's time to get my things and go.

Since my flight is leaving in the morning at 6:00, and the Metro starts running at 4:00, my options were exactly two. Either take a fucking expensive taxi really early in the morning, so that I don't really sleep at all, or check in six hours early to Hotel London-Heathrow. I catch the last train that goes from Cockfosters to Heathrow, and I am at the airport at 1:00 a.m..  At the entrance to the terminal I start walking in, when I hear an Indian accented voice call out to me, "Don't go there!" And then I turn to my left and see that there was an Indian man in a miniature Zamboni driving towards me. I guess it was some kind of floor cleaner he was driving, and he says, "Five minutes five minutes." And then he starts circling around me in his Zamboni, making larger and larger circles.  Eventually, when he isn't looking, I make a run for it and he doesn't chase me.  

The Air France counter was totally empty, probably because between 12:00 and 5:00 a.m. they have no flights. But this means I can't get a boarding pass so I have to sleep in the departure area right before the entrance to security--a.k.a. the area that real homeless people end up sleeping in if they can get their wardrobe together enough to not look like vagrants.  After about four hours of miserable sleep that keeps getting interrupted by various arms of the British proletariat, I become too cold to sleep any more so I try and see what was going on with check in.   It turns out I could have done electronic check-in the entire time.  Around 5:00 a.m. I go through the security check point and fall asleep on a full-length bench with no handle bars (turns out all the nice benches for sleeping are where the homeless people can't get them).  But then the couch I sit on turns out to be next to the janitors' rallying point, so I ended up lying on a couch next to an open door where seven janitors are jabbering in a patois of Cockney Serf-ish, Bangladeshi, and Rastafarian. My blood-shot eyes stare at the screen listing departures, none of whose gates have been determined even up until thirty minutes before boarding.  I say to myself, "alright, my plane appears to be abandoning me, fuck it, I'm getting a cup of coffee." I end up getting a delicious Cappuccino for only a pound fifty, get on the plane on time with a free copy of Le Monde, and arrive only half-an-hour late to Professor Lawler's lecture about random walks.

Sometimes, life is good!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Le Voyageur Sale: Un Blog en Sept Tableaux Sixième Tableau: Ville du Jour

Having exhausted Florence's activity, but not her charm, I plan to leave her for another, just for one day, so as to return to her bed in the evening with fervency rejuvenated – a wholly-satisfactory arrangement familiar to many of my former lovers. But who would I leave her for? The only other city I knew around these parts was San Rifredi – a terribly mediocre town I had no interest in returning to. What I needed was a man of the world. And yet what I had was so much more: a man of Italy, named Enzo.

"Enzo – I want to leave Florence for the day."

"I ah know, she's a bit a boring – you see her in a one a day, and then what's ah left? Americanos, and fortresse del garbaggio"

"So where should I go?"

"Well you can-ah go to a Pisa, that's an hour by a train. It's a gonna come to a ten a euros. Or you ca-ah go to Sienna, that's a forty minute by an autobuso. It's a probablemente a five euro."

"Which do you think I should go to – Pisa, or Sienna?"

"Well, that ah depend on a you. You like-a de building? You go to-a Pisa – they have-a building there. Mainly just-ah the one, it's not in a such a good a shape. You see, the founda-shion, she was ah built a by an Italians, and these ah guys, they're an always a trying to get-an a-way with some-thing." Enzo looks sadly at my feet, and begins wagging his head back and forth puppy-like.

"But what about Sienna?"

Enzo raises his head, involuntarily letting out of a nostalgic sigh. His eyes become misty; he doesn't bother to blink it away, "Si-en-a, now-ah there's ah city. If you like-ah the brick steps, e a big-ah place to a sit, e eh beautiful church-a – you a wanna go to a Seina."

"How's the pizza there?"

His face scrunches up, his lips extend as if pouting in a kiss, but go twice as far as they should, making dear Vincenzo look a bit like a doe-eyed fish. He scrunches his eyelids shut,

"It's a terrible. There's a no good ah pizza outside of a Napoli. If you find a good Pizza in Italia, it's a because somebody a Napolitino ha moved away."

Seeing as I had clearly stumbled upon an emotional issue, but knowing that in all things Enzo treads lightly, I counter, "I had some great pizza in Rome." Enzo unscrunches his face, dipping his left shoulder and throwing his hands up as if to say "well-that's the thing."

"Alora, Roma, she's a gonna be a close to Napolia. The two cities, we are a rivals, but that's a because we are like-ah freri" he snaps, "Ay, brothers. Pizza in a Rome, it's a close, but it's a still not a pizza Napoli." He wags a hand in my face that says "capisce?".

He pauses, relaxing his hand. "But everywhere else>" All he can do is stick his tongue out and down to the left, like a cat coughing up a hairball.

So it was Sienna that would be my ville du jour. I went downstairs to the concierge's desk in order to find out how to get to there.

As it turns out, the concierge bears something of a physical resemblance to me. Not the kind where we'd be confused for each other, or even that we'd necessarily be taken for relatives. If one were to itemize a face, making a list of all its features, I believe one would find that the man in front of me has the same itemization as I do. I suspect that the guy recognized the similarity as well, which made the whole awkwardness of seeing the concierge evaporate. On the other hand, maybe it was just because we were a couple dudes in our early twenties.

I find out that buses leave basically all the time, and have a uniform rate of 8 euros. I can leave anytime I want, no rush. And indeed, there really was no need to get there too early – from the sound of it, Sienna is smaller than Florence, and still more medieval.

I roll out of bed at 9 am, dress quickly, catch my traditional morning fare of coffee and donut, then head over to the station. The concierge had told me it was near Santa Maria Novella, but I hadn't taken the trouble to look at a map and determine exactly where it was. Thus, I arrived at the train station, surveyed the scene, and realized that I had no idea where I was going.

I reflect momentarily on the state of Italian. Well, I don't know much, but I do happen to know the following words. "Station" – stazione, "of" – del, and "bus" – autobus. I also was fluent in the language of pointing.

Scouting about for candidates to ask directions, I finally settle on a pair of metro bus drivers. Tightening my belt, I try to craft the best Italian sentence I can:

"Bongiorno, dove e stazione del autobus?"

One of the guys starts talking and after three words I'm no longer following. When he stops, I point toward a target, and the two reply in unison by pointing in a direction totally perpendicular to the one I had settled on. I say gratzi and head over.

Sure enough, I soon see a sign for the bus station. Walking in, I see a bus heading to Siena. I go over to the ticket counter to buy a ticket. There's a line, not a long one, but I guess it's long enough: just as I'm on the cusp of talking with the attendant, the bus begins to back up and pull away. If I had taken the time yesterday to look where I was going I could have made it – a slightly annoyed feeling settles in my stomach.

With nothing to do, I opt for bus-station people watching. Slim pickings. A group of four Spanish women sit across from me, of varying ages and weights. At the most extreme left is a very portly grandmother, dressed in typically conservative grandmother fair of fairy-blue shawl, whitish chemise, and black dress to the ankles. To her right, was a woman in her fifties, also overweight, but not as much. To her right, a smartly dressed thirty-something. And at the extreme right, a fit 24 year old in a lascivious green one piece that hardly goes further than the pantyline. Together, the group formed a veritable Darwinian progression. I think to myself – so, this is aging.

I take out my book and start reading. After five minutes, a bus for Sienna pulls up, and I go in and sit.

Taken for a Ride

We leave. Climbing over the uneven urban terrain surrounding the station proves a thoroughly unpleasant experience, if not entirely unexpected. The area around Santa Maria Novella is under heavy construction, upon which an enormous bus must bear the most burden. Up and down, left and right, teetering this way and that as the bus bolts at 40 miles per hour down whatever makeshift alleyways and passages the driver happens to find. I pray that after we leave the city the most jarring part will have already past.

The mountain highways provide no respite. My stomach flips over and over, my face, already turned a lifeless mint green, is pressed against the window. With slitted eyes I glance at the driver.

He's a man of average build, clean shaven, and with a well-trimmed buzz cut. He has a hard-nose, and pointed-chin; he scowls deeply. He also wears sunglasses, tinted polychrome, in which it's hard to tell exactly whether the color orange, pink, or green predominates. I wonder if he would keep that same chiseled expression should he take a wrong turn off a cliff. I can imagine him now, his cold-face frozen, as he hurtles our 30 ton bus off a cliff. I return my gaze to the window, switch on my iPod, and begin listening to California Dreaming by the Mamas and the Papas.

After an hour of bus-torture, we arrive. The last five minutes of the drive are certainly the worst of the trip. As we climb to the top of the hill upon which Siena rests, the gears jam, stutter, and lock. The driver bangs the gearshift like a whack-a-mole, shakes it left and right like a PCP addict playing the claw-game, all the while dancing on the clutch like a Cossack. The expression remains fixed, evermore unchanged . . . timeless. Thankfully, nausea inures me from the force of these proceedings.

Finally we stop and I descend, trembling. The sun is fierce. I need to find a place to sit. I put my hands on the curb and ease myself down. Ventilating deeply, I look up. Sun rays lick my face – not pleasantly. Like a big dog slobbering his enormous tongue up and down – I sweat, I shiver, my skin begs me mercy. I say to the sun, "My what pretty rays you have." The better to burn you with, he retorts in my mind. I have to get out of here before the vultures find me.

I get up and begin wandering down a hill with a thirty degree incline. After ten or fifteen yards, I realize that there's nothing here. I'm heading away from centreville. If I go this way, I won't hit anything until I get to the bottom several hundred yards down. I turn around and begin slowly marching over my needlessly taken steps, while the sun burns red on my closed eyelids.

After five minutes I finally hit something, a Tabaconnist/Pizza Place – only in Italy would one think to combine the two. I buy a Lipton for 2.50 euro, way too much, but I know I need to drink something, and as I'd famously learned four days earlier, sugar water helps the body with dehydration more than water alone.

Sitting in the bum pizza shop, on a barstool with my back to the tender, I realize the looks I must be getting. That of it: A young man walks into a bar with a queezy expression, goes over to the refrigerator in the corner, takes a drink and then sits on a stool talking to no one, groaning and panting. I take a sip of ice tea, burp, and realize I don't care if they're looking.

After I finish half my tea, I begin to regain my composure, a bit, so decide to leave the tabac and make for the central plaza.

Delirium at Noon

On the way to the plaza I feel whatever gains I had made begin to crumble. I tell myself, just make it to the main plaza, just make it to the main plaza.

When I get there I find a great open space in the shape of a semicircle, along the diameter is a massive building that resembles a brick version of the Fenway Monster. At the top is a large, ornamental clock. Around the rest of the perimeter, the plaza is lined with restaurant patios.

My knees are trembling, I know that if I sit on the brick plaza I have no protection from the withering sun. I have no appetite, but nevertheless struggle towards a pizza place, where I sit down.

After waiting six minutes, a waiter comes over and asks me which pizza I'd like. When she's out of sight I take out my ice-tea and begin sipping gently while eyeing the plaza.

After six or seven minutes, my unfortunately wakeful reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a pleasant Frankish-Atomic Family at the table next to mine. The principle differences between the American and the Frankish atomic family is that the American atomic family has 2.6 children and a yellow lab named Scruffy, while the Frankish has 1.8 children and a black poodle named Fifi. The Italian atomic family has .8 children and a parakeet named Crackers.

The family at my right deviated from Franco-Atomic Standards in that they had two boys, whereas they should have properly had 1 boy and .8 girls, but they didn't seem to mind.

Listening to the conversation I was somewhat amused to find that for the first time I could understand much of it. What the hell? Has my French gotten better – how? I haven't talked any French! The only exposure I'd gotten was all the plays I'd been reading, which I guess I had been reading a lot. Could my spoken French really have gotten better without speaking any French? I resolved to find out – listening in.

Soon their conversation comes around to the menu. Since the children can't understand any English, they understandably have a lot of questions; questions which the parents are not always very well-equipped to answer. In particular, they get stuck on the word "bell pepper."

"Que-ce que ce belle pehppeher?

"Je sais pas."

"Tu ne sais pas – est-ce que c'est viande?"

The man frowns, sticking out his lower lip: "Au-cune i-dée."

"MAMAN!" interjects the third year-old.

I consider saying something, "It's a red pepper, it's sweet, I don't know its exact name in French, but it's very common – you must know it." But I decide against it. To say something would be tantamount to admitting I was listening to their discussion, making the rest of the conversation awkward, as they looked perpetually over their shoulder, or in this case, to the left, at the man surreptitiously listening in. I shift uncomfortably as they struggle with the waiters English; they come away as perplexed as before.

"A red vegetable?"

"Yes, a red vegetable."

"But, what could that be?"

"I don't know – a tomato perhaps?"

"No, in English tomato is pronounced 'Toe-may-toe." It's not that." After a few hither seconds of the two staring somewhat blankely at each other, the man adds:

"Aussi, le tomate n'est pas legume. En fait, c'est fruit." The woman stares back, pouting her lips.

"Mais oui, c'est correct."

"MAMAN!" The three year old starts banging his fork on the table, while the older child busies himself with crayon drawing. The parents attend to them.

Finally, my pizza comes. I have no appetite, but know I must eat. I've only had a donut and a coffee since this morning, and while I did eat an enormous amount of pasta the night before, I was by now surely running on empty.

And yet – my appetite is zero. I'm still nauseous. And I did have that warning about Siennese pizza from Enzo to contend with. Nevertheless, I begin eating - in what we might generally call a "com'on ya sumbitch" maneuver. A "com'on ya sumbitch" maneuver is defined to be one in which a person takes a completely counter-intuitive course of action in response to a situation that risks mortal well-being. For example, a truck driver is caught careening down a mountain road with a stalled engine. If he cannot start the engine, he will surely fall off the mountain ledge. Sweat glistening in his shaggy beard, the toothpick in his mouth long since snapped in two, the driver jams down the ignition key while still in drive. Flooring the gas, he hopes that doing so will trick the engine into ignoring the manufacturer set override. The truck driver rasps out of his uncleared throat: "com'on ya sumbitch."

Or another example. Consider the fighter pilot who finds himself unexpectedly hurtling towards a swiftly approaching mountain. He slams down the throttle, engaging Mach 3, hoping against hope that the vertical acceleration will increase his altitude faster than it closes the distance to the mountainside. All the while, he whispers under his breath: "com'on ya sumbitch."

Note, for something to be a "com'on ya sumbitch" maneuver it need not succeed. Nor does there even have to be the remotest reason to suspect the maneuver would succeed (i.e. the truck driver example). With all "com'on ya sumbitch" maneuvers, it's the thought that counts.

With the grease from the pizza's tip dripping onto my outstretched tongue, intently gazing at an unpitted olive out of googly eyes, I say to the pizza, "com'on ya sumbitch," and gobble it down in one bite, spitting out the olive pit only as an afterthought. The large pizza clump catches in the middle of my throat; I lubricate its passage with my last sip of iced tea. I give the pizza a moment to settle.

Meanwhile, the Frenchies pizza has arrived and the waiter asks if they would like an extra plate.

"Pel-ate? Qu'est-ce que ce que ce pel-ate?" The man asks his wife

"Je sais pas."

"Attends" He turns from her, "What is a pel-ate?"

The waiter grows flustered and confused about what to say – her English is not strong enough to explain, and theirs probably not in a position to understand. The encounter has generated a fair amount of noise – causus beli for me to come to the rescue.

"C'est une assiette." I say.

All the adults turn to me. The older brother stops doodling, and turns his head to me. The 3 year continues drooling with his head on the table. Growing uncomfortable at the accusing glances, and not altogether sure I was heard, I clarify.

"Elle demande si vous voulez une additonale assiette."

A visible "oh" crosses their face, the man turns to the waitress, "No, no, gratzi." The two turn back to me.

"Tu es français?" The woman asks. When you speak the non-native language in a foreign country, it's always assumed you must be doing that because you're from there.

I smile, say with proud English, Chicago-born, "No, A-merican." Then I turn the French accent up to max, so excessively high that it becomes difficult even for me to understand what I'm saying: "Mais, j'étudie à Paris."

"Tu étudie à Paris?" As if to say, if you study in Paris, what are you doing here?

"Ah, cette semaine, j'ai, um, mes vacances."

"Ah, d'accord." The two nod in unison.

"MAMAN!" The child screeches. The woman turns, the man makes a "so it goes" gesture – the two return to their family.

I'm beginning to feel better – the pizza not only settled well, it appears to have settled everything else around it well too. I eat methodically, consuming ¾ of the pizza before I've had my fill. By the time I've paid my check, I feel strong again. As I step out into the sun, pushing past a table where a man collects bread crumbs to feed to birds, I feel not in the slightest withered, weary, or worn. The sun's pulsating heat is now no more than a supple caress.

Trapped in the Closet II

I go over to a retailer to find a cheap map –none exist. It's nine euros or forget it, which I do without a second thought.

In exploring an unknown place, particularlya small or circular one, the best path is undoubtably one that looks like this:

The outward spiral would be the course to follow today, and I would follow it until I spiraled out of control or the clock hit 4, whichever came first.

The strategy works well, I find lots of relevant sites, and rapidly too. The only problem is the exorbitant entrance fees. I walk into an unassuming looking building with tourists streaming in: "10 euros for the Modoci House – why would I go here when I can pay eight euros for the Medici house ? You don't pay 20% markup on Folex."

Nevertheless, although I do not go into any of these sites, I enjoy myself greatly – walking up and down little alleyways and side streets. At some point, the bottle of ice tea catches up with me, and I feel an urgent need to pee.

Conveniently, I find myself very close to a university building – I decide to try and sneak in.

Walking through the building courtyard, I notice a blonde girl in a very short shirt that exposes her stomach up to her bellybutton. Her jeans are cut so low that one can see where her skin begins to crevice into her "V." "That's obscene," I think to myself, eyes fixed on her crotch. Apparently I'd gotten so distracted with staring that I'd forgotten to stop, which nearly caused me to make the smooth move of running into a pole. I shake my head, trying to focus on what I'm doing.

The building I was trying to enter was in fact the cafeteria, a perfect place to blend n. More convenient still, the bathroom is near the door.

As I make my way to the stalls I think, "You know, it's not that she's so beautiful – after all, the look is pretty trashy. It's just that she's so sexual."

I open the door, "Oh God, and that 'V' – GEE-zus."

The image of her midsection is seared into my mind. As I open my fly, I clear my throat and mutter in exasperation: "oh, come on you son of a bitch."

Staring down at my crotch, I realized that the sight of the girl had called into action a certain part of my body that was intended to be used for peeing, and as a result, I was now too sprung to pee.

My bladder quivers, my insides lock vise-like with pain – but there's nothing to do. All that goes up does not necessarily come down, and, while up, may have trouble getting stuff out. But that was no reason not to try.

I puff my cheeks, hold my breathe, and force the air out of clenched lips in consternation as I push. No results. Well, that means I'll have to wait and hope this problem subsides soon. Standing there, enjoying the bouquet of bathroom fragrances, I tap my watch and shake my head at my head with impatience.

Eventually, things begin to look as if they're improving. The great power walks away from Defcon 2, thanks in part to the wonderful bathroom aroma.

And yet . . . it doesn't quite subside. Every time I get close to the brink of being able to pee, it appears in my head: The V. Those low slung jeans, that exposed midsection, the whole package crosses my mind; as soon as it does, I feel immediately all the ground I'd taken sink under my feet. I try focusing on something else, diverting my thoughts to an imagined conversation with Enzo.

"Brian, how was your day?"

"Bene enzo, bene."

"Did you see any nice 'V's today Brian?"

"Si Enzo, si. This ah one 'V' was a bellissimma" – damn it, there it is again. The'V'. The 'V' .

I try something else, rummaging around for something interesting in my memory.

"Were you on a flight with RyanaAir or-a EasyJetto," the golden skinned attendant in forest-green suit says, batting her lightly mascaraed, curly eyelashes. She's behind the counter, I can't see her midsection – I wonder what she would look like in a school yard with a yellow tube top and low slung . . . fuck. 'V'. 'V'. Now not only am I thinking about the trashy girl's 'V', I'm thinking about the 'V' of some random woman I saw in the airport four days ago.

Something else, something innocuous. The people in the hostel - not Enzo, I clearly can't. The heavy-set Indian woman in her late twenties – don't go there Brian, you might start thinking about her 'V' and then you won't be able to look her in the eye next time you see her. The Asian guy? Same problem. How about that thirteen year old French nymphette in the cathedral? AHH! Fuck, fuck, what am I going to do – everything I think of is sex, sex, sex, 'V', 'V', 'V'.

But then, like a vision from God, my mind's eye is awash in the polychrome. It's the tint of that driver's sunglasses. I pull back onto his face, thinking especially of his cold, callous grimace, and his hard, unsmiling nose. I breathe a sigh of relief. The terror subsides. In a moment, I get the idea of thinking about how nauseous I felt just hours ago. My bladder finally begins to drain.

My business done – I turn around, flip the lock, and open the door. I flip the lock, and open the door. Damn it, I flip the lock, and open the door. What the? Why isn't this working! I twist the lock, I pull the handle, it doesn't work. It's still locked.

Getting frustrated I twist harder and harder, pull harder, eventually with all my weight. I realize so much of my weight is in the pulling, that if the door did open I would go flying backwards. At first that makes me stop, but then I realize, no, it's not going to open anyways – so I just start pulling to pull, to express my anger at the impossibility of it not opening, at the outrage of this turn of events.

The smell of old urine and unflushed feces fills my nostrils as I begin pacing in the highly confined bathroom space. Alright, what's the situation? There are no windows in this stall, and in fact this is not a stall. In a stall, one can always crawl underneath the panel and get out. This, this is a room with a toilet – there's no escaping it.

So there is no way to get out besides the door – the door which does not open. Perhaps that means I should call for someone. Is there anyone in the bathroom? Even if there was, what do I call? I don't speak Italian . . . they won't be able to explain anything to me. Can you imagine walking into a bathroom with someone shouting in a foreign language: "Grazhe Beh-shabal! Grazhe Beh-shabal!" Would you help – or would you quietly sneak away?

The best case scenario is that the person I find knows the word "help," and calls somebody who can open the door from the outside. But how could one open the door from outside? No, it's impossible. What they'd have to do is call the police, get a big battering ram, and then knock through the door. Which will take probably three hours, if they even have a battering ram in the Siena police department. And then what? I'll get arrested for trespassing.

I stand listlessly at the door. Seven minutes have now past – I have no ideas besides why don't you give it five minutes and try again. I play with the door lock absent-mindedly for a moment. I drop my hand, turn around, plop the toilet seat down as if to sit, and then turn. The door gently opens.

WHAT? I cry in relief. I pick up my bags and stand with one foot out the door as I examine the lock. I twist it back and forth. I've solved the mystery. The lock position on this door is when the knob is turned to either the extreme left or the extreme right – the unlock position is when the knob is not turned at all, when it stands straight up. I laugh incredulously, so stupid, so dumb. I leave the university.

Horndoggin' around Town

Walking out onto the courtyard the sunlight of high noon hits my face in full force, infinitely stronger now than I remember it being only twenty minutes ago, its rays pressure-kneading my face, excoriating skin, opening pores and cremating their content – not unlike an exfoliating face massage, perhaps a bit overdone.

I look around for the girl with the 'V'. Weeding through several girls, who I'm sure had very special and unique 'V''s themselves, I finally spot her and immediately spring to attention. I move my bag so it hides my front, and then leave away, head down. What? How could an adventurer of such prodigious proclivities as Chateaubrian turn away from the most profound tentation he had yet encountered?

I admit in hindsight that perhaps I should have said something, although I cannot imagine how I would have wooed her in my present state. At the time, my thoughts focused only on the story of brave Odysseus, the greatest of all bounders, adventurers, and fortune-seekers – the only man real or mythic to whom I admit inferiority in either wit or valor. Of course, I am the better writer. Once, brave Odysseus was tested to the utmost by desire incarnate, the monstrously beautiful sirens, which nearly lured him to his death with their song. Desire can kill. The lesson was clear: With girls who show their Vees, beware, they may carry disease.

Also, I should mention, I did get a chance to see The Sirens perform live in concert when I was in Greece. They were terrible! Just awful. First, they were wrinkly, old, and wore dentures. Worse, their songs were pitchy, raspy and weak – despite the prevalent use of AutoTune. Maybe the problem was that they played a lot of songs from their Techno/Synthe-pop phase in the early 80s, and not from their Classic period before christ. Or maybe it was just an off night. Who knows? On the whole, none of their songs hardly induced any more erotic desire than would, say, listening to Lollipop on the radio. I guess the sirens were much younger in Odysseus's time, maybe that explains the discrepancy. After all, Art Garfunkle used to be great too. I guess I'll give Odysseus the benefit of the doubt.

Resuming my place on the outward spiral, I try to press on as best I can in my present state. I walk slowly, deliberately, so as not to clue anyone in about my . . . situation. I pass women on the street, they smile at me, I smile back, and think about how I've got an erection, and am smiling at a woman within arm's reach who's smiling back. I pass men on the street, they smile at me, I smile back, and think about how I've got an erection, and am smiling at a man within arm's reach who's smiling back. This makes me wonder, how many people do you think one passes in a day who are in a somewhat to highly aroused state? Probably more than one would think, especially since I for one never thought about anything remotely relating to this topic before.

I finally manage to leave the university area, turning onto an empty backstreet. I move my bag back to my side and find myself walking down a public street with tented shorts. It's kind of an exhilarating, liberated feeling. I walk in a reverie, half my mind in Sienna, half my mind sorting through faces and bodies of ladies seen and forgotten, or maybe just imagined. I have to admit, that although I had accomplished many feats of virility in my life, none of them comes close to this: an erection or semi-erection held for over an hour despite completely adverse circumstances! Who heard of such a thing? I could do anything - it still wouldn't go away. I hopped, I skipped, I danced the Hora, gyrating this way and that way down the road with a bone on, as if nothing in the world could deflate my 99th percentile red balloon. Just then, a respectable middle-aged couple turned the corner and caught me in full-view, mid-skip, with my 'V'-zone unprotected. I quickly cover up, but I'm fairly certain from the look they gave me that it was already too late. I resolved to be more careful.

When one travels in a foreign land, much of the excitement stems not from the activities one does, but rather the special asterisks one can put next to those activities. For example, I bought a pack of gum today*- IN FRANCE! Or, I got arrested for lewd conduct* - IN ITALY!

I can say that an erection carries much the same cache. I'm taking a snapshot – WITH AN ERECTION! I'm eating pizza – WITH AN ERECTION! I'm reading a note about the historical significance of this lamp post – WITH AN ERECTION!

I admit that I enjoyed the puerile prurience of this elicit, secret asterisk – that is, until it took a turn for the worse.

I happen upon a cathedral, I want to go in. I giggle with a schoolboys joy at having an erection in church, before realizing how inappropriate it was to put the words "schoolboy," "erection" and "church" in the same thought, yet alone sentence. I decide that so long as no one knows about the erection in the church, then there's no harm , and make my way in. Inside, I see that there's a metal detector, and I would have to put my bag through it – leaving me completely exposed. Visions of the guard running that weapon detector over my crotch, banging it against my penis, force me to retreat from the cathedral, to take a seat, and wait for things to calm down.

I survey the vicinity of the cathedral, and enjoy the views. Couples sitting and laughing, tour groups listening raptly to animated guides. Children playing ball and laughing.

At that moment I realize I have an erection, and I'm watching children play. With horror, it occurs to me that this is the second time today, and third time on the trip, that I have unintentionally had pedophilic thoughts. I look at my 'V' and say to it, "ya sumbitch, you really fucked me this time."

I wander some more, walking into an empty monastery where I can walk around in peace. Perhaps it was the calming chance for reflection, maybe it was the monastic atmosphere consecrated in chastity, but finally it began to relent. I can now enjoy my walk unmolested, without fear of being thought a molester


Preparing for my departure at last, I note that there were still two undone activities: seeing a notable church on one side of town, and eating gelato on the main square. I set off to do both.

Although the cathedral's exterior was impressive, at least in terms of size, the interior left much to be desired. It was like an airplane hanger in there: no art, no chairs, just open space and a big mural of Jesus dying on the cross. I guess that's all you need.

Unfortunately for me, the church did not have what I needed most then and there: a bathroom. To find one, I went to the building immediately adjacent to the church – a kind of art center. Walking up and down its halls, I have no idea if I'm permitted to be hear – certainly there aren't tourists around. I find a women's bathroom easily enough, but have no luck finding a man's. Scouring up and down stairs, I walk through the entire complex in vain. I consider briefly using the women's bathroom, walking over to it, I'm about to open the door when a woman comes out and looks at me strangely. I turn around, and walk out. On the way out, I notice that the place has really started to fill up. There's an auditorium adjacent to one of the halls and it's already packed. I begin to wonder if anyone famous was coming. I decide it's probably not worth the wait to find out.

Around the main plaza there are many gelato places. I settle on a nice looking one, and go in, intending first to use the bathroom. Somebody sees me attempting to use the bathroom without first buying merchandise, and shouts at me "Hey Bongiorno!" I turn around, buy a gelato, and then go to the bathroom. In the bathroom, I now have what has become a customary bathroom difficulty, namely, juggling all the things in my hands while trying to pee. With practice comes perfection; I walk out of the bathroom coolly eating my ice cream. I continue onto the plaza

The plaza is very nice, by now the sun has calmed down significantly. I read for a time, with half my head thinking about what could explain the ludicrous erection of the early afternoon. I consider that perhaps it was the beef I ate yesterday – perhaps it had sent hormones rushing through my system, a system unprepared for them because of my temporary vow of vegetarianism. But no, cows are full of estrogen, not testosterone – beef appeared an unlikely scapegoat. After considering several other alternatives, my final opinion was that it was connected in some way to the sun. The Light is strong with Italy, especially in Tuscany. In Rome, the force of light gave manifest to a beauty so overpowering as to suffocate man unprepared. And yet here in Tuscany, where light's force was admittedly stronger still than in Rome, one could not find anything close to the luminous beauty of Rome. As Newton says, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Since light was here, mustn't it have an effect? If the effect was not beauty, as was clear, then it must be something close. Is it not logical enough to assume that its power was being channeled through the twin cousin of beauty, Eros, in the concrete form of a sustained and unprovoked erection? I think this concludes a decisive proof.

Poor Italian men, how they are slandered! People call them sex fiends, when in fact their constitution is the same as the chastest of Britons. It is just that they are driven mad . . . by the overpowering, erotic strength of the sun.

I quickly write these most scientific of thoughtful observations in a blue notebook I had just bought for 0.99 cents. And then I head off, intending to see a last church and then get on the bus.

The church is utterly unremarkable, although it was the only site I visited that was not on top of the hill. This gave me as good a chance as I'd gotten to see the real Siena, I think. Children playing soccer with a police officer, old people with canes talking shop, shopkeepers sweeping up before they close down for the day. A nice place.

I head to the bus and find that the station is underground. The only way to get there appears to be an old elevator. I get in the car with two very Russian looking people in their late 30s. The woman looks wilted, suffering from the heat. The man has large brown, horn rim glasses – the kind that went out of fashion in the 70s, and that the over seventy continue to love. The elevator door closes. We don't move. The woman looks at her husband. The door opens. We look at each other, press the button again. After another minute, the door closes, and we begin going down. I take a risk and say in Russian, "Incomprehensible." The man looks at me incuriously, then goes back to looking at the door. The wife smiles. We get off, and head together to the ticket counter – the Russian briskly leading the way. For the first time in Italy I find a well-staffed counter. And yet there are no customers. Of course, they've moved all those missing attendants in Rome here to an air-conditioned basement in Sienna that is visited by ten people a day. We call it, Italian Market Efficiency.

I separate from the Russians, though still listen in to see if they need help with English. It appears that the man has it pretty well covered. I buy my ticket.

With 50 cents left in my wallet, I decide to buy access to the toilet. After popping in 0.20 cents, the machine locks, and I have no way of clearing it. A man sits behind the gate, I ask his help. He doesn't want to give it. I stand around, playing with the machine long enough, and he is finally motivated to action. He gets up, let's me in, and I gave him my thanks. I get on the bus.

The bus takes a much more scenic route than the one I took getting there. It goes through many, many tiny towns, picking up people going to Florence for the evening. The roads are better, and so is the driver – the ride is as pleasant as can be. After an hour and change, I get off. I'm back.

The Last of the Americans

For dinner that night I go to a little corner of Florence south and west of the Uffizi, less touristy than the downtown proper, like the area around my hostel, but not as dilapidated. The restaurant I end up at is in the courtyard of a church. Trying to court the line between modern sleekness and traditional hominess, the restaurants interior has stainless steel tables like at Chipotle, while the patio has benches where one sits arm-to-arm with other diners. I take my seat next to a British couple, and order a large meal of Gnocchi with a side of white beans – Tuscans are known throughout Italy as the bean eaters, so I thought to try something traditional.

I pull out my copy of Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands), which is proving a fantastic read. The interaction between the maladjusted, disaffected young bourgeois intellectual and his impulsive, malfeasant wife is really enjoyable. "But why don't we kill him?" she says, "I'm so bored – I've already read all the books you gave me. Let's kill him, it'll be fun!"

The food comes and it proves to be the best meal I ate in Florence, and probably the best in Italy as well.

While eating, I notice a very oddly dressed American girl of approximately my age. She wears duct-tape colored shorts that go only a little bit lower then her butt cheeks. The shorts are connected to overall-like straps that go up and around her shoulders. Near her stomach, the straps widen a bit, but leave her side and her somewhat pudgy stomach exposed. She wears a white shirt with a deep, if off-center 'V', cut off just below her breasts, leaving her ripe midsection exposed. On the whole, she was not unattractive, but she was a little too proud of her flabby stomach. On the other hand, maybe it's the right strategy. Instead of trying to disguise a tummy, draw as much attention to it as possible, so as to show confidence, and, at the same time, weed out potential seekers who will be turned off by the inevitable realization that she's not as thin as she looks.

She was standing with a lanky British guy, also of approximately my age, not five feet to my left, leaning against the restaurant wall. They were waiting together for a table - I eye them, leery as I realize that they must be waiting for my spot. I remain unfazed; after all, if time waits for no man, why should Chateaubrian? I chew thoughtfully.

Out of the darkness comes a man in his late fifties, with a face half-Kirk Douglas, half-catcher's mitt. In a ratty orange shirt and loose designer jeans, he smokes a cigarette, which he puts out as he walks up to the girl. She screeches happily, "Daddy." The man hoarsely and earnestly replies, "Hey sweety." Introductions are made.

After a short time it becomes clear that the man is a movie writer of some kind, since the daughter congratulates him on a "script" of his which she said she read and liked. After a few more moments, it is revealed that the daughter wants to be an actress. With loathing growing like a gallstone in my spleen, I begin to believe ever more firmly that these are indeed Jewry from the most debauched crevice of the Diaspora: L.A. There was always something wrong with that bunch. It was in Los Angeles that the Jews ran the mafia, in Los Angeles that Jews made Hollywood so as to better disseminate socialist propaganda to an unsuspecting United States, in Los Angeles that Jews engineered the beating of Rodney King – which I could care less about, of course.

The more I listen, the more I become upset with their decadence. Now she's talking to her father about her sexual exploits – having sex with a strange Italian man the first night she arrived. He smokes and listens, calmly supportive.

Writing as I am in an era when the only culture exported from America to France takes the form of prolonged car commercial or apocalypse fantasy, I myself admit to having considered, at some point, that the only way I might be able to support my noble proclivities would be by writing for Hollywood pictures. True, that would entail taking orders from Jews, but even the Sun King had his Richelieu. The decadence of these two began to change my mind about the plausibility of this alternative. As I look into the nooks and crannies of that old brown catcher's mit, I wondered if this face would be mine should I go to Hollywood, if this daughter would be mine should I sell out. Perish the thought.

I finish my meal, pay the check, and stand. The Americans jump on my seat, the man looks at me out of recessed sockets, weary brown eyes. He says to me "Bon soir," whispering ever so gently under his breath – don't do it kid.

Hell is other people, but only if they're from Los Angeles.

That was to be the last conversation among Americans I would hear in Italy. Tomorrow it was off to Milan, a new city, a new life, but, like Sienna, juste pour un jour.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Le Voyageur Sale: Un Blog en Sept Tableaux Cinquième Tableau: Florence en Fin

Part I: Trains to Firenze? Where we're going [Firenze] we won't need trains to Firenze.

I wake to the sounds of groaning from my Australian neighbor. "Oh God, it's too early to get up! You can't make me!" This seemed to be directed at no one in particular, since the only thing trying to drag him out of bed was the incessant electronic screech of his own alarm.

I turn over and try to go back to bed, but it is for naught against the alarm's unreasoning monotone wail, set as ambient noise for the cackling sounds of the Australian arguing with his British fiancée about whether they should get up or not. After another two hours of half-hearted sleep, 8:30 rolls around and I decide to awake in earnest for my last taste of Rome, to drink the city to its dregs before dragging along to Florence.

I check out of my hotel, leaving some things I would pick up after my final excursion. I go to the train station Termini to buy my ticket. After some finagling with the menu, I at last uncover a sweet ride on the Intercity Line for 27 Euros. Not bad, although my flight from Milan to Paris cost nearly as much. My train will leave at one in the afternoon, giving me some three hours to explore the only remaining corner of the city that had eluded my brilliant plan for assaulting the city - the South West. In order to make my final moments in Rome as much like a movie montage as possible, I decide to walk to the south west rather than taking the metro. In so doing, all the favorite sites of Rome are reprised: Vittorio Emannuel, Colesseo, Circus Maximus . . . the whole shebang.

Finally I arrive at the South West and walk in and around this charming corner, nestled on top of a high-hill away from the rest of the old city. With exactly three minutes left in my time budget, I stumble on a park at the very height of the hill. The view from the bluff is breathtaking; Rome kisses me a farewell.

And then I'm off, running back to get my things on the complete opposite town. Despite having nearly an hour until departure, I have no time to walk; only the metro can possibly save me from the consequences of my craven lust for the urban landscape, my ravenous desire for tourism.

At the metro station, the guard informs me in sign language, occasionally supplemented by Italian, that the ticket vending machine is broken, and I will have to go out of the metro, cross the street, go into the metro station on the other side, buy my ticket there, then come back to this side – since there is no way to get from the one side of the train station to the other without a detour across the street. This would be frustrating enough, but before I can leave I am caught by a couple of hopelessly helpless elderly Americans – whose sign language is so miserable that I wonder how they could have even made it this far in a country based on gesticulation. I explain to their somewhat deaf ears that, first,

"I am an American."

"Well you sure look Italian."

"I suppose so."

"Are you Italian-American?"

"No, actually, I'm not."

"You're not – I could have sworn you were. Marlene, don't you think he looks like an Italian-American?"

"Well sure he does . . . but looks can be deceiving George."

"Yeah, I guess they can be." The elderly American looks at me blankly, thoughtfully. "Now what were you saying about crossing to the other side – why in the heck would I have to do that?"

And so on. After my discussion with them it was already looking as if I was late. I hurry, taking the necessary back and forth to buy the ticket, and then waiting two minutes for the train. The train moves quickly though, and I find that I am two blocks from my hotel with twenty-five minutes to go.

I walk into the Hostel, go to the back where I left my stuff, grab it, then leave, without anyone seeming to notice my presence or that I'd taken bags from the back unattended. It would make me wonder how safe it was in the first place, but I am too for late wonderment. With fifteen minutes I arrive at Termini Station.

I look out upon the great old-style black rotary board, which lists all the trains departing soon from Rome.

There aren't any trains leaving for Florence.

No time to figure anything out, I rush over to the nearest attendant. She has three customers to talk to ahead of me. I wait impatiently, flapping my arms, rearranging my hands on my baggage. With five minutes until departure, I reach her.

"Bongiorno, do you speak English?"


"Hi. So I have a ticket for Firenze, but it doesn't seem that there's any train leaving for Firenze any time soon." I show her the ticket.

"Ah, you see, because you don't have a ticket for Firenze, you have a ticket for San-Rifredi. But for you, it's no problem. Just go get on the train leaving for Milan in five minutes. Hurry, and don't forget to stamp your ticket."

I run over to one of the yellow boxes, compost my billet, and run to the train as a man in a goofy blew hat whistles and shouts, "Lasta Callo, Tutto Abordo."

I shuffle listlessly through the first cars. Disheveled people, all their seats are taken. Even the ones that aren't filled . . . I go up to them and a chorus says to me "Occupato." Shuffling ahead, my great orange bag banging my knees, I realize after five minutes that I was in the first class section – and my seat is second class.

Ironically, second class is less crowded, and I find a cabin to share with a tired, fatherly-looking man. I put my stuff away and sit down.

As I look out at the great green rolling hills of the Italian countryside, I think back on what the attendant had just told me.

"You don't have a ticket for Firenze, you have a ticket for San-Rifredi. But for you, it's no problem."

What? Had I really just gotten on a train that was heading to Milan, not the city I wanted to go to, with a ticket to a city called San-Rifredi, which, by the sound of it, is not the same place as Milan, and in any event, isn't the city I wanted to go to in the first place?

I look at my ticket. Maybe San-Rifredi is on the way to Milan, I think. Maybe it somehow says so on my ticket? Nope.

I try parsing what the woman had told me. "You don't have a ticket for Firenze." I know I don't, that's the problem. "You have a ticket for San-Rifredi." I know I do, that's the problem. "But for you, it's no problem." I think this is exactly where I have the problem. Why does she say, for you, it's no problem. For me, it's no problem? Who does she think I am?

"Well Superman, we've decided to drop you at San-Rifredi, which is small town on the Island of Corsica. I mean, we know that you wanted to go to Firenze, and Corsica is kind of across the Italian equivalent of the bridge to Nowhere, but we thought you'd appreciate the chance to fly around a little bit first."


"You are a cute-oh, probablemente you can-a turn-a tricks-eh and end-e up-ah there eventualemente. Remember, in Italia, tricks are for-ah kids-eh."

Ah well, either I get there or I don't. I watch out the countryside, hoping for the best, completely unprepared for the worst.

At last we arrive at a stop called San-Rifredi. It is an open-air station surrounded by country on three sides, with a small town on the remaining. Still no Florence in view. Without any real ideas, I find myself aimlessly following the mass of people down the concourse of the train station. About a third of the crowd parts to the left and out to the town – I go with the greater part of the flow and end up outside on a different train platform. Looking about, I notice a good number of Americans, so probably I'm headed in the right direction. I look up and around and see that Firenze – Santa Maria Novella is indeed the destination on this platform, and breathe a sigh of relief.

I only have to wait a couple minutes for a train to show up, and it takes me to the Santa Maria Novella - not to be confused with either Santa Marie Libretto, or Santa Maria Clausa, which are both in southern of Italy. Departing the station, I feel terribly hot and thirsty. The sun is very powerful, it beats down on me, making my legs feel week. Around the station, Florence is a total dump. Garbage everywhere, the air is replete with exhaust from the concourse of a thousand bus, trains and automobiles.

All I have to go on to get to my hostel is the written directions given by the hostel – which I am somewhat wary of, given my disastrous experience with written directions on Via Appia. Fortunately, streets are better marked here, and I walk down the first street I'm supposed to follow. Half way down the block is a convenience store. I stop in. Two six foot six American jock-types are standing around looking at candy bars.

"Yo man, I got sooo messed up last night."

"Shit, me too. I woke up drunk and high."

"Better get a PowerBar, shit'll straightin'you out bro."

I was to find that American's of this caliber were swarming Florence – in a concentration that I'd never seen in either Europe or the States. In fact, there may be more Americans in Florence than Florentines.

I buy a Lemon Ice Tea, and discover it to be the most delicious, non-Pabst based, bottled drink I've ever had. It gives you the same aura of happiness as ice-cream, but it doesn't leave a heavy or too-sugary taste. It's just right.

I trod along, the neighborhood isn't getting any better. It has a very unique small town slum feel to it, sort of like what you'd find in Connecticut, but more charming.

I walk up to a sprawling complex five or six stories high. On the outside a big banner says PLUS: People Like Us. This is my hostel. Like night and day from the one in Rome, sliding automatic doors, uniformed attendants, couches and sitting areas in the main room. And signs for free internet.

I go up to the front desk but the attendants are occupied with several hyper-American patrons. One of the patrons says something in Italian with a crushing, crushing American accent. I laugh. The female attendant looks up at me, smiles, and asks, "Italiano?" "No." "Capisce?" "From time to time." Both attendants laugh.

I check into my room, and take the working elevator up the required five flights of stairs. In the room I find what I take to be a platonic American couple, less than thirty, the woman is Indian and the man is East Asian. The only available bed is a bunk bed, with the top already taken. I prefer the bottom anyways.

Shrugging off my things, I consider taking a shower, but decide not to. I'm only going to get disgusting again in several minutes. I head out for the city.

Part II: I Shot the Law, and Got This Photo

For some reason my route for the first day was terribly, terribly mediocre – especially in light of what I saw the second day. Mediocre plazas, gardens that no one is permitted to enter. They wash by, leaving little to no impression. The only really decent one is a church upon an enormous plaza that reminds me of the Alamo – or rather, reminds me of what I think the Alamo probably looks like, since I've never been.

By the time I reach the river things have begun to look more promising. Up ahead is a massive bluff, which is what I wanted to head towards in the first place, counting on the fact that a panoramic sunset view of the city was a bullet-proof plan for the early evening. In any event, the river boardwalk is beautiful, giving pleasant views on both sides of this sleepy, old medieval Italian town. Climbing up the bluff I see many statues, and an ever more impressive view of the city.

At the top I find the bluff is pretty much mobbed. Everyone and their brother got the same idea as me, that it might be nice to watch sunset from a hill. Except, many of them had brought food, whereas the only thing I had for refreshment was an empty bottle of iced tea.

I wander around the groups, appreciating the view, and looking for a suitable place to sit. I hear mainly English, interspersed with a bit of Chinese and the occasional German. Not many Italians apparently. Looking around, I notice on one side a nice looking, Renaissance-type statue of a man looking out at the city, and on the other side, a bit away and down the road, something that looks like a church. I approach it.

Upon arrival I find that the church is actually an abandoned monastery. Much less crowded than the bluff, and with an equal if not better view, I sit down on the front steps.




Impossibly, the car does not go flying off the ledge onto the oncoming Frankish noble, but rather parks right at stairs' precipice. Two cops get out, one is somewhat fat and old, while the other is a young, muscular beef-ball. They begin chatting about the view.

I move off; I don't like to sit near police. The cops take no notice.

I look out at the sunset, my anxiety about departing from Rome and using the foreign rail system completely forgotten. While sitting, thinking about nothing in particular besides my own happiness, I notice that the younger police officer has started taking model shots of the older one. Holding his cap, flexing his muscles. Looking grim. I start taking pictures of these proceedings, but stop, fearing I'll get caught and yelled at. Eventually, the photo shoot appears to finish, and the two lean against their car appreciating the sunset. I go behind them and take several pictures – which I think are nice enough that I'll include it here:

The cops drive off just before sunset finishes, and a German man asks me to take some pictures of him in the sunset. I oblige him, and we talk for several minutes afterwards about how much the city has changed since he was here last. But before long I bid him ado, and descend the hill.

At the foot of the hill, I find the famous Uffizi structure. It's an ancient market built on top of a bridge over the river. It was the only bridge in Florence spared destruction in World War II because of its historical significance. I pass a coffee place that looks really amazing, and then a place for gelato. I promise myself to make a return the next day for both. On the bridge there is a singer performing. I listen, looking out at the river's gentle flow.

It's now well past dinner time, so I make out for the traditional Tuscan eatery recommended by my hostel. Conveniently, this gives me a chance to stroll through a completely empty downtown, and I realize how idiotic my route for approaching the city was. Cutting through only one central street in downtown, I find churches, museums, historic houses, and a most impressive enormous arch over a downtown plaza. Ah well, save the good stuff for tomorrow.

The traditional Tuscan eatery is nestled in a neighborhood disgustingly reminiscent of that surrounding my hostel in Rome. Nevertheless, the food is decent enough. When I ask for Parmesan for my pasta, he brings out a bowl of really delicious premium stuff, that was the nicest part. Half way through the dinner a Russian tour guide came in and a singing, drunken bunch files in. For most of the dinner I can hear them singing boisterously in the back of the restraint.

And so, bloated, full, and terribly smelly, I wander back home to my hostel.

Part III: Eurotrip 2 Close to Home

The bed next to my bunk is occupied by an overwhelmingly dapper Italian man, well pressed khakis, Armani t-shirt, but not of the heavily studed variety so beloved in former-soviet bloc countries. I nod at the man, acknowledging that we will be sleeping within arms reach of each other. He smiles back. I busy myself with gathering the belongings I'll change into after showering.

The shower is spectacular: warm water, high pressure, clean floor. What I had so taken for granted as little as three days prior, now won its due and more with its proper restoration.

I leave the shower relieved. Surveying the room, I find the Indian woman reading trashy Jody Picoult, while the Asian types sporadically on his blog. Going into the adjoining room, where my bed is, I find the Italian laying on his bed, back propped up at ¾ against the wall, staring straight ahead at the ceiling without a thought. I go over to my bed, plop down, then pull out my copy of Dirty Hands for a little reading before I go to bed.

After ten minutes of reading, I look up for a moment to find the Italian unabashedly staring at my face. I look at him in the eyes – warm brown eyes, deer-like and innocent, the coloration reminds me of nutella. All Italians have eyes like this - one wonders that this was at one time a fascist country.

Not wanting to stare, I look down at my book again for thirty seconds, then look up. He's still staring.

I recalled suddenly my dear colloc Guillaume Pouliot, telling me about an interlude in the movie which resonated deeply with the most puerile side of his sense of humor. It was called Eurotrip 2. As I remember the scene, or as I remember Guillaume's telling of it, three men are in the back seat of a car. Two college-age Americans on the outside, and an excessively dapper Italian in the middle. When the car goes through a tunnel, there is momentary darkness, and when we see the car again, the Italian has his hands on the inside of the Americans' legs. The Americans protest, the Italian cries, "Mi Scuzzi, mi scuzzi!" and relents. Another moment, and the car passes another tunnel. This time the Italians' shirt is open, and he is holding the men in their crotches. He cries, "Mi scuzzi, mi scuzzi!" and relents, buttoning up his shirt. Finally, the distraught Americans see that ahead is a mile long tunnel, and look at each other warily. When darkness comes, suddenly the Americans begin shouting over noises of animal sex.

Suddenly, I am worried. What if the stereotype were true? My god, what is this man looking at me for? Am I going to be raped?

Well, if I am, then I'd better speak up about it.

"Buena Sera."

"Ciao." He is caught surprised.

"Comme va?"

"Bene. Parle Italiano?"

"No, un pocitto."



A look of consternation crosses his face, mixed with determination. His expressions are extremely exaggerated – Italians don't live, they act or, more commonly, over-act. He squeezes his lips together firmly, puffs is cheeks and squints up at the air just above my head. Then he snaps his fingers.

"Tu es Français?"

"Ah!" I laugh, "No, Americain."

"Oh!" He says, smiling. "I," he pauses a moment, the look of consternation appears again, but only for a second, "speak-eh the-h Ingliesh."

I'll bet you do.

But in fact, he does kind of speak English. At least, he seems to understand what I'm saying about reading plays and studying in France for a semester. When it comes to his turn to talk, he's extremely slow, but gets his point across eventually. At points in the conversation when someone says something that is almost like a joke, he gets very excited, and hits my shoulder, or my knee. I think to myself, touching the other person like that is often a precursor to other physical contact – he could be being friendly, or he could be being too friendly. I make the transition, telling him that I'm going to read a little more.

I begin reading again, but I'm not actually reading, I'm thinking about my plan. Well, there's nothing to do really. There's at least two other people in the room, probably it's impossible for this guy to try anything and the others not to do anything. Of course, with the way this society is going, who knows. Sure I'll keep my brother, but I'm not gonna keep just any joe-shmo I happen across in the street. I decide that I'll sleep so that my back is on the other side of him, even though it's much harder to fall asleep because that forces my head to be exposed to the light, which is still on.

The bed I'm trying to sleep on is as hard as the floor. In fact, I'm fairly sure it's a piece of fabric on top of a wood board. I'm beginning to suspect that this Hostel has striven very hard to create the surface of a "luxury hostel" – an obvious contradiction in terms – while at the same time cutting as many corners as possible beneath the surface. More power to them.

After half an hour of trying to fall asleep, without much progress being made, I look up. The Italian is staring ahead at the ceiling, but after another second looks at me. I close my eyes. I wonder, has he just been doing that the last half-hour? Looking at the ceiling, then looking at me? At this point, I'm just getting annoyed. The suspense isn't killing me, it's just annoying me. Turn the lights off, go to bed, let me fall asleep, and if you're going to try to catch me unawares, then please, let's stop beating around the bush.

Finally, he gets up, pulls out his bag from under the bed, takes out a pair of elegant light blue pajama bottoms. Then, he takes off his pants, and is standing there in front of me with his underwear. Ahh – I say to myself quietly. But quickly he puts his pajamas on, and takes out a plain white shirt, which he also changes into. Then, he lies down on his bed. He makes as if to sleep with no pillow, using his arms for head-cushion, while his body rests on its side, facing me.

As expected, sleeping open face to a male stranger I don't know and don't trust proves an awkward experience. At some point, I see him put his hand down his pants in order to rearrange his junk; an otherwise unremarkable gesture becomes disconcerting in the Florentine Twilight. I watch him warily, but it seems as if he's not even awake. I go back to sleep.

At 7 sharp, he gets up to go take a shower, and comes back wearing only his underwear. Then he dresses. Then he leaves. He takes everything with him. I get an hour and a half of unperturbed sleep.

Part IV: Of Fortresses, Churches, and Lobster-Americans

My first stop in the morning is a park next to the old fortress. Once dedicated to the might of the Florentine Empire, the fortress now serves as a convention center for textiles and waste-paper related products. Along the way, the miracle of Italian coffee proves itself yet again - a memorable cappuccino and pastry for two euros. I love this country.

The park next to the fortress is not particularly nice. It's bordered on one side by a highway, on another by an off-ramp to the highway, and on the final side by an ominous looking fortress. Such a park attracts typical bad-park fair: homeless dudes, teenage vagrants, and nannies carting around infant children. One particularly odd character in the park was a man doing his morning exercise routine by running around the pond. His face was not unlike-Saddam Hussein's, particularly in the bearded hole-dweller phase. What is more striking about the man was that he's running around with no shirt on, but is nevertheless wearing green cargo-pants and a large brown belt. For footwear, he has workman's boots.

Moving on from the mediocre park, I begin to circle the fortress – which as it turns out is closed, and in any event utterly devoid of historical chatchkis. Circumambulating the structure, I find that on the other side there is a large, viaduct-like structure, which I proceed to mount. Now on top of the viaduct, I immediately realize that what I am looking at is nothing less than the train station. We've literally returned to square one.

The first adventures of the day thoroughly botched, I move on to the church Santa Maria Novella, which is immediately next to the train station. By now my tolerance for churches has gotten so high that I am not terribly impressed with the exterior. As I make to go inside, I am told by the workers that there is a fee to enter the church, unless I am a member of the clergy. Momentarily I consider telling the person working there that I am a member of the clergy, but then think better of it. What kind of a person would lie about their identity to get into some stupid tourist attraction? I pay the fee.

The interior is similar to other second tier churches – religious paintings all done in a very similar, Renaissance or pre-Renaissance style. While wandering around the church, I catch an American couple, in the later stretches of middle age, trying to ask one of the attendants the meaning of an inscription on the floor. He asks the attendant, "Do you speak Latin?"

"No sir, I'm sorry." The Americans look crestfallen. I approach them,

"Excuse me, did somebody call for a Latin-speaker?" I say.

"Yes, yes we did."

"Well, I studied it in high school for three years – maybe I can help?"

"Oh yes!" The woman clapped her hands excitedly. Both members of the couple wore sun-glasses, the man wore an off-white polo with stripes, which was tucked into hiked up shorts. The woman had a sundress on, and a large straw hat. The man had "alright, let's not get ahead of ourselves here" look on his face, as he ambled over to a spot on the floor.

"What is this?" He points to a large seal on the floor, which has latin written on it.

"I don't know . . . it's a lot of text. I can try to figure it out if you like."

"Oh no, just this part." He points at a word Jacobi. "That's my name: Jacob. How'd you pronounce it in Latin?"

"Oh, well, that depends" I begin, "You see, people spoke Latin for over a thousand years, there were many, many accents – and in fact Late Latin and Roman Latin were almost completely different languages."

The man looks at me with a slight frown on his face. "Yeah, but how do you pronounce it?"

"Well, in Roman latin, there is no J, they only had an I. So the name would be Iacobi, pronounced like a Ya. I didn't study Church Latin, so I don't know if they pronounced the J the same way we do. I guess it would be something like Jacobi."

"So it's Iacobi." He said, thoroughly impressed. He turns to his wife, "You hear that: YA-cobi."

"Yes dear." Standing around, it becomes clear that the two want to make conversation – which I'm happy to oblige since I'm still in a people-deprived state. I ask them, "So where you from?" "You ever hear a Kane County?"

Never in my life would I have thought I would be answer the question "Did you ever hear of X county" correctly. I know the names of exactly six counties. Orange County, because of the O.C., Miami-Dade County, because of the 2000 Presidential election, Westchester County, because it's near New York City, and finally, three counties around the city of Chicago: Cook, DuPage, and Kane Counties.

We talk a little bit about being Illinoisains, but after a little while that becomes Illinoising, and we both decide to leave.

My immediate goal is to examine a bunch of old houses that were owned by the Medici and other families. En route, an overweight, sunglass-wearing, lobster- American shouts at me from the passenger side of a car, which is going up the wrong way on a one way street, "Hey, you speak English?" I say back, "Yeah." And approach.

"Hey listen guy, you know where there's any parking around here?" The man is beat-red, with hands so pudgy that he can no longer move only one finger, he has to move all four fingers together –a veritable wall of fingers moving pincer-like against his thumb. He wears a Hawaian style t-shirt adorned with tropical flowers and angler fish.

I tell the man "Sorry, I don't know about parking. I haven't been paying attention to parking since I'm a pedestrian."

The man lowers his sunglasses down his nose, beeding sweat easing their glide. Blue eyes stare out from jowly, recessed sockets. "Wow, you speak good English." He says. I momentarily note that the man obviously has mistaken me for an Italian, and also that "you speak good English" is itself not terribly good English. I squirm, suppressing my palpable desire to say to the man, "Don't you mean, I speak English well?" But he continues.

"Yeah, but haven't you seen any parking?" In fact, this was a redundant question, I had already answered the exact same question before in the negative. But, as it turns out, it was right of him to ask, because I did suddenly recall some parking I'd seen. "Now that you mention it, there was some parking I saw, on the side of the Santa Maria Novella station."

"Any idea how to get there, there's a lot of one-ways around here and it gets confusing."

I glance up and note that the man is in fact going to have to drive forwards down a one-way - a one-way that now itself has a car coming down it, approaching us.

"Like I said, haven't been paying attention since I'm a pedestrian. All I know is that I saw some adjacent to the terminal's east-side."

Apparently the use of the word adjacent had blown the coup, since the man now said, "Are you an American?"

"Yes sir, in fact I am."

"WOO-EE!" He says in disbelief, turning to his compatriots in the car, and then turning back to me, the newly-discovered compatriot in the window, "You're so dark I took you for an "I"-talian! No wonder you speak English so good."

This was my cue to exit, I bid the man good luck and farewell at precisely the moment that the man realized how much traffic doo-doo he'd gotten himself into.

Part V: Broken Vows, Broken Hearts.

As it turns out the Medici home is a very nice, somewhat small. It has a courtyard on the inside, around which the building goes up three or four stories. Again, however, there is a fee to actually go inside the house – this one exorbitantly priced at 8 euros a ticket. Forget it.

Next on the target is Florence's Renaissance Art Museum. Supposedly the best in the world for this type of art, the entrance fee is a still more shocking twelve Euros, with no discount for student of any kind. On the one hand, I spent a lot of money to come to Florence. On the other hand, the price of the ticket is not an insignificant fraction of the trip itself. And I really don't like that kind of art much – so I decide not to go.

With my plan for two hours nixed, I decide to wander the downtown Florence. Up and down, criss-crossing still undiscovered side-streets – I suddenly realize that what is special about Florence is its urban texture. Like Jerusalem, the city of Florence is itself a museum, a time-capsule into a way of life since lost. Florence is not like Rome, one does not take her with an assault, but rather with hours of aimless dance, through forgotten and lonely backstreets, in a more artful and delicate courtship.

For lunch I have a truly terrible slice of pizza, which came as a bit of a shock. Refusing to accept this turn of events, I vow to continue wandering around the city, and keep on the look-out for good places to eat. No sooner had I made this resolution, then I suddenly find myself stumbling upon a tiny store front on an untraversed back-alley on the east side of downtown. Three enormous grey-haired, white-smocked Italian women stand behind the counter. They wear great white bonnets that barely covered the boils on their foreheads, and in any event did nothing for the warts on their noses. Each holds a wooden ladle the size of a small child, which they stir inside an enormous cauldron while muttering to each other "Boilo, boilo, toilo, e trubolo."

I look into the cauldron, and find a beautiful, beautiful stew. In fact, there are two other stews in the back. One is a light red, one is a dark red, and the final is verdant green. I ask the women what they are. The first is a kind of tomato bisque, garnished with pork and lamb. The second is a traditional Tuscan tomato stew, very hearty, full of many vegetables, not to mention large chunks of many animals. The final one is a lentil stew made with wine. It has in it large cubes of beef.

It seemed that if I was going to eat what appeared to be the most delicious soup I'd ever seen, then I would have to break my abstention from meat. What's this? Chateaubrian, a vegetarian? Perhaps. Periodically I decide to foreswear what I love most, in order to keep my Stoic will in top shape. Hence, one year I gave up sex. Another year, ovaltine. This year what I had given up was meat –especially difficult for me given the immense joy I get out of performing ritual torture on animals Luckily, I still have my membership at the Rotary Club of Paris, where I can get my fill of animal-cruelty every third Monday of the month.

In any event, faced with a once in a life-time soup, I decide to break my vow of abstention for the first time since I began it, on New Years of last year, and take the lentil stew in a bread bowl. I do not regret my decision; it was indeed as good as it looked.

For the rest of the day, I have not much to say. I had two encounters with the French of note. The first occurred when I went to the Duomo, which is the enormous church in Florence. Completely overrun by tourists, there is not even a pretense that it is usable for prayer, which does not bother me, since I detest going to Church.

I try to take a nice picture which captures some of the floor and entry way. I dip one knee, bending down. Just as I'm about to take the picture, a thirteen year old girl kneels down beside me, also trying to take a picture. Suddenly I hear from behind me shrieks of laughter, I turn and hear a bunch of teenage girls shouting at my newfound neighbor, "AH! As-tu un nouveau petit ami? HAHA!" The girl stood up and turned red, she goes to stand with the girls. The girls start giggling, but it's somewhat clear that the girl who sat next to me was the alpha girl, momentarily suffering a small uprising. She acts mature, and says to me, *I think*, "Mi scuzzi." I say, "Quoi?" since I didn't hear her right. She says back, somewhat surprised, and aware now that I'd understood everything that this was about. "Vous etes français?" "No, Americain. Mais je peux comprendre un peu."

The other girls, seeing now we were talking in earnest, start shouting, "Mais C'est VRAI, il est ton petit ami! HAHAHA!"

With some shame, I admit that their jeering laughs upset me. It made me feel slighted, upset, and mocked. Momentarily, I was thrust back into a world where I was thirteen, and defenseless in the face of the scorn of pubescent girls. But there was nothing to do, there was no reasoning with them. And there was no reason to talk to the girl, lest the Duomo become even more Lolita than it already was.

The second encounter was a bit more positive – while taking a photo in front of a different church, a woman interferes with my shot. She says, "Oh, Pardon." I reply, "Pas de problème." The woman smiles and nods.

I stopped in a little later at the coffee shop I'd seen my first day. It has a balcony hanging over the river, within twenty feet of the Uffizi. I got a café latte, which is a cup of steamed milk with a shot of espresso. I sit on the balcony over the river, writing some of my reflections.

After the coffee, I was sweating quite profusely, and realized that it was already time to go back to the hostel and change into my dinner clothes. Tonight I would be treated to dinner by a college-friend of my mother, Mike Armstrong, nephew of the more famous Neil Armstrong. I was to meet them at their hotel at 6:30 PM, sharp.

I'm running a bit early, but decide there's no harm in that. At 6:15, I find myself walking up a street near the hotel, when I see Mike and his wife Karen walking towards me. I say, "Hey!" Mike says, "Well, you look more familiar than the average Italian!" I bet I do. I was happy to find that my parent's friends had not turned into Lobster-Americans, which is a tendency that all Americans, souf moi, must struggle mightily against.

We head out to the restaurant, chatting lightly as always, for you see, Mike and Karen have a sense of the adventure of things, and as we are all on vacation; we are in the midst of adventure. Part of me wonders what the two were doing leaving their hotel half-an-hour before we were supposed to meet. They must have thought we were supposed to meet at 6:00, and that I was fifteen minutes late. In fact, I was fifteen minutes early, and good thing too, because if not, I might have been sitting in an American Luxury Hotel – and then who knows what might have happened.

At dinner, the waiter takes our drink order. Mike asks if I'd like a beer. I say that I think I will, beer is much cheaper and better outside of Paris –all they drink is Kronenbourg. The waiter asks me, "In Paris the beer isn't good?" I find my words being twisted, I say, "Well I study there, and me and my friends, well, we think that five euro for a glass is a lot." Then the guy says, "Well yes, Paris is expensive, I know since I am French." Suddenly my heart leaps – for the first time on my trip in Italy, I have the opportunity to conduct a daily-life encounter without reverting to dumb American tourist status. I ask him where he's from, he says the Basque Country. He tells me he misses the surfing there in particular, and that I should visit some time since it is very beautiful. Mike and Karen are deeply impressed by my savoir-faire.

The meal is excellent, although I mistakenly ordered two pasta dishes – one of which I am fairly sure had meat on it. Afterwards, stuffed, we go out for a little night walk and profitto rolls. And then I bid the two adieu and thanks for graciously treating me to dinner. And I return to the hostel.

Part VI: Man Misjudged.

In the room I find that there is a new-comer, a Brazillian girl, who is chatting amiably with the Indian woman. The Asian is still on his blog, and the Italian is back at the ready station, lying on his bed, staring into space. I say hi to the Italian, asking "comme va." And we begin our rudimentary form of chatting.

After five minutes of this, the Indian girl comes over and asks if we want to play cards. I say sure, and the whole ensemble cast of our Hostel room goes out to the deck. Sitting outside, there is a dilemma, what are we going to play? Someone suggests rummy, another hearts. The Italian is baffled by the names, he doesn't know any of these games.

I seize on the chance to profit by cultural interchange, I ask, "Well, do you know any games you could teach us?"

He says, "Io? I-ah no play widda these-ah cards. I-ah neapalatino, we playa widda da cards neapalotino."

"Are those different?"

"Si, si. You see, instead of this-ah one" He points at a club, "we have a . . . " the look of confusion comes onto his face. His eyes grow wide, he puffs his cheeks and blow through his firmly pressed lips. Shaking his head, "I-ah cannot-ah remember." He says, "You know." And then curls his fist in a ball, and then makes kind of a Tommahawk motion with his clenched fist. I give him a pen and let him draw it. Sure enough, it's a dagger. "Dagger" I say, and the Italian snaps, smiling, and pointing his finger towards my eyes, "Thats ah right –a dagger." He goes through all the cards, there are four suits in neapolitain cards – and no face cards.

I say, "So why don't why play Neapolitain cards with these?" "But its ah no possiblo!" He says, "These are-ah not cards Neapalitino." "But why don't we just switch." For some reason the man is completely baffled by this. For the next five minutes the whole table tries to explain to him what we mean by switch, as in pretend that each card stands for a Neapolitain equivalent – easily done since there are the same number of cards in both.

Finally, the Italian says, "So you wanna change the cards for Neapolitno?" "Yes." "Oh, okay, sure." And then he begins saying which one will be which. This is very characteristic of talking with the Italian. You want something very obvious, he gets confused. After lengthy explanation, he finally understands it, and summarizes what you wanted in language almost identical to what you asked for in the first place.

The game he teaches us is basically Euchre, but requires a bit more strategy. On the whole it's an excellent card game. During the point tabulation, however, something doesn't make sense. The way the Italian, whose name it turns out is Enzo, is adding up the score – it could be possible to have a tie. I start explaining this to him, he doesn't get it. Finally, I start doing the calculation that motivated me to this realization. Then suddenly he gets what I'm saying, and smiles broadly. "AH!" He claps his hand, and then sticks one out and rubs my head. He leans over to the Indian woman, "You see – the mathematica! A mathematishian – he knows-ah da cards." He then starts explaining to the woman my calculation, and then, "You see, he a tells a me he a study the mathimatica. That means I tella to you – don't play-ah da cards with-ah him for ah the money" He pinches his hands together making the dollar motion. "Only like this, comme amici, you-ah play with a this guy."

As it turns out, I had been deeply unfair to Enzo. His boisterous, friendly approach to life, and his excellent sense of dress, had made me wary, cruel, and xenophobic. In truth, I was no better than any other lobster-American, except perhaps worse, for I had imagined myself to be something more. But in the end there was no harm, Enzo knew nothing of my angst passing the night near his arms, and I could tell he liked me a lot. As we went to bed, I told him – "you know, my-ah family, we-ah come from-ah Italia." "I-ah know," he said. "You have-ah look-ah like an Italiano." "It's ah good to be ah back-ah home." I said. "Bienvenuto." He replies. I went to bed, back to him, face turned against the wall.