The food, the people, the architecture, the history, the museums, the air (how is it my terminal case of allergies didn’t kick in once?), the sheer fun of being in a place thousands of miles away from home where everyone treats you better than they do at home.
THERE IS NOTHING BAD!!!
Okay, I am not going to be one of those people who invites you over and shares endless stories and photos from a trip you were not on and expects you to think it’s every bit as interesting to you as it was to them and the other people who were there. I am NOT that guy.
Nor am I the gal who will regale you with overly adorable pictures of their newborn infants, or foist upon you cleverly conceived iPhoto books featuring a bunch of 2, 4, 6, 8 or 10 year old nieces, nephews, cousins or day campers she mentored or baby sat for that, frankly, aren’t nearly as cute as the youngster that you yourself remember being – or that you recall any random member of your extended family being. No, I am NOT that person either.
Except that – obviously – will well, – i.am.
For the last two weeks we have published absentia blog posts of my travels to Rome, Florence and Venice (do NOT ask me to choose a favorite – yet). And via Facebook and Twitter, I myself have blasted out more selfies of me and the Significant Other ‘round the world than any sane person could or needs to tolerate – which begs the question of how many truly sane people spend time on social media looking at other people’s photos, anyway.
Still, hear me out.
I am not a world traveller. In middle age I’m embarrassed to admit my out-of-the country excursions have thus far been limited to Canada, Mexico and England. One could say I’m a bit “travel-phobic” – which is the Jewish neurotic word for I hate flying unless I have to. There’s also this reality: I’m afraid to try new things or go to strange places (i.e. locales where they don’t speak English) because I have control issues – which is Chair-neurotic for an inner fear that I will be the one person on the trip who gets sold into slavery (as if I’d be a good slave, please…) or hijacked into some sovereign nation where they don’t have Words With Friends, an endless loop of MSNBC and across the board respect for my severe, medically provable nut allergies.
Yet somehow my discovery of the drug Xanax combined with the undeniable fact that if even Elizabeth Taylor has finally died I don’t have unlimited time on Earth – has given me the final push towards world exploration. That and the sheer embarrassment of always being the lone non-international traveler in our new undeniably global reality – even among my college students – that is. (Note: Somehow a trip to London 20 years ago, pre cell phone, internet and 9/11 doesn’t count anymore).
All that being said: I’ve committed to a non-travelogue, travelogue– a sort of anti-Diary that bears no resemblance to a famous tell-all. Though I’ll bet will be every bit as revealing as Hillary Clinton’s upcoming Hard Choices next month. I am, if nothing else, NOT a politician.
I realize l am really leaving L.A. for parts unknown because waiting to board the plane at LAX I spot the quintessential Beverly Hills 90210 tchotchke/clothing store – Kitson – at the international terminal. More than ever, I realize my choice to travel is long, long overdue. #Takemeawayfromallthis #Please
I board the plane and am greeted by one of the most handsome Italian men I have ever seen dressed in a steward’s uniform. Sadly, I find he attends solely to first class while me and the S.O. are stashed in the back part of the tourist section in sardine can-sized seats watching Despicable Me #PasstheXanax.
Day Two (or is it Day One?):
No one bothered to tell me that international flights are so long that by the time you get to where you’re going amid the time change that Day Two is really Day One. It doesn’t matter. Rome is a dream.
Imagine a cab into a city, not unlike Manhattan, when suddenly you’re faced with the ruins of the iconic Coliseum where 42nd Street would normally be. Not to mention the beautifully weathered building exteriors of every Italian movie you’ve ever seen. #Ciao.
We arrive at our hotel and are given a special room with a small patio/balcony that overlooks a lovely palazzo garden across the street. Why? I have no idea. The balcony doors are opened, I step out onto the tile and watch the small Italian cars and Vespas speed down a hill. It’s a dream. Until I turn around, take a few steps back into the room, trip on the raised balcony landing and fall chin first into the small coffee table by my bed. Ice is ordered and in five minutes my swollen chin makes me look like a miniature version of Rocky after he loses the fight in Film #1 – and not in a good way. The S.O. looks like he might kill me. I secretly fear my jaw could be broken. This, I realize, is why I don’t travel. Or engage in physical fighting, especially with coffee tables
An hour later, after ice is applied, Advil is ingested and a very large bump emerges right under the chin line, I am relieved to realize that even in close-up, no one can tell or feel the massive bruise but me. #Illtakeit.
That afternoon/night: The Spanish Steps, Borghese Gardens (imagine Central Park with clear air and no visibly crazy people) and, finally, that night — the Trevi Fountain. I imagine myself as both Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg though clearly, in my mind, I prefer one fantasy over another.
Yes, I do toss several coins over my shoulder into the water.
No, I don’t jump in. I don’t need to because finally #Iamhere.
Day Two and 1/2:
We sleep till 1:30pm. Excitement gets you through the first day of jet lag and then it hits and you collapse against your better judgment. How could I do this at these prices?
Never mind. We quickly recover and eat outside on the 7th floor restaurant overlooking the entire city. Can this get any better? #DontHATEme #Uhave2go. #Mangia
That night we walk all over the city. It’s comprised of centuries old ruins, modern amenities and new buildings infused with all the palpable energy of a contemporary city. One feels amazement that a place can be so old and yet so alive. How do they do that? I decide there should be a law in the US that no architect is allowed to design and build a faux Italian edifice.
Suddenly, I’m sounding like every know-it-all American that’s just back from a European trip who I’ve ever hated. And I haven’t even returned home yet.
Side Note: We walk past a theatre where there’s a large advertisement photo for Ted Neely appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar. I laughingly tell the S.O. that this is clearly a movie revival house because they have a mock-up color still photo image of Ted from film version from almost 40 years ago. Then I look at the pillar behind me and see a full body version of 2014 Ted, older, be-robed and slightly crumbling around the hairline, as a 2014 version of Jesus. Yes, it’s the 2014 touring company of JC Superstar in Rome and we’ve hit summer stock pay dirt! #Ican’t.
We arrive outside the Vatican and the Pope is projected on a large screen and speaking Italian as if addressing a crowd of thousands at a sporting event.
Then I look around and in front of me and see there are several thousand people. I ask my Italian-American S.O. if this is what they do when you visit – sort of like the animatronic Abe Lincoln at the American Disneyland when you enter the Hall of Presidents to attend Great Moments with Mr. L.
He shakes his head, rolls his eyes disgustedly and points far off into St. Peter’s Square where I see a smaller, real-life version of what I’m seeing onscreen – the real flesh and blood Pope Francis speaking before a crowd and holding them in rapt attention. Oh, you mean he’s really….? The S.O. nods again and quickly turns towards the stage as if I’m some annoying American tourist who has just asked where the popcorn concession stand is. Which, I suppose, is what I am. #JewishBoyStandsAlone.
We’re looking up at the frescos on the ceiling of the real Sistine Chapel in awe. Michelangelo spent every day for four years painting the biblical history of man on the ceiling of a Church and I complain about writing deadlines and the dearth of dramatic films showing at my local Cineplex? Really? Then, after five minutes, my craning neck begins to hurt staring from staring up at this M masterpiece. I lower my head and ask myself WWMD (What Would Michelangelo Do)? A few moments pass by and I have my answer. I look back up again. No, I am not a philistine.
I’m drooling over the food at dinner and every other meal – from divey-looking pizza place to upscale, famous chef-recommended watering hole to a local Mozzarella Bar I later realize is part of an international food franchise. Oh, who cares? We’re outdoors on the cobblestone and the moonlight is making me look at least 13 years younger. #Bliss-a.
The real Coliseum is a lot better than anything in Gladiator, Braveheart or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Still, I’m a little taken back when I hear via Rick Steves’ travel podcast that 50,000 Jewish slaves built a significant part of it. Rick says this is because after the Romans conquered Israel the Jews stubbornly refused to verbally tell them they’d worship their Gods even though the Romans were known not to brutally enforce such allegiances the way some other conquering countries did at the time. Somehow this all strangely sounds accurate to me and my lifelong pattern of rejecting every authoritarian dictate ever handed down to me. #NobodyPutsBabyInTheCorner.
That afternoon we visit the Jewish Ghetto to assuage my guilt and then decide to go modern and catch the local Warhol exhibit at a contemporary museum. It’s a private collection featuring one of Andy’s original lithographs of Marilyn Monroe – but with a bullet hole shot through her forehead by an artist Andy let into the factory who he thought wanted to “shoot” (as in photograph) the Marilyn. Andy being Andy – he kept the bullet hole in, painted over it in white and sold it to this wealthy collector. I am reminded of the one evening I spent with the real AW in the mid eighties when he acted like a teenage girl and uttered non-sequitors like We should all buy property in Harlem from the balcony at Mr. Chow’s in Manhattan as he flicked peas from his plate of fried rice onto the unsuspecting customers below him. Yes, this is a true story. But it is woefully off the subject.
(Note: Numerous Roman excursions have been left out due to space and patience – yours, not mine. But rest assured they do include lots of gelato, more landmarks, and pizza and pasta for days. #Carbs4Ever. #TopPantsButtonOpen).
FLORENCE – Day Five:
It takes 70 minutes on the sleek, red Italo bullet train to get to Florence from Rome and it beats both the Bart, the Long Island Railroad and the new L.A. Metro Line – as does the marble-floored train station. Yeah, I’m obnoxious. Tell me something I don’t know.
This city is beautiful without trying to be. You walk across the Ponte Vecchio and despite hundreds of tourists and storeowners and the fact that this is 2014 and not 1514, you still feel compelled to take a corny selfie overlooking the water off the bridge. With your iPhone. In broad daylight.
And then again after the sun goes down. You also realize you have not thought about MSNBC, Words with Friends or your nut allergies in almost a week. #HowCanThatBe?
There is a museum called the Academia Gallery that houses one of the most famous pieces of art in all the world – the DAVID.
No doubt you have seen pictures and were impressed but, well…it’s a sculpture of a Biblical figure – it’s not Beyonce. How much longer can you look at it, even in person?
Quite a long time. Nothing prepares you for the fact that he’s 17 feet tall and hot. Yes – hot! Seriously, I’m a little embarrassed but not enough to refrain from sharing with you that Dave got me a little excited.
Well, I suppose there are worse things to lust after. Actually, I know from personal experience there are worse things to lust after. But that is, once again, the subject of another discussion. What is important is that at some point before you die you visit him in person. He will not disappoint you as so many crushes do. But, like them, just know he is not yours to keep forever – only for the moments you are together. Because yes – you do feel at some point as if he is aware of your presence and watching you out of the corner of his eye. #Losing It “#TrulyMadlyDeeply #Fiorenzie4Ever.
Lunch and dinner that night was pasta, eggplant, fish, more pasta and more gelato. Because we can. Then more walking. Because we need to.
How much can you walk after last night? A lot. But I have to say that at this point I’m tired and am finally beginning to feel like Private Benjamin. (Note Quote: I joined the Army with the condos and the private rooms!). Still, you follow the tour books, scout out all the landmarks, eat and do other stuff to your heart’s content and eventually you collapse. Which is really when the fun starts.
No, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m referring to wandering aimlessly and encountering happy accidents. Late afternoon by foot you decide that instead of returning to your room you will get adventurous and cross one of the many small bridges. Once there you encounter a series of steps and see a steady line of people returning from them in other directions. You turn a bunch of corners and climb some more steps, then some more. The light has changed and there is beautiful rock and foliage everywhere. Suddenly, you are higher up than you imagined and have quite a long ways to go up hundreds of more steps.
Someone mentions in passing that this is supposedly where Michelangelo lived. Really? Him again? Yes.
You climb hundreds of more steps, out of breath and angry that all the treadmill in the world can’t prepare you for this until finally you get to the top. What you see before you are the precious Rose Gardens of Florence and a view of the city that is not to be believed.
In the US, in my neighborhood, people yell at you if you get too close to their precious homegrown rose bushes. That is not the case here. These are all out in the open yet everyone respects them and resists the urge to pick at them. They just look out in wonderment.
I take pictures of me and the S.O. in colorful doorways, peruse cheesy little tourist mementos and think coming here is among the best decisions we’ve (or I’ve) ever made about anything.
This is an image that stays with you forever. And it wasn’t in any of the five tourist books we took with us. #ColumbusWasItalian.
Shopping, more shopping, and a lot more shopping. But you don’t want to hear about that. What you do want to know is the name of the restaurant that served the best meal I had in all of Italy. It is located in Florence. And – it’s called:
Il Santo Bevitore.
How do I love you? Oh so many ways. But like all love affairs it starts out a little rocky. You get to this famous chef-recommended place and are told there are no tables. So you make a reservation for the following night and arrive at 7:30, just when they open. Except they’re not open and about 30 other eager patrons linger at the door – not so much in a line but in a throng. Then the doors finally do open.
You fear you will be treated badly, seated in the back or have to wait an hour plus to get your food. This is not only because you’ve lived in L.A. for too long but because…yeah, you’ve lived in L.A. too long.
But this is nothing like that. You are the Alice in a Wonderland of Food. It’s a dream where you savor every morsel from a beautiful white plate and are never stuffed. You hesitate to finish each course because you know it means what’s on your beautiful plate will be gone and the experience will end. You momentarily worry that the next plate in the next course can’t be as good and it’s not – it’s better. You obsess that at some point that too will be gone but pleasure gets the best of you and you dig in. And in and in. Until it is all gone. Along with your mind.
I prefer to think of this as being Santo-fied. Or fed. And there is no better feeling in the world.
I don’t care if you turn your nose up at the fresh orechiette pasta with octopus ragu that I had because both I and Santo will forever know the bliss. But if that doesn’t tempt you how about the artichokes and other fresh vegetables that melt in your mouth beforehand? They’re not grilled, they’re not boiled and they’re not raw. Frankly, I have no idea what they did to them. But they’re soft, lovely, colorful and flavorful. Ditto the salad. And the S.O.’s dinner. Coffee, dessert?? Yes, please.
This is one of Mario Batali’s faves in Florence. It will now be one of yours. I tell the owner it’s the best food I’ve had in the country. He does not act like Katherine Heigl when you go up to her on the street and tell her you like one of her movies (Note: That’s something YOU do – not me). He repeatedly shakes your hand, says “Grazie, Mille” many times over and almost cries. Or perhaps the latter is you. It certainly isn’t Ms. Heigl because she’d already be gone.
You have to buy a few gifts for family members and yourself, right? You try to limit it because, well – you’re not making Katherine Heigl money in your movie career (Note: Nor is she anymore but that is also another story. And why am I picking on poor wealthy KH?). But sometimes you wanna splurge.
This is how I met my new friend Yvonne, the former San Francisco highway cop who has lived in Florence for the last three years with her boyfriend Stefano. They run a little store called Conti Tuscany Flavours. No, I didn’t know Yvonne before this trip. I just wandered in her little corner place admiring a dish or two. Then we bonded. I like to think it was an instant connection that was helped along by the fact that she once lived in northern California and “got me.” But we’ll never know for sure.
What I do know is Yvonne gave the S.O. and I our own personal olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting one sunny late afternoon, followed by fascinating explanations of the differences between the various products and flavours – all over a lovely glass of chilled white wine. Plus, nut allergies were still nowhere on my mind and I was eating AND drinking. Does life get better than this? I don’t think so.
Note that this was our second day visiting Yvonne. The first day I actually bought a few hand-painted dishes along with a several other trinkets for friends. It wasn’t cheap but I didn’t spend a ton of money. And after a day I sort of missed Yvonne. So we went back.
I’m not sure if they teach this kind of entrepreneurship anymore. The type where you return to a place because you like not only the goods but the person waiting on you who goes the extra mile and tells you the background on what you’re buying and how it came to be. I loved knowing that the artist who painted the dish was temperamental and a little unreliable and that you never knew when or how he’d deliver what you ordered. I enjoyed the wine and the raw olive oil with no bread or any other carb to dip it in. And then there was Yvonne – she was really honest and cool.
Here’s a sample of what we bought. There’s a bottle of olive oil and balsamic coming, too. Hey, Yvonne’s gotta eat, too. And so do we.
VENICE – Day Ten:
Venezia. It’s iconic, right? I mean, what other small city is built entirely on water that flows in and around its interiors and perimeters. No wonder everyone responds with one single world – magical – as they sigh at the mention of you going there.
One of the downsides of decades of working in the movie business is that you understand that most of what the world considers magical – from film stars to geographically altered and engineered film sunsets that everyone began taking as real life and literal – are at best the result of many hours of work and at worst, well – fake. So there’s no way that the water-reflected reality you see represented as Venice could possibly exist? Right?
Uh, yeah, it does. You know it the moment you leave the train station and step down into a water taxi or public vaporetto or gondola and sail across the canal to your hotel, pensione, palazzo or apartment.
I can’t describe it. But I can show you some photos.
The first day was spent entirely in wonderment. It took me until middle age to get here but it was well worth the wait. Still, if it’s possible, don’t you delay that long.
You don’t get over the magic but after a bit you do begin settling into everyday life. Okay, this is not possible. Not when the hotel on the water that you’re staying at has upgraded you to a two-story junior suite for no reason whatsoever the day before. Did Emanuel, the tall German manager with round horn-rimmed glasses who speaks at least five different languages, simply like us more than the other guests? Well, I certainly like him. And the free breakfast feast of every fresh fruit, pastry, and protein in the world you could ask for, seated outside by the canal overlooking the water. #UCanHateMeThatMuch
I spend the rest of the day proving that in this light you can’t take a bad photo. Seriously. I don’t even look as balding as usual. And the S.O. is glowing and no longer glowering.
We walk across the famed St. Mark’s Square, take a bunch of wrong turns, listen to some street musicians, pop into a museum inside a palazzo and eat dinner at an unpretentious joint with the best pizza I’ve had in quite some time (Note: That would be yesterday).
Right, I get it. No one cares about any of this but me so I’ll stop now.
We visit the famed Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which is only about a thousand feet away from our hotel. The grand old dame was rich enough and smart enough to support and buy up enough modern art from most of the major modern artists of her day. In our day it hangs in her former house, a grand palazzo the likes of which none of us has ever seen or lived in.
There’s the Picasso, or is it the Jackson Pollock? Wait, no – it’s the Kandinsky. Even if you don’t know who any of these people are you’re amazed by the art and the fact that you are not a character in a Merchant-Ivory movie visiting here. Or are you?
Since this is museum day we manage to find a contemporary exhibit of Frieda Kahlo’s work. It is also fitting that we visit the Palazzo Grassi – a fantastic old structure that would be the only authentic Italian house in Beverly Hills if any authentic abode, Italian or otherwise, existed in Beverly Hills. It is fitting we visit it this day because someone tells us that Salma Hayek had her wedding here and, as we all know, Salma played the film version of Frieda Kahlo several years ago.
However, the standout moment of this museum visit isn’t imagining where Salma/Frieda threw her bouquet but the modern art installations the Palazzo now currently hosts. The one that stayed with me was approximately 150 feet of white space. You heard me. You put paper booties on your feet, and walk into it and realize that it is lit in such a way as to make you believe you have walked into a thick fog on a cloudy day at the beach – the kind where you get hopelessly lost as you catch a glimpse of the beautiful woman or man of your dreams. Because that is just how they do things in Venezia. #Noturningback.
I left out the five-hour walk from one side of the island to the other from the day before where I stop at the little art store and buy two small lithographs that are probably not worth what I paid – which is not all that much when you consider the Picassos. Still, they make me happy and that’s all I’m caring about these days. This should also be apparent from the last three paragraphs I’ve written.
Day Thirteen (The last Day):
We take a water taxi (nee speedboat) to nearby Murano Island where they famously blow all of that colorful glass. This was all arranged by Emanuel, who clearly thinks we’re special because we’re told it’s all for free. Special, special, special, are we. Except we’re not. We get off the boat and are ushered into our free glass-blowing tour and demonstration. It’s 45 minutes of fascinating information and beautiful objects d’art. Which the S.O. clearly explains they’re trying to sell to us – hence the free taxi ride. The same kind that got all of the other people in this joint here. But it couldn’t have been as special as the one Emanuel arranged.
We don’t buy anything and politely exit in favor of strolling the rest of the island. When we return for our promised ride back we are told our personal boat – the 007 (!) – will be there in five minutes. It takes an hour and an old Italian man from the glass-blowing place, all debonair in a blue sports coat and dress slacks – periodically entertains us periodically with American euphemisms and songs. These include all the lyrics to the Mamas and Papa’s California Dreamin’ once he hears we’re from Los Angeles. No, I am not making this or any other part up. Picture a Venetian Mel Brooks doing an act by the pier in Atlantic City and refusing to get off the stage. Still, there are worse ways to end a Saturday.
That night – as we eat dinner overlooking the canal at one of the best hotels in town courtesy of a very generous friend – I can’t help but think of Las Vegas, marijuana and Rosemary’s Baby. Up until now, they have each individually provided me with the three most convincing pictures of an alternative universe that I can think of. Now I have a fourth. And unlike the other three, this one is real. For tonight, anyway.
Arrivederci. That means until we see each other again.