You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.
-- Zork I
Venice is beautiful. Venice is maddening. Some sadistic Doge, back in the 1400s, conspired with the city planners to make the streets as confusing as possible. There was a certain perverse logic that went something like this:
1) Make no street longer than 200 feet.
2) If possible, ensure that the street dead ends at water (either the Adriatic Sea, or a canal).
3) Even though the streets cannot, by law, be longer than 200 feet, change the street name two or three times along the way.
4) Streets shall not be straight. Curves are good. Circles are better.
5) Add helpful arrows to point to tourist landmarks, such as the Rialto Bridge and San Marco Piazza. But make sure the arrows point in several directions simultaneously.
6) Provide future generations of tourists with a useless map that contains approximately 10% of the streets in Venice. And then watch the ensuing hilarity.
We spent hours wandering around in circles. As a Point A to Point B kind of guy, I found this inordinately frustrating. "Get lost," Rick Steves' travel guide advised us. "You're on an island. How lost can you get?" As it turns out, pretty lost. Venice is also the Niagara Falls of Italy, with tacky T-shirt and trinket shops around every curve, and it's amazing how much alike Venice's Best T-Shirts! on Via Canal dei Francesca can look when compared with Venice's Most Awesome T-Shirts! on Via Canal dei Francisco.
But here's the thing: those canals flow in their fetid fashion through the most gorgeous city you will ever see. Pastel-colored fifteenth and sixteenth century palaces are everywhere, and Renaissance churches overflowing with artistic masterpieces, and delightful piazzas full of bubbling fountains that look like they belong in museums, not slaking the thirst of some soccer-playing kids on the square. So we got lost. So what? It took me a couple days to figure that out, but so what?
"GRAHT-see," I say to the young woman at the checkout counter.
"GRAHT-see-AY," she corrects me.
"Mi scuzee," I say.
"It's okay," she replies.
It's a good thing that almost everybody in Italy speaks English. I had the best of intentions. A friend loaned out her 24-CD set of Italian language instruction, and I really did intend to listen studiously on my drives to and from work. But there were albums to review, and new albums to listen to, and it didn't happen. And so we arrived in Italy armed with a 30-word vocabulary, including tortellini, gnocchi, mozzarella, and vino.
It turned out that it really didn't matter that much. The Italians we met were friendly, helpful, and more fluent in English than I had any right to expect. Granted, it would have been difficult for them to carry on a conversation with me about, say, the merits of premillenialism vs. amillenialism. But that's some boring shit anyway, and most people were only too happy to assist us with directions to museums, prices, and the location of the nearest WC, which were the things we needed to talk about. Thanks to nothing I did, the language barrier turned out to be no barrier at all.
The Birthday Girl
There are far worse places to spend one's 50th birthday. This is Kate perched atop a piazza overlooking the city of Florence.
Royale With Cheese
You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
What'd they call it?
Royale with cheese.
-- John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction"
I swore that I would not be that guy. The ugly American who moans that there's no ice in the water glasses, and that it's impossible to find a regular-sized cup of coffee around here. But I became that guy against my wishes.
Italians do some foods really, really well: pastry, coffee, wine, gelato. And they do some foods really, really poorly, including the ones you would think they would do well: pasta, pizza, and seafood. It's possible that there are random trattorias and osterias out there that prepare and serve these foods in delectable concoctions, but we couldn't find them, at least in Venice. Well, more correctly, we found them, but with ridiculous tourist prices ($70 for a hunk of fish; that's not for the meal, that's just for the piece of fish). With the plunging value of the dollar against the Euro, we decided that we didn't need to indulge that badly.
And that left us with ham and cheese. Here's the deal: the Italians are inordinately fond of the pig. I have nothing against the pig, and have been known to scarf down bacon, ham, sausage, and the occasional pork medallion. But when the only meat you can find on the menu involves the pig, and when every lunchtime panino is some fancy-sounding variation on the serviceable ham and cheese sandwich, you start to long for a little variety.
So I decided to be adventurous. "I'll have a speck panino," I told the guy at the counter.
It turned out that speck is some inedible part of the pig. Intestines. Brains. Something like that. Trust me. You wouldn't like it. And so, out of self defense, we finally located a McDonald's. And yes, I ordered a Royale with Cheese. It was mighty, mighty good, too.
Pissing Away Our Money
Everything in Italy costs money. Everything. It costs $1.50 every time you pee at a public WC. It costs $6.00 for two people to sit down in an outdoor cafe. Just to sit. Food is, of course, extra. We spent a lot more money than we should have. We didn't have many options.
Perhaps because we were starved for conversation beyond "Grazie" and "Buon giorno," the normally reticent Andy and Kate became flaming extroverts when they encountered English-speaking travelers. We met Jeremy and Caroline from Manchester, England, in Venice for their honeymoon. We met married doctors Jay and Sandy from Tampa, Florida, who were planning to bicycle through Tuscany. We met Dan and Gloria, from Hollywood, California, whose California mission-style house gets tranformed into a house in Pennsylvania every week on a television show I've never seen. And I met a longtime e-friend, Martin, with whom I've corresponded on various Internet discussion lists for more than fifteen years. Martin lives in Seattle, Washington but our families hooked up in Florence, Italy. Go figure.
This is the thumb of St. Catherine of Siena. It has been preserved in a reliquary in a cathedral in Siena for the past six hundred years. We also saw the tongue and vocal chords of St. Anthony of Padua, and the entire grinning skeletal remains of several other saints.
There is a part of me that really doesn't understand the focus on relics. Then I remember that I have traveled to Cleveland and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame to view Eric Clapton's guitar pick, also encased behind glass. So we saw several Saint Hall of Fame locations.
At St. Anthony's stomping grounds in Padua, we saw the devout kissing the good saint's tomb, and rubbing their hands against it. Some people pinned notes to a wall next to the tomb. Some people posted pictures of little kids who had simply disappeared, loved ones who hadn't been heard from in thirty years. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. Watching the devout, some of them in tears, I hope and pray he can help them find their loved ones. I don't fully understand it. But I understand that hole in the soul, that feeling that a big part of your life has been torn away. Please do whatever it is you do, St. Anthony.
All This Useless Beauty
What shall we do do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
All this useless beauty?
-- Elvis Costello, "All This Useless Beauty"
Our church meets in the auditorium of an elementary school. Every Sunday we set up the folding Samsonite chairs, and then we take them down at the end of the service. The only art to be found comes from the occasional display from Mrs. Jorgenson's 4th grade class.
I suppose people travel to Italy for different reasons. But for us, it was a chance to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. And to see art. And so we spent the time we weren't wandering around lost, or sitting in a cafe or restaurant, touring a dozen world-class museusms and two dozen monstrous cathedrals. We saw a monastery in Florence whose cells were decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico. The good brother spent the last few decades of his life creating art that he believed only his fellow monks would see. We saw a chapel in Padua that is covered from floor to ceiling with paintings by the early Renaissance master Giotto. We saw Gothic, high Renaissance, and Baroque churches dripping with sculptures from Michelangelo and Donatello and Bernini, paintings from Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci and Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese, Ghirlandaio and Fra Bartolomeo and Fillipo Lippi. And we saw dozens of works that even I, perhaps the least visually oriented person in the universe, recognize from my meager knowledge of art. If you wanted a crash course in the art of western civilization, at least as created by white guys from ancient Rome through the late Renaissance, you could hardly do better than follow our itinerary.
It was all too much. I couldn't take it in. Consider, for a moment, that the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice is covered -- and I mean that every square inch of the interior of a fifteen-story building is covered -- with millions of tiny tiles that comprise the most majestic mosaics to be found on the planet. Consider that it took a large group of highly skilled artists a couple hundred years to make that happen. And then consider that San Marco was one of several such establishments we visited on one day of a fifteen-day trip, and that I haven't even mentioned the paintings or the statuary or the jewel-encrusted crucifixes, or the mind-boggling architecture of the building itself. Multiply by infinity. Blow your mind.
It was all too much; useless beauty everywhere, an embarrassment of riches, both literally and in terms of the incalculable worth of the artistic vision that found palpable reality. That writhing fellow above is Laocoon, a priest of Troy who warned his fellow citizens about that strange looking wooden horse in Virgil's Aeneid. Here he is assailed by sea serpents. His image, found in the Vatican Museum and carried across the space of twenty-two centuries, still startles. Astoundingly, it is carved out of a solid block of marble. No one knows the name of the sculptor who sat patiently, month after month, year after year, carving those rich details, capturing, impossibly, the look of sheer terror. Out of solid rock.
I don't worship art, although I know people who do. Theologically, I'm part of a good, upstanding Protestant tradition that is suspicious of all the extravagance, all the unnecessary frills. No pomp and ostentation where we come from; no sir. But we're missing something. Maybe you had to be there. I can recognize that a Samsonite chair and a neon-lit elementary school auditorium will do the trick. But I can be thankful for, and amazed by, all the useless beauty.
There are ruins everywhere in Rome. There are the obvious tourist traps -- the Colosseum, the Forum. But we were astounded to find a stray column, a random bit of carved rubble, almost everywhere we turned.
It was a sobering thing to see the ruins of a magnificent civilization. In Largo Argentina, a once bustling market square, wild cats prowl around the disintegrating columns. It was once an important center in the most important city in the world. Now it is the denizen of cats.
We touched down in Columbus Saturday night and caught up a bit on the news from Iraq, the baseball pennant races, the ongoing saga of Lindsay Lohan's rehab. It's good to be home. We missed our kids, and we missed our friends. I missed Starbucks, my iMac, and Donato's Pizza. But I remembered those crumbling columns, and I tried to keep it in perspective. I tried to remember what lasts.
Great vacations, sadly, do not. But I am so grateful for the opportunity to see these things.