It was while boarding the train to Florence (“Firenze” in Italian. You’re allowed to slap Americans who pronounce it this way) that I realized something pretty exciting, we would be traveling on Trenitalia’s FrecciaRossa 1000, (Red Arrow 1000), the fastest train in Italy – averaging approximately 175mph. Once again, the many signs touting free WiFi were lies but we hauled absolute ass through some majorly beautiful landscape. Including 1,000-year-old castles dangling off cliffs.
People talk trash about the Italian schedule and use of clocks, including me, but the train arrived on time.
Trust me, if you like the sweaty masses of Rome, you’re going to love the hordier hordes of Florence, the capital of Tuscany and most populated city in the region. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, “the Duomo,” is truly stunning. Standing at the base of this beauty, it’s hard to imagine its construction – or that there are any people still left in Japan. Every Japanese person on the planet is crowded around this magnificent Gothic structure. In an attempt to prove this, I’d checked live streams from Tokyo but the combination of AT&T, iPhone, Italian wireless company, and me was hopeless. I should state, for my more sensitive readers that I love Japanese people, this was merely an observation.
Firenze is a city settling into its touristy-ness. It’s as if someone saw Inferno and Hannibal and said, “You know what? We should really be marketing this place. Start building stationary stores and ‘authentic’ knock-off replica statue shops.” Then again, there are worse things than beautiful (extremely overpriced) stationary or take-home replicas of the unbelievably homoerotic statue of Hercules and Cacus. Florence does have incredible pasta shops, toiletry stores, some quality local stuff. But getting to them, you’ll have to navigate some garbage and street hustlers the likes of which have not been seen since your last trip to a Mexican beach.
[I knew Hannibal was filmed in Florence but threw Inferno in because it looked like a movie someone may have heard of.]
You want tacky? Florence has kitsch on a Florida level. What they also have is a rich history of divine artistry and architecture still alive and breathing, well, perhaps choking under the weight of selfie sticks and honeymoon wishes – but alive nonetheless.
A lovely, tall, older gentlemen dressed in a bright dashiki approached me with a smile, his arms out as if he were expecting an embrace. He was playing the part of a man who’d been on the road too long and had just been informed his son was born that very morning. He wanted me to have a bracelet depicting an elephant and a gold chain from around his very own neck! “This is good luck for a father to give things away on the day a child is born,” he explained. He dropped the bracelet into my hand and as soon as I felt the plastic my brain yelled, “DAMN IT! Don’t touch the crap!” The international rules of street hustling clearly state, “If you touch the goods, the owner expects payment.”
He started to put the necklace over my head and said, “Maybe you could give me 5€ as a gesture of good luck on my baby’s birthday. I leave for Nigeria tomorrow.” I was already pissed at myself and projected some pissed-off-ed-ness onto the “proud father.” He got angry too, mostly because I’d seen through his act. He took off without his bracelet. I chased him trying to give it back, keeping it is bad luck. Great, some jackass Nigerian just Brady-Bunch-Tiki-Statued me in Italy.
[The International Street Hustlers meet once a year in an undisclosed location, obviously – usually around the time of the Davos Forum. Attendees include Rome’s train station elite, guys from Jackson Square in New Orleans, the “furries” from Times Square, the superhero idiots from Mann’s Chinese Theater and… Jared Kushner.]
It’s a constant mental struggle with me, walking around either awestruck, like Mary Tyler Moore before she throws her hat in the air (see: the beginning of any Anne Hathaway movie), or mean-mugging people with a “f-ck off” on my forehead. Who wants to walk around angry all the time? Or even angry-looking? Then again, these pricks prey on people who look happy and approachable. The yin and yang of society can be overwhelming if you’re a sap like me.
I don’t know many copyright attorneys but, it’s difficult to wander around foreign countries and not wonder if the celebrity in the advertisement knows they’re in the advertisement. Without a doubt, Selena Gomez is the most (wildly) popular human being in Europe. She’s on signage, carts selling Magnum bars, and no fewer than five stores that sell phone accessories in France, Spain and Italy. Something to ponder, I guess. Does Bette Midler know she’s shilling eye cream in Athens? I may never know.
Six, four-foot-tall, really loud girls from Long Island were fighting with an ATM near a store that only took cash for smokes, therefore I was in line for said ATM. I stood and watched for a bit, then asked what was going on. The leader explained that “So and So took out 600€. Then Marie took out 300€ and I took out 400€ and it charged a different fee every time!” I tried to explain the concept of percentages to my apathetic audience – to no avail. Off they went into the ancient, narrow, packed streets of Florence after drawing an insane amount of attention to themselves pulling out large sums of cash. I’m sure they were fine.
Have you noticed that certain places in the world claim a fictional character and that character is theirs for life? In Minnesota, it’s Paul Bunyan, Southern California has Caitlyn Jenner and here in Tuscany, it’s Pinocchio. Makes sense, that’s where Geppetto’s from. Pinocchio isn’t the only icon plastered or sold in doll form everywhere you look, though it seems like it at times. They give equal exploit to Masters da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael… you know… those guys.
From Rome, I booked a lovely room in a Firenze home operated by Red & Rosella. Mostly because their profile, written by Red, says, “I speak English and most of the time you can find me out back, smoking and drinking wine.” Done. He had me at “English” but the other two sounded just fine by me. When I arrived, they were kind, welcoming and gracious with every word and action. The room itself was straight out of an Italian film; beautiful antique bed, gorgeous old furnishings, a small balcony with a white curtain billowing in the wind.
[If you find it annoying when people say or write the ‘native’ way to say a city’s name, I completely understand. I do it, once again, simply to make me sound smarter and more worldly than I actually am.]
After exploring the neighborhood near Liberty Square about a mile north of the city center, I returned to the B&B where Rosella and Red joined me for a night cap in their beautiful courtyard. It was there and then that Red introduced me to a lovely notion. The Italians call it “Dolce far Niente,” or, “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing,” something I’d been dabbling in for years. It’s not much different from meditation but without the stress of having to meditate. You simply and thoroughly enjoy the moment, the wine, the company, the air you’re breathing, the song you’re hearing.
It would be the beginnings of a philosophy I’d build upon over the coming months with the support of like-minded people in other countries.
A few years back, there was a Netflix documentary about a cult/commune in Oregon. They, like all before them, promised a worry-free environment full of love without capitalism. And like all before them, a handful of people were profiting. The documentary, produced by the Duplass brothers, tells the tale of the Rajneeshpuram – the Wasco County commune founded by the Rajneesh. It gets weird and I won’t spoil it for you. Rosella, my hostess, was there.
During certain times of year, Rosella would leave the commune to work in canneries in Alaska. The money, she said, went to the Osho, the Rajneesh, Father of Dragons, First of His Name, the Indian Spiritual Guru himself – to keep the commune running smoothly. I got the sense there were a few drugs at work and play on the Osho’s Oregon campus. There’s also the genuine sense that anyone calling themselves a spiritual leader is full of shit and you need to seek therapy instead of joining a cult. Though one could argue that some therapists are a cult of their own.
It was on one of her working visits to Alaska she met Red, an actual ice road trucker. This was in the early ‘80s, way before that inane reality TV show. Don’t bring that up with Red, it gets under his collar a little. Red was the real deal. He tells the story of taking a full load of supplies to a remote town over a dangerous pass, this time his Mother had flown in to hang out and ride with him. Red grew up in Colorado then did the whole crab fishing then trucking thing. Mom had come up to see how the trucking thing was going.
As the story goes, they were haulin’ ass a little too quickly down a decline on the backside of a mountain in the dead of night, the load caught a patch of ice and the rear end tried to come up and meet the cabin on the driver’s side, damn near jackknifing. Red saw the sharp left turn coming and, with the trailer shifted 90-degrees to their left, corrected it just in time. Now they’re somehow making the sharp left and the load shifts to the passenger’s side and starts chasing them that way. A sheer mountain wall to their left, 1,500-feet down to the right. Red controls the speed, the descent, and straightens the load.
His Mom didn’t make a peep or tense up once. Red looked over at her, expecting her to have messed herself and asked, “You okay?” Mom just smiled and said, “You didn’t look nervous so I didn’t figured there was any reason for me to be.” With the 1,000th telling of this, Red draws from his pipe and laughs, even slapping a bare knee below the shorts. His Viking-like red mane tied in the back with a band. He seems to miss the adventure.
Red met Rosella at a bar in Anchorage and they fell in love. She didn’t go back to Oregon and they had a child, soon after they moved to be near her family in Florence. And here they were, kids grown, running an AirBnB for folks like me, who are looking to meet folks like them.
Surrounding their house and throughout the neighborhood are large water bottles tied to old shoe scrapes and grates near doorways. At first, I saw the wire tied around the top of a bottle just kind of laying there where the sidewalk joins the home’s façade, and thought they were booby traps. You get thirsty, grab the bottle and you blow up. What in the hell are these people up to? I asked Red and he told me it messes with dog’s eyes and they avoid them. In other words, they don’t piss on that wall. Public urination is a huge problem in Florence, it seems – both with dogs and men. One corner even had a spray painted message reading, “no piscio su muri,” no piss on walls. How’s that for old world charm?
I’m not a big fan of toilet humor or even references but if you’re going to visit Florence, there are things you’d rather not be surprised by. So be aware of this type of the Tuscan bladder problem.
After an outstanding night’s sleep in an old Italian bed, breakfast sounded delightful. Red and Rosella took off early to drive to their daughter’s house, so I explored the neighborhood. Down the cobblestone streets, past a very nice park then a place that sells nothing but washing machines, I found the perfect spot.
About European washing machines, and we’re talking laundry not dish, (good luck finding one of those), they come solo – no dryer. Everyone air dries their laundry. You may find a unicorn somewhere that is a washer(slash)dryer but here’s the thing, European washers take approximately 4-hours to wash one load. And no, that’s not my trademark, homespun hyperbole, for once.
I would honestly hand wash my clothing if I lived in Europe. It doesn’t get more artisanal hipster than that.
Just past the place that sells 4-hour washing machines, which would be an outstanding and hilarious place for a Chinese laundry, was Bar Il Sorriso. Entering the old hippie beads in the doorway, you could easily mistake the year for not this one. Owned by a family, the very nice son runs it most of the time and they always have a smile on their faces as they pour your espresso from a beautiful machine.
It was here that I was introduced to Schiacciata bread, Tuscan flatbread made without salt. The locals lose their minds over the stuff and it’s sold by the gram. Mama doesn’t speak English and didn’t have time for my Italian so I ball-parked the size of cut I wanted in the air with my fingers. She smiled and I followed up with, “Stessa cosa,” pointing at the gentleman who’d just left. He’d opted for prosciutto between his schiacciata and that looked just fine by me. “Same thing.”
At il Sorriso you can get your prosciutto schiacciata with a Nutella espresso. Um, hell yes, per favore. Schiacciata is the Italian word for “squashed.” It’s a sweeter, spongier bread that can easily go with anything and would make just about anything a delicious sandwich. Your other choices are sweet, sticky pastries – everywhere in Italy, sweet, sticky pastries for breakfast. The pastries are uniformly the size of Bill Clinton’s head.
Nutella (“new-telluh”) holds a special place in my heart. I’d first had it “at University” in Manchester in 1998, likely a lot later in life than the more worldly of you. If there’s an opportunity to put Nutella on something, just about anything, I’ll take that opportunity, raise you and maybe even go all-in. There’s ample opportunity to put Nutella on just about everything in Italy, where it’s manufactured.
Now what? Hop on a bus and take it down toward the famous stuff and see what can be seen, that’s what.
It Was a Lot of People
Droves. I’d heard the term several times throughout life but hardly ever used it. It’s likely because it needed to be reserved for the area surrounding the Duomo in Florence, Italy. At 10:30 in the morning, the Duomo’s freshly pressure-washed piazza was still wet around the edges. The vast slippery marble patio was now filled with Hello Kitty accessories and selfie sticks. Hundreds of people gathering to get in lines to take photos of themselves atop the dome or within the basilica.
Seven-hundred-fifty years of design, redesign, construction, wood, concrete, death and marble still standing against all odds. Who could blame them for wanting to take a gander, for wanting to spend an afternoon in something so sacred and old? One-hundred feet away was the Cappella dei Principi, the Chapel of Princes, within a Medici cathedral and museum, no line, no Hello Kitty, no selfie sticks. That was the place to be.
Knowing absolutely nothing about the Medici family, thanks to a non-traditional, non-classical education, I entered for the lesson. Very few others were within and the self-guided tour stopped at graves and sarcophagi of Medici royals adorned with marble mosaics, frescoes and sculptures. A hallway led to another set of small rooms, each holding glass cases featuring Papal vestments, regalia and ornate insignia pieces. Gold and silver shimmered from centuries-old ciborium (elaborate containers used to hold the Eucharist), medallions and crucifixes. It was hard not to feel years of Catholicism sneak up from tucked away places in my brain.
Up another slight flight of stairs was the final resting place for what must have been four very important Medicis. One of which must have led a pretty magnificent life as his sarcophagus was decorated by Mr. Michelangelo. No lines, no selfie sticks, just one person (me) standing three-feet from an original Michelangelo sculpture. Which I must have done for a solid 15-minutes. He’d also been commissioned to create some of the other features in the crypt room but this, the Madonna and Child atop the Medici Princes sarcophagus stole the show.
The rotunda under the San Lorenzo (Medici Chapel) dome was under construction. Heavy pieces of 500-year-old marble was falling onto people. I made my way around the room swiftly. Though this was difficult, the frescoes alone could keep one in peril for hours. The vaulting walls, all over-decorated in earth-tone marble, were trimmed in gold. The floors were slick and each meter bore a different, intricate design of its own. The Medicis were extremely wealthy by any standard, they were responsible for the seating of no less than two Popes, hell, they could afford to hire Michelangelo whenever they wanted. It’s a very impressive structure and well worth the €8.
With a little culture under my belt, it was time for a beer. It was 29.44°C outside but it sure felt like 30°C and my only requirement right now was that the beer be cold.
Every larger European city has an English-speaking bar, usually an American or Australian chain put there just so a man named Rick can feel comfortable again after three whole days away from his homeland. Florence has the BrewDog. A striking bartender greats you with a “Hello, how ya goin’?” and you can’t help but feel like you’re back in Melbourne. I do have to admit they have a decent beer selection.
I ducked into BrewDog because it was the closest thing I could find while escaping the teeming crowds. They have cheeseburgers and wings which I’m sure someone finds solace in but in a city like Florence… c’mon. You should have stayed in St. Louis if you were going to order a burger in Italy. This is the concept that has always cracked me up about the Olive Garden in Times Square. You flew halfway across the country to eat out of the same Sysco warehouse that supplied the Olive Garden near your favorite mall. Why?
[Sysco is run by the same guys who run Discover Card, Monsanto and Lockheed Martin and we’ll never know who they are. Sysco provides most of the prisons, detention centers and restaurants in the U.S. with GMOs and bootlegged ketchup.]
Health and Wellness
Wide-spread across all of Europe these days are young men and women working service industry jobs. That’s nothing new anywhere. The variation here is they’ve learned how to say, “Have a nice day!” in the most sarcastic tone you’ve ever heard, then basically laugh in your face at how ridiculous it is to say to someone. “You dumbass Americans, telling one another to have a nice day as if that’s somehow helpful,” they seem to say with a huge fake smile. After a while, you feel like you’re in on the joke instead of the butt of it. “Have a nice day!” they’d say, “You too, Buddy!” I’d yell back with a huge fake grin, giving them a fake six gun from the hip with a click of the cheek.
Koozies aren’t a thing in Europe. Every time one emerged from my back pocket and a beer was carefully escorted into its safe, insulating harbor, I’d get a bewildered look. Yes, I carry a koozie wherever I go ’cause I’m classy. Some people in Italy were so taken by my koozie, they asked to hold it, checking it out like Kubrick’s ape checks out bones.
[In 2001: A Space Odyssey, an ape finds bones/remains and starts to put two-and-two together. The scene is an illustration of Nietzsche’s reference to man being the bridge between ape and Übermensch. See also, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller going ape on the computer in Zoolander. Same-same.]
Should you happen to be a member of the ancient and forgotten tribe of cigarette smokers, you’ll want to know how they’re sold in Italy. The stores that sell cigarettes will not be open when you need them to be. Ever. But each neighborhood usually has a machine. Each Italian cigarette dispenser is reminiscent of a Las Vegas poker machine, complete with sounds and lights and videos and warnings. You choose the digital representation of the brand you want, insert money and, voila, a pack descends through the bowels of this contraption. One caveat, you need a National Health Card in order to use these machines.
Luckily, Silvio at the local cafe was generous with his health card and let me wander off to use it autonomously. This particular local cafe was Santanera on Piazza delle Cure and every day around 4 or 5pm, Roberto, an older gentleman, starts making Cicchetti – small snacks, tapas – if you will. Beautiful breads, cheeses, cured meats and cut vegetables, yours for the taking. Then he gets to work on his handmade pasta for the dinner crowd, you can smell the gravy (sauce) up the street before they even open the doors in the morning.
Santenera’s in a neighborhood, far away from the nonsense. You can actually relax on their deck, in the sun – sipping on coffee or Campari on ice, help yourself to Cicchetti, read a newspaper, smoke with the locals, whatever you’d like. There’s nothing much to look at but it’s a great little piazza with small shops nearby in case you want to take home wine, cheese or lottery tickets. The Italians are crazy about the lottery tickets.
When Italy was at the precipice of culture, forging cutting-edge art, leaping and bounding in the civil engineering realm, buildings were constructed to last. Hell, you can take tours of 2,000-year-old buildings. Things took a sharp turn after the fall of the Roman Empire. Sometimes their 20th-Century-built bridges just fall down. It happened in Genoa while I was in Florence. The next day, the front page of the paper listed the other bridges designed by the same architect and built by the same construction company. You could never get away with that in the U.S.
Though they’re construction industry has taken a turn for the worse, they still have their passions and areas of mastery.
We’ve covered coffee culture but not nearly enough to please your average Italian. So I’m bringing it up again. I’d learned to walk into a cafe and, within three seconds, shout my order whether or not anyone made eye contact – or was even turned toward the counter. Thirty-seconds later, I had a macchiato. After taking a seat at a small table and opening my journal, I noticed that I was an oddity to the rest of the room. I was by myself and sipping on coffee that should have been finished by the time I took two steps.
The absolutely stunning barista looked at me several times, finally coming over to ask if everything was alright, in the most beautiful display of Italian dialect I’d yet encountered. This time, I’d checked all the mental boxes: was the place full and busy, no; was there a charge for a table inside, no; had I ordered cappuccino after 10 A.M., no; was my Italian getting any better, no; was I wearing pants, yes. So everything seemed to be in place. Adding to my on-the-fly education, I then learned that coffee is taken at the bar.
No matter where you are in Italy (take that with a grain of salt), there’s a place in the cafe to stand. If you’ve only ordered an espresso or the like, you stand in the standing place and drink all 2-ounces of your coffee then leave. But since I’m obviously American, Southern at that, I tend to get a longer rein than most in some of these countries. They let me sit and sip coffee and write for a bit, though they found it very strange. It still strikes me as bizarre that they thought it was weird, as if no one in the history of Firenze sat in a cafe and sipped on coffee and journaled. That seems highly unlikely.
There are still a billion things in the world you can’t Google, intuition is one of them. Italians just know how to behave around one another in coffee shops, you’d have to live there a while to get really good at it. I kicked it wide right every time but hope to be able to hang with the cool kids one day.
Many Italian men pop their collars, sometimes multiple collars in one sitting. When an entire culture predominantly dresses like the douchebags in your country, you have a debate in your head. Were ’80s nerds actually trendsetters? Is this really how cool people dress? Turns out, the answer is subjective, unless you have taste, then the answer is simple: every country has preppy douchebags.
I asked about the collar popping and was told it’s probably guys on vacation. That’s kind of neat, and beats fanny packs on top of black socks and sandals. I realize this isn’t very important but, when you travel to Italy you will think to yourself, ‘man, there are a LOT of popped collar dudes here.’
It’s also easy to be shocked by the amount of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites, New Jerseyons? New Jersathons? They’re everywhere in Italy. It’s the same in Dublin, inundated with groups of people from Missouri who’d saved up for 20 years to take a trip to the homeland. People from Long Island arrive in Rome, Florence and Venice in droves (droves!). Kind of the exact opposite of what was going on in the late 1800s. They come from the new world with a lot of money to see the birthplace of the poor ancestors who ate dirt and sold farts to sustain life.
If you had the opportunity to read the Rome chapter of this missive, (am I using that right?), you’ll recall that more Yankees hats can be seen in Italy than anywhere else on the planet combined. That’s not a joke or overstatement. It doesn’t matter where you are on the boot, you can spot the family of five from Rockaway or Montclair – more accurately, you’ll hear them.
So, please be quiet when you get to Italy, talk amongst yourselves, go see the old village, take the right photos and enjoy your trip. Italy’s got their fair share of assholes and doesn’t need your Croc-wearing, teeth-whitening ass to shout above the rest.
Hate to sound so aggressive but if there’s one thing you’ll be sick of after visiting Italy, it’s people like you but with far fewer manners.
Modern Italian Millennials do have several things in common with their American cousins. 1. Axe Body Spray is applied liberally, that is to say, one entire can at a time. 2. The men don’t celebrate “Leg Days” at the gym. And 3. sonsabitchin’ Yankees hats, everywhere.
Whenever possible, I try to tell people about places to avoid or places that are can’t miss – usually those places revolve around the size of the crowd. Avoid the Duomo, in fact, avoid the three blocks surrounding the Duomo. “Blocks” are relative in Florence, just try your best to get up very, very early and get a glimpse at the place, take your photos and leave. Because at 9am, the Duomo and surrounding, meandering, ankle-breaking stone streets will be packed to the gills with people who left their manners at home.
You owe it to yourself to get up before sunrise and walk the main streets near the Ponte Vecchio, the 13th Century strip mall built atop a bridge. Take that bridge to the south side of the river and make the hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo, a gorgeous stone park overlooking the entire region. They sell espresso, pastries and beer up there. They also have the old school metal viewfinders.
It’s a great way to experience Florence while swimming through Japanese Instagram boyfriends who make films of their girls prancing and posing. It’s quite the experience, as these folks don’t much care that you’re also on vacation, they’ll photobomb your family in a heartbeat.
Fun fact, there’s a long, narrow walkway, just north of the river on the way to Ponte Vecchio, with several arches and it’s a favorite spot for honeymooners to take pictures – symbolic, I guess of the many thresholds they’ll pass through in marriage. Each couple wants a clean picture, vacant of other couples in the background – which is truly impossible after 7 A.M. Each bride gets incredibly upset when someone enters the frame behind them. I nearly bought popcorn and a lawn chair to watch. Try as I might, I still enjoy a touch of the ol’ Schadenfreude.
The last night at Red and Rosella’s was Friday the 17th, the Italian version of bad luck (13th), still not sure why. You can look it up if it’s going to bother you, which it shouldn’t other than I referenced it and didn’t tell you what it was. (I’ll wait here…)
Rosella had invited her doctor friends over to have dinner with the American, something they were evidently keen on. She texted several times to make sure it was okay with me. Why would I not want to have dinner with an Italian couple who are also both doctors? I had so many questions.
The most beautiful thing I’d seen in a very long while on a long trip across Europe was Red’s grill-smoker. It jumped out at me the moment I first stepped out his back door into the courtyard. I may have even teared up. We talked a lot about smoking meat and grilling various items, discussions I tend to have a lot with friends back home. Red made note of this and would be grilling steaks on bad luck night.
The wine ran neck-and-neck with whiskey that nice as perfect cuts of beef were devoured over the course of an average three-hour Italian meal, in the courtyard by candlelight. The conversation ran through my translator, Red, who was gracious and humorous about it. He took every opportunity to crack a joke on behalf of both parties, intended or not. It was warm out but the ladies needed thin sweaters, the stars were visible through the twigs and leaves, and the smell from the cooling grill mixed with the neighbor’s fresh-cut grass reminded me of an old friend.
It’s safe to say, I love this region and will return.
However, like most places, it’s changing rapidly and transforming into the Investor’s Special, complete with ground-level retail condos, McDonald’s and – yes… Starbucks. Get over there when you can, after the what-have-you. Progress is coming and we all know what that looks like. It looks like every other city. One day, in order to visit somewhere truly unique, we’ll be traveling to Damascus. Until then, soak up the Florences of the world while you can.