Twenty minutes after our arrival into Rome, and after a brief traverse of the city to our hotel, I’m annoyed and frustrated with the comments of my tour-mates. “Blockbuster here? How disgusting!” “Oh, good – a McDonalds!” and “Did you see all the graffiti? How awful, I can’t believe we pay to travel this far to find graffiti.”
Of course, Ms Georgia, Rome – thousands of years old, should have shut down all of its history and foundation to spiff itself up for you. Did you not listen to the introduction to the city? Did you not pay attention to the civic significance of graffiti in Rome over eons of regime change and political upheaval? And why, Ms Southern Belle, do you think that this city should be preserved as a decoration? Why do you refuse to embrace the living, breathing, changing society that it is? If you would be so kind as to step outside of your regular routes and high-society socials, you might (gasp!) find graffiti in your own city.
Yes, I’m peeved. I think it’s thoroughly disgusting that one would embrace the proliferation of McDonalds yet be irritated by the presence of a Blockbuster location. I’m annoyed that these people think the entire city should look like Disneyland – a designed entertainment venue complete with scripted and costumed characters. Instead of appreciating the marvel of natural characters and many forms of expression that have been creating Rome since the days of Romulus and Remus, they’d rather sit in McDonalds and bitch about how the coffee is still too dark and the people aren’t very nice. Why would they be nice to you? You’ve been complaining since the very instant they welcomed you.
You are an ugly American in all of your department store finery. Please stay in the hotel and talk to no one. Call your husband and tell him how nice Rome would be if only there weren’t so many Romans. Next time you take a vacation, stay in the Bible Belt and pray for all of us sinners out there in the world who embrace art, music, expression and passion.
Less than four hours after arriving in Florence, I was lying painfully on my side, with my ankle sickly twisted underneath me. Not entirely sure of what had happened, I was highly aware of tremendous pain and the nearly overwhelming urge to be sick. After several minutes of attention from my fellow tour-mates, one of whom is a medical doctor, I was able to sit up and confirm to all of them that I really, honestly, truly did not crack my head, but that my ankle was probably broken. I call this event my “graceful, quiet move” because it was neither. I’d been exiting a church, and was looking at the viewing screen on the back of my camera instead of where I was stepping. I’d tripped and missed a step – and had fallen down a few more until I landed at the bottom with a huge clatter, a destroyed camera, and a foot that wasn’t pointing in the same direction as it was when I’d started. Wow. Welcome to Florence.
Immediately, important people showed up with official-looking emblems on their blazers and hand-held radios. A wheelchair came from somewhere, and way too many people tried to help me into it — getting in the way for the most part — but their intentions were generous. The official-looking people wanted me to go to the hospital in an ambulance for X-rays. I really preferred to go in a taxi cab. While we went back and forth about this, an ice bag was brought to me, and my neck scarf is used to wrap it to my ankle. Someone got in touch with our tour guide, and he was on his way. While the official ones were discussing what to do with me, my best friend moved my wheelchair so that I was positioned in front of the doorway from which I’d fallen, and snapped a photo. This photo later became the cover of one of my 40th birthday cards. (I’ll get even)
After a short wait, my tour guide arrived – Stuart is a chipper British man with a loving and often hilarious perspective of Italian life. He let me know that the official people must send me to the hospital in an ambulance to protect their own ability to get insurance coverage. I concede, and the paramedics are called. Immediately, the women of the tour group got sudden bursts of energy. Like a swarm of worried butterflies, they picked the sticks out of my hair that I’d snagged while laying on the ground, they produced lovely little tissues to wipe my mascara from where it smeared on teary eyes, and they let me know that my makeup and toenail polish were “just lovely.” All this, because Italian paramedics were on the way!
It was only a few minutes until we could hear the sirens. The embarrassment from all of the attention was probably a good distraction – on the verge of a hard cry and still fighting the urge to throw up, I knew if I weakened my resolve with my tears or my stomach, I’d have been out of control with both of them. So surrounded by sympathetic and worried glances, with my teeth chattering and my foot sticking up in the air, we waited. The younger women of the group got more excited about the prospect of Italian paramedics as the sirens grew louder. I just wanted it over with, and it was hard to be in the wheelchair, in that much pain, without contemplating the effect this accident was going to have on my vacation.
Without much delay, the ambulance pulled very near the church plaza in which I was waiting, and the sirens were silenced. People on the tour got very quiet as the clatter of the ambulance doors, hurried conversations, and heavy footfalls got louder. Then with a flurry of commotion and day-glo orange uniforms, the Italian paramedics burst through the doors into the church plaza. No small production, this was. Nor was it “Baywatch, Italian Style.” While the women of the tour touched up their lips, Italy had lovingly sent me her version of the Keystone Cops.
It didn’t take long to realize the sirens were not for me. The sirens were to announce paramedics and introduce them to the world: they are important! They are in a hurry! And holy cow they are orange! Four men in their fifties and sixties and one young woman take over my care. She is a little timid and smiles at me reassuringly. One man is very tall and stoic, and never takes his cell phone from his ear. One man is very short, with a large handlebar moustache. Another ties his neck scarf very neatly and gestures with his glasses to punctuate his speaking. The last is a round, happy man with sympathetic attitude and a little bit of English in his repertoire.
The paramedics’ presence in the small, cold plaza is a spectacle of commotion, rapid hand movements, and argument. Though there was no evidence of anger, they all talked at once, upping the volume to be heard over the rest. Interestingly, all of them went silent as “Handlebars” unwrapped my foot. With a gentle touch, he poked this, prodded that, and slowly moved my foot this way and that. Having all of them around me was freakishly like being in a well – the huddle was so tight, light could barely infiltrate. Satisfied with his exam, “Handlebars” spoke two or three words which I did not understand, and then the commotion re-erupted. How could they not injure each other with all those arms waiving around? How did “Glasses” hold onto his glasses in that mess of flying hands? The volume got louder, though still not angry, until it ended as suddenly as it began. Apparently, they had reached an agreement. Who prevailed, I have no idea. But we were on our way. “Stoic” was still on the phone.
Handlebars pushed my wheelchair while the rest walked along side or trailed. Happy looked at me and said, “Americana, bad day.” We laughed at that as we exited to the parking area where the ambulance was ready. The young woman had a gurney waiting, and the five of them helped me move from the chair onto it. My feet stuck over the end by about twelve inches. Happy said, “Americana, too tall,” and made a comical gesture to help me figure out that I needed to scoot up. They wrapped me with blankets, elevated my feet, and strap me in. As they talked with my best friend and my tour guide, explaining the details of where we’d be going, I turn my head and take a look at the ambulance for the first time. I’m not positive, but I think the manufacturer must be Fisher-Price, because I’ve never seen a multi-passenger vehicle this small. Seven of us were going to fit in that? Someone’s kidding, right? Nope.
With a forceful push, my gurney is loaded into the back of the van. I’m still too tall, and while the rest of them are trying to figure out how to fit us all inside, I’m negotiating with Happy to drop my feet so that I can sit up. He doesn’t want me to sit up, he wants my injury elevated. “But we can’t close the doors,” I explain. “Oh, yes. That is problem” he laughs. Yes. It is. Sigh.
Finally, with all of us loaded into the ambulance (and the doors mercifully closed and latched), we’re off. My friend is sitting next to me with the address of our hotel, our guide’s telephone number, and my insurance card. The young woman was sitting on a fold-out seat near my head. Handlebars and Stoic were in the front, and Happy and Glasses were at the rear, crammed onto a tiny bench seat. My friend was worried, but everyone else was jovial. The young woman struggled with translation and wrote up my forms listing me as Russian. Happy and Glasses hooted with laughter. After a few minutes, Happy looked at me and says, “Codico Verde. Code Green – that’s you.” “That’s good, right?” I asked. “Well, it’s critical. But not so much,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Critical. But not so much. At this point, I knew I’d be OK.
Happy unloaded me and the gurney once we arrived, and pushed me into the hospital while the rest of the entourage was close behind. Still too tall for the gurney, my injured foot was in the way and regularly jarred by his round belly. He joked with me all through the halls, until we arrived at the emergency room intake counter. They dropped the gurney down low so that I could get off of it and into a wheelchair, and I was able to do so without much assistance this time.
Handlebars decided that the leg of the wheelchair should be raised to keep my ankle elevated. He held my leg up in the air as he squatted and worked on the wheelchair with one hand. Unsuccessful, he handed my leg off to Happy so the he could get both hands on his task. Frustrated with Handlebars’ failure to raise the leg of the wheelchair, Happy handed my leg off to Glasses while he got involved with the chair. Annoyed that neither of these two could fix the chair, Glasses called over a hospital attendant to help and dove in himself. Meanwhile, my leg is being passed from paramedic to attendant as their arms got tired of holding it up in the air. Finally, I lifted it by my pant-leg out of the way and take control of it myself while four of these crazies fought with the chair I was sitting in. Twice, I offered to get out of the chair in hopes it would be easier to fix, but they had none of it. That would have indicated failure.
After an hour of exams and X-rays, I was assured that I didn’t have a fracture, but a substantial sprain that would require medical care. The attending doctor had spent some time working in here in the Seattle area, and proclaimed in clear English that “People from Seattle are strange,” I asked why he thought people from Seattle were strange, and he replied very matter-of-factly, “Too close to Canada.” Ah, well that must explain it, I supposed. This place is crazy. Fun, but crazy.
With a thin plaster cast, a hundred dollar charge, and obscure prescriptions in my hand, I was about to be sent on my way. Unable to understand the instructions in Italian, I asked the doctor if I needed to avoid wine with the prescriptions. “Oh no, Signiorina! Of course not!”
She is the beautiful actress. Though years past the peak of her most magnificent glory, she gets up every day and prepares her elegant face for guests. She is torn between her aches and pains which worsen daily and her need and desire to be in the spotlight. She has to be stronger today than in younger years, and her challenges grow each passing year. Desperate for the tourist dollar, she welcomes the cruise ships that poison her waters and flood her islands.
She is tremendously rich and desperately poor at the same time. She is beauty, she is strength, she is magnificence, and she is fantasy. The very elements she needs to exist are drowning her – how much longer until she slips away in sadness?
“Signorina, are you sure? You wish to buy this in Spanish?” He had me at signorina, he could’ve called me signora, like everyone else had.
“Oh no! Thank you for looking! I thought I had picked up one in Italian.”
“Italian? Bella, you wish to buy the book in Italian? Do you read Italian?”
“No, signore, I do not read Italian well. But my mother read Pinocchio to me, and I’d like to buy her a copy in Italian as a gift from my trip.”
He lit up like one of the beautiful Venitian lights. “Did you know that Pinocchio came from Italy? It is our story, it does not belong to Walt Disney! Your mother read this to you in Italian!”
I did not correct him, for the memory I have of my mother reading me this book is indeed Walt Disney’s version. But his joy was so contagious that he just didn’t need to be burdened with the truth. He dug through his many versions of the children’s tale, and sorted through the different languages. Triumphant when he found the last Italian copy, he announced his discovery with fanfare for dramatic effect.
After we completed the transaction, he adjusted his little glasses and lovingly wrapped the storybook in paper and then sealed it with stickers from his shop. He presented it to me as if it were the last and most special holiday gift under the tree. We said our farewells, and wished each other well — and we really meant it. I think about him and his delight often, and I hope my mother enjoys the book.
In Venice, a taxi is a boat. The taxis wait about 200 yards from the airport terminal – lined up between pillars that provide steps for passengers to get on and off the boats. The water is terminally choppy – taxi boats are arriving and departing hastily and in constant succession. The steps are reasonably stationary. The boats are not. The taxis are low and fast, many of them outfitted with beautifully preserved wood and well worn passenger seats. The drivers are typically handsome, boisterous young men.
Our driver looks like he stepped out of a movie set. His jeans are just barely too tight – quite intentional, I’m certain. With very short, neat hair; impeccable casual attire, and the requisite giant sunglasses, he looks like he’s waiting for Mark Wahlberg to appear with a casting director. Instead, he’s stuck with us: a misfit group of road-weary American travelers, babbling nonsense from sheer exhaustion.
Once we’re all aboard, we can settle down and relax after the trepidation of trying to step onto this violently rocking beast. OK, “relax” isn’t really fitting, but being inside the boat is much less scary than contemplating that first step onto it. At least now we have something to hold onto. When it’s time to back away from the dock, we do so in the same manner as everyone else creating this giant storm in the water: decisively, forcefully, and fast. We’re all awake now!
From our viewpoint in the back, the stern of our boat is straight up in the air as it builds speed. There is no way the driver can see where we’re going, and I can only hope he made sure there was no traffic in the way before this suicide bullet boat accelerated. They must all be used to this, right? They do it all the time, right? Right?! Mercifully, our easy-on-the-eyes driver waited for the boat to level out before he made his telephone call.
With one hand on the wheel, and one hand holding his phone to his ear, he used his right elbow to control the throttle. Of course, should his telephone conversation require hand gestures (naturally unseen by the person on the other end of the call), he had to relinquish control of the boat in favor of the gesture. My first thought is, “This guy’s crazy!” But as I gathered my courage to look up from the floor, I saw other water taxi drivers blasting past us – with their mobile phones similarly glued to one ear.
Are they all talking to each other? How the hell can they hear anything over the boat engines? Maybe they can’t really hear anything. Maybe no one is on the other end of the phone? Maybe it’s all for show – to impress Mark Wahlberg, when he shows up to cast another movie. Or maybe they’re all crazy!
As we approach the main island, there is much more boat traffic, and our driver finally slows down to a presentable speed for any low-flying rocket. At this “leisurely pace,” we can all begin to enjoy the glorious spectacle that is Venice. There are many taxis like ours, delivery boats with household appliances, large water buses, and tiny motorboats used to run errands.
As we approach a very large freight hauler, I begin to realize that our tiny boat and that large boat are going to cross paths at the exact same spot in the water. To me, this impending collision seems quite alarming, and I seem to be the only one noticing a problem. The other passengers are wistfully looking behind us at what we’ve passed. Our driver is yammering away in a conversation that probably has no other participant. “Hello? Yo! There’s a big ass boat coming at us!” my brain screams silently.
Mr. AlmostMovieStar casually pulls the phone from his ear, and without even a thought of a warning to his passengers, hits the throttle with every ounce of strength his scrawny body can muster. Our taxi nearly launches into flight. We are speeding directly at the freighter, and I can hear the engines shrieking. Oh wait, that was me.
With frightening determination, our malicious, devil-inhabited, way too pretty, man-boy driver leans forward and ducks into the windshield as be pushes our lovely wood-paneled deathtrap-on-water toward the freighter.
With mere yards to spare, he hurtles our little boat around the stern of the freight hauler and lands our boat – still on water, thank the heavens – somewhere on the other side. He backs off the throttle and replaces his hand on the lever with his elbow once more and goes back to his conversation.
As I step off the taxi and onto the island of Lido, I think, “Let’s do that again!”