Leaving Tuscany was hard

- but then I am sure you have heard that before, I know I have. It is actually as easily beautiful as you would wish it to be. Castles on top of every other lush green mountain, valleys carpeted with vineyards, everyone has a charming disposition. The sunlight kisses the ground in every conceivable position and always makes you think of sex.

If you come straight to Tuscany like we did, you get the idea that all of Italy is like this and that there is no reason to live anywhere else in the world. So, leaving Tuscany we were in for a rude awakening. We stopped for gas and still it was incredibly clean and charming.

There was a lovely coffee bar making expressos and the like in the rest stop, and the bathroom was spotless. So the state of grace seemed to continue, but reality was approaching.

Me driving BB the Lancia through Tuscany ~ Me driving BB the Lancia through Tuscany

We discussed art and Picasso specifically and whether or not an artist has to provide the meaning for his work as we drove up the coast, out of the rain into more sunlight, and had time to pass into Pisa for a photo op. Pisa was as unwelcoming as I had heard, its a one stop photo op and get outta town.

me in Pisa ~ Me in Pisa

We happened to drive through Lucca, which proved what I have been saying all along, you can't "just go there". You have to know what you are looking for. We drove through Lucca and noticed nothing remarkable, save for a "Relais and Chateaux" hotel. Turns out there is a walled city there, but since we didn't know to look for it, we missed it. We had no trouble at all finding my hotel at Monticatini, but it was strange from the moment we stopped the car. The man behind the desk ran out to help the bell boy get the bag, and a disheveled man in street clothes occasionally inserted himself into the check-in procedure. My idea was to repeat our living situation in Pitigliano, with Netta staying with her relations, and me staying in a hotel. Florence is usually unbelievably sold out as a city, months in advance, so Monticatini was an alternative suggested by the concierge in Saturnia. I could take a train into Florence to meet up with Netta and check out the Uffizi museum. Monticatini is also known for it hot springs, and mineral waters that cure a variety of ailments. At one point I asked if I could subtract my commission as a travel agent from the hotel rate. At this point the disheveled man roared at me that if I wanted I commission he would charge me 3 times the rate and scribbled down a figure and thrust it at me. At this moment I realized he was actually the boss of the operation and I got my first strong feeling to leave Monticatini. This feeling never left me. We checked out the room, which was interesting, a nice layout, hot pink bedcovers and an adorable romantic balcony. Why was I thinking that something was moving under those pink bedcovers? We grabbed Netta's suitcase (don't get me started about Netta's suitcase) and headed for the train station. The idea was to take her to her great aunt Itala's and at the same time get used to the trains, make a meeting point, and have some fun. Once I got to her great aunt's, I'd have to take a taxi back to Montecatini. More about taxis in Florence later. As I was leaving the room with all my belongings, computer and camera inside, I locked the windows, and checked the door, but couldn't shake the feeling that the thieves I should be worried about were the one already inside the hotel. The taxi driver they called was shady, even though he was hailed by the doorman and when we got to the train station, he got out and asked for his fare, but left the meter running. I saw it go from 10,000 to 10,500 in 100 lire increments. Netta was paying for this taxi and couldn't keep up with the change counting lire as fast as the meter was running - neither could I. Finally he shut off the meter. The man selling train tickets was decent enough - but as we waited for the train my mind was back at the hotel, wondering whether they were rummaging through my belongings, wishing I hadn't told them I was taking Netta into Florence. They knew they had plenty of time. Why wouldn't anyone tell me how much a taxi would cost to get back from Florence to Monticatini? I exchanged my francs to lira at the hotel, knowing this was a good way to get taken advantage of with "hotel exchange rates" and absurd commissions, but I paid $34 in commissions on $188. We had been warned about the rackets and thieves in Italy, and it was my fault for not exchanging the money earlier. I tried to reconcile myself to the loss. Netta went in to the station to call her great aunt, Itala and tell her we were coming. Naturally, the prepaid telephone card she had bought in Israel didn't work. I tried to tell her this in Israel, but she was told it would work so she had to find out the hard way. Like the suitcase. I was sitting with her suitcase. But let's not get into the suitcase now. Where was this train taking us? How far was her great aunt's? How would I get back to Monticatini? The taxi would probably cost $100, without a quoted rate they could take the whole $188 and me alone in a taxi in the middle of the night to return to this hairy hotel. Something is not right. Its 815pm the train comes at 829pm. It will be 10pm at the earliest when we get to Itala's, and by the time I return to the hairy hotel it will be at least midnight. The Uffizi opens at 8am an everyone has warned us there is going to be a long long line to get into the Uffizi.

How can I get back to the Uffizi early especially if I return to find my stuff stolen and I am up all night with the police filing reports? What if they steal my digital camera with the shots of freakin Pisa? The camera I can replace but I am not going back to Pisa. What about Itala? She has no idea where we are, although she is not expecting us until 9 or 10. What about Netta? How will she get to the Uffizi tomorrow? How can we sort all this out in the middle of the night? It's 825pm. Netta returns now knowing her phone card wont work. I tell her of my concerns. What do we do? I believe strongly at this point that one thing is certain, we should not separate. We have minutes to decide, and the railroad crossing gate starts to chime. The train is coming.

No pressure eh? We efficiently considered our options and grabbed the suitcase, and headed for a taxi back to the hotel. Can you imagine you can't get a taxi at the train station? This sort of thing has only happened to me in Prague at the airport in 1990. A very nice black man offered to call the taxi for us on his card- a rare moment of generosity since we left Tuscany, as a taxi pulled up. Happily, he was honest. The clerk at the hotel was decent about me checking out and ripped up my bill. Now we were back in the car, safe and sound with no clue how to get to Itala's. The Thelma and Louise of Italy. A full tank of gas, bottles of water (which can't be opened without a wrench) , some Italian cookies, old French bread and chocolate. The map light on Netta's side had already burnt out. We got into Florence without a hitch and happened upon a road to the south of the city across the river Arno that gave a spectacular view of the city. We drove around in circles for a long time because although we could find the street that Itala lives on on the map, and occasionally find the name of the road we were on while we were on it, and even less occasionally find the road that we were on on the map, the map would then lie like a madman about how the roads came together. So each time we thought we were close, we found ourselves lost in maddening traffic full of mopeds, motorcycles, circular traffic patterns and insane drivers. After 2 hours of this Netta lost the will to try. At one point, the strangest thing happened, the kind of inexplicable hardly memorable and totally strange thing I have been dying to repeat. We followed a road until it came to a very narrow alley. So narrow you could not see what was on the other side. In front of the opening was a stop light which seemed to me stuck on red. As I started to back up, it turned green. Netta and I exchanged a blank look and went into the alley. A few seconds later it opened up into a large and wide drive that led back into Florence.

Finally I was absolutely sure I was within 2 blocks of Itala's house. I stopped at a flea bag hotel to ask directions. The nice sleazy girl behind the desk showed me on the map where I was, where I had to go and how to get there, completely circling the city. I took in the rhythm and movement of her pen on the map and decided to pay no attention whatsoever to the road signs, or the to the road names and just repeat that movement, but on the road.

Netta thought I was completely mad, and perhaps that is true, but I shut off her map light, closed the map and drove. I paid no attention to anything except the traffic and repeated "I am from New York, you can't fuck with me, I know how this game is played." Then I said, "This looks like it could be the street", looked for a nod from Netta, and turned. The next thing I heard was a gasp from Netta like she was going to faint and she grabbed my head and kissed me. Don't ask me how, but that was the street and we were home. My excellent parking karma paid off next and we found the absolute best and legal parking space nearest to Itala's home. I resolved not to move the car again until we left Florence. It was 1130pm. By 1am I was falling into Itala's lovely guest bed and figured the Uffizi museum could go straight to hell, but by this time Netta had gotten her second wind and wasn't going to let go of the dream. At 830am she dragged me out of bed, Itala made us a lovely breakfast and called us a taxi to drop us at the Uffizi. The Uffizi went pretty much as you would expect, it was 2 hours from when we were waiting in line until we found ourselves in front of Bottecelli's "Birth of Venus". It was definitely worth it.

Bottecelli's Birth of Venus >  There was not much else worth it in the museum,  that's my opinion, even Bottecelli's

I had no idea that PonteVecchio was a bridge that actually is a neighborhood, as the homes have been tacked onto the bridge itself, and further that these homes and shops are solely for the purpose of housing fabulous jewelry shops. I would love to have had an excuse to shop in one of these shops, but I actually have every piece of jewelry I want, except of course the stuff that only someone who loves you would buy. We were getting pretty hungry by now, and I was lucky enough to have been given a recommendation in Istanbul by David Campbell (THANK YOU, DAVID!) for a restaurant called "Angellino's "conveniently located near the PonteVecchio. We were also happy to leave the din of hawkers and tourists and wander down the alley to this lovely quiet restaurant. It had it all. The red checked table cloths, bottles of Chianti sitting in straw, it was warn and lovely. Taking the recommendation of friendly Americans we ordered the bread soup, ravioli in butter and sage and also ordered half a litre of Chianti and ravioli in mushroom and cream sauce. As usual when we got talking to the tourists, if we mentioned Pitigliano, they would rave about the town, its cookbook and the famous Servi family, and I would introduce Netta to show off my famous fellow journeyman. So here we sat eating every shred of the pasta and its sauces, (since I have not eaten pasta in 3 years I was in hog heaven) drinking every drop of wine, and discussing sex in great detail. Look, in case you didn't know, that combination is absolutely aphrodisiac. I am not talking about boxed spaghetti, bottled tomato sauce and wine from California. Anyway, everything was so good we had to order more, and so we did, more ravioli in mushroom cream sauce, covered in fresh parmesan cheese. Tiramisu like heaven, lovely cappuccino (decaf for me). We were also completely drunk off our asses. By the time we got to the Pitti Palace we were making obscene gestures with the statues in photographs. At one point I got Netta looking like she was kissing some naked statue's balls and this woman with the sweetest southern accent from Mississippi added "I can imagine how that one is going to come out!". We were rolling laughing as we were watching lovers groping each other - and we rated them for style.

Us in the Boboli Gardens ~ Us in the Boboli Gardens

Obscene gestures with statues ~ Obscene gestures with statues

Typical Florence guy ~ Typical Florence guy

It started raining, which is really no big deal especially since Netta loves rain. They don't get much rain in Israel so to her, its great. Its also not a big deal around here usually, just a shower, and naturally I bought a $3 umbrella for $15. Yeah well, an umbrella is worth more when it's raining, and I was carrying our precious copies of arts from the museums. Again, no taxi's and I am beginning to notice a theme. We have only to see David and then get back to Itala to celebrate Succoth. We end up walking to David, back over the Ponteveccio, past the Uffizi, now past the Duomo (very pretty) and back through the tangle of Florence's roads with the useless maps that lie. I am getting the picture that this is a town that knows that tourists will come even if they are nasty, so they opt to be nasty. Tourists have clued me in to the fact that taxis do not stop at taxi stands, can not be hailed and only come if you have called them- and even then its iffy. Buses are good but you have to have bought a ticket before you board them. At the Academie, we see David and he is magnificent,

Michelangelo's David and they explain how the Florentines relate to the story of David, how he stood up to Goliath and for a moment I am thinking how nice it is for a shining moment to see something Jewish after so very much heavy Christianity. Lots of bleeding Christs, nursing Mary's, and endless portraits of bishops etc.... Then I noticed, as one must, that David is not circumcised. This is really annoying. Michealangelo is no fool, the townspeople in Pitigliano have already stood up to defend their Jews, Christians have been thrown to the lions already, these artists have been studying the human body even dissecting cadavers... how can David have had no briss? Feh. Just as they have painted Christ and Adam and Eve as blonde haired- blue eyed white people so they give us the perfect David as an uncircumcised man. I am ready to see a synagogue. But such is not to be the case. Netta calls Itala to have her call a taxi, we wait half an hour only to discover later that the services she called wont come to the museum. I call 3 taxi services, each hangs up on me. We opt to walk it, having no other choice. I confuse Via Del Farina with Via Farini and we walk to the wrong end of town. Did I mention we both had to pee? We walk to the nearest coffee shop to attempt to call a taxi, but the nice man in the coffee shop points out that there is a taxi stand nearby. We go to the taxi stand, the coffee shop closes and we wait another half hour and no taxi comes. I teach Netta the words to "Where Have all the Flowers Gone" in Hebrew, and then in English. There is a phone, but it doesn't take money, only phone cards, and we actually watched someone else call a taxi and get picked up while we waited in vain. This situation is losing its humor because poor Itala is waiting for us at the synagogue and we can't call her so its a stalemate. Did I mention that we still had to pee? OK Netta says I have to tell you about our "good mood" and I have considered it and decided that even if it is in bad taste I am going to tell you about it because it is absolutely the central issue of traveling and since its rarely addressed I am going to "out" the issue right here and now.

When you go to a new place, you don't actually "arrive" until your bowels decide to let you. Each day, your mood depends on whether you had a "good mood" or not. You can handle just about anything, IF you had a "good mood" and if you haven't had a "good mood" nothing else matters, you are not going to enjoy yourself. In France we were not sure if Netta was ever going to "arrive", and in fact she has admitted she was considering going home if she didn't. We bought some prunes in the Marche de Provence, complete with directions from the vender on exactly how to get the "good mood" that Netta desired. She was deprived of the satisfaction of her "good mood" by getting food poisoning instead and spending her guts throwing up and- well- you know. She just wanted everyone to know that since she has been in Italy she has been having a VERY "good mood" and today she has been having the most especially "good mood"s. Since I have gone into this in such detail, I will spare you the story of my moods since I arrived from Istanbul. Consider yourself lucky. OK back to the story.

So again having no other choice, we decide to walk to the synagogue. Since I have already told you about the "good moods" I can tell you that ever since Angelino's we had been looking forward to a "good mood" and it didn't help a bit to be denied. It turns out that the synagogue was pretty close and the service was ending as we got there, and poor Itala spent the entire ceremony waiting for us by the door. I noticed a very seriously armed policeman at the door, in the kind of booth I only previously seen at embassies in New York. On the one hand it is heartwarming that the Florentines take care to protect their Jews at prayer, not to mention their only and ancient synagogue, on the other hand it is a sad commentary that they have to post an armed guard.

Itala refuses a ride home to walk with us although her knees are in need of surgery, Netta and I had misunderstood, we thought she wouldn't ride in our car because of Jewish law. So the three of us walked home, and although Itala claimed to have no food in the house, she whipped up a magnificent 3 course meal. Tricolor salad, pasta with handmade pesto, oven baked sauted potatoes, veal spiced with oregano, followed by Viennese ice cream and candies and cookies and coffee and tea.

Itala gives Netta a hand ~ Itala gives Netta a hand in the kitchen~ or is it Netta who is giving Itala a hand? :)



no food ~ Itala's idea of "no food in the house"

handmade pesto ~ Itala's handmade pesto


This morning we mostly lolled around and fretted about how to spend the day. We took a taxi to a scenic viewpoint and Itala explained more about the city.

Netta in the gardens above the Ponteveccio ~ Netta in the gardens above the Ponteveccio

Me above the Ponteveccio Netta above the Ponteveccio Netta and Itala above the Ponteveccio ~ Me Netta and Itala above the Ponteveccio

Save for Itala and the 2 works of art (Venus and David) I would have to say that this place sucks. The Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City is far more inviting. Itala was trying to disabuse me of this concept as the surly waiter served us lukewarm cappuccinos on a dirty table, and thrust the bill in Netta's face. It is wholly un-European to bring the bill before it is asked for- ever.

Lukewarm Capuchino for Netta and Itala before the Cab Ride from hell ~ Lukewarm Capuchino for Netta and Itala before the Cab Ride from hell

Itala went to call a taxi, as Netta and I assumed she would have better luck than we had. Itala walks with a cane now and is debating surgery on her knees. The taxi arrives, the driver is smoking a cigarette and has 2 radios going. The restaurant had called the taxi they preferred, instead of allowing Itala to call her own. She asks the driver to take a scenic route but he is not listening to her, he drives like crazy and the music is so awful I insist he shut it off. We screech to halt in front of Itala's and I pay him, it is obvious there will be no tip. The moment I am out of the taxi, he begins to take off and I hear Netta scream. Itala is only half out of the taxi and the sonovabitch hasn't noticed. As Itala tries to recover and is softly admonishing the driver in Italian, I hear him argue with her and tell her how it is not his fault because I made him shut off the music. It is all I can do to restrain myself from reaching into the taxi and dragging the psychopath out and beating him senseless. He is also bigger than me, and we are on his home turf. I tell him he is a psychopath and how dare he speak back to Itala- he joyfully gives me the line every stupid Florentine loves to give to tourists, that he only understands Italian- even though Itala is Italian. I know assholes in every country and I verbally grabbed him by the throat and shoved his idiocy down his throat. But it was hopeless utterly hopeless, this is a city that doesn't give a damn about its tourists, a pathetic city of useless and tasteless idiots who have no respect for their own lives or the lives of others. The fact that some great art is housed here is just an unfortunate coincidence.

We will stay in tonight and Itala will cook for us, instead of going out to Angelino's as we planned, it is not worth the hassle of driving or taking a taxi. I feel bad leaving Itala here, I think she is a virtual prisoner and I wish she would consider moving to Israel, but she has already told me that this is her home, and we could see how popular she is when she was leaving the synagogue. She can not take 3 steps in this area without a man woman or child running up to her and greeting her, she is well loved. Still, she would not need the surgery if she hadn't been pushed and fell while trying to board a bus. If I had not come to Tuscany first, I think I would not have stayed in Italy at all.

letters ~ Itala and Netta write letters for the folks in Israel, Netta helps Itala with her Hebrew L'chaim ~ Itala and Netta wish you L'Chaim for Succoth! breakfast ~ Breakfast at Itala's

Oct 6-Rome:

I make no apology for being drunk as I write you now. I have had a bath and washed my hair, the hotel hair dryer is currently drying my wet clothes- wet only from being washed in the sink, not from the rain that has been pouring on and off- mostly on- all day. It's been a splendid day, I promised myself not to fall into Itala's food trap again, but she surprised me with delicate pastries filled with smoked cheese and salmon for breakfast and I fell for it like the glutton I am. We drove to Rome with no problem at all, happy to be rid of Florence. In one moment Netta pointed to a mountain village and said "Let's go there," which I thought was a brilliant idea. We are tired of going where we were told to go. We climbed up the mountain, saw another of those mysterious stop lights to no where, squeezed the Lancia into town and found again, the perfect parking spot in front of the perfect little restaurant. A table of handsome Italian men were more than happy to see us arrive and one slapped the other when he stared at us too long. We ordered from the menu without knowing much about what we were getting, only that they specialize in seafood. I have promised not to tell Netta what she ate until tomorrow but I will tell you now that was the biggest head on a calamari I ever saw. She drank a litre of red wine which she richly deserved after writing letters with Itala for hours last night. I could not wait to join her- but I have waited, until now. So we ate everything in sight, and went down the mountain from our little town of Orte. Man, I was sure I was going to scratch the Lancia (we call it BB, more on that later) in these impossible turns to get out of town, but we made it and the people in the town stood in the rain to help us get out. God, Tuscany is great.

Orte ~ The Road out of Orte in the Rain

The airport was easy, we ditched BB and took a taxi to the hotel. I threw a small tantrum to get a decent room, Rome is fairly sold out anyway and they tried to stick us with a lesser room, but again, they didn't know who they were dealing with. We plan to walk all over Rome for the next 2 days and then head home. I forget what else I wanted to tell you- there's a bottle of Chianti waiting for me and I want to upload this stuff and drink it. L'Chiam y'all. :)

Me in the Coliseum ~ Me in the Coliseum

Us in the Coliseum ~ Us in the Coliseum

The last time I saw Netta ~ The last time I saw Netta

tuscany trip Tuscany Trip

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