Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 17

 You, Big Man, Front of boat, Prego

I don’t know if I can cover our second trip to Italy this summer in just one blog post.  It might take two;  it was that fun/funny/awesome.  Mr. Big and I were meeting friends (another group of friends, not the Florence/Tuscany friends) in Venice.  We set off in our car from Switzerland, intending to drive about 5 hours, (Mr. Big’s car trip limit), just spend the night wherever and continue on into Venice the next morning to meet their 9:40 a.m. plane at the Venice airport.

Since we didn’t leave from Switzerland until late afternoon, we only got to Brescia before Mr. Big was ready to call it a night.  We did as we always do, (and as you should do, too, if you plan to travel like we do, i.e., by the seat of your pants), and followed the signs to the “Centro”.  Please note that this is the point where you should follow the actual, real directional signs and abandon your GPS.  Our GPS, Margaret, is good but she is not that good.  Margaret never knows about the myriad one-way streets and she is especially confused by Pedestrian Only Zones.  Margaret is always trying to get us to take a right when we KNOW that taking a right will only result in mayhem.

Turning off Obnoxious Margaret for the moment, we made our way to the Centro and we were met with a giant dilemma.  All of the street signs would seem to indicate that we had arrived in a Pedestrian Only Zone, yet we were still following a long line of cars who all seemed to know where they were going.  Blissfully and obliviously following the line of cars because they were heading EXACTLY IN THE DIRECTION WE WANTED TO GO, we found ourselves in the center of town.  Not only were we in the center of town, we were in the main piazza.  And, we were being herded by many, many Italian traffic cops around many, many bollards and guard rails TO PARK DIRECTLY IN THE CENTER OF THE PIAZZA  BECAUSE WE WERE IN A LINE OF CARS FOR A CAR SHOW.  Yes, Mr. Big’s Audi was now lined up in the middle of a town square for some car show.  Everyone else that we had been following was getting out, opening up their trunk lids and hoods and getting ready to show off their cars which I then noticed all had WRITING AND ADVERTISING all over them.

Yeah.  Us, not so much.  I turned my head to my beloved and said, “Dude.  Our car is not Car Show Ready.  A) It is filthy and B) I believe there is unrecycled trash in our trunk.”

Peeling backwards out of that primo-bitchin’ parking space, Mario Andretti weaves his way around a few confused cops, multiple pedestrians giving him the finger and some tricky cement bollards only to find ourselves on a nice, quiet side street where I spy a hotel sign.  STOP, MR. BIG!  PULL IN HERE!  ACT LIKE YOU KNOW!

And that is how we found the Hotel Vittoria in Brescia, Italy. 

Our room was lovely, the breakfast was lovely, the town center was lovely.   More importantly, they gave us a handy little sticker to put on our car so that we could park on the street and no Politzei could have us towed.  The best part was later in the evening when we walked the block back up to the main piazza because Mr. Big actually wanted to go the stupid Car Show.  He was like, pffft, I so coulda been in this show.  My Audi is hot.

Whatever.  Anyway, onto Venice the next morning.  Okay.  Who knew?  I mean, I knew it was cute and picturesque and historic, but I was not prepared for just how fabulous it was.  I knew there were canals and gondoliers, but it is waaaaaaay more intense than you are picturing.  There is actually, like, no land.  It is all water and bridges.  How do the houses stay afloat?  I still don’t get it and I was there for four days and, let me tell you, I was studying the phenomenon.

There are no cars allowed in Venice, so everybody parks in the multi-story car parks located just outside the city.  Hint:  Park on the top floor and snap some awesome photos.  The car parks are totally the tallest structures around.  Go directly from the car park to the ticket booth to buy your vaporetti tickets.  The vaporetti are boats that are the equivalent of the Metro in other cities with regular stops along the canals, just like a bus, except it’s a boat, get it?  Just figure out how many days you are going to be there and buy a ticket that covers that many days.  It’s way easier than buying a ticket every time you get on and off the vaporetti and much less expensive.  A 3-day ticket was 45 euros.  Cheap.

Another Hint:  The boat stops, (okay, read that again--boat stop, like bus stop, see?) themselves, kind of look like floating barges.  The first time I walked out onto one, I thought it WAS the boat.  I kept expecting it to move.  But then the real boat showed up and pulled up along side and I realized that I was just an idiot.

As soon as you get out into the canal, you are going to realize that you are in a magical place.  I was fascinated by the gothic-ish, Moroccan-ish style of the homes and the way the front doors lead right out onto the water.  You can flag down a taxi, which will be a boat.  You can hire a gondola, which is kind of cheesy, but just one of those things you need to do in Venice.  Just for future reference, a gondola ride is 100 euros for 30 minutes.  We made our gondolier find us a restaurant.  We were like, dude, we’ve got you for 30 minutes, so we want to see some really cool stuff and, at the end of 30 minutes, we want you to wind up at a restaurant where you would take your own mother.  He did and it was great.

Our gondolier was a font of information.  Mind you, this was already our third evening in Venice so we had seen most of the “touristy” things and we wanted, at this point, some inside scoop and to see things that normal tourists don’t see.  Well, his inside scoop was that he wanted to brag on himself a little.  Apparently, back in the day, (the day being the 13th century), there were 10,000 gondoliers.  All of the quaint and charming little bridges that now cross the canals did not exist.  Everybody who was anybody had their own fleet of gondoliers and the peons had to rent gondoliers just to get from point A to point B.

A few dozen nasty wars and marauding occupiers later, (and with the building of multiple bridges), the gondoliers slowly dwindled down to their current number—425.  Today, in modern Venice, these 425 guys, (no women), all descend from a few “authorized” gondolier families.  It’s not just an occupation that you can acquire.  There will not be a new Discovery Channel show called “Venetian Gondolier Wars” or whatever.   No.  One is either born with gondolier sperm or one is not.

Now, we were drinking wine in the gondola, so, unfortunately, I cannot remember the actual name of our guy.  Let’s call him Giuseppe.  Gondoliers propel the boat through the canal from the back of the boat.  If there are only two people in the boat, the two guests sit on a little couch, facing forward.  When the gondolier comes to an extremely low bridge, he hops along to the front of the boat and his weight makes the front of the boat dip down low enough to go under the bridge.  I know this because I watched a gondolier do this on our second day there because I was trying to figure out how they kept from hitting the bridge abutments.

Anyway, Giuseppe was up on the back of our boat, our friends were on the “couch”, I was perched on a little stool on the right hand side of the boat and Mr. Big was a few feet beyond me on a stool on the left hand side.  (I’m sure there are proper terms for right and left on a boat, like “lee” and “port” and whatnot, but I don’t know them.  Let’s just go with left, right, front and back, shall we?)

Anyway, a really low bridge approacheth.  Suddenly, Giuseppe stops his diatribe about gondolier lineage and yells, “Excusi, big man, front of boat, prego!”  Now, the only other guy in the boat besides Mr. Big was our friend, who is the size of a jockey.  So, Mr. Big looks at Giuseppe with inquiring eyes and points to his own chest, as in “who, me?”  Giuseppe nods and gestures that he should move his large, American-sized body up to the front of the boat.  It took me a minute, but I quickly deduced that Giuseppe was using my husband as, you guessed it, ballast.

“Dude, you are ballast!”, I yelled.  And then, when poor Mr. Big still had a perplexed look on his face, I pointed to the rapidly approaching bridge abutment and clarified, “Your ass is being used to weigh down the front of the boat!”  I was laughing so hard, I thought I was going to rock myself off the side and into the water.  It wouldn’t have been so funny except that Giuseppe was right:  every time Mr. Big stood up or just shifted his weight from side to side the whole boat bobbed up and down and left to right like a  toy in bathwater.

Giuseppe’s English was rudimentary at best and he did not understand that he had just insulted my husband, nor did he understand why the other three people in the boat were peeing themselves with laughter.  He just continued to do it for the rest of the ride!  Well, why the hell not?  It was working a treat, right?  He just kept saying, “Big man, that way” or “Big man, back up”.  OMG, I’ll never forget it.

So, this summer we ended up spending about two weeks in Italy, baking in the sun, buying some nice leather goodies, some silk ties, a fabulous Carnivale mask to hang on the wall in the bathroom in the chalet and eating a lot of pasta.  I will have to tell you in the next blog post about the lovely couple that we met—she is from Charlotte, North Carolina and he is a Venetian local—and the delicious, typical Venetian meal that they introduced us to.  Heaven!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 16

 Tuscany, Part Deux

We went for the second time to Tuscany last weekend, and, I must say, my opinion has not changed, (see blog post from last year).  But, since my opinion has absolutely no sway with the billion Americans who have their hearts set on Tuscany, let me just try to steer you in the right direction.

First, and I cannot stress this enough, if you are picturing fields of sunflowers and lilac, YOU ARE THINKING OF PROVENCE.  Provence in is France.  Tuscany is fields of grape vines and olive trees.  Yes, there are a few sunflowers, but they are growing wild along side the autoroute.  They have sprouted from seeds that have BLOWN ACROSS THE BORDER.

Second, and this I also cannot stress enough, if you are coming to Tuscany in the summer, MAKE SURE THAT YOUR HOTEL HAS AIR CONDITIONING.  This is non-negotiable.  It is HOT in Tuscany in the summer.  However, there is one easy way around this.  Don’t go in the summer.

Tuscany is so crowded in the summer that it will give you anxiety attacks.  It is not relaxing.  It is stressful.   But, if that is the only time you can go, stay out in the countryside in a hotel with a pool and you will be fine.  Only venture into Florence or Lucca or Pisa (biggish cities) before noontime and then get the hell out of there.

Here are some really cute villages out in the countryside:  Raddi in Chianti, Volterra (which is known for mining alabaster, so if you are into alabaster, this is your village), Castellina in Chianti, Colle di Val d’Elsa, San Gimignano, Greve in Chianti and there are probably 20 or so others that are just perfect.  By this I mean, they sit up on top of a hillside with a medieval wall all around and they are just begging you to take their picture.

Here are the villages that are just regular, functioning, work-a-day places where actual people live and are not full of tourists:  (mind you, some people want to go to these villages just for that specific reason), :  Poggibonsi, Castelfiorentino, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa, and, really, anything along the coast of the Ligurian Sea in Tuscany.

OK, that is all the practical advice for this blog post.  Now, onto the funny stuff.  We stayed in a very nice hotel in the work-a-day village of Tavarnelle.  I actually liked the village because it was quite authentic and not full of tourists.  I mean, I went walking one morning and down in the village at the “private club” on the main street there were already 4 or 5 guys sitting at the outdoor tables drinking beer at 8:30 in the morning.  The stores and bakeries hadn’t even opened yet, but the Tavarnelle Social Club was in full swing.  My kind of place.

Sunday morning I made Mr. Big get up at the crack of dawn to drive to Lucca because they were having an outdoor antique fair.  It was advertised on the internet as a grand 3-day affair with hundreds of vendors.  It was advertised as starting at 9 a.m on Sunday, the last day of the 3-day event.  So, we were up with the farmers at 7 a.m. and out the door for a 1.5 hour drive to Lucca to find, I was sure, many, many treasures.

Yeah.  No.  We arrived in downtown Lucca at 10 minutes until 9.  I started getting worried when we were able to find a parking space which was quite close to the “pedestrian only” downtown area and were, really, only minutes away from this giant event.  Where were the hordes of people and why were we able to find rockstar parking?

In Italian time, 9 a.m. apparently means 10 a.m. or even, lunchtime.   At 9 a.m., approximately 3 out of the 200 participants had set up shop.  We walked around and around and around and around the downtown area, doing the same circuit over and over and over again, each time catching one or two more vendors who had taken the tarps off of their stuff and were ready for customers.  I thought Mr. Big was going to blow a gasket.

Now, if this were France or Switzerland, we could have ordered some café au laits and croissants and sat outside for an hour until everybody got their act together.  But, this was Italy.  In Italy, you eat your breakfast inside the bakery hovering over the counter.  You are expected to down your espresso in one gulp and eat your croissant while rubbing elbows with all of the other patrons and your ass is expected to be out of that bakery/café within 5 minutes.  So, we did that and then we were out on the sidewalk 5 minutes later wondering why we had bothered because STILL none of these Italians had their booths opened up.  It was frustrating, I tell you.

Mr. Big’s favorite item of the morning was a ginormous ship’s head of a naked, buxom lass.  She was about 5 feet tall and each bosom was the size of a toddler.  Don’t ask me what kind of décor she would have fit into, possibly a man cave.  The cool thing about her was that one of her boobs slid open and pirates could hide their booty inside her boob.  We did not buy her, much to Mr. Big’s chagrin, but if I had had a shop in NYC I probably could have sold her for 10 grand.

We did buy four more copper pots which Europeans use for cooking but I use for planters.  After purchasing copper pot #4, I was like, OK, dearest, enough with these copper pots.  I am over them.  Also, we now have to carry them to the car.  Enough.  Y’all, if we didn’t look like two bozos carrying these giant copper pots to our vehicle, then I just don’t know what.  We really need another hobby.  Like golf or something.

Alright, the last and final story involves a bad word, so, if you are a minor or a Mormon, you should just sign off right now.  Fair warning.

After spending a hot, hot day baking on the cobblestones of downtown Florence doing the whole tourist, sightseeing thing and practicing our “gratzee meelee” and “booona serra” and “arrivaderchis”, the four of us were ready for a relaxing stint by the pool at our hotel.  This relaxing stint included, we envisioned, some wine and cheese and sausage which we had picked up while were out and about shopping in Florence.

Approximately 8 minutes after we had happily ensconced ourselves poolside with our delicious picnic, the maître d’hotel, dressed in a three piece suit, comes scurrying up to our lounge chairs.

Mr. Hotel Policeman:  (In quasi-English),  ‘Scusi me, signores  y signoras,  but this is not allowed.

Us:  What?  What’s not allowed?  (At this point, I thought he was referring to my ultra-white Swiss skin in amongst these tanned Italian bodies.)

Mr. HP:   Youah are being very rudah.

Us:  Rude?!  We thought we were being very quiet!

Mr. HP:  No, youah misunderstand.  It is rude to eat and drink things that you have not bought from our bar or restaurant.  You must order only from us your drinks and food.

Us:  (Out loud), Really?  Oh, okay, sorry.  (To ourselves, under our breath), Really, dude?  Where’s the sign?  We don’t see any sign that says “no food or drink”.

So, one of our party, who shall remain nameless but forever dear in my heart, mutters, under his breath, “Fucka Youah”.  Well, I guess you had to be there, but, after an exhausting, hot, sweaty day trying to read and speak Italian, when we were finally, FINALLY, chillin’ and relaxin’ only to be told to put away our wine and sausages, we had had enough.  Fucka Youah, indeed.

This, of course, became our mantra for the next three days and we all went home having increased our Italian vocabulary by 33%.  Next weekend, we are meeting another set of American friends in Venice, (what is it with you Americans and your love affair with Italy?  There are other countries in Europe, you know!), and I am excited to see what other local swear words we can make up.  I’m thinking Asti Spumanti, if said with the right flair, has potential.