Italy: She’s Gone to Capri and She’s Not Coming Back

IMG_0798When I was little, there was an ad for Capri Cigarettes showing an elegant woman on a balcony smoking and staring off into the distance with the tagline, “She’s gone to Capri and she’s not coming back.” That ad enchanted the part of me that has always wanted to run away from home. Now, many years later I finally ran away to Capri.

I have had the Blue Grotto on my bucket list since the age of 21 when Pietro, an Italian sign painter I worked with showed me pictures of the stunning cave. He also used to shout, “Fungula! Fungula! Fungula!” every time he messed up a sign, but that is neither here nor there. Capri is a volcanic island, and in many places limestone caves have formed in such a way that light travels into the water in one place and radiates up from another, causing the water to glow an ethereal turquoise. Nowhere is this effect more stunning than in the Grotto Azule. Boats take you to the entrance of a cave where you have to get into a little rowboat and lie down flat to enter. The littlest bit of wind and the boats won’t run.

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I asked the front desk at my hotel if the Blue Grotto was open, and they had no idea. They said there was no one to even call. I found that very hard to believe, but I had to accept that this hotel was not going to spoon-feed me the way the others had. A man handing out pamphlets on the dock told me that the grotto was open, so I took the ferry to Capri. When I arrived at the little tour office on the dock I was devastated to learn that the Grotto was, in fact, closed. They had another boat tour of the island but I didn’t give a fungula about anything but the Blue Grotto.

Besides the professional tour company, there were also independent tour guides, which basically means a dude with a boat. One of these guys, recognizable as a sailor by his watch cap, started trying to talk me into going on a tour of the island. After all, there is also a green cave, and a white cave. I tried unsuccessfully to explain the concept of a bucket list to him in Italian before walking away. But I walked around the harbor for a bit thinking, and besides there being nothing else of interest on the island, I decided it was foolish not to accept anything less than a perfect experience. I reminded myself that it’s not about the goal; it’s about the journey.

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Since it was off-season no one else was biting, so I had a private tour for far less than it should have cost. The boatman, who I would later learn was named Ciro, was kind of grumbly at first. But it was a beautiful day to be out and it was clear he loved showing off his island. Once he caught me saying, “muy” instead of “troppo” he started speaking Spanish to me and we made do with a trilingual patois.

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This is where the sailors of Greek mythology were lured in “when their naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing” only to be dashed upon the rocks.

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There are places around the island with the luminescent water, and Ciro knew every single one of them.

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The Green Grotto

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There are large rock formations jutting out of the sea. One of them had an arch that looked kind of iffy size-wise and for some reason I shouted, “Do it! Thread the needle!” Even though I hollered in English, I think my enthusiasm got the point across and he headed for the arch. Or he had planned to go through the arch anyways. Whatever.

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As we approached the arch he cut the motor and reached for my hand. That wasn’t weird because he had been taking my hand to help me from one part of the boat to another where I would get the best view of whatever he had wanted to show me. But he didn’t sit me back down. He kept me standing next to him at the wheel. That was weird. But maybe he didn’t want me leaning out or getting my hand smashed between the boat and the rock walls we were floating through. The he started singing an Italian song. That was super weird. He had a lovely tenor voice and the acoustics inside the arch were great. He sang confidently and earnestly, holding his hand to his chest and opening his arm expansively like you see opera singers do. And he looked me in the eyes the whole time.

I had a big smile plastered on my face. You know that smile you get when shit gets weird and you are trying to maintain. When you are trying really hard not to laugh at someone who is being so genuine about something. I made it through the song, which ended as we exited the arch. Then he turned the boat around and drifted through the arch again singing another song. Holding my hand. I was dying. I have no video of this or because I was kind of frozen in place. Later I remembered that the boatmen who take you into the Blue Grotto sing to you. Maybe he usually does that and was trying to give me the full experience. Or maybe when an Italian guy gets you in a boat he just sings to you, like gondoliers do.

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I sat on the back of the boat for a little while and dangled my legs in the turquoise waters. I wanted to swim, but with my rotator cuff problems I was worried I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back onto the boat. This is Ciro (Cheer-oh). Note the watch cap that proves he is a sailor. Note the puffy jacket that proves he is an Italian. I asked him where I should eat and he told me to go to “The Yellow Virgin.”

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A funicular is a little railway that is pulled up a steep hill with cables, like the Angel’s Flight in LA. It wasn’t running that day so I took a little bus to town. (Funiculi funicula –yeah, really. That’s what the song is about.) After the magical waters of the Bay of Napoli and the gorgeous coastline, the town of Capri was no big whoop.

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IMG_0812I bought a little silver charm then asked the saleslady where I could find the Yellow Virgin. After she finished laughing she directed me down some stairs. When I sat down at the table I saw why she had laughed.

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I saw someone else eating the octopus salad and it looked so good I had to order it. Like the tuna tartare in Florence, it was wonderful, but just too much octopus for one person.

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I was fascinated by their trippy pizza toppings, like corn and potato chips, but I ordered a steak and it was delicious.

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The next morning I only had to look out of my window at the choppy waters to know the grotto would not be open. By the way, if you ever need to know if the grotto is open, you can check this website. Yes, I gave the brochure to the front desk. So, no Blue Grotto for me.

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But I had enjoyed a gorgeous day at sea, probably the best vacation day I have ever had.

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Italy: Parco de Principi Design Hotel in Sorrento

DSC04541Remember when I said I had excellent luck with hotels? The hotel in Sorrento was a fantasy, like when you see those gorgeous pictures in magazines while at your desk job and think, “Someday…” My someday was now. First of all, the Parco turned out to be a trippy 60s design hotel. From the website:

“Roberto Fernandes, the Neapolitan engineer, bought the land in 1959 and commissioned the architect Gio Ponti to transform the place into a hotel. The Parco dei Principi hotel was inaugurated on 11 April 1962 and since then has remained evidence of the absolute and joyful intuition of the engineer Fernandes.”

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Since this was going to be the trip of a lifetime I went ahead and paid a little extra to get the ocean view. It was worth every penny and a million more. I was on floor -1. Why would a hotel have floors with negative numbers? Because it was built into a cliff. So when I looked out, there was just ocean. It’s like the castle in The Count of Monte Cristo. If he had a view like this, what was he complaining about? When the hotel clerk showed me into my room I got choked up and teary. I think it embarrassed her a little bit. But this is the kind of place you dream about.

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IMG_0665There is a large pool created by sectioning off some of the sea with rock breakwalls and a jetty for sunbathing. It was closed since it was off-season, as was the oceanside restaurant and the swimming pool. But I didn’t really care.

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There was a shuttle to town but in Italy you have to eat before 3pm or wait until after 7pm, and since I was getting home from my adventures during the afternoon siesta I mostly just ate in the hotel restaurant or ordered room service. The food was good, but not amazing. Still, it always felt special because of the view.

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Their free breakfast buffet was spectacular, with homemade doughnuts and croissants. These doughnuts are filled with Nutella.

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Parco de Principi Hotel in Sorrento, Italy

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Italy: Roving Around Venice

DSC04393There were some things I had thought I might do in Venice — go the Peggy Gugganheim Museum of Modern Art or hit one of the tours to the smaller islands like Murano or Burano, but it isn’t the kind of place that makes you want to go on expeditions. It’s the kind of place you meander through. So I would pick a destination — like St Mark’s Square or the Murano Glass Factory — and just wander in that general direction window shopping and noshing along the way. Strangely enough, the more directionless I was, the more likely it was that I would arrive at my destination. Of course the secret to finding St Mark’s is to follow the groups of tourists.

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St. Mark’s Basilica was built in 829-836 in timber which went up in flames in 976. The current basilica, a Byzantine wedding cake of a building with five domes, was built from 1043 to 1071. There were renovations going on when I was there, so it was hard to get nice pictures without construction getting in the way.

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The Doge’s Palace, once a residence and now a museum, is connected to the basilica and is most notable for its Venetian Gothic columns and arches.

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There are cool buildings all over Venice, and little religious pictures and faces and figures built into the walls.

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Shopping

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IMG_0628Spaghetti Carbonara at Ristorante Trattoria Cherubino. It was very mild and rich.

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Pizza Face

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A lot of hideous stuff comes out of the Murano factory, like a giant glass parrot. I wanted to take pictures of them, but they were in small shops and I didn’t want to be rude. I did get a snap of this glass fountain that should just not exist.

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Tiramisu

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DSC04428DSC04336And what the hell is this weird Blaire Witch voodoo rock and paper man? he was hanging in an archway that was too high for anyone to reach and no way to climb down to hang it. Luckily there were no woods nearby to get lost in.

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Italy: Venetian Bucket List

DSC04419I had two bucket list items for Italy. One of them was drinking a bellini at Harry’s Bar, where they invented bellinis. I’m not really drinking much these days, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I imagine none of you are surprised that my bucket list includes food and cocktails. I aimed for the Grand Canal and just kept walking along the water until I found the ritzy hideaway. Luckily they had a seat downstairs because I had not thought of making a reservation.

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The room was reminiscent of old movies, with its white tablecloths and generous wood paneling. It has the feel of a fine yacht and I can imagine seeing Ernest Hemingway bragging at the bar. Service was gracious but not quite fawning. I ordered a bellini and a shrimp risotto. When you check something off of your bucket list a picture is in order.

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It turns out I don’t like bellinis made with Prosecco. It was cloyingly sweet. But the risotto, which cost $50 was heaven on earth. It was probably the best thing I ate on the entire trip. So this is what all of those other risottos were striving for. Serving is a BFD there and can’t be trusted to one person alone. Harrysbar2

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After I finished my plate the waiter tried to serve me the rest of the risotto in the dish. I guess it was that expensive because it served two. When I waved him off he was genuinely shocked. How could I not want to keep eating this ambrosia? This $50 ambrosia?

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I walked along the water and passed the little outdoor office where the gondoliers check in and out. One of them called out to me, “Hey! You remember me? The restaurant? We took pictures!!!” I had an idea. I really did not know how to get back to the hotel and was too full and lazy to want to walk around forever. So I asked him if gondolas are ever like taxis. He replied that they are not taxis, they are gondolas.

I asked, “What if, instead of a circular tour the gondola dropped me off at my hotel?” He turned towards a gondolier who was still with his boat and shouted something about “mi prima” and to give me a special deal.

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The guy called back, “I give you a beautiful tour for $80! Beautiful tour!”

I shouted back “I can’t afford a beautiful tour! How much is the ugly tour?” Then I had him because all of the other gondoliers were standing there laughing. So he knocked it down to $60. I told him that he didn’t have to sing. He also chose not to smile, but that’s what you get on the no-frills gondola.

This is the Bridge of Sighs. Couples in gondolas are supposed to kiss under this bridge and it’s a very pretty name for a terrible thing. Legend has it that prisoners had to cross this bridge on their way to be put to death. They sighed because the view out the bridge window was the last time they would see their beloved Venice.

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The thing about gondolas is that they are extremely comfortable. The seat and pillows were so plush. The boat gently rocks side to side and I was tempted to fall asleep rocking like a baby.

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As we passed under bridges people took pictures and I was kind of embarrassed to be alone in a gondola.

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 But then I realized “Hey! I’m full of $50 risotto and I’m getting a ride home in a gondola. I’m a BALLER!”

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Italy: Gondola Gondola Gondola

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As you cross the bridges in Venice gondoliers lean against the rails and sing out “Gondola Gondola Gondola” like barkers.

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I was just kind of wandering around and found a little hole-in-the-wall tucked in beside a bridge called Trattoria alla Rivetta. I got a table for lunch while the room was still empty. A few minutes later a few gondoliers came in and sat down. Well, it IS Venice…

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Then some more gondoliers came in and they did not even acknowledge the first gondoliers, just got their own table. Then a few more straggled in, and a few more…pretty soon the room was filled with gondoliers. Every now and then one of them would randomly belt out the line of a song.

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There were some older men there and one of them also burst into song, making me realize that even the old men were retired gondoliers. It was hilarious. I asked the gondoliers at the next table, “So where are we all eating tomorrow?” He said, “We are always here. The food is the best.” I ordered pasta with crab and a light panna cotta. I got kind of obsessed with panna cotta on this trip. He was right, the food was outstanding.

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At one point I stood up to take a picture, catching their attention, so just like they had been doing for the last hour, I belted out, “O Solo Miiiooooo…”

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Italy: Palazzo Vitturi

IMG_0550To find my hotel, first I had to find my square — Campo Santa Maria Formosa. (Do not forget the name of your square.) At last! I was home!

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Hotel rooms are available off season for as low as $50 USD. They also go up over $300. I decided to stay within the $75 to $100 range so it would be reasonable, but safe and comfortable. I had amazing luck with hotels, ending up in rooms that would have cost more than $200 in the States. Palazzo Vitturi did not disappoint.

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Venice is the home of Murano Glass, so who needs crystal anyways?

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Since I spent so much time in Florence sleeping, and maybe with the help of a little residual jet lag I was waking up at 6am famished. The hotel’s free breakfast didn’t start until 7am, but there was a little bar a few doors down. They are called bars, but these places are more like coffee houses with the centerpiece being a gigantic espresso machine. In addition to cold drinks and baked goods they also sell panini and have a full bar on one wall. So I went for the classic Italian breakfast.

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This lady made the lightest, freshest warm croissants, abundant with buttery layers. She called them brioche, and they were astounding. She was kind of intense and told me where to sit so I obeyed her. As I enjoyed my breakfast she got into a heated debate with a young male customer. Italian is so melodramatic it took me a minute to realize that they were arguing, shouting numbers at each other. Some kind of price dispute. He shouted a slur at her as he left and she started crying. I wanted to say something like, “I understand. We have assholes like that in America too.” But that wasn’t on my tape of Italian phrases and I didn’t want to risk saying the wrong thing and being parted from those amazing croissants.

How she handled it was by telling the next 3 customers all about it in great detail, including a litany of the order “DUE coca-colas. UN espresso. DUE brioche!” I thought to myself, “This woman and I are going to be best friends.” After the place emptied out I told her in my best Italian that those were the best croissants I had ever eaten in my entire life. She took my hands in hers and smiled and laughed and started explaining how to make them in rapid-fire Italian. I did not understand a word but I nodded enthusiastically.

The next morning when I came in she threw up her arms in a gesture that said, “You’re back!” I threw up my arms in a gesture that said “I told you I’d be back!” And by the third day, Vanda and I were best friends.

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Italy: Venice, an Enchanting Maze

DSC04274 (2)When you look at a map of Venice and try to select your hotel and activities by proximity, it only screws you up. Because you are still thinking as the crow flies. Venice is a series of town squares connected by alleys, narrow tunnels and bridges. Think of it more like a game of checkers, hopping from one square to the next. I suggest visitors select their hotel by proximity to the grand canal, especially near the Rialto bridge. Then you can take water taxis and ferries everywhere. If you are mostly landlocked, pack light because there are a lot of steps to carry your roller bag up and down.

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Luckily, to keep from getting too lost, there are enterprising boys at the train station who will cart all of your luggage, get your ticket for you and put you on the right ferry for 10 Euros. Worth it.

The beauty starts right at the station

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The ferries at Rialto Bridge

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It took me almost a half an hour to find my hotel. There is a magic 10 minutes within which any location in Italy can be reached. My hotel was supposed to be 10 minutes away. But I didn’t understand the layout yet and my GPS did not understand the difference between a street and a canal, often leading me to dead ends like this.

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Italy: Doing Fiorenze

IMG_0502Even though I spent most of my time in Florence laid up, my hotel was in between the Duomo and a little sculpture museum among a row of shops. Leather is the main industry there, and I had a good time shopping.

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DSC04205They make shoes there, and I would have loved to have custom made shoes that actually fit, but they were over 600 Euro.

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They also sell porcelain. This girl looks dubious.

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Sylvia told me I could not leave Florence without having Steak Florentino. I had a restaurant on my list called La Fettunta that specialized in that local delicacy. So on my last night I checked it out. This is what I got.

IMG_0527 Servers and diners surreptitiously eyed me to see how much I would eat. Most of it was so rare I couldn’t chew it. It was like trying to take a bite out of a whole cow. But the medium cooked bits were charred and heavily seasoned with salt and pepper and much more tender. I did not want to get run out of there for pissing on tradition, but I also didn’t want to waste the giant ribeye. As apologetically as I could, I got the server to slap about 4 slices on the grill for a little longer and it was soooo good. For dessert I had a rich chocolate semifreddo.

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We studied these baptistry doors in art class. When I see things like that it makes my education feel worthwhile.

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IMG_0484IMG_0421IMG_0404DSC04181IMG_0513So I covered most of the Florence must-dos. I shopped for cute leather bags, saw the Duomo and ate one-tenth of a Florentine steak. Maybe I didn’t see Venus on a Half-shell or the statue of David, but I did pretty well considering the rain and that cough syrup.

And I met the Italian Tina Fay.

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Italy: Fishing Lab in Florence

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Sadly, the food near my hotel wasn’t very good. I guess I used up all of my luck in Rome. But I did have a few memorable meals. If you ever see something in Italy that looks like this, don’t bother asking if it’s real.

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Fishing Lab was a more modern, chef-driven restaurant than others I had encountered on my trip. I sat at the counter and after a while a thin girl with the side of her head shaved sat next to me and slammed down a cell phone that looked like someone had gone at it with a hammer. I thought, “Oh my god, Lisbeth Salinger just sat next to me.” She turned out to be a friendly student named Sylvia, who was happy to share food and practice her English.

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The menu was unusual. One dish was called “Octopus Cordon Bluff: Octopus tentacles stuffed with pecorino cheese and fried in a citrus-scented breadcrumb, served with ginger mayonnaise.”I ordered tuna tartare to start and while it was fresh and clean tasting, I couldn’t handle too much of that weird stickiness. I had to tell the waitress it was too much for me. She asked if I wanted to cancel my main dish, but I wasn’t full — I was just sick of raw tuna.

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For my main dish I had two half-orders. One of fried rock cod which turned out to be like little bacalao fritters with a garlic aioli. They were really good.

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I also tried a plate of mixed fried seafood. The calamari was amazingly tender, as was the baby octopus, although it never seems to have much flavor. I think it’s usually there for the wow factor. I loved the tiny soft-shelled shrimp. There were teensy “juvenile fish” which made me picture them smoking tiny cigarettes and menacing the other seafood with little switchblades. Anyways, the juvies were intense. The very first one punched me in the palate with fishiness. Not bad, kind of like anchovies. My friend Tequila would have loved them.

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Italy: Convalescing in Florence

IMG_0510At 4 in the  morning on our last night in Rome, Bridin told me she couldn’t leave me alone in Italy with my terrible cough and she found an American hospital to take me to. I was sure it was just allergies and jet lag, but I thought about how frustrating it was to talk my mom into going to the hospital, so I acquiesced.

After an exceedingly long Uber trip we finally made it to the desolate hospital, where we were greeted by the most debonair man I have ever met. He was wearing a finely tailored Italian suit and he smoked cigarettes, which somehow looked cool like in old movies. When he spoke English he had a Jersey accent. I thought maybe this place is where people in NJ come from? But Bridin asked him and he had spent most of his life in Jersey.

The doctor told me I had bronchitis and wrote a note to the pharmacy. I was surprised they would accept a note. After filling the prescription the pharmacist gave me the note back with some antibiotics. He also gave me this stuff, which got me WASTED.

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The train ride was lovely. Paying an extra 20 bucks for business class is really worth it. The chairs are super-comfy.

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And you pass all of those mustard-colored houses and Cypress trees from your Under the Tuscan Sun fantasies.

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But if you have an international adapter, make sure not to put the wrong plug in the socket. A big flash went up and everyone in my train car looked worried, then they all Tsk-tsk-ed me. They actually made that sound.

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Hotel Cavour was very fancy and the people were friendly. Fewer people spoke English in Florence than in Rome, but they were much more helpful and patient.

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I had to rest and get better, which sucked because I wanted to see the museums and I had packed a special dress for the opera. But if you have to be sick, a luxury hotel is the place to do it. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza. Unfortunately, the hotel had no room service, but they did serve an American-style buffet breakfast. The cut-up hot dogs were understandable. Someone must have convinced them, really! They eat sausages for breakfast in America!  The steamed vegetables were a little more perplexing.

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Don’t you totally want this couch?

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I would like this mirror, but a little more ornate, please.

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I forgot that in Italy the ground floor is 0, not 1, and I pressed 1 in the elevator and came upon this when the doors opened…

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I mean if you’re going to remodel, don’t you take down the pictures and remove the furniture? Who is that bed waiting for? Or what? On my last day I asked an English speaking desk clerk what the deal was. “Oh, they are fixing it up” was all he would say. I’m both relieved and a little disappointed that he didn’t say “Ohhh… we don’t let anyone in that room — not after the murderrrr….”

And is it the fever dreams or is my name in the wallpaper?

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Italy: Near Death Experience

DSC04146I was kind of burnt out from all of the walking, but Bridin encouraged me to go to some of the places on my to-do list. I love marble cemetery angels, and The Protestant/Non-Catholic Cemetery was highly recommended. It is also a cat sanctuary — what a fantastic use of land.

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It also meant there was a little center for the sanctuary, so someone is always there and it’s not creepy. Plus they have bathrooms. Not to be underestimated.

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DSC03996The memorial most likely to buy you a drink

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This little boy may be the creepiest statuary I have ever photographed.

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What on earth is going on here?

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Their wide array of sculptures includes some seriously bereft angels and cherubs.

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Nicely carved feet

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Italy: How to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist

DSC03689 (2)Before I went to Italy, I read a number of articles advising you on the do’s and don’ts of travel in Italy. Let’s talk about some of them.

Italians serve their bread dry. Don’t ask for butter or olive oil.

On the third day, Bridin declared, ” I don’t care. I want butter. I AM a tourist.” Seriously, why are we trying to hide it? The minute we open our mouths they know where we are from. And probably one glance at my freckles rules me out as a local. Anyways, being able to travel internationally is a privilege. Why should we be ashamed of that? Embrace it.

Cover your knees and shoulders in church or the vatican

This one I agree with. I think it’s important to respect the values and social mores of a country related to things like religion and modesty. I noticed none of the people ever had their shoulders exposed, anywhere. No talk tops or sleeveless shirts. I did not notice anyone’s knees.

Italians eat pizza with a knife and fork.

Not so much. Most of the pizza places are take-aways, and the people I saw eating pizza in restaurants used their hands. But no one ate in public, and when I wandered down the street munching on panini people openly gawked at me. At first I thought they were jealous of my sandwich. Then I thought it was because I was eating meat on Ash Wednesday outside the vatican. But I eventually got the vibe that I was being crass. So where were people eating all of the food I saw them buy? Hiding behind ruins?

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Watch traffic. Lines on the road are just decorative.

Totally true. One woman walking to the Vatican with us stood in the street and I saw a driver waiting to turn right get angrier and angrier. I had to yank her out of the way just as the driver zoomed through the space where she had been standing. The tourist looked at me in shock, I deadpanned, “They don’t care.” I noticed it was often a matter of playing chicken. One gorgeous woman glared at my cab driver like, “I DARE you” as she crossed in front of him. Then on my last day, I screamed, “Look out!” as a driver backed into a crowd of people. One guy jumped, but still got a little bump before the driver threw the car into gear and took off.

Italian people are super-friendly and warm

One of the American TV show hosts said, all of the nonnas in the restaurants loved my children and would pull them into the kitchen. When we returned to the same restaurant we were treated like regulars. Well, yeah. The people working in the restaurants, tour guides, hotel staff and shop owners cooed over me. But the operative word is “working.” Those people make their money off of tourists, so it is their job to make you happy, and they probably have more exposure to us Americans and our weird behavior. And when entering a place of business you must say “Buon Giorno” to the staff or it is considered very rude, like entering someone’s house without knocking. I only made one “friend” who was not working in hospitality.

People on the street do not smile at you and greet you. I often do goofy thing, like drop my bag or trip over stones in the road. In America, I look around to see if anyone saw me being a dork. Onlookers look at you with a wry sympathetic smile or may even say, “I hate it when I do that!” or “Aren’t these roads slippery!” In Italy you are met with disapproving stares, “Like, another clumsy American!”

I can’t help smiling at people I pass and the nonnas would glare back at me, which made me kind of passive-aggressively smile bigger. “You don’t like THAT smile? How do you like THIS SMILE???”

I don’t know how Italians behave if you come to their house as a guest or are introduced by a mutual friend. Probably super-friendly and warm.

Sometimes Italian toilets are just a hole in the floor

Well, OK, but rarely. The boys saw a lot of that on the road, but it’s not like you are defecating in a hole into the basement. It’s as if you took your toilet off the ground. There is still plumbing and it flushes. They got around it by going into “bars” for espresso and there were usually regular toilets there. If not in the Men’s Room usually in the Women’s.

I only saw regular toilets until I arrived on Capri. I stopped dead in my tracks and a man gestured at me to say, “Yes, that’s the ladies room.” But he did not understand my problem.

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I encountered these toilets all around Napoli. Even in the big train station. When it was time to fly home I thought, “But I just figured out how to use the toilets!”

Italian people are more fashionable and you should dress up.

I took that to mean “pack a few nice dresses for restaurants and churches.” That was not what it meant. Italian people are heavily tailored. They wear a spotless uniform of perfectly cut jeans or pants with nice shoes and a puffy quilted down jacket. Speaking of shoes, they hate it when we wear sneakers. But they aren’t walking 9 miles a day through museums and historical sites. They also have shoe closets nearby. Travelers don’t have the luxury of packing 8 different pairs of shoes.

After worsening shin splints, I finally started wearing my river shoes, a cross between sandals and sneakers — which everyone hated. One woman in the train station looked me up and down between my shoes and face with open disgust, like I had dog shit on my feet. I just thought smugly, “Yeah? What are you all dressed up for? To go to work. I am going on a magical European vacation, so suck it.”

Rick Steves promotes the idea of “blending in” and in one video points out a group of Americans and Italians sitting on the steps laughing together. He uses them as a perfect example of getting to know the locals when traveling in Italy. First of all, we know those people were hired and paid for this scene. And unless you are a single person under 30 your chances of establishing tight relationships with the locals are pretty slim. I’m sorry, your hostel days are over. No more snogging with randoms at the music festival. Anyways, Rick Steves, with your red hair, backpack and khaki shorts, do you really think you’re blending in?

I will tell you how you can blend in. I believe every Italian is assigned a quilted down jacket upon birth and changes them out like shells every year. Almost every single Italian I saw was wearing one. Buy the quilted jacket and be one of them.

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When it’s warmer, they switch from the parka to the shorter jacket style

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jacketsAnd when it’s really warm, they switch to the vest. Even the gondoliers wear the vests.

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So I photographed and made fun of these jackets for 2 straight weeks. Then I left my coat in Venice. I had to buy something or freeze to death for the rest of the trip. When in Rome…

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Italy: The Vatican Museum

DSC03806The secret to not waiting 3 hours in line for Italian museums is to cough up 30 bucks or so for the “skip-the-line” guided tours. At the Vatican Museum they start about two hours before the museum opens. The only problem is that then you have to follow a guided tour. I don’t know if it’s ADD or individualism, but I can’t seem to stay with a tour. I kept jumping ahead and lagging behind, making the tour guide insane. At one point I told her I had to go to the restroom and she tried to make me wait for the scheduled restroom stop 20 minutes later. You can’t make a woman over 40 wait that long unless you want to see what the goofy-looking Swiss Guard does to people who pee on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.

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The Vatican Museum is a collection of marble, gilt and gold like you have never seen. It is really overwhelming. The entire ceiling is awash with gold. Some of the statuary is really trippy. There is an entire room of male nudes with their penises lopped off, thanks to Pope Pius IX and Catholicism’s weird obsession with the human body. I wonder where they keep all of the penises.

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Babies and creepy children are allowed to keep their penises, because chopping them off would be weird, right?

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And boobs are cool. In fact, the more, the better.

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Foot fetish? No problem.

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There are a lot of babies in the museum. And a lot of beheadings. None of John the Baptist though. I think these are Judith. At least one of them clearly inspired Artemisia Gentilischi.

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The guide was really into the 4 Raphael chambers. Lots of muscular butts.

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And what was Sylvester Stallone doing there?

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You heard me.

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There is a lot of Egyptian art there too, but I guess the guide had to pick and choose from the miles and miles of art. But before the Sistine Chapel she whisked us off to the snack bar past a Chagall and two Dalis. I complained, “You are skipping the entire 20th century!”

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IMG_0309IMG_0319We made our way into the Sistine Chapel, where no photography is allowed. It is just as well because it allows you to totally become immersed. Everyone focuses on the ceiling, but the wall behind the altar is a gorgeous blue and had enough going on to keep me there all day. I sat on a bench and put on the glasses I never wear and just fell into the splendor. The tour guide forced me out against my will. I just wanted to stay there all day but for some reason I HAD to go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Oh, The Pieta, well, that was almost worth leaving the Sistine Chapel.

IMG_0358But most of the art and design was kind of garish. Pope John Paul II’s tomb  was there, and I almost wanted to pry it open and see if both of his forearms were still there.

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Italy: Eat, Sightsee, Rock Out

DSC03664I now know why Italians can eat so much pasta and gelato and still fit into their high fashion ensembles. They are so active I can’t keep up with them.

Tuesday we thought we would catch the hop-on hop-off tour bus and see a few sights. Our rented apartment is one block from the vatican, so it seemed like a bus that hits the tourist sites would stop nearby. But we had to walk about a mile to the stop next to the Palace Saint Angelis.

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I wanted to see the Trevi Fountain, so we hopped off the bus at that stop. Again it was a much longer walk than we expected. Even though we are traveling off season, the square was a madhouse. But we were able to get close enough to toss our coins in the Fountain, guaranteeing our return.

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DSC03624We slogged back to the designated bus stop, but the bus goes so far so slowly we didn’t have time to make another stop before Bob had to get to his gig for soundcheck. An open double decker bus really is the best way to see a city, though, there were statues and ruins everywhere.

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We had eaten a late breakfast, Bob and I splitting a prosciutto and mozzarella panini. Here the bread for the panini is very thin and crisp. It’s one of the best things I have ever eaten so greasy but with delicious grease. It’s ubiquitous here, kind of like the ham and gruyere sandwiches you can live on in Paris.

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So we had a very small lunch of pizza by the slice before bob had to go meet up with the band. It wasn’t as amazing of an experience as you would expect.

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Pizza in a cone

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Later, Bobs mom, Bridin, and I had an excellent dinner at a random local place. Borgo pio has been very lucky restaurant-wise. Bridgin had gnocchi in a pesto that would make American pesto hide its face in shame. I had osso bucco, which wasn’t as hot as I would have liked, but was nonetheless spectacular.

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DSC03692Then we took Uber to such a desolate place our driver insisted on going to check it out before he dropped us off. I loved the driver because he spoke Spanish and we communicated perfectly in a sort of Spang-talian. It kind of screwed me up because now my Italian keeps lapsing into Spanish.

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The club was cool, if a little small. Komatsu, the Dutch band that’s opening for them on this tour are very clean and tight. Heavy rocking. The Freeks were fantastic. I think the band challenges Bob, and having Jonathan there gives him a solid place to jump off of. At one point the band was doing their slow spacey prog rock and Bob was drumming fast and intense. Bridgin told me it was like the drums were our heartbeat. From the outside our bodies appear slow and placid, but inside our hearts are going a mile a minute.

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Italy: Back Alley Relics


IMG_0364One interesting thing about staying just outside the Vatican is that the tourist shops all sell Catholic merch. Usually Catholic stuff is made by religious orders but you could tell some of the manufacturers knew nothing about Catholicism. Proper rosaries are black or dark brown with the exception of children’s which can be white. The shop across the street had rosaries in such garish colors, like stripper colors. Of course I had that one blessed for you, Donna. From the Mary Magdaline collection.

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In the back of one shop in Catholic alley I found a little basket of something bearing the image of Pope John Paul II which piqued my interest because everything else was Frances Frances Frances. I looked at the little disc and saw a carefully placed bone chip. It was a relic.

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For those of you who don’t know, Catholics venerate relics — 1st degree relics are parts of the bodies of Saints, usually bone or hair or teeth. Even a bit of cloth can be a relic, albeit 2nd degree. Every church must contain a relic. The fancy new cathedral in downtown LA has an entire body built into the wall.

So when I saw the supposed relics of the Sainte Pope John Paul II I accused the merchant, “Fugazi!” He swore it was real, even pointing to a place on his forearm to intimate that’s where the bone chip came from.

I held my open palm bearing the relics out towards him, “What!!? Where the hell did you get these!!!?” He covered my hands with both of his and looked around in a panic then looked at me warningly.

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Non toccara la Virgen!

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