Rome, Venice, Naples, and Milan

September 28, 1991

      I slept in a crowded couchette compartment on the train to Venice (Venizia) overnight. At first glance, Venice is a chaotic mass of tourists, expensive food, and no accommodations. I quickly ruled out staying overnight in Venice, and will take yet another night train to Rome (Roma), where I will thankfully spend a little time in a hotel.

      Like Vienna, Venice is beautifully unique and irreplaceable. Venice lies away from the mainland in the Adriatic Sea. It lies on manmade supports, and is at the time of writing still burdened by puddles from recent flooding. Venice was once a Republic, and a powerful mercantile center. But now, and for a long time before, Venice is a "museum cum amusement park" - a sort of relic dedicated to the past with little practical use now. San Fransico is a somewhat similar these days: a beautiful place to visit but with a tourist trade that overshadows a shrinking public life. They say now that, "I left my heart in San Fransico but I do my business in Oakland."

      My first impression of Italy was not a good one. After I had exited the train, I went to use the bathroom and was not thrilled with what I saw. It was simply a hole in the ground and there were traction marks on either side where one places the feet, squats and/or aims, and takes care of business. I was prepared for a lot, but if I wanted this I would have visited Uganda.

      I cannot underestimate how charming the narrow walkways are here. It is like an aged, charming Italian city whose streets are made of water. There are numerous little walkways over the canals that are skillfully navigated by the adroit drivers. Although the city is a tourist attraction, there are still plenty of attractive little nooks and crannies in which to escape the crowds. I cranked out Steinbeck's "To A God Unknown" in a three hour spurt in just such a sleepy corner. Typical, I paid U.S. $15 for this book in English! Robbery! (But I paid it anyways)

      I find myself meeting all sorts here in Europe. European teenagers on holiday, Australians and New Zealanders in packs who drink all the time, and young professionals who let the stress get to them and decided to chuck it all and travel around Europe. I've met permanent wanderers and nomads who appear rootless by nature and normal Americans middle-aged couples who do not adapt easily to the different (ie. showers, etc.) European ways.

      I still find myself hungry to start my adult life and I think of goals. But I can hear a voice from my middle-age saying, "Calm down, there will be plenty of time for you to prove your worth. Relax, and absorb and appreciate." I am getting better in this regard and am moving with the flow and rolling with the punches that traveling always delivers.

      I think that if I ever should get married...I would want to have my honeymoon in Venice.

Romance in Venice!

September 29, 1991

      Drank too much wine waiting for the overnight train to Rome. The train itself was tiny (one 2nd class car with no couchettes) and I was lucky to have a seat in a crowded car with an Italian peasant family that did not appreciate my presence. I sat there in the corner crunched in my seat until around three in the morning no longer drunk while the peasants passed sausage around and chatted like a gaggle of parrots on methamphetamines. Too exhausted for words, I took refuge in the hallways outside. Finally, I spent most of the night on this infamous (for thievery, that is) train laying and sometimes sleeping on the filthy floor of the hallway between trains. It was disgusting, people kept walking over me, I could not watch my stuff and neither could I ever fully stretch out. It was still better than being cramped in a that tiny room with five other sausage stuffing farmers.

      At any rate, I had not slept in a bed or showered in two days - and I was indeed ready for both when finally we entered Rome. So far, Italy's southern mediterranean climate resembles that of California. The semi-arid fields and sparse gentle trees are a nice change from the heavy drama of Northern Europe's forests and mountains.

      Rome is busy and chaotic. I met the famous "zingarelli" (Gypsy children) who attack you in groups with petty thievery in mind. It is absolutely brazen, they come up to you with cardboard in their hands and grab for loose items. They are poor, young, often with children, and they kind of laugh at you as if the whole thing were a joke. The Romans threaten bodily harm on the gypsies, but I managed to simply avoid them altogether as if I were zigzagging down the football field. Maybe my half-mad, grubby, exhausted look (remember my last time in a bed) had something to do with it. At any rate, they have left me in peace.

      At first glance, one cannot say the Italians are very orderly people. There is more than a little of the peasant in them and their cities are a cacophony of scooters, bad drivers, crowds, etc. Especially in Rome, one cannot say that these cities are relics devoted to tourism - they are vibrant, living places. Yet Rome is charming on its own terms. There has been little planning and upon walking around the classical the city center one is constantly surprised by the beautiful piazzas and squares. In the classically ascetic sense, Rome is not beautiful: it is crowded and busy, there is a dark dirt and general grubbiness to the city. But it actually is built among hills and it is more a group of cities than one big city. The beauty of Rome is the fact that the crowded sharp grades that suddenly give way to breathtaking dramatic views of the compact city. The views are not especially sublime or distant but they afford a perfect view of populated, moving Roma going about its business.

      Rome is lived in and perhaps this accounts for it's grogginess. Although the obvious Roman and papal monuments stand, they are more or less ignored as Romans "embraces the present" and crowds throng the piazzas and parks. The priority being the other Romans, not the statues or monuments, which are often have graffitti spray painted on them.

      The crowds are full of couples (both young and old), brazen and cocky Italian men trying to pick up girls, their female counterparts acting shocked, shy and demeure in groups of threes and fours, police everywhere (looking tough and vigilant), swaggering off-duty soldiers.

      Soldiers everywhere have a cocky step and a proud bearing, but these Italian soldiers strike me as more than a little ridiculous. Firstly, none of them look very tough. Secondly, there is the Italian's pathetic performance in WWI, WWII, and even recently in the Gulf War - to many the Italian armed forces and incompetence are synonymous. And the Italians are our allies in NATO! The British soldiers looked tough and formidable and the French seemed at least competent and professional. Although they were everywhere, the Czechs I saw in military uniforms were mostly kids. The Italian soldiers look like they prefer strutting around in their uniforms to fighting.

      Although they are both expensive and classy, the French and Italian looks are different. The French woman is maybe blond, thin and wearing jeans (leather or denim) and a tight sexy or baggy silk shirt. The Italian woman is more shapely, with jet black hair and is wearing high heels, a business like black mini-skirt and a sports jacket and (a must) designer sun glasses on a face with puffy lips and lip stick. The French look as "bon chic bon genre" world-weary as they can in the sidewalk cafes while staring down with appraising looks passers by outside. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke is imperative to this scene. The Italian woman scoots around on her scooter and walks like a treasure to be earned - her nose in the air; busy, preoccupied. The French men have a resigned look as if nothing in the world could surprise them. The Italian man can be rudely suggestive.

September 30, 1991

      I am writing here in the Navarro Piazza in front of many playing Roman children. The highly social piazzas are one of Rome's best features - at night they are electric with activity. It is fun to watch the would-be-Romeo Italian men. Another enjoyable aspect of Europe are the weddings. It seems a custom to wander through public areas with the Roman Piazza wedding party and many have passed me by. The inherent joy of a wedding is a thing in which no translation is necessary.

      The water fountain/sculptures of Bernini stand resplendent throughout all the piazzas of Rome, usually depicting some highly emotional epic Greek sea god drama.

      I have never seen traffic so incredibly disorganized as that of Rome. Add to a nasty swarm of cars a small army of lawless scooters, and you have the chaos which are Rome's streets. Here, one definitely does not have the right of way on a crosswalk and it is necessary to kind of sneak by a gap in the traffic. Roman drivers throw highly-animated temper tantrums in traffic disputes but they never seem to come to blows. The drivers here make the strangest, most dangerous, illogical turns into traffic that I have ever seen! I have seen numerous near accidents that compelled me to hold my breath but somehow everything works out OK. Still, what a mess!

      As I already stated, Rome's charm is in the dramatic walking down an old back street with no view of anything and all of the sudden one stumbles unexpectedly on a spectacular view or friendly piazza. There is a Roman look of olive skin and a broad-cheeked charm. There is a subtle romantic lure to Rome which defies description and is surprising, considering the amount of urban blight her endemic to all big cities. To my surprise, I find Rome an incredibly romantic city.

      Over the millennia, Rome has seen Caesars and Popes come and go. At one time, the name of Rome inspired fear as the symbol of undiluted strength, power, and ruthlessness. This was followed by the realm of the Popes and their "temporal" rule. Rome of today shows no such political puissance and although there are monuments to Caesars, Popes, Cavars, Garibaldi, etc, the last 100 years have been an absolute blank. The Romans were famous for their ability to find compromise when it counted and effective government was their forte. But the Italians today are better at fighting among themselves than at finding political unity. Mussolini, who has no monument in present day Rome, is the perfect example of modern Italy: flashy, cocky, with a lot of talk disguising little discipline and more than a little of the spirit of anarchy. But the Italians seem a kind people who are quick with a smile and a congenial, "Bonjourno!"

      This morning, I visited the Vatican which is officially a sovereign republic. They have employed "Swiss" mercenaries for protection since the 16th century and they are still there in their medieval costumes. The Vatican Museum is huge and full of priceless art which produced for me the same effect the Louvre produced: sensory overload. The tour ended in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. I then visited St. Peter's Church, which is the biggest and maybe most beautiful church I have ever seen. St. Peter's cathedral remains highly functional, and no one is let in there with shorts or sleeveless shirts. The Vatican is really like the Catholic Church, Inc., with many church bureaucrats walking around looking official with briefcases. Substitute the priests' collar with a suit and they differ not at all from the Roman businessmen outside in both function and demeanor. The Vatican is essentially a museum in honor of all things Christian in general and Catholic in particular.

October 1, 1991

      Today, I am traveling to Naples ("Napoli") and the ruins at Pompei. I am tiring of Italy and am ready to leave it for a number of reasons: it is expensive and a rip-off, the climate is very humid, it is extremely crowded, and one must always be on the guard for petty thievery. Tourists are screwed more than usual and change is often returned when purchases are made only when it is asked for. The sound of a foreign accent prompts totally new rules for transactions and so I try not to talk at all.

      There is a very great difference between Northern and Southern Italy. The north is more industrialized and not much different than Germany or Austria but Southern Italy is much poorer and rural. The Amalfi coast near Naples reminds me very much of the coast between Tijuana and Ensenada. There is even the same smell of burning leaves. Both have a narrow shoreline bordered on one side by a deep blue ocean and on the other side by towering cliffs with light brown sagebrush (Italy being more lush). Both sea sides are dotted with small poor villages.

      Pompei is towered over by the now dormant volcano Vesuvius. The Roman city of 20,000 was frozen in time when Vesuvius erupted and buried the city in ash. It has been excavated and I am writing this entry in a sort of coliseum. Italy, sociologically speaking, is most interesting to me for the era of Rome - all the rest is Catholicism and political intrigue.

      I have come to Naples for two reasons: I want to get away from Rome and because of the Coppola family. Yvette's parents are from Naples and I want to see it and have a first-hand look at the city and in order to more fully understand their story. I always admired the way in which Mr. Coppola emigrated from Naples in extreme poverty to the U.S. and made a better life for himself and his family. Towards this end, he became a very successful man although material things did not always necessarily bring his family happiness. The whole Italian scene reminds me of the Coppolas and Yvette was here in Naples only a few months ago visiting relatives. I will send her a postcard from Naples and I think it will raise a couple of eyebrows and maybe a smile at her house when it arrives.

      There is something about the Hispanic/Latino cultures that is very authoritarian. Hot blooded, religious, impoverished, superstitious, flashy, exaggeratedly dignified, patriarchical, Southern Italy is known for it's Mafia and feuds. I remember reading about Sicily; a beautiful land conquered again and again over the years and all the young men dead from feuds ("vendettas") with each other. It is a profoundly tragic image. The father as God and King of the family bugs me and I remember during my time in the emergency room all the types who would defend beating their wives as a right of the husband (ie. the man). Still, there is an aspect of deep personal honor and dignity to this which is appealing.

      Pompeii was buried, and preserved, in ash. It was not discovered (discovered by accident) until the latter half of the 18th century. It is remarkable how well some of the ruins have survived. Some of the frescoes in the individual rooms have survived intact. One can still see their art with gladiators fighting one another. And this is art made in AD 70 (+ or -)! There are hundreds of square yards of ruins and the streets, houses, and city plan are still clear. It must have been a horrifying death for the citizens of Pompeii. They were all asphyxiated - smothered by volcanic ash.

      Although it is certainly not the most comfortable or ascetically pleasing or clean places, it is hard to stay mad at Italy for very long. They may try and cheat you but will always smile disarmingly if caught. There is a buoyant attitude and pleasant demeanor that is communicated through the exaggerated hysterics of Italian conversation. Italians are emotional and it would seem they are the opposites of the English and I see now how the opera is so Italian a creation. Italians seem not to hold a grudge and even if they do steal you blind, they would never (I think) harm you.


      Naples is a lively port town that is really a valley (with a town and port) bordered by steep hills. Like most port towns, there is an element of seediness and the mysterious "camorra" is notorious in Naples. The city reminds me very much of Tijuana and Ensenada. The main street, Via Toledo, is a mass of honking motorists and death defying scooterists. I like the honest and down to earth feel of this city after Rome. Rome has a more formal, fossilized, and older feel than Naples. In Naples, I feel like I have a better glimpse of the life blood of Italy. However, Naple's reputation is that of a mean spirited and violent city.

      I met an old man who spoke good English on the street and he took me on a cable car to the top of the hills above Naples. I suspect the whole thing was a setup, as when I reached the top he showed me a jewelry store where some of his friends tried to sell me some trinkets. Anyway, I appreciated his hospitality but was not interested in buying anything.

October 2, 1991

      Today, my last day in Rome, was spent at the Coliseum and the Catacombs. The Coliseum was disappointing after Pompei but interesting in terms of showing how organized the Romans were. Often, they would fill up the Coliseum with water and have mock sea battles! I spent most of the day lounging around in the hot sun reading and walking aimlessly. These absolutely crazy Roman motorists defy logic and it is a miracle that I have not seen anybody killed yet.

      The Catacombs were interesting, in as of themselves, but they are run by the Catholic Church as a place of the "remains of the martyrs." Many of the people in my tour group were excitable "pilgrims" (religious, to Rome) and our guide was an obnoxiously authoritarian priest. The tour was didactic in nature, interspersed with biblical quotes and prophesies, and one felt that one was being preached down to and not instructed in the actual history of these subterranean places. The Catacombs are on the outskirts of the town, running adjacent to the Appian Way, and consist of more than 15 miles of tunnels where the early Christians held meetings there in secret to avoid persecution. When I asked a specific question about what happened in the Catacombs with Roman soldiers and raids, the Priest was obviously upset and seemed to think the question irrelevant and missing the point and proceeded to make another reference to how God reveals his glory and brilliance through the history of the Catacombs, etc. ad nauseam. I felt like asking, "Who died and made you king?" This priest (an American) made me remember why I always liked the pagans more than the Christians in ancient Roman history.

      Today I noticed a headline in a local newspaper that the Catholic Church (like in Ireland) is upset about supposedly losing influence and morality in Italy. I hope it is true and I enjoy their displeasure. Not that I hope the Italians become immoral, but I do hope they come to question the moral precepts of the Church and do not simply accept them as God's truth like lobotomized simpletons. All Catholics supposedly obey the Pope as the vessel of God's will on earth, but American Catholics pay lip service and then do as their own conscience dictates. American Catholics are essentially Protestant in their outlook - the inevitable product of intellectual individualism and democratic thinking in the national spirit from Thomas Jefferson uptil now. This leads to friction between the Pope and American Catholics. The Pope likes Third World Catholics, such as those in South and Central America or in Asia. They are gullible, accepting, and superstitious like children. And like putty in His Holy hands.

      Anyway, religious enthusiasm ruined my trip to the Catacombs. I came to see a historical site and ended up sitting through a 45 minute commercial for Catholicism. The priest commanded imperiously from above, "Obey!" I say, "Kiss my ass - TWO TIMES!" Do not order me around and do not tell me "how it is!" and I was raised a Catholic myself! It is incredibly arrogant to assume authority over another because of religious rank or training, and I am not buying the "when in Rome do as the Romans do" thing. Perhaps this sentiment is a result of intellectual pride and vanity on my part. But if so, then so be it. I will respect no man more than another until he has earned it.

      I am homesick and I miss my life back in the States so much I can taste it! Of course, all these things I am missing I will soon take for granted again upon returning home. I will try to jettison laziness when I return and tale the initiative in life, hopefully getting more out of it.