Monday, December 12, 2005

Rule 13

13. See some art

Sooner or later I had to give you some advice about viewing art in Florence. Some folks think Florence and they think: “Uffizi”. Sure, if you are looking for quality of amazing art plus quantity, the Uffizi is the place. One room has so many paintings by Botticelli, that they have given to simply hanging them on hooks on top of each other. And don’t miss that pile of Michelangelos in the corner of Gallery 763. Some snobs dismiss them as lesser works but I suggest that you rifle through that bin and keep your eyes peeled for a charcoal study of David. It’s neat!

Should you choose the Uffizi, remember, that you must divide the sum of quality plus quantity by the wait factor, which is proportionally multiplicable by 7 if you are standing in line with anyone under the age of 16. While standing in line at the Uffizi, women have been known to go through their entire menopause cycle. However, some visitors feel that the show outside the Uffizi (musicians, jugglers, young women in halter tops and some truly first-rate pickpockets) is better than all that boring crap hung on the walls inside. If you are budgeting your art viewing time due to the fact that you would rather spend your precious hours in town buying fine leather goods, doing a test survey of every gelato stand in town, and having the breathtaking experience of negotiating a good price on a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor, may I recommend a trip over the river Arno to Santa Maria del Carmine. Everything that you need to know about Renaissance art is in one little chapel in this church. You can go there, see it, get it, and then go back to looking for a swell pair of shoes which is really the reason you came to Florence in the first damn place.

Granted, there are no Boticellis at Santa Carmine, or any Michaelangelos. But take it from me; if you’ve seen one Michaelangelo, you’ve seen ‘em all. I saw that Mona Lisa he did, waited an hour and a half, and you could barely see it through the glare of the protective glass. So I bought a t-shirt of that other painting of his, y’know, that swirly one, “Starry Night”, and when I want to see it, I put on the t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror. Of course it’s backwards, I know that, but if I take a digital picture of me wearing the shirt and hold that up to the mirror, it’s as good as the real thing except it’s in my house where the beer is free and you hardly ever have to stand in line to go to the bathroom.

Santa Maria del Carmine is a hike across the Arno and down a few side streets. It is a church built by the Carmelites, an order begun by a bunch of dissatisfied and overweight Christians looking for a non-fat substitute for Carmel Regular. It’s a bit off the beaten path so it is rarely crowded. You buy a ticket and are ushered into a dark room where they play a really cool movie. The movie begins with a computer animated segment of the church slowly catching on fire back in 1563. It shows the tiny little embers slowly turning into flames and quickly spreading up the wooden posts and beams until the whole thing comes crashing down in an enormous roar of special effects. It was very cool. I imagine that there was some other cool stuff in the film, too. But after the fire cartoon, some art historian began to talk and I fell asleep. Hey, I was tired from the hike across the river and the five gelatos I slurped on the way over.

After the fire they rebuilt the joint, but amazingly enough, one could even call it a miracle, the Brancacci Chapel survived. The Brancacci chapel is the reason you take this hike in the first place so it is a good thing that it survived. “The Life of Saint Peter”, frescoes in the Chapel were commissioned by a neighborhood merchant named Felice Brancacci. I guess that’s why it’s called the Brancacci Chapel, huh? One of my favorite factoids about these paintings is that when Brancacci “fell out of favor” with the church they erased all of the portraits of him and his pals from the walls and replaced them with some other jamokes. I am still researching what exactly he did to fall out of favor but evidently it wasn’t quite enough to change the name of the chapel to the Jamoke Chapel. Brancacci hired two painters to do the original work, Masolino and his student Masaccio. While they were both hip to the changes that had occurred in the art racket since Brunellesci had discovered perspective, Masolino clung to the traditional style of showing figures posed stiffly full frontal, while that upstart Masaccio, had his figures showing emotion in pose and expression. Think: the “C.B.S. Nightly News with Roger Mudd” versus “Desperate Housewives”. Thus in a single chapel area you experience a major turning point in Western Art. Masolino painted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden on one wall, erect and serene, while directly opposite them, conveniently considerate of future generations of tour guides, Masaccio shows the two being evicted, bent over and full of anguish. A third painter, Filippino Lipi, whom, I understand was not a Philipino at all, came in to pinch hit when these two other guys failed to finish (O.K., O.K., Masaccio died and Masolino was too old to make the trip across the Arno every day). His work is also very good, but I would be hard pressed to tell you why unless you want me to put you to sleep and I know that you just want to get the hell out of here and buy those shoes.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Rule 12

17. Bring baby

Kidnapping is still illegal in most sectors of the world, so in planning your trip to Italy it is highly recommended that you get pregnant a year and a half in advance so that you can bring a small child with you. If you lose your wallet, passport and credit cards but still have an infant or toddler you are good to go. As the Good Book says, “…and a child shall lead them…straight into the Uffizi”. (Actually, just before we arrived here, a racket was broken up by the cops just around the corner from the Uffizi where small children were being rented out by the hour to tourists wishing to avoid standing in line for six hours waiting to look at some pictures by Botticelli.)

I first encountered this some years ago when my nephew, Theo, was still small enough to fit into one of those baby backpack thingys. The Medici Chapel is one of the most stunning structures in Florence and that is saying a lot in a town where my bathroom here is nicer than the brand new reading room at the public library back home. The Chapel is a hugely popular tourist attraction but my sister would not consider turning back when I pointed out to her that the line stretched out the door and halfway to Sienna. With Theo riding shotgun, the waters parted, the Red Sea of tourists drew back, and on we marched to the Promised Land.

My astonishment did not stop there. The guards inside were mostly Italian women of the Grandmother (or “Nona”) variety. One look at Theo and they dropped that severe scowl of Dracula’s Mother-In-Law that won them the job in the first place and became soft dripping mounds of tapioca pudding. I would be remiss in my duties as a doting uncle not to mention that Theo circa 1997 was extraordinarily cute when he was not howling his fool head off. Although he was on his best behavior that day (Judy had made sure to give him a double dose of soporific mother’s milk before we hit the street), even if he had been yelling his fool head off these old nonas would still have melted. Not only was he a toddler, but, he was also blonde, and he was a boy. My sister explained that this trifecta combination put Theo a furlong ahead in the cuteness derby. Have you ever seen a brick shaped elderly woman take a child’s hand and rub it up and down her whiskered cheek like a mini-mop murmuring, “Bello, bello, bellisimo.”? I have, friends, and let me tell you it is not a pretty sight. To this day, I believe that if Judy had not kindly, yet firmly wrested Theo’s sweet, pudgy hand away, that old bat would have chomped off each of his delectable little fingers one-by-one.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Rule #11

11. Drink coffee
Did you make the typical American mistake by giving up coffee sometime around 1998? You and millions of others were duped into thinking that coffee is bad for your heart, your relationships with family members, and sex. HA! American coffee consumption is down and as a result we have become a nation of cock-eyed boobs more self-absorbed than a good daily jolt of coffee would ever allow. We have let down our guard and in return we received George W. Bush, a war with no end in sight, most every country in the world planning or applauding our inevitable downfall, and what's with this Paris Hilton thing?

But what about Starbuck’s you ask? How could our national consumption of coffee be down given the Starbucks phenomenon? Starbucks, laddie, does not count as coffee. Starbucks is jazzy and fun. You go to Starbucks for a frothy sweet Frappaccino and to work on the crossword puzzle while listening to theraputic piano jazz, not to get a cup of coffee. Ask the chipper counter guy, pardon me, “barista” for a small coffee and you’ll be scolded. Starbucks coffee only comes in Tall, Grande, and, now, Rio Grande. Supersized coffee, sigh, how pathetic.

This all leads me to say that in Florence they do coffee right. Everyone drinks coffee, it is good coffee, and it is consumed not in insulting paper cups but in good solid ceramic. You do not scamper down the street chugging a bucket of coffee as you dodge traffic and talk to your plumber on your cell phone. You stand at the bar, you stop everything else, and you concentrate on getting that stuff into your system. No Grandes here, no sirree. Coffee is served by the thimbleful. This means that you can drink it all day long.

Is there really a link between coffee consumption and the body politic? Voter turn out was 3.7 trillion times higher in downtown Florence than in all of the state of Idaho. Sure, the Italians got Berlusconi, a guy who was being investigated for fraud and so he simply passed a law to exclude politicians from criminal prosecution while in office (this is true, by the way, and so please do not forward my blog to George W.). Did I mention that he owns most of the media outlets in Italy, as well as, I believe, the electrical outlets and several dozen emotional outlets. But nobody ever thought Berlusconi was a nice guy, or a sincere guy, or a guy who was anything less than self-serving in the first place. They would vote for him again in a heartbeat but everyone hates him. Berlusconi, unlike some other world leaders, is obviously a coffee drinker who knows that his actions are being tracked by a nation of coffee drinkers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Rule #10 You are how you dress

Contrary to the natural human inclination towards vanity, when you walk the streets of Florence you must dress down, or, better yet, dress dorky. This is tough to do when you are surrounded by Florentines, as they always look sensational. Make-up is applied to the Florentine female face tactfully, discreetly, and several dozen times daily. Taking out the garbage calls for eyeliner. There is a kind of tradition in Florence of getting a bit dressed up after dinner and strolling around town smiling at other sensational and satisfied Florentines. They even have a name for it: “Il passaggiata”. There is a kind of tradition in my house of digging a trench in the couch and pretending to read the newspaper until you fall asleep with your mouth open a minute and a half later. We even have a name for it: “Il passing out”.

So why dress down? For one thing it is hubris to contend that you could ever possibly keep up with the high standard of chic-casual gorgeousness that oozes from the pores of these people. But the real point here is that even if you were to pull off an imitation that might pass for fashionable on the dark side of an unlit alleyway at two in the morning, you would not want to.

You would not want to pass as a Florentine because then a real Florentine might then treat you like a fellow Florentine and that means talk to you. If there is one thing these people like to do it is talking (more about this topic later, I assure you, I would love to talk about it). And if they do talk to you, it is expected that you respond…in Italian.

The other day I was standing in line at the super market when an elderly woman asked me where the casaba melons were…at least I think that’s what she asked me…I was dumbstruck and did not know what to say, and if I did know, I would not know how to say it. Then it all made sense to me. The old bat was nearly blind! She could not see to whom or even to what she was talking. So I turned her in the right direction and gave her a little shove. You see, usually people take one look at me and see a tall American, possibly a moron, most certainly a dork. This is not only due to my height, build, skin color, and usual slack-jawed look of bottomless befuddlement, but also the way I dress.

When I say dress down, I don’t mean just put on your well-worn baby blue Old Navy polo (actually, if you do that you may very well be mistaken for a Florentine). No, when I say dress down so as not to be engaged in conversation, I mean: dress like me. From the top: bad haircut three or four months old, glasses that were barely stylish in 1983 when they were purchased, untrimmed facial hair, t-shirt that proudly declares you are a fan of “Porky’s All-You-Can-Eat House of Lard”, cargo shorts, each pocket bulging with, well, let’s just say “stuff”, mismatched socks matching mismatched shoes caked in dog poop. It works, friends. Waiting at a street corner yesterday a beautiful young woman with freshly applied eyeliner looked up at me from her street map and then turned to my dog to ask for directions.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Lucca Report

Geography quiz
Choose one:

a) Lucca is a charming town nestled in the Tuscan hills and surrounded by a magnificent ancient wall.

b) Lucca is a charming town nestled in the Tuscan hills where grown men and women run around wearing cardboard wings, swinging plastic sabers as they stage battles just outside the magnificent ancient wall.

Of course, the answer to the above quiz is “c” because the answer to all Geography quizzes is “c” even if you are not given “c” as a choice, and if you did not know that you are either, a) stupid, b) never took a Geography quiz, or, c).

Lucca is probably the only charming Tuscan town where mom and dad can bring Jeff, Jr. and they will all find something that they will like. Dad will go for the magnitude of the walls surrounding the town, which will make him ask himself if he remembered to activate the alarm to the bike shed? Mom will be enchanted by the statuary and architecture, which will make her ask herself why she has been in Italy for a week and still not bought a pair of shoes? Jeff, Jr. will dig the guys dressed like barbarians and the babes in bursting leather and ask himself why go back to Passaic?

We were warned by the frank description in the guidebook that the citizenry of Lucca are not your typical warm and welcoming Tuscans. Other towns had walls, too, but over the centuries they realized that the days of invasions were over and dismantled the walls, using the bricks to build useful things like McDonald’s (which, of course, only served to renew the modern assault). I asked an elderly woman at a bus stop directions to San Frediano. Slowly she looked me up, she looked me down. Barely parting her lips she explained how to travel all the way across town and all of the landmarks I would see along the way. This detailed description was delivered at what astronauts call “Mach 10” and what we call, “Mach incomprehensible”. She then gave me another slow up and down to make sure that I did not understand and that was that, thus showing me that she not only knew the way to San Fred but that I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong, after a weekend in Lucca, I believe that they have done the right thing by keeping those walls intact and showing hostility to tourists. In fact, I think that they should install a guard with a clipboard at every portal to present each visitor with a questionnaire.

Who’s faster Superman or the Flash?

a) Out of my way I am late for work.
b) What’s the Flash
c) Well, that’s an interesting question. Of course, since both heroes are members of the D.C. Universe, this question has popped up from time to time. In # 176 of The Flash the two guys had a race but it was a staged to distract Sinestro from blowing up the world by tricking him to bet all his money on the Flash to Place. A few years later, the issue was raised again in The Justice League of America #233, but this time both Superman and the Flash rode horses because they were complaining that their girl-friends, Lois Lane and Iris West, were not paying them enough attention and since everyone knows that girls like horses, maybe they would come to the track to watch the race and go out for coffee afterwards with the two mighty heroes. They vied for the title a third time in Adventure Comics….etc., etc., etc….

Once a year the town of Lucca plays reluctant host to thousands of comics and video games fans. This is reason enough to keep those walls standing and to give strangers wrong directions. In Italy it is the largest comics festival. This requires a revision of the word “festival”, which one generally associates with confetti, gayety, and snappy trumpet music. This Lucca “festival”, one generally associates with pimples, body odor, and lengthy, frank, soul-searching discussions about who is faster, Superman or the Flash. On top of this many, many participants dress up as their favorite genre characters, This can make getting down the aisle to find a cup of coffee like running (or, rather, crawling) the gauntlet. A pair of paper mache wings knocked off my hat and when I reached down I tripped on a devil tail. Rising to my feet I had my eye poked by a metal spike affixed to the tip of a leather bustier. Some fun, this festival.

The awards ceremony for the big festival winners (Best artist of the year, Best game of the year, Best Playstation sound effect of guy’s head getting ripped off of the year) takes place in a church. Yes, a church. But not some dinky storefront joint in a dilapidated suburb. This is your high baroque style church with every square centimeter decorated with gold leaf and mosaic to the glory of God. They have ripped out the pews, however, and replaced them with nice plush auditorium seats, which is a good thing because it is very difficult to nap in wooden pews and sleep is required to make it through the endless ceremony. A stage has been constructed at the apse. There, projected onto a huge screen where the altar once sat, was the logo of the Lucca comics festival: a glowering female warrior figure with six arms most of them holding weapons but at least two of them holding her cantaloupe breasts. I am not a religious man, but I memorized the exits should God decide to take any of this personally.

I attended the festival as a guest of Igort (he’s one of those guys with one name, although, when you meet him he seems like one of those aristocratic guys who should have three names), the Italian publisher of Coconino Press who have reprinted the comics version of Paul Auster’s novel, “City of Glass” that I made with David Mazzucchelli. Despite the fact that it is named after a dirtswept town of 122,754 in the middle of the Arizona desert, Coconino publishes very, very beautiful books, so beautiful, in fact that I proposed marriage to a copy of Marti’s “Taxista”, but my wife caught me and hit me over the head with an equally beautiful copy of Matt Broersma’s “Insomnia”. The artists who draw these books are a soft-spoken lot and very friendly. Although only a few could speak English we bonded instantly upon meeting by giving the universal cartoonist’s secret handshake: shake a moth out of your otherwise empty wallet and cry on each other’s shoulder. We sat in a line with pencils, pens, and watercolor sets and spent the day inscribing books. I was the least well-known of the bunch and still personally inscribed at least 50 copies: “To my close personal friend, Dear Ebay winner”.

If you think that sitting in a stuffy tent all daylong inscribing books is a cool, prestigious activity that is good for the ego, you:

a) have never sat next to a booth blaring Playstation 2 sound effects of guys getting their heads ripped off for 12 hours.
b) have never had people walk away from you in mid-sentence when they realize that you are not your far more famous and talented collaborator.
c) really do think that the Flash is faster than Superman because of his performance Action Comics #567 where he went Mach-a-zillion and zipped himself into an alternate universe where regular guys wear plastic wings and the superheroes get to relax and drink cappuccino.

Igort, Gipi (they both have fine books out in English, buy them now), and me.

Me and Craig Thompson (not only has a hugely successful book in English but also is American, speaks English and seemed to understand most of what I said)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Rule #9

9. Think twice before sending a package.

The Post Office in my neighborhood glistens. It shines on an ancient street with the venerable dome of San Frediano in the background. The P.O. displays lots of chrome and glass and an electronic number dispenser that makes a beep when you take a number. Taking a number is important because it gives you time to go down to the corner, have a cappuccino, get a haircut, read the paper, do the crossword puzzle, get another haircut and do your grocery shopping without losing your place in the batting order. It is not so much that there are lots of people waiting to do business in the P.O. It is just that on average each transaction takes the length and contains the same amount of drama as the first act of La Boheme.

Now there are plenty of mornings of my life that I have given up willingly over the years: watching reruns of “Our Miss Brooks” when I was a squirt, that year-long double period of Mr. McCorn’s 8th grade Geography class (where Mr. McCorn had the audacity to teach about the doldrums and not mention his class by name), sitting for hours outside Desiree Talbot’s dorm purposefully not drinking out of my coffee cup so that it would look like I had just happened to sit down. But nothing compares to the void that you feel between your ears and in your soul as you leave an Italian post office after sending a package.

Back in the States, the USPS emits some red-tape but basically, you go into the P.O. fill out a form the size of a 3 X 5 card get your package weighed, pay, and go get a cup of coffee (yes, in a paper cup). Italian postal red tape is twice the width and twice the strength of your average duct tape. The poste clerk shot off many questions regarding the weight and contents of the package I wanted to send. In some of these questions I even understood a word or two and nodded as if I understood and agreed with each syllable. I am such an agreeable guy. I am also hell bent on not looking like a complete dolt, but, of course, a dolt is exactly what I appeared to be: nodding my head up and down vigorously, repeating “Va bene, va bene, va bene,” and wearing a grin borrowed from Alfred E. Newman. Based on my nod rate per second I was given a certain number of forms to be completed…all in triplicate. The perforations on the forms gave away the secret: they were actually printed on toilet paper. If you press down with any vigor, they shred, but if you don’t press down hard enough you may find yourself doing all of the triplicate forms individually…believe me. I stood by and watched Marsha go through writing the same info three times while receiving a blitzkrieg of deadly ice pick stares from those waiting in line behind us. I fended these stares off with my bold and manly defense: basically a stupid grin, a shrug, and a look that attempted to distance myself from my wife as much as possible while still holding the package with my fingernails as she affixed the label (a look of Matrimonial Mutiny that is admissible in a court of law as grounds for divorce in Idaho, Missouri, and the District of Columbia).

Dripping sweat and in desperate need of another cappuccino, as we left the Post Office, we wondered why this necessity for different forms, different stamps, and different classifications. I suggested that it was about employment, that somehow giving people more work to do gave them a greater sense of importance and duty. Marsha’s point was that it gave some kind of order to the Italian world that is more organic by nature. My sister, who has had much more contact with the Italian people than I, maintains that in the Italian view, the worth of any transaction between two people is valued based on the length and the quality of discourse and contact. In other words, no matter how many people are waiting behind you in line at the butcher, the longer you talk with the butcher regarding the quality of the chicken you are purchasing, where it was hatched, the weather, your family, his family, anything, the better the chicken will taste when it finally gets to the table.

Following this line of reason I imagine, after going 10 rounds in the ring with the Poste clerk, that my little package is not in the dark chilly cargo hold of some greasy freighter, but snuggled in a luxurious first-class leather lounger. And as the stewardess kindly turns off the reading light, my little package murmurs in it’s sleep, “Va bene, va bene, va bene.”

Monday, October 24, 2005

Rule #8

8. Don’t know how to speak the language? Don’t worry.

Unlike the stereotype about the French and their attitude towards foreigners who mangle the French language, the Italians, or at least the Florentines whom I have encountered, find it merely amusing when I go into a hardware store for an electricity converter and ask for a casaba melon. They correct me the way you correct a small dog who continues to sit when you’ve told him for the thousandth time to rollover: firmly, emphatically, but with a touch of pity for the dumb creature, me.

Here’s the trick: when you don’t know the word for something, like “electricity converter”, make it up. Pantomime the action of plugging something into something else while saying “casaba melon” applying what you think sounds like the fakest most exaggerated Italian accent possible. Really lay it on. The faker that you sound to yourself, the better. Think Chico Marx. I guarantee that the hardware store man will produce an electricity converter for you immediately or misinterpret the plugging-in pantomime and ask you to have sex.

“The best way to learn Italian,” my American friend told me, “is to watch as much Italian T.V. as you possibly can. My kid learned Italian in three months by watching T.V.”

This is a common myth and I can only assume that this kid has since come up with a new theory of relativity because it would take a genius to learn Italian that way. This might have been possible for me when I was a kid. They say that kids learn languages faster than adults, but more importantly, let’s face it, television ain’t what it was.

When I was a kid they’d show a box of Wheaties, they’d show a champion athlete doing something amazing like throwing a box of Wheaties for a touchdown, they’d show him pouring Wheaties out of the box of Wheaties and eating a bowl of Wheaties, then, in case you missed it, they’d show the box of Wheaties again, all the time repeating the word, “Wheaties,” “Wheaties,” “Wheaties!”. Even a three year-old could tell that what they were selling. A duh! Obviously it was an ad for a washed up former champion athlete trying to buff up his so-called career.

These days, though, advertising has become so cool, so detached that to even hint at the product’s name is to be considered crude. How are you supposed to learn a language that way? The other day on Italian T.V. I saw four ads in the same hour of programming featuring couples on the beach. Since they did not show any logos or boxes of Wheaties I had to really guess what they were selling. I suspect that one of them was for a car, ‘cause there was a car on the beach with the couple. The second, I guess, was about pet food, ‘cause there was a dog on the beach with the couple. The third may have been for either diapers or Planned Parenthood, ‘cause there was a baby on the beach with the couple. God only knows what the fourth ad was for, but there appeared to be a small nuclear reactor strolling down the beach with the couple.

O.K., skip T.V. Maybe if I could go to a movie where I knew the story I could pick up a little Italian.

“The Merchant of Venice” starring Al Pacino was playing at the open-air theater down the block. I thought that I kinda knew the plot of “The Merchant of Venice”. I guess not. Even the big “pound of flesh” scene was a mystery to me. I swear that Shylock said that he would lend him the dough for a pound of casaba melon. The dubbing didn’t help at all. I have to admit that they got Al Pacino to sound like Al Pacino talking Italian, but everybody else sounded like Al Pacino, too…and they all looked like Al Pacino, except the girl, who was a lot prettier than Al Pacino, but when she opened her mouth: Alice Pacino.

By the way, the open-air theater is very cool. Just imagine a movie theatre with no roof, a fully stocked bar, and half of the audience smoking and drinking non-stop through the entire film. They even insert a forced intermission mid-soliloquy so that you can get more drinks and buy more cigarettes. Fortunately it began to rain so we got a rain check to come back another night.

We waited until a film was playing that I felt confident that my wife, daughter and I could follow without a problem: “Batman Begins”. Do I need to tell you that I understood this less than “Merchant of Venice”…and I had just seen “Batman Begins” three weeks earlier at my local theater back home in English! My daughter, Nora, kept elbowing me in the ribs asking me to explain what was going on. I simply shrugged and whispered, “It’s ‘Batman Begins’, it’s ‘Batman Begins’”. As though, by repeating the title, the mists of confusion would vanish and all the plot points would be laid bare. I don’t think that the rest of the audience got much out of it either even though the actors spoke Italian. By the end of the picture most of the audience was at the bar drinking and smoking glumly. Several looked up at us as we walked by with expressions that asked, “You’re Americans. Maybe you can tell us what the hell that was all about.”

A brief pause

A few of you just tuned in having been made aware of this site by reading egon (, a comics-related info site and a damn good one at that if you, like me, like to keep abreast of the cutting edge work by guys who really, honestly and truly thought that the world of The Little Rascals which they (O.K., we) watched on afterschool T.V. was the way the world really should be, but when they (we) went out into the neighborhood to try to organize soapbox derbies were promptly laughed at and ridiculed to the point of never setting foot out of the house, thereby discovering the hexed pleasures of reading comic books and memorizing each and every panel as a substitute for interacting with their (our, our, our) so-called peers. Anyhow, guys, and I do mean Guys, if you are looking for the arch and icily detached irony oh-so-popular in today’s comics climate, forgive me if I disappoint. This blogsite has nothing to do with the comics side of my multiple personality disorder, the side on display here is the befuddled old fart side. But just to prevent your trip from being an utter waste of time I have included the drawing below that I did for James Sturm, author of “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” a swell read and’s Best Comic of 2001, that can, and should, be purchased here:

and his recently opened Center for Cartoon Studies:

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Rule #7

Up and over the hill from us is a very rare store. It is large and well lit and sells everything a modern Italian housewife might need to make her modern life easier, from diapers, to fresh mozzarella, to 90 proof gin. It looks very much like a modern American supermarket. Those nutty Italians have even given this store the quaint name, “Supermarket”. When I went to the checkout line the nice, young cashier even persuaded me to get a card just like the card in my wallet from that HumongoMart back home that gives me huge discounts on certain items. In fact, with this new card, every time I grab a bottle of wine off the shelf, they give me two Euros and a corkscrew. I do not think that we will be shopping there too often, though. It’s a bit too much like shopping at home and besides the temptation to buy lots of stuff is so great that I gave myself a triple hernia climbing the hill back to the apartment loaded down with diapers, fresh mozzarella, and gin.

Now your typical market in Florence is a mom and pop and, usually, mother-in-law operation. There is the fruit and vegetable market where you buy your fruit and vegetables, your meat market where you buy your meat, your bread and pastry market where you buy your guilt. At the foot of our road is another operation completely. Neither supermarket nor quaint family shop, it is called, simply, “Penny Market”, not “The Penny Market”, just, “Penny Market”. So what do you buy at Penny? Whatever the hell it is that they’ve swept out of the warehouse that day, tied into bundles with greasy twine, backed the truck into the rear of the store and dumped into the Penny cavern. At this point it is a free-for-all. “Anyone seen any onions? I need some onions.” “No, but here’s a six-pack of shampoo.” “O.K. what the hell. Onions, shampoo…my husband will never know the difference.”

It is very common for the small market owner to take a certain amount of pride in his window displays. Using the colors of his produce as a palette, our local fruit and vegetable vendor paints a sumptuous still-life that beckons the shopper. The windows of the Penny are completely covered over with orange sheet metal. If my sister had not dragged me there I would not know that it was a market to this day. I had assumed it was an electrical transfer station, whatever the hell that is. She explained to me with a sniff that Penny was a German outfit as if that would explain it all. And maybe it does ‘cause it sure ain’t Italian.

There are some major deals to be had at Penny, but first you need to put on your pith helmet and be sure to take a flashlight to check those expiration dates. That is, if there are any expiration dates to check. A lot of stuff at Penny comes from Slavic countries whose names you used to know. In a cost-saving measure they have skipped over the labor-intensive part of the production line where the expiration date gets stamped on the products…this includes meat products. I suspect that many of the meat products on sale at Penny were slaughtered sometime in the previous century. This notion is borne out by the decontamination booth you walk through on your way out. As soon as she opens the door, I can tell if my wife has been to Penny by the scent of one of your three choices of decontaminants"Happy-Go-Lucky Lavender Sunrise", "Citrus Rainbow Yum-Yum", or "Salami".

The tip here is that to really experience the true heart and soul of Italian culture, shop at your local markets. Get to know your shop owners and, if you go there regularly, within a little while, say three or four years, you will be treated like a family member when you walk in. That is, you will scolded by the mother-in-law for not showing up for the last 24 hours (or even writing) and be asked to mop the floor. But it will all be worth it because…wait…gotta run, I smell the shampoo burning.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rule #6

Rule #6 Be cool

Just because they serve coffee only in ceramic god-bless-them cups (and not ever in paper cups or ceramic mugs with donkeys painted on the side) and pee when necessary behind dumpsters, do not forget that these people are cosmopolitan city dwellers and that means that they are very cool.

We were walking into town the other day down the sidewalk along the Arno when I caught the eye of a guy leaning on the raised stone wall above the river with one arm bent, the other holding a cigarette. He looked at me for an instant then shifted his eyes to the Arno while giving his head an almost imperceptible twitch toward the river. This small, and very cool, motion, silently said, basically, “Hey, meathead, if you would lift your leaden gaze off the pavement scanning for dog shit, you might see something interesting in the river.” I followed his glance.

In the middle of the Arno running diagonally across the river between Ponte Vespucci and Ponte Carraia is a kind of ledge over which the water flows. When the river is high it is completely submerged, but when the river is low, only the lower end is under water allowing people to walk halfway across the river without getting wet to fish, read a book, or, in the case on this sunny late August morning with the starlings flitting about merrily overhead, wash up dead.

By the time I had arrived at the scene, the body was covered with a white sheet and six cabinieri and one detective were standing around waiting for the guy in the white jump suit who was walking towards them along the ledge. The cabinieri were easy to identify because of the uniform. But how did I know that the seventh guy was a detective? I swear to god he had on an open trench coat with a dangling belt, and badly fitted hat, and was smoking a cigarette. He also has his own little rain cloud above his head like that guy from Li’l Abner and wherever he walked he left small pools of rainwater. Ipso facto: Detective.

Now, I will admit to be very impressed with the coolness of the guy leaning on the wall, and even more impressed with the cabinieri dressed in long pants and crisp jackets on this hot morning, and, of course, all detectives are cool, but the one who broke the coolness record on this bright day was the girl in the bikini on a towel not 50 feet away from the corpse. A photographer from one of the papers had to practically step over her on his way to the crime scene. She just kept applying sun tan oil on her glistening arms and then rolled over. Ever so cool.

I, ever the meathead, stepped right into a pile of dog shit.

Rule #5

Rule #5 Bring Stuff to Read

If you get tired of trying to comprehend the newspaper headlines or the intricate signs on the bus stop poles, there is one English bookstore in Florence that also serves as a paperback exchange. My 15 year old daughter, Nora, will and must read any book whose cover depicts a girl from the waist down in a mini-skirt holding a shopping bag. There are thousands of these books and we had to rent a minivan to get them home from this bookstore, which appears to specialize in such literature. There does not, however, appear to exist a copy of “Black Boy” by Richard Wright anywhere within the city limits of Florence. Unfortunately, by next Monday, when school opens, she needs to read and write a book report about “Black Boy, and not “Where’s My Damn Mascara?: The Memoir of a Cute Shopaholic with a Pierced Bellybutton and Boyfriend Troubles”.

Rule #4

Rule # 4 Practice Strategic Shopping

Unlike the shops at your local mall, you cannot expect everyone to open up at 10:00 and close at 7:00. Our local baker is opened in the mornings from 7:00 until 12:30 and then reopens from 5:30 until 8:30. On Saturdays her morning hours are the same, but on Saturday evenings she is only open until 7:45. On Sundays she is open for 17 minutes beginning at 9:26.

If you can’t memorize all these times, and I must confess that my memory lacks, do what I have done and make a simple chart with the days of the week written across the top and the various necessary stores listed along the side. Every time I go out, I simply carry the chart down three flights of stairs, unlock the wheels, and roll it along beside me down the street although sometimes the wheels get caught up on the syringes in the gutters.

The only store that appears to be open whenever you might want it to be open is Blockbuster Video. This may be due to the fact that Blockbuster is such an American institution that they figure all of the Americans in town will expect it to be open whenever they want it to be open. When you walk in you will find that it looks just like the Blockbuster at your mini-mall back home, and just like that Blockbuster back home, three people can walk into it together, scan the hundreds of selections in the racks and not find one thing that they really want to see.

And here’s another little shopping tip. In America you say, “Gimme a pack of Marlboros”. In Florence you say, “Good morning, ma’am. How are you? Fine? That’s nice. Me? Not bad, not bad. Little cold last night, but that’s the end of September for you. What a pretty dress. Yes, yes, very pretty in truth. Oh, me, well I suppose I would like to purchase a pack of Marlboros.” The rule here is simple: be nicer than you would think humanly possible in entering and leaving any store and you will get the best pack of Marlboros the store has to offer.

Rule #3

Rule #3 Watch Your Step

Our apartment is just outside of downtown Florence in a charming neighborhood. Just a short stroll down a secluded side street leads to a large park. I noted on my charming walk this morning that in the charming gutter rested two charming syringes, needles intact.

But I don’t want to linger on the rampant heroin use engineered by organized crime that plagues this town and is the reason why people even chain their flower pots (I’ve seen this) to their barred windows. The park, Villa Strozzi, is a haven of natural beauty and a godsend for us dog walkers. It also appears to be a godsend for the junkies, too. But let’s not speak of that, here, or of all the used syringes piled around the sand box that are swell makeshift squirt guns for the kiddies,

Contrary to our initial impression, not all of the dogs romping in the park near our apartment are named, “Donnie”. Those sneaky Italian dog owners tried to trick us into thinking this was so. When they saw us coming over the syringe littered hill, they commanded their dogs to retrieve sticks and such by calling, “Da mi.” over and over and over. Almost had us fooled, too, until we tried calling our dog, “Donnie” and she picked up a stick and trotted up to us obediently ‘cause her Italian is better than ours. So, if you see a cute dog on the street, give it a pat on the noggin, smile, say, “Da mi”, and give the owner a little wink to let her know that you are in on the joke, too.

One remarkable thing about Florence is that you can take your dog pretty much anywhere: into the central market, into the bakery, into the bank, into the seedy apartment of the guy you buy your heroin from. At my local bar if a dog comes in before 10 AM, they are given a free doggie biscuit and cappuccino to wash it down. This national permissiveness for dogs is a good thing if it is simply impossible to consider spending a year apart from your precious Rover or Rex or, in our insane case, Rahima (just who is the master over whom, here, anyway?) and are insanely determined that you must bring your dog with you from the States.

However, the Italian acceptance of dogs is a bad thing if you don’t give a shit about dogs. This is because the dogs give a shit but the Florentine dog owners do not appear to give a shit about picking up. In other words, keep your radar trained to the pavement. Not only will this keep your shoes clean, but if someone happens to come at you with a squirt gun you are sure to be able to find a few used syringes at your feet to use in self-defense.

Rule #2

Rule #2 Do not drive and avoid walking

If your hearing or reflexes are poor, or you have just had a few Florentine-style cocktails in a donkey mug, do not attempt to drive.

Even on the winding, narrow and disarmingly quaint streets cobwebbing the hills around our house it is not safe. Anyone driving a car or motorcycle considers it their God given right to go as fast as humanly possibly once the ignition key is turned. No self-respecting Italian driver would put on his Fiat one of those bumperstickers that read, “School’s Out, Drive Safely”. Drive WHAT?!! This is Florence, not Larchmont! Might as well put one next to it that says, “I am a fruitcake. Eat me.”

Outside of the city Italians drive at speeds seen only in the states once a year in Indianapolis. Tooling down the AutoStrata with my brother-in-law, who has lived many of his adult years in this country, I asked whether he had ever seen anyone pulled over for speeding, he looked at me blankly. “What do you mean, ‘speeding’?” I pointed to a sign on the side of the road. “Isn’t that a sign indicating the speed limit?” I asked. “No,” Steve explained, “That is the number 35. Even if someone were to be ‘speeding” as you put it in your endearingly American way, who would stop him?”

This struck me as remarkable and I have since made it my business to look for cops whenever we travel out of the city. Never have I seen a cop car on the highway, and rarely do I see one on business in the town. There also are no Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thrus. Coincidence? I think not.

I will admit to hearing their repetitive sirens, particularly in the dead of night. Actually, only in the dead of night when they wake me up out of my beauty rest. My wife hypothesized that the sirens’ monotonous melody may have been lifted from the first four notes of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan wail repeated ad nauseum, and I do mean nauseum. I have discovered that the sirens’ irritatingly atonal drone was, in fact, scored by Phillip Glass. Before Philip Glass came along, cops used to race to any given bank robbery blaring Dean Martin singing, “Volare”, but they put a stop to that when they found that other cars did not get out of the way but rather tried to run the cop cars into telephone poles.

The lack of a visible police presence is triply remarkable as there is not one, not two, but three police forces in Florence. The Vigili Urbani, or municipal police, wear blue uniforms in winter and white in the summer. The Carabinieri dress in red striped slacks and wear shiny black shoes. La Polizia wear powder blue uniforms with fuscia stripes, white belts, and stylish berets. That is what they wear and this being Florence what you wear and how well you wear it is really the most important thing. What they all do remains a mystery.

Rule #1

Rule #1 Beware of the pasta
Whenever I told one of my chums back home that I was going to live in Florence for a year they would inevitably make a comment about how wonderful the food is as they removed the knife they had stuck from in between my ribs. That wine! That olive oil! That pastry! Yes the wine and the olive oil are terrific and I have consumed gallons since coming to town, sometimes separately, and sometimes, as some guy named Luigi, whom I met in a bar called it, “Florentine-style”: equal parts Chianti and olive oil in a ceramic tumbler with a donkey painted on the side that is glugged down in one breath while everyone in the bar laughs hysterically. I did not get the joke, but then again, I am an American and much Italian humor is lost on me.

But listen up: beware of that pastry,

Evidently the Italians put an extra secret ingredient into their pastries. My wife thinks it is the high quality of the butter procured from contented cows grazing on sweet, rich Tuscan grass. My daughter goes for the theory that it is the fillings made with real fruit and real cream that makes the difference. I lean towards the hypothesis that heroin is involved. Nothing else could explain the addictive quality of these innocent-looking little depth charges.

Our apartment is a thirty-minute walk to the central area of town known as “Centro” (which roughly translates as, “Central”). Our neighborhood, known as “Monte Uliveto” (which roughly translates as, “Monte Hall”) is on a steep hillside with a swell view of the city below. To climb up the hill requires stamina, willpower, and an extra lung. Since moving here, I have made the climb at least two times daily and would have lost 15 lbs already had I not just come from my two daily trips (at least) to the local bar.

A bar is a place where you can get a drink, as in an American bar, or a coffee, or if that guy Luigi is around, a Florentine cocktail in a donkey mug, but all I get at a bar is a cappuccino and one of those sweet filled pastries that they call a “pasta” not to be confused with “pasta”. Even though they are exactly the same word and designate a food substance, pasta is not pasta.

How the Italians keep their pastas straight is a mystery. Maybe it has something to do with pronunciation. I guess my accent must be pretty good ‘cause after ordering my cappuccino when I say, “Una pasta, per favore,” to the barkeep, he never ever slaps down a plate of linguine with clam sauce. These pastas look much like the innocent little pastries from home that I have no trouble avoiding. But here, with their secret additive, they are my destiny, as Paul Anka once sang, they are what they are to me…heroin in a flaky crust.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Rules To Vivere By

Rules To Vivere By

Although we have only been here for a few weeks I already consider myself an absolute authority on all things Florentine. Quite an achievement given the fact that the only words in Italian of which I am dead certain are “cappuccino” (although I did have to use spell-check just now) and “ciao” (although I do not really know what it means literally, I use it a lot especially when I do not know what someone is saying to me which is about 97% of the time and it seems to placate them long enough for me to get a cappuccino). I believe in sharing the lessons learned from my rich experience of weeks and, yes, even days. Hence this irregular journal, “Rules to Vivere By”. (Please do not bother to point out that the verb “vivere” means “to live”, thus making the title of this series, “Rules To To Live By”. My daughter, Nora, has already pointed this redundancy out to me on several occasions. Well, too too bad, that’s my title and I’m sticking with with it.)

So, should you be planning a trip to Florence or even if you simply want to hear some Americano gas off about all of the quaint mysteries of Italy that he and several million other Americanos before him have discovered for the very first time, here is some basic straightforward advice from the old pro and experienced world-traveler (New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Oak Bluffs and a very wet week in the off-season of Costa Rica).

Ciao!…er, uhm… maybe I mean, Cappuccino!