Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The donkeys of Venice

Venice reminds me of an adult version of Pleasure Island - that super happy fun-land carnival in the Disney version of Pinocchio. You know, where Pinocchio and the other boys go and play games and eat candy before getting turned into donkeys.

Venice is beautiful. It has wonderful food and tasty sweets. It has lots of shopping. It has roving bands of musicians waiting to serenade lovers, and around every corner you'll find gondoliers whose sole job is to ferry people through the canals past the stunning pastel buildings.

On Rialto Bridge during our first afternoon in Venice.

View of the canals.

A building Ryan particularly liked.

Because of all that, it’s infested with so … many … tourists.

It's Venice. There has to be a bridge shot. Surprisingly, there are no tourists on it.

We overheard a rather ridiculous conversation among these American tourists, who felt people would be more likely to stare at them if they removed their masks.
We enjoyed our first afternoon and night in Venice, walking around and taking in the sights and tastes of the city. We enjoyed our second day exploring the historic Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square and settling in to watch Italy get eliminated by Uruguay at an outdoor patio restaurant.

Then, on the third day, Venice made asses out of us.  

We made a series of bad decisions and assumptions that turned out to be wrong. For instance, we didn't find a place for breakfast – at least in the area we started out exploring. By the time we had something to eat and I had my necessary coffee, it began to pour down rain, dampening our enthusiasm for taking a ferry out to the island of Murano that is known for its glass. We felt equally drowned by the water and tourists in fluorescent ponchos.

Even the gondoliers had their umbrellas out.

Then we got lost.

Rick Steves, whose advice for traveling Europe has generally been invaluable to us, suggested we get lost in Venice to explore off the beaten track. Let’s just say, we can put a big ol’ check mark next to this one. We couldn’t not get lost. The Venetians apparently hated straight lines. What resulted is a hodgepodge of alleys and bridges and dead ends and no signs.

On  my way down one of the narrow alleys. 

Well, there were a few signs. Just not ones that helped us get back on track.

In fact, Venice can be cruel. It’s like a giant rat maze for humans where the gods like Zeus look down and laugh at the stupid humans who kept turning down alleys that terminated at canals (us)  or who made turn after turn only to end up at the same restaurant they left 25 minutes earlier (also us).

The lunch restaurant. I didn't believe Elizabeth when she told me that's where we had eaten.
Eventually, we found an interesting bookstore with steps and walls made of books stacked like bricks and an eccentric shopkeeper named Luigi.

Elizabeth found the staircase of books a good solution (but still a little horrifying to destroy those books).

Books filled both boats and bathtubs.
The proprietor.

Then we got lost again.

Consulting the map for the umpteenth time.
Finally, when we tried to leave the island after a nice dinner, it made it as difficult as possible. The regular trains back to Mestre, where our hotel was, stopped running at 10:30. It was 11:25. We got tickets for a bus ride. But we couldn't find the bus station (what did I tell you about no signs). So we bought tickets for a late train to Rome that went through Mestre.

Let's just say the 12:08 train from Venice to Rome was no midnight train to Georgia. It was one of those trains with compartments of six seats -- three facing three. Elizabeth and I had to settle for seats in different compartments. When she tried to go into hers, a woman who was sleeping in one of the seats glared at her and threw the curtain shut. Elizabeth took my seat, and I sat on one of the pull down seats in the hallway, where I could watch the drama as two families argued over the fact that they had the same seats. The train sat for what felt like an eternity but probably only took off 10 minutes late. It was not humanity at its best, let me tell you.

But it was a fitting ending to our day in Venice.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On austerity measures and airports

I spent 10 days in Italy and the only passport stamp I got was from Amsterdam.

Upon our arrival in Rome, the lone passport checker on duty in the Fiumicino airport waived us through without checking to see if we were who we claimed to be, let along stamping either of our passports. Apparently, passport checkers and inkpads are two of the austerity measures implemented during Italy's recent economic troubles.

When no one checked our passport before our flight to Amsterdam, I thought it might be because we were flying within the European Union. And a U.S. passport official in Detroit confirmed that the E.U. countries often aren't stamping for intra-union travel anymore. He also said that JFK airport might be a pre-approved airport that doesn't require checking after arrival; however, Ryan's parents and Kate didn't get checked either and they flew from a different airport.

That same U.S. passport official also failed to stamp my passport to show that I had returned to the states. I could be anywhere right now.

The only addition to my passport this year.

Amsterdam, where I spent two hours between flights and never left the airport, granted me a stamp. That airport takes security extremely seriously. Every single international gate has two of the full body scanners. Think about that, each gate has two.  I think the Louisville airport has four total. Besides the scanners, Amsterdam officials quizzed us on where we had been and what we had done during our visit, required us to have our bags x-rayed again and to surrender our water bottles before we could board our flight to Detroit.

This has prompted me to ask, what is the point of the passport anymore? Is there an electronic alternative that I can fill up to measure my progress to try to take over the world? Those passport stamps were a sign that I had been somewhere and grown as a result of the experience. I'm a little sad to see them lose their significance.

Rome or bust

One of the art forms in which Italian artists seem to be head and shoulders above the rest is sculpting marble busts. 

They're everywhere. Museums, official buildings even parks. The Villa Borghese park, for instance, is like Rome's version of Central Park. And one of it's main entrances features several paths lined with busts of historic Italians. 

It's obvious to even tourists why some of them deserve such an honor -- Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Leonardo da Vinci, for instance.

Others -- not so much. 

Take Mr. Secchi. His bust sits outside of the park by a fancy country club. Like many of the busts, it features only his last name (with some of the carved letters faded by weather and time) and few other clues as to who he was and why his head earned a place in the park. 

In his case, Angelo Secchi, born in 1818, was an ordained Jesuit priest who became a physicist and astronomer. He's the rare theologian and scientist blend. And he wasn't just an amateur astronomer. After getting booted out of Italy during one of the revolutions in 1848, Secchi attended courses in England and the United States and returned to Rome to take over the observatory of the Collegio Romano. He made some major contributions by being among the first scientists to study sun flares and declare the sun a star

He's a little weather beaten but still looking at the stars. 

There were politicians/military -- even disgraced leaders like Alfonso Ferrero la Marmora. He was Italy's sixth prime minister. Before and after that, he was military leader. And he was perhaps most known for losing a key battle against Austria despite having superior forces. He spent the rest of his life trying to defend his actions in that battle, including publishing a paper that got him in trouble for leaking classified information. 

La Marmora is not impressed. 

And then there were the heads that would fit in with any Halloween motif. Thanks to erosion and perhaps a little vandalism, poor Girolamo Savonarola looks downright ghoulish. That might be fitting, though, considering he didn't exactly meet the nicest ending to his life. The 15th century Dominican friar from Florence claimed he had visions of a takeover from the north and called for the ousting of the ruling Medici family. The Pope got wind of it and summoned him to Rome. Savonarola didn't go. Eventually he was captured, tortured, confessed to inventing the visions and was hanged and burned with two of his loyal followers. And this is what his bust looks like now. 

The freakiest bust of them all. 

Too bad I left my good spray paint at home

Graffiti is everywhere in Italy. If the object is stationary, someone has painted something on it: walls, trains, train platforms, vendors' carts, street signs, postal boxes, doorways, etc. And sadly, even some historic sites.

Rome is by far the worst, and Time documented a cleanup effort there in 2010. It doesn't look like it's taken hold.

More than 75 percent of the graffiti - especially in Rome - is simply words. And because those words are often Italian, I can't understand it whether they are condemning the government or celebrating love. But we captured a few clever or more complex examples of graffiti. My philosophy is that if you're going to deface property, you should feel obligated to make it amusing, rather than just "I was here."

Ryan and I thought this supported soccer, but weren't sure who the killer whale and panda symbolized. From Venice. 

This was Ryan's choice, of course, who laughed at the graffiti artist who decided to edit the name of this street. Most of the graffiti is as simple as this type of stuff. From Venice. 

A simple one from Florence. It would have been more appropriate in Venice. 

I see this as an upcoming Doctor Who special - Alien Pope. From Venice. 

This wasn't technically graffiti, but two sides of this building was covered in fake U.S. dollar bills. You can see a close up of the bills below. From Florence. 

These three no-entry signs from a single intersection had all been doctored in amusing ways. From Florence. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gena's post: A brief taste of what we ate

The food has been excellent almost the entire trip. We didn’t always get photos because sometimes we were just too hungry or they looked to enticing to wait. I have eaten several things that I never thought I would including:
  • Homemade yogurt (our first hotel provided this every morning)
  • Pizza marinara (just tomato sauce and garlic, and it was delicious)
  • Spaghetti with clams
  • Sheep cheek (tastes like bacon)
  • Octopus rice salad
  • Scampetti with shrimp noodles (search for it on I thought it was going to be shrimp)
  • Venetian Toast aka ham and cheese dipped in a local mayonnaise sauce (This was one of Ryan’s dishes. I was super jealous he got to eat nearly all of it.)
  • Gnocchi with mussels (probably the best pasta dish I had the entire trip)
Taking a picture of our three different types of salad, including the octopus rice salad that was one of Ryan's favorites. 

In a repeat of our honeymoon, I got a plate full of things with eyes and legs, and Ryan had to make it look like "food" before I'd eat it. In a measure of progress, I did actually eat it this time (last time he was sweet enough to simply switch dishes with me). 

Eating Venetian Toast at the Caffe Florian coffee house in Venice. 

Sharing crepes near a canal in Venice. Ryan's favorite was apricot filling; I preferred lemon and sugar. 

Our last night in Venice, Ryan and I stopped at a small restaurant near the fish market district and ordered the mixed seafood grill for two: lobster, salmon, sea bass and a third type of fish we couldn’t quite decipher from our waiter’s English but might have been mahi-mahi. 

Mixed-seafood grill for two. It came out with fish and lobster intact; the waiter took about 10 minutes to de-head, de-scale and de-bone the two fish for us. I don't think he trusted us to do it ourselves.   

We topped that off with Sicilian cannoli that was even better than the cannoli we had seven years ago in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The shell was dipped in chocolate and the filling was topped with candied orange. 

I avoided the tripe (cow intestines) even though Kate said it’s a specialty in Florence. One item you don’t see on the menu a lot is chicken.  Every so often a roasted chicken dish would appear, but it seems that seafood serves the role of poultry over here.

Kate during one of our gelato stops in Rome.
Gelato (Italian ice cream) is the other delicacy we tasted quite often. Between us, Ryan and I had banana, coconut, pink grapefruit, salted caramel, tiramisu, yogurt and berries, lemon, blueberry, and vanilla. At one point, Ryan tried to order a double scoop of blueberry and coffee. The shopgirl diligently scooped up the blueberry without passing judgment. Being a wife of nearly 10 years, I couldn’t keep myself from criticizing the awkwardness of Ryan's choice.
(Ryan’s note: It’s not like they were swirled. I think it would have been fine.)
Once I had piped up, Ryan switched his second flavor to coconut  (because like any husband of nearly 10 years, he knows it's just easier to agree with me sometimes). The shopgirl commented on that being a much better combination -- vindication! And it was worth it – both of us considered coconut to be our favorite of the flavors we tried.

This post is rated 'R'

I didn’t expect to blush inside a pharmacy. But when I turned around in the pharmacia on the first day we were in Italy, my eye caught a small ad with a lot of skin. I don’t know what the ad was selling – maybe body lotion? But it showed a naked woman in profile.  And she didn’t even have any strategically placed arms or hands. Just nude.

I mentioned it later to Elizabeth, and I don’t think she believed me. Then we saw a different ad with an equally clothes-less woman lying down.  I suggested Elizabeth take the picture of it because I figured it might be kinda pervy if I did. 

Imagine this nearly life-size: That's how we saw it while walking down the street.

I suppose Italians are used to all this nakedness. After all, some of their most priceless and famous pieces of art feature the human body with barely a stitch of clothing: Michelangelo’s “David,” the Venus, generally any statue of a woman from the Renaissance -- at least from the waist up—and roughly half of the statues of Zeus.  Italians now even make calendars celebrating some of that historic “junk.”

A calendar for sale on the streets of Florence.

So why shouldn’t the same approach work for advertisements for soap or body lotion or razors or whatever these ads are selling?

Or clothes.
A shop display in the Venice train station. 

Or sunglasses.
An advertisement in the Trieste train station.

That kind of approach won’t fly in the United States. Kraft took flak for its similar ad for Zesty Italian dressing in 2013.

Elizabeth noticed some other differences between Italian culture and the more prudish, Puritan-influenced United States:  Condom and prophylactic vending machines on the streets, for instance.

There were two of these machines down a mile stretch in Mestre. This is probably because there is very little to do in Mestre. 
It’s just hard to imagine any of this in America. Even that infamous wardrobe malfunction in the Super Bowl left more covered than this “i.”

After I had written all of this, and we thought it would be impossible to be surprised by any more ads, Elizabeth stopped to check our tickets at the airport in Rome in front of this ad. We just had to add it, too.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A smoky haze

We were delighted to find a restaurant on Tuesday night that didn't allow smoking, even though it was completely by accident. I think we have mentioned in the past that we are so grateful for the smoking bans in Lexington and Louisville that we are always a little surprised when we travel.

A pair of smokers outside our restaurant on Wednesday night in Venice.

As soon as the train stops, people jump off and light up. 

We are constantly trailing behind puffs of smoke or walking into clouds of it. Both of us have had trouble breathing at different times during the trip, and Ryan is battling a self-diagnosed case of bronchitis that he thinks might have been triggered by the inflammation.

I don't know if smoking is just that prevalent in Italy, or if the tourists are bringing the cigarettes with them. In Italy, cigarette machines are still located in public areas, and tobacco shops (tabacchi) seem to be located down every corner in Venice. Many of these shops feature toys in their windows, particularly cars, a practice that I'm sure would be outlawed in the United States at this point. And during the second set of the Pearl Jam concert in Trieste, scantily clad cigarette girls were sent out into the stands to sell packs.
Checking out the toys in the shop window.

A fancy tabacchi sign.

After discussing this at dinner tonight, we returned to the hotel to see a USA Today article about the CDC's new anti-smoking ads. I'm glad they're working. It would be nice if the rest of the world followed suit.

The Pearl Jam experience, part 3: "Just Breathe" (aka My contact high)

It's been almost a decade since I've been to an outdoor concert, and I'm pretty sure I didn't know what marijuana smelled like at that point. (No, I can't believe I didn't either, especially after spending four years at Ohio University. Yes, I think I probably studied too much in college.)

The crowd. No picture could capture its craziness. 

The concert was an eye-opener, if only because of how lax the security procedures are over here. Here's what you might expect at your international concert experience.
  • Pre-gaming starts early in Italy. There were empty beer bottles piled everywhere, and even more bottles, cups and even six packs being carried around the neighborhood surrounding Stadio Nereo Rocco. Industrious individuals seemed to be selling them out of plastic tubs (no liquor license required apparently).
  • Bring your own drinks. We bought bottles of water outside while we were waiting, and we expected security to ask us to dump them or at the least remove the bottle caps. Then we saw the people in the lane next to us carrying in open bottles of beer with no questions asked. We stopped worrying.
  • Bring tissues and hand sanitizing gel.  In all likelihood, you'll face bathrooms without toilet paper, hand soap or paper towels.
  • Practice those squats. And by the way, ladies, those toilets likely will be a hole in the floor that requires squatting and minor acrobatics. I truly had hoped to never see one of those again after our trip to China. 
  • Beer salesmen aren't as "professional." Maybe it was just our section's guy, but he was sampling the wares during the concert. Later he ended up climbing the fence separating our section from the field to get a better view. Not that he was able to stay up there long. Probably all of the beer he'd been drinking. 
  • Marijuana is a sure thing. The foursome directly in front of us had at least three joints apiece, so Ryan, Kate and I are pretty sure we left the concert with a contact high. And those four certainly weren't alone; several others in our section were lighting up as well. 
  • Vomit patrol. With all the craziness listed above, is it any wonder you need to watch where you step on the way out?

Taking a beer break ... from selling beer. 

This was No. 1 of his three joints.

The Pearl Jam experience, part 2: Ten ... key points from the concert

Posters outside the stadium.

While I grew up with Pearl Jam's music, I have become more a fan as I've gotten older. And I must say, it was worth the wait to see them live for the first time in a place like Trieste -- a city nestled on the far side of the Adriatic Sea that is so remote some Italians have asked us "Why?" when we've told them it was on the itinerary.

But somehow Pearl Jam found it. And they put on a tremendous show.

1. They played for nearly three hours through a set list of 30 songs.

2. Eddie Vedder is quite the showman. He read Italian at one point to the crowd, opening his monologue with a joke about drinking too much beer after the prior show in Milan. He kicked off the beginning of "Once" on stage alone with just a guitar. He told a story about his 5-year-old daughter being impressed with the tiny toilet in her hotel room. And gave a hell of a show.

3. The Italian/Slovenian/Croatian/other European crowd was really into it. Most of the people around us knew most of the words to most of the songs. That's even more impressive considering none spoke English as their primary language. (A special shout out to the shirtless dudes in the inner circle who didn't stop head-banging, jumping and running around ... for three straight hours).

4. They played most of Ten. In addition to "Once," they broke out "Black" early on (a personal favorite) as well as "Deep," which Vedder introduced by telling the crowd they were going deep into their first album. "Even Flow," "Why Go" and "Porch" followed, and they saved "Jeremy" and "Alive" toward the end.

5. Mike McCready's behind-the-head guitar solo. Yes, he did the entire guitar solo in "Even Flow" with the guitar behind his head. Unbelievable.

6. They played lots of the new stuff. Their 10th album, Lighting Bolt, was well represented with seven songs on the set list by my count. Even the previous album, Backspacer, got decent play. I was especially pleased they chose "Unthought Known."

7. They ended the first half with a kick-ass version of "Rearviewmirror." It's always been among my favorites.

8. They played "Corduroy."

Ryan and Kate reacting to the opening notes of a song.

9. The Mother Love Bone tribute. The second song after the brief intermission, Boom Gaspar began playing those haunting first notes to "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns." I know Pearl Jam has been playing this double-shot tribute to its roots more often since their 10th anniversary in 2000 and especially after their 20th tour. But it was still a treat to hear it live. And the in-house cameras even focused on a fan in the front row wearing a Mother Love Bone T-shirt -- as a tribute to the band that ultimately became Pearl Jam. It's different hearing Vedder's tones replace the late Andy Wood's early grunge/late '80s metal sound.

The crowd during the finale.
10. They capped off the encore -- and the night -- with Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" after fans in front of the stage unfurled a "Keep on Rockin in the Free World" banner that stretched more than half the width of the stadium. I don't know if that banner comes out at other Pearl Jam concerts, but I'd like to imagine that some of the people who helped hold up the banner were from some of the nearby Eastern European countries that were only joining the free world around the time that Pearl Jam was born.

P.S. from Elizabeth: We weren't at the show where Vedder covered "Let It Go" from Frozen - that was Milan.