Dumbest Mother in the World

Okay, from the Dumbest Mother in the World Department:

Just came from Whole Foods with Emily, David, and Carrie, last-minute shopping for tomorrow. As we were getting ready to drive away, we noticed that in the next car an infant and a young child were sitting in the back seat.

Emily, who works for the Children’s Trust Fund of Michigan, the agency that works to prevent child abuse and neglect, was furious. She thought: “Should we just leave or should I wait and say something?” She almost drove away but her commitment to her job and her own level of morality applied the brake.

Not long after, the mother returned. Emily got out of the car and told her that what she had done was wrong and was in fact illegal. The mother defended herself by saying that she kept the kids in the car because they had colds.

“So you left them in a cold car?” Emily said.

The mother replied, “They were warm. I left the motor going so the heat could be on.” Which meant that the keys were in the car and the door was unlocked.

Emily started to explain the many ways the mother had screwed up but the mother interrupted her: “I don’t have time to talk. Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Emily returned. To us, she said, “What she did was illegal. She could be arrested.”

But David was optimistic: “Look at it this way. If it wasn’t for mothers like her, you wouldn’t have a job.”


A Simple Memory of 50 Years Ago

My memories of November 22, 1963: Not detailed but vivid. Eighth period Algebra II class. Mr. Mattern, our teacher, heart throb to many of the girls, popular with the boys, comes into the classroom slightly late, composed but crying, announces—talking faster than usual—that the president has been shot. I don’t recall whether he gave the class direct eye contact or just talked into the air. I don’t recall if he knew whether or not Kennedy was already dead. I don’t recall what happened next, other than that I’m pretty sure we didn’t have a normal classroom session. Did the entire school get together in an assembly? I think so but I’m not sure. That night, we watched lots of news on TV. It was a confusing time but I already felt a sense of loss. Kennedy represented hope—from what I didn’t yet have a perspective.

Americanos Stupido

Today was a relatively low-key day. We went to one place, Siena, then returned to Loro Ciuffenna. We didn’t plan it that way. Then again, we didn’t make any definite plans. That’s how we wanted it.

Siena is an hour’s drive from Loro Ciuffenna, about the same distance going south as Firenze was going north yesterday. Loro Ciuffenna is centrally located in Tuscany. With our intention for the week of exploring the greater Tuscany region, I’m not sure we could have selected a better base city.

In fact, Siena was only the first of several towns we considered as possible destinations for today. But, having no schedule to follow, we were carefree and unhurried. After almost getting lost on the side roads from Firenze last night, today we stuck to the Autostrade, A1/E35, into Siena.

We got off A1 at Uscita Siena, the Siena exit, and followed E78 for another 45 kilometers, passing grape orchards scattered on both sides of the road and homes made of cement and bricks.

As we rounded a corner into Lucignano, we saw a woman uncovering olive trees that she had protected the night before from a frost scare.

The road was as bumpy as any we’ve seen in Italy, a patchwork of blacktop repairs, not nearly as well maintained as the Autostrade. Emily said, “It looks as cheesy here as in the U.S. The funds aren’t going here.” Still, there were no potholes on E78, or construction delays anywhere. In the United States, drivers begin seeing orange cones ten, fifteen miles before repairs actually begin, as if their purpose is more decorative than functional. They’re annoying, they’re dangerous, and they cause traffic to slow down for miles at a time going both ways because of closed lanes on one side of the road and gawkers on the other. In Italy, the cones are strictly functional, surrounding the areas being repaired but no more. We can count the number of delays we’ve seen on one hand since we left Rome.

During the growing season, crops grow up and down the hillside. Now, growing season is done. The ground in the fields has been aerated and appeared as clumps of dirt.

Harrie said years ago there were fewer forests than there are now because goats and sheep ate the natural growth. Since the 1800s, woods have been planted. Straight lines of trees attest to the planned vegetation.

The history of Siena is one of religious autocracies, power struggles between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, rivalry with neighboring Florence, plagues, dynasties, and schools of art and Sienese-Gothic architecture that give it its style today and mark it still as a major tour center. The air is as crisp as the countryside, a tribute to Siena’s distinction as the first city in Europe to ban driving in the inner city.

We entered the old city through the brick archway and climbed a steep brick road past the tabacchi shop. Emily stopped to admire a potted pomegranate plant. We noted its alkalinity, a feature we have dropped from our daily diet since we left home in favor of the Italian diet of pizza, pasta, cappuccino, and wine. The apartment buildings are three stories or four, depending on where each building is on the hill. On every floor, laundry could be seen hanging on pulleys outside the windows. Emily compared the challenging hill to San Francisco. At the top of the first leg, before turning to the right and continuing, we stopped to catch our breath. I noticed a religious painting on the building facing us. “A church,” I noted to Emily. “Either that or we’ve died and met our maker,” she said.

In the center of Siena, surrounded by restaurants, bars, stores, gelato stands, and souvenir shops, is il Campo, the city’s oval-shaped, red-brick track where folks from all over Europe come twice a year to watch the horse race known as the Palio. Today was not one of those race days. Still, townsfolk, tourists, and students from the University of Siena lay on the grass or sat picnic-style in the center as others strolled around the periphery or enjoyed a bite to eat.

We found a seat at Caffe Nannuni and ordered pizza and cappuccino, and a slice of apricot cake for Sonja. By the time we were almost done, a clock showed the time to be 2:30 p.m. We estimated two more hours of pure daylight. I wondered how close the next destination city was from where we were now. Emily said, “I’m okay if we just walk around Siena and then go back.” Sonja nodded agreement. I said, “I’m okay with that.” Harrie added, “Whatever you want.”

And so it became official: Today was a burnout day.

Emily slipped her hand into mine. “Tonight we’ll have the Prosecco. But first we get the gelato.” At a stand just outside the track area, we stopped for what turned out to be the best gelato we’ve had in Italy so far. I went with four scoops: mint chocolate, chocolate chip, milk chocolate, and coconut. Emily got the same, only substituting dark chocolate for the milk chocolate. Harrie and Sonja went for cones but we showed restraint and ate ours out of dishes, the low-cal version of gluttony. The cost came to five Euros apiece, the equivalent, according to our estimated conversion formula, of $7.50 for four scoops. Harrie fed cone crumbs to the pigeons as Emily recalled a gelato place in Ann Arbor that charged $3.50 per scoop. It lasted less than a year.

Renting a car was the best decision we’ve made on this trip, besides inviting Harrie and Sonja to join us. There was no way, in fact, that we could have done this vacation without a car unless we chose to confine our visit to big cities and tourist traps, and always follow a strict schedule.

We took an alternate route to get back to Loro Ciuffenna, heading first toward Firenze, then through Poggibonsi and east to Castellina. Leaving Siena, we saw townsfolk shaking olive trees and picking up whatever fell. Emily reminded me that olives taste chalky off the trees so they have to be marinated. She wondered who discovered the necessity of salting them to realize the taste that we know today.

As we cruised the back roads, we passed more olive trees and wine gardens, thick forests of pine trees, century-old houses enclosed in brick walls, some hidden in secluded groves, others poised majestically on distant mountaintops. We watched the sun set over the mountains in the west and give way to a crescent moon as we wound our way through the upward trail to Castellina. Every turn was a jigsaw moment.

At Castellina we headed briefly toward Greve, then modified our direction toward Montevarchi and into Valderno. As we approached a bridge on a one-way road, we stopped for a red light and waited as five cars and a truck passed us from the other direction. The light changed to green, our turn to move forward. We passed one waiting car on the other side. An impatient local driver behind us zipped past us with no regard to solid lines. We passed Luxurious Lap Dance Restaurant. There are no euphemisms in Italy.

Our final stop before Loro Ciuffenna was at the local food coop to buy dinner for tonight and breakfast for tomorrow. Included in the portion that Emily and I bought were grapes and oranges. We didn’t know local custom required us to weigh them before getting in line. The cashier looked confused holding the two bags. Meanwhile, a line gathered behind us. Sensing the cashier’s embarrassment, we started gathering up our food items so we wouldn’t hold up the line, until another cashier answered the first cashier’s distress call. He took our two bags and went to weigh them while our cashier rang up our other items. The line behind us grew longer. I said to the guy behind me, “Turistas,” and pointed condescendingly at Emily and me. Emily added, “Americanos stupido.” He smiled and started a ripple effect that made it to the back of the line.

Back at the room, we opened up a bottle of Prosecco Collebrigo Brut and toasted to another successful day. Emily prepared four fillets of Branzino, a fish recommended to us by Emily’s childhood friend whose roots are in Italy, and Sonja sautéd potatoes in olive oil and prepared a salad, collaborating in a feast that we all enjoyed and Harrie and I cleaned up. After one more drink, Emily broke out in song. We crashed early tonight. Tomorrow begins early with a three-hour ride to Venice through Bologna.

Happy Birthday, Emily

Emily woke up this morning at 9 a.m. It was karma, or the Yiddish b’shert: “as it should be.” Sixty years ago today, Emily was born at 3 a.m. New York time. Italy is six hours ahead, so it was 3 a.m. New York time when she awoke sixty years later. By the time she was done showering, Sonja, Harrie, and I were all up. Sonja had set the table for breakfast. Harrie and I had both written our Facebook birthday wishes to Emily. When she joined us in the kitchen, we serenaded her with our lovingest round of “Happy Birthday.” I added the English “and many more.” Then Sonja and Harrie sang a birthday greeting in Dutch.

An added bonus: I won an email jackpot:

Hello Ken

My name is Ung Phallar, Senate advisor Cambodia Parliament. There is current inflow of business from outside into our country and that gives huge financial benefits. Group of business friends wants to do business with you but can not come directly as they only speak little English. They have decided to go through me to get to you confidentially. I want to add you and we can chart about it. Let me know what you think and I can call you.

Best regards.
Ung Phallar.

We can live the good life now.

As we drove off toward Firenze, Emily said, “I’m in Tuscany on my birthday. We’ve seen a lot of beautiful places but this is one of the most beautiful.” “So let’s not go home today,” I said.

We left for Firenze early this morning, which meant this was the first day that we were on the road before noon. Our mantra: “This is our vacation. No rushing. We’ll see what we can see and be grateful for the result.” But today we had two museum reservations in Firenze and the first was at 11:15 a.m. Virginia, who made the reservations for us yesterday, advised us to arrive within five minutes give or take to purchase the tickets and we didn’t know what traffic we would encounter. Firenze was about 40 kilometers from Loro Ciuffenna. We two Americans in the front seat did the mental math: 40 kilometers x .6 miles/kilometer = about 24 miles. The sky was clear. Temperature hovered at around 60 degrees. No rain today was our accurate prediction. Think vibes.

Reserving our tickets in advance came with a price of four additional Euros over the door price of 11 Euros at both museums. But those who wished to pay the cheaper price paid more in time wasted to get through the long lines. As we would find out, we got the better deal both times.

We followed A1/E35 to the Firenze-Impruneta exit, then followed the narrow road into Firenze. With skill and parked cars going both ways, one car could squeeze by in each direction, until the road became a one-way. The signs said “Capitale mondiale dell’artigianato”: “The world capital of art and architecture.” But not for parking. Fortunately we found a hidden indoor parking lot and got what might have been, at the time of our arrival, the last available spot.

We walked out to the main road by Ponte Amerigo Vespucci, one of the bridges that cross the Arno River, and Emily cried, “Ken! Camera!” She took one picture of the waterway, many of the buildings. As we walked across the river, she pointed out the trimmings on the architecture of the buildings, while I protected us from joggers and bicyclists Every other person who wasn’t a street vendor had a camera. I think even the residents feel like tourists here.

Our first stop was Galleria degli Uffizi, Gallery of Offices. This is the home of some of the best artwork from the Medici family, along with busts and statues of the Medicis themselves that they had commissioned over the years. Even the square leading to the Uffizi was rich with statues, of Niccolai Machiavelli, Francesco Petrarca, Danti Allighieri, Benvenuto Cellini, Donatello, and other superstars of Italian history.

Inside we saw rooms with religious art and other rooms with nonreligious art. We saw the first pieces of art that depicted human bodies in correct proportion; others of children looking like little adults. Who knew—because my religious studies ended before the New Testament—that Jesus and John were first cousins through their mothers, who were sisters? Many portraits showed the two cousins as little children with John’s Aunt Mary. Others showed John—alas—without his head, from a less satisfying period of his life. Everyone knows about Michelangelo’s adventure at the Sistine Chapel, where he painted the ceiling while lying on his back; I don’t know who painted this ceiling but it must have been done through the same process.

In the Botticelli room, Emily admired a huge portrait. “Do you realize what it took to paint this?” she said. I answered her: “A rich patron.”

We saw the name of one female painter but no others. Emily wondered how many portraits were painted by women who were denied credit because they were women.

Although most religious art depicted scenes from the New Testament, the Old Testament—what Jews call simply the Bible—was not completely ignored. We saw at least three paintings of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. We wondered if Abraham’s act reflected trust in God or blind, cult-like obedience to the unknown, perhaps even mental illness. We guessed it was a mixture of the three. What we learn from the teachings of the rabbis is that after that father-son adventure, Abraham and Isaac never spoke again. Abraham had numerous concubines after Sarah died. Meanwhile, Isaac married one time to a woman who tricked him, while he was old and blind, into blessing the wrong son, so he got screwed from both ends of the family tree. He likely spent the rest of his life after the aborted sacrifice in heavy therapy—and the next time Abraham told the young boy, “Clean your room,” he did so without hesitation.

We met Harrie and Sonja after two hours of roaming our separate ways, roamed together through a few rooms, then moved on to the souvenir shop where Emily and I bought an attractive assortment of magnets, books, postcards, packages of tissue paper with paintings of Botticelli, and other items for our checklist of family members and friends. Most items were overpriced but the money went for a good cause and we were happy to pay it.

The entire city of Firenze is a rich sculpture, an architectural masterpiece. That was my conclusion as we walked to an outdoor café for a snack between museums. On the way to museum number two, we stopped to admire the famous Duomo di Firenze, the Florence Cathedral.

The Galleria dell’ Accademia was more of what we saw at the Uffizi. I say that not to suggest redundancy as much as to acknowledge awe. In one room we admired an original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The inscription at the base of the statue “Madonna of the Rose” referred to a Jew who was tortured and mutilated for apparently disfiguring it in 1493. “That was the year after 1492, the Inquisition in Spain,” I said to Emily. “He was probably pissed.” “The place where Jews were treated better,” Emily added, “was in the Muslim world.”

One room featured unfinished statues by Michelangelo, and then the Statue of David. I can’t add much in the way of adjectives of admiration. It was magnificent, well proportioned. Even the veins in his arms and hands can be seen. The famous slingshot, however, is barely visible, said to be a tribute to David’s intellect, which was more overpowering than the slingshot. I saw symbolism in his immense height; having slain the giant Goliath, the young David was himself now the giant. But Emily and I both wondered: Would the statue of the future king of the Jews, a direct ancestor of Jesus, show him to be circumcised. We looked carefully and concluded that it did not. Are we alone in that observation?

Not surprisingly, we are not. In fact, a quick Internet search suggests multiple explanations: He was circumcised but circumcision was done differently in those days; he wasn’t because Michelangelo, who had already depicted Jews with horns, obviously didn’t know what Jews looked like; Michelangelo used a non-Jewish model; the Catholic church, which commissioned the statue, would not have allowed a circumcised statue on their premises….

By the time we left the Galleria dell’ Accademia, darkness was settling over the city. Venus was alone in the sky. Walking up the alleyway from the gallery, we saw on one side David Leather Factory. On the other, Michelangelo Leather Collection.

Dinner was a disappointment. Not that the food was bad. Anything drenched in olive oil and topped with parmesan cheese will taste delicious. But the waitress brought our meals out in no logical order. She brought my salad, and then immediately brought my spaghetti so that by the time I finished my salad my spaghetti was cold. Emily and I were both finished eating by the time Harrie and Sonja were served their main courses. Bread plates she forgot to bring us until we reminded her. But by this time, Emily was already too deep into pure joy to be brought down.

Emily was about to order a piece of cake for dessert. I told her she didn’t want to do that. Harrie said he craved gelato. I said no he didn’t. Emily suspected a surprise awaited her. I said I made no such promises.

But when we opened the door to the apartment, Emily saw a bouquet of roses on the table and a note that read: “Happy birthday. I hope you’re having a great time!! Virginia and La Ferriera staff” In the refrigerator was the cake I ordered. It read “Tanti Auguri Emily”: “Many wishes Emily.”

We shared it equally among the four of us and washed it down with limoncello. Emily told me this was her best birthday ever. I was pleased.

Down in the Mouth in Pisa

Today’s two goals were to visit Pisa slightly to the northwest of Loro Ciuffenna and then continue northward from Pisa to Cinque (pronounced CHIN-kwa) Terre but tomorrow our plans are to visit the museums of Firenze/Florence. We stopped at the front desk on the way out to get ticket information from Virginia. As we were leaving, I said to Emily, “Does she look pregnant?” I’ve learned, like other older and wiser men, never to ask directly but I noticed a slight bulge today that I hadn’t noticed before. “Oh, yeah, she’s got a bun in the oven,” Emily said immediately. “She’s due in January. I got the story yesterday. We should get her a baby gift.” Emily knew everything but the baby’s gender, but I’m sure only because Virginia didn’t know either. We made finding a gift one of our goals for the week.

We saw our first sign for Pisa and headed to the northwest. Emily admired the scenery. “We’ve got to see Under the Tuscan Sun again,” she said. “Did we see that?” I asked. She said, “Don’t you remember? You must have liked it. You didn’t fall asleep.” I didn’t remember, but I guess I liked it.

The weather started out dry but with gray clouds overhead. Traffic was clear. About halfway to Pisa, we encountered a long delay. Traffic slowed, then halted, then proceeded in spurts for about thirty minutes. When finally we regained normal speed, we looked for evidence of a reason for the delay but found none. Although a police car had sped by us on the shoulder, suggesting an accident, we found no broken-down cars or even any police cars. Nor did we see any construction. We concluded that a family of ducks had crossed the road despite finding no apparent presence of a lake or river. The road opened to three lanes for the rest of the trip.

However, the weather was less cooperative. Drops gave way to sprinkles, which gave way to a downpour that increased in temperament as we approached Pisa. By the time we got to Pisa, the most lucrative business was umbrella sales. The first hustler greeted us as we parked our car and walked toward the tower. He offered us an umbrella for five Euros. We declined his offer; he lowered his price to three Euros. We declined again. Another hustler started us at five Euros. We declined his offer as well.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a testament to humankind’s fascination with human error. My goal was to shoot a picture of the tower with Emily in front of it by angling the lens and having Emily lean in the same direction as the tower so that she and the lens both canceled out the angle of the tower and made it look like it was standing up straight. At least three other groups had the same idea, which I conceded was probably the equivalent of the patient commenting to the dentist about looking down in the mouth.

By the walkway leading to the tower, a series of signs gave the history and the significance of the tower. One sign noted the tower’s “remarkable inclination” but gave no explanation of why it leaned. I read the other signs in a vain attempt to find the reason. Another American reading the same series was equally as befuddled. “We’ll have to Google it,” he suggested.

What I learned, though, was that townsfolk during the time the tower was being built were forced to pay a tax every month until it was completed. I imagined the townsfolk, at the ceremony when the finished tower was unveiled, looking at each other and saying, “No one will remember this debacle in a year.”

Meanwhile, Emily checked out prices to visit the nearby churches and the inside of the tower. The churches were each five Euros, she learned; the tower cost 18 Euros. We went to the souvenir shop instead. There, Emily and Sonja bought ponchos for two Euros apiece. Harrie and I didn’t. “We’re real men,” I said. Sonja answered, “We’re real women.” Emily gave her a high five so I gave Harrie a high five. Harrie and I were soaked by the time we got back to the car.

I had never heard of Cinque Terre before Facebook friends started giving us suggestions on where to visit. Cinque Terre, as the name suggests, is actually five small villages that combine to become one tourist attraction. From what I understood, you go to any one of them and get on a train, which takes you to the others. Unfortunately, the vibe gods were working against us today. First we encountered the half-hour delay on the way to Pisa. Then we faced rains the whole way. Meanwhile, Daylight Savings Time had already ended by the time we arrived in Italy so the sun was dropping an hour earlier than it had two weeks before. Finally, by the time we got to Cinque Terre, the last train for the day had come and gone.

So we created our own adventure. Driving down the mountainside to Monterosso, the third of the five villages, we viewed the Mediterranean through the fog and the dusk. In Monterosso, we parked the car in the only lot we found, capacity maybe eight cars, and walked to the seaside, feeling the roar of the sea underneath the sidewalk. At the point where the mountains drop into the sea, we gazed in wonder and admiration. We barely noticed what was still a steady rainfall overhead.

Emily Is Blessed in Tuscany

It rained all night. At least that’s what I thought until I woke up for good and remembered it was the river that runs immediately outside our bedroom window. For many years, the building that is now a guest house harnessed the energy of the river to create electricity that powered the entire city of Loro Ciuffenna, the small mountainous town in Tuscany where we will spend the next week. Before that, it was a flour mill, and before that it was the ironworks that give the building its name, La Ferriera.

We arrived in Loro Ciuffenna yesterday afternoon after a three-hour drive from Rome in a rented Peugeot. The woman behind the counter where we rented the car said we had to pay six Euros per driver. We paid for one driver. “How many steering wheels does a car have?” I asked.

I was intrigued to discover that the few stop signs we saw from the airport to the freeway actually said “Stop” on the same red octagonal-shaped plate as U.S. stop signs, suggesting that the Italians bought U.S. signs at quantity discount or “Stop” is Italian and the U.S. bought Italian signs at a discount.

The route took us on A1/E35 over roads that were so smooth I couldn’t help but compare them to our Tea Party roads that are falling apart with the rest of our infrastructure so a few billionaires can enjoy more tax breaks. Drivers taking advantage of the superior roads and the absence of police cars sped by us, ignoring the signs every few miles that warned us that we were being watched electronically. We guessed they mailed you your ticket if they caught you and were able to read your license, until we saw a cop on the side of the road writing up his victim.

We saw few billboards. Even most of the trucks didn’t have signs. Italy is not conducive to the alphabet game, we concluded. But the scenery was stunning. The landscape changed from flat lands on both sides but with mountains in the distance to a short stretch of lakes, then cornfields, and then vineyards. On at least four patches of land, sheep were grazing.

Dark clouds held their water most of the way. Only scattered drops fell until we crossed the border from Umbria into Tuscany. Harrie said Tuscany is where the rich used to vacation. Then the poor started saying they visited Tuscany to appear prestigious even though they hadn’t. So the rich stopped going to Tuscany and started going to Umbria.

We got off at the Valdarno exit and took a long winding one-way road to the bottom of the mountain to La Ferriera. Olive trees lined the road on the right. The air was crisp. A river ran through the property. Emily and I had booked the vacation as part of our vacation club. Harrie and Sonja were here as our guests; according to the game plan they were going to sleep on the pullout bed in the front room. At the check-in counter, Virginia, the manager, told us we could upgrade to a two-room suite for an extra 150 Euros for the week. We looked at both suites and made the jump. It was worth the small cost. We’ve got two bedrooms, a full bathroom, a front room with a full kitchen including stove and microwave, tile floors, wood ceiling, TVs in both rooms, and Internet hookup. And no Gideon’s Bible.

Before dinner, we toured the town, a five-minute walk from the hotel. In preparation for Sunday breakfast, we shopped at separate stores for cheese, bread, grapes and red peppers, and milk for coffee. Then we stopped for an aperitif to get psyched for dinner. Harrie ordered a limoncello, his favorite drink, and I followed suit. Emily ordered a wine, Sonja a cappuccino.

A breeze chilled us gently as we sat at the outdoor table under the canopy. A child ran past us into the store; his father carried him out. A couple at the next table was surprised at the sudden appearance of a neighbor. The shopkeeper brought us our drinks and a bowl of potato chips.

The four of us toasted to friendship and family and to being together after so many years. Emily said, “I’m sitting with friends having a drink in an outside café in Tuscany in the middle of the afternoon. I’m blessed.”

* * *

Our destination today was Arezzo, a narrow winding mountain road about a half hour south of Loro Ciuffenna. Emily drove so she wouldn’t get sick sitting shotgun or in the back seat. She watched the road carefully as she drove but didn’t miss an olive tree or vineyard along the way. “Look,” she exclaimed as she swung her arm to the right. I ducked to protect my nose and missed whatever site she was pointing out but the next site was equally as magnificent.

Emily has had control of the camera for most of the trip so most of the pictures are of scenery with Sonja, Harrie, and me. I took control of the camera as we drove off from the hotel and got a picture of Emily just as she drove over a bump. So now the official record shows us as Sonja, Harrie, me, and a blur.

Virginia told us yesterday that Loro Ciuffenna would be closed today because it was Sunday. That’s why we bought breakfast foods last night. But Arezzo, she promised, would be open. Hence today’s destination.

Indeed, the streets of Arezzo were alive. Arezzo was an extended art fair. Every street was lined with artisans, peddlers, and shopkeepers. We could buy hats, cheese knives and trays, olive spoons with holes to drain the oil, books, dolls, shells, jewelry, wall tiles with pictures of farm animals, paintings and postcards of Jesus and the pope but none of dogs playing poker or velvet Elvis. One stand was filled with religious figures and hash pipes. And door knobs—I never saw so many door knobs at an outdoor market. At one stand Emily saw two menorahs and asked the man how much they cost. He said his sister could tell us when she returned from the bathroom. Emily said we would come back, but we didn’t.

We entered a church to view the mosaics. When we came out, we saw two children playing “patty cake” but in Italian. Harrie drew Emily into a game from his youth, but in French. Emily responded with a version of her own: “A, my name is Alice and I come from Alabama….”

Most common short discussion, always understood, always guaranteed to draw a smile: “Grazie.” “Prego.”

Who knew, Arezzo is the town where major scenes from the movie Life Is Beautiful—La Vita è Bella—were filmed. We could have taken a tour of the major landmark sites from the film but Emily and I agreed it would have been a waste since we never saw the film. We added it to our list of must-see films.

Before heading back to the car, we stopped at a café to buy an obligatory snack so we could use the restroom. I pulled on the restroom door to open it but it didn’t budge. I thought it was locked so I waited. After what seemed to be a long time, I pulled again. It didn’t budge. I asked the woman sitting at the table to the left, in my best broken Italian, “Per favore. Occupado?” She said something I didn’t understand and made a sign with her hand to indicate that I should push. I pushed the door and it opened easily. I pointed my finger at the side of my head and twirled it in a circle: “Loco.” She agreed too quickly.

We Get Jew’d for Breakfast

Saturday November 2, 2013

Electric drills woke us this morning at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than our scheduled wake-up call. And church bells.  Today’s another major holiday, All Soul’s Day. We’ve been  in Rome for three days. Every day has been a major holiday. Today, according to Harrie, Catholics visit their dead relatives. Harrie, who is a relatively non-practicing Catholic, visited his parents Thursday before leaving the Netherlands for Rome.

Today is check-out day, then onward to Tuscany, where we’ll spend the next week. We needed to be out by 11 so we went out for breakfast, our first breakfast in Rome. I looked forward to my favorite breakfast meal: two eggs over medium, hash browns, and rye toast. Jewel, the hotel manager, gave us a business card for Rik’s Café when we checked in Thursday afternoon. “Tell them I sent you,” he said, suggesting that we would get a deal if we mentioned his name. We did the same at Andrea’s, where we went for pizza that same day, and got no acknowledgment at all so this morning we didn’t give his signed business card much credence. To our surprise, the waiter said, “You from hotel?” We said we were from Penelope’s. I gave him the card. He said, “Oh!” as if we’d won the lottery and he was our heir.

For our winning ticket, breakfast was free. Unfortunately, breakfast was only a croissant and a cappuccino. Sonja, Harrie, and I went for regular cappuccinos; Emily went with decaf cappuccino, what they called dec (pronounced deck). We selected croissants from a small selection in the display counter. Emily pointed to a cheese croissant, the one I wanted, so I went for the one with the big blob of brown filling oozing out the center. “You want prune?” Emily asked with surprise. “No, chocolate,” I said. The waiter confirmed my choice. I smiled. When we bit in to our choices, which we shared anyhow, Emily said, “Mine’s custard.” I said, “Mine’s prune.”

Breakfast in Europe isn’t the major event as it is in the States. In the States, breakfast can be the major meal of the day. Menus go on for page after page, each page dedicated to an alternative form of the main dish: 30 varieties of pancake, two dozen types of waffle, eggs—oh, there’s a book in itself: over medium, over light, over heavy, poached, fried, scrambled, omelets, and with what kind of filling? That’s the subject of chapter two in the menu book.

In Europe, a croissant and a cup of coffee is all they need and they’re on their way, at least when they go out to eat. So what we were getting for free, what I would have considered perhaps an appetizer while we were waiting for our meal, was our meal. I remembered when we had last visited Harrie and Sonja in the Netherlands with David and Carrie many years ago. Breakfast then was cheese and bread with coffee and juice. We ate until we were stuffed.

In Europe, Harrie said, folks from the Netherlands have the reputation for being cheap. “Why go out for coffee when you can make it cheaper at home?” He added, “You know the expression ‘double dutch’?,” referring to the practice of each paying for the other instead of one person picking up the whole check. We had never thought of that. “Jews have the same reputation,” Emily offered.

We joked about stereotypes, threw out a few that we sometimes used with no sense of pride and some sense of guilt, and then Emily said what I was thinking: “I need protein.” I agreed. Indeed, the menu—which if you order from is not free—had an inside spread of other items, but the three workers looked frazzled already giving free croissants and cappuccinos to the other guests, all of whom displayed business cards and other forms of coupons from their respective places of lodging. Also, we didn’t notice any evidence of a substantive facility that could have created a protein source anyway, clearly suggesting that the menu was primarily for show, at least during rush hour.

My practice when I drink coffee is to take one big hit to start and then nurse the rest, and then refill, and then refill again, and again. I drink for the buzz, not the taste. In Europe, a half cup is a full cup, so my first hit emptied my cup.

When we had all finished, we ordered a second round, which was not free: three cappuccinos regular, one dec. They brought three cups. We figured it was the three regulars so Sonja, Harrie, and I started drinking while Emily waited for her dec. And waited. And waited. Finally we called out to one of the waiters. He nodded but didn’t look like he had any idea what message we were trying to convey. We asked the second waiter. He clearly understood and pointed to the woman behind the counter, who apparently ran the show, indicating that she would make it. We waited. She did nothing. Finally Emily went up to the counter and asked her directly. She confessed that she had thought the order was for two regulars and one dec, indicating that one of our three cappuccino regulars was a dec. I said, “I thought mine was kind of weak.” So she made a dec for Emily and replaced my dec with a regular.

Two men came in. They ordered their croissants and cappuccinos but didn’t have free passes so they each paid. They remained standing at the counter while they ate. Sonja said to us, “When they eat at the counter, it is cheaper.”

“They must be from the Netherlands,” I said.

“Or they’re Jewish,” said Harrie.

Second Day in Rome

Our plans shifted as soon as we met up with Harrie and Sonja this morning (which means noon). Most of the places we wanted to see were in the general area of the Coliseum, which we walked to yesterday, and the Vatican was just beyond that area. So, instead of taking the bus tour, we decided to walk.

The streets were filled with walkers today but not a lot of cars. Pay phones are a common site on the main streets.

On our way back to the Coliseum, we stopped at Bar-Pasticceria Ciardo for a pizza. The waiter was hyperactive in seven languages, including Spanish, which he said he learned from watching TV, though once Emily started talking with him she discovered that he combined Spanish with Italian for his own version of Spitalian. Emily and I tried a pizza with anchovies again, hoping for an improvement over yesterday’s. We got it, and split a gorgonzola pizza as well.

Eating outside gives you the benefit of street excitement but you also are hit by street vendors selling long-stemmed roses, blankets and fabrics, wooden serving bowls, toys and stuffed animals, and an assortment of  cheap items that can’t possibly support the young men selling them. We wondered who actually profited from the sales and whether the hawkers were more like slaves who got punished if they didn’t sell enough on any day, like young prostitutes who get beaten by their pimps if they don’t sell enough of themselves.

The guy in the next table smoked a cigarette, unfortunately upwind from us. A drunk old man who must be a regular feature of that street breathed over Harrie’s shoulder and said something in German that Harrie thought was “Let it all shine through” until the waitress shooed him away. A police car’s siren reminded Emily and me instinctively of any Holocaust film we’ve ever watched.

Every meal at every restaurant takes a long time. Service is slow but not because it’s bad. Rather, it’s because you are encouraged to take your time. They are in no rush to give you “il conte.”

Emily doesn’t speak fluent Italian but she gives it her best shot everywhere she goes. By the time we left the restaurant, the wait staff was ready to tip her.

I don’t say a lot. I let Emily do most of the talking. But one thing I learned: You can smile in any language. And say “Visa.”

Our first stop was the Forum of Augustus, the old marketplace, where ancient pillars still revealed the majesty that used to exist there. As the center of town, it had herb gardens, an old prison, a monastery, possibly an aqueduct, and much more. But mostly it had statues of great figures in Roman history, most of whom were relatives of Augustus, intentionally to build up his leadership credentials. Today the complete forum is intersected by a road that Mussolini built. According to Sonja, the stones that were used on the original structures that were replaced by the road were used to build churches.

Churches are everywhere. When in doubt, any building is likely either a church, a monument to an emperor, or a pizza parlor. In fact, I’m pretty sure the word “piazza” is old Latin for “city of pizzas.”

Other sites:

  •  The monument to Hadrian was a phallic symbol that reminded me of the Washington Monument.
  • Trevi Fountain is a magnificent structure that is, as Sonja described it, a big fountain in a small square. To filmgoers it is known as the fountain from Three Coins in a Fountain with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.
  • The Pantheon #1: An interesting-looking building with eleven pillars and a wall. I feigned wonder but was secretly disappointed until Harrie said, “Oh, that’s not the Pantheon. My mistake.”
  • The Pantheon #2: Much more impressive. Built 200 years after Jesus by Agrippa, then rebuilt by Hadrian and expanded after the original burned down. Because of the holiday today we couldn’t get inside but Sonja said a hole in the ceiling was built so the gods could enter. I wondered why they didn’t just use the door like everyone else.
  • Four Streams Fountain surrounded by a chariot racing track. Merchants spread out their wares on the bricks, so many we had to look down as we walked to avoid tripping over them. Portrait painters were busy. Gold- and black-painted real-life statues moved only when you gave them money. Harrie kicked a change can accidentally; the guy made a face that wasn’t part of his routine. I told Harrie he had to give him a Euro.
  • The Vatican: The long line moved quickly. At the front, we placed our bags and cameras on the conveyor belt that x-rayed the insides as we walked through the scanner. Sonja and Harrie both set off the bell but no one stopped us. Today being All Saints’ Day there was a service going on inside. I hoped to see the pope though I couldn’t imagine him actually showing up. I was disappointed but not surprised.

As we wound our way through the many side streets going from one site to the next, Emily was fascinated with the buildings; I was fascinated with the cobblestone streets. Emily kept saying, “Look up”; I kept saying, “Look down.” We made eye contact midway one time as she went from up to down and I went from down to up. We smiled at each other. I said, “Had enough? Ready to go back to Ann Arbor?” I wasn’t surprised at her answer.

We must have walked at least ten miles today, mostly through crowded side streets.

A street fortune teller said to me, “You will get claustrophobia.”

Getting Psyched for Day Two in Rome

I awoke to the incessant chatter of our neighbors on the other side of paper-thin walls. I could hear every word of their conversation but I couldn’t understand any part of it as it was all in Chinese.

I couldn’t get to sleep last night. I thought it was because I was hyped from the trip. Then I realized it was because of the cappuccino I had had last night at dinner. I never drink coffee. Or I drink it morning to night every day. It depends on where I am in my regular coffee cycle. I haven’t had any coffee since Emily and I began the alkaline diet in May.

I won’t go into detail here on the alkaline diet. Briefly, the theory behind it is that diseases can’t live in an alkaline body but our bodies are essentially acidic because of the foods we consume and the stress we put our bodies through. So, to bring your body to an alkaline state, you give up acidic foods and you de-stress. Since May we’ve given up meat (not a challenge; we’re already vegetarians), dairy, eggs, sugar, alcohol, processed foods, wheat, caffeine ….

Basically, we’re vegans with the occasional salmon once or twice a week. Although it’s called the alkaline diet, it isn’t a diet to lose weight like the Weight Watchers diet. Nevertheless each of us has lost about twenty pounds since we began. I’ve lost two inches on my waist. We feel great.

One reason we’ve been successful is that we aren’t neurotic about it. Although we’re generally strict about what we eat, we allow for exceptions. We’ve designated Italy to be a long exception. Yesterday that included pizza, plenty of wine, bread, pasta with clam sauce, dessert after dinner, and gelato on the way back to the hotel.

I look forward to my alkaline pizza today.

We’ve determined that, because today is our only full day in Rome, we’ll do the bus tour at 18 Euros per person. As I looked at my laptop clock and saw that it was just past 7 a.m., I looked forward to a full day. Then I remembered that my clock is still on Ann Arbor time. It’s already past noon in Rome. Emily just woke up. I guess we can skip breakfast. It’s straight to the pizza.


Our First Day in Italy: Rome

Major exciting first “day” in Rome, one of those 48-hour types.

We were well prepared for the trip. Leading up to it, we (note: In most cases where I say “we,” I mean Emily, the Wachsberger family travel agent) purchased Euros from the bank; got international drivers’ licenses; photocopied our drivers’ licenses and passports; and called the credit card companies to alert them to not be surprised if they saw entries coming in from Italy or the Netherlands. We bought an international travel adapter so I could use my laptop in Italy. As we were packing Wednesday I discovered that it was good throughout Europe—except Italy and Switzerland. Radio Shack, where we purchased it, didn’t have any for Italy. Fortunately, Staples did so we made a last-minute exchange.

At Detroit Metro, we were randomly selected to not have to be scanned. We didn’t have to take off our shoes or belts. I didn’t have to take my laptop out of my knapsack. No one asked if we had accepted any packages from total strangers. We must have looked nonthreatening. One of the guards told us if we signed up at tsa.gov we could be randomly selected more often.

The flight was packed—269 passengers, I believe, was the official count—but it was smooth all the way. I’m an observer type of traveler. I observe people. I observe my feelings while I’m observing people. Then I space everyone out and read or write. Emily, on the other hand, talks to everyone.  Thanks to Emily, I learned that the couple who got on the bus with us from the parking lot to the airport were on their way to visit their granddaughter in DC. The young man standing in front of us in line to the plane was returning to his home in Dusseldorf, Germany, after living in Detroit for two years and working at TRW. His wife, a marine biologist, was forced to take a boat home due to an inner-ear infection that made air travel a prohibitive activity. Topics Emily covered with the woman seated behind us in the plane while we waited for it to take off included our kids, the woman’s home in the Netherlands and places where she’s traveled, the upcoming holidays in Rome, and the BRCA1 cancer gene. Every discussion always touches on the weather, sometimes as the icebreaker, though Emily seldom requires that weak crutch to get started.

Meanwhile, the guy sitting next to me commented on my interesting handwriting as I was jotting down notes. I think it was his kind way of saying he couldn’t read what I was writing because it was so sloppy. I didn’t tell him that it was simply sloppy handwriting, a practice I employ so strangers sitting next to me on airplanes can’t read what I’m writing. He was on his way back to his home in a city in India that I didn’t understand when he pronounced it but I smiled and said, “Oh yeah, I have a friend from there. Great food.”

Emily lasted about a half hour once the flight began and then fell asleep. She slept most of the way except for meals. I admired the full selection of entertainment opportunities. There were about three dozen TV shows, including HBO and Showtime. Unfortunately, most were shows I had never watched and didn’t care to watch. I read the titles of the twelve movie options and selected The Interns, with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, because I had seen it before and thought it was funny. The twist this time: It had Hebrew subtitles. I don’t know why and I didn’t know how to get rid of them so I made a game of seeing how many of the Hebrew words I understood. I think I understood one.

Note on the food: If you want to get served early, order a special meal. We ordered the vegan. Big mistake, on one hand. Breakfast, for instance, was highlighted by a white bagel with jelly. But we were served first.

We arrived at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam Thursday morning a half hour before boarding time for the second leg of our trip to Rome. I guess they didn’t get the message that I was nonthreatening. I got taken aside and received the full terrorist treatment including full body scan. But I was pleased to discover that Schiphol offered free Wi-Fi for a half hour. That was more than I needed to catch up on my email.

We flew to Rome in another packed flight. Emily made that observation to me as I was writing the same words in my notes. After 36 years together, we don’t have to finish sentences anymore.

I was enchanted by what appeared to be mountainous clouds. Then I realized they were the snow-covered German Alps. Once we crossed the Alps, cumulus clouds covered the ground below. When I looked up through the window I saw cirrus clouds overhead and imagined I was part of a cloud sandwich.

Most special features in Rome involved food or sites. After checking in at our hotel, we went out to Ristorante Andrea where we had our first Italian pizza. Other than Geraci’s, it was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. (If you’re from Cleveland, you know what I’m talking about.) An added bonus to that lunch was the roasted peppers in olive oil. They don’t give you parmesan cheese to sprinkle on their pizzas—I think it’s almost an insult to ask for it so I didn’t. But the peppers in olive oil made a spicy topping to the pizzas (one topped with mushrooms, the other with anchovies). Another lesson I learned: You don’t tip in Italy; the tip is included in the price.

Other observations during our afternoon stroll: There are no stop signs in Italy; you cross the street at your own risk. Narrow streets prohibit many cars; motorcycles predominate.

We’re staying at a hotel that looks to be four small rooms and an office on one floor of an apartment building. It’s clean, the bed is firm, and it has free Wi-Fi and a bidet, one of which I used to full advantage. We took a quick nap; by the time we awoke, Harrie and Sonja had arrived. Harrie is my adopted brother from the Netherlands. He stayed with us as a foreign exchange student in 1968-9 and has remained close to the family since then. They’ll be sharing our Italy adventure for the next nine days.

What did we do tonight: food, sites, lots of walking, and catching up on family news. We walked to the Coliseum. What a magnificent structure, showing the best that slave labor can accomplish. No Christians were sacrificed today; it’s a national holiday in Italy, All Hallow’s Eve. According to Sonja, AHE is observed in the Netherlands mostly by visiting graves of loved ones. Here in Rome, Halloween is slowly gaining popularity, as shown by the many kids we saw in costumes.

Back at the hotel, Emily and I watched The Cosby Show and Law and Order: SVU in Italian. Emily used her Spanish fluency to follow the plots. SVU to me was a repeat so I used my memory of the first time I saw it. Who needs Italian when you’ve got repeats?

Emily is sound asleep now. I should be, too, but I’m wired. Also, it’s only 9:15 p.m. Oh no, it’s 2:15 a.m. Rome is five hours ahead of Ann Arbor—normally they would be six hours ahead but they went off Daylight Savings Time last week and we still are on it for another week. Better get used to the new time zone.