Thursday, July 31, 2008

Discussion Questions

So I’ve read a lot of fine books here – Maurice, for example – but I decided to read some beach novels too. First I read The Rule of Four, the DaVinci Code knockoff from a few years ago, and then I discovered two medical thrillers in the bookcase in my apartment. They have chapter titles like, “MALICE AFORETHOUGHT.” One was a James Patterson Women’s Murder Club book called The 5th Horseman. It turned out alright, like a Law & Order episode with less characterization.

I was finishing the book last night around 1am, amazed how Patterson concluded the primary mystery in three pages. Then I discovered a list of “Discussion Questions” for reading groups, and I immediately started giggling like a schoolgirl. What do you say about a medical thriller?

“I knew Lindsay was always going to get her man.”
“Really, I thought they were going to get away with it!”
I was still laughing when I started reading the actual questions, where were far better. My three personal favorites:

Lindsay’s a working woman, but work is not everything to her. She has her boyfriend, Joe, and of course her dog, sweet Martha. Which do you think is more important to her?

Hospitals play a big role in The 5th Horseman. What feelings do you have when you enter a hospital?

If the Women’s Murder Club had a charter – a guiding statement of principles – what do you think it would stress? Bravery? Loyalty? Keeping It Real?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

So How Was Pompeii? Ruinous!

When I lived in Holland, I famously waited until the last week before I left Amsterdam. Now I kick myself for not seeing Utrecht or Maastricht or Bruges. My natural state is to nest in my apartment and do things within walking distance. Trains are kind of a pain, bus drivers aren’t that helpful, I don’t know. It’s just easier to stay near home, but I’m not making that mistake again.

The one daytrip I knew that I wanted to do was Naples, for the world-famous archeology museum, and Pompeii for, you know, ruins. I just needed to get out of bed early enough to fit both of them into one day. I didn’t want to leave ridiculously early, because the goal was to hit Pompeii as late as possible, around 4pm, to avoid the midday sun. I was hoping for a cooler day, but today is the hottest day of the year so far, hurray. It is about 36 degrees Celsius, I can’t tell you what that is in Fahrenheit. I’m so European now, I can’t even translate.

I buy my ticket at the electronic machine, because the lines are endless. After pushing 87 buttons, I learn there are three types: Flexi, Standard, and something else. Even though the machine is in English, the descriptions of each type are only in Italian. An Indian guy is yelling at me to finish, so I go for the first one, Flexi. Wrong! My one-way ticket to Naples is 45 euros, which I won’t even convert because it makes me want to cry.

The trip is uneventful, except that the seats are modern and very uncomfortable. I think they’re trying to get you buy first class. I arrive in Naples without a guidebook or a map. It’s so warm, I wanted to avoid carrying my bag, which yields a strip of shirt sweat on hot days. And my guidebook is just useless for Naples anyway but the result is I arrive with not much clue how to get to the museum. But hey, this is the biggest attraction in town, how hard could it be? I know, famous last words.

The train station opens onto Piazza Garibaldi. If I was Garibaldi, I would be offended to have this square named after me. To call it third world is an insult to the many fine cities in developing countries, like Cairo or Cape Town, who wouldn’t think of leaving a square this filthy. Garbage is strewn everywhere, junk piles up in the street, concrete building remains are left completely ignored and uncollected. People are selling flea-market junk everywhere, their owners yelling at passersby.

I see an actual game of three-card monte, with actual victims. Did you ever think you would see that in your entire life? Me either.

The streets are an insane asylum. In Rome, people drive fast, certainly. Crosswalks require a certain degree of fortitude in the beginning, but drivers treat them as nearly sacred, and people are expected to respect the lights at major intersections. Here people walk into the road at any point, in any direction, at any time. Drivers retaliate by accelerating until the last possible moment, resting their front bumper on your leg.

Of course, I can’t find the street I need, Via San Blahblahblah a Carbonara. I walk the entire square, I have seen the map in the train station, and I cannot find it. I am either too stupid or too sane, so I head back to the station and grab the Metro. I have (with some pride) avoided buses or subways in Rome, walking everywhere I go. But this is kind of overwhelming. In the station, unattended dogs run around the passengers, and I later realize the ticket guy ripped me off for two euros.

Naples, I don’t like you. You are not Rome at all, you are ugly and crowded and your drivers want to kill me. I have been ripped off, twice, and I hate that. But I’ll be damned if you’ll keep me from finding a fricking museum after paying 45 euros to get here. The guidebook said the museum is only a couple of stops (Museo) from the station, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. Except there is no Museo stop on my line. I guess the wrong station, have to wait 15 minutes to turn back, and failing to find a map, ask a few locals to find the museum.

The museum itself is pretty cool. Smaller than expected, due to the 87th year of renovations, but full of excavation finds you can’t see in other places. The best part was sneaking into the “Secret Room” just before it closed behind a tour group. This room has all of the naughty art they’ve found in excavations, like phallic pottery and dirty mosaics. One sculpture is a satyr making love to a goat, who gazes lovingly into his eyes. I am twisted enough that this is easily my favorite activity of the entire day, and I take a million pictures before I’m shooed out by the docent. (“No flash!”)

I leave the museum starved, realizing that it is 2:30 and all I have eaten is a bowl of chocolate-nut granola. (Yum, by the way.) There is a McDonald’s in the train station, but I refuse to eat there. So I stop at the only bar outside the metro stop, which has one meal-type item: a prosciutto-cheese quiche thing. It was good, I think the nice lady made it herself.

Now I have to figure out how to get to Pompeii. You might recall the excellent advice of my guidebook, “find a local train.” The help desk is closed, because it is 3pm on a Monday. I wait in the ticket line, soon realizing that this is an hour-long line. The ticket machine wants me to take two different trains, switching God knows where, and paying almost ten euros. Bah!

I look up for heavenly guidance and see a sign for “Circumvesuviana.” Hmm. Circum=Around, Vesuviana=Pompeii Go Boom. I follow signs past the last train line, through a dark corridor, trip over a dog, and around the back of the station. There it is: another whole set of train lines and ticket offices. Oh Italy, how wonderfully irritating you are. Roundtrip fare is less than five euros, my train leaves in two minutes.

The train stops at every crosswalk from here to Pompeii, has broken doors, graffiti-covered windows, and no air conditioning, but I get there, and the ruins are about four steps away from the station door. Pompeii is great because you get to see what a whole city looked like during the Roman era, from the central forum to the most basic house. All the good art has been taken to the museums, which is unfortunate, because art is far more meaningful in its original location. Rooms with 40 sculptures are overwhelming and deadening, but one of them inside an actual home would have far more impact. But I’m not exactly a curator. I think it would be cooler to have people own historically insignificant art rather than have them sit in museum basement, because the owners would love them, and because people who seem them would find them special.

But I digress. The result here is that you’re looking more at urban planning than art, although there are a few mosaics around and some plaster. Large portions are closed off by gates. It’s a huge area, by the way, and I recommend getting the audio guide, which I didn’t. I had almost no clue what I was looking at, and my usual tactic of glomming onto an English tour group didn’t work either. Pompeii was still great, but the guide would have been nice. I’d also have more pictures but I forgot to recharge my battery pack. Travel tip: Don’t do that.

I leave Pompeii three hours later, covered in dust and ready to go home. Back in the Naples train station, a group of dogs are fighting in the corner as I head for the ticket machine. A standard ticket in first class in 15 euros less than my stupid Flexi ticket, and hey, I deserve it. Next to the McDonald’s turns out to be a Neapolitan pizzeria. I inhale two large mushroom slices in the 10 minutes before my departure. Damn, even train-station pizza is good here.

Naples, can’t say I’ll be coming back anytime soon, but I will never take Rome for granted again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Candy Nobody Wants

Meet the Candy Aquamatic 3, surely the finest washing machine Italy had to offer in 1962. Candy lives in one of the closets underneath my loft bed, behind a rolling staircase. Despite her name, our start is not particularly sweet.

For one, Candy does not make a good housemate. She is loud and shakes the house like an earthquake with her exertions. The neighbors are already well aware of her predilections. She is no longer allowed to operate from 1:30-3:30 pm or after 10pm. Candy doesn't let me run the air conditioner, and you could fry an egg on her hot metal top. (Don't get too excited -- she ain't much to look at neither.)

Candy is never accompanied by her handy friend, the dryer. She tells me to use the clothesline above the balcony. I tell Candy to shove it, I'll do what I want. Not having a dryer is a form of disenfranchisement, like not having a TiVo or a Macintosh. I can always wash things in the sink, but a dryer is irreplaceable. I seem to remember using a clothesline once as a child, and the next day my clothes were all crunchy.

Worse still, Ms. Aquamatic III does not do a good job. And she takes forever, running the same cycle over and over and over again. Candy is a bad communicator. It is very unclear how to use her. Her front-piece has some sort of matrix of numbers and symbols, I dare you to make any sense of it. It could be the Rosetta Stone for all I know.

Candy does have her good points. Her spacious interior can wash up to four socks at a time, half of which will come out entirely dry and untouched, which saves a lot of time with hanging and such. They still smell stinky but also vaguely of gardenias, so that's a start.

That was sarcasm, not that Candy could ever tell. She is not very bright. It might be time to seek out new sources of conversation. But then I'd have to leave the house, and it's hot out there. She let me turn the a/c back on.


The city is visibly emptying of actual Italians. This morning I walked up a major street near here, the Via Merulana, and realized that I was seeing fewer Romans and a lot more tourists, inevitably walking in pairs and packs. It is not a good feeling. It's like you've moved into Euro Disney, where the only locals are waiters and assorted colorful characters who dress up for your benefit.

To make matters worse, the sun and heat have returned, exacerbating my natural laziness. It's not unbearably hot, really; walking on the shady side of narrow streets helps a great deal, and broad streets without shade usually have a decent breeze. But it is just hot enough not to want to tromp through a bunch of sun-baked ruins. My first out-of-town trip is to be Pompeii, but I'm still waiting for a cooler day and better directions. My guidebook's advice is to take the Intercity train to Naples, and then "a local train to Pompeii." Gee thanks. Why not just tell me to construct a divining wand?

So I've been staying close to the neighborhood, and primarily indoors. Yesterday's main attraction: The Capitoline Museums, which you may recall were closed on Monday. They reside in palazzos on the Campidoglio, a piazza designed by Michelangelo for the Roman city government. (Love Italian, so many words with z.) The setting is very cool: you walk up a steep street behind the Piazza Venezia (which is admittedly hideous), and get a great view of the Forum on the way up. Suddenly you land in this flat, quiet piazza that almost seems to float over the rest of the city. In the middle is a fake horsey sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, the real one residing inside the museum in air-conditioned comfort.

The inside is split between two of the palazzos, one containing primarily Roman sculptures by the hundred, the other fancy apartments used by the former Roman city council. The apartments contain amazing painted murals of the early days of Rome. I didn't get everything, but apparently young boys spent a lot of time suckling on she-wolves for nourishment. World-class artists and sculptors were brought in to decorate the apartments, from Michelangelo to Bernini. The engraved staircase took 24 years to construct alone, casting new light on that kitchen remodel.

At the end, if you are willing to spend 15 minutes playing "find the staircase," you can enjoy panoramic views of the city from the palazzo's terrace. There is about to be a wedding reception here, adding soothing live jazz to the lovely view of St. Peter's. On the way out, I see the joyous couple taking pictures in front of fake Marcus. Taking a chance to look over my pictures before I walk back home, I sit down. But it is hard to focus on the camera when a different couple is against the wall, their tongues latched deep within each others' throats.

Look, Rome, I get it: I'm solo. You don't have to make everyone waddle around here, two-by-two, like The March of the Penguins.

I'm not entirely alone here. One of the odd side effects of writing a blog is that I find myself accompanied by a narrator that speaks only to me, largely in the third person. A lot of what he says gets put in the blog. The narrator is kind of a snide version of myself, somewhat embodied by me, but also somewhat external to me. Sounds like a mental disorder, I know.

I already miss playing tennis, which at home I do two or three times a week. I've had to replace it with an old favorite, Jennifer Capriati Tennis, a video game I used to play in college on my Genesis. The designers were too cheap to pay anyone but Capriati, so the character names are all sound-alikes. Jennifer has long pissed away her Sega money on Prada and pot, but I still find the game calming. Even while screaming, "Nobody takes a set from Monica Sellers! NOBODY!"

Today I sealed a victory with a thorough dismantling of Martina Martilova. The game announces my victory with one of those delightful Japanese video-game translations: "The world looks up to you with admiration. Your stately persona will be remembered for years to come."

Hey, Rome: I'm stately.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Day of Sight-Seeing in Rome

My days here have already fallen into a pattern. I wake up at some unpredictable hour, varying from 5:30am to 12:30 pm. I putz around, turn the a/c back on, and drink an entire bottle of water in one gulp. (For some reason, I am always dehydrated here.) I watch terrible news coverage on the only channel I get in English, BBC World. Within a half hour they've already started repeating a "news story" -- say, the New York premiere of The Dark Knight -- and I've seen the same Exxon/Mobil propaganda commercial for the 3rd time, often twice in a row. ("We found a way to transport 80% more gas across the world by liquefying it first. That's how we're saving the environment, one ship at a time.")

It is time for a shower, which I fear. It is one of those detachable shower head things that I have never understood. (What am I supposed to be spraying down there, my balls? Shall I self-administer an enema?) The real problem is that I have never figured out how to make the shower head stand up in the lug nut thingy. So every time I turn on the water, there's a great chance that the shower head will fling itself off the lug nut, lurching and spraying water in all directions like a Benny Hill sketch.

The water is no picnic either. If the water is hot, no amount of cold-water knob turning will make it less than scalding. If the water is cold, no amount of hot-water knob turning will make it less than icy. The key is to inch the water toward the lukewarm middle early in the knob-turning process. Like Barack Obama, only with water.

I'm still pretty OCD about leaving the house. Every pocket is checked many times. Feeling the keys is not adequate; I must be holding them - nay, looking at them - while I shut the door behind me. Then I realize that I might drop them in a drainage pipe or an elevator shaft, so they go into my pocket, where I feel them up fifty times a day.

Monday's selection from Frommer's Walking Tours of Rome, 1st edition, is "Ancient Rome." Mr. Frommer promises to include sites most visitors never frequent. I did the Forum and the Palatine Hill two years ago (Livia: loved the house), but I never made it to the Capitoline Museums or nearby churches. My first stop is the Domus Aurea, which has been opened recently to the public. Frommer announces that it is open "Wednesday to Monday."

Now, I've passed the Domus at least five times in four days. As with so many sites here, the problem is that I have never been able to find the entrance. But I am determined. I walk over to its adjacent park, filled with middle-aged Roman women (two dogs, no children). The park is full of ruins, but which ruin is the entrance? I finally find it, hidden behind a tree and up a small hill. The Domus Aurea is open Tues-Fri, 10-4pm. Not such a good start, Mr. Frommer!

"No big deal," I say, to absolutely no one. I'll just walk through the Forum to the Campidoglio, where the museums are. Crossing the street, I put my life in the hands of the drivers of Via Fori Imperiali -- this is Mussolini's highway after all, whose drivers are imbued with fascist intensity. Here stands the most annoying tourist area in all of Rome; first you have to dodge very pushy tour operators, who promise to skip you to the front of the Colosseum's endless line. Then there are the fake gladiators, who want to pose with you for a pricey picture. No thanks, Gluteus Maximus!

Hiding behind a big American tour, I walk up the Via Sacra, the famous street cutting across the Forum. It's a slight hill covered in big, uneven, ankle-snapping cobblestones. Up ahead I see Somebody's Arch, which is very cool. Then I see the gate. Then I see the sign on the gate, Uscita -- Exit Only. For the love of Tina, why not just let people in here, Italy? Going to the main entrance is a 10-minute walk, minimum. And I'd have to find it. (My travel superpower is sense of direction; my Achilles heel is my inability to find anything once I'm there. Italy really pokes my heel.)

But look! There's a path to the left, walking right up Palatine Hill. Fine, I'll pay to enter the Palatine, look around again at some very cool ruins, and walk through to the Campidoglio. I walk up one of the steepest hills in Rome -- doing fine thanks to my new Ecco walking shoes, the shoes of our Lord -- and see a church up ahead. People are walking away from the church, looking very confused. I have been duped. Italy has no intention of letting me in to the Palatine from here, even though I can literally see the entire thing through the gate. "Criminy!" my father says in my head.

It's 12:30. At this point I realize that I'm pretty hungry. Hey, what about that great restaurant that was closed after 3pm? I strut down the hill, dodge past the gladiators and the tour guys, and frown at the hipster-poseur bar. There's people sitting outside the restaurant! I walk up, only to see that the restaurant has been closed and replaced with a snack bar. Because, hey, it's Monday, and who wants to be open on Monday after a weekend off?

"Fine," I say to nobody. Snack bars serve paninis, and paninis are delicious. Ha-ha, Roma! There are only two paninis left in the case; I learn that I must pick one of them. (Rome must be the only place that runs out of sandwiches.) I order the Monticenti, which the bartender pretends not to understand, because I failed to say "chenti" instead of "centi." While pointing directly at the sandwich. Whatever, snooty bartender chick.

After waiting for the heat-up, I take my tasty, crunchy, well-priced sandwich outside and sit at a table. I am halfway into my bite. "No no no, signore! Table for outside customer only!" They charge more for table service, of course. Fine, I'll go watch that soccer match, annoying table lady! A group of South Americans has put together a soccer league, with uniforms and officials and everything. The play is pretty good, and the huge balls of dust kicked up by the players only somewhat color the taste of my standing-up panini.

As usual, so many of the memorable travel events aren't on the map. Say, watching a few dozen Ecuadorans get together for a barbecue and soccer match overlooking the Colosseum. Or nearly running into a young couple making out on the steps of a 9th century church, turning away, and watching a gay couple's beagle frolic in the church fountain. Or walking into a park and watching a large group of nuns sit in a circle, pull out a couple of guitars, and sing folk songs.

Rome is lousy with nuns. Nuns in black, nuns in grey, black nuns, Southeast Asian nuns, nuns with backpacks, nuns with fanny packs, nuns with baseball caps over their habits. One nun is even wearing a t-shirt over her skirt. Monday's street-nun count: 13, not including this group. (Priest count: 0, although I did hear one through a door when I accidentally stumbled into a church office.)

Seeing the nuns teaches me forgiveness. (Did I mention that the Capitoline museums close on Mondays too?) So Rome, I forgive your random work schedule. I will fail to wonder any longer why your churches can't be open from 12:30 to 4:30, your priests requiring a four-hour lunch break, despite the lack of any staff manning the door or monitoring the visitors. I will not concern myself with your stores that open only after 7pm, or only Tuesday to Friday, or as far as I can tell, never.

I'm sure you have your reasons.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


One of the crazy things about moving to a new place, as opposed to just visiting, is that you realize that the main aspects of survival that used to be handled by hotels are now up to you. For example, how to eat, sleep, and get around. How to meet people and speak to them in a language they will understand. How to operate the toaster and the washing machine. None of these are givens in a new environment, and you know that I have problems with washing machines.

It took nearly 24 hours in Rome before I could even find my neighborhood grocery store. My first day was spent, as usual, trying to stay active enough to avoid sleeping mid-day, despite having not slept the night before. My apartment is literally within sight of the Colosseum, so I head that way hoping for stores. Nothing. I am beyond starving. My guidebook says there's a good restaurant here, but they close from 3pm to 7pm. I end up eating pasta in this poseur club with pastel-colored plastic "ghost" chairs; the hipsters stare because I'm eating spaghetti at 4pm. Italy has a lot of rules about food. No cappuccino after breakfast, no pizza for lunch, no cheese on fish, and 4pm is drink time or fruit time or gelato time, but not pasta time. I am socially castigated for my public error in judgment. It happens again when I have the gall to eat a gelato on the street while gazing at an obelisk. It is probably illegal to eat near obelisks.

I walk all over town again after dinner, but I get home after two hours and two gelatos. I barely make it to 8pm before I collapse, having lived an entire day on gelato and a tiny portion of pasta. The next morning, my belt cinches up two spots tighter than usual.

Everything causes more stress when you're abroad. When you arrive, you have nowhere to go until the rental company shows up, and you realize that if they don't show up, all you can do is pay for a hotel. If you can find one available, or afford to pay for one for the next five weeks. After the house assistant drops off the keys, you get OCD trying to leave the house, because you realize you have nowhere to go if the key doesn't work, or if you lose them. So you write down the phone numbers of the only people you know in Rome -- the parents of a grad student, and the rental company's office assistant, who is probably all "Ciao!" as he Vespas out of town for the weekend, throwing his company phone into a ditch.

When you finally leave, the door locks behind you, and your hands literally shake while you test the key to make sure it really works.

The next morning I finally find the grocery store after having the brilliant insight to check the plastic bag in the garbage can. That plastic bag saves me from reenacting the last scene of Into the Wild. It turns out I had walked right past the damn store, because it was hidden on a nothing side street with no sign turned toward the big main drag where people actually walk. Let's face it, Italian businesses really don't give a crap if you shop with them or not. I think they're all paid by the government. But the entire bag of groceries costs less than yesterday's 4 o'clock lunch debacle, and only slightly more than the $20 bottle of sunblock I bought yesterday. Tortellini for two nights' dinner is two bucks, the sauce is a buck. That's less than gelato!

But I will never give up gelato.

The other modes of survival go pretty well. My apartment is a decent size for a studio. The bed is on a loft constructed over the bathroom, and has an incredible view of a classical-revival church up on a hill. I even have a little balcony. The bathroom is huge with a big porcelain bathtub. The a/c doesn't work so great, but if you let it run for a few hours it becomes bearable, plus there is a fan. Water pressure is good and the kitchen is decent, but I only have a dorm fridge. (The freezer is now full: one ice tray and a frozen dinner.) The location is fantastic, a good neighborhood that is walking distance to everything but not touristy.

If this has posted to my blog, obviously I've reached another goal: internet. I spent all of Saturday afternoon walking around trying to find a decent internet location. (To be fair, I did stop at a couple of churches and the Trevi. And for gelato.) I was willing to pay a lot of money to rent a mobile broadband card, but Vodaphone, the Italian cell phone company, will only sell mobile broadband to Italian citizens. To find out that information, I waited in a ticket queue for an hour behind 20 other people; even the Italians were annoyed. I then tried to find an Internet cafŽ in my guidebook, to no avail -- it must have closed. On Sunday morning I went to the only bar in my area that advertised wifi, only it doesn't work. That's after signing a form declaring that I would not use the internet for terrorist activities.

Now I have to finish this weird banana drink I ordered, because I thought I was ordering an actual banana.

I'm fed and intermittently connected, so it's officially feeling like I'm on vacation. The weather has cooled off today, so tomorrow I'll probably do some sight-seeing. Or maybe I'll just sit around on my ass. Oh, the things we'll not do!


I didn't realize that my trip to Italy was going to include its own goodwill ambassador in seat 16A. Straight from central casting, Tina is a middle-aged Italian mother, 4'8" tall and wide, with a pink digital camera and black security belt hanging as jewelry from her neck. She has stretched her body right across 16B.

"I think you're in my seat," I say.

"Ohhh I was hoping this would all be to myself no such luck!" she yells. "We're goin to be squeezed in her like two sausages tonight!" My face strains mightily under the conflict of two muscles, one trying to wince and the other trying to stop the wincing. I must look slightly brain damaged.

"Allllright, come sit down then!" she offers, generously. "My name is Tina. What's yours?"

I panic. My brain searches vainly for some reason, any reason, not to tell her my name. My name would be only the beginning of the end of my privacy. But how do you withhold your name without looking like a complete ass? I give it up with the best brain-damaged look I could put together.

"Glad to meet ya!"

Born in Sicily, Tina is a chef and the mother of twin girls. She moved to Philly over 30 years ago, but hasn't returned for nearly half that. Her brother-in-law's name is the same as the author of a book I was carrying, and I am also his age. I learned that I was therefore brought to Tina, by God's order, through the intervention of an angel. Not some abstract angel, mind you, but a real God's-orders-delivering angel. "It's fate!" she shouted. Then a beat. "You are a Christian, right?"

Frantically flipping through a magazine, I hoped reading would stave off the unending torrent of words. But there was so much more to learn from Tina. For example, that I should vote for John McCain, because Michelle Obama is not proud to be an American, and thinks the disabled should get jobs. That violence has never been worse and that kids today have no respect for the elders. That the country was going to collapse under the weight of gas prices and the subprime mortgage crisis, and that the dollar would continue to fall against the euro for some time to come.

"But don't worry, I'm not here to bug ya all night! I have a book about purgatory!"

"Oh, Dante is perfect for this trip," I offer meekly.

"It's not Dante it's real!" she exclaims to her audience, which now includes -- by my estimation -- rows 14 to 19. "People go to purgatory! It happens!"

Her audience chuckles amiably. I stare at the back of the seat, wondering if I might be saved by The Rapture.

"Sometimes I think I'm in purgatory!" she continues. "Lord the pain I'm in!"

Tina has a few health problems. She has diabetes, gout, severe asthma, sleep apnea, and fibromyalgia. She also suffers from claustrophobia, depression, and anxiety attacks. She has a pinched nerve, a ruptured disc, and a bunion. She is carrying medicines for all of these. We discuss each medicine in order and their associated side effects. I worry that in Italy I will be declared her common-law primary care physician.

The plane still has not departed.

When it finally does, Tina grips my hand. "Oh Lord, save this plane!" While she prays for us, I pray for the in-flight entertainment system to load. "What kind of movies would you like to watch?" I ask plaintively, any affirmative response offering the potential for sweet silence.

"Aw I dunno the smut on TV today!" Tina can't work her entertainment system anyway, and after 30 minutes of enlisting me to help, she gets up to move around the cabin. (Better for her gout.) I am shocked to watch The Golden Compass entirely uninterrupted. In fact, Tina has never returned. Maybe The Rapture has captured the holy, but the pilot and flight attendants are corrupted by sin? I turn around and head for the bathroom, but there is Tina, ten rows back, hovering over a shell-shocked couple.

"Oh Michael you must come meet Angelo and Joan!" She turns back to them. "Michael is a professor!"

Angelo and Joan look at me with E.T. eyes, begging voicelessly for mercy. Having had a taste of freedom, I am not about to be charitable. "Time for the bathroom, Tina!" I say, almost mirthfully, as I squeeze past her.

In the bathroom queue, I am cornered by a young man who turns out to be Angelo's nephew. "So Tina's sitting next to you, huh?" he says with some kindness. "My wife is half-Sicilian, and Tina knows her brother! All she does is talk, but she's a nice lady."

Actually, it turns out that Tina knows about half the plane. Not that she is actually traveling with any of them, but Philly's Italian community seems to be pretty tight-knit. And they have Tina pegged. As I walk down the aisle back to my seat, fellow passengers look at me with all the pity they can muster. So many people have a cocked head and pinched half-smile, you'd think I was being sold at a pet store.

Tina is back in her seat. "The flight attendant made me sit down!"

Tina pulls out her medicine bag and plucks out a bottle of Purell. She squirts a glob on my hand, involuntarily. "Um, thanks," I mutter. She pulls out a Dove chocolate bar. "You want some?" she asks. Half the bar is shoved into my clenched mouth. "What, they're good!" she exclaims.

Tina is getting pushy. It is time for action, and I am ready to pull out all the stops. The following attempts fail: reading; reading with the book raised against my face; listening to music; listening to music and taking off the headphones every time she spoke; listening to music, taking off one headphone, and saying "What?"; pretending to sleep; pretending to sleep and then groggily pretending not to understand what she was saying; not responding.

I make one final attempt to pretend sleep. When she talks again, I roll over to my right. She grabs my shoulder, pushing me flat against the seat. "Look at the sun! Boy it's gonna be a hot one in Italy today!"

I am utterly defeated. The breakfast carts are out and the air reeks of coffee. "I think it's going to be 90 degrees in Rome today," I say.

"Even hotter in Sicily, my friend!"

The plane is just about to land. Tina begins clapping rhythmically, and the plane joins in. "Thank you Jesus! Whoooooo! Jesus thank you for landin this plane!"

Thank you Jesus, indeed.


After two years of recriminations and lies, Expat Mike has officially returned for six weeks while I live in Italy. I have actually traveled quite a bit since last we saw each other. (You've never looked so thin, by the way.) Last summer I was in Ireland for a week, and in January I spent 10 days in South Africa. Both were excellent trips with little time for caustic commentary.

I've been planning to repeat my summer excursion to Amsterdam basically since I left. I didn't feel the need to return to Amsterdam per se, but I wanted another chance to live abroad. I had actually been thinking about non-European locations, with Buenos Aires and Sydney/Melbourne high on the list. But I never got around to planning anything, and someone else was paying for the flight, and that's pretty much all I needed to know. (Loyal readers smile knowingly: I am cheap). So we'll save those other trips for another time.

I've rented an apartment on Via Labicana, at the bottom of Esquiline Hill, home of Nero's entertainment extravaganza, the Domus Aurea. After four weeks in Rome and a weekend in Lausanne, I'll spend a week trekking through Venice, Florence, and Milan, and then five days at a workshop in Bellagio, on Lake Como. The Bellagio trip is what brought me to Italy, my vacation is just along for the ride.

People have been asking me what I plan to do here, and the honest answer is that I don't really know. I know that I desperately need a break from a) thinking about tenure and b) doing things, some of which might help me get tenure. I needed to go to a place where I would be so busy doing other things that I'd stop thinking about work. I'm pretty sure I'll go to Pompeii, and probably Naples for the archeology museum and the piles of trash. Maybe another day looking at nearby ruins. But mostly I want to just walk around, look at pretty building, gaze at some ruins, and eat good food.

Time to go. Here's the only thing you wanted to know anyway: gas is $9.24 per gallon.