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Friday, November 16, 2007


My Big, Dumb Trip to Europe Part 4: Fifty Bears Flying Out of a Whale's Mouth

Venice is sinking...under the weight of Carnival Cruise Line passengers

The temperature doubled as we headed south from Munich in a train carriage full of elderly Germans. At a stop in Austria, I jumped off the train to buy a Kit Kat off a Russian snack vendor. The grand total of time I've spent in that country? Two minutes and I didn't even catch the name of the town we stopped in. As we dropped into Italy, the man across from me fought to control a floodgate of tears and memories, staring wistfully out the window the whole way. I still wonder what was going through his mind.

You already know the stories about Venice, about how the city is sinking and how foreign travelers have driven away the locals, effectively turning it into a clogged tourist swamp-trap. What you might not know is that when you walk out of the Santa Lucia train station you're right there in the middle of it all. The gondolas, the Grand Canal, the whole bit. We jumped on an overcrowded water taxi that dropped us off in front of a hotel with an inflatable, ten-foot tall gecko out front, both about a block down from the Rialto.

My sister Shanna and I were only there for a night but I'm convinced the city should be saved at all costs. Cancel the rest of the war and divert all those billions, whatever it takes, there's no other place like it anywhere. Oh, Amsterdam. I guess there's Amsterdam but it doesn't have the tiny alleyways and gondolas. No ancient glass shops or gelato stands or beautiful Italian hostesses that lead you down tiny streets to another hotel because the room you booked has a wall that could collapse at any second due to nearby construction. This is what happened to us and her hotel covered the additional cost of the switch to safer lodgings. A Bob Dylan portrait was hanging outside our room. The window inside overlooked a tiny courtyard. A tiny woman at least 80 ran the hotel's breakfast nook and spoke to us softly in Italian before screaming and throwing silverware at a bellhop who dared enter her kitchen in search of soap. She even yelled "MAMA MIA!" as he made his escape. What I wouldn't give to take up residency in that place for a month or five.

We spent the night going up the Campanile in Saint Mark's Square and wandering Venice's corridors with giant bottles of Moretti in our hands. Gorgeous people were laughing in courtyards around every 500 year-old corner. I went to sleep that night thinking Venice was a paradise, overpriced cafes be dammed. Millions flock here every year for a reason.

Then the next day we headed back to Saint Mark's and found it jammed to the walls with tourists. There were thousands of them, everywhere. Hundreds of thousands. All of them, all of us, like rats on the tail end of a sinking life raft. Two Carnival cruise ships had dropped anchor that morning and all those great little alleyways were jammed with hoards of Americans, all of them slowly waddling, staring at maps and avoiding eye contact with gypsy beggars. It took ten minutes to walk a block.

What little room was left in the square was filled with pigeons. Thousands of them, all scrambling to tear apart anyone who dared drop a Euro on a bag of birdseed. I watched one girl, maybe 12, scream in terror as a dozen of the feathered monsters jumped onto her shoulders, desperately driving towards the bag. Another tourist dropped to the ground for a gag photo and found himself covered in them. The hunger of the pigeons in Saint Mark's Square rivals that of an army of starving vampires.

If the rising water and pigeon poop don't destroy Venice, the tourists will. One July day a few years from now the main island will suddenly and spontaneously sink under the weight of one digital camera too many. At least there will be plenty of snapshots to remember the place by.

Frenzy in Firenze

On a boiling Saturday night we found ourselves sitting in a laundromat two blocks down from the tiny hostel where a man who looked and acted too much like Roberto Benigni was working as a manager. Two recent college grads, one from Toronto and the other from DC, decided to swap tales of travel woes with us in a game of one-upmanship. They were both unimpressed with our night on the train to Munich. The DC guy had spent the previous night on a freezing hillside overlooking Firenze (AKA Florence). He had hoped to sneak into a convent with a girl he met while gazing up at the schlong of Michelangelo's David. His plan was quickly foiled. A nun caught him at the main entrance and chased him off down the street.

The kid from Toronto made the mistake of flying into Paris and heading to the nearest bar. After getting extremely drunk, he missed the last subway of the night back to his hostel and made the wise decision to pass out on a bench. He woke up twenty minutes later with his backpack and his shoes missing. In socks, he headed off towards his hostel and found himself being followed. His pursuant kept drawing closer and closer until the Toronto kid whipped out a large hunting knife, the click of the blade ricocheting off a quiet street. His would-be mugger took off running. Never screw with a Canadian with a large knife.

He broke out the knife and flipped it open to offer a visual aid to his anecdote. Not that he needed it. He won this contest at "my shoes were stolen."

The museum workers of Florence went on strike the next day so no David or Venus on a Clamshell for us. Instead, we had to settle for the fake David with the huge hands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (see above) and a chalk drawing of Venus created by a teenager. Shortly after I took a photo, he broke out a bucket and washed his art away. I'm assuming there's some sort of local ordinance that requires him and his fellow street artists to destroy their hard work at the end of the night.

We wandered the streets in the Tuscan sun, smashed a pair of sunglasses in the Giardino dei Semplici (long story), drank coffee at a cafe as a marathon passed us and ate pizza in the strangest restaurant I'll ever set foot in. In addition to a pizza oven made of clay, there was a side room with walls and a ceiling covered in newspapers. The men's bathroom was oddly decadent with Asian decor and a square steel toilet. Imagine an Italian McMenamins with owners that are nuts when it comes to selecting decor. I can think of no better place to eat Neapolitan-style pizza for the first time.

In a market near everything in Florence there's a statue of a pig. If you rub his snout and toss a coin at his feet, the powers-of-fate will grant you a return trip one day. I gave it a good rub. Florence, I want a rematch.

Zebra-stripped mosquitoes rule the Tower of Pisa

We decided to make a side-trip to Pisa on our way to Rome and somehow pulled the whole thing off. Pisa is a fairly small city but the tower stands on the opposite side of town from the train station. We walked the whole way. It took about 30 minutes and our route led us past disturbing amounts of anarchist graffiti. Red letter A's in circles covered nearly every blank wall. It was here that I spotted a "Yankee go home!" tag.

As we neared the tower, suddenly everything was bright and shiny. We each drank an Italian mocha for a Euro apiece. Over there, "mocha" means a shot of chocolate-flavored espresso served in a tiny cup. We waited an hour for a run up the tower by watching tourists from everywhere pretend to knock it over. As you climb up it, the tower seems to lean further and further, creating a disorienting effect as you head up those ancient stairs. At the top, everyone was hanging onto the railings and walking around like Captain Jack Sparrow.

The bumps materialized right around then. At first they were the size of dimes but later they grew to the size of a sand dollar. Shanna's legs were covered in them. Where did they come from? Who was responsible for these injuries? The swarms of black and white-stripped mosquitoes that apparently rule the top of the Tower of Pisa in the middle of the September. At one point, I found myself taking in the landscape by jogging around the top of the tower in circles. Bugs or no bugs, I was going to enjoy that view, dammit. Somewhere on Shanna's camera, there's a video of us discussing the bumps while I hummed the theme song to Super Mario Brothers for reasons I can't remember. No, you will never see it.

All Slow-Moving Eurail Trains Lead to Rome

The mosquito bites and the boiling temperature on the train to Rome resulted in an increasing level of naive paranoia that filled my skull as we headed along an impossibly gorgeous coastline. Twenty minutes from our stop, I read a lengthy entry in a Lonely Planet guide that had me convinced we would be torn apart by gypsies by the time we found the subway. So we whipped together a swift plan of attack. We would hustle straight to the train and to our hotel, pausing only when absolutely necessary. At one point I found myself yelling, "GO! GO! GO!" like a crazed platoon leader in a sweltering stairwell. What a sight I must have been, with my 60 pound backpack and an overpriced Fidel Castro-style army hat on my head. A cartoon of an American tourist getting assaulted by a robber on a monitor on the train didn't help my mood.

We calmed down when we discovered that our hotel was two blocks from a military base. Four hours later, we were drifting around the deserted streets circling the Roman Forum. The only people still out at that hour seemed to be teenaged goths. What do teenaged goths in Rome do on Tuesday nights? They hang around what remains of Caaser's old digs and drink liquor from poorly concealed bottles.

We missed our train and nearly found ourselves locked in a subway station. We eventually grabbed a cab. The gray-haired driver took the long way back, buzzing through Rome's tiny streets at speeds of upwards of 60 miles an hour while blasting Justin Timberlake's Future Sex/Love Sounds because I guess he thought that was the sort of thing two exhausted Americans would want to hear at that hour. At one point we burst out into a plaza with a giant fountain in the middle and crossed three lanes of traffic in a second flat. He could have had us back at the hotel in five minutes but it took fifteen. I don't care. No ride at Magic Mountain comes close. The very next night, the same damn thing happened after the subway mysteriously shut down three hours early.

A city like Rome tests your patience like a screaming toddler. The drivers don't care about you. Street peddlers attack you at every tourist sight hawking everything from roses to plastic screeching cockroaches that they will hold up to your ear with no warning. Gypsy beggars dressed better than you throw themselves at your hands in coffee shops or lay on the street like cancer victims struck by lightning, their shaking arms clutching cups. People in $500 outfits storm around the streets with complete indifference to anyone and everyone around them, their tongue's whipping over black cell phones and their eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. Supposedly, 30% of men over the age of thirty in Italy still live with their parents so they can afford high-priced living and fast cars.

I don't think the Romans are rude like the French are rude. I just think they're completely oblivious to their surroundings 95% of the time. In addition to all of that, if you do anything that could be perceived as slightly stupid or rude, a local will make a weird noise that sounds like "TSST!" It's the Italian equivalent of a sigh or an eye roll. I've never been worked over by a dominatrix but three days in Rome will leave you feeling something like that, I'm sure. It's all oddly pleasant but it hurts.

We missed a chance to see the Pope babble at his followers but we did spend a stormy afternoon touring the Vatican City. I sent a dirty postcard from the post office that isn't going to win me any brownie points with St. Peter. I got in line and rubbed the feet of his statue (see above) in the Basilica along with everyone else. I'm hoping that made up for the slight. The building is impossibly huge, an immortal testament to the overreaching power and pompousness of organized religion. I can say with some certainty that there is no other structure on the planet as epic and capable of pummeling a person's spirit into submission. The size of a dozen football fields and chock full of dead Popes and amazing architecture, no mere mortal can process a place like it. In the basement, people weep on their knees at the tomb of Pope Jean Paul. There's a section for them to do so, separated from a walkway by a velvet rope.

In a slow-moving battalion of physically-drained Italians, we made our way to the Sistine Chapel. It's a big room with not enough guards to scream at everyone for taking photos. Heading for the subway afterwards, I felt like all the planet's opulence had been shoved into my brain in the space of five hours. That night we ate pizza in the city's oldest pizza parlor, a place called Ricci's, where I discovered sardines ain't so bad.

Fun factoid: once upon a time, the Roman Colosseum hosted an unusual battle involving a gigantic mechanical whale, a group of gladiators and fifty live bears. The whale was raised from the floor and the bears poured out of its mouth, hurtling themselves at their adversaries. That would have been something to see. For reasons I have yet to research, the Colosseum is currently undergoing repairs. When we there, the walls of the upper decks were under construction. Even odder, someone is paying to rebuild the stadium's wooden playing field. While I don't know if I could get behind rebuilding the Coliseum, if they start staging battles like that again I'd buy a ticket.

Fifty bears flying out of a whale's jaws. Can you imagine a scene like that? Something else I learned: the aristocracy of ancient Rome would routinely get together for 15-course meals. Between courses, servants would bring them feathers and buckets to purge their guts and allow for more gorging. And Europeans think we're decadent and wasteful. These people invented gluttony.


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