Il Journale Vitruviano

Since I could not blog while on vacation, I purchased a small book from the Galleria delgi Uffizi bookstore emblazoned with the image of Da Vinci’s Uomo Vitruviano, and recorded my thoughts there. This provided me with an outlet for my hypergraphia and it provides you, if you are interested at all, with a travelogue of my journey.
By way of background, we stayed most days with my grandmother’s sister, Zia Celestina. Zia is a pensioner and lives in the crowded resort city of Forte dei Marmi, the commune of her birth. Zia will not hear of the idea that family from America would stay anywhere but in her Euro-sized spare bedroom along with her sister (whom we accompanied on the outbound trip; she is still there now with my mother as I write). Better to suggest murder than to suggest we stay in a hotel. And the home-cooked meals were all very good, despite a kitchen that looked, other than the microwave, like it predated the war. Things got tense with The Wife until she settled in to the Italian mindset, and my level of happiness rose and fell with my access to quality food, quality beds, and quality plumbing; even then the inadequate facilities at Zia’s house and our inability to procure our own accommodations was a matter of some tension, the details of which I have omitted here.
I’ve left most of that out here, since the ups and downs of a marriage are for the partners in the marriage and no one else. I’ve tried to retain only enough of it to give a bit of the flavor in these, the contents of Il Journale Vitruviano, which follows after the jump.
After 14 hours in flight and more in airports, driving 4 hours is a bad idea.
Autogrill in Civitavecchia sucks. A suprirse after a good experience previously in Veneto.
The doves coo differently here, but they do it at the same time of the morning. The frogs croak differently too. Do all animals have accents?
The Wife reacts badly to crowds. I thought May was still the shoulder season.
Gli motorini represent a failure of Darwinism. They seem totally unconcerned with surviving long enough to reproduce.
Italian food is good because it is made from good ingredients, tastes like itself, and it has a lot of salt. Mmm, salt.
We got here Sunday and this is Wednesday morning. Adapting to a nine hour time difference is a challenge. Doing it in a big city like Firenze, and in a hotel with typically thin walls to boot, is a bigger challenge. The trick, I think, is to stay in motion, to stay active.
I wanted to find all the statues in the courtyard of the Uffizi. But the renovations have a stretch of them under scaffolding.
On the next trip here, if we stay in Forte dei Marmi, I will vote for taking the train into Firenze from Viareggio. Driving here is insane. Of course, if we had done the train, we’d have missed out on this thoroughly adequate three star hotel outside of the centro for only €75 a night. But we’d have saved an hour of driving around in search of an open parcheggio and two kilometers of extra walking, bickering, and stress.
Advertising in Europe is a mix of the sophisticated and sexy with bizarre permutations on U.S. pop culture. The perfume ads border on the pornographic. Bug Bunny in hip-hop clothes selling Kleenex, though, is just plain weird.
The church bell ringing at 7:00 a.m. was loud. Good thing I was already awake. It seems odd that this would be allowed, but then again, the city is loud almost all the time anyway.
Firenze feels a lot like New York City. Compact, difficult to navigate, locals and tourists in a constant state of inevitable tension.
We stopped for lunch at a café near Galleria dell’Accademia.  Caters to tourists, food was only OK. Next to the café is a three-story apartment with lots of young women going in and out. No men. Their contempt for the tourists was palpable. The tourists’ behavior, though, largely justified it.
Firenze’s Museo Archeologico has a lot of good pieces. But you will need a guide to fully appreciate it, or the museum needs a better curator. You can only tell so much looking at a little bronze statuette of a god holding a plate with a divot in the middle, without commentary.
I’m sure the kid from Pittsburgh wearing his “Kiss my ass, I’m on vacation” T-shirt to the Uffizi thought he was being very clever to go look at the most impressive collection of Renaissance art in the world thus dressed.
The Wife has developed a “five-star” bathroom rating system. A toilet in Italy gets one star each for the following:  toilet set, toilet paper, hot running water, soap, a device with which one might dry one’s hands. Italy has a surplus of zero-star bathrooms.
Can gelato get better? Yes, when one discovers a new favorite flavor. Malaga (run raisin) is good, but melone (we Americani would call it “cantaloupe”) is extraordinary and intensely-flavored.
One profits from a view of David “in the round.” There is a reason this statue is so famous.
Lemon soda is incredibly refreshing on a hot day.
Panic: when all your credit cards are declined, four days in to your European vacation, and you don’t know why.
Annoyance: missing your exit on the autostrada and having to navigate surface streets thereafter by the sun.
One day, everyone will have a cell phone that is compatible with American, European, and Asian network frequencies – and the telecom companies will have worked out deals with one another so their subscribers can buy “guest time” in one-week, two-week, and one-month blocks, so as to avoid prohibitively high roaming charges. That day is not yet here, so wireless communication and computing is not yet globalized sufficiently to be available to middle-class tourists sensitive to such charges.
The best times we had in Firenze were spent in quiet places, far away from crowds. Ergo, spend as much future time on this trip in sparsely-populated parts of Italy. Avoid cities. And good luck with that.
Adapting to Euro-time would be easier if family meals didn’t go from eight until midnight.
Italians and politics: a volatile mix! Three Italians, four opinions.
A curious mix of Italian and English prevails at family dinners, much like Spanglish in court.
The institution of the Italian family dinner is not like the family dinner in Anglo or German homes. It is both more prosaic and more intimate. It’s an everyday sort of thing, to which you contribute rather than attend. It is a way of making the bonds of friendship and love deeper and a part of one’s everyday life. Instead of family visiting every once in a while, dinner intertwines lives, minds, and hearts. If nothing else gets taken from this experience, it should be the power of gathering nightly.
The mourning doves here coo with three series of three coos, with the middle of each series louder and higher pitched, like: “Hoo-HOO!-hoo…  Hoo-HOO!-hoo…  Hoo-HOO!-hoo.”  Back home, they sound more like “Hoooo-ooo, hoo-hoo-hoo.” The first long coo rises and falls in pitch. The American doves coo slower than their Italian cousins.
There is much – much – to recommend a two-and-a-half-hour lunch with a full bottle of wine, with two courses of food each, in a shaded piazza.
The guidebooks could do a better job of explaining that Lucca shuts down between noon and three so you can’t shop or sightsee during those hours.
As The Wife and I enjoy the tail end of our lunch, a political rally begins at our restaurant. I’m curious if “Partido Democratico” is in sinistre or in dereste; it looks on the left but things can be deceiving here so I’m not making that assumption. The politicians themselves are obviously busy giving speeches and canvassing voters. The young people on the advance crew are gossiping among themselves, laying the foundation for the time they hope to move into the next rank of government and politics. The amount of noise and conversation is impressive even by Italian standards. Our restaurant has platters of tiny sandwiches and cookies for the donors, politicians, and voters to eat when the speeches conclude. I don’t know the issues or the identities, but the roles and functions, and the kinds of people filling them, are obviously the same as they are back Stateside.
All day we walked around Lucca. On the walls, off the walls. But what we took away were trinkets for friends, a new purse for The Wife, a new briefcase for me, and a few other things. The historic center of this medieval city, so carefully guarded, so much-coveted by the powers around it, so heavily-fortified and time-beautified, taken with so much blood and treasure, is now a gigantic shopping mall for tourists.
I take that back. It’s too cynical; there is history here to be preserved and it has been. But so many stores sell similar, if not identical, things, and it’s hard to know what things are at good prices or are of good quality. Even something like wine that I know reasonably well, is still hard to judge if only because of the currency conversion. Some shops clearly do sell good merchandise at good prices. Others, though, sell crap at ruthlessly cynical profits. The tourist can be hard pressed to tell the difference.
Today in Lucca was the first day since arriving that I have not been treated to a procession of depictions of blonde Madonnas. Future blonde Madonnas, I expect, will be incidental to the real focus of each day. The Madonna, if she existed, was almost certainly not blonde.
In every shop we have been in, we heard music in English, not Italian. The shopkeepers said, “We like it.”
The Wife said I should get a jersey of the Italian national football team. I told the shopkeeper I wanted an XL and made a joke about being “il grosso Americano.” To my great surprise, she said, “Si. It is all the bad food you eat in United States. Here, I have for you your size.” I was insulted but was in no position to contradict or argue with her because she was so obviously correct in everything she had said.
Despite this, The Wife and I are eating and drinking freely – and walking until our feet hurt every day.
An unsolvable problem at Zia’s home is the shower. There is only one bathroom, with an old-style Italian shower – it sits low, on a hose, and Italians store their dry towels in the shower chamber itself. There is also only a small amount of hot water available at any one time. So I shower every other night, and then sleep in my clothes worn earlier that day and never really feel 100% clean. The Wife showers in the mornings. All showers are Navy-style as a courtesy to my grandmother and her sister who may want hot water themselves but never seem to shower when we are around. This is not a changeable arrangement and The Wife and I can only complain of it to one another, never to Zia or to Nonna.
“Do the Italians ever go to the bathroom?” The Wife asks. A good question; I, too have yet to see any of them get up during or even after dinner to use the facilities despite eating and drinking for hours at a stretch. I don’t have any idea how they do it and it can’t possibly be relaxing. I say, if you’ve gotta go, go.
I gave The Wife permission to water down her wine at home in the future. I hope she doesn’t do that with the really good stuff. But she doesn’t like the dizziness of getting drunk, or the aftereffects of a hangover. And watering down one’s wine has a long history in Italy.
What’s with mostly-empty restaurants demanding (and me paying) a cover charge?
For some reason, The Wife and I are not communicating effectively. She does not seem entirely comfortable and this makes me wary of her; she seems overly deferential to me which I take as a sign that she is somehow unhappy but not articulating why. This left us having another long, elaborate, and expensive lunch in Chianti when we both would have been happy with pizza or panini, and time wasted in an admittedly nice place that I would have rather spent touring the countryside and sampling wine.
Chianti is much more heavily-forested than I had imagined. In the U.S., we dedicate an area to agriculture and farm it intensively, clearing out most of the original vegetation. But Chianti has more forests than vineyards and orchards. I wonder if all the forestation has benefits to the ecology of the area, which translates into higher-quality grapes and wine coming from the region?
At first I thought it unfortunate that the roads in Chianti were so twisty and turny, producing some dangerous driving behavior. But then I got on the superstrada from Siena to Firenze and saw the real insanity in Italian driving.
English-speaking tourists – maybe two-thirds Americans and the rest Brits – area plurality but not a majority of non-natives here. For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a lot of Asian tourists. The displacement seems to have been caused by the many, many Russians – most of whom are, unfortunately, even more ill-mannered than the Americans.
The Wife has acquired a fetish for doorknobs. Significant time is spent looking at and photographing doorknobs of people who live in the villages and cities we visit. She got a very good hit with a knocker that looked like King Tut in the city square of Giaole in Chianti, probably the quaintest and most definitively Italian of the many villages in Chianti we’ve been through or in.
Quality Tuscan ceramics are really f-ing expensive.
Tomorrow rain is forecast by the meteorologist on RAI 1. I should not complain after five gloriously sunny and hot days in a row. But a drive into the mountains will be more challenging in the rain.
Come to think of it, I’ve been driving a lot. Hopefully much of tomorrow at my cousin’s B&B will be spent at rest and not behind the wheel.
Agriturismo is where you come to Italy to pay an Italian farmer to do labor which he otherwise would have to pay a Turk to do. In exchange, he prepares the same food for you that he would have sold you for half the price that you have paid for the privilege of working on the farm. And you don’t get a share in the profits of your labor. This is not my idea of a good time, but hey, to each their own.
Twelve bottles of good table wine from Gaiole in Chianti (it’s not all Sangiovese grapes so it can’t be called “Chianti”) set us back €42. That’s €3.50 a bottle. Not the best I’ve ever had but I’d serve it to friends without apology. Not worth it to ship back to the states – it’ll be a gift for Zia.
A religious procession came down the impossibly narrow street in front of Zia’s house this evening. When it approached, Zia panicked and rushed out the door without explanation. Nonna instructed The Wife and I to sit and finish our dinners, and rushed out in an equal panic. Of course we weren’t going to do that, and went outside to see Zia and Nonna lighting candles all over the brick wall on her front yard, and a parade of about fifty pilgrims, six priests, and some altar boys holding ceremonial objects in front of the priest using a bullhorn. They were walking down the street, chanting the rosary, going from one church in the commune to another until they hit them all. None of the pilgrims seemed to be enjoying themselves. Other than the altar boys, none seemed to be under sixty years of age.
A morning spent getting lost in the Alpi Apuania three times, guided by my grandmother bickering with her sister, is not good for morale. Eventually, The Wife and I worked out a system by which we ignored them and she navigated our way using the helpful Google map my cousin printed out for us, relating the data on the map to the signs on the roads. One thing is clear about Italian road engineers – they lie. Sometimes they lie by omission but sometimes they just plain lie.
Arriving at the B&B up in the hilltop town is a boost to our morale. It is so quiet and relaxing here, it would seem unfathomable back in the States. Less driving = more happy.
An American would be hard-pressed indeed to find the tiny speck of a village in which my cousin has a B&B, the foundations of which were laid in 1746, before the United States even existed. There is an orchard of olive trees, a trellis of pinot grapes, and a spring-fed stream watering the place. The roads are narrow enough and run through tunnels underneath people’s houses; you can touch both sides of the tunnels with your outstretched arms and touch the ceiling of the tunnels if you stand on tiptoe or are taller than I. Homes are vertical like this as a matter of topography. Windowsills are made of marble as often as they are brick or concrete, as a matter of economy. It is a pastoral paradise. I drained my camera’s battery taking pictures of the many different wildflowers and the monumental valley falling down to the sea. I forgot my extra camera battery and charger back at Zia’s house, which is very inconvenient considering our upcoming destinations, so I will have to rely on The Wife to serve as photographer-general for the next two days.
There’s a wedding going on at the next village. Everyone from this village, including all my family, has gone. We can hear church bells pealing all over the valley and about five minutes ago every car in the place began honking their horns all at once. We could have gone too, but chose to stay and enjoy the peace and solitude of this astonishingly beautiful and isolated place, the cool of the mountain breeze and the laughter of the stream. And one another’s company. Reading, or in my case writing, quietly has its charms too. Since my cousin has worked so hard to make this place a refuge of tranquility, we shall enjoy what he has created.
We have had a large lunch, and every reason to expect a similarly large dinner in our near future, and a hike up and down the hills is in order to counterbalance the caloric and soporific effects thereof.
It’s interesting that we humans find the sound of birds chirping to be relaxing and pleasurable. To the birds, chirps are made to attract mates, repel rivals, to establish territories, to defend or invade territories, to ward off predators or signal friends of the presence of food. Chirping is serious business; it’s a survival tool for the birds who chirp. But to us, it is nature’s version of pleasant background music.
It seems so unspoiled and natural here, a step back in time a century or more. Until you hear car horns honking or look in the sky and see contrails. Still, it is easy to forget the complex and stressful world outside this remote mountain village. Sunset magazine would approve of the patios and gardens ornamenting about half of the homes up here.
The campanile in the next village is used to play actual music each night! At about 7:00 some tune was played which sounded oddly like Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again” but which I am sure is really some Italian hymn rang throughout the valley.
The first drink of liquid one takes in the morning is bracing. It runs along the walls of one’s stomach, a reminder of our organic nature and it brings relief and nourishment to the body, a relief from the stress caused by the previous night’s fast.
Part of the relief from stress I feel here is the absence of the television. Zia turns on RAI 1 every morning as soon as she wakes up, even before she makes coffee. It stays on all day, even when she is not home; turning the TV off is the last thing she does before falling asleep. I know this keeps her company during the day, but for us it is distracting and loud – it doesn’t help that, of course, it is all in Italian and therefore very hard for us to understand. But in Italian or English, the television is a massive distraction and I enjoy its absence.
The Wife kind of freaks out when there are spiders around. So when I saw the scorpion on the wall, I knew “This will simply never do.” He was not hard to capture under a glass. But he looks really cool; the articulation of his red armor and the way he moves, holding his pincers out when he advances or pushing back with them when he retreats, is fascinating. I can not allow him to escape, not in the room, for fear that he will find The Wife or I and sting. But I don’t want to kill him, either. Tomorrow I will show him off to the children and let him go; but chances are, scorpions are common in these mountains.
There is, of course, no graffiti here in the tiny mountain village. But even in the cities, I’m struck by the odd quality of the graffiti we’ve seen. Much of it is on the order of “Have a day filled with love” and “Good luck in your life!” It’s a bit disappointing; back home and in other European cities, graffiti marks gang activity or at least expresses some kind of political subversion. Beneficent blessings are not the appropriate content for graffiti.
My grandmother’s family is so big that a substantial portion of dinner conversations consist of arguments over just how many siblings any particular person has and how different people are related to each other. I infer from what I can make out of the argument on this subject between Zia and Nonna that they dispute whether or not to count an infant brother they had, or would have had, because he died of scarlet fever almost immediately after he was born and before he could be christened. The rest of us, Italian and American alike, remain silent because of the melancholy nature of this dispute. After pecorino cheese for dessert, Nonna also treated us, fueled no doubt by several glasses of vino tavolo, about the virtues of marriage and growing old with someone – no doubt aimed at my cousin Frederico who will not marry his girlfriend (who calls herself allergic to marriage; she wouldn’t marry him if he asked and just might leave him if he did).
A cousin and her husband have joined us, and I enjoy their company very much. They are about our age – late thirties, early forties – and the husband is built kind of stocky from enjoying food and drink with friends, much like I am. It is a welcome relief from the many impossibly skinny Italians we’ve seen around. He is also one of the few people of any nationality I’ve seen who seems to prefer drinking the ubiquitous but rarely-touched bottles of l’acqua frizzante on many dinner tables. Most people prefer l’acqua naturale, with “no gas.” I found that I liked the fizzy water too, when I added a slice of lemon to it. They have their children, a girl of ten years whose nose is constantly buried in a book and a boy of five who is all energy, all go, all the time, as five-year-olds are wont to be. He is completely unimpressed to have relatives from America and does not seem to really understand why we have difficulty speaking normally like everyone else.
A shower posed a riddle that took me more than half an hour, and required outside assistance, in order to solve. Apparently, the unmarked knob is not supposed to be turned but pushed in order to get water flowing through the shower. It is a miracle of Italian design – clean, elegant, and beautiful, but without elaborate instructions which you are assumed to already know, completely non-functional. This sours my otherwise good mood.
Family is unhappy that we are leaving so early; they thought we would stay for lunch but we do have to drive to Ravenna tonight and it is raining. The rain is more of an excuse than anything else because it will take the better part of an hour to kiss our goodbyes to eight people. And we do need to be going because even at top reasonable speed under ideal driving conditions it will still be at least four hours to get to our destination. So we beg off lunch and risk giving offense.
As it turns out, rain on narrow, twisty mountain roads is what it takes to make Italians drive in a reasonable and safe fashion. Well, most of them.
An amazing number of merchants have “trouble” with credit cards. I suspect that it has something to do with the 3% surcharge imposed by the credit card company and less to do with purportedly unreliable telephone lines. Cash is king in Italy.
We stopped for lunch in Parma. I love writing that. We stopped for lunch in Parma. And yes, it was really good. Pizza with Parma ham and shaved Parmagiano Reggiano cheese, followed by real tiramisu made with actual ladyfingers and cocoa.
Today is our seventh wedding anniversary. I love sharing this adventure with my wife. I am still in love with her after all this time.
A ten-Euro purchase of a set of five CD’s titled “This Is 80’s!” at an autostop near Bologna turns out to be five discs of poor live performances and strangely muted remixes of a lot of 80’s songs that we sort of remember but didn’t really like all that much back then, much less now. Even the songs we like sound oddly flat. Well, what do you want for ten Euros?
Initially, Ravenna seems to be an unremarkable, mainly industrial, Italian city. But it has five UNESCO world heritage sites, and they are well worth the designation. We saw one, San Appinolare Nuovo, after checking in to our hotel and it took my breath away. The cathedral was original for Arian Christians who put up the first mosaics, and was later converted over to Roman Christianity, who did the second and lower layer of mosaics. They glow emerald and gold in the evening light and have such intense colors and amazing detail. The narration is powerful and the depth of detail achievable with squares of glass needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
Dinner out on Sunday night is hard to find. It’s cold and intermittently rainy in Ravenna but mainly the problem is it’s Sunday and stuff is closed. Eventually, we find a pizzeria and I order a dish of pasta, which is somewhere between “mediocre” and “you really sell this to people to eat?” I would have sent it back except there seems to be nowhere else in town to eat at all, and it was reasonably priced. But I tell the hotel about my bad experience so it can avoid referring guests there in the future.
If you’re looking for hotel reservations in Italy, I suggest as a good place to go. The hotel reserved through venere in Ravenna is exceptional – a four-star room in a converted noble palace. It has parking in the courtyard (score!) and the rooms have very high ceilings. The footprint of the room is very generous by even American standards, and the bed – finally! – is soft enough to actually sleep on. Two pillows each instead of the standard sack of potatoes that the owner’s grandmother slept on during the war (and she was grateful!) and a shower that, at least by European standards, is well above average in terms of space in which to clean oneself and adequacy of water pressure. I won’t complain about a little bit of traffic noise in the evening; this is by far the most comfortable accommodation we’ve had the entire trip.
Ravenna is not off the tour-group radar, but it isn’t one of the “big five” Italian cities, either. If you’ve got some Italian tourism already under your belt, this is a good place to go.
No church bells in Ravenna but the city audibly comes alive at promptly 8:00 a.m. Ye Gods what are they doing to the street out there?
The Wife was shy about doing laundry back at my cousin’s B&B. I don’t know why. But as a result, we’re running out of clean clothes and since we’re likely to stay overnight elsewhere tonight, we may have to buy new clothes soon.
Ravenna’s famous Piazza del Populo is stately and attractive. The adjacent Piazza Garibaldi has all the charm of a parking lot with a statue in the middle of it because it is a parking lot with a statue in the middle of it. One would think the Ravennese would have found a more fitting way to honor the great warrior at the heart of the Risorgimento.
A travel agency here in Ravenna is selling tours to different places. This includes places in the United States, and top billing is a tour of… Indiana?  Really?  Not New York, not Washington, not San Francisco, not Las Vegas, not the Grand Canyon, not Hollywood and Los Angeles, not the foliage in New England, not Hawaii or Florida. Indiana. What’s in Indiana that this company thinks Italians will want to see? Not that I’m trying to diss Indiana here, but it’s not exactly on the top twenty places I’d suggest a non-American go to visit in the U.S. unless they had family there. I wouldn’t see any particular reason to pick Indiana as my own travel destination unless I were seeing a Colts game.
Elections here are done on a Sunday and a Monday. To select a party, candidate, or option on a referendum, you draw a large “X” over the very large (5 cm to a side) square of the option you want. In the U.S., we refer to “x-ing out” an option you don’t want.
Italian TV, like U.S. TV, has dozens of channels on cable, but not much on. Periodically, and for no apparent reason, a crime will take place which causes panic in the media, resulting in a flurry of wall-to-wall coverage and hysteria. Yesterday, a story broke of a man who apparently took his wife and child out into the forest and murdered them. A sad thing, if it is true, but how is that different than the sadness of the hundreds of other murders that take place every year? But this one is the lead story on all the news, outpacing the pending elections, the war in Libya (upon which reporting is strangely muted), the newly-discovered pedophile priest in Napoli, or the Giro d’Italia that seems to be following us everywhere we go in Italy.
The courtyard of San Vitale is covered with artifacts from many centuries. The pediments of the statutes bear the mark “S.P.Q.Rav.”
The mosaics are truly stunning. It seems sacreligious to walk on them, but the artists of centuries ago leave you no choice; the floors are embedded with glorious and intricate artwork. The star of the show are the three mosaics by the altar – Christ triumphant, Justinian on the right, and Theodora on the left. The frescos are worthy of detailed study in their own right; they are deep and fascinating and obviously the result of very skilled artists. But they are overshadowed by the glory of the mosaics.
After touring her mausoleum, I would like to learn a lot more about Gallia Placidia, the Gothic queen who ruled Italy from Ravenna. But history seems to gloss over the Gothic rulers of Italy and they seem to have had quite a lot in common with the Romans they displaced – respect for the rule of law, appreciation of art, fostering of industry and skilled artisans, trade and urbanization. The image of the Goths as ravenous, plundering barbarians is clearly incorrect.
Restaurants here are often deceiving. We thought to step in to a café to get a quick Panini before heading out on the road and instead have had another long and delightful lunch ornamented by wine and dessert – this time with very reasonable prices. Wine with lunch by the half-liter carafe is just right – about a glass and a half for both of us.
If you were to describe an Italian pizza to your typical ignorant American, it would not sound good to her: a thin, light crust with only a little bit of tomato sauce and only a little bit of mozzarella cheese. To someone who relishes the idea of a vulgar deep-dish Chicago-style pizza would be disappointed at what the Italians serve. But the high quality ingredients, the balance of the ingredients, and the intensity of the flavors more than suffices for the purported lack of quantity. A single Italian pizza is more than enough for one person to eat in a meal.  It’s not served cut; you have to cut it yourself with a knife and fork, but it is acceptable to cut it into pie-like slices and eat the slices with your hands. I usually cut squares and use my fork, though. The thinness of the pizza is deceiving; it is a satisfying meal.
Seeing a commercial for McDonald’s in a language you do not fully understand is a good way to deconstruct it. It is almost completely free of commercial content such as information about the product being sold.
As if four UNESCO world heritage sites in one day were not enough. As though we had not had our fill of the strange mix of sublime beauty and art mixed with schlocky souvenir shops, of beautiful hotel rooms equipped with plumbing that doesn’t quite work right. As though Italy were not chaotic and bizarre enough. We have now left Italy and come to the Republic of San Marino, an independent nation that is an enclave of Italy near the city of Rimini, with its eponymous capital within an elaborate castle atop an imposing mountain.
Culturally, ethnically, and linguistically, the Sammarinese are indistinguishable from their Italian cousins and neighbors. And indeed, many people from Rimini and its suburbs commute to work in San Marino every day because the RSM has fewer than 32,000 citizens, not enough to staff the tourism and banking industries that are the backbone of the economy here. The Sammarinese are obviously proud of their independence, calling their country the “land of liberty” and boasting that they have been an autonomous, self-governing republic since 301. As The Wife and I walked across Piazza della Liberta, ornamented by a statue of Liberty holding a sword in one hand and a torch in the other, we got out of the way of an Audi A8 with two Sammarinese flags on the hood and a well-dressed man in a dark suit in the back seat. I suspect he was one of the two Captains-general, the heads of state of this small Republic who govern for six-month terms along with the sixty-member “Great and General Council” that is the nation’s Parliament. San Marino does not seem to need two co-equal heads of state and a Parliament so much as it needs a city council and a mayor, being only one-fifth the size of my own city in California in terms of population and about twice its size in terms of area.
To my eye, the Sammarinese have built a libertarian paradise, or as close to such a thing as can exist in Europe. RSM is not a member of the EU but no one cares; it mints its own Euros and I will take a one-Euro coin with the RSM logo back home as my souvenir of my visit here.  There seem to be no limits on the kinds of products that can be sold; air guns and replica swords seem to the be among the more popular things available for purchase. But by far the most important physical product produced by Sammarinese industry is the tchotchke.  The merchants here in San Marino believe that you, the tourist, have an endless and unquenchable appetite for tchotchke, and judging by the apparent behavior of tourists here, they seem to be right. But low taxes also enable merchants of more prosaic goods – luxury clothing, perfume, jewelry, and gasoline – to ruthlessly undercut their Italian competitors. I will fill up the gas tank of our rented car here, because no Italian servizio can possibly beat €1.31 a liter based on the prices I’ve been seeing.
San Marino is the only place we’ve been proselytized. A Jehovah’s Witness tried to hand us literature. There must be no law against gypsies trying to sell us crap on the street corner but some law against publicly proselytizing religion – Galt’s Gulch on the Mountain, otherwise known as the Republic of San Marino, must have no such law. But the clerk at the hotel lets slip that RSM may not be quite the libertarian paradise I first thought, because to own property or to own a business, one must be a citizen. Italians are welcome to come here and work, but every business must be owned, at least in significant part, by at least one Sammarinese citizen.
Now, without clean underwear or socks, and pants that still smell of “Puddle de Parma” on their cuff, and without a razor with which to shave, it would be nice to go shopping at a regular market. We did not take the trolley down the mountain away from the tourist center because a family came in to the trolley stop with us and their three-year-old daughter was such a monster that we fled the lobby rather than continue to share space within earshot of her. Tomorrow I will have to solve these sartorial problems, because all that is within walking distance of our hotel are tchotchke vendors.
The view here is stupendous. From our hotel room we can see the western hinterland of San Marino, which borders on the Italian province of Le Marche. It is so green you would swear you were looking at Ireland or some other land cut from an emerald. On the other side of Mount Titiano, where the tower and castle complex houses the historic center of the city, there is a commanding view of the Adriatic Sea. One can easily imagine lookouts stationed at the castle noting the passage of Venetian galleys or Turkish warships. If that same lookout were to make the mistake of looking down, vertigo would be instant and intense as the tower is built on top of a sheer cliff falling nearly a kilometer to Emilia-Romagna below.
The centro storico is indeed magnificent to look at, worthy of its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is like a medieval fantasy, except for the presence of electric lamps. It was easy to walk the quiet, forested path from the second to the third towers in the defensive complex and to think that it was really 1411 instead of 2011.
Two weeks away from the computer may be doing my carpal tunnel syndrome some good. Scribbling in this little book is clearly not – but I’m only doing this for about ten to fifteen minutes a day. Worse for my wrist and hand is all the driving – but it’s kind of fun to drive stickshift again.
Here’s a shocker – The Wife really likes the Italian tradition of eating cake for breakfast.
Sammarinese sangiovese is full-bodied but seems more aromatic than its Emlian counterpart. I would serve it to friends at home and will make a bottle of Sammarinese one of the four I take back home, along with the olio nuovo from Chianti.
Campari and soda cocktails are bitter. But they are also refreshing, and they come pre-mixed in little bottles.
San Marino: We came, we climbed a lot of hills, we slept on a hard bed in a beautiful hotel room, and we ate gelato.
A stop at the Globo store in Rimini solves some of our sartorial problems, and another one brewing – The Wife found a nice suitcase in which to pack all of the stuff we’ve been buying.
My grandmother and her sister both seem to believe that we can’t possibly be happy unless we are actually putting food in our mouths. Granted, the food here is of high quality so they’re on to something, but a happy life does involve more than eating. It also involves driving for no more than four hours at a stretch on an autostrada.  That’s about the maximum of what I’m good for without getting really cranky and that’s if I’m not so tired from lack of quality sleep that I need to stop for an espresso or a lemon soda.
Wow, the Italians keep on giving us gifts! Nice ones, too. We can’t keep up with all the gift-giving and will have to send more gifts back from the States when we get home.
We’ve got to have a snack in the late afternoon because no one in Italy eats dinner before 8:00 p.m. This gets in the way of a good night’s sleep.
The Italians, I think, did not like my gifts of infused tequila. They don’t know quite what to do with it and it isn’t Italian. They fill the need for a firey liquor with grappa and would not think to infuse it with fruit no matter how good an idea that might be. But they only want “traditional” Italian food and drink, and seem to be a little irritated that The Wife and I have been here more than a week and still aren’t fluent in Italian yet.
It just wouldn’t be a trip to Italy without some profound waste of money. In my case, I thought I’d paid the tourist tax when, having forgotten my belt on our expedition to Ravenna and San Marino, I bought a belt at the first men’s clothing store to open in Ravenna which turned out to be Brooks Brothers and I didn’t really want to spend €60 for a belt it was better than my pants falling down around my ass all day long. But, I should also have known that there was no such thing as free parking in downtown Forte dei Marmi, especially on the day of the fashion market in Piazza Marconi. The Wife had been excited for some time about seeing what this market was really like and we found rock star parking and I forgot to look for the parking tag, and it was only a twenty-minute zone anyway. I was under orders to make a €39 donation to the municipal fund of this lovely seaside town – which I was told to pay at the post office but I knew, these Italians, they lie! So I asked around the family and got a guide to take me to the municipal police station and that turned out to be the right place to go, where an indifferent clerk accepted payment in cash only and gave me a very formal-looking receipt.
My mother was to have arrived by now, but her flight from Heathrow to Pisa was delayed. Of course, we had to take the entire movable feast of the two bickering old ladies along with us to the airport so we could help my mother rent her own car and drive herself home. As it worked out, The Wife went with my mom to guide her, and the old ladies slept in my car with my mom’s bags. Before The Wife got behind the wheel of the car, I told her, “Watch out for the Italian drivers. They mean to do you harm.” Then it took them a long time to get back home, because my mom apparently insisted on a route other than the one The Wife and I had taken and they got lost.
Later that afternoon, my cousin came by and offered us a tour of the Medici vacation villa in Saravezza. Saravezza is a marble-mining down and the Medici villa is now used as a museum dedicated to the turn-of-the-century ways of doing work including mining and sculpting marble, farming, ironworking, and textile crafts. The interior walls of the Medici palazzo are concreted over, and a large and rather gaudy bust and crest of King Vittorio Emmanuelle I now ornaments the entrance. The marble itself is beautiful, as is the town, located in a narrow valley of the mountains. One of the caves in Saravezza was where the marble from which Michelangelo’s David was quarried.
We’ve also been denied permission to rent a hotel despite the fact that a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is supposed to house five adults tonight. The solution is for Zia to stay at her daughter’s house a few blocks away. I do not feel right having Zia move out of her own house, but there is no talking her out of this arrangement.
Siena has the famous Palio horse race, but there is a similar Palio in the Versilia. We’ve seen the flags all over to prepare for it, every neighborhood has its own flag and its own mascot. Green and yellow is the frog, yellow and red is the lizard, and our neighborhood is red and white, “Il Ponte” or the bridge. At Saravezza, we saw a group of junior high school age kids drilling with drums and tall flags to prepare for the parade before the race.  Too bad we won’t be here to see it.
The biggest gem from all the Italian dinner conversations came from Fabio, a cousin about my age who, unlike nearly every other Italian in the family, is not outspoken and content to let others do most of the talking. But he’s friendly enough and when I asked him, “Fabio, is Obama popular in Italy?” he said, “Yes.”  “Per che?” was the obvious follow-up question, and he said, using nearly all of his English, “Because he is better than Berlusconi.” No Italian had said anything to me the entire trip that had made me laugh harder.
Our flight home is from Rome, so we said and kissed our goodbyes, handed off my grandmother to my mother, and drove south. We stopped for lunch at a four-star hotel in Tarquinia, a town north of Civitavecchia. There, I asked for the most interesting looking thing on the menu: Taglia carbonara alla mare.  “Carbonara alla mare?” I asked myself. “What could that be?” Turns out to be shellfish and pasta in what could only have been Hollandaise sauce. Very rich, very delicious. I suspect that if the chef had put “Hollandaise sauce” on the menu, no Italian would have ordered it at all; he’s pushing it advertising that the carbonara does not have pancetta the way the rigid canon of Italian cooking demands.  It was good, it tasted as Italian as you could ask for, and it’s a shame he had to play a trick like that to get his food eaten. We also left the waiter a seven-Euro tip and he acted as though we’d given him a new car. How much fun is that, to make someone’s day that way?
Also on the menu in Tarquinia was tuna tartare with oranges and black olives, and a plate of cheeses with two different kinds of honey. It’s apparently traditional in Lazio to serve cheese with honey and they do go together well.
Returning the car at Fiumicino airport was a significant adventure in finding things. These Italians, they lie about where things are.
The Hilton at the airport is well within the comfortable bubble of American culture. Yes, there is some Italian here – the keyboards at the business center are set up for Italian rather than U.S. or even U.K. users, which means a very small shift key and several extra keys to the right of the semicolon. And I could have had American-style cocktails but I stuck with the Negroni instead and insisted on only ordering foods designated “tipico” on the restaurant’s menu. But really, we’re content to just relax in the comfortable hotel on the last day of our vacation instead of running around to see something in Rome for just a few hours.
I worry that I might behave like an ugly American and I’m sure some things I’ve said and done on this trip have caused offense, or at least irritation, to the Italians I’ve come across. But when I overhear other Americans in the hotel ordering “Just a plain pizza, and some French fries, and a Budweiser,” I feel a whole lot better about myself, albeit along with an impulse to apologize for my countryman.
We spend the evening reading, drinking Campari spritzers, and watching Inception – which neither of us had seen before – on the hotel’s pay-per-view. The bed at the Hilton is soft, blessedly and amazingly soft, unlike the marble sarcophagi we’ve been sleeping on everywhere else in Italy.
Alas, the morning shower proves that even the Hilton’s famous demands for high quality cannot transcend the nation in which their contractors work. The Italians are strangely stingy when it comes to showers – the Hilton demanded a full bathtub for the shower, which it got, but then it only got half a shower curtain in the form of a little sheet of safety glass on a hinge, that was just under half the length of the bathtub and not long enough to keep the splatter of the shower water from going out all over the floor of the hotel. Maybe I’m an ugly American about this, but I can’t figure out how or why the Italians can’t design a good shower. They can design good-looking showers, but I think it’s more important that your shower not spill water all over the floor than that it look nice in a photograph.
American breakfast!  Or something close to it. As good as Italian food is (most of the time), they can’t do breakfast as well as Americans. I like my eggs, I like my bacon. Here, you don’t get bacon – you get pancetta. Sliced into strips that resemble bacon. Yes, it’s from the same part of the pig. But it’s seasoned differently, it’s cut fattier, and it’s fried very crispy. I’m not complaining about scrambled eggs and pancetta for breakfast, mind you. Not at all.
Check-in at the airport is what my friend in the Army would have called a “clusterfuck.” Organized with the aplomb and efficiency which are the hallmarks of Italy, it takes us nearly half an hour to use the ten-minute shuttle and two hours to get checked in, only to learn that our flight has been delayed by two hours. The departure gate also changed without an announcement because, as I’ve noted before, the Italians lie about where things are. We figured it out.
One last meal, at the airport, before we depart Italy. It’s good, if much more expensive than I would have liked. Parma ham, salami, a nice piece of smoked cheese, and lemon gelato for me; salmon carpaccio and pistachio gelato for The Wife. Wine for both of us. Expensive, but it’s the last real Italian food we’ll have for quite a while.
The food on the American Airlines flight is, well, American. The first dish is actually pretty good, a pasta in a four-cheese sauce with wilted spinach. But the rest is pretty average. Then, for a mid-flight snack, they serve pizza. Deep dish, bready pizza with too much goopy red sauce and an apologetic look from the otherwise-surly flight attendants, who know we’ve all been eating much better pizza in Italy before we get served this piece of bread pie.
Airports and airlines are strange. They are sort of transnational, with lots of languages being spoken, laws of different countries interacting with one another in inconvenient and strange ways, and signs in pictographs. The people are from all over the world, generally wearing comfortable clothes but looking quite different from one another and it’s easy to figure out, almost at a glance, where people are from. Italians are well-dressed and attractive even when dressed casually. Americans are fat, even the thin ones.
Jack Black in Gulliver’s Travels is the in-flight entertainment? Not exactly U.S. culture putting its best foot forward, I should say.
I’ve started to think in metric and I’ve had a few dreams in Italian already. If I’d stayed an extra week, I wonder how much root the language would have taken. As it is, it will be a strange re-adjustment back to the routines and measurements with which I am familiar.
The GPS map on the flight is strangely fascinating to me. It traces our route over the earth and highlights the names of places I know and others I do not. It also shows the location of the sun – when we took off, two hours late, he was almost directly south of us, in Mali or Chad or southern Libya. He’s racing ahead of us, and we won’t catch up to him, but we’ll give him a run for his money. The altitude and outside air temperature indicators are less interesting to me, and somewhat morbid.
Because we took off two hours late, our connecting flight in Chicago was looking grim. But American Airlines has a system to expedite travelers with short connections. We got to jump the line at Customs and Border Control, which was a really good set-up. We got to run our bags through baggage clearance and re-check quickly, although I wonder why we had to do that at all. The result was a panicked rush from point A to points B, C, D, and E ending with a sprint to the gate from which the flight to Los Angeles was departing.
If we had not been expedited, though, we would have stood in line for customs and passport control for at least two hours, and baggage security and personal security for at least an hour more.
But the bad news came when we had to re-clear security through the TSA screen. The TSA does not care if you make your connection and it opens and closes screening lines at will and gives you instructions to take the slowest line possible when you have to make it through. I try not to attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence, and that nicely describes the way the TSA at O’Hare handled our situation. This was followed by arriving at the gate with three minutes to spare before boarding, just enough time for me to panic because I thought I’d lost my cell phone while The Wife used the restroom, then for her to find it while I used the restroom, only for me to discover the phone was out of charge and then The Wife got to fish out the charger and use a precariously-wired outlet.
I sent the world’s worst text message (“We ar lvng ccCHgoi on ti m  e no time to cccCcha.  TT.  C U later @ 8300000X”) to our friends picking us up from the airport and then we had to board the flight to Los Angeles. The problem was my phone had to charge up from zero and simultaneously download about three hundred e-mails from work and my personal e-mail address, and about 2,000 posts on my blog reader, so it was functioning kind of slow.
Another 14 hours in an airplane is doing bad things to my legs. My knees feel horrid. My calves are cramped. Everything south of my knees hurts and the drinky-poo I just had isn’t really helping the pain, although it does make me care about it less.
I’m getting pretty sick of the same two episodes of 30 Rock and the same two episodes of Parks and Recreation they’re showing on every fight we’ve been on.
The comforts of home include the happy juxtaposition of a comfortable bed, a shower with ample hot water and good water pressure, and laundry facilities that include a big washer and a separate dryer. The clothes dryer – a marvelous invention, one which no Italian household seems to possess. And, of course, the company of my dogs, who were cared-for by a younger friend working as pet sitter while we were gallivanting about Italy. As much fun as we had on the trip, and as good as our food was, it’s a comfort to be home.
Here endeth the Vitruvian journal.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Sounds like a truly amazing trip, and one that (for all its drawbacks) was made so much more vibrant by being in the company of your family.

    When I visited Greece, I felt better about being an American after I met some tourists from Germany who let their kid clamber on the ruins despite being told repeatedly to stop. It’s always comforting to know we don’t have a monopoly on obnoxious travelers.

    • Yes it was, thank you. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to go. And I wish we were still there.

  2. I enjoyed reading your journal of your trip to Italy– some familiar experiences and some completely new to me. I suppose this has to do with some of the towns you visited which I’ve never been to and the X-factor of spending time with relatives while on vacation- I don’t think I’d like that. The same shower door thing happened to us in a nice hotel in Paris– that half-a-door design makes no sense to me at all!
    Come September, we have an apartment in Florence for the month– this will be quite an experience– mostly tourist (with short train and bus outings), but a little like being residents, although we don’t speak Italian.
    I missed your blog while you were away.

    • As frenetic as Florence was, I’m jealous and wish we could go back, right now, to do what you have planned. Have a great time.

  3. Great travelog, and I can really relate to so much of it, having lived through it many times. Yes, Zia’s apartment is not the most comfortable and keeping clean a challenge, but I would not trade the company or accomodations for anything. Wish I could have joined you for at least a little while.

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