Beethoven Concert

Knowing that I am a Beethoven fanatic, my wife saw this sign on the door of the church of Ognissanti (all saints), and took a picture of it so we would have the information at hand. It was a beautiful little sign drawn on a typical yellow paper place mat used in restaurants in Venice. A small orchestra was to play one piece at 5:30 (17:30 on the sign). This sign was the only notice of the concert in all of Venice (so far as we know).

Ten minutes before the appointed hour (there's no reason to be there early) we were walking along the side of the church, and could hear music coming from inside. They had already started. We went in, sat down, and listened to the performance. It was quite good. I am very familiar with the work and would have noticed any irregularity. It was nearly perfect.

When we left we were still puzzled by the early start, and looked at the sign again. Someone had crossed out the "17:30" and replaced it with "17:00," or 5:00. They just went ahead and changed the time by marking it on the sign. You can't get much more Italian than that.

Cotechino (or How Karen Came to Eat Cheerios for Dinner)

Just after Christmas I went to the butcher to pick up a turkey, as we had decided that we would have turkey and all the fixin’s for New Year’s Eve dinner. We were on a river cruise on the Danube on Thanksgiving, I think in Germany, eating sausage and drinking glühwein. 

The tradition in Italy is to eat fish for this meal, but it was just the two of us, and Karen had bought a tiny jar of cranberry sauce for about seven dollars, so I picked up the turkey. As a gift, the butcher was handing out a traditional New  Year’s  sausage known as cotechino, pronounced cotta-KEY-no. It was a large fat sausage about six inches long and two or three inches in diameter. It actually did not look that good, but he had a big pile of them, he had given one to the old lady in front of me, and she seemed quite happy. He gave one to me.

When I got home I showed it to Karen. She said “throw it away.” Oh no, I couldn’t do that. It was a gift. I didn’t know the significance of it at the time, but she did. (I don’t know how she knows all this stuff). She told me it was for New  Year’s , but that it looked horrible, and it was made from various pieces parts of the pig, including something from the head. “Well, what do you think a hotdog is?” I argued. “It’s a slurry of pig parts mixed with spices. This is just a big, rustic, hotdog. And what do you think sausage in general is? It’s stuff you can’t eat if you see it the way it is, so you grind it up, mix it with fat, and stuff it into a casing.”

Yesterday I decided to cook it. We were at the point of either tossing it, or cooking it. I did some research and found recipes for it, and Italian people acting like it was a wonderful thing. All you do is boil it for a couple of hours (this one was uncooked) and serve it with lentils. Karen does not like lentils, so I made borlotti beans.

The recipe in The Silver Spoon, which is the only cookbook anyone ever needs, called for its skin to be pierced, and then wrapped in foil and simmered for two hours, or so. As it cooked I noticed that the smell was not that great, and that the foil had turned black. It did not smell rotten, but it did not have the wonderful smell of pork sausage. Karen kept quiet about the smell and let me do my thing.

We are into trying Italian and Venetian traditions, including the right food at the right time. Everything I read said that this was a big deal all over Italy for New  Year’s . I even found a few instructional videos on YouTube. So, I insisted on cooking it.

When the time was up I took it out the water, unwrapped it and cut into it. Looked just like the pictures. I had read one description of it, though, that gave me some concern. It was described as “sticky.” I didn’t know what that meant in the context of sausage, but I was about to find out. The stuff has a thick and indeed sticky texture that can best be described as gelatinous. As soon as I tasted it I knew that the meal was doomed, but I wanted to give Karen the chance to enjoy a traditional Italian food. I also knew that there was a reasonable chance she would barf.

I cut off a little piece and brought it to her in the bedroom, where she sat looking at the iPad. She immediately covered he mouth, jumped up from the bed, and ran into the bathroom to get the stuff out of her mouth. Thankfully, she did not puke. I must say that I do a lot of the cooking, and there have been times when she did not like what I made, but she never had to run to the bathroom and spit it out. 

“Have some borlotti beans,” I suggested. “No,” she said, “that’s all right, I’m gonna eat Cheerios.” So, it came to pass that the cotechino went into the trash (after I choked down another piece to give it a fair shake) and Karen ate Honey Nut Cheerios for dinner. I can still smell the thing.

My Crew

Recently I have been accepted into small group of men about my age who own or hang out in the handful of cafés I frequent in Campo Santa Margherita. I call them “my crew.” I’m not sure how this happened. I did not apply for it, as there is no application, and it was not sudden, but happened slowly. The butcher and fish guy I go to are in this campo, and there is a grocery store there that sells the
bread we like. So, when I go out to these shops I invariably stop in some or all of my haunts for a coffee, wine or beer. I discovered that this group of men meet informally sometime between 4:30 and 6:00 in the evening, at which time some or all of them can be found either in Millivini or next door at Osteria alla Bifora. They just happened to be there when I was, on several occasions.

There is Davide, who runs the Millivini in Campo Santa Margherita. By the way, the food there is excellent. It’s a cross between a restaurant and a café. You can always have just a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, but they also serve a pretty extensive menu of items prepared by Fulvio, an excellent chef. Give it a try. The service is good, they have a great selection of wine and beer, and the prices are quite reasonable for Venice.

There is Sakar, who owns and operates Mi and Ti, which produces an excellent selection of Middle Eastern dishes at a reasonable price.

There are Guido, who does I don’t know what, and Tullio, whose trade I also don’t know.

Davide is perfectly fluent in English, and Sakar and Guido are fairly good at it. Tullio does not seem to know any. This is important, because even after being here for four years, I’m not that conversant in Italian. But I am using these guys to try to learn.

The other day we decided to share the cost of a bottle of wine at Millivini (a thousand wines). First off, there were four of us splitting a twelve Euro bottle of wine. We were able to easily determine the share each should pay, but after that, it got complicated. I had only a twenty. So Guido and Sakar each gave me three. I gave Davide (who was one of the four and also the seller of the wine, as it’s his shop) the twenty. It took us fifteen minutes and a scientific calculator to figure out what my change ought to be. I don’t know why. We owed Davide twelve Euros, less his three, making it nine. Nine from twenty is eleven. Sakar had decided that it should be eight. I was so confused at this point that I had no idea, but remind me to count my change next time I buy something from Sakar. In the end Davide, who is the business of giving proper change, figured it out and I got back eleven. That left me with seventeen out of twenty, which is correct.
The Nativity Scene at St. Mark's Square

With that out of the way, the subject of Christmas came up, and of the nature of the characters in the Nativity scene. In St. Mark’s Square is a large Nativity scene with what I think are the ugliest characters I have ever seen. I hate it. I showed a picture of it to Guido and he exclaimed that it was horrible. Horrible! I had made the same comment to my wife the previous day, and she pointed out that it is supposed to have been made by some fancy porcelain factory. I told her I don’t care if Christ himself carved it out of ivory, it looked like hell. I have included a picture of it for you to make your own judgment.

Then Guido mentioned that Jesus in Europe is always shown with light hair and blue eyes. Yes, I said, we created him in our own image. He then told us that he had painted the eyes of his baby Jesus brown, because he was a Jew born in Palestine. Of course, he would therefore be unlikely to have blue eyes. 

Another thing that struck me about our conversation was that here in a place where Catholicism is a way of life, where in Venice, a place that would fit inside of Central Park, there are 151 churches, they expressed doubt about the virgin birth. I thought that in Italy if there is one universally accepted fact, it is that Mary was a virgin. But we were pretty far into the bottle. I guess the old quote that “in wine there is truth,” (In vino veritas) is true. 

So, if you get to Campo Santa Margherita between 4:30 and 6:00, look for a group of wise old men standing (or sometimes sitting) around waxing philosophical. We’ll let you buy us a round. (Which reminds me, it’s my turn to buy the next round. Anyone have change for a 500?)

Beggar Woman on our Bridge.

One afternoon we heard the sound of a woman begging on the bridge outside our living room window. We could hear her all through the house giving her loud, pathetic and incessant moaning that she needed food for her children, leaning out into the foot traffic while she did so, shaking a cup with a few coins in it. Now, before your eyes tear up, there are a couple of things you should know about beggars in Venice and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe.

1) They are not homeless. The beggars in Venice commute to work on the train from the mainland. This is their job. Americans in
particular have been taught to feel sorry for beggars in the street and to give them money. They think they are homeless, and when they see one of the pathetic creatures begging in Venice they envision them sleeping in the cold dark streets at night. Not so.

2) It’s always the same people. I have lived in Venice going on four years, and I always see the same people doing the begging, with only rare variation. There are two basic types of beggars.  I refer to them as “Gypsies,” although I don’t know for a fact whether they are ethnically Romanian, but I believe they are not Italian and come from Albania or Romania. The other kind is a handful of black men who stand around with a ball cap.

3) Many of their apparent afflictions are fake. You will see them hunkered over barely walking with a cane, shaking, and all twisted up. Don’t believe it. I would see one old woman who would go so far as to plop herself down on the pavement with her cane sprawled across her, rubbing her legs, as though she had fallen. When she walked she would take half an hour to go fifty feet. In the evening, I saw the same woman going like a bat out of hell to catch the train.

The beggars use three or four standard modes of panhandling.

They simply kneel on the pavement, head down and cup out, not making a sound. Fine, they interfere sometimes with traffic, but not really an annoyance.

They wander about the streets imploring passersby or, worse, those sitting at cafés, to give them money. As annoying as this is, they usually go away after a couple of seconds. Some are more persistent, but the bottom line is, don’t give them money. They will go away.

And then there is the method that is the subject of this blog. A certain variety of these people make an almighty nuisance of themselves by sitting on a bridge and constantly whining and pleading and shaking their cup, while extending their cup into the flow of traffic, flaying themselves about, rocking back and forth and to and fro in a most pathetic and, therefore, annoying way. This is the beggar on my bridge the other day.

This was the first time such a person had come to my bridge and begged in the way. There is one old man who goes around asking for coins so he can go buy cigarettes and play the slot machines. As annoying as he is, he goes away after a while. And he is one of the few exceptions to the type of person begging. He’s just an old Italian guy who’s figured out a way to get a bit more cash.

Anyway, I decided that this beggar woman needed to find another bridge. I opened my window and told her to go away. She ignored me. I kept at it. She looked up and made some Gypsy curse sign, and kept begging. I continued to tell her to go away and that’s enough. This exchange continued for about ten minutes until she finally got up and walked away, cursing me and making motions to her ass (which was quite fat. This beggar was not starving).

As you travel through Europe you will find the same type of people begging in the touristy areas of every major city. Annoying as they are, they are generally harmless, although you should try to keep them at greater than arms’ length. They do not deserve your sympathy or your money.

Footnote: There is a variation of begging involving the sale of roses.  The sellers of roses come out at night, and walk around the streets and squares trying to hand you a rose. They sometimes even come into bars and restaurants. They can be very persistent and a pain in the ass. After a while, they usually go away, although some continue after you tell them no, trying to get you to just give them some money.  Ultimately, they go away.

The problem is that a woman, when handed a rose, will almost always take it. If you want a rose, fine, give him the euro and he’ll go away. If you don’t, you will find that he will refuse to take it back. If that happens, just throw it on the ground. Works real good.

Another begging tactic, usually perpetrated by Africans, is to walk up to you, say hello and act friendly (which they are, really) and then try to hand you an envelope with some cock and bull story about what happens to the money. The idea is for you to put money in the envelope.

With all these beggars, as with the gold ring scam blogged earlier, just remember that these people are at best annoying, and at worst liars and pains in the ass. In other words, don’t worry about being polite. Ignore them, give them the hand, whatever. Even tell them to just go away, although ignoring them is the best. They will often give you sass if you tell them rudely to go away.

If you follow the rule to avoid strangers, don’t take anything from anybody, and be suspicious of anyone who approaches you with an accent and asks for anything, or asks for directions, you’ll be all right.

River Cruise Diary: Arrival in Prague

Church in Prague at Night
Living in Venice means we are only a couple hours’ flight from about anywhere in Europe. This year are taking a cruise on the Danube, visiting a number of cities, such as Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and places in between. Our trip started in Prague. Not part of the cruise, but as a few days we tacked onto the beginning.

We arrived in Prague on November 21, 2011, in mid-afternoon after a delay of a couple of hours due to fog. We flew from Venice to Vienna, then to Prague. We later discovered that there is an inexpensive flight directly from Venice to Prague for about 39 Euros on Wizz Air. 

A driver picked us up at the airport and we arrived at our hotel around 4:30 p.m. The hotel, Santini Residence, is very nice and the service is great. For example, the breakfast, which is included in the price of the room, can be delivered to your room for no extra charge. Deliver is prompt and friendly, and the food is very good. You fill out a card and order whatever you want, as much as you want.

We hadn’t had anything to eat since a small pastry at the Venice airport, so we went to a restaurant next door to the hotel called “The Three Violins.” The food was great and the service friendly (although at this hour he was not swamped). I had duck pate as an appetizer, and roasted duck as a main course, along with a glass of dark beer. The duck came with red cabbage, a sweet version of sour kraut, and a big pile of potato dumplings. Karen had goulash and then a cake of some kind for dessert. I recommend the place for its food. The only criticism I would offer is that the music was too loud and of a generally obnoxious variety. When will restaurants learn?

After that we walked around the old part of the city. The beauty of the place surprised me. Although some of it was built in the 9th century, for the most part it was built in the 18th century. Mozart used to hang out here. 

It is obvious that after the fall of communism they put their backs into making at least the historic center comfortable for tourists. Hotels, bars and restaurants abound, as do touristy shops, from designer brands to crass souvenir shops. The streets are clean and safe, and the buildings well maintained.

The historic center has all the trappings of touristy Europe. During the lunch and dinner hours, many of the restaurants have people standing outside trying to get you to come in. I avid such  places. There are also the occasional beggar, particularly on the Charles Bridge at night. They seem harmless, though, as they take a kneeling position where they rest their upper bodies on their elbows, and essentially lay in the street holding a cup and not saying anything. We were never approached by one.

The night was cold, we were full of hardy Czech food, and we were exhausted from our day of travel. We went back to the hotel for the night.

Gold Ring Con in Venice

Recently I have approached twice by people pretending to find a gold ring in the street, and then asking for money for it. Here’s how it works:

As you walk down the street a person will rapidly come toward you, and a short distance in front of you pick up a large ring laying in the street. The ring appears to be solid gold. They will ask you whether it’s yours. You of course did not drop a ring, particularly in a place where you have not walked yet. You say no, and attempt to go your way. They will follow you and try to give it to you. Your natural reaction is to refuse it, and tell them it’s their lucky day. Then they will give you some story about being allergic to gold (gold is inert, no one is allergic to it), or not liking jewelry, or some such nonsense. In the end, they will be such a pain in the ass about you keeping it that you finally give in and take it. You go your way, and they pretend to go theirs. Then they come back and demand money for it.

I don’t know whether the ring is gold or not, but I know someone who paid five Euros to the person and got the ring. Even if the ring is 14 karat gold, it would probably be worth a few hundred bucks at a pawn shop. There are no identifying marks on it, other than a very small stamp on the inside appearing to be the gold stamp. I’m guessing, though, that the ring is worthless.

So, if you travel in Italy there are a few rules to remember.

1.   Don’t take anything from anybody. Beggars and con men will often try to hand you something, like an envelope, or a rose, and then want money. I have even heard of them handing you a baby, and then going through your pockets. Simply refuse, and don’t worry about being polite. They are crooks and liars.

2.   Don’t let anyone get too close to you. If you are in a crowd, well, you’re in a crowd, but otherwise try to keep your distance.

3.   Do not take voluntary assistance from anyone. Unless you are a little old lady struggling to get her suitcase over a bridge, no Venetian is going to help you. There are Gypsies, particularly at the bridges near the train station and Piazzale Roma who will grab your bag acting all helpful, and at the other end demand money. Also, people will greet you at the train station and assist you in finding your train and your seat, and likewise demand money. There is no one at the train station to help you. If you fall for either of these scams, refuse to give them money. What they are doing is illegal.

4.   Beware of anyone (other than fellow tourists) asking you for directions. They will come up and put a map under your face with one hand, and go through your pockets with the other.

5.   Beware of swarms of young girls. They are out to pick your pocket.

            Do some research before you come as to what scams are out there, and always be suspicious of any Italian offering you any kind of assistance. Venice is safe and generally free of scam artists, other than the beggars, but you still need to use ordinary care. There are plenty of pick-pockets.

Note: There are porters in Venice near the Vaporetto stop for St. Mark's, but they have badges and a list of fees. They are worth every penny, but make sure you know the fee in advance.

Gondolas are Made of Wood

Gondola with bottom stripped
 Once I was showing some people around Venice from my home state of Michigan. Very nice people and a lot of fun. They were boaters and professed to know about boats. When I showed them the boat yard where gondolas are built and repaired, they swore that they were made of fiberglass. They were expert on the subject, and no amount of argument to the contrary would satisfy them that gondolas are in fact built entirely of wood (with the exception of a small amount of metal trim).

Over the course of last summer my friend Roberto, who is a gondolier by trade, had one built. Included here is a picture of his gondola on the form they use to construct them. The other day I noticed that one of the gondolas had had its bottom stripped of all paint, revealing the wood underneath. This is the first time I have seen a gondola being repaired with all the paint off the bottom. So I took a picture.

Roberto's gondola under construction

So, friends, as you ride around Venice in a gondola, you can be sure that the boat you are in is made of wood. All of it. Seven different types of wood, and over two-hundred pieces. And they are still made here by hand.

Coolest bar/café in Venice

 When one travels to Italy from the US, it becomes clear very quickly that Italians do not care about air conditioning or ice, although their country is hot as hell. Mood Café in Venice at Campo Santa Margherita has both.

Most bars and restaurants in Venice have signs touting them as being “air conditioned.” Don’t believe it. How can the place be cool if the outside temperature is 90, with 90% humidity, and the door is open? Mood Café, however, is indeed air conditioned and cool inside, even with the door open.

In addition to being cool inside, Mood has one of the best, if not the best, selections of beer in Venice. Not Italian beers, mind you, but a huge selection of Belgians on tap and in the bottle, as well as American, German and English. For example, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Beer. Oh, you want Italian beer? Fine, go somewhere and have an Italian beer. Then, after you realize that they generally suck, come to mood, be cool and comfortable, and drink some decent beer.

 Mood also has a great selection of sandwiches, and during lunch, Max will make you a wonderful salad, and he has a great hamburger.

To top it all off, there is always an English language newspaper available.

So, if you want to cool off after walking around Venice on a hot day, go to Mood Café on Campo Santa Margherita. Look for the black table cloths. Tell them Mike sent you.

I wrote a Book

The Ghost of Caroline Wald; a Ghost Story and Horror NovelI am the artistic type. Even as a teenager I painted, wrote music, and wrote stories.  As an adult I have done a lot of painting, the results of which can be seen here, and now I have written a couple of novels. One novel is in the process of being reviewed by an editor, and being rewritten, while the other I published on Amazon for the Kindle to see what would happen.

The story available on Kindle is about a boy who, shortly after turning 18, and in the midst of proving to his parents that he is no longer a child, but a bona fide grown man, meets a ghost, which is living in an abandoned house. This sets his feet on the path of conflict with the ghost, his parents, his best friend, and the cops. The book can be previewed here, and a trailer video I made is here. The book can be downloaded from Kindle for a measly buck forty nine.  Give it a look see, as you can download a part of it to your Kindle for free. The book is called “The Ghost of Caroline Wald.”

There is Justice in the World

I often criticize the Italians for being rude and downright obnoxious, primarily to tourists, on whom, ironically, they rely for their livelihood. When I mention this to other Americans, they often tell me that while this is true, the French are much worse, many of them having recently been in France.


Today while having lunch at a café in Campo Santa Margherita, I observed the Italian waitress be unbelievably rude to some French tourists. The café is called the Orange Café, and can be identified by the orange chairs outside. One of the waitresses there is particularly unfriendly, and should thank God she does not rely on tips. She is so unfriendly that I usually will not go there if I see her. Her manner is unpleasant and rude, and she is clearly quite unhappy in her chosen profession. I don’t know her name, and don’t care to know it.


Today, being Sunday, our usual haunt, Imagina Café, where the waiters are very pleasant and helpful, was closed. We therefore chose the Orange Café because they have some decent light fare for lunch. They were obviously having some sort of kitchen issue, as it was taking a coon’s age to get any food. Next to us was a table of Frenchmen who apparently had ordered some food before we got there. There was another table of French on the other side of us who ordered at the same time we did.


After a reasonable length of time had passed with no sign of the food, one of the French from the first group signaled the waitress herein above mentioned, and asked about the order. The waitress, after ignoring the woman for an appropriately rude length of time, told her that this was a bar, not a restaurant.


Ah, well, even I, who had eaten there dozens of times in the past three years, had been fooled. I was fooled by the fact that they served complete meals, by the fact that there was a fairly extensive menu, and by the fact that the menu said it was restaurant. I was offended, although the remark was not directed to me, and although the victims were French.


Finally their food came, and then my food came. I ate, finished, and paid, all before the other French people got their food. I felt bad for all of them. But not for long. I shortly saw the humor in it, and had to laugh out loud, even while sitting at the table between the two groups of French.


Most tourists will tell you that, when in France, they are treated like something to be scraped off the bottom of ones shoe. The French, when in Venice, are a pain in the ass. They sit on bridges (don’t do that, it is horribly obnoxious), and I have had French people ask me for directions to a place I knew, as it is about a two minute walk from my house, but they refused to believe my directions, and went off in the wrong direction. Okay, fine, I could give a rat’s ass. But the rudeness and obnoxiousness of it go beyond the pale. So, when these people at the Orange Café were treated like shit, I was happy to see them get some of their own medicine. And I’m not even sure they understood how rude the waitress was–she made her comment in English, and as anyone who has been to France knows, they don’t speak English. It only goes to show that if you live long enough, you will see justice done.


As an aside, I have to add that one should not generalize about a people. I gave a photography tour to some French people the other day, and they were delightful. In my experience, though, they were the exception.


Tipping in Venice

One of the most commonly asked questions is what is the tipping policy in Italy. The answer is that it is not expected or required to leave a tip. Period. If you are inclined to do so because the service was good, then only a few Euros. I almost never leave a tip.

In the U.S. it is customary to tip 15-20% because the servers are paid less than minimum wage, and they rely on tips to earn a living. This is part of American culture. But only Americans leave tips. In some places, such as Germany, you may leave the change, but not 15 or 20% of the bill. But generally, non-Americans do not tip.

Some restaurants in Venice are in business to grub money from tourists, not to serve good food, and should be avoided. The waiters know that Americans leave tips. They are constantly asked by Americans whether the tip is included. Only Americans ask this, because everyone else in the world knows that it is—the question makes no sense to people from other countries, and marks you as an American (as if they couldn’t already tell). For that reason, if the waiter in these places thinks you are American, they will tell you that the tip is not included. They will bring you a bill that shows a 12% service charge, and still tell you that the tip is not included. They will tell you that this is a tax, or that it not for them, it’s for the owner. These are both out-and-out lies, and amounts to fraud. A bona fide restaurant will never mention a tip. (Note, for example, that there is no place on the credit card receipt to add a tip)

How do you tell which to avoid? Here are some clues:

1) They stand outside and all but drag you in. A good restaurant would never do this. This seems to me little better than begging in the streets. These people only want to get your money. The first thing a good restaurant will often ask is whether you have a reservation.

2) There are 10,000 things on the menu. A decent restaurant will have only a handful of things in each category on the menu. That is, a few appetizers, four or five pasta courses, and four or five main courses. If the menu looks like Denny’s or the Double-T Diner, run.

3) There are photos of the food on the menu. Self explanatory.

4) They have a tourist menu. Again, self explanatory.

5) They are always open. Reputable restaurants in Venice close at about 2:30 (if they serve lunch) and do not open again until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.

What to look for in a good restaurant: Generally, the good restaurants will be small, have only a handful of tables, and may have the menu taped to the window written on a place mat (a kind of mustard-colored paper).

There are exceptions to every rule. For example, Gianni’s on the Zattere (identified by its bright yellow chairs) violates most of these rules, but will never beg for a tip. The food is good and the service prompt and polite. It is also in a beautiful spot on a little pier over the Giudecca Canal. They serve a wide variety of food that should please most adults, and they will have something for the kids.

An exception in the other direction, i.e., a restaurant that is less obviously a money grubber because they do not do everything I mentioned above, but is one of the more egregious violators because they bill you a 12% service charge and then tell you tip is not included, and that the 12% is a tax (which, again, is a bold faced lie), is Ai Tosi near the Rialto Market at Sotoportego del Capeler. The food is okay, the service fairly quick and attentive, but the tip thing keeps from going there, and Americans who go there should just ignore the request for a tip.

A note on the “coperto:” This literally means “cover,” and is a standard charge in all restaurants in Italy, which they say covers the cost of the bread. It is usually 2-3 Euros per person, but can be more in fancy places. I don’t take exception to this because everyone does it, and everyone (even Italians) have to pay it—it does not single out Americans.

A Visit to the Vet

Today I took my corgi Leopold to the vet to have some blood taken. He recently contracted a skin condition commonly known as “ringworm,” which is not a worm at all, but a fungus. This disease causes round lesions on the skin where the hair falls out. As a Corgi, Leopold is very, very furry. It ain't easy to see his skin, even if you are trying to see it. One day a few weeks ago I noticed a glob of fur sticking out. This is not unusual, as this breed of dog sheds like the dickens all the time, and blows its coat twice a year. (If you like a nice clean house free of dog hair, don't ever buy a Corgi.) I pulled at the protruding tuft of fur, and noticed that it had bits of dry skin on the end where it connects to the dog. I looked more closely at his skin, and saw a bald spot where the fur was coming loose, the flesh was pink, and there was a circular line of darker pink. I googled these symptoms, and diagnosed it as ringworm. I found a few other such lesions hidden under his coat.
I was horrified. Not so much as the notion of the dog having this condition, because I knew it was treatable, but rather at the possibility of this (shall I speak plainly) fat Corgi becoming bald, or worse, not becoming completely bald, but becoming bald in large patches. So, off to the vet.
Not long after arriving in Venice I found a vet in the area and took Leopold there to see if she could do anything about his legs. He had a condition for about two years prior to coming to Venice that caused him to chew on his legs and paws. He was getting worse, so I took him to the vet at that time.
The way it works here, even with the people doctor, is that there are office hours, and you just show up. They don't make appointments. This vet is open from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., except Saturdays, when she is open from 10:00 to 1:00 in the afternoon. During the summer she takes off most of the month of August.
We went into he office, she examined the dog, confirmed my diagnosis, and prescribed a shampoo. The shampoo costs about $30 for a 200 ml bottle, which is about the size of a cough syrup bottle in the U.S. I used the shampoo with some success, as most of the lesions on his back and side cleared up. Not so, however, with those under his belly and at the junction of his legs and body; his “underarms,” if you will. Here it became much worse, and even infected. I had to take him back to the vet yesterday, at which time the doctor decided to test his blood.
To that end, she made a special appointment with me for 10:00 a.m., because she likes to take the sample in the morning, rather than the evening, so she can send it off right away to the lab. Mr. Leo and I posted at the appointed hour, and she was there, almost ready to go.
I say “almost,” because as nice as she is, she is often a bit disorganized. At first it looked as though she were ready. She had a little table with the instruments those in her profession use to drain blood from little animals: a plastic hose to tie around the leg, a bottle of alcohol, cotton balls, and some very sharp looking implements. As it turned out, though, she did not have everything.
We put the dog on the table and I held him. Then she discovered that she was missing some key implement of blood removal. She searched around for a while, and came out of a storage room with a box of whatever it was she needed, and then we were ready. She decided to try and take blood from his neck, so she shaved a section, located a vein, and went about her morbid business.
Leo looks like a little dog when he is on the ground and you are standing above him. At his level he is not a small dog. These dogs were bred to herd cattle, and he weighs 40 pounds. He should not weigh 40 pounds, he should weigh maybe 30 or 35, but he likes to eat and I am a softie. He is also strong as an ox. This, I know, is a cliché, and I try to avoid them, but it is the most accurate description of his strength. He is also part bucking bronco. Moreover, he does not like giving up his blood – he likes his blood, and holds it dear. Let's just say that we were having some fun.
Oh yeah, there are no veterinarian's assistants in this office.
The doctor wiped the shaved area with the alcohol, blew some stuff off the needle (you read it correctly) and went to work. The vein, however, was less cooperative than even its K-9 host, and would not yield a drop. After a few minutes the doctor could no longer find the vein. We tried again with no success. By this point I needed a drink and a nap, and the doctor looked like I felt.
She decided she needed the help of another doctor. She called, but there was no answer. A few minutes later she tried again, but was still not able to reach the other doctor. She suggested we go to the bar at the end of the street and wait until she could reach the doctor. (I love this country) In spite of the obvious merit of this idea, I was afraid it would be hours, so I opted to go home. I was home only a few minutes when she called to tell me that the other doctor would be at her office in ten minutes. Off we went again.
When we arrived at the vet's office the doctor was standing outside, and the other doctor was coming up the street. The new doctor was also a woman, somewhat older and more experienced than our regular vet, and materially wider of girth. She reminded me of my third-grade teacher, Miss Woodhead (I did not make that up) So, myself, the mutt, the vet and Dr. Woodhead went inside after all the usual niceties, and started to work. It was only a few minutes before Mr. Leo knew that he was not in Kansas anymore.
Dr. Woodhead began her examination with more vigor than Leo was used to. We had to muzzle him. Before that, she looked into his mouth, opening it so wide I thought she was gonna climb in, or that a parade of clowns would come marching out. When she was ready to extract the blood, she grabbed hold of his little leg with a rather large doughy hand, felt around with her finger, put the needle in and (with a little prodding) the blood began to flow into the vial, to my delight. Leo was whimpering like a little girl and trying to get the hell out of there, and I was holding on to him with all my strength. But our mission was accomplished as the deep red elixir filled the vial. I liked Dr. Woodhead. Dr. Woodhead got blood. Dr. Woodhead didn't even need to shave him. Bing, bang, and frikkin' boom – done.

A Visit to America

I recently returned to the U.S. for a visit after having been away for about 21 months. I did not want to go. I did not want to leave Venice, I did not want to go through the trouble and expense of traveling, and I did not want to drive a car. I had not driven a car since I came to Venice nearly two years ago. I was afraid that they would not let me back into Italy (which fear was irrational, not based on any fact, and, as it turned out, unfounded and imaginary). But I had to go, and so I did.

I had to go partly because I needed to renew my driver's license, and partly for the purpose of visiting my friends and family. I was curious how I would come to view Americans, and what it would be like to visit the U.S., after being away for a while. It had also been about four years since I saw any of my family, and I was curious to see how people had changed.

As to the question of Americans, I have for a long time thought that we in America were raising a country of fools. Nothing I observed during my visit did anything to change that opinion. But there is one observation I made about Americans that I did not realize was true before: Americans are very nice people. They are the nicest group of people I have come across, although I note that Australians are very close, and the English are nice as well. But Americans are the best; the most friendly, accepting, helpful, and generally downright polite, in stark and glaring contrast to the Europeans. I say Europeans, although I have substantial experience only with Italians. Other people I have talked to about this, however, tell me that the same is true of most continental Europeans. That is, they are unfriendly, pushy, rude and obnoxious, particularly with strangers and foreigners. When going to the U.S. after spending so much time in Italy, the way strangers are treated in the U.S. in comparison to the way they are treated in Europe was noticeable and remarkable. Americans (at least in small towns) always greet you in a friendly way, with a smile and a “how you doin'?” They look at you and smile when they pass in the street and say “hello,” or “good morning,” even if they never saw you before. Italians divert their gaze. If an American bumps into you, he says “excuse me,” or “I'm sorry.” An Italian will bump into you as though you were not there, and not say a word – they will not even look back to see if you are still standing. They will actually push you out of the way.

Now, my beloved wife, who is now a citizen of Italy, and who is by blood half Italian, and who has Italian relatives, hates it when I say anything bad about the Italians. But these are observations I have made, are based on personal experience, and which have been confirmed by every member of the English-speaking world with whom I have discussed the subject.

On the other hand, the Italians are very warm and friendly to people they know – they shout “ciao” to their friends and relatives, and have the annoying habit of kissing, or pretending to kiss, both sides of a person's face. Don't be the last one to a gathering – you gotta run around and kiss everyone – even men kiss men (although my Italian friends have the decency not to force this disgusting habit on me, as they know I am a straight American man, and prefer the combined lengths of our arms as the closest male-male contact. I don't even like to do it to the women, because the women in America might cry foul). Our Italian relatives treat us like kings and queens. But this is not hard – it is easy to be warm to your family and friends. The real trick is to be kind to strangers, and in this the Italians fail.

I have, however, taken up some of the rude habits of the Italians, and find these habits somewhat liberating. It's work to make eye contact with, and to smile at and greet, every stranger. It takes a lot of energy to politely wait for someone, rather than simply pushing him out of the way. I would have missed more than one vaporetto if I did not push the occasional lollygagging tourist out of my way, generally without saying a word. - no “excuse me,” and not even a “permesso,” which phrase only the Italians understand. And Italians are not afraid to tell you when you are doing something that offends them. Putting cheese on pasta dishes containing fish (the waitress will take away the cheese); asking for cappuccino after 11:00 in the morning, or ordering a spritz with cicchetti. These transgressions are usually met with a simple “no.” Can you imagine going into an American bar or restaurant, ordering something that is on the menu and readily at hand, and having the waiter say “no,” solely on philosophical grounds? My neighbor across the canal complained because my air conditioner was dripping onto the cover of her boat. For Chrissake, it's a cover to keep water off the boat. But I tried to accommodate her, hoping that she would not rat me out when I cook on my charcoal grill outside.

I started my visit in Baltimore, because that is where my friends Steve Kraemer and Lisa Laramee live, and because that is where I would need to renew my license. To get to Baltimore, one must either go through Frankfort to Dulles, or from Venice to JFK. The problem with Frankfort is that there is never enough time to get from the arrival terminal to the connecting terminal. This airport must be a billion miles long. You gotta run, and there is a reasonable probability that your luggage will not make the flight. Then it is about a two hour ride from Dulles to Baltimore. The flight from JFK, on the other hand, goes right to BWI, but there is a layover of four or five hours. We always opt for the JFK route, and that's what I did this time. That whole part of the trip went without a hitch, and I arrived by taxi at Steve and Lisa's house at about 9:30 p.m.

Steve and Lisa live just around the bend from where we used to live, and were our best friends in Baltimore. They are foodies as we are, and we used to share dinners at each others houses. After dinners at our house I was ashamed to put out the glass recycling because of the quantity of wine bottles – and Karen doesn't drink. They had the great generosity to take me in for several days, cart me around to my appointments with the MVA and the AT&T phone store, to cook for me (they are both masters of the kitchen and the workings of its instrumentalities) and to feed me like I was the goddam king of something. I tried not to be too much of a nuisance, and not to make too much of a mess (which I am by nature given to doing). I will be forever grateful to them, and hope to return the favor when they come to visit us this coming year.

During the days I was in Baltimore I had hoped to see some of my other friends, but that didn't seem to work out, except for a short visit with my former art teacher George and his wife Maria. It was great to see them, and I wish I had time to tip a few with them, but we each had other fish to fry.

The next leg of my journey was to get myself to Dexter, Michigan, and visit with my family. The trip from BWI to Detroit was uneventful. I rented a car, which also went like clockwork, and was off to Dexter. I had to first stop in Chelsea, where my brother had arranged for a hotel at a huge discount. I got checked in without a problem, and the room was very nice. Shortly after I settled in I began to spread the joy that is my presence to my family.

Although I am a member of the bar, live in Italy, and fancy myself all high and falutin', I come from humble origins, and belong not to the aristocracy, but to a working class family. They work hard, but nevertheless struggle to keep roofs over their heads and to put food on the table. They marry and have children young, not necessarily in that order. They are the salt of the Earth, if I may use (uncharacteristically) a cliché. This I knew and have always known, and was not surprised at being reminded of it. Some members of the family are happy with their station in life and embrace it, and others find it unpalatable, but don't seem to be interested in doing anything about it. This is not meant to be a mean criticism, merely an observation. Note, however, that I did not finish my BS degree until I was 32, and did not finish law school until I was 41. In between those years I earned a Master's Degree in business. There is a way out, but it takes a little elbow grease, dedication, and hard work.

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting my sister and her family. She had five kids, and raised them in what I understand was a less than ideal environment – and it is my understanding that they had an unpleasant home life as children, and have struggled with their own demons, and continue to do so. But during my visit they were very friendly to your graying and humble author, and I sensed a great deal of happiness and love in spite of what may have happened in the past. We went out into their detached garage and played pool, where I waxed all comedic. The visit was very pleasant, and I enjoyed it very much. As a side note, one of my sister's kids had a hearse for a car. I mean a big black 1980-something Cadillac hearse, fancy lights on the side and everything, and fitted out all proper like as a love shack. Fuckin'-A.

The greatest surprise to come out my return was the rift between my two youngest brothers that has developed over the past few years. For those of you unfamiliar with my immediate family, these two guys are biologically speaking half brothers, as they have a different father, but the law ways they are full brothers, I and my closest in birth natural siblings having been adopted by our now father, to his credit. But to me they are simply my brothers. One was born when I was 16, the other was a pink little baby in my mother's arms when I got married for the first time four years later. They were raised together after my brother and sister and I had left home, and I thought they were close. I will not elaborate here, but one has rejected the other, making accusations most horrible, the truth of which I have not and will not investigate (and the other has made his accusations of crimes and other transgressions against his accuser).

It is not the accusations that offend me so much as it is the schism itself, and the way I discovered it. That these two guys were close brothers I took as one of the pillars of truth, and a universal constant. I would sooner learn that f = ma is false, or that the speed of light is not 186,000 miles per second, than to discover that these two hated each other. I was aware that they had had a falling out of some sort, but no one told me much about it before hand, and no one explained to me the nature and extent of it. I discovered it only when I invited them both to my hotel room to watch Monday Night Football, as my team the Baltimore Ravens was playing. One of these chillun arrived before the other, but immediately left when he discovered that the other brother was coming. This was a shock to me, and left me in a position most awkward. It also made my life much more difficult, because I had to visit each “side” separately. Someone should have told me.

Such, however, is the nature of families. Sometimes a transgression, real or perceived, great or small, will cause a division that is never healed. It seems that this is the case with my younger brothers.

All was not drama, though. My cousin and his wife came to visit me. They spent no small effort in doing so as they had to drive from Toledo after work, but I appreciated it greatly, as I had to drive all over the state of Michigan to visit other members of the family. I hadn't seen him in a few years. We are more like brothers, and it was very good to see him again. We also went to visit my parents at their house. My cousin and my mother got together again and had a nice visit for the fist time since my grandmother passed away. It was good to see, and I was happy they were able to do it. The rift there was created due to the disposition of my grandmother's estate, the division of which was more favorable to my mother than to my cousin's side of the family. i.e., they got jack, as did I (and I did not expect anything, and was not, under the law, entitled to anything). There are good reasons why the disposition of the estate with respect to my cousins was not unjust, but it did not ease my cousins' pain, nor my sympathy for the way they felt. For the sake of completeness in this discussion, I note that the failure of anyone to help pay for the funeral was not such a reason – these things are paid from the estate of the deceased, not from the pockets of those who got nothing, to the benefit of those who took all.) I digress.

I also went to visit my brother Tom to have dinner with him, his daughter, and his fiance and her son, at the restaurant where he works. He works as a cook at a huge sports bar, where they have a typical menu for such a place. It includes Italian and Mexican foods, as well as good old American specialties, such as hamburgers. I had a Mexican dish, which was not bad, but could have used a bit more spice. The generous lad intended to pay for the dinner by having it subtracted from his next paycheck. But I corrected this faulty thinking after he left, and picked up the tab. It was good to see him, and I knew he could ill afford the cost of the dinner. I drove the hour back to my hotel in the pouring rain on poorly marked roads, virtually unlit, shiny as a mirror, and almost impossible to drive on while wet. God, I hate to drive.

Get away day finally arrived, and I got myself to the airport. That whole operation was much less trouble than I expected. I am used to being in Baltimore and in Venice, where we are plagued by long lines and delays and snotty counter personnel. But it looked as though there had been a plague in Detroit. The place was empty. I was not sure where to check in with my baggage, and I found a sky cap, and he actually took the bag to the counter, went in front of everyone, and got me checked in. For this he earned a $10 tip. I got to JFK, waited around a while, got on the plane, and ended up back in Venice. It was less trouble to get back into Venice than it was to get into the U.S. I don't even think the Italians checked that my passport was valid. The Americans scanned it and asked me a boatload of questions, although I have God-given right to get into the U.S.

Other things took place during my trip, and I was shown other acts of kindness and generosity by my friends and family that I do not mention here – but that is not because they were not appreciated, it is in consideration of the limited attention span of my readers. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, I'm glad I made it, and it was much less trouble than I expected. I do not, however, intend to make any further sojourns to the U.S. for the next several years. I will be glad to entertain and even to put up any visitors who wish an audience. But from now until further notice, you will need to come to Venice to warm yourself in my light.

A Case for Universal Health Care

Back when Bill was in office, and Hillary was trying to bulldog through universal health coverage, I was agin it. Mainly because Hillary was associated with it, but partly because it seemed a little socialist to me, and therefore suspect. That has all changed.

As the more learned among you know, Karen and I moved to Italy in 2008, and since that time Karen has become a citizen. As a citizen, she has a God-given right to be in the health care system here. As a hanger-on, I have the same right. We jumped through the necessary hoops and got ourselves hooked up.

A while back I developed some symptoms that I diagnosed as a hernia. I went to our doctor here, and he confirmed it. Although at first he didn't want to do anything, as it was a small hernia (“there is nothing to do now – it will get worse and worse, and then we will operate.”) he kindly allowed me to go see a surgeon. The surgeon confirmed that there was a hernia, and told me that someone would call me withing about 90 days to set up an appointment for the surgery.

After a while I got the call and a date was set. A short time later they called to change it. They actually would have rescheduled it earlier, but I was busy that day, so it was set about two weeks later. They told me to bring some PJ's, some slippers, and someone to take me home at the end of the day. Karen and I posted at the appointed hour (7:30 a.m.), and after a short wait we were taken to a hospital room with three beds in it. They said I would be first.

There was then some prep work to be done, which the nurse accomplished with a dry safety razor. It actually worked painlessly, but the final result was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. I returned to the room and was instructed to take off all my clothes and to wrap myself in the sheet that was on a gurney they had wheeled in. I did this, and within a few minutes was wheeled off to the operating room.

Everyone there was very nice, and they knew what they were doing. They put an I.V. in my arm with no trouble; I didn't even bruise. (When I had had a colonoscopy in the U.S., the woman putting in the I.V. brutalized me with a needle for half an hour before finally giving up and sticking it into my hand - I ended up a sickening bruised mess). Here, however, they talked to me nice, and made me feel better about whole thing.

Now you must realize that what they were about to do was to cut into my lower abdomen, put my guts back where they belonged, and stitch me up. Not exactly open heart surgery, but it was gonna leave a goddam mark. So my first real moment of horror was when they told me they were going to use local anesthetic. I was looking forward to getting some real nice drugs, and waking up to Karen's smiling face when it was all done. I did not want to be awake. I did not want to feel them pushing my innards around, or hear the clanking of surgical instruments. I wasn't worried about hearing what they said, because they were all Italian, and my Italian at the moment could best be described as rudimentary. I also had a concern that the anesthetic would not be as effective as your humble and pain averse narrator would like, or that I would actually be able to see the butchery. Nevertheless, instead of the horrified NOOOO that I wanted to scream, I squeaked out an “ok.” But now I was scared.

They then used an ingenious contraption to slide me from the gurney I was on to another gurney in the actual operating room. When I got to the operating room there was a big giant lamp over me, a couple of doctors and a few nurses. They hooked me up to the usual vital signs gizmo, and rigged up a blind so I could not see what the doctor was doing, thank God. They gave me a big shot of what I presume to be novocaine with a needle I could not see, but which I envisioned was as big as a clown might have in the circus – one he could shoot other clowns out of.

After a few minutes they went to work. After cutting into me the doctor kindly asked if I had any pain. So far, so good. Then a little while into it I felt a pinch and jumped a bit. Then again. One of the nurses looked around the blind and told me that the doctor says I should hold my body still. I did, of course, realize that the good doctor had sharp cutting tool of some kind in the immediate vicinity of my guts and other parts, and that laying still was not a bad idea. But I informed her that he was now cutting into a place that was not so numb. Within a few seconds a nurse produced a lovely syringe and put something into my I.V. Then another. After a few minutes I remember seeing the room upside down. It looked like they had the operating table standing upright. And I could not see anyone in the room. I asked “where is the doctor, and why was the room upside down?” (I don't recall any reply). Now this is what I'm talkin' 'bout - this is all I wanted all along. Was that so hard?

The next thing I remember is waking up in the room near the contraption they used to move me from one gurney to the other. I heard them bring some old man in with the contraption, screaming his fool head off. Then I heard him again howling when they put him on the operating table. “Wussy,” I thought.

They wheeled me out where I was met by Karen, who was happy to see that I survived. I recovered for several hours in my hospital bed, they made sure I could walk, and they sent me home.

Now here's the punch line: It cost me a total of about $75 in co-pays. From seeing the doctor in the first place (free) to seeing the specialist (18.95 euros) to the operation itself (36.15 euros). It went smoothly, was timely, they treated me nice, and it was a pleasant experience (considering that it was an operation).

There is no reason that a system like this cannot be implemented in the U.S. Who is gaining from the present system? The patients? No, they are paying through the nose for insurance, if they can afford it at all, and are at the mercy of the insurance companies. The doctors? No, doctors will tell you it's harder than ever to earn a decent wage. The insurance companies? Ding Ding, Ding Ding. All of the reasons I have heard put forth against universal health care, such as it takes too long to get treatment, that you'll lose several “freedoms,” such as the freedom to choose a high deductible (which nonsensical argument I read in a Fortune Magazine*, or that it's socialist, are all clearly propaganda by the insurance companies. It increases taxes? Well, you need to pay for it somehow, but what are you paying now? What is your premium? What is your deductible? What are your co-pays? Do you even have insurance? And that is really the point – how can we run a country where only the richest can afford even basic health care. Those of you who do not have insurance should rally in your millions and make sure this gets done.

*This article so parroted the insurance companies that its author and the magazine should be embarrassed.

All In

In poker there is a term “all in,” meaning that the player has put all his chips into the ante. With respect to our move to Italy, we are now “all in.” When we came here we still owned a house and all the stuff in it. Although we did not intend to go back unless the operation here was a total failure, and although we had the house on the market and wanted desperately to sell it, it was still there just the way we left it, and we could return and pick up as though nothing had happened. That has all changed. The house has sold, we have emptied it, and now there is no fall-back position. Some of our belongings we have shipped to Italy at no small expense. Most of them, however, have been sold for a song, or simply hauled away for not even a song. This causes one mixed feelings.

If we were going to live in Italy, then we needed to sell the house, pronto, and if I may use the subjunctive voice, I shit you not. We had it on the market for a year, supporting all the expenses that go with it, while at the same time living in Italy and paying dearly for that honor. This arrangement was about to become unviable when suddenly we got a contract on the house. We were very happy to have the contract. Although the terms were not particularly good, we could not afford to lose the sale, and a few grand was not going to ruin us. Keeping the house would. So we swallowed the fact that the house sold for quite a bit less than we had anticipated when doing the math as to whether we could afford to live in Italy, and went ahead with the contract.

To make things worse, we sold our things for about a third of what we had originally calculated they would bring, and the cost of shipping what we wanted to keep was more than double our original estimate.

All of these things, i.e., the substantial decline in the real estate market, the low prices we got for our things, and the high cost of shipping our stuff to Italy, are only further reminders that the gods have their heels on my neck. They giveth with one hand, and taketh with the other. This time, however, at least the balance sheet netted out in my favor.

As to our things, we made the decision to move to Italy for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was that we looked around at a house occupied by two people and two dogs, with ten rooms full of stuff. We had a few things that had some actual monetary value, and a few things that had sentimental value, but most of it was crap. We were slaving to support a house full of crap. We were also slaving to support insurance companies, car companies, mortgage companies, and credit card companies. We were not destitute, and between the two of us brought in more than the vast majority of people of this Earth, but we were being bled dry to live in what a professor of mine called the “Fordism Paradigm.” Basically, with the invention of mass production, there had to be a way for people to buy things that cost a lot of money. Enter easy credit - living on love and buying on time. Consequently, the idea of chucking in all, which would have to be done in order to live in Italy, had a certain appeal, and was a fundamental part of the plan.

It is easy to talk about doing a thing, but not so easy to actually do it. This reminds me of a line in a move, the title of which escapes me presently, but the hero (if such he be) wanted to have relations with a girl who always talked about sex. But at the crucial moment, she declined the invitation. Our hero observed: “She could say f___, but she could not do it.” The question was, then, could we say get rid of the crap, and also do it?

With a house full of stuff there are a couple of ways to go about getting rid of it. For example, one could have a yard sale, sell the stuff on eBay, or advertise in the paper. One could also have an estate sale. As we were limited in time and energy, we opted for the only thing that made any sense: an estate sale.

Prior to the sale we arranged for an international mover to come and take what we wanted to keep. This called for some hard decisions. We knew that the more we brought, the more it would cost to ship ($12 per cubic foot, plus $35 for the box). We also knew that whatever we left would sell cheaply, or not at all. If not at all, it would likely end up in a dump, or at best given to charity. We were deer looking into headlights.

Although I was not there (Karen had deemed me incapable of doing the job, so she went to the U.S. and took care of the whole thing herself, God bless her soul) I found the estate sale to be a bit sad and depressing. They put a big sign on our house like we had died. We were getting rid of stuff that took us years to accumulate. Most of my books (collected over 35 years); pictures of Beethoven bought in Bonn and framed at no small expense; paintings I had done; my records, etc., etc. I could say it, but could I do it? I did it.

Reader, dry your eyes. I am writing this sitting in my apartment in Venice (which I have already filled with new paintings). Our Sleep Number bed is on the way, as are some of my books and some of my pictures of Beethoven, as well as a large bust of Beethoven (whom I consider to be an incarnation of Jesus Christ) that Karen bought me for my birthday several years ago. The other stuff? Simply a payment to the gods for the privilege of sitting here telling you the story. The cost was low.

If I felt like it, I could get out of my chair and walk to St. Mark’s basilica. I could go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, or to have coffee at Campo Santa Margherita. Look in any guidebook of Venice, and everything in there is within a 15 minute walk of my apartment. Florence is three hours by train, Rome about five. I can fly to Paris in about an hour and a half at little cost. So, while the gods have taken a fee, they have left me with some legal tender, and the prospect of spending it here.

Slow Down when Visiting Venice

I live in the most beautiful and most romantic city in the world: Venice. Millions of tourists come here every year, crowding St. Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, and the streets in between. Tourists can be seen trying to find their way in this medieval city, staring at their maps, looking up at the street signs, and back at their maps. Sometimes the frustration is obvious when couples, who should be enjoying such a romantic city, angrily argue over which way to go. This frustration is compounded by the bustle of the place. Locals are rushing about, trying to get through the throngs of gawking and window shopping tourists, rudely bumping into people, and exhibiting their own frustration. Add to this delivery men and garbage men pushing carts (there are no cars, and they must get things over bridges) through the masses, a day in Venice can seem hectic. Because relatively few of these millions venture away from the central tourist-choked streets to see the real Venice, people often come away with a bad impression. This is a shame. Once you get away from the touristy sections, Venice is uncrowded, interesting, and moves at a much slower pace.

Now, there are sights in Venice that once should certainly see, and which involve dealing with crowds. St. Mark’s, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridge, the Rialto Market, and certain of the museums. These places are necessarily crowded and difficult to move around, but by all means see them. If, however, you come to Venice and don’t venture away from these areas, you may be unhappy with your time here. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make your experience in Venice much more enjoyable.

Often the hotels give out small maps of Venice for free. On these maps are indicated in yellow the main paths from one sight to the other. One should generally look at these yellow lines as streets to avoid. Instead, try to find another way to get to the sights. Also, it is better to go early in the morning to see certain sights, as they are not crowded until midmorning, and in the summer it is a cooler time of day. Consider as well going at night. Venice is safe at all hours of the night, it is cooler, less crowded, and in some ways more interesting.

Consider hiring a private tour guide, particularly if you have only a short time in Venice. A lot of people come to Venice for only a day, or take a day trip from someplace like Florence. Other people are in Venice either to meet their cruise ship, or to spend a day or so after a cruise. These people would benefit from taking a private tour so they can see Venice in an easy relaxed manner, and at their own pace, and without the frustration of trying to find their way on a map. At the same time, such a tour will give you some history and lore, take you off the beaten path, and make your time in Venice infinitely more pleasant.

Don’t try to fit too much into one day, and don’t over schedule. Being a tourist is tiring work; leave time open to do whatever comes to your mind. Sit at a café in a little square (campo), relax, drink some wine, and watch Venice go by.

Whether you come to Venice for a day or for a month, and whether you take a tour or simply meander on your own through the magical streets of Venice, take it easy and savor it. Take your time, look at the details, watch the people drink in its beauty. This is the best way - the slow way.

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Pizza Fish

There are times when a person does not want what is said in one language to be lost in translation into another, and ordering food is one of those times. Anyone who has traveled in Europe knows that sometimes the translation on the menu is not 100%. It may be a transliteration, but it is not a proper translation. One example that comes to mind in Italy is the translation of “prosciuto crudo” as “raw ham.” In the U.S. we call what the Italians refer to as prosciuto crudo simply as “prosciuto.” But in Italy, prosciuto means ham, and it comes in two varieties: cooked (cotto) and cured (crudo, which literally means raw). So, instead of saying “cured ham” on the menu, it usually says “raw ham.” So far as I can tell, this is universal.

Just as the restaurants have made an effort to translate the menu, the waiters in touristy places such as Venice generally have made an effort to learn English to the extent they are able to take orders in that language. But one must use care. Recently while giving a tour, one of our clients told the waiter that he would like a “nice juicy piece of fish.” I heard this and understood it, and did not give much attention to what was actually ordered. All of our meals came in a timely manner, including this man’s, which was a pizza covered with various and sundry critters of the lagoon. What the waiter had heard was “pizza fish,” not “piece of fish.” It was topped with calamari, mussels and clams still in their shells, and a whole scampi (miniature lobster), shell and all. I have eaten pizza all over Italy, and I have never seen anything like it. We all looked at it in disbelief.

There are three ways to react to this. Either one eats it and tries to be more precise the next time, one orders something else, or one neither eats it nor orders something else. We explained the problem to the waiter, who did not seem particularly sympathetic, so I asked for the menu. I looked for a nice grilled fish and ordered it. It was brought after a short time and the man enjoyed it very much. The moral is that when you order in a restaurant in a foreign land, be sure to refer specifically to the menu, pointing it out to the waiter what it is you want. Do not rely on your skills of pronouncing the foreign word, and definitely do not rely on the waiter’s skill in understanding a general statement as to what you want.

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Alla Madonna Review

We were very interested to try this restaurant, as it has a reputation of being a favorite with the locals, and we have had clients sing its praises to the extent that they ate there three nights in a row. We wanted it to be good, and expected it to be good, but it’s not. The service is quick and attentive, but it’s too quick. There is no time between courses, meaning that they must have your next dish ready and waiting before you finish your first. This also leads me to believe that things may not be freshly cooked, but prepared ahead and reheated. This may be expected with the rice, I suppose, but it does not work with a grilled fish.

Karen had the seafood risotto and the mixed fried seafood, and I had carpaccio of cured beef and grilled red mullet. With the dinner I ordered a bottle of white wine.

The seafood risotto was ok, but not the best around. The mixed fried fish came with a long hair in it. The dish was promptly replaced, but the damage was done. The beef carpaccio was served as it always is on a bed of rocket, but that’s all. There was no cheese, as is standard, and for some reason the greens were not that good. The dish was unexciting, but tolerable. The greatest sin, and what probably contributes most to the poor rating, is that my fish were severely overcooked. This is a city where fish is king, and even the most backwoods restaurant can grill a fish to perfection. I do not know whether this was done in the original cooking process, or done in the process of reheating, but the fact remains: they were virtually inedible.

The final factor for me was that the wine, which was not the house wine served in a jug, but a bottle of wine, was boring and almost without flavor. The total bill was about 87 Euros.

With all the restaurants in Venice, one expects more from one with this reputation. Take away the hair, give me a fish that is properly cooked, and a decent bottle of wine, and I can overlook the hurried service. But as experienced by us, we cannot recommend it.

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