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Thursday, 21 December
Last Remembrances

Okay, so it turns out I have a few more things to say about our recent trip to Italy. It's just a bunch of random crap, really, that I never got around to fitting in anywhere else.

THE FLIGHTS

. . . were fairly horrible. As they usually are, of course, even though British Airways still makes with the free booze and gives you wine with dinner. I really do like that when they served dinner--some mysterious roast-y kind of thing, which could have been worse--they asked me if I wanted white or red wine. This despite me still having a full beer in front of me. "Red, please!" I squealed. Just for good measure, I also grabbed another beer. Who knows when I would see them again?

Alas, the meal and/or the flight disagreed with the wife terribly, and she got horribly sick right when we were coming into Heathrow. As in, circling Heathrow, waiting for landing clearance; the wife hunched over her knees, wracked with nausea. I felt helpless and awful, and passed her one of those pitiful barf bags, not sure if I should hover over her consolingly or turn away and let her vomit in peace. The guy on the aisle looked pretty jumpy too. But she hung on. She even signaled frantically to the strapped-in stewardess: Can I go heave in the bathroom? She got a prim "Nope!" response. She clenched her teeth. Finally, we landed, taxied for a small eternity, and then when the signal came, she made a heroic dash to the WC and audibly brought up the unidentifiably roast-y matter from her stomach.

My girl is strong. She don't vomit in her seat! By God, she'll get to that bathroom or die trying. And the guy on the aisle seat's body language was pure "Man, that's awesome that chick didn't puke in her seat." You wouldn't think that body language could say that, but his totally did.

On the way back from Italy, things grew more baffling and horrid. My thesis is, on BA flights from the States, the airline strives to American-ize their meals. Hence the puzzling-yet-edible roast-y thing. But on BA flights from England, well . . . I suspect that the menu is a bit more Brit-oriented. Otherwise, I have no explanation for what happened on that flight when the "meals" were handed out.

"We have a selection of sandwiches," the steward announced (if "selection" is really a word when the number of choices is "two"): "We have chicken and ham, or cheese."

What?

Chicken and ham? Versus . . . lonely cheese? I was immediately nervous, and while I like chicken, and while I like ham, I was not really interested in a pas de deux of these meats. I decided to get the decidedly unthreatening cheese.

As it turns out, the whole "chicken/ham vs. cheese" thing turned out to be a cruel joke, a trick question no matter what. To paraphrase Wargames, the only winning strategy was not to play. They were not "chicken and ham" sandwiches; there were two half-sandwiches in one wrapper; one chicken, and one ham. This is what the wife went for. Similarly, the "cheese" option contained two half-sandwiches, one with some sort of clotted pus shot through with orange matter. I read the ingredients label and discovered that this alarming snot was infested with "carrot chutney." And the other half of the "cheese" sandwich is unknown to me, since the phrase "carrot chutney" combined with the leukemic substance purporting to be cheese had made me forget about the concept of eating for the next ten hours. The wife, I noticed, had similarly given up on both the chicken and the ham options, as one was polluted with horrifyingly elastic onion slices, and the other seemed to pulse with malign intent. We both guiltily wadded up the things a little bit--maybe they'll think we actually bit into them if we make them smaller!--and crammed them back into their bags, uneaten and mutilated.

THE MUSIC

I have already commented on many of the mind-wrecking songs we were forced to endure, over and over, thanks to the familiar banality and sheer repetitiveness of MTV Italia (as with any iteration of MTV): Madonna, Pink, the goddamn Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose "Hey-O" uncomfortably set up echoes in my mind where I'd try and shoehorn the lyrics to "Day-O" into the flabby melody of their terrible song).

But I forgot to mention the incredibly awful and incredibly ubiquitous Evanescence, whose single "Call Me When You're Sober" got almost nonstop airplay in Italy. This is such a weird band. Featuring the worst excesses of goth, nu metal and vaguely Teutonic chord progressions, and fronted by one Amy Lee, a woman who sings with the force and grandeur of a stuck car horn, Evanescence is yet again an answer to a question nobody ever wanted to ask: What if Fred Durst and Bette Midler died, came back to life, and joined Sisters of Mercy?

THE FALL

There really isn't much to this last story, really. One of the funny features of our trip was our ability to find out-of-place Irish bars all over the place. We found one in Rome--it was five blocks from our hotel--and we found one in Florence. (We didn't find one in Arezzo, and that was just fine.)

Going to an "Irish" bar on the continent really only guarantees two things: one, they will have Guinness on tap; and two, there will be TV screens with soccer playing. That's cool. I like Guinness. I don't give a shit about soccer, but I really like Guinness.

In Florence, when we discovered the Irish bar, we walked in enthusiastically. Too enthusiastically. The wife was in the lead, and as she opened the front door, she failed to notice the extra step up. She opened the door to the place, and warm air hit us; many people were seated right inside, glued to the football match; she tripped. She fell down on her face spectacularly, her arms thrown out in front of her. It was a complete disaster of an entrance, worthy of Buster Keaton.

The football fans glanced over at this sprawling American woman with little interest. The wife climbed to her feet and gave a Mary Katherine Gallagher "ta-dah!" gesture. The football fans turned back to watch the soccer players dick around some more with the ball, resolutely not scoring.

I do love my wife so very much. But I have never laughed so hard in my life.

Monday, 18 December
Casineaux Night

Well, at least one of my tens of readers has declared my last couple posts about our trip to Italy "boring," so NO MORE FOR YOU! Not even that unforgettable night when Monica Bellucci gave my nuts a bit of a fondle and then enigmatically licked my eyeball.

This Saturday, the wife and I took a drive up to Shoreline--We Have Car Dealerships!--to our friends C. and L., for L.'s 40th birthday. As the wife and I approach the big 4-0 ourselves, we were interested in finding out how one goes about properly celebrating such an event. The answer, as it turns out, is that everyone acts like teenagers. Hooray!

C. and L. take frequent trips to Las Vegas, perhaps out of some sort of self-flaggelation kink, or possibly because they genuinely enjoy it; it's hard to say. (C. loses his fucking shirt every single time he goes. It's a running joke at this point. "You didn't bet on the Seahawks, did you?" I asked. "No," he replied gloomily. "I bet on the Sonics.") At any rate, they had decked the place out in finest casino style. Shrimp cocktails were served, and C., resplendent in a red bow tie, gleefully pointed out the blackjack table, the craps table, and the roulette table. There was even beer on tap! (In a fashion. C. has this terrible device that looks like a big blender with a central cylindrical chamber; he pours Bud Light into the thing, and the inner chamber contains ice. Then there's a little spigot to dispense the beer. It looks like something from the Sharper Image catalog, but what it really resembles is a giant urine dispenser for those emergency visits from a probation officer when your urine really has to be its cleanest.)

Presently, all those fabulous game tables got fired up. Everyone was given their own bag of gambling chips, and we crammed ourselves at the tables, elbowing each other roughly with our drink hands. Just like Vegas! And also just like Vegas, where good judgment goes to die, we were all soon making the most deranged bets possible (but unlike Vegas, this was because of the worthlessness of the actual chips). At the Texas Hold 'Em table I was stationed at for a bit, my friend L. raised a $200 pot with one of her $5000 chips (I know); she was immediately rewarded with an all-in bet from a competitor. (She was called, of course, and instantly lost when a nasty pair of sevens beat her queen-high, or something equally dumb. Somewhere in the world, Doyle Brunson whimpered in his sleep.)

I took a turn at spelling C. at the blackjack table, taking over dealing responsibilities for a while, and amused myself with the glistening "gamblers" who were doing wonderful things like splitting fours and hitting on A-7. "You have eighteen," I'd say. "But I also have eight!" came the crafty reply. "You have eighteen. I'm showing a five." "I have an eight or an eighteen," said the wily bettor. "I'm hitting my eight." I shrugged and dealt the player a card; it was a five. "Now you have thirteen," I said neutrally. She eyed the cards as if they were pet rats that had suddenly gone feral and shat in her socks. "Hit me again," she said, fingering her bag of chips as if they were actually worth something. I turned up a face card and she bit her lip as she busted.

Just like Vegas!

People were really into the blackjack table, weirdly, since the frisson of gambling with actual money was absent, but whatever. Meanwhile, at the "keno" table, things were similarly lively. C. did not have anything like a keno board or anything, so it was really bingo. Bingo took all of about five minutes to morph into what was swiftly dubbed "Drink-O," where anyone who had a number that was called was obligated to immediately take a drink. This is the sort of game that makes the venerable Quarters seem like a real test of skill and dexterity. "G-29!" someone would call, or something, and then moans of despondency would erupt from the unlucky people who did not have G-29, as if there were some genuine reason why they shouldn't pick up their drink and have a slug if they fucking well felt like it. Similarly, excited cheers came from the "winners" who were able to slam down a glug, as if there were any earthly reason not to any time they felt like it. But it was kind of fun to see people enter into the spirit of the whole thing, really.

And everyone was enjoying themselves. I certainly was, alternating beers with sips of whiskey. At one point, I was smoking a cigarette in the "fireside lounge"--an outdoor courtyard with a little Coleman wood-burning stove--when C. appeared, his red bow tie askew, and announced, "I don't want anyone to worry: I'm getting drunk." What a relief! And then I suddenly realized that it was time for that most interesting part of any evening at someone else's house: I had to take a crap.

"I have to take a crap," I announced, and then dashed off in search of the bathroom. Oh boy! For me, there's nothing like experiencing other people's bathrooms. Bathrooms are ubiquitous, of course, but they are all different, and exploring a new bathroom is, for me, a sort of anthropological fantasia.

I mean, I'm not crass. I don't rummage through people's medicine cabinets; I don't care. No, I immerse myself in the bathroom experience. What's the shower curtain like? Is there a candle? I examine the little soaps that people only dig out for parties. I seat myself reverently on the toilet. This toilet is similar to my toilet, I think, seating myself. But this is not my toilet. (My toilet, the one in my home is, frankly, an appalling relic. It has an old wooden seat--wooden!--that, it must be said, can sometimes pinch. C.'s toilet was refreshingly pinch-free, and I patted it affectionately.) More questions. Is there any reading material? Or shall I simply examine the style and quality of the hand towels?

I finished up in there with approval: C. and L.'s bathroom had passed muster. It was homey and accomodating, and the toilet wasn't finicky or goonish about doing its job; it flushed with a workmanlike roar without any extraneous steps like handle-jiggling or such nonsense. As a final test, I cautiously licked the shiny floor, and noted with approval the presence of ammonia. They mopped, I thought, and smiled at a job well done. I opened the door to let in the next partygoer, and quietly said, "It's all right. It all checks out. You should smell my tongue."

"You're drunk and creepy," said the woman as she slipped inside. Just like Vegas! C. and L. should be proud.


P.S.--If you've made it this far, then you might be interested to know that this December marks the four-year anniversary of this humble blog. So thanks for reading, each and every twenty-six of you or so. For those of you who are new here and shaking your heads in a horrified daze and wondering, "Did he just spend all that time talking about the bathroom?", well . . . hi. Yeah, that's kind of how it goes. Welcome. Hope you stick around. I won't blame you if you don't, but all I'm saying is, you can take a dump in my bathroom any time you want. Yeah, the fucking toilet seat pinches you every now and then, but we use only the decent kind of toilet paper--the kind without actual wood chips in it--and our hand towels have Vargas girls on them.

It isn't Vegas, but it's what I call home, and you're welcome any time.

Wednesday, 13 December
Tuscan Raiders

It took the wife and I a little while to adapt to the unique rhythms of Arezzo, a lovely Tuscan hill town. Not that this was trying or anything; on the contrary, it was actually pretty charming.

Take, for instance, the widespread custom of what basically amounts to a siesta, where businesses close up for a few hours so people can take naps, veg out, watch TV, or just go home for a quick knob session, whatever. During these times, which are frequently from 1 to 3, or 3 to 6, or 2 to 4, or 25 or 6 to 4, good luck doing anything, unless you find someplace open, which you might! The whole thing is typically puzzling, as the Italians are, wonderfully, a sort of society that seems to value not really giving a shit about any sort of consistency at all, particularly in temporal matters. A clearly posted sign that says "Closed 3-6" may mean that they are actually closed from 3 to 6, but it just as easily could mean that they will not open until 8, and it might also mean that they aren't closed at all. The best you can do is rattle the lock, and if it's open, see if someone charges at you brandishing a knife or something.

I think this is why Mussolini got shot like a dog. I think he was drafting legislation about people actually having to read and follow their own signage, and the Italians were all like, "I don't mind the oppressive authoritarian statism so much, but now there's talk that we'll have to pay attention to our own shop signs."

But then we found something magical happening in the early evenings in Arezzo, starting around 7:00. People started walking the streets.

All of them.

Streets that 30 minutes ago were sleepy and deserted suddenly filled with masses of people, wandering amiably, with no real purpose, seemingly for no other reason than to see and be seen, to say hello, to let their dogs piss happily (Rome is a cat city; Arezzo is a dog city). They weren't shopping; store workers mostly stood holding themselves in doorways, smoking and calling out to acquaintances. They weren't bar-hopping; most of the bars didn't bother to be open yet. They weren't even going anywhere; when they reached the end of a particular street, the Italians would simply turn around and amble back the way they came. This was the small-town Arezzo version of dragging Main Street. They would do this for a couple hours until nine or so before finding somewhere to get dinner, and I found it charming as hell, even the one basilisk-faced old woman who gave me such a frightful glare (why?) that my feet swelled and frost collected in the whorls of my ears. "Buona sera!" I called to her, and she deepened her terrifying scowl, making her face a detailed contour map of alien steppes.

Arezzo had other surprises, almost all of them shockingly great. One minor example was finding a fifth of Johnnie Walker in the supermarket for nine euros (not my brand, really, but since this is about twelve bucks American, uh, THANKS!). Another fun romp was to be found in the local farmacia--the wife unfortunately needed to restock her supply of tampons, and unfortunately rejected my advice to ask for "timpanis" or "trombonos" or "Jeffrey Tambors"--where we discovered delicious new brand names such as Ribex condoms ("Made from genuine frogs!" they unfortunately did not say; I immediately thought of a dancing frog with an erection singing gaily, "Ribbit! Sex! Ribex!") and a diaper brand called "Mr. Baby." The wife and I really love the brand name Mr. Baby. I like to imagine a tiny little mustachoied child, a Meerschaum bubblesoap pipe clenched in his pink gums, indignantly demanding that some peon cleanse the feces from his upper-class buttocks. "I'M MISTER BABY! And I have soiled myself."

But perhaps best of all was one morning when I went to have a morningish cigarette at the apartment. I opened the window to let the smoke out, and . . . music? Clearly, something was going on in the main square just around the corner from us, as I heard brass oompahing with some emphasis. The wife scrambled out the door to find out what was going on while I placidly continued to enjoy my cigarette. She came back moments later as I was finishing.

"It's a marching band competition!" she yelled gleefully. "There's marching bands in the square!"

I cocked my ear out the window one more time. A familiar tune was being played, and I heard the distinctive squall of majorette whistles. It took me a moment to place the melody, but then I had it.

There is really nothing like waking up in a semi-obscure Tuscan hill town and hearing a marching brass band belting out Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" at ten in the morning.

After I took a shower, we went to take a look. The marching bands would play a song or two in the square and then would march off down the Arezzo streets, blatting the whole time. Then the next band would play a couple songs in the square and follow. The dogs of the city must have been driven half-mad, and I thought I heard them all howling like hungry ghouls as the astonishing racket bounced off of the stone walls and empty storefronts and bored, smoking store employees.

The adults walked slowly, without any illusions of urgency, while the children (and some of the dogs) chased after the musicians. An old man without any apparent teeth clutched his cymbals and hunched over them as if they were twin chalices worthy of fierce protection; the dogs jumped spastically when he grimly crashed them together.

Then they were gone. And we went to go take a nap.

Monday, 11 December
My Money And My Life

Well, here we are. The wife and I have returned from Italy. And it was, of course, a perfectly lovely time, full of sights and sounds--such as the Muppetlike Italian policemen who, when responding to some emergency or another, frantically wave paddles out of their car windows, as if to say "No, really, this is an emergency! We have paddles!"--but none of that is really interesting. I mean, that's what everyone asks about: "Did you have a good time?" Of course we had a good time. We had a fantastic time.

But who cares? I want to complain. So I will spend this first post back being a complete churl, and I will tell you what wasn't, well, perfectly lovely about our trip. We have lots of time for the boring good stuff that, if you're like me, you'll tune out anyway.

Let's talk about banks.

Like any smart travelers, we took precautions. We bought travel insurance (which we do on every overseas trip; we of course have never had cause to use it). We made copies of passports, drivers licenses, credit cards. I even made the happy discovery that my cell phone was of the tri-band variety, which meant that in a pinch, I could make astoundingly expensive phone calls on Italian service providers with amusing names such as "I Wind" and "TIM." And naturally, we called our credit card companies and banks in advance to let them know that we were traveling to Europe, so don't get all skittish when funky Italian withdrawals started to happen on our debit cards.

And it was fine! Upon arrival at the Rome airport--it's called Fudge-O or something--we immediately ran to the ATMs to get our precious euros. No problem! We both withdrew 200 each. I even managed to use my card to wheedle the Trenitalia self-service ticket machine into horfing up a couple of tickets into Roma Termini station. Whoopee! Fuck you, exchange counter thieves! How do you even have jobs any more?

Two days later, preparing to leave Rome for Arezzo, it was time to visit the ATM again. We were renting an apartment in Arezzo, and one of the conditions was that we needed to hand over 350 euros to the landlord as a refundable security deposit. Tra la la! I have conquered these European contraptions! At a push of a button, they speak English for me! Ha! I will simply withdraw . . .

"Your card is not valid for international withdrawals. Please contact your banking institution."

My card was spat out at me distastefully. The screen could hardly bear to keep the loathsome thing between its digital teeth: "Remove your card within 30 seconds or your genitals will be irradiated." What the fuck?

A burst of internoise, maybe. A fluke. I tried another machine.

"Your card is dropped from the assholes of swine. Please take this thing from my suffering plastic jaws."

Fuck.

We walked to the Forum while I seethed. We stared at a big old dead building, and I wished it were my bank. The wife attempted to comfort me, but all I could do was bark Italian phrasebook standards like "WELL, I GUESS WE'RE FUCKED!" and "STUPID MOTHERFUCKING DOUCHEBAGS!" Passing tourists admired my proficiency with the local language. Then we trudged over to the Spanish Steps, where I abruptly switched tactics, moving from seething to petulant fuming. "CAN I JUST HAVE MY FUCKING MONEY? YOU KNOW, THE MONEY THAT IS, YOU KNOW, MINE? THAT WOULD BE NICE!" Passing Italians would have complimented me on my excellent English, but there aren't any Italians at the Spanish Steps. For that matter, there didn't seem to be any Spaniards either. Europe is pretty fucked up.

We--and by "we" I mean "the wife"--eventually scraped together the 350 clamatos necessary for the apartment deposit and headed to Arezzo. I still could not get any machine to dispense any cash to me, and an astonishingly costly phone call to my bank--a prominent national bank that I will refer to as the Bank of the Fucking Country I Live In (BotFCILI)--only resulted in me getting an automated message that there is no live customer support for individual accounts between the hours of 11:00 PM and 7:00 AM PST. This, frankly, freaked me the fuck out, especially since I was a good nine hours off that particular time zone. No available operators at all. I noted later on BotFCILI's goddamn website that business accounts do indeed get 24-hour live operators.

(As it turned out, the landlord rejected our fumbling attempts to give him the 350 euro deposit. "You paid, I don't want it. You tell me if you break things." This was a real relief, as the 350 was the only cash we had at this point. I was ready to start giving the AmEx a real workout. We assured the guy that we did not intend on breaking things, and he rewarded us by giving us a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine.)

The next day--well, evening, since we were still nine hours up on the West Coast, and HEY HEY! BotFCILI's hours are actually different on weekends (this was now Saturday), so I actually wasted another murderously-priced call--I finally got on the horn with BotFCILI to beg them to let me have my own money. Hammering the "0" button as fast as possible, I stared at the clock, waiting for an actual human to come on the line.

"Welcome to Bank of--"

"Hello! I'm calling from Europe! I can't get money from my cash card! My account number is XXXXXXXXX! My name is Skot Kurruk! My mother's maiden name is Wangsenes! I have an innie! Who will help the widow's son!"

"Slow down, sir! That's very helpful, but there are procedures. I have some challenge questions I need to ask. In three words, please describe your attitude towards Corgis."

[Minutes bleed by.]

"Okay, thank you, sir. Let me take a look . . . oh, dear. Yes. It appears that a frog lock has been placed on your account."

I emitted a strangled cry. "What?" I heard the woman telephonically gauging my sanity in the ensuing pause. I sat and stewed for a moment, wondering what sort of nasty Gallic forces had amassed against me to deny me my money. Frog lock? Why were the French diddling about with my bank account, and why would the Italians countenance it? Moreover, why was my goddamn bank so cavalier about tossing around such nasty terminology? Nothing made sense, and I felt my feet starting to tentatively sweat.

"A fraud lock," she repeated, enunciating as if she were a color commentator for the Special Olympics.

I tried to modulate the wow that seemed to be creeping into my voice; I was still staring at the passing minutes on my cell phone call. "I called you guys ahead of time," I said. "I called to say I was traveling to Italy."

She sounded as if I were a particularly ugly infant gnawing on the cane bars of his crib. "Our computer still keeps track of your account activities. You seem to have tried to withdraw more than the allotted daily amount from your account within a certain time period. This and the fact that the withdrawals were attempted in Italy seem to have resulted in the frog lock." (I decided to go with "frog lock" at this point.)

In other words, despite my every effort to alert my stupid fucking bank about my planned financial activities, to ensure that I would have unfettered access to my own goddamn fucking money--and who would imagine that travelers would require larger-than-normal withdrawals? Crazy!--it was precisely this sort of behavior that got me flagged.

I spent 40 minutes on the phone with these people. On their schedule, at a good $.99 a minute. At one point, I made a terrible mistake and stood up, which immediately caused TIM to lose my cell signal. So I had to call back and go through the challenge questions again. ("What's in my pants right now?" "I don't know. Fish?" "Close enough. The correct answer is "sea monkeys.")

It got worked out, of course. But it sure made for a stressful introduction to a country that really values its naps.

I don't mean to be a dick. But then again, I guess I am one. I haven't even started on things like Italian MTV, which is exactly as awful as American MTV, what with its Beyonce ("Irreplaceable"), its Madonna (who no longer writes songs, just choruses: "Jump"), and of course the tirelessly odious Pink ("U + Ur Hand"). It nearly makes you hop up and down when presented with such local favorites like LIGABUE and NEK! (We kind of got to love the billions of MTV ads touting the the guys [or guy, we were never clear] named NEK! I imagined him/they having an opening soul band called EER, NOZE AND THROTE.)

We had a good time. No, a great time. A really great time. Give me a couple days, and I'll even try to say so.

And I haven't even talked about the mysterious corporate entity known as MultiAss.

I love traveling. I just hate banks.










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