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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.

Roam | Skot | 13 Dec, 2006 |

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Comments

Yeah, the strolling. They do that in almost all the small cities in Italy (and sometimes the big ones). Next time you go to Italy, go to a city called Lucca, pronounced Looka (the temptation to say, "I live on the second floor" after saying the Lucca is intense, but try to fight it). Not only is Lucca sweet with the walking in the evening, but they have a saint! A dead saint! In a terrarium! Zita, the patron saint of maids. She don't look so good, but how often to you go into a church and see a full-size mummified saint? Not often.

Comment number: 009811   Posted by: rothbeastie on December 14, 2006 09:19 AM from IP: 149.39.250.11

Wow-- this sounds very much like north coastal Peru. We lived there for 15 months, and never did get the hang of the irregular siesta and its lackadaisical ending time. Even banks broke for siesta, reopening for a mere 45 minutes to an hour and a half (depending on the bank) in the evening. Also, if you make an appointment to meet at 8, that means "anytime between 8 and 9, give or take." If you want to meet right at 8, it's "la hora Inglesa."

The walking happened at night-- "paseando." Everyone walked together, arm in arm, talking-- turned around at some personal point and wandered home again. Kind of like NPCs in a video game that boasts about the complex life of its NPCs, I guess. I know, I'm a dork.

We grew to love the daily Peruvian brass-band parades, and to distinguish the funerals from the endless parades because some grade-school administrator had a birthday by sound. We were lucky enough to be right on their route. Fun!

Sounds like you had a wonderful time-- except that bank thing. Welcome back! :)

Comment number: 009812   Posted by: Linda on December 14, 2006 09:21 AM from IP: 68.255.111.90

That's my kind of vacation!

Comment number: 009821   Posted by: Stan Taylor on December 14, 2006 02:17 PM from IP: 63.168.99.40

Bo-RING. More complaining, please.

Comment number: 009842   Posted by: Auntie Maim on December 15, 2006 07:00 AM from IP: 137.99.84.206

Welcome back, Skot. I missed you, and I was moved by your previous post about David. I also knew you would find something to be irritated about, and I wasn't disappointed.

Comment number: 009847   Posted by: Bill on December 15, 2006 01:17 PM from IP: 12.172.32.236

I'm starting to think the marching band playing disco hits is a normal European thing. There I was at a sidewalk cafe in Brussels, happily enjoying the six glasses of fine Belgian beer in front of me, when the brass band that was playing in the squares starts in on YMCA. And only one person did the YMCA dance! There's really no point in playing that song if no one is going to spell out the title with their body.

Comment number: 009848   Posted by: lala on December 15, 2006 01:50 PM from IP: 66.7.242.34

Except the Italian phrase for "quick knob session" sounds romantic.

Comment number: 009875   Posted by: flamingbanjo on December 16, 2006 12:37 PM from IP: 216.254.16.115

I did not find this boring, if only for the tampon section.

There is a brand of white bread found in areas of Chicago that are more heavily populated with Spanish-speaking types -- Bimbo bread.

Comment number: 010025   Posted by: Amanda on December 20, 2006 02:33 PM from IP: 12.171.13.133

i dreamt of mister baby last night after reading your post. i may never lead a normal life again. -_-

Comment number: 010051   Posted by: opid on December 21, 2006 06:41 PM from IP: 203.116.59.13

My life's been basically bland today. More or less nothing seems worth thinking about. My mind is like an empty room. I've more or less been doing nothing to speak of. Not much on my mind recently.

Comment number: 010610   Posted by: Sten4851 on January 9, 2007 05:11 AM from IP: 59.93.90.180

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