Fuchs Cradles of Western Civilization Dispatch

Saturday, April 7, 2001:

First a little wrap-up from Budapest. For starters, some bellowing American tourists on the train reminded me of one other anecdote from the National Gallery: We were alone in one room, when in come a middle-aged man and woman, wearing Big State U t-shirts, fanny packs, sunglasses hanging from neck cords, and tennis shoes squeaking on the hardwood floors. "Please," I whispered urgently to Dasa, "tell me I don't look that American . . ." Later, negotiating the loud-mouthed people on the train, it occurred to me to pose the question: You don't understand why many Europeans don't like Americans? Well, spend some time in Europe and you may begin to dislike Americans, too.

On a more somber note, before we left, we seemed to see several paintings that depicted old age and loneliness—in particular, one called "Living on Memories." It showed a woman hunched over in a chair in a small apartment, photographs on the walls, a shawl draped on a chair. Dasa and I share that we are each more than a little afraid of ending up like that. (It's one of the few really good arguments I've heard for having children . . .)

On my final walk home beside and over the Danube, I captured, okay, just one more nightime image of Budapest, Castle Hill: It's the lit-up Matthias Church, the King-Arthury Halaszbastya before it, and the Chain Bridge in front of that.

I regained Wien in a light rain, and took shelter first in a church, and then in a pub (I've got 90 minutes to kill before Erin gets home from class). After (more) drinks and dinner, Erin and I hop an overnight train to Florence, wisely (on Sara's pointed advice) upgrading to a couchette. The night passes rumblily, we switch trains in Venice, and arrive at 1pm. Happily, our hotel is meters from the train station, and we're able to check in early. Like moths to the candle, of course we immediately make our way to that ultimate Florentine landmark, the Duomo, and check it off the cosmic destination list. We find the facade much more stunning than the dome.

"You think you buy gelato, but gelato really buys you." - Joe Laltrello

Immediately after, it took us the better part of 45 minutes to locate Bar Vivoli; and worth every travel minute—since the States. This, my first gelato, is at the place widely reputed to serve the best ice cream in the entire world. Yeah, okay.

We navigate from there to the Arno, near the storied Ponte Vechio. I suggest an elaborate strategy for our next sightseeing thrust.

M: How does all that sound?
E: Yeah, okay.
M: You're sure pliable.
E: I'm sedated with gelato.
M: Right.

We duck through the middle of the Uffizi, past Palazzo Vechio, and into Piazza del Signoria. Here they've got a copy of Michelangelo's David—here being the original location (he was commissioned to sculpt it for this palazzo, and it soon established him as the best sculptor of his day (at age 29))—as well as several other important statues. We particularly like the Neptune fountain, which from behind sure looks like the old water God is taking a world-beating, hellacious piss. It's a relief just watching.

Now, for the bad news: They have turned the entire city of Florence into one very large amusement park. I'm sorry, but it's so. Tourists throng every piazza and via; lines for galleria snake around the block; obnoxious hollers, in English, over and again in English, echo off the ancient stone walls. The worst part is: We know we're part of it. The whole theme of our first day here is: This Place Would Be Great, If It Wasn't For Us.

Erin indicates that Salzburg may have been worse, theme park-wise. "They've even got themes: MozartLand, Sound of Music World . . . " But Florence is right up there. Later, at the San Lorenzo Church, we check out the interior; then discover the line (with its own ticket booth) to see the Medici Tombs, done by Michelangelo. I stare sadly at the queue for a moment, until Erin mercifully suggests, "Maybe we can ride the Medici later."

In Santa Croce, we (pretty amazingly) view the tombs of Dante, Machiavelli, Gallileo, AND Michelangelo; and we make two resolutions: Firstly, only real city names from here on out—from Firenze to Roma. Secondly, we're going to make some kind of effort to avoid the tourist purgatories, and try to find our own Firenze. Also, Erin scores a mullet-spotting: "Mullet! Six o'clock!" We briefly argue over what's the best mullet site. Erin favors MulletsGalore.com, while I swear by MulletGods.com ("Bi-Level Heaven"). Tourism issues and hair aside, I smile out loud: "Hey, guess what? Yesterday I was in Budapest; and today I'm in Firenze . . ."

Not only has Firenze been overrun by the Tourist Huns—they've rolled out the red carpet for them. Every other bar and trattoria has signs and menus in English; these we avoid like the plague. We pass a sign for "The Italian Food Experience." Ahh! We have about a 65% success rate finding places where the staff will actually talk back to me in Italian. (How much is a function of the places, and how much a function of my Italian, we will not explore.) I'm coping well enough, though, that Erin is higly impressed; so much so that she characterized it as a "total role-reversal" from Wien, with me translating everything for her, now.

Failing to find a certain trattoria listed in my guidebook [Thanks, Josh, by the way; we'd be lost without your Insight Florence!], on instinct we duck into a little place we happen to pass. And !!! First, they bring me a bottle of Moretti big enough to bathe in. Subsequently, we get an insalata mista that is gorgeous—and completely dry. The oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper they lay beside it are the dressing. 8^) Then comes a pasta al pomodoro; and suddenly we understand. It all comes clear. What all the fuss is about. This dish is simply noodles with tomato sauce; and but still we think we may swoon. Oh my God. Let's leave it at that. I will additionally note that, well, in regard to the dessert, we agreed: "We've never had tiramisu before this moment, that much is clear."

And to think, we could have gone to the Italian Food Experience. (I imagine that they have a little Italian Food Experience theme music: "bump ba bum . . . bump de bum . . . IFE! . . . bump ba bum . . .)

Daytime again, and we brave the streets once more. Gunning for the Medici Palace, we find ourselves completely disoriented, yet again. It takes us 15 minutes just to exit the piazza our hotel sits on. Belatedly, I realize the root causes of this: All of the streets here run into each other at odd angles; and most of them curve. This is really like magnets in your compass pouch. (Particularly for a couple of siblings with our dear mother's sense of direction.) We spend a lot of time going the wrong way; and briefly blame the maps in the guidebook (which are a little difficult, sorry Josh). We see the laudatory quotes printed on the back cover, and figure they just couldn't print comments like, "I've never been so lost in my entire life." - Times of London; "Fuck these guys." - SF Chronicle; "Bastards!" - Time Out. 8^)

Well, as always, life could be a hell of worse, and we do eventually find the Medici Palazzo, which has a really nice courtyard, and a lovely gilt gallery. Outside, the rains begin to come down. We huddle under my micro-umbrella, and enjoy the thinning of the tourist mob. Though, both the Galleria del'Academia, and the Uffizi, are thronged with dryness-seeking tourists. So, cagily, we check out the Museum of the History of Science, which is very cool (at least, once we discover there are English guidebooks available).

Tonight: back to the same trattoria. (We did a careful calculation, and determined the odds were astronomically low that we should find a place with food as good or better.) Tomorrow: maybe a day trip.

Love to all,
Michael (& Erin)