Tuesday, October 31, 2006

In honor of Halloween, here are two creepy pictures of a statue in the middle of Florence. Not exactly sure what's happening in the pedestal, but the statue itself is Perseus holding up the severed head of Medusa. He's standing on top of the rest of Medusa's body.

My disdain for Halloween is a matter of public record, but the good news is that it's not really celebrated here in Italy. (But I kind of remember my Italian teacher from high school celebrating Halloween with candy – but she unwrapped some of the candy, replaced it with charcoal, and resealed the package. It was either an Italian tradition or she was an awesome and sadistic woman, or maybe both.) There are a few children dressed up here and there, but they're wearing normal costumes like witches or ghosts or devils, and nothing retarded like Harry Potter or any of that mass-marketed Halloween crap. No one's getting dressed up as a pun, or trying to be clever; it's Halloween, quaint and pure. I still don't think it's cute, but I can at least tolerate the combination of dress-up, candy, and children.

The adults are playing along, but they're not getting all dressed up and shit because here adults act like freaking adults. It's a classy place. The exceptions – prepare to be shocked – are the American students, who I apparently didn't have enough contempt for earlier. I want to single out one jackass in particular who just put on a cowboy hat and went from one Halloween party to another. What, no boots, no bandana, nothing? How archetypically American: puerile and half-assed.

Piazza Michelangelo isn't the easiest place to get to. It's outside of the city walls on top of one damn impressive hill – I mean, it isn't like some monastery out in the Himalayas, but for a city where you spend a good eight to ten hours a day on your feet and everything worth seeing is at the top of three or four staircases, it's a hike to get here. I climbed a hundred and five steps, plus ninety-five of those steps that are so steep they have to angle them, and I battled through the exhaustion and the burning in my legs by thinking about how much easier getting back down would be.

It's totally worth it for the view. On a visit to Florence, the pictures you can get of the Tuscan hillside almost make up for the pictures they won't let you take of the great art.

This is the Florentine city wall, built back in Roman times.

Another self-portrait, to make it easier for those of you trying to experience my vacation vicariously.

Just indulge me for a moment: my favorite picture from Florence.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Stupid Question...

Here's a teeny, tiny issue I've run into a few times in Venice and now tonight in Florence. I'm in a bar and I've got my glass of chianti and... uh, now what? I can probably finish off this wine in five minutes, tops, and then do I, like... go home? Because I could get another glass, but that's only five more minutes we're talking about here.

You know, I don't even like wine.

I'm Probably Going To Hell

Italy is a relatively rich, highly developed country, but there's a Gypsy and immigrant underclass that's absolutely treated like dirt. I mean, I've seen people step around the homeless in New York, but aside from that, we just learn to ignore them. I've never seen anyone express genuine contempt towards the poor specifically because they need money.

It's awful here. You walk down the street and there are people literally prostrating themselves before you, begging for spare change, and it's heartbreaking and pathetic. This morning, I'm sitting on the Duomo steps before it opened and these Gypsy women came up to me, carrying their babies like they always do, and pleading for half a euro or even just twenty cents in what's probably part an act and part sincere. Doesn't matter. I'm not the naif my mom thinks I am, and I'm anticipating her request and shaking my head no before she's even started her speech.

God, what an ass I am, even if I'm not less than three feet from a church. I've never been totally sure what the proper protocol is when a stranger tells you her baby will starve unless you give her money, but I'm pretty sure I didn't do what Jesus would've done. I'm no theologian, but I'm convinced Jesus wouldn't try to assuage his liberal guilt by writing about it in his blog. No, Jesus would probably make food magically appear for the Gypsy woman, which I haven't been able to pull off yet. And besides, even if I could, it would probably just come off as condescending if I did it — you sort of need divine infinite compassion to pull off a stunt like that.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I spent this afternoon at the Boboli Gardens, the former backyard of fifteenth-century merchant Luca Pitti. My feet hate me. The gardens are huge — there's actually a bus you can take around the place — and there are hills and stairs everywhere. Nice for hiking and great views of the Tuscan landscape if you can make it to the top, but let's just say that if I ever go back, I'm bringing my ACME-brand jet-powered running shoes.

Lisa said there aren't enough pictures of myself, so here you go.

There's Something About Mary... but I don't know what it is.

I went to the Uffizi gallery early this morning to beat the crowds – and I want to change my initial impressions of Florence from "ugly" to "mixed." Kind of like New York, the city just sucks when it's full of tourists – actually it sucks more than New York because most of the sidewalks are less than a foot wide and the fact that they're sidewalks doesn't really stop taxis from driving on them – but here at 7:45, when the city is just waking up, it's a pretty charming place to walk around. I don't have any photos from the Uffizi for reasons that are obvious to anyone who's into art conservation, but you shouldn't have too much trouble finding pictures of the exhibits online. In fact, my one biggest gripe about the museum is that the images you find online, or in your art history text, aren't obscured by your reflection in the bulletproof glass covering them. And I totally understand why they've got the glass there, but the artwork is priceless and they couldn't have splurged on glare-free glass?

The big theme at the Uffizi is the Virgin Mary, presented by a ton of different artists, many of whom I recognized from when I took art history back in high school, although I sort of forgot why they're important or why I should care. You just get that giddy familiarity feeling from seeing something you've studied, and I missed that feeling from the relatively obscure artwork in Venice's Accademia (with the exception of Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi and its amusing backstory). At the Uffizi, you've got the Virgin Mary as interpreted by Cimabue and Giotto – there's something important about the distinction between these two guys, but I can't recall what it is – Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and a bunch of other guys who obviously don't matter as much because no one named a Ninja Turtle after them. Caravaggio? Screw him.

Also cool are seeing Botticelli's surviving paintings (he destroyed most of his work in the Bonfire of the Vanities) in real life instead of tacked into some girl's dorm room.... But here's the problem: I don't really get art. I'd like to, but I don't know what I'm looking for, or why it's good, or why Ghiberti beat out Donatello for the commission to sculpt the Baptistry doors. It's not that everything looks the same, but it's like if I've seen one Venus, I've pretty much seen them all. So it didn't take too long before I turned from looking at great masterpieces of the canon of Western art to pointing at the naked women in the paintings and deciding which ones I'd fuck. I know, totally classy, but it's not exactly a new idea. I wish I'd thought of it sooner though, because then I might have paid attention in art hum.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"They don't know what the fuck a quarter-pounder is."

I had dinner at McDonald's tonight, really only so I could talk about my trip by quoting lines from Pulp Fiction. But McDonald's in Florence (and also in Milan) is really nice, almost like a trendy cafè, except that they serve McNuggets. It was actually a really weird experience because, there's the standard high-school age late-night McDonald's employee working there, and I try ordering my McMeal Numero Tre in Italian, and all of a sudden, she starts talking to me in English. And I mean fluent, perfect, accent-free English.

This is confusing. In America, the McDonald's employees barely speak English! I know it wouldn't help our working-class job exporting problem, but I think we need to bring in some Florentine counter help to take our orders back home.

A few other observations: Here, they'll sell you a Happy Meal, complete with a toy appropriate for ages three and up, even if you're a college student. And they won't laugh at you or anything.

Also, I don't know about McDonald's in France, but a note to Quentin Tarantino: it's not Le Big Mac (or, in Italian, Il Big Mac), it's a McBigMac. Makes more sense now, doesn't it?

Welcome to Florence

The vacation ends in Florence, which, unfortunately, isn't a city that makes a very good first impression. The thing is, it's a bit of a dump, it's dark and crowded, pretty much everyone here is an American, and I sort see Florence as more of a literati chore than a vacation spot. My hotel here is a government rated two-star, and for sixty euros a night less than the Venice hotel, I get the distinct feeling I'm back in my college dorm room. It's small and functional, clean but not sparkling, and I can hear a group of French tourists through the walls. Nothing really against the hotel, but again, not a good first impression. It's on a street that sees practically no sunlight, even in the middle of the morning, on the third floor of a very, very institutionalized gray building. It's really a perfect example of how switching from fluorescent lights to incandescent lights can make a room so much more comforting, all while killing the environment. I'll deal; I'm just saying that if they brightened up the rooms, maybe painted the ground floor entry (the hotel is on the third floor of what's apparently otherwise an apartment building), and put up a few pictures, they could easily get themselves at least another half-star.

I think my main gripe with Florence, however, is that it's ridiculously crowded and touristy. Think of Disney World in the middle of July, and then imagine if they let college kids ride their motorcycles through Fantasyland, and that's what the tourist situation in Florence is like. I hear the lines to get into the Uffizi and the Accademia (where Michelangelo's statue of David lives) can be several hours long, but mostly I'm just annoyed by having to navigate around throngs of tour groups.

On the plus side, the Duomo is gorgeous, and its dome sort of sneaks up on you as you're walking around the narrow sidestreets. And also, once the sun goes down and hides the city's scuzziness, it's pretty nice to walk down the cobblestone streets and stop at one gelateria after another. It's weird how the city – not the street that my hotel is on, but most of the city – is brighter at night than during the day. I kind of like it, but once I get snapshots of all the major Renaissance art attractions, I don't see myself coming back here.

Piazza della Repubblica.

The Day I Left Venice

Also, annoyingly, my only sunny day in Venice.

Ponte Rialto, the main Grand Canal crossing.

The spiral staircase at the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

Grand Canal. (I told you I'd have a lot of pictures of it.)

Basilica di San Marco.

Calle della Madonna, a medieval street full of the aroma of tomato sauce.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Here's a pair of signs in the Campo San Stefano, and a perfect example of why Venice drives so many tourists crazy. The top sign: to get to San Marco, go left. The bottom sign: to get to San Marco, go right. The really sad part is that both signs are wrong, and San Marco is straight ahead.

My Obligatory Post About Television

I remember from my first visit to Italy, twelve years ago, watching a lot of Benny Hill on Italian TV because it was the only thing I could understand. Lechery, it seems, is a universal language, sort of like Esperanto.

The state of Italian TV hasn't changed much since then, although they have added sub-par clones of reality shows we Americans stole from the British. There's "Who Wants to be A Two-hundred and Fifty Thosand-aire?", Offerta o no Offerta (the gimmick is that Howie Mandel's robotic briefcase models are replaced with one ordinary citizen from each of Italy's twenty regional administrative districts), and a Judge Judy/Judge Greg Mathis/Judge Joe Brown/People's Court/Divorce Court/Texas Justice rip-off that my uncle and I both find absolutely hilarious. They periodically cut from what I can only assume is courtroom drama to a low, low-budget re-enactment of the incident in question. And when I say they've got low production values, I mean those clips are made with an "I've fallen – and I can't get up" sort of quality. I enjoy seeing non-sophisticates while my uncle likes the part where one character is negligent and "injures" the other.

On satellite, you've got an additional eight or nine channels. (Italy has three state-run stations and three "independent" stations that just happen to be owned by media mogul and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It's kind of like if every American TV station were FOX News.) There's one satellite channel in particular that bothers me: the one that shows American programs dubbed into Italian. You hear whispers of the English underneath like the one actor and one actress Italy has doing all the voices for all the characters in all the shows. During the day, they put on stuff recycled off TV Land, and it's not like the Italian line readings are any less wooden than the original Dukes of Hazzard or Charlie's Angels acting. But I caught the station late at night, and they're re-broadcasting our Emmy winners. Good for them. There's House on Wednesdays and Mio Nome è Earl on Thursdays, and it's all wonderful except they wiped over the original voices with la lingua dell'amore.

No! It doesn't bother me when they're showing Without a Trace, but watching House without Hugh Laurie's perfect, jaded Jersey inflections or hearing Jason Lee and Jamie Pressley talk in tones typically reserved for telenovellas is like watching that episode of Walker, Texas Ranger (and yes, they show that here, too) where that old guy who looks like Wilford Brimley spends the hour singing Dixie.

The good news is that we get CNBC Europe – with Conan O'Brien on at 11:30, when I can actually watch him – and MTV. For all of you who lament modern MTV and wonder where the hell all the videos went, I'll tell you: they went to MTV Europa. Videos, some you've heard of and some ("Lacuna Coil," anyone) you haven't, twenty-four hours a day, interrupted only to bring you the latest Justin Timberlake news. Why can't I get this station back in America?! The closest thing we've got is that Fuse network no one broadcasts. (In a country with more underpants stores than cars, I can't believe they haven't ported over their own version of Pants-Off Dance-Off yet. It would easily be the best thing on.) Sadly, coming this winter to MTV Europa: Parental Control (which could be watchable, given the general permissiveness of Italian culture), TRL, and motherfucking Laguna fucking Beach. I was waiting at the bar for a drink for fifteen minutes or so, just thinking about how there aren't enough spoiled, stuck-up role models here in Europe.

Does Anyone Know How To Use A Bidet?

There's this weird little floor sink thing in my bathroom and I'm eighty to ninety percent sure that's the bidet. I'm also eighty to ninety percent sure of what it's used for, but I'm not really familiar with how exactly one is used. I decided to try it out in what seemed like the most logical fashion: I straddled the damn thing and directed the stream of water (it's actually pretty powerful) towards... well, you know. Long story short: I'm still not certain that I'm using it correctly, but HOW DID THIS NOT CATCH ON IN AMERICA??!! It's awesome! It's cold and tickling, and like all the things your girlfriend won't do for hygeine reasons. Man, when I get home, I am so letting the shower do me doggie-style.

I took a gondola ride last night and it was... nice. I can't really think of the right word here, because it wasn't fun or exciting or interesting. It was like: Take the It's A Small World ride at Disney World, then get rid of that goddamn song, the multi-cultural dolls, the other insufferable tourists in your boat and their even more insufferable kids, and the super stylized, sanitized rooms representing Europe and the Middle East. Throw in some real palazzi dating back eight hundred years, extend the ride to fifty minutes, and add an extra seventy dollars to the price tag. That's a gondola ride: a canal's-eye view of getting lost in Venice.

The only disappointing thing was that I was all set to bargain with the guy like the guidebook said — and I was all set to walk the hell out of there if I didn't get a price I liked — but it turns out that since the guidebook's been published, the Venetian government started regulating the gondoliers and there's a fixed price of 100 euros. (That's $125 for fifty minutes, or $2.50 a minute, which is slightly cheaper than phone sex.) I drew fifth-generation Angelo the Gondolier, and he was totally cool. I got myself on the gondola at around eight at night, although I was sort of hoping to go later — Venice itself shuts down around nine, and by ten, even the Grand Canal is almost completely empty. But eight was good too, and we had a lot of the smaller, quaint residential canals to ourselves. Sorry if I'm making this sound really gay.... it wasn't, even though I did bring a bottle of sparkling wine along.

(Hey, did you know that once you open a bottle of sparkling wine, you can't get the cork back in? I didn't know that. I had to get all MacGyver on the bottle and stuff a shower cap in its neck to keep the wine from spilling out.)

There's not a whole lot going on with the gondola — you sit back, listen to the water lapping against the oars, and take in Venice the way it was meant to be taken in: slowly, like hundred-year-old Scotch. The gondolier doesn't sing or play the accordion or do any of that cartoony shit — well, sometimes they sing to the other gondoliers, and they do it really, really off-key. Every now and then, he points out a palace or something, and the other tourists wave to you from the bridges and from their gondolas, but for the most part, you just get a chance to forget everything.

The gondola is actually more comfortable than this. I just don't photograph well.

Right where I got off the gondola, I came across these two guys playing classical music on wine glasses. Quite cool, plus free entertainment.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Busy, busy day today. Too bad I couldn't take pictures of most of it.

Here's the pesceria, the early-morning fish market. It's the only thing in Venice that's easy to find, mostly because it reeks long after the vendors have gone home.... Even though Venice's economy lives on tourism, I felt kind of weird taking pictures here. It's interesting from my point of view, but these are really just guys at work. I don't think I'd appreciate some asshole tourist coming into my office and taking photos of me while I was trying to work.

A delicious... I mean, enormous swordfish.

Here's the Basilica di San Marco in the early-morning haze (similar to the lunchtime haze, the mid-afternoon haze, the early-evening haze, or the nighttime haze). The building is spectacular, with golden mosaics on just about every wall and ceiling, just like Jesus would've wanted.

The basilica has signs scattered throughout: silencio in five languages, plus the universal "camera with a slash through it" sign for no photography. So I don't have any pictures of inside the basilica, and if you want to see what I'm talking about with those mosaics or the vaulted dome or the gilded and jeweled alterpiece, you'll just have to do a very brief Photobucket search for every other tourist who thought they flew too far and paid too much for the rules to apply to them. (...Okay, I just ran that search, and it turns out that you can't, which sort of ruins my whole thesis here.) I didn't see anyone get in trouble for their flash photography, and I don't know which I hate more: my conscience, or the lax enforcement of the rules turning the church into a human Skinner box.

This is a good time to mention that tourists – myself included – suck, but I don't understand why Americans in particular have such an awful reputation. (At least I don't understand why we had such an awful reputation prior to January 20, 2001.) Venice, it seems, has twenty or so residents and a million fucking tourists, and no one's exactly shy about being a foreigner. I hear more English in Venice than I do in New York (less Spanish though), and the ratio is about sixty-forty British to American. Maybe I'm stereotyping things, like if you're Hispanic in New York, then we'll just make up a shorthand and say you're Puerto Rican, but it's pretty easy to listen to inane tourist yak and figure out where everyone's from – America, England, France, Germany, Italy, or Japan – and it's pretty clear to bigoted me, that if anyone deserves a reputation as obnoxious, loud-mouthed, self-absorbed clods, it's the Brits. And the Milanese, but I don't see too many of them around.

Americans, I've noticed, limit their conversation to pretty retarded things: i.e., "Are you sure you're holding the map the right way?" or "The payphone ate my Telecom card!" The British think they're intelligent, and they think it a little too loud. Like, Nigel, the whole piazza doesn't need to hear why you think the Peggy Guggenheim Museum underrepresented Orphism in favor of Futurism. Just because you have that accent that drives women crazy doesn't mean you're saying anything worthwhile. I get the feeling I've bitched about this before.

I'm just bitter because it's hard on a lone traveller, and I don't have anyone to explain my theories on the fall of Orphism to. Also, I don't have any theories on the fall of Orphism.

Anyhoo, more pictures. From outside.
Piazza San Marco from the roof of the basilica.

The Doge's Palace, also from the roof of the basilica.

Piazza San Marco is like the psittacosis capital of the world. You wouldn't believe how many people are here, scattering roasted nuts on the ground, trying to get a Hitchcock film to descend upon their toddlers for the perfect photo op. In a related story, last time I was in Venice, a pigeon landed on my mom's head and she flipped out. It was awesome!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I got back to the hotel this evening to find that someone had been inside my room. They left a few Hotel a la Commedia brand mints on my desk and folded the bedsheets over, presumably so I wouldn't have to do that hard work on my own. I guess this is what they call "turn-down" service and I really don't understand why anyone in their right mind would pay good money for this. Are there high-powered businessmen out there who can't figure out how to get into bed? "There seems to be this comforter type thing on the bed, and when I pull it off, there's another one underneath! What do I do?! I have a big presentation tomorrow!"

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Venice

It all boils down to a two-word mantra: don't panic.

Venice is, in my humble opinion, and based on very limited experience, the most beautiful city in the world and I'm absolutely in heaven here. I've got such a hard-on for the Jewel of the Adriatic I could just ejaculate in the Grand Canal all day and all night…. Wait a sec, that didn't come out right.

But it doesn't matter how many maps you've got: coming to Venice is like taking a vacation in the world's most devious corn maze, where three piazzi across the city share the same name while half the streets don't have names at all, buildings are numbered in no apparent order, addresses don't include street names, and the alleyways wind around each other into dead ends and sometimes straight into the water. If it were anywhere else, I'd be scared to death wandering the poorly-lit calli aimlessly, feeling miles and miles away from another living soul. Venice is not New York, and it's always a relief to know that even if you've spent the last fifteen minutes walking in a straight line but you've passed that same trattoria three times now, it's not like you'll be in San Polo one minute and Yugoslavia the next. At least, not without getting a little wet.

I made it into town while it was still light – which was important – and the very first thing I did when I got here was get on the wrong vaporetto (water bus). Instead of heading down the Grand Canal like I was supposed to, I got a tour of Venice's backside, and it's not the part of the city that they put in the travel brochures. It took a little over an hour to get to the hotel in a town where you can walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes (provided, of course, you know where you're going). The hotel – it's four stars. I can't tell you how freaking glamorous this place is, but it's nicer than my room at home, and not just because it has a flat-screen TV and a minibar. The bathroom is marble with gold accents, there are about twenty towels just for me, and there's a gold silk curtain around the bed. They have a telephone in the bathroom, so I can make important business calls while I'm pooping! Going home is bound to be disappointing.

I started off in Venice like the guide books said, with a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal, from the train station in the northeast corner down to the Piazza San Marco at the canal's mouth. The Piazza San Marco was, for more than a thousand years, the only entrance to the city, home to the Doge (Venice's mayor), and the shimmering Byzantine basilica. Now, it's Tourist Central, and about a block away from McDonald's, clearly preserving its true historical heritage. One of the tallest points in Venice – maybe the tallest – is the campanile (bell tower), and I headed up to the top for a bird's-eye view of city, orienting myself with the sestieri and lagoon islands. Unfortunately, the city from the sky is no less confusing than the city from the ground, but I did get some amazing evening snapshots and possibly some eardrum damage when the bells rang to mark 6:30.

Venice shuts down early in the evening: the canals are quiet by eight, and by ten, there's no one around except tourists hunting for the non-existent nightlife, and it's perfect for me. You can tell it's not much of a party town when the most popular music scenes happen to be inside churches. I spent a nice hour or so hunting around for a particular bar, the Naranzaria in Campo San Giacomo, not realizing that there are about five campi dedicated to San Giacomo (the campi are dedicated to the church in the middle of the square, which is, in turn, dedicated to a saint), and it took cross-referencing three maps and some help from an English-speaking (and cute) local before I found the place. It was, sadly, anticlimactic: okay, I'm here, I've got my spritz con prosecco, and now what do I do? I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal, sipping this fizzy neon orange drink, and really, really wanting to share this whole city with my friends.

The Grand Canal at dusk. You can expect a lot more Grand Canal pictures coming up....

A series of pictures from the bell tower. Here's the Doge's Palace on the east.

The Piazza San Marco and clocktower to the north.

The customs house and the church of Santa Maria della Salute to the south.

Piazza San Marco late at night. Piazza San Marco is Tourist Central in Venice, so you can also expect a lot more pictures from here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After taking a few years off my aunt's and uncle's lives (I'm still so, so sorry!) I felt like I couldn't complain if mio zio wasn't taking me anywhere in Milan this morning. I mean, I complained to my grandmother here in America, and, since she speaks Italian, she tried to convince my uncle that I'm fine by myself, at least in the daytime, but no luck. This afternoon, we hit the roof of the Duomo. The view is breathtaking. I've got about a hundred digital photos, but they all look more or less the same.

Also, Castello Sforzesco, which I could neither care less about nor pronounce. Try throwing a diphthong or two in there. I was so frustrated with my uncle, his inability to understand "più piano" ("slow down"), his determination to show me the castle, and his insistence that we go inside the castle museum without buying tickets, that I don't exactly have a valid opinion of it. (Also, my uncle would read me the Italian descriptions of the pieces, but he only speaks Italian, so I still didn't understand them. And he'd point to the dates listed for pieces, and tell me the date aloud, as if I couldn't read the Arabic numbers. And, inside the armory, he pointed to a collection of swords and then mimed fencing, just to make sure I knew what swords were used for. I think that's it.) The museum is an extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance art, mostly decorative art, but the museum exudes an aura of mere competence rather than the artistic spectacle Italy is famous for. You'd have to be really into fifteen-century silversmithing, for example,

For my money, the only thing really worth seeing in the Castello (and it is worth the money) is the Rondanini Pietà, which Michelangelo was working on when he died. Michelangelo's student finished the piece and, as one of my guidebooks commented, "no where in Italy is the difference between genius and competence so clear."