Opera snobs and coming home

Milan is, by far, my least favorite part of Italy.

It immediately reminds me of New York on a day I am annoyed with New York. It has the least amount of charm and individual personality of all the places I’ve been. I have, on my trip, found Italians to be very hospitable. The Milanese are far less so.

For the sake of convenience, I am staying in a business hotel for my final night. It’s very nice, well-appointed, even posh in comparison to some of the other places I’ve stayed, but I’d much prefer a homey bed and breakfast.

I had hoped to be able to attend an opera at Teatro de la Scala, but I hesitated too long and the reasonably priced seats sold out. The concierge tries to find me something on what more or less equates to the black market, and comes across no availability for less than 500 euros. I am in no way willing to spend that kind of money. But perhaps I can find a better deal from someone selling last minute outside the theatre. So I put on my makeshift dress outfit — a long sleeve black top designed for exercise, long black cotton skirt and the black leather wrap belt I bought in Florence. I wear flats instead of hiking boots for the first time in more than a week.

On my way toward La Scala, I traverse the renowned Via Spiga. It, like so many major high end shopping streets, makes me slightly uncomfortable. Salespeople who look like they should be modeling for Vogue and dresses that cost three months of rent are just not my… what? Choice? Preference? Bag? Ilk? All of the above, perhaps.

Outside La Scala, I see no one who seems to be trying to pawn tickets and eventually I give  up and wander into the gift shop for a consolation prize. It is while perusing opera CD’s that I have one of those moments wherein a simple word or fact becomes elusive. You know those moments, right?

I am searching for a recording of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” in honor of my quarters in Lucca. The name of the composer, however, is not coming to me, despite the fact that I do actually know who composed that particular opera. So I ask a gentleman who is also browsing through the shelves.

And he is so appalled at my ignorance, he about vomits on his Gucci loafers. I confess, I have a small moment of schadenfreude. Despite having just spent days surrounded by saints, I am not one.

Eventually, I find what I’m looking for and make my way back to the hotel, stopping off for dinner first.

Daylight savings time begins this night, and I have a flight at 11 a.m., which means expected airport arrival is 8 a.m, and I have to get a train to the airport…. suffice to say, I’m up early. And there’s going to be the time zone at home with which to become reacquainted.

By a lovely stroke of luck, I have a whole row to myself on the plane to Atlanta and am able to curl up for a series of naps, in between which I poke at the tiny movie screen on the back of the seat in front of me.

We land at Hartsfield-Jackson airport and I go through customs and back through security before boarding a plane to Chattanooga, the last leg of my travel. Tomorrow, I go back to work, back to deadlines, back to the real world.

I don’t wanna.

My birthday is in two days. Thirty-one.

When we land in Chattanooga and I walk out of the gate area into the tiny airport, Joe is waiting for me, with a kiss and a shoulder on which to rest my travel-weary head.

You’re so nice to come home to. 

Now, can we go away again?

Where to shall I wander next time?

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A kiss for a Camry?



On my last morning in Venice, I manage to make it out for the sunrise without falling down the steps, which I consider to be quite a win indeed. Once again, there are only a few wandering souls so early, which I love. On a normal day, empty streets make me a little anxious. But in a different world, it’s like the space is mine to explore. If I were a wiser, though less prudent, woman, I would make a life for myself moving from place to place, with one suitcase and one companion.

Inside the Basilica di San Marco is stunning, palatial with intricate mosaic floors, marble walls and rounded, gilded ceilings with religious frescoes. It’s awesome, in the true sense of the word, but it lacks the sacred quality of some of the other cathedrals. It’s sacred because of its history, because it always has been, not because it feels so. It’s beautiful, stunning, but not peaceful.

Outside, the piazza is teeming. Vendors have set up shop and natives and tourists alike are browsing through stalls of everything from mildy vulgar t-shirts to hand sketched charcoal drawings. I’m half-tempted to buy an exceedingly creepy Commedia Dell’Arte mask to hang in my apartment. I won’t.

When I was a girl, maybe 11 or 12, I saw a 1979 movie called “A Little Romance.” It starred Laurence Olivier and Diane Lane in her film debut as an American girl who meets a French boy and, threatened by separation, they run away to Venice to seal their love with a kiss beneath the Ponte Dei Sospiri, the Bridge of Sighs.

Named for the lamenting sighs of prisoners taken from the Doge’s prison to the interrogation rooms of the balance, local legend tells of everlasting love when two people kiss beneath the bridge at sunset.

And now, this legendary romantic spot is…. sponsored by Toyota.

Apparently, if you kiss beneath the bridge now, you win a Camry. At least, that’s what I imagine.

I watch a gondola carrying a middle aged couple approach. The gondolier leans over to them, presumably to explain the legend of the ponte. They cross under. Nothing.

Okay, maybe they already have a car or something, but seriously, you’re on a gondola in Venice. And despite the rather crass presence of boatloads of advertising*, it’s still the Bridge of Sighs.

I don’t have much time to berate the pair in my head, however. It’s time to head to the vaporetto, back to the train, arrevederci Venezia, and on to Milan, my final stop before I return to the States tomorrow.

I’ll come back here, some day, with Joe. In the winter, I hope. I’d love to see Venice when it snows.

*With apologies to my sister, who is in advertising, but hopefully even she can agree that there are some places it’s just preferable to not be sold a car.







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Shalom Italy

The breeze off the Grand Canal is slight, riding the vaporetto to the Gheto Vechio, the old Jewish section of Venice. It’s Friday night, and soon the Sabbath will begin.

I’m not entirely sure what I’m expecting to see — perhaps an area even more stopped in time than Venice as a whole already is. Will there be men with payot (the long curls Hassidic men wear on the sides of their faces), somberly dressed women and children…? Apparently, I have a pretty stereotypical view of what a Jewish section of a city would be, but in a place so steeped  in history as this one is, I think I can be forgiven for expecting to see a very traditional picture.

Interestingly enough, however, the Gheto Vechio is distinguishable only from other sections of the city in that several of the pasticceria have signs indicting their goods are kosher, and some of the stores sell Venetian glass mezuzahs. There’s scarcely even a yarmulke in sight. The sun will be setting soon. Perhaps all the observant Jews are already in temple, welcoming the Sabbath.

Unfortunately, this means I will not have an opportunity to see the inside of any synogagues in Venice. There doesn’t seem to be much more to explore here, so I head back, this time on foot, following signs toward San Marco.

On the way, I cross Ponte Tetta — Tits Bridge — where prostitutes would advertise their services by baring their breasts to passersby. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on ones perspective and sense of adventure, such was an activity of yesteryear. The bridge is, at least in the moments I see it, occupied only by fully clothed individuals.

Campo San Marco is filled with people and pigeons. The birds will fly and rest on arms and shoulders if you just stand still and let them come to you. The chances of my doing this are slim to none. Fortunately, there are willing souls, as this is too good a photo opportunity to pass up. And unfortunately, only one of the pictures comes out even mildly decent.

Dusk is beginning to settle in. The piazza is teeming. I was here before dawn, when it was empty. Musicians play classical pieces I recognize but can’t place. Don’t tell my sources at the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera.

Strolling along the Grand Canal, the streetlights that were pink in the early morning light glow a bright, blinding yellow against the increasingly darkening sky.

 Soon, I am crossing back through the piazza. This time, the music is more modern — that song I shamefully know only as the Western Union Song. People walk by — families, couples, friends. A teenage girl does cartwheels across the square.

The musicians begin a waltz and I think it would be wonderful to dance, here, under the clear, black sky, the lights all around. But before I can get too wistful, they break out into a lively version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and I can hear laughter from the passing crowd.

The church bells chime. Time for dinner.


At a little neighborhood taverna near my hotel, people speak Italian, English, French and Spanish. I settle into a tiny corner table with my book and wonder if I can end the meal with a limoncello to take away. Probably not.

I ask whether the zuppa verdure, vegetable soup, is made with solo verdure, only vegetables, and hope I haven’t just requested a singing telegram or Vegemite sandwich. The waiter, however, seems to understand and assures me, “Si, si, Signora, solo verdure.” 

Subsequently, however, he smilingly serves me a plate of cooked vegetables, soupless. I don’t complain. They taste good and I’m tired.

Norah Jones is playing on the stereo, singing about a “little girl with nothing wrong.”

Eyes wide open

Always hoping for the sun

And she’ll sing her song to anyone

That comes along

– Norah Jones, “Seven Years”


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Sunrise, crash, wishes, water and Vorticists

My first morning in Venice begins with a bang, quite literally. Or, perhaps, a bump is more accurate.

I rise early again, eager to see the sunrise over the Piazza San Marco. Venturing out into the hallway, I can’t find the light, so I resourcefully use my iPhone as a flashlight. Unfortunately, this idea is better in theory than in practice, because it’s still mostly pitch dark.

And that… is how I end up not seeing where the stairwell begins, and how I end up losing my footing and tumbling my way down an entire flight of stairs. How do you say “ow” in Italian?

Fortunately, nothing seems to be permanently damaged, including my legs and my pride, all of which are a bit bruised, but I pick myself up and make my way, only limping slightly, toward the Piazza.

I’m the first one there when I arrive, but slowly, several other similarly minded souls trickle in, moving across the square and toward the canal.

I read all about how sunrise in San Marco is like glittering points of gold, but a thick fog is preventing all of the light from shining through. Also, it’s quite early. There’s a blue-gray-white mist over the water, those moments before the sun breaks over the horizon. The glass in the street lamps is dark pink, and the lighter it gets outside, the less saturated the color of the glass becomes. There’s a man sweeping the ground with one of those brooms made from long, thin twigs that are used here.

The sun begins to ascend, deep pink, infusing the sky a softer pink color, streaks of white through the thick fog in the air. One can only see so far.

As it rises, it becomes more orange in color, brighter, contrasting the coolness of the sky. At one point it is nearly white, reminiscent of the moon, and then more yellow, the light diffused by a wispy veil of clouds

More people are coming along. Two men load piles of sheets in a boat, laundry to be returned to Italian housewives, perhaps. A row of gondolas, covered in blue tarps, lay in wait for the young gondoliers, dressed in striped shirts, to row across the Grand Canal.

I begin making my way along the canal. A few cafes are starting to open, the dull roar of boats can be heard along the water.

A middle-aged couple stops to ask me if I know where they can get coffee and I point them to a place I’d passed minutes earlier.

“Your English is excellent,” the woman compliments me.

“Thank you,” I reply. “I’m American.”

Her husband asks me another question and then she queries: “Where in Ireland are you from?”

When I tell her again, “no, I’m from the States,” she looks surprised.

“With those eyes and that accent?” She asks. “Unbelievable.”

Mind you, this is far from the first time someone has mistaken me for being something other than American. I’ve gotten a lot of Welsh, Irish and Canadian. Several people have guessed something Eastern European (I got Slovakian once), and I’ve had one or two ask if I were Israeli. Yes, I have a somewhat strange voice. And the fact that my speech has been very limited here, my use of English even more so, I imagine it probably sounds even more unusual now.

Fortunately, being alone in a foreign country means I’m not required to do much conversing. And being alone in a foreign country also means no one will judge me for eating gelato at 7 in the morning, which I think sounds like a splendid idea. Unfortunately, the one open gelateria I’m finding, well, I’m just not thrilled with the look of it. So I head back to the hotel for breakfast.

My leg is bothering me from my fall and the kind proprietress notices me favoring it a bit. I recount the story and she promises to leave a topical cream to heal bruising in my room. This is something I really like about staying in small, privately owned inns. You get the privacy of a hotel, but the welcoming of staying in someone’s home, just without the obligation to hear about someone’s mother’s gout, or to look at photo after photo of their baby.

After breakfast, I venture out toward the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where my mother has highly recommended I go.

 Visually, I tend to prefer more Impressionistic works, but the exhibit featuring Vorticism, an early 20th century modernist movement born in London and lead, in part, by poet Ezra Pound, is different and interesting to view.  The works have sharp lines, bold colors, very angular.  I wonder whether Vorticism gave rise to Cubism. As it turns out, it’s often considered the British version thereof, and is thought to have essentially paled by comparison.

The permanent collection features Picasso, Kandinsky, Dali and Magritte. A group of students gathers in front of Gino Severini’s “Ballerina Blu,” most of them looking bored.

One room is dedicated to the work of Pegeen Vail, Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter, who was fraught with depression and died from an overdose. The drawings are childlike, amateurish, and somewhat whimsical.

Outside, a white marble plaque reads: “Here Lie My Beloved Babies,” and lists the names, birth and death dates of 14 cats. There is a wish tree, a gift to Guggenheim from Yoko Ono, the branches upon which visitors have hung wishes written on small scraps of white paper.

“To fall in love,” reads one.

“To travel the world,” is written on another.

 I write my wish, hang it and walk along. In Venice, one crosses bridges instead of streets. American humorist Robert Benchley, upon arrival in Venice, sent a telegram to his editor: “Streets full of water, please advise.”

I anticipate one of the questions I will receive upon return home will be “did you ride in a gondola,” and the answer will be “no, no I did not.” Forgive me, but the notion of a gondola ride alone is slightly more appealing than the notion of a carriage ride alone only because it doesn’t involve a horse’s rear.

At the Basilica de la Salute, the floors are beautiful, intricately tiled. It’s too crowded. I prefer the empty churches, more hushed. A woman stands by the door, asking for alms in the name of Santa Maria. She remains in the shadows, her face nearly hidden.

It is lively along the Grand Canal. A bride and groom pose for wedding portraits. A group of students recline on one another. The fog of the early morning has lifted, at least somewhat.


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A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him. – Arthur Symons

Stepping out of the train station, I do not see the industrial, depressing scene I’m used to viewing. Most rail stations are horrible first impressions of otherwise lovely towns and cities.

But here, I step out of the station and… Venezia. 

I board the vaporetto (water bus, 6 euro 50 for a one way ticket; waterway robbery indeed). It takes about 30 minutes and the whole time I’m leaning over the rail, snapping pictures and not even caring that I look wholly like the tourist I am.

I had considered not coming to Venice and instead scheduling another stop in Tuscany, but decided to come here on the recommendation of my father, who had enthusiastically described it as “otherworldly.” He is not what I would call an especially poetic man, so to hear him  talk almost ebulliently about a city made me know it was one I should see. I’m glad I listened to him.

We arrive at my stop – Santa Maria del Giglio – and disembark. Then, I and the others who have gotten off must travel down a long, dim corridor of a street, so narrow we are forced to walk single file. I can’t help but think it would be a wonderful place to commit all sorts of nefarious acts (how does one say “Rape Alley” in Italian?) I will, I decide, avoid the vaporetto after dark.

From there, with only a bit of turnaroundness, I find the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, and the two bridges to Fondamenta Corner Zaguri, along which is the B&B Zaguri, where I shall be spending the next two nights.

Well, at least that’s the hope. Once I find B&B Zaguri and ring the bell, there is no answer. I try the phone number. No answer. And the cell number I’ve been sent. Again, no answer.

I am… what’s the word in Italian? Malcontenta. In English, just pissed. And also a little cranky, not to mention a bit worried. It’s getting toward evening, I don’t have a contingency plan, and my emailed correspondence, which is printed out in a manilla folder along with my train and hotel reservations and airline e-tickets, indicates a 90 percent cancellation policy. I mentally prepare myself to check into one of the nearby hotels I spotted and throw a fit at B&B Zaguri.

But as I am doing so, a woman happens along to the door next to where I am standing.

“Scusi, signora?” I am too tired to attempt to communicate using the 10 word hodgepodge of Italian I have at my disposal and instead launch immediately into: “Per favore, parle Inglese?”

She does and she is, it turns out, the proprietress of the inn. I had been expected several hours later, and probably should have emailed with my change of plans. She lets me in and she’s  sweet and calming. I’m mollified, if a bit harried.

The room is simple, the least adorned of any I’ve had, but it’s clean and well-located.

It’s 7:15 now. I decide to head out for dinner. I’ve been keeping very early hours, and have not been out past 10 the whole trip. Past 9 even. During my research, I came across information about convent stays and was very tempted to include such an unusual experience into my travels. I was, however, discouraged by the 10:30 curfew. Had I known I would be keeping nearly monastic hours, I would have signed on.

The first night in a new city, I can be a bit gunshy. I have a horrific sense of direction. The closest thing I have to a mantra, or life philosophy is “all roads lead home eventually,” derived not only from a sort of metaphysical adherence to chaos theory, but also a way of keeping my wits about me when I get lost, as I frequently and inevitably do. I also have slightly imperfect night vision and, embarrassing as it is in my 30s, a bit of a fear of the dark.

Therefore, I will dine in the nearby Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, a hotel near to which I chose as it was touted by some tourism site or another for its night life. That might have been a bit of an exaggeration. I enter a restaurant, the first and only I see, and sit down without even looking at a menu. When I do so, my eyes pop open.

Madonna! The prices! Venice is indeed not a cheap city. I order the grilled vegetables, the least expensive thing on the menu, and a half-carafe of red wine, of which I will drink one, maybe two glasses, and give thanks for the bag of fruit, bread and cheese I have stashed back in my room.

I’m feeling just a bit swindled, but when the waiter comes with my wine, he calls me Signorina instead of Signora, which is a first on this holiday, and it makes me smile.

Just imagine how easy I would be to charm after a glass or two of Sangiovese…

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Accordians and misunderstandings

My day begins at dawn, as has become routine in Italy. I’ve grown accustomed to wandering narrow streets alone. But this is a bit different. On the pathway that circles atop the walls of the old city, there are joggers and bikers. And I thought I was the only one crazy enough to be up so early.

The sun rises as I walk, streaking orange across the sky, over grassy, park-like spaces, and back toward the center of the city, looking down at historic buildings. Sorry, Mom, but this is definitely cooler than walking the reservoir.

I go into a church i don’t even know the name of, and its vastness surprises me. There is a small block of seats along an archway. There’s something about it that’s dimutizing. A group, or a family, comes in with two young men in wheelchairs.They look… bad, basically, somehow palsied or for lack of a better word, damaged. One of the other people, a woman — perhaps the  mother or caretaker — dips her hand in the holy water and touches it to one of the boys’ hands.
The church is beautiful and I want to take a picture, but I’m reluctant to do so with other people around, since there’s more than one sign blantantly forbidding photography. And yes, I’m more concerned with the judgment of other people than of God. I figure any divine being probably has better things to do than bring the wrath on a woman for her camera.

My attempt to communicate at least mildly in Italian have been going okay, but of course, there are snafus. I tried to ask for 50 cents worth of pecorino and 50 cents worth of parmagianno. Instead, I somehow ended up with 4 1/2 dollars worth of cheese. Perhaps the woman thought I was asking for a certain unit of measure. But, not knowing how to explain myself, I just paid the money. I’m now in search of what I’ve been told is the best gelato in town. As I walk, a smiling, toothless man rides by on a bicycle, waving and calling out “Ciao! Ciao!” I turn a corner and there he is again, propping his bike up by a building. He notices me and comes over, his hand extended. I shake his hand and wish him buon giorno.
Thanks to my championship level sense of direction, I manage to get myself hopelessly turned around, fighting the clock with less than an hour left until I have to leave to catch the train to Venice. The goal is to find the gelateria. It is vital that I have a gelato in each place I visit. So I’m trying to use a central location as a base point, at least, and my attempts to inquire for directions become almost farcical.
First, I inquire as to the way to Piazza San Marco. This does not exist in Lucca. Then, I ask someone else how to get to the Piazza San Michele, but pronounce it as if I’m speaking French, as in “Michel(l)e, ma belle.” Finally on the third try, I’m able to ask correctly. And still I get turned around. Fortunately, I continue to run into the same nice man with the orange briefcase, who finally guides me to where I need to be.
He asks me questions, and I nod, understanding every 10th word, including “Franchese” and “Inglese.” I’m saying “si, si,” until I finally realize he’s asking me whether I am French or English, not whether I speak French or English.
Finally, however, I find my way, and the gelato is worth the trouble to find it. I settle down for a few moments in the Piazza Napoleone and listen to a woman sing along with her accordian. I have no idea what she’s singing about, but it sounds haunting and hopeful.

It’s time to leave. I place a two Euro coin in the box by her feet and hope she gets what she’s looking for.
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Signed, Lonely in Lucca

The old city of Lucca is ringed by ramparts, wide walls that have extended into biking paths and small parks, overlooking the buildings, churches and piazzi. But within the walls, despite the cobblestone streets, it feels the most modern I’ve experienced in the past two days, with contemporary shops all around. Cortona and Assisi seemed like another time. This feels, not quite like today, but not like so long ago either.

In the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, each room is named after an Italian opera. I am in Rigoletto – named for Verdi’s tale of a hunchbacked jester, based on Victor Hugo’s “Le Roi S’amuse.”

Nearly everyone in Lucca, at least in the old part of the city, either walks or rides bikes. Europeans have a marvelous way of peddling bicycles with the kind of dignity that Americans lack. Even when used as a mode of transit, cycling always seems an athletic venture in the States. Here in Lucca, it looks much more proper. I think the only person at home whom I ever seen adapt a Euro-style cycling stance is my nursery school teacher, Miss Thurm, who pedals her way around New York City, and who, the last time I saw her, had not changed in 25 years.

Kelli, my friend and colleague who recommended I visit Lucca, a town I’d never heard of, has advised me to rent a bike, but the timing doesn’t really allow for that, so I continue to add on to the miles I trek on foot. One thing I notice: I very much like the doors here.

I told you, I have a strange obsession with taking pictures of doors.

Inasmuch as I enjoy traveling alone, I find that on most solo ventures, there comes a few hours of melancholy, and this is the evening thereof. The idea of sitting alone in a restaurant does not appeal tonight, so I stop in at a small pizzeria and take dinner back to my hotel room.

I awaken during the night and venture downstairs to the guest computer — the first access I’ve had to the internet in several days. I actually get to chat with Joe – a rarity as he’s hardly ever lingering on gmail – but other than that, I kind of hate this computer for being here and myself for being on it.

Of course, I’m compelled to check some sites I like, including Facebook. As I sign on, I have a sense of self-loathing. It’s been such a lovely five days without word of anyone’s baby or work woes, fitness progress or dilettante life philosophy. Why am I doing this?

I do manage to avoid checking my work email. I am not anxious to get back to work. Or more accurately, I am not eager to get back to work. I am anxious about getting back to work. I have a story due three days after my return, and a few projects I’ve been working on. I will not think about work before I set foot back into that office.

For now, I will be here.

I’m quite terrible about anticipating sadness. I fall into a funk three days before goodbyes. Currently, I am pushing away the dread of that voice in my head that will say, “Okay, you had your time away. Now back to the grindstone.”

Can I just stay away? Can I trade my return ticket from Milan into a one way for Joe? I’m worth leaving everything behind for, right?

Mi amore, con te partiro. With you I will go. Anywhere. Will you go with me? We’ll see the world, wander indefinitely and won’t tell anyone where we are.

If only… if only…

(More pictures of doors, to detract from my traveler’s ennui, or whatever the Italian word for ennui is):

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