Saturday, March 31, 2012

Phoenix - You Can Eat Fish During Lent

We hit the gym again this morning. The back wall of this location is wall to wall, floor to ceiling glass, which gives you an expansive view of the landmark Camelback Mountain, so named because it resembles a kneeling camel. Seeing it at dusk, in silhouette, as we drove to Tempe Saturday night, it even more closely resembled the animal for which it is named. The scene out the gym window looked serene and almost pastoral; until a golf cart rolled by. The verdant green field was actually the 9th hole of one of the ubiquitous golf courses of Phoenix.

I once again catch rays until a wind brings in a cool front, which lasts for the remaining duration of my visit.

At home I am known for my crab cakes. They are either really good or all of our friends are big liars. We take a trip to the store to pick up the ingredients. My host and I prepare dinner and chat for several hours waiting for his partner to return from work. He and I make plans to visit a museum the next day as the cool front would not allow another languid afternoon in the sun. I guess I could attempt to lay out but my nipples would get extremely hard and as happens when a man enters very cold water above his waist my....well never mind.

I relate to my host that all this relaxing to which I am so unaccustomed is leaving me disoriented as I bid adieu to another delightfully wasted day.

Phoenix - One Day as Plesantly Pointless as the Last

My hosts are up and out early this Sunday morning, one to church service, the other to the park so their dog can romp with others of her ilk. This leaves me with 2 hours on my own. I touch base with my partner. When I reach him he is lacing up his ice skates at Chicago's outdoor rink. There is some irony in this considering there is another high of 80 degrees predicted for Phoenix this afternoon. I also phone my friends in Houston and discuss Broadway shows in general and one certain Broadway cast album in particular.

Upon their return a late breakfast is had at a nearby, by Phoenix standards, pita restaurant; which also involves a margarita quaffed well before noon. I then, like the previous afternoon, situate myself in a lounge chair soaking up the desert warmth. My fervent wish is that what color I may attain while I am here will inspire some envy among the pale, winter bleached, sun deprived natives of Chicago as I step off the plane.

Our plans are to visit a local gay watering hole late this afternoon, a place with an outdoor space called The Bunkhouse; how very butch; and be back in time to watch the Oscar telecast this evening.

Relaxing like this is not in my nature...but I'm working hard at it to make sure that I get it right.

The bar reminds me of the neighborhood place where we while away late Sunday afternoons in the summer at home, albeit larger and more densely populated. Judging from the number of jerseys stretched around ample midsections I assume a softball game must have taken place earlier in the day.

We have a dinner of home baked chicken pot pie while watching the Oscars. They are, well, the Oscars. As Billy Crystal joked, "A bunch of millionaire actors handing out gold statues to other millionaire actors". As he was saying this we were wondering what on earth he had done to this face, and what color his hair actually was under it's almost blueblack superman shade. I did, however, think his tails were a nice touch.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Phoenix - A Trip to the Gym, A trip to the Theatre and a Sunny Afternoon In Between

I sleep fairly well, for me, but find myself wide awake at 5 a.m. I lie for awhile, trying to force myself back to sleep, but finally surrender, play a couple of games on my phone and around 6:30 rise from the bed and pad to the kitchen. I rummage through the cabinets looking for the coffee maker I know is there. It is only used when there are guests as neither of my hosts habitually drink a beverage I am addicted to. As I come across it my old friend comes in and finds the coffee for me. We breakfast and head to the gym.

This is new territory for me. Bally's, the chain to which we all had memberships was recently purchased by L.A. Fitness. Since the changeover, my hosts have been frequenting the L.A. Fitness facilities as they are nicer, cleaner and closer to their home then the old Bally's clubs they formerly went to. The gym is much larger and upscale than the more working class gym I go to at home. Some momentary confusion at the profusion of machine options comes over me but I quickly access the terrain, settle in and go to work.

Upon returning, I lounge in the sun enjoying the 80 degree afternoon. We eat lunch outdoors in the yard, relax, eventually eat dinner, again outside and get ready to go to the theatre.

It is at this point my friend pulls out a small album of photos from a dinner celebrating his 35th birthday almost 15 years ago. Although there is ample photographic evidence that I was in attendance, I sheepishly and reluctantly admit to him that I have no recollection of that particular event. I do, however, remember the clothing and jewelry I was wearing that evening. Some of the jewelry I still own. No matter, it looked as if a wonderful time was had by all. One photo in particular of my host and I together speaks volumes about what he has meant to me over the years.

Languid, almost pointless days like these are few and far between for me. At home, even during long weekends or the week long breaks I take in July and August, there is always a project to be done or tasks to be accomplished. Here I have nothing to do. I feel as free of responsibility as their dog who sleeps in the warmth of the sun a few feet from me. When I travel I generally go where I have the opportunity to see places and experience things I haven't before seen or experienced. Doing nothing takes some getting accustomed to.

The play, a "black box" production of a work titled "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is being performed in Tempe, about 40 minutes from my hosts home. We leave, as it turns out, earlier than necessary. There were concerns about finding parking which we, by good fortune, locate directly across the street from the Performing Arts Center, the play's venue, on the sprawling campus of ASU. The play, though long, (2 hours and 40 minutes including intermission), is fun, intelligent, imaginative and interesting enough that we find ourselves discussing it all during the drive home, as well as at breakfast the next day.

Upon returning to my host's home we feast on Key Lime pie, prepared that afternoon in an attempt to use up some leftover lime juice. I enjoy a small nightcap of Dewar's and again retire to bed, it being almost midnight. All this inactivity just wears one out!


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Phoenix - Upon Arrival

Hugs and hellos are exchanged as I am picked up at the airport and am whisked away to dinner. They have chosen a place with outdoor dining, as, it being February, it is something I have small chance of experiencing at home this time of year. While the establishment is not "gay" it is gay friendly and it seems largely gay staffed. One of my hosts is enamored of our bespeckeled waiter. I, on the other hand, am eyeing the heavily tattooed piece clearing of one the tables. It is somewhat reassuring to know that he and I will never fight over men.

The temperatures are expected to be in the 70's and 80'S, a far cry from the winter weather Chicago is notorious for. I look forward to relaxing in the sun and enjoying the company of one's who hold a special place in my life. My cares, stress and worries are neatly packaged and stored at home. I am certain they will be there when I return, but for the next few days they are there and I am here with a thousand miles between us.

We dine, catch up, swap stories and upon arriving at their home I retire at 10 as I am still on central time and have spent much of the day traveling here.

A Quick Trip to Phoenix or God Do I Need a Rest

It is a cold, but not bitter February morning. 3 inches of wet, slushy snow fell overnight. This morning the winds were blowing clumps of it off of roofs, awnings and the ornate building fronts of my neighborhood pelting those of us going about our business below. Wheeling a gray trolley suitcase with a small duffle slung over it's handle, I head to the airport. After I transfer the train leaves downtown and heads south. It passes the loft apartments carved out of old warehouses and then the neighborhoods of bungalows which surround Midway airport. It is a part of the city I do not get to often. The snow has ebbed and now falls in uneven intervals. As I unzip my down jacket, I look forward to 4 full days in Phoenix, wearing shorts, sandals and tanks.

Let people say what they will about Chicago's transit system, the only thing that went smoothly this day was the ride to the airport. Once I arrived and checked my bag chaos reigned supreme.

Pre boarding security was some of the most poorly organized I have ever experienced. What began as lines morphed into a mob by the time the security desk was reached. People were checked and passed through to the metal detector in what appeared to be a completely arbitrary order. X ray screening was no more organized than the ticket and I.D. check. Being put through the new, extremely expensive full body scanner, I was subsequently spot checked. The machine indicated something on my left ankle. I did indeed have something on my left ankle, my sock.

The plane was delayed a half hour upon my arrival and closer to one and a half hours late we were finally in the air. On the up side, my layover in Denver would be cut considerably. On the downside, I had planned to call a convalescing friend during that layover. I hope I still have time to do so. I know he looks forward to and enjoys our phone conversations. Flurries were still in the air as we took off which makes the promise of the warmth of Arizona's sun all the sweeter.

The purpose of my trip, other than to escape the cold of a Chicago winter, is to visit a longtime friend of mine and his partner. He and I have traveled, laughed, gone to the theatre and the opera and treasured and enjoyed a friendship spanning almost 2 decades. This is my 4th visit, if memory holds. It does not hold the way that it used to.

Our head flight attendant on this leg of the trip is gay. I do not need to guess at this, it is a sure bet. A travel buddy of mine refers to gay male flight attendants as "air mattresses". This reputation is not entirely undeserved if the tales I have heard from those in the industry are true.

I land in Denver at one end of a terminal. My connecting flight departs from the other end of the terminal. I manage to find enough time to make the phone call and catch up with my friend on the mend. He recently underwent a liver transplant and has told me that our phone conversations are some of his best and most effective medicine.

Our gate agent is, again, unmistakeably gay and extremely slight with a shaggy haircut that makes him resemble Ellen De Generes. You would think that an airline with a name like "Frontier" would hire male employees who possessed the butch quotient that is insinuated by that word.

By all appearances we should arrive in Phoenix on time and I will begin to enjoy warm weather and a happy reunion with my old friends.

The New Gay Aesthetic

Reed Thin

Having been an out gay man since the 1970's, I've seen styles and trends among gay men come and go. There was the close cropped hair and moustaches of the late 70's. This was often accompanied by the standard uniform of tight Levis  501 jeans and Izod brand polo shirts. This is when we started to use the word clone as gay men paraded down the streets and through the bars, each looking identical to the next. Having dinner with a date in a gay restaurant one evening we both realized we had no idea which  waiter among the jean/polo shirt clad group was ours when we got ready to motion for the check. Faced with this somewhat faceless society one occasionally played for time trying to remember where/how/under what circumstances you had met the man who obviously remembered you, and what you had done with him.

In the 80's this look was eshewed by the younger crowd in favor of bright, eclectic new wave attire, although there were still standard looks in this genre. One friend of mine said there where three guys who hung out together. They looked so similar that he had slept with one of them but could not remember which one. Another friend of mine suggested that the solution to this problem was to sleep with all of them. That being said, there did seem that there was more room for creativity during this period. Drag was not uncommon. Neither was a fashion statement sometimes referred to as Genderfuck i.e. a bearded man wearing a dress and full makeup or a skintight lame jumpsuit.

The clone look did persist, however the clone of this era was better built than his 1970's predecessor. In San Francisco there hordes of rippling, extraordinarily well muscled men striding shirtless through the gay ghettos of the time. Some of the club kids of the day protested that they found this look and the time and energy devoted to it distasteful. I was not among those who felt that way. I also found it hypocritical to deride another persons narcissism and vanity after spending 2 hours picking out your outfit and arranging your hair just so before venturing out for the evening.

The 90's brought a host of new fabrics, vinyl, latex, lycra and spandex in a dizzying array of patterns, textures and colors inspired new looks. The business at gyms remained steady judging from the sculpted bodies on display at clubs and at the gay pride parades and street fairs.

Alas, times change and we now have the latest look for the gay man. Rail thin bodies clad in vintage tees. Some wear stretch jeans to accentuate their birdlike legs. At last years Pride Parade float after float carrying these undernourished specimens wearing skimpy attire passed by. Even some of the Colt calenders, long the domain of rough looking well muscled models, are this year featuring men that look as if they subsist on a diet of broccoli and a smidgen of rice.

Perhaps the pendulum will swing back someday. Till then I will have to satisfy myself with memories and discretely observing the straight guys in the weight room at the gym.

Gay Bears - The Flip Side

On the flip side of today's reed thin, underfed gay men are the members of the community that refer to themselves as "bears". In nature, bears are large powerful animals. Their ability to catch fish as the unfortunate creatures leap from the water speak to their quickness and agility, despite their size.

In gay terms "bears" are often large, slovenly, obese creatures. Sometimes hirsute, sometimes not, they use the term bears as a license to eat and drink to excess, not take care of themselves and develop diabetes, heart trouble and other weight related maladies, like many heteros in the U.S. these days. With the apparent complete disregard for one's health, the term "bear Pride" could be seen by some as an oxymoron.

In Conclusion

I am not suggesting that the gay community return to the "body fascism" rampant in some quarters in the past. I only suggest that we all care for ourselves so that we are better able to care for one another.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Character Study - Margritte Roma

I am all about maintaining the anonymity of the people that I refer to in these posts, but as Ms. Roma would be well over 100 years old today, I feel it is alright to use her name. If everything that I heard is true, she has one of the most interesting back stories of anyone I have ever met.

When I lived in San Francisco, I worked, briefly, with a semi-professional theatre group. We were paid a pittance, not even enough to cover bus fare to and from rehearsals and performances. This was understandable, the group was a new start up so funds were going to the "production". Also,the company was large, 14 to 15 people and there was not a very large "gate" coming in. During my time with the group, however,  I learned more about the craft of theatre in a shorter amount of time then I ever had previously. This was due, in large part to Margritte Roma, the artistic and stage director of the group.

Roma, she went only by her last name, was a bipolar crone who could make one crazy but who you still had to respect. I worked with her form the summer of 1984 until early 1985. At that time she was 80. Her story goes....

She was born a German Jew. In her youth she was renown as one of the most promising actresses in Europe. Prior to World War II she was working in Berlin under the direction of Bertold Brecht. She was married, at that time, to a Pole. It as rumored that he was gay. It was not uncommon during that period for straight women in artistic circles to marry gay men. Lotte Lenya's second husband, after the death of Kurt Weill, was gay. All we ever  heard of her first husbands fate was that he was "lost to war".

Being Jewish, Germany was not a safe place for her during this time. With help from a group of Jesuits, so the story goes, she was able to get across the border to France. For the next 7 years she worked with the Comedie Francois collaborating with the theatre legend Max Rhinehardt.

When it became apparent France was going to surrender to the Nazis, she was forced to flee once again. This time to the U.S. settling in Santa Monica, where Brecht had gone to wait out the war. Working at Paramount she met her second husband, a set carpenter.

Eventually they moved north to San Francisco and founded a traveling Shakespearean acting company. I had the pleasure of working with one of the original members of that company during my short tenure with them. He would tell me tale of the early days of the company. They performed, often outdoors in parks, but also in hospitals and prisons. He would often discuss the different ways hardened criminals related to Shakespeare. That company eventually pushed Roma and her husband out feeling that they had become to old. I worked with them during the founding stages or the new company they were trying to develop after that.

Although 80 years old she was as vital as a woman half her age. She was intense; she and I had more that one shouting match. Her politics and world view were so far left that they verged on impractical. Her husband once remarked to me "You know Roma lives in her own world." She spoke 5 languages, although her  English was sometimes almost unintelligible. At one point she directed a young Vic Tayback in a production of "Death of a Salesman". She said it was the only production Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role of Willie Loman, ever saw. Another veteran member of the company, who was also working with them at the time I was, while helping them organize their archives, found a photo of her standing between Mr. Cobb and Mr. Tayback.

Attempting to Google her I have found very little. I managed to come up with one picture she was in. She had a nonspeaking role as a "hostage". I once found a link titled "The Films of Margritte Roma" but the page was no longer active.

Although, for a number of reasons, my theatrical ambitions never bore fruit, I am still grateful for and respect the insights and knowledge I gained from coming to know and work with her.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our Return From Rome or Treated Rudely in Toronto

As we head to the airport in our hired van we pass more ruins and an amusement park, part of the juxtaposition and eclectic mix that is Rome. After checking our luggage and shopping our way through the International Terminal we get to our gate. We meet a woman from Toronto in line. My partner, during our conversation, mentions that his niece is on the homecoming court at her high school. Ms. Toronto informs us "In Canada, we don't raise our daughters to be princesses." After further discussion reveals that we have a cat we enjoy spoiling and doting on she informs us "You two are such a cliche." We decide that in Canada they also don't raise their daughters to be polite. We stop talking to her.

When traveling outside the U.S during the Bush years one occasionally happened upon those the chose not to hide their disdain for U.S. citizens and all things associated with them. They seemed to think each of us was solely responsible for who was president and the policies he enacted. This was apparent during our layover and customs in Toronto. In an innocent error, I got in the customs line for airline employees. Peering down at me from her lofty perch behind the customs window, the official informed me, in a manner that inferred "How could you be so dumb you stupid American", that I was in the wrong line. But, as there were no airline employees waiting in line at that time she would process me through. Asking me if I was traveling with anyone, I replied I was, gesturing to my partner going through the next line over. "In the future", she informed me "You can both fill out the same customs form. We are not the U.S." Unmarried partners in the U.S. have to fill our separate customs forms. I wanted to reply to her "In the U.S. we don't intentionally insult guests to our country." But I thought better of it and held my tongue.

Hiding our U.S passports and attempting to sound like Canadians, aye, we continued to our gate. Waiting there our names were called over the loudspeaker requesting us to come to the gate desk. "We better go there" my partner said, "I don't feel like being scolded by another Canadian." A problem had occurred with our customs processing but was quickly resolved. Thankfully as we couldn't board the plane for home fast enough.

Several years later I visited Montreal, which I have written about previously. I found the people there to be delightful, courteous and friendly. Of course, Bush was out of office then.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How to See Rome in One Day

Arriving at the train station in Rome fairly early in the morning we walked the short distance to the same hotel  we had stayed in our first night, stashed our bags in the luggage room and boarded the Metro heading to the Vatican. The line to enter the Holy City was long but moved surprisingly quickly. We compared it to a three block stroll. It is fortunate that the line moves at the pace it does since beggars, some of them amputees displaying quite grisly wounds, pepper the sidewalk leading up to the gates. As you enter there is a sign showing the outline of a man in tank top and shorts in the middle of a circle with a slash across it. As it was November we were dressed modestly. I did, however, ponder what the wait in line would be like under a blazing summer sun in long pants and a long sleeve shirt. Short sleeves would probably be permissible, just keep those deltoids covered boys, no matter how attractive they may be.

As you enter you go through galleries filled with the art and treasures that the Catholic church has pillaged, excuse me, gathered, from ancient civilizations around the globe. Penises seemed to have either repulsed or excited the Holy Fathers as they have all been whacked off, excuse me again, chiseled off, of the priceless male nude statues displayed.

One space of particular beauty is the Hall of Tapestries. Every inch of wall space is covered with rich, lushly woven masterworks. My partner was enamored of one Tapestry depicting a map of Venice as we had been here just a few days earlier. He attempted to photograph it in the dimly lit hall without a flash. Light is restricted in this gallery to help prevent deterioration and fading of these fragile treasures.

Eventually one reaches the Sistine Chapel filled with the magnificent artwork of Michelangelo. The colors and figures depicted are rich and lustrous thanks to an extensive cleaning and restoration effort carried out over several years. Minute details, facial features and the folds and draping of clothing, long obscured by centuries of dirt and soot, look as fresh as they must have appeared during Michelangelo's time. The room is packed shoulder to shoulder with tourists snapping pictures and discussing the scenes on the walls around them and barrel vaulted ceiling above. Guards continually try to silence the crowd feeling that the chapel should be treated with quiet reverence. Fat Chance!

We exit the chapel and after a visit to St. Peters and Michelangelo's stunning Pieta, exit the Vatican and find our way to the Tiber river. We pause by the looming, formidable bulk of the ancient Castle Sant Angelo before crossing the river on a centuries old bridge. We briefly revisit the Pantheon, discover that we strode down the Spanish Steps on our first day in Italy and, quite by accident, come across the Largo Argentina.

It takes up a block of Rome. It is a place of significant historic importance but was forgotten and long buried deep under the layers of Rome, a place built, burned, pillaged and rebuilt over the centuries. It lies several feet down below the street, ground level at the time of it's construction. It contains the ruins of a complex of 3 temples, dating from around 300 B.C. and a set of steps which once led up to a bathhouse. The steps are where Julius Caesar was assassinated, hence their importance to the long history of Rome. Little is known of the temples, including which gods the were for or their exact date of construction. It is assumed they were destroyed, along with much of ancient Rome, in a large fire in 179 A.D. The ruins were built over and were discovered during demolition work in the 1920's. Scores of cats prowl the ruins or find warm, sun kissed spots to nap among the remains of the columns, steps and temple floors. The ruins contain the largest colony of feral cats in the city.

We had saved sampling Italian gelato for our final day. We purchased it at the same small restaurant where we ate our first night of the trip and enjoyed it on the steps facing the Trevi Fountain, watching the play of the waters and once again admiring it's beauty and romance.

Walking back to the hotel we passed an example of one of the things that make Rome such a special place. Along the street, next to a medieval church, stand two well preserved classical columns reaching up to the Italian sky.

We returned to our hotel, retrieved our luggage and went up to our room. We opened the door and took in our final lodging in Italy, a large room, with 2 equally large beds, a street view and beautiful green marble floors. A huge tub stood against one wall of the equally spacious bathroom. We soon decided, after the frantic pace of our trip, to spend this last night relaxing in this comfortable, inviting space. We walked to the train station, stopping and shopping at the various vendors carts along the way, picked up sandwiches and returned to the room and an evening of luxurious baths and Italian t.v.

Michelangelo's David, A bike Shop and a Racially Charged Incident

We are headed to the Galleria, the building constructed specifically to house Michelangelo's David. Originally David was to stand in a plaza outdoors. Saner heads prevailed and he was moved inside. A replica rests in the spot initially intended for him.

My partner stops at stalls in the street and starts to shop. I am patient but finally remind him that I have been anticipating visiting the masterpiece for several months and we need to press on. The line is long but moves at a steady pace and soon we are inside. There are several small galleries you have to go through before you get to the main attraction.

You turn a corner and enter a hall. Along it's walls sit unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo originally intended for a Pope's tomb. At the far end, in a rotunda, standing on a high pedestal, resides one of the world's artistic wonders. His beauty would leave even the most coldhearted person speechless. He is so amazingly well rendered that you almost feel as if you can see him breathe. You can imagine the blood pulsing through the veins of his powerful, sinewy arms. We spend close to an hour circling him time an again, viewing him from all possible angles. He is as remarkable as I remember him being when I first saw him at the age of 15.

We reluctantly take our leave of him and head back to the streets. My partner has somehow discovered and gotten directions to a bike shop in a residential area of the city. Following the directions scrawled on a map we wander tiny, narrow streets lined with apartment buildings centuries old., Two young boys peer down at us from one window. We locate the shop. He purchases socks and a bell for his beloved bicycle. I pull a marked down tee shirt with "Italia" emblazoned across the front from a barrel.

We are returning, walking down the middle of the narrow, stone lane, as this seems to be the custom in Florence, which is completely devoid of traffic. From behind us we hear the siren of a police car. We move against the wall as it speeds past us heading up the street. A short distance further we see it stopped in the street steps from the central outdoor market. An African man is standing with his palms pressed against the wall and his legs spread as a policeman is pulling the contents from his pockets and throwing them on the pavement. Another policeman is holding back an Italian man yelling and lunging at the spread eagled African. A racially mixed group of spectators have gathered at the edge of the market. As we move through them the tension between the native Italians and African immigrants is unmistakable. Each group eyes the other with an ugly air of contempt. It is the second time we witness the racial divide in the city.

We feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to view the magnificent David. We have found Florence beautiful, but not magical and awake early to catch a cab to the station for our train to Rome. We have one final day and night left in Italy.

A 50th Birthday Dinner in Florence

On the evening of my partner's birthday we decide to watch the sunset from the roof terrace of the hotel. There we are "eyeball to eyeball" with the bell tower a half block away. As the city begins to change from daylight to dark, the bells in the tower ring, it is 5:29. As the bells ring scores of bats emerge from the towers colonnaded top and circle around it lapping up the insects that nightfall brings. Apparently the Doumo has bats in it's belfry!

His birthday dinner is taken outdoors in the Plaza Republica. He demands that we ride the carousel in the plaza, something I consent to only because it is his birthday.

I have not been sleeping well during this trip. insomnia is an occasional problem for me. Between the wine and night air I feel that I may be able to sleep this night. He deposits me at the hotel then returns to the plaza to cap off his birthday celebration.

Sometime after midnight I hear my name being called from outside. I stumble to the window and look down at the street below. In the center of the street stands my partner. "I'm locked out" he shouts. "I'm down here with 5 other people and we are all locked out." In pajamas and bare feet, I do not wear or even own slippers, I go to the elevator and descend to the ground floor. There is a glass door to the street, a vestibule and a 2nd door which opens onto the hotel lobby. I open the lobby door. I hold it open with one bare foot, if it closes I will be in the same state as the 6 people outside, plant my other bare foot on the cold mosaic tile of the vestibule floor, stretch my arm out as far as I can and manage to unlock and push the street door open just enough for my partner to get a handle on it and open it all the way. He and the 5 other guests, they have just arrived from the airport, tumble into the lobby. One of the guests joins us in the elevator leaving the others behind in the lobby with the luggage. We return to our room. She is headed to the reception desk to wake up the night desk clerk. We never did discover what transpired between them, although I am fairly certain that she made his night as memorable as mine.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Florence - Sightseeing, Shopping and a Cat

We spent our time in Florence seeing the major sites, wandering small back streets and shopping and browsing at the stalls and shops along the way as well as those in the central outdoor market. We strolled across the Ponte Vechiccio, it's ancient shop windows filled with silver and gold of every variety. It was the only one of Florence's bridges to survive the 2nd World War intact. As they retreated the Axis forces blew up the others. They blocked this one by blowing up the medieval buildings on each side of it.

We visited the Church of St Croce, with it's beautiful painted wood beams. Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo or all interned there in tombs set along it's walls. It's floor is a crazy quilt of crypts housing the remains of others less famous. Some are worn almost completely smooth by the thousands of feet crossing them over the ages. A small room in the back of the church contains relics, including the cowl and rope girdle of St. Francis of Assisi.

It is here, in an arbor connecting the church with another building, that my partner befriends a beautiful orange and white cat which roams the church grounds and is obviously familiar with those that work there. She allows him to pet her and eventually allows him to pick her up and then cuddles against him. It takes some effort to disengage them and convince him that we well not be taking her home with us.

A stone set in a wall of the courtyard in the church shows the water level of the great flood which occurred in the 1960's. It is at least 20 feet above the ground. There is a distinct water line on the buildings which surround the plaza outside the church. It runs just above the 2nd floor windows. On the elaborately painted front of one building the lower portion is  dull and muted while the colors above the water line remain brilliant and crisp. We have lunch in the plaza. A photo taken by our waiter adorns our Christmas card that year.

After lunch we wander through the shops ringing the plaza buying gifts for our friends and family and mementos for ourselves. From a street vendor we purchase a small watercolor of a cat, which resembled the one we had at the time, sitting on a wall with the city in the background. It hangs in our living room providing us with a constant reminder of that afternoon.

It is also in this plaza we first witness the racial tensions in existence in the city at that time. African immigrants, entering the country illegally, set up blankets along the streets selling counterfeit designer goods, mostly handbags. They did not have street vending permits. The money they made was sent out of the country back to their homelands. From the Italian's point of view this weaken the countries economy and took sales away from legitimate  Italian vendors. As we were having lunch we heard a commotion on the far side of the square. Several African men were running off in different directions each carrying a portion of their set up. This tactic forces the police, in their Armani designed uniforms and facial hair in the form of a jazz patch worn by so many of them it seems to be almost mandatory, to decide which to pursue. The African men were laughing as they ran away, the Italians were not. An Italian I worked with also blamed the Africans for the graffiti that scars many of the buildings in Italian cities. I have never been able to independently corroborate that however.

After eating and shopping we rushed up a steep hillside to reach the Boboli Gardens. We arrived one hour before they closed. Situated on a hillside overlooking the city they provide a stunning view of the winding streets lined with low red tile roofed buildings, punctuated by the spires of the city's churches and dominated by the muscular yet graceful dome of the Doumo and it's bell tower.

Florence - Our Hotel - Location, Location, Location

After lengthy showers, we gather up our luggage and catch a water bus down the Grand Canal, one final time, heading for the train station. It is Monday and the city has taken on a different flavor. Gone are the tourists and day trippers. The local citizenry have retaken their town and are going about their business unhindered by the throngs of weekend visitors.

It being rush hour the boat is somewhat crowded. Someone is moving, a boat glides by laden with a mattress, box spring and an assortment of furniture and boxes. On the opposite side of the canal the DHL boat pulls up to a dock to make a delivery. Arriving at the station we go ashore and head for out train to Florence.

After pulling into the station in Florence we head to the street to catch a cab to our hotel. Ahead of us in the cab line are a group of women who are unmistakable America. Obese, loud and garish. We discover our hotel is situated on a small centrally located side street. When you walk to the corner the Doumo, Florence's main cathedral is 1/2 block in one direction,the Plaza Republica, another famed locale in Florence, lies 1 block in the opposite direction.We go through the heavy glass street doors of the hotel, through the vestibule and enter into a tiny lobby. The reception desk is several floors up. We squeeze ourselves and our luggage into the elevator.

We are treated somewhat rudely by the desk attendant as we show him our reservation sheet. It's clear he is unhappy with our room rate. He hands us two keys. One is a fairly standard room key, the other a fairly standard skeleton key. He explains to us that the toilet, which he assures us we will be the only ones using, is located several steps down the hall from our room. Peeing at 2 a.m. became a small adventure as you left the room, walked 5 steps down the hall and unlocked the door. We would then relock the door; all this done in semi darkness; and pad back to our room.

We went downstairs to our room and unlocked the door for our first peek at our lodgings for the next 3 nights. After the romance of our hotel in Venice my first words upon seeing this room were "At least it's clean." Bare, whitewashed plaster walls, a full size bed, in one corner a small desk and chair. Against one wall, inside the room, stood a sink and the shower, a small enclosure with a cheap plastic curtain on a rusting rod. I have seen more luxurious monks cells. A long window with the shutters that are ubiquitous in Florence looks out on the terraces of the apartments across the narrow street. Off to one side a sliver of the Doumo's bell tower can be seen.

The Doumo is our first stop.Winding our way through the carts brimming with wares designed to catch the tourists eye, we make our way to the Baptistry and take in the beauty of it's legendary gold paneled doors. The soaring dome inside the cathedral is breathtaking. It was a major feat of architectural engineering at the time of it's construction. Down a small street we discover, by accident, the Chapel of the Medici's. A small sign outside reminds visitors that this is a house of worship. Photography and speaking are strictly forbidden. Inside the chapel is dark, it's ceiling a masterpiece of carved wood.

It is about this time that we first encountered the ringing of the bells at the Duomo. The bells pealed at times that seemed, at best, arbitrary. 5:37 p.m., 8:19 p.m., 10:22 a.m., this is merely a sampling. Over 3 days, try as we might, we could not determine a pattern or system to the bell ringing. We would consult out watches every time they rang, 1:52 p.m., 11:21 a.m., it began to appear as if they were attempting to never ring them at the same time twice.

Going to dinner that evening was our first experience with Florence at night. Spotlights that glow with a white light the contains a yellow undertone highlight architectural details and accentuate the lines of the statuary standing in the plazas., My partner was so taken with them that he searched when we returned home until he found Christmas lights which replicated them for our tree that year.     

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Venice - Ode to a Shower

The following morning I took another of several incredible, almost life changing showers. The shower in our room not only had the standard overhead sprays but also 8 others, two rows of 4 running down the wall. You were hit from above, as usual, while the other jets massaged you at different places down your back, or front depending on which direction you were facing. A quick rinse off in this room was not an option. While someone is in the shower the oohs, aahs, moans and groans make it sound like they are having very enjoyable sex. As a matter of fact, a choice between mediocre sex and this shower would be a difficult decision to make. If the sex partner has a shower like this the shower just might last longer than the sex.

My partner priced this shower set up when we returned to the states.....we can't afford it so it shall only remain a delicious memory.

In November It Rains in Venice

I first heard it in the early morning hours. The gentle patter of rain on the roof outside the small dormer windows in our room. While a rainy day in Venice may sound romantic to some, the reality was the rain was cold and the winds fierce. The force of the wind was intensified by being funneled down the narrow streets.

An old piece of luggage we were carrying with us had fallen apart and needed to be replaced before the next leg of our trip. By mid morning the wind had also made mincemeat or our umbrella requiring that it too would need replacing. We found it ironic that one of the lead stories on the BBC that morning was about a tornado in our neighboring state of Indiana. Particularly considering the tempest going on outside our hotel.We had breakfast, with cappuccino's and headed out into the elements.

Many of the shops bore awnings allowing us to stay somewhat dry as we gazed in the windows at the colors and varieties of Murano Glass objects inside. The suitcase was purchased in one shop along with a red plaid umbrella which we still own but seldom use as it has become an admittedly silly but treasured memento of the trip.

We ran across a small restaurant and ducked inside, suitcase and umbrella in tow. We noshed on a cheese platter and downed more cappuccinos as we looked at our city map and planned our nest move.

The public transportation system of Venice is a fleet of boats that ply the canals. We decided to take the route that goes past the back of the city, a place rarely experienced by tourists, out to the city cemetery and then to the glass factories and showrooms on the islands of a Murano before depositing us at the dock down the street from our hotel. We could stay dry inside the boat and see various areas of the city from the water.

The wind whipped the water into choppy waves and blew the rain into the interior of the boat. Although we stayed somewhat dry, staying completely so proved to be an impossible task. When we returned to the hotel we were damp and shivering.

In our room we changed into dry clothes slinging our wet ones over the ancient log rafters to dry. The rain having abated, we returned to the street. Trash cans overflowed with ruined umbrellas. When the trashcans had been filled to capacity people had simply abandoned their tattered, inside out brollies beside them creating twisted piles of metal and fabric.

We dined at the same restaurant as the previous night, inside this time. As it was a quiet evening with few customers, the owner spent time with us reciting as exhaustive history on the origins of Italian Grappa before having us sample it. Pleasantly buzzed, we returned to our room.

Venice - A Tale of Pigeons, Canals and Cappuccinos

I have described Venice before to friends as a gracefully aging woman who dresses in a fashion which is slightly out of date but which she has managed to make her own. There is no one else like her. Her architecture is an orgy of styles. Patterned facades, stone carvings, placed in way that seems deliberately designed to take one by surprise. Striped mooring poles line a mix of plazas and tiny winding streets standing in her legendary canals. Massive chandeliers are visible through the windows of the grand, ornate buildings surrounding St Marks Square. The colors in the scenes which adorn the front of the Cathedral on the square almost appear to glow as if lit from behind.

Our first stop was for a cappuccino, now that my partner's curiosity had been aroused by his sampling at the train station in Rome. He liked it; a lot; we drank a number of them over the next several days. We then proceeded, caffeine fueled, down the Grand Canal to St Marks Square.

At first glance, one might think that 70% of all the pigeons in the world reside in the venerable square. Every step stirs up scores of them. Around the public plaza is a zone inhabited only by the wealthy. Expensive restaurants,high priced, high end hotels and an art gallery specializing in the likes of Picasso and Dali surround the world famous space.

On the far end of the plaza we pass through an arch carved out of the lower floors of one of the buildings and discover a shop window filled with odds and ends, including Venetian glass trimmed hat pins. As I collect hat pins we venture inside. A delightful woman greets us. A wonderful and disarming salesperson she is full of grace, good humor and a sales pitch that is hard to resist. We end up leaving with the hat pin, jewelry, both for gifts and for ourselves, and a miniature sterling silver gondola. I also have a collection of miniatures, some dating back to my great grandmother. We then lose ourselves in the narrow streets and canals that wind behind the buildings on St Marks Square.

The ground floors of the centuries old buildings have been made into boutiques devoted to every upscale, tony designer imaginable. Versace, Hugo Boss, Ferragamo and a seemingly endless multitude of others assault the senses plus the pocketbooks of those who can afford such wares. Amid this scene a ancient multistory old building surrounded by equally ancient canals bears a sign identifying it as a Best Western Inn.

As darkness falls we get REALLY lost. Retracing our steps and with the assistance of a waiter clearing tables at an outdoor restaurant, we eventually find our way our way and take a weary walk back to our hotel. As there are several arches leading to courtyards on the street where we are staying I come to identify ours by the pattern of cracks on the gangway wall.

We eat outside at a small restaurant down the block from the hotel. It is the final night of outdoor dining for this establishment. The next day we see the awning being dismantled and the tables and chairs being taken to storage for the winter months.

After dinner our tired feet carry us back down the street, past the cracked gangway wall and up the narrow stairs to our room for the night.    

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Venice - Where The ?!!?! Is Our Hotel?

My partner grew up in Florida and has always had a love affair with water. As an aside, I am somewhat aqua phobic. As he gazed out at the canal he commented on how wonderful the next days would be for him due to his fondness for the water, even if the water in the canals is rather brackish, to say the least. We descended the steps, luggage in hand and boarded the water bus for our first trip down the canal towards our hotel.

It was at this point that we discovered that the Goggle maps provided by the Internet booking agents are not always what one would consider reliable. I tried in vain to correlate the map on our reservation sheet with the Venice street map in our guidebook. We finally resorted to asking the boat pilot where to get off. He told us, brusquely, that it would be a while before we would get to our stop. Boating our way down the Grand Canal we passed St Marks Square, with it towering Campanile, the beautiful, landmark Bridge of Sighs and traveled under the Via Venneto, the major bridge over the Grand Canal. Getting nervous about the distance we had traveled I checked again with the pilot who informed me we were not "there" yet. Finally the boat docked next to a public park at the farthest tip of the city and he announced that we had reached our destination.

My partner converted our largest bag into a wagon, piled the other bags on top of it and using our guidebook map, I led us across the park to the street where our hotel was supposed to be located. The street turned out to be a broad plaza in a largely residential neighborhood. A group of children were playing a game of soccer in the middle of the plaza, a fruit and vegetable stand stood off to one side of it. The address for our hotel was in the 1900's. We immediately had cause for concern when the addresses on the buildings on the street did not go above 8000. After stopping a few people in the street, none of whom seemed to have a command of the English language, my partner noticed a beauty salon. Being a hair stylist himself, he exclaimed "International Society of Hairdressers, go ask them!" Stepping into the salon I found the employees sitting talking with one another. When I queried "Parla Engles" they looked at one another and shook their heads no. In desperation, I pulled out our reservation sheet and pointed at the address. They all nodded their heads in acknowledgement and one got up and went out the door with me trailing behind.

Seeing my partner with the wagon of luggage she motioned for us to follow her. She led us a short way down the street and pointed to an arched entrance to a gangway that led into a courtyard. We thanked her and proceeded down the gangway. Entering the courtyard we found the numbers on the buildings were in the 9000's. Laundry hung from lines strung across the yard, It is worth noting that the same laundry was still hanging there two days later making us wonder if it was prop laundry used in an attempt to create old world atmosphere.

Passing through this courtyard into a second one buried deeper behind the street we found our hotel. A former Doges home hundreds of years old. Inside the door we found a small room with an inlaid marble floor and tiny reception desk. The gentleman who greeted us, after checking us in, apologized for the lack of a lift and let us up a narrow staircase with notably short risers. I surmised that peoples legs must have been shorter back in the day. When we got to the second floor he pointed out a room to our left. It had beautifully painted walls, a glass chandelier and three french windows at it's far end. Furnished with tables, chairs and a station for making cappuccino, a drink that would become ubiquitous on this trip, it was where breakfast, included with the room, was served each morning. Our room was on the top floor. I assume that it had been either servant's quarters or children's rooms. He opened the door. We walked down the narrow hallway past the bath into the room itself.

Our heads immediately turned upwards to gaze in amazement at the ceiling. Under the peaked roof above our heads massive, ancient round wooden beams crossed the room. We then took in the lovely period reproduction furnishings and the three tiny dormer windows along one wall. When we opened the shutters we discovered our view was of a tiled roof. I could never make out if it was another part of the building we were in or an adjoining one due to the close confines of the structures in the city. Depositing our bags we ventured out to explore Venice.

A Train Ride Through Tuscany - It Looks Kind Of Like Wisconsin

After the one night in Rome we were to spend two nights in Venice, three in Florence, including my partners birthday and one final night in Rome before returning home. Our train left early the next morning. At the train station I stopped for a cappuccino. I usually need coffee to jump start my mornings. My partners caffeinatted beverage of choice has always been coke or Pepsi. However, for some unknown reason, he decided that day to try the cappuccino. He took a tiny spoonful of the foam off the top. It was love at first taste. Cappuccinos became commonplace from that point of the trip on. Which might be part of the explanation for my recurrent insomnia during this vacation.

As the train left the station another of the ruins one encounters, located in a seemingly haphazard manner throughout Rome, stood by the tracks. Our train to Venice took us through the vineyards and rolling green hills of the Tuscan countryside. My partner observed that it resembled Wisconsin. I wanted to disagree, but after some thought, realized that it did, indeed resemble Wisconsin. The train took us past the ancient ramparts of Florence. I was mildly disappointed to see that the Duomo, Florence's main cathedral, which was visible from our vantage point, was under renovation. Portions of it were covered by scaffolding and netting. We continued north toward Venice. We almost disembarked one stop too soon. There are two trains stops for Venice. Two young girls we had met on the train thankfully set us to rights. Shortly, we pulled into Venice.

We had decided that we would make the reservation for the next leg of the trip at the station as soon as we arrived. It had worked well in Rome. I went and stood in line to get our train tickets to Florence. As I left the window I saw my partner staring wide eyed, almost hypnotized, through the arched exit of the station taking in the canal at the bottom of the steps outside and the sweep of buildings on the opposite shore.