So since I've been back from Italy, there's been a noticeable increase in the number of viagra spam emails hitting my queue.

What do they know that I don't?
North Korea, China, et al . . .

I was accused of being too flip in that last post, which is funny, because I thought I wasn't flip enough . . .

See, here's the thing: North Korea is at best a side show. The big fact of life that we'll be dealing with over the next - I don't know, hundred years? certainly the decade - is China.

The Olympics were a glitzy promo, with China pulling out all the stops to put its best face forward, while a few miles from the games people were still scratching a living out of the dirt . . . but make no mistake: that face you saw is the future. China - and all of Asia - kicks our butt in many, many ways. And part of the reason is that they just plain work harder than we do.

Sucks to say, but it's the truth.

In many ways, China's development is a good thing - the place is a heck of lot less scary now than it was a decade ago. But we have to be serious about our infrastructure, our education, our investment, or we're going to find we're the third world country a decade from now.

I never thought I'd recommend a Thomas Friedman* column, but a lot of what he says here is right on:

NY Times link

As for North Korea, the fact that they have to resort to nuclear blackmail just shows how out of it they really are. Doesn't mean we can ignore them, of course.

Now all I have to do is figure out what being flip means, and I'll be having a good day . . .

* He oughta stop with that flat earth bs... a gimmick's a gimmick, but this one was doa before it arrived. Poor Columbus is probably turning over in his grave... And for those of you who don't like the Times - hold your nose and read it anyway...
Trouble in (the workers) paradise . . .

The North Korean nuke soap opera continues . . .

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's threat to restart its plant that makes arms-grade plutonium is feasible, although the task would be a daunting one, analysts said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the communist state said that because the United States had not kept to its side of a disarmament-for-aid deal it would stop disabling a Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear complex and was considering getting back into the plutonium business. . . .

Kind of makes it sound like the kids' lemonade stand down the street, doesn't it? 'If we're bored tomorrow, we'll open up that stand and make a dollar so we can buy ice cream . . .'

Contrary to what most of the commentators talking to the news media say, North Korea's leverage decreases as time goes on. And as the world economy continues to tank, there'll be less to extort - er, negotiate - from other countries.

Then what do they do?
Getting there . . .

But it's a bumpy road . . .

Two months to go.

Luigi Pirandello . . patron saint of travelers*

Delta . . . ready when they are, or not

So the car arrives at the hotel, precisely on time. That has to be a first for Italy, and I take it as a good omen.

Not only that, but we arrive at Terminal 5 at Fiumicino (only us foreigners call it DaVinci) exactly three hours and three minutes ahead of flight time - as prescribed.

Mr. Murphy - the guy who wrote Murphy's Law - has been subdued.

Not so fast, grasshopper . . .

"There is a slight complication," says the man at the Delta counter.

"How slight?"

"You have been erased from the computer system. You are not in Italy."

"I'm standing right in front of you."

"The system says you did not make your flight."

"I have confirmed and assigned seats."

"Maybe. But you do not exist. And the flight, she is overbooked by thirty people..."

Sixty minutes of Italian and English discussion follow. Very nice, very polite, but . . . unable to actually get me to home. Finally, he steers me to a Delta Elite agent with the power to fix the situation - not by overriding the computer (for that he would have to be able to make the dead walk), but by arranging another flight on a different airline.

Which is leaving in forty-five minutes . . .

Difficult in most airports when security and customs are between you and the gate, but even harder here, where you have to catch a bus from Terminal 5 to get to the terminal where the plane actually departs . . .

Murphy** does his best, but I get to the gate only five minutes late . . . which in Italy is like being fifteen minutes early.

I'm in. The plane takes off. They're charging for booze, and the selection is slim, but at least we're heading in the right direction.

Which, um, is Philadelphia, not New York. Not a major problem, except that I arranged for a car to meet me at JFK around 3:30, the time the original flight was supposed to land. My friend, Mr. Elite, has arranged for a Delta flight to JFK, but it's going to arrive around 5:30.

There's a sat phone in the plane. Can I call the States with it?

Sure . . . but how much will it cost?

Hahaha, the instructions say only, "swipe your credit card." They don't even hint at how much it costs.

Not a good sign, but I use it anyway, and call my buddy Al at All Points Limo to explain the situation. Only problem is that Al's not around, and I have to leave a message. Hope his answering machine is working today . . .

The flight's fine, and we get into Philly a few minutes early. I have a bit over an hour and a half to make the connection . . . child's play at most airports, especially at a (relatively) compact one like Philadelphia, except - oops, at Philadelphia when you arrive, you have to clear customs before you transfer to your next plane (to be fair, that's the way it's done in most - many? all? - U.S. airports). You have to retrieve your baggage first, then go back through security.

Murphy is working overtime today; doesn't look like jet lag's affected him at all . . .

My bag is one of the last ones off the plane, but I look like an honest chap and whip through Customs, hustle to the U.S. Airways desk where they're supposed to take my bag and send it through while I go to the gate. Except they claim they've never heard of the airline I'm taking to NY . . .

Never heard of Delta Airlines?

I head through the terminal, get wrong directions, get right directions, get stopped by a pompous security jerk who doesn't know which way is north, get to the right place five minutes before the deadline. Knowing it's tight, I ask someone for help . . .

"Sorry, sir, I can't handle that."

"You can't check me in?"

"Afraid not."

"You just did it for that person there."

"You'll have to get on line."

"But --"

I get on line . . . make the counter about three minutes after the deadline . . . where the clerk says I'm going to walk home.

On his back, maybe.

There's no way to get to that flight . . . which hasn't boarded and is just down the hall, and oh by the way, is the last Delta to NYC until tomorrow...

More discussion follows. There's no Italian involved, and even the Anglo-Saxon is under control. I convince him to get his supervisor, who finds another flight on a different airline, leaving in an hour...***

I get bumped from that flight, too, but at least there are seats.

Get into JFK, today is turning into tomorrow . . . and there's Al's driver, smiling and waiting. She even spelled my last name right on her cardboard sign.

Thanks, guys. It's good to be home.

* - The photo and caption only work if you've seen a Pirandello play, like "Six travelers in search of an airplane," but what the hell...
The photo is at Rome's Theater Museum, which occupies a corner of the Italian equivalent of the Authors Guildnot too far from the Pantheon. I didn't realize stopping in the day before leaving for home would jinx me...

** You know Murphy -- the guy who wrote the law dictating that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, but only at the worst possible moment . . .

***I'd like to thank the Delta people in Rome and Philadelphia for finding a solution. The computer, on the other hand . . .
The party's over . . .

Gelato standings . . .

Fragola has taken a decisive lead after a visit to Blue Ice the Campo de Fiore . . .

Connoisseurs may object that this is akin to awarding a gold medal to soft-serve vanilla from the local Dairy Queen knockoff, to which the committee responds, "Your point is?"

Another restaurant plug:

Cotto . . . good food, and a truly friendly staff. Pretty much a tourist-oriented place, but not bad because of it.

Just off Via Nazionale, around the corner from the piazza and a few blocks from Termini.
A last word on graffiti

In English: The state is the terrorist(s) ...

Every so often, the graffiti has a point, though whether you agree with it or not is another story. I'm sure this one convinced a lot of people . . .

Just because you're an emperor, doesn't mean you won't be graffiti'd . . .
Vatican/Rogue postscript

Working with Richard Marcinko is not only an honor - he's an f'in' war hero, for christsakes - but it's also a pisser. He has one kick-ass sense of humor and you have to be on your toes, even at three and four in the morning. . . .

As for the Pope . . . well, let's just say that, in certain respects, his personality differs greatly from Demo Dick's. Not that you can afford to go to sleep in his presence either . . .

If you haven't read Holy Terror, grab it from the library or bookstore. And if you have - thanks. The next installment in the series, Dictator's Ransom, is due out soon. There's a website, or should be by the time I'm back:
At the Vatican

Still standing . . .

The last installment in the Rogue Warrior series, Holy Terror, took place partly in Rome, and it was fun visiting the Vatican again to check out the scene of some of Dick's adventures. It was good to see that the door he used to pursue some of the bad guys at one point has now been secured; I discretely checked.

Locked. Good.

They've also beefed up security a bit, though to be honest . . . no, I better not go there.

The rotunda looked none the worse for wear...

Saints, prophets . . .

On the way out, I looked up at one of the windows, and for just a second, thought Dick had returned . . .

The man himself? Can't be . . .

I think it was just my imagination, but with Richard Marcinko, you never know.

Hey, the guy saved the Pope. There's no limit to what he can do . . .

My new favorite restaurant, Isole di Sicilia. It's in Trastevere, at the foot of Janiculum Hill, within walking distance of the Vatican.* Everything's good.

*- I didn't think it was that far, but your opinion may vary. If you go, check out Villa Farnesina down the street. It has the coolest staircase you've ever seen in a banker's house. The Raphael ain't shabby, either.

Jimmy was a SEAL until he messed up his knee. There's a story in that - he says a medical officer screwed him over - but it's long and involved and due to be told at another time. For now the point is that he has a slight but noticeable limp, and though he'd changed quite a bit since I last saw him - his hair is in a ponytail, his dress is European hippie - I knew it was him coming up the steps as soon as I saw how he was walking.

He's still a shooter, but he does it with cameras; he makes his living these days as a photographer. In Europe, and mostly industrial/commercial type stuff, some catalog things and advertising, which he says doesn't pay as well as you'd think, at least not for him.

He's been trying to break into fashion and art stuff lately; when I asked why he doesn't do combat gigs for news services, he laughed and said: "Which would you rather look at? Beautiful babes or people bleeding?"

After we met near the Tiber, we crossed over and he took me down some back street (a mile? two miles?) from the Vatican. All of a sudden we were in the middle of a street (more like an alley) party. People were dancing via an Ipod hookup to Italian covers of Beatles songs. Not only was the music in a different language but the style mixed some late neo-pop with 50s rock 'n roll with Euro techno-pop - very dislocating if you paid too much attention to it, but intoxicating if you just went with the flow.

The crowd - there had to be close to 150 people there - was heavily female, ranging in age from 18 to 60. Every woman looked like a model.

There was a table with wine and glasses (real glass), though almost no one seemed to be drinking. I fixed that.

"Shang-ra-la," Jimmy told me as I poured us some red. "Just don't talk politics."

I didn't.

Later on, I asked him how he got hooked into the party, which apparently is a regular thing, two or three nights (and early mornings) a week, with a fairly set crowd. (No way I would have been welcomed - and I was welcomed - if I hadn't been with him.)

"I kind of fell into it," he said. "Friend of a friend of a friend. They were so-so about letting me in. Then they got cool."


"Dude - I told them I was a SEAL."
Lion meat

If you think gouging tourists is bad, just remember what they did to the first tourists here . . .
At the Coliseum

The line to get in is behind the line in front, which is of people looking at the line to get in. It's longer inside. If you time it right, though, you can almost breeze through.

Ancient Rome is one of the sub-themes of my trip (gelato and Chianti are among the others), so naturally I had to visit the Coliseum, even though I've been there before. It's a lot more tourist-oriented than most of the outdoor ruins, which is both good and bad - there's an admission charge and a long security line. There are also tour groups; as elsewhere in Italy, you can cut the line by joining a tour. English speaking guides - most of them look like British college kids on vacation - hawk their tours to people waiting in line.

I didn't take the tours, so I don't know if they're a good deal or not; my guess is that they're probably worth it if a) you know very little about the Coliseum and/or Roman history, or b) the line is long and the weather is hot.

Another way you can "cut" is by buying a pass ahead of time on-line. I bought an archaeological pass that allowed entrance to a number of different sites, including the Forum (basically across the 'street'). After I got through security - not exactly onerous - collecting the ticket wasn't hard, and I was free to wander through the first and second centuries on my own . . .

They built a partial deck to give you an idea of how the flooring worked. There were two levels below, where they kept the animals and slaves.

The Coliseum has to be Rome's number one tourist attraction, and there are a number of tourist-oriented free-lancers around. I haven't seen the outright scammers I saw in Florence there; maybe I'm not looking hard enough, but my sense is that the authorities here have a somewhat better sense of propriety.

Or maybe my cynicism is just being melted by the heat . . .

There was a gypsy lady with four parakeets, all with clipped wings. She sat by the curb of the ancient road, the birds on her box - she wasn't selling them, so what was she doing with them? Getting kids to hold them, I guess, and maybe for that someone would toss a Euro or two. Except all the kids around her seemed to be family . . .

But far and away the best free-lance attraction were the guys dressed up as ancient Roman legionnaires, etc., who would pose with tourists for 5 Euros, hairy legs and all.

For 5 Euro, you too can conquer Rome, or at least a Roman . . .

One of these guys, working the crowd by himself up near the Forum, had a British accent. I was going to ask him if he'd run into Arthur while on duty in the far-flung reaches of the empire, but he was busy making faces to a tall, dark German girl . . .
Gelato bulletin

Fragolla has jumped back into the lead. Further research required.

And what is it with blue soap? Every hotel has it in their bathroom over here.
I chose my hotel sight unseen and sans recommendations, based more on its location (and price) than the amenities. That isn't to say that it's a dump - far from it. But it's surprising when the amenities it does have turn out to be pretty decent - a good price on internet access (as long as I use their business center), free minibar (2 beers a day), and breakfast.

Yeah, I know, breakfast is generally included at most European hotels , but this breakfast is actually good. At least if like pastries - they have these little lemon tart things are addictive. Different cakes, thick Italian bacon . . . (Sure, there's healthy stuff like fruit, and even eggs . . . you think I'm here for my health???)

But the best thing about breakfast is the cappuccino, fresh made. (Unlike the hotel in Florence, which served, gag, instant cappuccino - just add spit.)

The trick, though, is to get more than one. It's not because they're cheap; they just don't understand the concept of caffeine addiction. Or maybe they do and they've decided not to be enablers.

In America, you might slide your cup to the side and look plaintively in the direction of the waitress or captain, subtly asking for a refill. That doesn't work in Italy - the cup is simply whisked away.

Begging, in poorly accented Italian, does work. So far, I haven't had to get on my knees, but I am prepared.

But what I want to know is - why is St. Peter standing on Trajan's Column?*

Walking backwards

I dump my stuff and go down Via Nazionale, trying to make like a Roman and ignore the traffic. Few people are really Roman here, so the people I'm trying to blend in with are actually other tourists pretending not to be tourists. But no one wants to be a wide-open mouth-gaping tourist. So I keep my mouth closed, eyes unfocused, very 21st century blase . . . until I take a left and go down a set of stairs.

The second century suddenly appears in the middle of a parking lot before me. Then the first century.

This is Rome.

We're all tourists here. And that's not a bad thing.

*Actually, I know the answer to that: Pope Sixtus V ordered it there in 1588. Now all I have to do is figure out how six becomes five, and I'll know everything.
Welcome to Roma; give me your money

From the company website . . . Termini doesn't look quite as cool as that in real life, but it is better than Penn Station.

Cash only

We took a train from Florence to Rome. The ride was late but uneventful - I even remembered to cancel my ticket.

Roman cab drivers are notorious thieves, especially when they pick up people at Termini, and the one who picked us up was no exception. Drove us a few blocks out of the way, then tried to charge us twice for the bags. I showed him - made him change a big bill.

Twenty bucks for six blocks . . .

I'd say karma will get him but not the way he drives . . .

The guys at the restaurant where we had a late lunch more than made up for it with complimentary limoncello . . . hey, it wasn't my fault they left the bottle...
Time is . . .

One thing you have to remember when taking a train in Italy - "late" is a foreign concept. Which means no train is ever late.


Hahahah . . .
Traveler's Tip #436

Those DK Guides look really nice, but the pictures take up too much room - you're much better off with something far less pretty.

Assuming you're not carrying the internet in your hand, that is.

But the internet isn't particularly famous for accuracy, which is what you value above all when traveling. This is what one site - very high on Google -- says about the Florence train station:

"The station itself has many bars and cafes, where you will be able to find the most expensive bottles of soft drinks in Florence. There is an underground shopping gallery in the complex under the station which has a good selection of budget clothes and shoe shops, internet cafes, music and book shops and even a hairdresser. "

There is a McDonald's, but the multitude of bars and cafes must be hiding. There aren't even that many places in the immediate vicinity, unless you count the stands set up to grab the odd Euro off disoriented tourists in for their weekend fix of booze and art, much more the former than the latter. The underground complex is dodgy enough to be listed as a place to avoid in the tourist pubs. You can get a cold beer cheap there, or a haircut, but most of the people walking through are moving at a good Manhattan pace, muttering to themselves that they'll brave the street traffic next time . . .

I don't mean to dump on the train station - well, just a little - but some of the things you read about places on the internet have more fiction in them than my books.

And yes, you are reading this on the internet . . .

Maybe I'm just smoking the cheap (ha) stuff, but the Cubans don't seem much better than the Dominicans and Hondurans I get back home.

Not that my cousin would ever admit that . . .

Tourist graffiti on a wall near the Academia in Florence. The problem goes far beyond a few thoughtless slobs.
Garbage and grunge

Among the things I can't get used to here are the presence of large garbage and recycling bins - about the size of construction waste dumpsters - on the streets in the small towns and cities. The idea is that you take your recyclables there, rather than having the garbage company come to you, presumably saving the taxpayers some money. But it's a pretty trashy solution.

Couldn't resist the pun.

Seriously, the bins are about the size of a small car, and there are several in a row parked in rather conspicuous spots everywhere you go. The summer heat makes the bins stink, and they have a predictable effect on the local landscape.

They're a blight in the small towns but arguably even worse in the cities. Then again, things could be considerably worse - the garbage in Naples collected for months until new landfills were opened late this spring.

Garbage crisis aside, Florence seems especially dirty, much grungier than I remember. The fact that it's overrun by tourists who aren't especially concerned with keeping things clean is one reason for the mess. Literally tens of thousands of people move through the streets every day. And for some reason, the city seems to be a favorite of people looking to get drunk over the weekend, which is baffling for many reasons, not least of which is the price of alcohol.

But sloppy and-or drunk tourists are just one part of the problem. There's trash in the gutters of nearly every street, and graffiti everywhere you go, even in the residential areas far from the attractions (though thankfully not as bad there).

Again, some of the graffiti is from tourists - some Japanese schoolgirls were caught in a case that got worldwide publicity just before we arrived - but the slogans and locations make it clear the problem goes well beyond thoughtless visitors. Overall, the city seems uncharacteristically unkempt and under-cared for. For a place whose economy depends quite a bit on tourists, Florence shows a very bruised face to the world.

But it's nostalgic in a way - reminds me of New York City when I was growing up.
Rogue Warrior: Dictator's Ransom

We interrupt this pointless and unending travelogue for this self-congratulatory announcement:

The first review of the new Rogue Warrior book has appeared in the trade press and, by gosh, they actually like it:

Rogue Warrior: Dictator’s Ransom Richard Marcinko and Jim DeFelice. Forge, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7653-1793-3
Bestseller Marcinko and DeFelice (Rogue Warrior: Holy Terror) deliver another rousing adventure, the 12th to star former navy SEAL Marcinko’s fictional alter ego. Dick Marcinko (aka the Rogue Warrior; aka Demo Dick) shows few signs of advancing age as he tangles with the world’s sleaziest dictator, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Kim, a Marcinko admirer who’s read all the Rogue books, knows that Dick’s the man to locate his missing illegitimate son, Yon Shin Jong. Dick turns down the offer with its $64 million reward until the CIA tells him that it would be a good idea to take the job. Meanwhile, longtime team member Trace Dahlgren finds that her lover, Polish helicopter pilot Ike Polorski, is in reality a Russian mobster involved in a plot to abduct Kim’s kid and trade him for a nuke. Dick is as funny and dangerous as ever, making this one of the better entries in this techno-thriller series. (Oct.)

Aw shucks....

We're putting together a website for the book - it's not actually public yet, but if you point your browser (does anyone say that any more?) to you can check it out. Feedback on what the site should eventually contain is welcome. (There's some video coming and the usual bs - it's the unusual bs that interests me . . .)
Unanswered question #23

Are those really Egyptian mummies in the Florence archaeological museum, or just people on standby for Alitalia flights?
Opera will only get you so far

Figaro, Count Almavia's valet, walked up to the crowd standing in front of the Duomo.

"If I sing Aprite un po' quegli occhi ,"* he asked, "will you let me cut to the head of the line?"

No one agreed. Tough town, Florence.

Or maybe he should have tried something from Verdi.

* "Open your eyes" - The famous aria from Act 4.
Another bottle of wine, signore?

Or is three enough? . . .
Carpaccio e popo

So I dumped on tourist restaurants, but there are plenty of good places to eat in Florence. Ristorante Ricchi on Piazza Santo Spirito isn't considered anything "special," but they have a fantastic carpaccio di pesce -- thinly sliced fish, which the night I was there included lightly grilled (I think) squid. And fresh sardines which, needless to say, were nothing like what you're thinking of.

Even in the center city, there are great places. One that's not in the guide books is the hotel restaurant at Sofitel, which is just down the street from the Duomo. The place was empty - the bus loads of tourists must have just left - but the octopus and pasta were outstanding.

Don't ask the prices, though.

Standings so far:

2 Euros, but for you I make a deal . . .

Outside the Academia . . .
Hotel TV

You can't get YES and the Yankee games, or even MLB on Fox, but you can get Eurosport.

Eurosport is the equivalent of ESPN2 ... or maybe ESPN23,456 - the main attractions are summer downhill sky jumping (you jump on grass) and beach soccer.

Both of which are incredibly interesting after a few bottles of Chianti . . .

I mentioned San Marco in the last post.

The Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola came to San Marco in 1490 and began preaching about the coming apocalypse, which he saw as imminent. It was a bad time for Florence - the Medicis were losing their grip; the French king would soon invade Italy and do battle with several city states, including Florence. Savonarola interpreted the chaos - and the decline in living standards for the middle class and poor - as a sign from God. He railed against Florentine decadence, including homosexuality, which was tolerated especially in the upper ranks of society.

Turning against the Medicis, who'd once been his patron, he essentially became the leader of the city when the French attacked and the Medicis were forced into exile in 1494. Among other things, he organized a burning of what he termed pornographic art in the Piazza della Signoria. (The main and most important town square, outside city hall. That's where the Uffizi is today. The episode is usually called a 'book burning' but books were no where near as plentiful in 1494 as the term suggests.) Under Savonarola's influence, sodomy became a capital offense.

Though the government of the city had been elected, the people eventually revolted, and after a riot in 1497, Savonarola was arrested, 'tried', and burned at the stake in a fire that lasted several hours, as the authorities sought to reduce every bit of his remains to ashes so there'd be no relics for his followers.

But Savonarola's memory was not stamped out. His portrait, disguised with the attributes of another Christian martyr but recognizable to his followers, was added to paintings by Fra Bartolomeo. The movement to redeem his reputation continues to this day; there is currently a struggle between different factions in the Catholic Church on whether or not Savonarola should be canonized at a saint or not. (Some of Bartolomeo's work, masterful in its own right, is on display at San Marco. And just for the record, I'm way over-simplifying the complicated politics, which involved the popes as well as the Medicis and French king, responsible for Savonarola's rise and fall.)

The Medicis eventually returned to power. As religious as Italy can seem at times, strict religious puritanism has never had mass appeal here.
Cutting in line

Sometimes it seems like everything in Florence is part of a scam, or gives rise to one . . .

The lines at some of the major museums throughout Italy have grown so long that there's an entire industry devoted to getting you around them. They take advantage of the fact that most museums offer special deals and times for group tours - the notorious prepackaged bus tours. Individual travelers can sign up to go with a group tour guide or even, in some cases, simply pretend to be part of a group and then split as soon as they're past the door.

The Vatican Museum in Rome is probably the most notorious for this, but the lines at the Uffizi and the Academia in Florence are just as bad if not worse. You can buy your "group" tickets ahead of time on-line, a painless though expensive process. But in some cases you can find tickets just down the street, like at this tobacco place around the corner from the Academia.

It's cheaper there than on-line, of course. And not to worry - though the process has this vaguely illicit feel, it's commonplace.

If you don't go in high season, or if you time your visit right, none of this is necessary - but you have to know the ebb and flow of the tour groups, which differ from place to place. The Academia is relatively small, so a couple of busloads of Japanese tourists fill the place up. If you can time your visit to late afternoon - when most have headed back to their hotels to get ready for an early (for Europe) dinner - you tend to find shorter lines.

Usually. I'm a jump-the-queue guy myself.

Some of the real treasures don't have any lines at all. I saw this incredible "collection" of Fra Angelica's art at San Marco, a former convent (we'd be more likely to call it a monastery, since the men who lived there were monks) only a few blocks from the Academia; no line at all.
Smile while I rip you off

Out in the small Tuscan towns, even the ones that are basically tourist traps, people are generally nice and extremely honest with strangers.

Florence, however, is a different story. The areas outside the city center - where real people live - are fine, as friendly as you could wish for, but the closer you get to the Duomo, the more you have to watch for scams. Most of them are either obvious or dumb - the guy at the bar who tried to charge me for a coffee I didn't have (dumb, since you're required to give customers a bill with everything listed), the vendors who sell paper cut up dolls that supposedly dance (a hidden string helps, though of course they fail to mention that).

For the most part, the restaurants in the tourist areas are pretty upfront about how they're ripping you off - a pizza for one can cost 10 Euros ($16), and a plate of spaghetti's in the same neighborhood. That's pretty much how it is near any tourist attraction, worldwide. Truth is, the real problem is the exchange rate; a year and a half ago the price - adjusting for the location, of course - wouldn't have seemed outrageous at all. And usually, the tourist-oriented food in Italy is still fairly decent, more than the equivalent of what you'd get at a similar venue in NYC. Or at least I think so; I try to avoid obvious tourist traps in my hometown.

I generally avoid them in Italy, as well, but in this case I had to stop for lunch at a little dump of a place called Donnini Pasticceria, which translates roughly as "Eat here only if you're an imbecile, which is how the staff will treat you."

The place gave dumps the world over a bad name. The pizza appeared to have been cooked the day before Julius Cesar was assassinated; the spaghetti was in his lunch box when he spit on Brutus. The uni-sex restroom - common in Italy - wasn't clean enough to puke in.

No biggie, even if the prices were absurdly high. I could have lived with it all had the waiter-hawker-maitre de above, who after taking the bill came back with my change and said rather confidentially, "You know, the tips are never included in Italy."

Now that's almost true - tips and charges for service are rarely added to the bill in restaurants frequented by Italians. But in tourist areas especially, many restaurants add both a cover charge and, very occasionally, a service charge as well. Techincially, the cover charge is usually listed as a charge for bread, per person, and appears that way on the bill. 2 Euros is pretty common. I don't know if that's to get around some obscure Italian law or established custom. One custom I do know that's very established is tipping - as a rule, Italians don't. And they don't feel bad about it either. (Tourists are often semi-expected to leave about a ten percent tip; if you're with Italians, though, they'll generally talk you out of it as bad form.)

But I digress.

As I said, some restaurants in tourist areas charge for both - and they even say they do. As this one did, right on its menu. So obviously my friend thought I couldn't read, English or Italian.

I neglected to tip him. An oversight, surely.

But what the hey. I guess he didn't hold a grudge, because the next day he smiled when I returned with a camera to take his picture ... next to the sign that said service was included in the bill...

The moral of the story: steal from me if you must, but don't treat me like a complete imbecile when you do it. A run of the mill fool will do.

I'm meeting Carlo near the Academia, the museum where David hangs out in all his homo-erotic glory. Even though I'm a good fifteen minutes early, he's already sprawled over a table at the cafe/bar when I walk up.

"Ciao," I say.

"Yeah. don't order a beer, for christsakes. I don't want people thinking I hang out with touristi."

"I don't look like a tourist?"

He squints. "If you keep your mouth shut, you might get by. Order a cafe. No, let me."

Actually, I want water. It's about 90 degrees out and I'm sweating buckets.

"Better than beer, I guess." He launches into a tirade about how Florence is being overrun by tourists. Like I couldn't see that coming.

Carlo talks like a Florence native, but he's actually an American. He's lived in Europe since the late '70s or '80s. He claims to have been in advertising, but all his stories have to do with late Cold War spying. They also generally involve an "f-in commie scum," though every so often he'll sprinkle in an "honorable Rusky." Maybe he really was in advertising; most ex-spies don't disparage their old opponents quite so badly.

He's retired, though he's not sixty yet. At least I think he's retired; ask too many personal questions and all you get is a deeper scowl in reply.

"The Ukranians are the worst," he says, continuing his anti-tourist tirade. "Throwing all their black market money away. Money they probably stole from the Russian -- "

Carlo stops mid-sentence. I follow his eyes to a pair of slim young women standing near the door, looking for a table. They're wearing silk dresses that stop about mid-thigh and look painted on.

"Tourists?" I ask.

"Ukranians." Carlo gets up. "Scusi."

He walks over to them, says something in Italian, then switches to another language - I'm guessing Ukranian. They laugh, and walk over to our table.

"We're going to the Acadamia," he says. "Interested?"

It's not the museum he's asking about. I beg off. Which is just fine with Carlo. He winks.

Later, he sends me a text.

"Touristi. Gotta love them."
Come si dice?

Contrary to popular opinion, my Italian is actually not that bad; I can understand what people say to me most of the time. The problem, usually, is making them understand me - my New York accent apparently confuses the linguine out of people.

Plus, I have the vocabulary of a five-year-old.

Well, maybe a three-year-old. But a bright three-year-old.

Hotel minibars

So we're in Florence.

The beer in my hotel's minibar is 7 Euros. At the current exchange rate, that's somewhere around $11.66.

Makes the prices at Yankee Stadium look cheap.
Buon girono

I'm walking in Sienna and an F/A-18 flies overhead, close enough to set off car alarms.

'Good God, they found me,' yells some across the street.
Philosophical question

Can you judge gelato by the fruit on top of the tray? And if so, what does that say about stracciatella*?

* chocolate chip, except better...
On the road

So we're driving back to the villa, going through one of the round-abouts . . . and just as I'm thinking they're a hell of a lot easier to negotiate here than in England, being that you're on the right side of the road, I see a girl take a spill off a scooter. I pull off and run over. Her boyfriend tells me in German-accented English that she's fine, never felt better, but that ankle looks pretty broken to me. Her cuts aren't too pretty either, though she's not bleeding badly.

How do you say ankle in Italian?

As I'm pulling out the cellphone someone else stops. He speaks Italian, but no German and not, I don't think, English. He convinces the boyfriend to let him call for an ambulance.

My bet is that relationship won't survive the cast . . .

Sienna's cathedral. Next time I bring the good camera...


Throughout most of its history, Sienna competed with Florence, almost always coming out second best. It's smaller, not as well situated, and historically a bit cranky about it. Today, those are actually all assets . . . It's a nice city, not completely overrun by tourists, and if you can find a parking space, a great place to wander around.

Assuming you can ignore the exchange rate. The dollar is running about 60 Euro cents, before the ATM and credit card fees. Which makes a 2.5 Euro espresso in center city a very expensive spit of caffeine.

Mario's a Sienna truck driver, pushing his little white van around the alleys of the city from, well roughly ten to maybe three, but who's keeping track? From what I understand, he likes the challenge of squirting through the narrow streets. Kind of like playing Doom on wheels.

'A sport,' he says, gulping espressos at my expense a few blocks from the town square. '
Soccer, without a goalie.'

Later he shows me his truck. Two years old, it has more scrapes and dents than the farm tractor abandoned in the woods behind my house.

'Someday, I go to America,' he tells me as me say goodbye. 'If I can find a job.'

'You could be a taxi driver in New York.'

His face goes white. 'I hear NY drivers are crazy.'

'Dude, you're way overqualified,' I say as a Fiat blows through the alley at forty klicks, missing me by half an inch.

Near San Gimignano... not a Lenny picture...
San Gimignano

San Gimignano is a little town in the Tuscan hills that's like a lot of little towns in Tuscany - surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, and sunflowers; filled with tourists - except for its towers. At some point during the middle ages the local swells decided to show off by adding towers to their homes. (No worry about Freud then, obviously.) Several dozen were built; fourteen survive.

According to the guidebooks, that is; I was too lazy to count. The towers aren't open to the public, but they get the town into the guidebooks, and along with its location on one of the main meandering sub-highways in central Tuscany that's enough to bring a steady flow of travelers.

Lenny's a photographer who splits his time between San Gimignano and Newhaven in southern England, though having been to Newhaven I'm baffled as to why.

'Sunflowers.' He says the word as if it's a prayer. 'Sunflowers.'

Not every photo he takes here is of sunflowers; just ninety-five percent. Of course, they're just for "art"; you can't buy them in the local shop. (Though there are plenty of other sunflower and landscape shots there.)

'Come back tomorrow and I'll make your photo,' he tells me.

I beg off. 'I don't want to break your camera.'

Lenny nods knowingly. 'Too true. Too true.'
Gelato around the clock

Sadly, the posse rated the gelato at this stand at only three and a half stars, well off the current leader. Nonetheless, just knowing that it was available 24/seven was a relief.

Italy is known for its pasta, cheese, cured meats and especially its wine, but what's really good here is the gelato, which is basically a food group of its own.

Gelato is often called ice cream in the states, but it's really not the same. It's made with more milk than cream (the reverse of ice cream), and comes in a massive number of flavors . . . so far I've seen watermelon, lime, tiramisu, rose, and a couple of dozen I can't translate, let alone describe.

The posse has tentatively decided that fragola - strawberry - is the best. Clearly, they're a conservative bunch.

Gelato is usually kept in large trays just this side of frozen, which means you have to eat it fast before it drips all over the place. (You can get it in a cup, but where's the fun in that?) Prices vary - in a small town I've found it as cheap as 80 Euro cents for the small cone; in the cities, the same cone can be 2 or even 2.5. With the dollar bringing only .60 Euros (yow) and even a little less, that's a good hunk of change . . . but worth it, especially when you consider the high nutritional value.
Traveler's Tip # 316

If you're on the airplane and you see there's a long line to the restrooms, but one of them is empty, join the queue and wait. At best, the other restroom is out of toilet paper.

You don't want to contemplate the worst.


Seems like everybody who's anybody is heading to China for the Games.

Not being an everybody or an anybody, I'm going to Italia.


Parking at Yankee Stadium apparently wasn't a big enough pain in the ass, so the dimwits who control the lots there decided to make it even more fun by changing what was a simple though expensive system at the main parking garage into a complicated and expensive system. Instead of paying as you go in, they installed a system where you get a ticket, validate it (and pay), then have to insert the ticket to get the gate to go up when you leave. That system may work fine at the luxury hotel lots where these jackals have cocktails and the hired drivers deal with the snafus, but how's it going to work at the end of a nine inning 2-1 game against Boston?

A rhetorical question.

Last night it took me twenty minutes to get out - and I left in the sixth, after the Yankees were down by ten runs. And I knew the fastest way out.

According to all the lot attendants and the security people, it's exactly the nightmare that anyone who actually ever used a parking lot while attending a sporting event could have predicted. And that's with attendants standing at the gates making sure nothing goes wrong... it'll be all sorts of fun once they're gone, once the machines start crapping out, once Mr. Murphy takes an interest . . .

My only question is which will come first, a homicide, or a riot?

The real shame is there's no way to use the premise in a book . . . no one would ever believe anyone would be so stupid to set up such a system . . .