Monday, October 24, 2005

Rule #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief pause

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

and his recently opened Center for Cartoon Studies:

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Rule #7

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rule #6

Rule #6 Be cool

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule #5

Rule #5 Bring Stuff to Read

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

Rule #4

Rule # 4 Practice Strategic Shopping

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

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

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

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

Rule #3

Rule #3 Watch Your Step

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

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

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

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

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

Rule #2

Rule #2 Do not drive and avoid walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule #1

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

But listen up: beware of that pastry,

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2005

Rules To Vivere By

Rules To Vivere By

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

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

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