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.