I. Children have no sense of romance
Three thousand years of history and when you ask them their favorite thing about Italy my children will tell you swimming and the lizards, maybe ice cream if pressed on matters of gastronomy. "They eat horse there," my daughter might add with more than a hint of scandal and disgust. It's true in Puglia, where we recently spent a relaxing week out among the vineyards, olive groves and piles of burning garbage. When their mother and I sat down for our ninth anniversary meal in Ceglie Messapica a man at the next table over ordered horseflesh, served thicker and bloodier than any beef I've ever seen. I almost told my daughter about our meal the next morning and how I wished I'd ordered that horse instead of the delicious rabbit. Then I stopped myself: this is precisely how you cook up a little vegetarian.
|Horse butcher, Oria|
In Puglia, we found most of the towns to be as empty as that ancient one dug out of dirt and ash. Between noon and six o'clock all the Italians vanished and we had entire towns to ourselves. You might hear some dishes clanking behind a covered window, or an opera playing soft on a radio, but the heat was so unbearable we were the only ones foolish enough to be out in it. At night, of course, they all emerged as if from air-raid shelters, rested and readied for the serious business of eating, drinking and shopping all night.
By day gravity pulled us towards shadows: we sat under towering Romanesque churches set between us and the sun and explored countless shaded alleys, but it was clear the kids preferred being back at the lovely villa where we were staying with friends (with its irresistible draw of playmates and a swimming pool). Think of the history! Look at the architecture! How old do you think this wall is? I'd say to disinterested shrugs. Where is your sense of romance?
Nine years before we'd spent those same late August days on our honeymoon in Italy. Nine years later, in those shaded streets and alleys when my wife slipped her fingers between mine and rested her ear on my shoulder with a soft sigh, I'm quite certain our sweaty kids had no idea why. On our anniversary itself we left them with friends and rushed weightless through empty white streets, and when she turned and smiled in the twilight all of the Italians broke open their shutters and rubbed their eyes, blinded by the unexpected radiance of her.
II. The plural of penis is penises, even on the peninsula that gave us third declension Latin nouns
We were staying in the country not too far from Brindisi, the port on the Adriatic Sea where Romans embarked for battles in Greece and points beyond and where modern Italians still leave to work on their tans in economies even more depressed than their own. A few miles north of town there was a nature preserve with a beach and a castle that looked pretty cool in the guidebook: murder holes and a picturesque location on a rocky outcropping. The fact that this was a protected nature area suggested that it would be a little more rustic than most Italian beaches, with their umbrellas for rent and ocean-side espresso service. Still, this was southern Italy in August, and in southern Italy in August I think all you need are a few grains of sand to rub between your fingers and the faint whiff of briny water to open a discotheque filled with a hundred half-naked orange people fist pumping to the worst music you have ever heard. I think the entire day we spent at the beach I saw one other non-orange person. How can a people who seem so fearful of the midday sun also be so giddy to strip down ten feet from the sea to baste themselves and roast in it? When the gods created beachgoing Italians they only had the orange range of a 96-crayon Crayola box: Look, there's an atomic tangerine among all those burnt siennas; Oh wow, mango tango at 3 o'clock. Is that lady totally neon carrot? Dear Italy: your sun is wonderful for olive trees and Malvasian grapes, but it might also explain why your people turn forty and suddenly transform from nubile young pomodori into prunish pensioners staring disapprovingly at anyone not dressed appropriately for confession. That's not fair, Italy: I admit not all your beachgoers look like stretched-out Oompa Loompahs in knuckle huggers, just the vast majority of those temporarily blinded in a recent international incident where a pale American family disrobed and went for a dip in your lovely, warm, cerulean sea.
As we walked down this unspoiled beach towards the castle in the distance, the kids collected shells and coaxed hermit crabs out into the blazing heat. They played hide-and-go seek around sandstone pillars and dipped their toes in cool streams that emptied into the warm water. Families played and picnicked, teenagers sunbathed, a few fat old guys walked by in speedos and here and there we spied an exposed pair of orange boobs. No big deal, right? We're not your typical prudish Americans, we said. There was a time, when she was nineteen and at a similar beach on the Adriatic that their mother did the same thing. When in Rome, right? Keep walking kids, don't stare at the boobs, please. They're perfectly natural. Well, all but those ones over there.
The castle we were pursuing grew tantalizingly close, and once we crossed this weird threshold on the beach the crowd really started to thin out:
"Hey where are all the families?" my wife asked. She was right, there weren't any of the kids that had been stomping around in the water or pushing sand into piles. And then we noticed a lot more boobs. Even the kids sensed the change. Then my wife gripped my hand tightly and whispered through clenched teeth: "PENISES."
After seeing the first one, in a burst of perceptual vigilance they were suddenly everywhere: behind us, in front of us, all around us, big ones, little ones, hairy ones, bald ones. "It's like seeing one fruit fly in your kitchen and then realizing they are everywhere," my wife whispered. And it wasn't just fruit flies. My daughter asked why a group of women passing each other a beach ball in knee-deep water, weren't "wearing anything on their bottoms."
"Well, would you look at that!" my wife whispered as we passed a sunbathing lady with immaculately-sculpted pubic hair.
"I believe that's what the kids these days call a 'landing strip.'"
"You mean like that restaurant out by the airport?"
"That's not a restaurant---at least not one that serves anything you want to eat. Don't you think we should turn around?"
"I don't want to look like prudes. We're almost to the castle."
Out in the water, three naked women jousted with each other from the shoulders of three naked men while others frolicked like neon carrot nymphs with burnt sienna satyrs in shallower water. Walking towards us was the sort of guy who lives for public nudity. You know what I'm talking about: old, wiry, more-than-a-little creepy, and hung like a framed Mapplethorpe. When I saw that pendulous marvel drooping towards us I grabbed the kids by the shoulders and spun them around. I had no intention of answering questions about that thing for the rest of our trip.
"Relax," my wife hissed. "Now all the naked orange people are looking at us."
"Yeah, man, they want us to leave. They don't want our children in their naked fun place. They came down here to get away from kids."
"They don't care."
"Really? I feel like we're being disrespectful of their nude romping."
"Okay, let's go."
The pale American prudes never made it to that castle. And the only question I had to answer about penises that whole trip was why the naked statues in Rome didn't have any.
III. Our first encounter with a real ancient Roman
It was a six hour drive back to Rome from Puglia. At the end of that drive we had to drop the rental car off at Fiumicino airport---a chaotic and foul-smelling place that frightens children---and then go back into Rome with all our stuff. It was here that my ridiculously-cheap inner Dutchman relented and agreed to pay for a cab that would drop us off at our B&B rather than take the train and then trek through the Trastevere with two kids and all our luggage. I think it may have actually been my idea. Forgive me, revered Dutch ancestors: I was exhausted. After six hours of dealing with Fiat Pandas going 50KPH in the right lane while Maseratis flew by at 160 on the left, I just wanted someone else to drive.
I was suspicious of this particular cab when it first pulled up, and suggested we wait for one of the minivans, but my wife insisted it was fine. She piled into the back with both kids, leaving me to awkwardly ask if I could sit in the front passenger seat next to the driver who appeared to have been born during the early reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was far too frail to help with the luggage, so I did it myself. His windshield was obscured by a motley collection of stuffed Disney characters hanging from the rear view mirror by their necks and the whole car smelled like salami because he kept letting go of the wheel to pull pieces of the meat from a plastic package while the cab drifted into the adjacent lane. When we left the airport roads and merged onto the highway, I was dumbfounded when he never accelerated beyond 40KPH while cars angrily whizzed past on both sides.
I had been speaking terrible Italian for over a week at that point, but I did a fairly good job of telling him where we wanted to go. "Via Luigi Santini, Trastevere," I said. I even got the accent right on Trastevere. He acted like he had never heard of any of it. I wrote it down for him, and he peered at my writing from behind his thick glasses like a mole staring out into the wide world beyond his hole. Meanwhile the cab drifted into the mercifully empty next lane.
"Luigi?" he said.
"Yes! Loo-WEE-gee!" I said.
"Loo-WEE-gee?" he asked. At this point I didn't know whether I should shave all my facial hair but the mustache, don a green hat and overalls while jumping on an angry portobello mushroom or simply insist that he pull over to the side of the highway so we could hitchhike from Ostia to Rome.
The driver began entering the street name into his GPS, while the car accelerated maybe to 60KPH as the traffic around us was going at least a hundred. He tried and tried, but couldn't get it right. He kept spelling it "Lvigi," and the GPS couldn't find it. I don't know if he confused my perfectly-written "u" for a "v" or simply couldn't see the tiny GPS screen or if he really had been born during the early reign of Marcus Aurelius back when they chiseled "v" instead of "u" whenever they wrote anything. That was it! I thought. He's some shriveled ancient Roman vampire who's going to drive us into some catacomb and drink my children's blood to transform himself into an unwrinkled orange-skinned lothario. I grabbed the GPS and entered the address myself. "Ah, Loo-WEEE-gee!" he said when the voice in the box started talking proper Italian to him.
After that, everything was golden as the sun set on the eternal city. A few amazing days later, I stuck my head into a different cab and made sure damn sure the driver knew his way to the airport.