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Tales from the Old Country

I apologize for being a bit behind in my correspondence, but I have a good excuse. I have just returned from two weeks in Italy and France, and in typical long-winded fashion, I would like to share some of my experiences with you.

My journey started in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but not on purpose. Since I was flying Air Malaysia (they were the cheapest flight available that didn't use Soviet-built planes), we naturally had a stop in Malaysia, and naturally, it was a seven hour layover. I wanted to take the opportunity to explore a little of the city, so I hopped in a taxi, which was very cheap, and told him to take me to see something interesting. He took me to Chinatown, and I still don't know if he was kidding or not.

Malaysia essentially has two ethnic populations, Malays and Chinese. The Malay majority runs the government, but the Chinese minority tends to run the big business of the country, and hold a disproportionate amount of power. However, you couldn't tell this from Chinatown. Chinatown was, for the most part, a rather impoverished neighborhood, with some people living in shacks made of rusting, corrugated tin. In front of the shacks, though, was a vibrant, smelly, noisy open-air market, selling everything from clothing to livestock to bootleg videotapes of "The Crow 2: City of Angels." I wondered how a market that bustling couldn't produce enough cash to at least buy new, non-rusting tin roofs, but I quickly figured it out; I tried to buy a shirt.

The man selling the shirt, an ethnic Chinese, named a price, but since haggling seemed to be the modus operandi, I quickly told him I would only pay half of what he asked. I told him this price before I did the price conversions. After a bit of mental arithmetic, I realized that his initial price, the one that in most open-air markets is way too high, was ridiculously low to begin with. When he reluctantly agreed to drop his price by only 10 percent (to what he called his "final offer," but really probably wasn't), I accepted the price, glancing at the shack behind him that looked on the verge of collapse, and then seeing the look in his eyes. I wasn't about to haggle over the 50 cents. I figured out why despite the open free markets, many still live in tin boxes: there just isn't enough cash in Malaysia to support a better lifestyle for these people.

Or, maybe there is. I walked into the richer part of town, where I visited Kuala Lumpur Tower. The Tower is a gleaming triumph of architecture, and it stands in the shadow of two more towers being built that will supposedly be the tallest towers in the world when completed. This section of Kuala Lumpur was completely different than Chinatown, and didn't seem to care too much about the base poverty within walking distance. I wondered how much it was costing to build the tallest towers in the world. But I didn't wonder too long, since I was about to dull my own sense of irony, and leave for a two week vacation to Europe. I hopped on the plane, and cruised to Rome.

Once in Rome, I immediately hopped in a rental car and drove north to Venice. The drive across the Italian countryside was incredibly beautiful, and there's nothing that adds to a beautiful countryside like seeing it at 100 mph (160 kph). I had never driven that fast before (despite what the officer in Pennsylvania said), and it was certainly exhilarating. Even in a big rental station wagon.

In Venice, I met up with my girlfriend Sailaja, the reason I had flown halfway around the world. I hadn't seen her in six months, so we spent our first night in Venice doing what most romance-minded tourists in Venice do--looking for our hotel in the maze of streets and canals that comprise the Venetian islet. (I kept thinking there was a piece of cheese at the end of one of these streets.) Although we didn't spend much time there, there were a number of things I will always remember about Venice. First of all, when it rains during high tide, even the places that aren't supposed to be canals become canals, so bring boots. Second, although all vendors can speak five languages fluently, and can sell their wares in at least twenty, nobody can give good English directions. (Or, for that matter, good Italian directions, which was even more disheartening.) And third, every single shop was selling masks, which are apparently a very Venetian thing. I asked several shop owners what they were for, but the most any of them could reckon, they were to sell to tourists. Or maybe my translation is a little loose. And cynical.

From Venice we drove west across the Dolomite mountains, on our way to the French Riviera. It has been said that this drive is one of the most scenic and challenging drives in the world, and that was true. Then it got dark, when it stopped being scenic, and just became challenging. Then it started raining, when it just became a pain. (I don't know about Spain, but the rain in the Italian Riviera fell mainly on us.)

We stayed for three days in Nice, France, where thankfully, Sailaja's excellent French removed the language barrier from us. (Well, from her, anyway. I remained clueless, nodded a lot, and ate whatever she ordered for me.) The Cote d'Azur was certainly azure, a pure, crystalline blue that looked way too clear and inviting for a beach in late October. At least, it looked that way to me until I accidentally snapped my glasses in half. Then it just looked blurry. Luckily, we found an optometrist in short order, and I was able to see our next stop in Nice, the Henri Matisse museum. (There is a Chagall museum, too, but it was closed.) Also, as a really random note, I took a picture of my shoes on the beach. This is relevant to maybe 5 people in the world.

Many services were shut down in Nice, because there was a large strike which involved most government agencies. (And the French wonder why they haven't been a first-world country for 400 years.) However, the department stores were still open, so we went shopping.

Whereas I thought the drive to Venice was beautiful, it pales in comparison to the drive out of Nice, back across the Rivieras, and down the Italian west coast. The drive took us up on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and the cliff was so high and the day so bright and clear that we could see the coast of North Africa across the sparkling sea. (OK, maybe it was just a big island or something, but let me have my images.) This drive, the highlight of the trip, was heartbreakingly gorgeous, and it almost-almost-made the following two events worth it.

The first misery was trying to stop in Pisa to see the leaning tower. One would think it would be easy--in fact, we could see it from afar. But driving around the city of Pisa, the signs were so bad, and so misleading, that we were never actually able to find the tower. So, after a five-hour drive from Nice, a quick detour turned into a two hour ordeal of Italian city driving, with no results. Eventually, we had to give up, and drive on to Florence. I thought that whole thing was pretty bad. But, as the saying goes, I hadn't seen nothin' yet.

An hour later, we arrived in Florence, which has a street grid layout that makes the streets of Venice look sane and orderly. Florence was apparently designed for traffic, if at all, in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster. To make matters worse, because driving was so difficult, most people had given up on cars and switched to motor scooters. The most popular brand was "Vespa," and although I don't know if that actually is Latin for "wasp," it might as well be: the scooters buzz around you constantly, always driving you to the point of frantically wanting to swat at them, but you know if you do, you're in big trouble. After a few more painful hours of winding through mostly one-way streets designed for pedestrians, with the wasps swarming around us, we finally parked the car wherever we could, and walked to the hotel. After that experience, possibly one of the worst in my life, Florence was really quite nice. Just don't drive there.

Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, features many worthwhile sites, principally Michelangelo's statue of David, the world-famous Uffizi gallery of art, and the best open-air leather markets in the world. David is just as impressive as his reputation, standing about 30 feet tall, and looking bad-assed and buff-chested. But walking around the statue reveals some interesting details, especially the changing look on his face as you walk from the front-view ("yeah, I just nailed Goliath, and you're next if ya mess with me") to the side-view ("I can't be king--I'm just a kid!"). The Uffizi Gallery might well be the most impressive house of art in the world, and the principal feature we saw of it was what might well be the most impressive line to get into an art gallery in the world. Having limited time in Florence, we skipped it, and went shopping instead. I bought a leather jacket. It's very nice. I'm sure the Old Masters don't mind.

One interesting feature in Florence was the multitudes of paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Actually, that in itself wasn't interesting--once you've seen a few thousand, it seems you've seen them all, until the next room. But what I thought was especially interesting was that so many of the baby Jesuses (is there a plural for Jesus?) were giving a two-finger salute, like Churchill's Victory sign. If anyone on this list knows why, or why this is significant, please let me know. I am curious to find out why so many painters wanted to represent Jesus Christ as if he had just beaten back the Germans at the Bulge.

After driving back to Rome, and giving the car back (thankfully--Rome driving looked like the final exam, with Florence being only the midterm), we had two days in Rome to spend as we wished. We decided to divide it into one day of really really old stuff, like the ancient ruins, and one day of just really old stuff, basically, the Vatican City and its enormous warehouses of Renaissance art. We decided that Rome's principal modern contribution, a thick cloud of pollution that blanketed the city and choked us regularly, could be studied as we went along.

We wanted to make the most of Rome's subway system, but there wasn't much to take advantage of. Like the French in Nice, the subway workers were on strike. (Between the strikes and the mandatory three hour lunches that close every business in town during prime shopping time, it's no wonder the Italians haven't been a first-world country for 400 years.) Anyway, even if the subway workers were working, the Rome subway is quite limited; it only has two lines. City "planners" have long wanted more, but apparently, every time they start digging for a new tunnel, they discover some new ancient ruins.

The ancient ruins were impressive, not just for their size, or how much was left from two thousand years ago, but also for the oddly realistic air of continuity that hung over them. It doesn't take too much imagination to picture the bustling marketplace to which Marc Antony gave a speech to his friends and countrymen, or the legendary bacchanalia in the shadow of Agrippa*s magnificent Pantheon (later converted to a Christian church, under threat of destruction), or the brutal fights to the death between Christians and lions in the Coliseum (where, unlike those of the Columbia football team, the Roman lions usually won). The ruins were made none the less magnificent by Sailaja joking every five minutes in an overly dramatic voice, "Oh, no! It's ruined!"

The outside of the Vatican may be suffering from the pollution of modern Rome, but the inside of St. Peter's breathtaking cathedral shows no signs of wear. In fact, the cathedral is so enormous, it would be hard to believe that anything created by man could damage it in any way, and every once in a while, I had to remind myself that the place was built by men in the first place. The basilica, built on the site of the grave of St. Peter, houses the graves of many popes, incredible Christian treasures, and the dome: the largest dome in the world, and the tallest structure in Rome, if not Italy. But from the floor of the cathedral, it is difficult to ascertain its size, because the dome is perched on the top of the church, and so it seems so small and far away. We were able to climb to the base of the dome, up on the roof of the church. From there, one can see just how big the dome is, and if you can overcome your oppressive sense of vertigo, you can look down into the cathedral and get a better sense of how big that is as well.

The Vatican Museums house so much art that I didn't feel guilty breezing through them in just under three hours, since it would take lifetimes to truly see everything in them. We did, of course, spend a good bit of time craning our necks to see the newly renovated Sistene Chapel ceiling, where Michelangelo's panoramic views of the fall of man (and other biblical stuff) are truly awe-inspiring. The renovations have made the Chapel ceiling seem almost too clean and bright, especially in comparison to the un-renovated paintings in the rest of the Museum. But the brightness brings out the best in the work, including an almost creepy feeling of three-dimensionality, as if God himself were coming out of the ceiling, and pointing at you.

Incidentally, two days after we were in the Vatican, the Pope announced that he accepted some of the tenets of evolution, basically reversing 2,000 years of Christian theology. I would just like to state for the record that I had nothing to do with that.

My flight home was scheduled to leave Wednesday morning. So, I awoke way too early on Wednesday, got to the airport in plenty of time, and then endured delay, after delay, after delay. The flight finally took off at 3:00--early Thursday morning. Naturally, I missed a connecting flight. As did my luggage. As late as I got home, my luggage came two days later. (If they had wanted to wash the clothes, they could have kept it longer, for all I cared.) But, I did get home eventually, over 52 hours later, and found over 130 e-mail messages waiting for me (thus, the delay in writing this message).

All else is going well. Sailaja is coming to Japan in two weeks, and I am busily preparing for that (cleaning my house, throwing away dirty magazines, that sort of thing). I have stupidly agreed to participate in a Japan-language debate in January, so I am preparing as best I can for that (speaking Japanese is getting easier with time here, but public speaking is quite a different story). Otherwise, my life is calm and enjoyable. I saw that the Yankees took the Series. One down, Knicks to go. :-)

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