Archive for March, 2005

Pasqua a la Fiorentina

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Florence’s Duomo dominates the city

It seemed a little daunting, going to Cattadrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, for Easter Mass. It happens to be the 4th largest church in the world (depending on whom you ask and what your criteria are, the others may be St. Peter’s in Rome, St. John the Divine in New York City, and Saint Paul’s in London), and I was sure that the mass was going to be entirely in Italian, a language in which I have attained little mastery. Fortunately, amen sounds the same in Italian as it does in English.

We woke up in the morning to pouring rain — not a good sign when your travel plans consist primarily of walking. Florence’s Duomo is only a leisurely 10-minute walk from our front door, but rain always dampens one’s spirit as well as the cuffs of one’s pants. Fortunately, about five minutes after we had intended to leave, birds began singing outside, and we were convinced that the rain had stopped for the time being. We set out, umbrellas in tow, toward the Basilica under a low canopy of light grey clouds. The rain had subsided, and lots of people were making their way through the city to various churches.

For the first several blocks, I was convinced that we were headed in the wrong direction, despite my clear recollection of how to get to the Duomo — we walk by it almost every day. Today, most of the foot traffic seemed to be in the direction opposite to the way we were going. I guessed that these particular inhabitants preferred other churches to the Duomo — particularly today when the mass is likely to be overrun with tourists who may be less than faithful.

Another reason why there was no clear destination for the hundreds of people we saw that morning was that Florence is home to at least 8 gigantic basilicas and churches (Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, Orsanmichele, Il Duomo, and Santa Trinita), as well as dozens of smaller churches around the city. It is easy to see why, ninety minutes before the most important mass in the Catholic church, there would be mass confusion in the streets with each person going to the church of their choice for Easter.

Colorful procession of the ox-cart

When we arrived at the Duomo, the square was filled with hundreds of tourists, there to see the procession of medieval costumes and trumpet fanfare. A traditional ox-cart loaded with enough fireworks to bring down the roof of the cathedral was parked out front, waiting for the beginning of the mass to detonate and burn for a good 15 minutes. We watched for a few minutes, and then decided that we had better get inside and find seats before we found ourselves standing through an entire mass which was likely to be longer than usual.

It turns out that few people were gathered to the right of the alter — most had gathered in the nave, where all of the temporary seating had been set up, and the best place to get a view of the ox-cart outside, poised for subsequent conflagration. We sat down and took a few pictures before the mass started. We also began to notice that, inside the cathedral, it was freezing. Since the church has few windows to let in a great deal of light, and no noticeable heating system, it is still cold from the winter. Even when the sun is bright and lightly baking those in the square, the church remains dark and cold.

Katie and me in the Duomo

There seemed to be quite a lot going on outside that we could not see. Trumpets would occasionaly sound, the crowd would cheer, and everyone in the church was looking around, trying to get a better look at either the action outside or the tremendous architecture inside. I was trying to guess the country of origin for all of the people surrounding us. I listened to their speech and decided that there were a number of Italians and Americans — which came as no surprise to me – as well as German, Polish, and a few Asian languages. My capacity to identify languages pretty much stops at the eastern edge of Europe… I haven’t had enough friends who speak Asian languages often enough to have learned to recognize certain sounds that tip me off as to the language of the speaker. I might be able to discern Japanese from a Chinese dialect if I heard them at the same time, but I have to admit that I am very ignorant with respect to these languages at this point in my life.

Judgement Day on the interior of Brunelleschi’s Dome

The architecture in the Duomo is impressive. During the rennaisance, Europeans finally re-learned everything that the ancient world had already figured out, and then somehow lost along the way. Art and architecture were re-born, and people started building big. Brunelleschi was both an artist and an architect, and he apparently managed to get an exclusive commission to build the huge dome of Florence’s Duomo by both making Ghiberti (of Doors to Paradise fame) look like an incompetent, and being a hell of an engineer. It appears as though the dome itself has stood the test of time, while the cathedral itself has required bracing along the way, due to the crushing weight of the massive roof. Arches line both the interior and exterior isles of the nave, but appear to be buckling somewhat under the stress. Various means have been used to forestall further weakening of the arches and columns, such as adding iron rods driven through the columns to the roof — apparently to hold the two supports of the arch together.

Florentines in costume

Upon review of the pictures I took inside the cathedral, I have to say that the duomo looks smaller in the pictures. It is simply massive. The ceiling is so high that looking directly up at the inside of the dome invokes a strong sense of vertigo, so it was fortunate that I was already sitting down. The pictures taken, in general, have a very warm illumination to them. That is due to the faux candles that are mostly used around the church. They emit the usual, vaguely yellowish light given off by incandescent light bulbs. A few of the candles were real, and added to the yellow glow which lights the inside of the basilica.

The ox-cart explosion lasts at least fifteen minutes

The service finally began with what I can only assume was a long introduction and welcoming of all the guests, tourists, and faithful to Florence’s Duomo. This was one of the only Catholic masses where it wasn’t entirely obvious when to stand up or sit down. Since so many of the visitors were non-Catholic (like the German family who accidentally took part in the Eucharist and wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the wafer) or non-Italian-speakers (such as our family), many of the attendants were unable to follow the printed mass program (such as I, who, for reasons still unclear to me, was apparently the owner of a 3-year-old Easter program… it is very difficult to follow a mass in another language when you’re expecting a totally different set of phonics to be uttered by the priest).

In spite of my program buffoonery, I knew exactly what was going on when the organist apparently laid down full-out on the keyboard, producing an absolute cacophony of air-powered sound from the gigantic pipes. For Easter, a synthetic dove had been rigged, hanging from a wire extending from near the alter, down the length of the cathedral, out the door and into the street outside. The dove burst into life (and flame) and shot right out the door, and into the ox-cart waiting outside. The next fifteen minutes or so were occupied watching the ox-cart spew smoke, flames, and sparks while the crowd outside cheered repeatedly to the belching of this Florentine Easter tradition.

Once the commotion died down, the mass continued just as it had left off — very strange that such a secular (or at least not particularly Catholic) event should postpone the most important even in the liturgical calendar. I guess that’s what happens when religions, over time, adopt the policy of embrace and extend when events of cultural importance exist in the places into which the faith is spreading.

Omelettes with fresh, smoked, buffalo mozzarella

I had intended to make breakfast before church, but let’s face it: nobody was going to get up that early, so we had brunch after mass instead. I made omelettes with smoked buffalo mozzerella, which was an entirely new taste thrill for me. The mozzarella was super smoky. While being an interesting thing to try, and might be good to have occasionally, not much can beat a big salty sphere of mozzarellific goodness. Mmmm… insalata caprese

I have also started getting accustomed to our limited means with respect to the kitchen in our rented flat. We have a single serrated knife, a single, thin, aluminum pan, and two pots of different sizes. Oh, and something that looks kind of like a mini watering-can, complete with spout, but matches the pattern of the two pots. I’m not sure what its intended use is, but I used it to beat the eggs and milk together and pour it into the pan. We have one of those infuriating plastic “pasta spoons”, which I believe was invented explicitly to make sure that one didn’t eat too much pasta, and a large, shallow plastic spoon with holes in it — kind of like the wire spoons used to retrieve things from large vats of boiling oil when frying things. I have nearly perfected the art of pouring the omelette from the pan into the spoon and then, with a flick of the wrist, returning the eggs, folded in half, back into the pan. Luckily I am capable of flipping the omlette with nothing more than a flick of the wrist on the handle of the pan.

The previous day, at the Mercato St. Ambrogia, I acquired the necessary ingredients for my Easter meal. I had originally intended to get lamb — probably chops, since we have only microwave and toaster ovenw — but settled instead on a beef fillet bathed in sage and other herbs, inserted into a loaf of bread and finally wrapped in prosciutto and lashed together with string. I wasn’t sure how well the toaster oven was going to work, but hey — why not?

I decided to just kick the toaster oven up as high as it would go to sear the meat, and then re-evaluate the situation. Since the oven doesn’t really stay warm when its heating cycle turns off the elements, I ended up leaving the toaster at this high setting for the duration. The problem turned out to be not the heat, but the electricity.

I believe that Katie and I are the first guests to rent this particular apartment from the owner. As such, it is missing some important things, such as a garlic press or a 30-amp circuit. With the toaster oven at 250 degrees (Celcius), the breaker tripped approximately every 6 minutes. The worst part was that it wasn’t just tripping the breaker for the kitchen — it was tripping the main breaker. That means that the apartment itself can’t provide enough power for the toaster oven, which is pretty sad. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly convenient for cooking.

We decided that, to minimize the changes of the circuit breaker being tripped (or, at least to maximize the time between mandatory trippings), we had better turn everything off. We unplugged anything that could possibly draw current, including nightlights and even things that were already completely turned off like the CD-player. We sat in total darkness and watched the toaster oven’s orange light to see if it was still on. The breaker tripping didn’t make that much noise, and sometimes we couldn’t hear it, so we had to watch. I wanted to light a candle, but we decided that trying to coax a decent flame out of a napkin thrust into the heating element of the toaster oven was going to be a bad idea, generate a lot of smoke, and prolong the cooking time of the fillet.

Darkest caprese salad ever

I found the concept of sitting in total darkness pretty stupid, so I decided to venture forth into the sleeping city to get matches. Of course, everything was closed except for pharmacies and a few other places, and nobody had matches. I finally went into a club and tried to describe what I needed. I didn’t have a cigarette, and therefore didn’t look like I needed matches — much less a whole pack to take away with me. After a few confusing minutes, I was offered a plastic cigaretter lighter. After issuing many gratzies, and making sure that nobody got mad as I approached the door, I returned home.

Progress was being made. Katie and my father were trying to rig a ladies’ compact mirror on a shelf so that we could see the eye of the toaster oven from the living room, instead of having to stand in the kitchenette, staring. They got it going, and I lit a candle so we could at least have some light.

We sat at the candlelit table and enjoyed our caprese salad made with picorino cheese that my parents got in Siena. Occationally, one of us would get up to re-set the breaker. Thank god we don’t have fuses like our apartment at home. We would have frozen to death with all the stores closed for Easter.

Slicing the Easter Fillet

After one hour and fifteen minutes, we decided to take a look. I turned off the oven and then, with the lights back on, checked the fillet. It was perfect. I’m not sure how I could have cooked it any better. So, we laid it asside and made all the other stuff for dinner — asparagus and fresh pasta with butter, garlic, and grated cheese. By the time these had been prepared, the meat had cooked over a bit, but was still very good.

Using the knife on the cutting board, I carved the meat for Easter dinner. It turned out to be wonderful, in spite of the fact that it was no longer pink inside. Everything tasted great, and we had wine and aqua frizzante, and a big laugh about the fact that this would certainly be a memorable Easter, bizarre as measured by just about any standard.

With the lights turned back on, I thought about how I would actually prefer that the lights be turned back off. There was a calm quiet during that time, and the illumination from the halogen bulbs in our apartment were harsh after the softness of the candlelight. Maybe we’ll turn off the lights again when we have a meal at home on a quiet day.

Happy Easter

È Gratis?

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Here’s another post from Katie. Sheesh.. she needs her own blog.

It’s Katie again. I feel compelled to share about my and Christopher’s recent gratis (free) experiences. The first came when I was returning home from the grocery store, about 2 weeks into the trip. When I walk alone I tend to keep my eyes ahead of me so I won’t get any unwanted “Ciao Bella!”, but this days I was feeling friendly, looking at the shops I passed. As I passed by a cobbler’s shop, I glance up and said Buona Sera (good evening) to the shop keeper standing in the store. He responded in kind, as expected, but then continued to chat, saying “how are you?” in Italian. I was then forced to use all of my linguistic skills, which really aren’t much, to try and keep up my end of the conversation and understand what he is saying. After some initial confusion, I tell him that I am an American and he asks me “which part?”. I say Washington DC, and he gets excited and motions me into his shop. He has a collection of post cards, including some from DC. He motions to one specific DC post card and says that it is from his friend, and then quickly indicates another post card featuring a woman with enormous breasts and declares that this woman is unfortunately not the friend in question. We both chuckle. Then he reaches for his shelf and hands me a small box containing shoe polish. Upon seeing the confused look on my face, he motions to my feet indicating the proper direction of use. I had that part figured out — just not the part about why it was in my hand. Was I supposed to pay him for it? Was it a gift? He then asks if I am a student (No) and I try to explain I am here with my husband- not knowing the word, so we settle on ragazzo (boy) and he seems to understand enough. At this point I am ready to leave, and so I say Grazie repeatedly and head out, with my free shoe polish in hand.

Chris, on the other hand, has been working on his relationship with the owner of La Ch@t — a man in his upper 30’s, maybe — who is always very well-dressed and always talking to the young college girls who come in to use the computers. So he doesn’t really chat with either one of us, I guess I spend too much time hanging on Chris. Anyway, each day, Chris has tried to extract more conservation out of signor La Ch@t. We even went to the 4th anniversary party for La Ch@t at a local bar/club where he recognized us and even said hello. Then, yesterday, while Chris was working on his laptop, as usual, the owner comes over Chris and hands him a neck tie. Of course Chris was confused and the owner mumbled something about people giving each other gifts at easter, or that he has changed his tie and was no longer in need of the services of this one — it is not entirely clear. Of course Chris says Grazie, and we leave.

Ok, I know this is a lame blog entry, but why we we getting free stuff from strangers? Is this just the way of business, like a free sample, just bigger? Are we supposed to give something in return? Are these gentlemen expecting anything more than a thanks? I am so confused… but on the other hand I do love free stuff…

May I please introduce Katrina

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

My wonderful wife has decided to post an entry in my stead. I find it difficult to write about the mundane details of daily life, so I will permit her to do so instead.

Buona Sera! Mi chiamo Katrina. Since my husband has not updated his blog in awhile, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and when he sees how awful my attempt is, he will realize to never let me touch his blog again. Like when washing dishes you accidentally break a few so that you won’t be asked to do them in the future.

I am here to give an update to what we have been up to. Our typical day is pretty relaxed… wake up around 9 or 10- have make some café (espresso) with latte (milk), head to the market to buy food for lunch and dinner — buy prosciutto, provolone and focaccia for lunch — and consider buying various meats for dinner until you give up and just buy sausage because it is easier to count the number than figuring how many kilograms of meat to to get — then to the outside portion for vegetables, each vendor having their own way of doing things, and always the two-toothed old man chasing you with a large knife with a small piece of mozzarella on the end as a free taste.

No market trip is complete without our stopping by the wine shop (Baccas Nudo) and have them fill ‘er up. They have large jugs of various wine along the wall and you pick your variety, give them your bottle, and they fill it, cork up, and charge you €2 — can’t beat that deal! Then we go home for lunch or stop somewhere for pizza, Chris works, I read.

About threeish we usually hit the town, wandering around piazzas, exploring outside the center of the city, or going to Piazza Santa Croce to people watch — kids playing football (soccer), mothers taking children out for walks, and teenagers hanging out with a Frisbee, soccer ball, or maybe even an accordion. Then its home for dinner and a bottle of wine.

Afterwards perhaps gellato and a walk to Piazza Republica to see the street performers play an up beat tune that involves abusing an acoustic bass, or a Charlie Chaplin like man who draws a crowd by teasing his volunteers and making a child do obscene hand gestures — always funny :) Then back home to bed, to do it all over again. Yeah, its a rough life.

We have broken out of the routine by visiting Fiesole — a hill-town that overlooks Florence with museums and an extensive array of hiking trails — or going out to dinner at a place that is next door- incredibly cheap, but I am confident it is run by “the Family” if you know what I mean, but I can live with a little Don for €3 tortellini. (As a side note to Mom, I hope this satisfies your blog craving, I will be sure to write again soon!)

Below are a few selected pictures there are so many Sante Croce ones because we spend a lot of time there — it is only 3 blocks south.


A sample from the Market.


Hanging in the piazza on a lovely day.


From the hike in Fiosole along the Etruscan walls.


Countryside in Florence.


Ahhhh…Firenze

Questo addatore é no bene!

Tuesday, March 15th, 2005

Before leaving for Italy, I double-checked to make sure that the power adaptor (brick) was capable of handling European voltages. Sure enough, the good people at HP have furnished me with a power supply capable of accepting 100-240V at 2A and 50-60Hz, which covers most of the world. What I did not have was the adaptor necessary to convert the North American square, slender prongs into the round ones used in Italy. Italy also has two different sizes: picolo and grande.

No problem. My dad has been overseas quite a bit, and he even has extra ones because not all of his trips have been as well-planned (or packed) as they could have been. So, I borrowed pair of adaptors which, when used appropriately, can get me plugged-in just about anywhere.

There’s only one problem: they’re dual-pronged instead of tri-pronged.

One day maybe a year ago or so, as I was sitting on Brian’s balcony, enjoying the first few warm days of the spring. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see my own laptop screen… I wasn’t intending to get any great amount of work done that day. Brian has a pair of outlets on the balcony, which was nice, because our laptops can’t stay alive very long with the wireless network in constant use. So, we were plugged-in. Brian happened to be using an extension cord from inside the house and I was using my laptop on one of the external outlets, with one of those “grounded outlets are for suckers” electrical adaptors that simply eliminate the ground line (my laptop has a 3-pronged plug, and the outdoor outlets are dual-pronged).

Occationally, I felt like I was being bitten on the inside of my forearm by a small insect or something. It seemed strange that an insect would be situating itself directly between my arms and my laptop, where I was resting my wrists on the keyboard. Yes, it’s not very good posture, but I’m pretty well-insured.

It seemed to be getting worse. I was scratching my wrists and trying to locate the bug, which I assumed was too small to see. Then, the biting stopped. I concluded that the bug was either dead or gone, and I didn’t care which. So, I continued with my work.

I was about to get up to go inside for something to drink, and I put my stocking feet down on the floor and was biten again, this time, very sharply. I immediately took my feet off the floor and the biting stopped. Eureka!

The mystery was solved: without a ground plug, my laptop was grounding itself through me: a nice briney material connected more directly to natural ground — the concrete, in this case — than anything else. So, I was shocking myself over and over. With my feet off the ground, I was safe from the circuit created by Brian’s outlet, my foot, and the ground.

In a house full of tech gear, this was easy to fix; not so in Italy.

So, I have been to many stores to try, in broken English, or broken Italian, like this morning, to describe what I want. It is very difficult. I can communicate that I’m looking for a 3-pronged adaptor (addatore electrica), but asking for one with a continuous ground line is proving to be nearly impossible. I told one woman this morning that I was being shocked by my computer with my current adaptor. She said she understood, handed me two adaptors that didn’t seem to connect the ground lines, and said “no shock”. So, I said “okay”, and bought one of them, since I already had one that matched the other.

At home, I tested it out and shocked myself. Molto grazie, signorina.

Yesterday, I found a guy who had precicely what I was looking for. It was €8,50, and I told the salesman that I’d look for a better deal. Today, I was back in his shop, and after I asked him for the addatore electrica, he went right for the one on which we had settled the day before. I am currently sitting, barefoot, with my wrists resting on my keyboard, typing this post.

I am not being shocked.

Far from Routine

Saturday, March 12th, 2005

It’s been almost one week and I’ve only had a single emergency at work. (skip the technical details). Apparently, an unscheduled reboot of our intranet server irreparably hosed our LDAP database, which needs to work in order for everyone to use our intranet web site, including some of the software demonstrations that we have available, our on-line DAV-based file server, and our bug database.

Fortunately, the last time something terrible happened to our intranet server, I actually took the time to schedule regular backups of everything we have, including major databases such as our LDAP directory. I just had to take the time to figure out what was going wrong. I thought that restarting the LDAP server process would help, and so I did that, and I was about (I think) to get into our intranet web site. I must not have used HTTPS because I found out later that it was still broken. Of course, when I only check my email twice a day, and only once while anyone in the States is awake, it’s hard to find out that things are still broken.

Fortunately, most problems in a UNIX operating system are fixed by this short and sweet process:

  1. Murder the process
  2. Delete the files (in this case, the database)
  3. Re-start the process
  4. Re-load the database from a backup

That took me about 45 seconds to do. Too bad it took my 24 hours to figure out the problem. At least I didn’t do the opposite and use a 45-second investigation to effect a 24-hour solution ;)

Having not been disconnected from the umbilical cord I typically maintain between myself and the Internet for quite some time, I’m still getting used to the idea of doing things offline. For example, I don’t want to write these blog entries while sitting in an Internet Point, because it costs me money to do so. Therefore, I write them at home and then upload them quickly. There’s a way I can send an email to wordpress to post the entry for me, but I haven’t set that up, yet, so I have to use good old metapad to write them, in HTML. I started out using OpenOffice.org, but then realized that, although being great for writing normal documents, I can’t easily export it to HTML — at least not HTML without tons of junk in the resulting document.

Sending and receiving email is also strange, since I end up just syncing everything when I connect, and then leaving to go somewhere else. I read the email at my leisure, and write back when I read the message and have something to say. The next time I connect, everything gets sent, and a new batch of mail comes in. On top of that, my first trip of the day occurs at about four o’clock in the morning on the east coast of the US, so nobody’s going to read anything anytime soon. I find myself having difficulty phrasing some things, especially when time is involved. If I have to say “I’m about to do [whatever]”, then, by the time the recipient reads the message, whatever it was will likely be done. So, should I say “I’ve already done [whatever]”? Probably not, because, as I write the message, I haven’t actually done whatever it is that needs to be done.

Now I know why there are all of these obscure kinds of cases in languages. Describing the past in the future tense is bizarre. “By the time you read this, I will have completed the task I am about to start.” It’s a head-scratcher.

It’s still somewhat cold here in Florence, so we have to make the most of the time when the sun is available for warmth. That means that we get up, have an espresso, and then get out into the city to do whatever. The past few days have been spent going to markets to get food for a single day. We come home and Katie makes something to eat for lunch while I do some work so I can keep my job. Then, we try to go out and do something enjoyable in the city. Usually, it’s nothing more exciting than a stroll, which is actually quite nice.

For at least two reasons, I find myself in the unexpected position of not wanting to go into any of the classic Florentine historical sites. Katie and I hit most of the big ones when we were here on our honeymoon: The Uffizi, Bargello, and Academia galleries, most of the basilicas, the Palazzo Pitti and attached Boboli Gardens, and most of the piazzas where people mostly hang out and try to sell you sunglasses and prints of famous works of art. Around Easter, my parents will be coming to visit, followed by my sister and brother-in-law and my new nephew, Joshua. During their respective visits, I’m sure we’ll play Florentine host to them, taking them from one point of interest to the next, so there’s really no reason for me to do all of that, now. The real question is how to convince them that they don’t need to see the big sites, but that they should help us fill-in the gaps that we missed in the past…

After our stroll, where we try to wander aimlessly through the city, especially in, around, and into places we’ve never ventured. For example, today we went across the Arno (the “left” side) and then west to see Santa Maria del Carmine. My mother was interested in the frescoes there, so we wanted to see how long it would take and if it was a nice walk. What she doesn’t realize is that you can’t walk 10 meters without seeing a fresco!

With the afternoon waning, we return home and I generally work from then until dinnertime. Another trip to the La Ch@t for an email refresh (this time, while my colleagues are actually awake!) and I return to work. It helps me keep my mind off the fact that it’s still pretty cold.

There’s a warm front coming in, and it rained this morning, so hopefully things will be warming up somewhat soon. I’d rather not wait for Easter to roll around before I can wear fewer than 3 shirts plus my jacket when I go out.

Octopi and Brains

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Today, we went to an open-air market to buy food for today. Yesterday, we ate every meal (except breakfast) at restaurants, and now it’s time we started buying food and cooking at home.

We were more than a little intimidated walking into the market. We had no idea how a transaction was even supposed to go. We tried stalking a few people to see what they would do. There was a lot of critical evaluation of fruit, vegetables, and other goods, but not too much buying. Any time we saw someone actually paying for something, we only saw the money exchange, and not the transaction, start to finish. We decided to wander around and decide what we might want to buy before we dove into the process of an actual purchase.

We took several laps around, mostly because almost everything looks like something we’d want to eat. There were a lot of things that I had never seen at a market before, probably because I’ve never gone down to Eastern Market in D.C. to poke around, and my trips to New York have never included a trip to a market. There were piles of fish, both salted and non-salted, just laying everywhere. Actually, the fish area was the most interesting because they had stuff like whole octopii, squid, and something that I didn’t exactly recognize, but was vaguely like an octopus, because it had large tenticles with suckers, but not much else. Perhaps the rest of the body had been hacked-off because it took up too much room on the display table. They had some kind of fish that looked like a shark about 1 meter long, with smooth, grey skin. I couldn’t see the head, which probably didn’t make much of a difference because I couldn’t identify the thing unless it had a sign on it, anyway. And then, it would probably be in Italian, and I wouldn’t know what it would be called in English.

Suprisingly, it was the non-fish-related tables that had things that seemed a little less appetising to me than the fish tables. Some people don’t like liver, so I suppose they don’t like looking at it. Then, there’s trippe (tripe), which doesn’t really look bad, but you’d have a hard time getting me to eat it. In Italy, tripe is, I guess, a delicacy. As we were leaving the market, we passed a tripperia cart, selling boiled-tripe sandwhiches and small cups of wine. Maybe some other time.

You could also buy the heads of various animals, such as pigs and chickens — including the neck. It was suprising to me to see such items, but only because I am not accustomed to seeing them. I guess Americans don’t like using all of the animals that they slaughter, or at least they don’t want to see the recognizable parts. The closest thing I’ve ever seen in a supermarket was pig feet, but those aren’t particularly vivid in terms of images of life. The head is much more compelling.

The only thing that I had to turn away from was brains. I’m not sure what kind of brains they were, but they were certainly brains. And not just one or two brains. There were at least 5 brains on a plate inside a glass display case, and they were covered in blood. It looked like the scene in Hannibal where Ray Liota’s skull has been sawed open to reveal his brain, and he and Anthony Hopkins were eating it together.

We had to force outselves to think about a single meal so that we wouldn’t be overwhealmed with the variety. We certainly didn’t need to buy an entire rack of lamb, dozens of sausages, thick cuts of beef, etc. all at once. I decided that, since we are pretty bad at numbers, we should pick things that have very well-defined quanta, like sausages. You typically don’t purchase fractional sausages, so we can simply ask for one sausage, and see how much it costs.

Fortunately, we stick out like sore thumbs linguistically, especially because I’m sure we speak slowly and methodically, indicating that we’re trying way to hard to pronounce things correctly. It’s kind of liberating, because that indicates to them that they should speak very slowly, but continue in Italian. I would prefer that they don’t switch to English, because then that will make me lazy. I really do want to be able to conduct this kind of discourse in Italian.

The first purchase was, in fact, the sausages. The vendor was nice, and produced a receipt with a printed price when I asked him how much it cost. I would have preferred him to repeat the cost over and over while I tried to emulate what he was saying, but it didn’t happen. Perhaps as time goes on, they’ll make an exception for us. On the other hand, I should probably spend some quality time with a language book instead of making the market vendors teach me Italian.

The vegetable dude was much more forgiving. He repeated the price while holding up his fingers. Of course, I have forgotton what he said and how many fingers he was holding up, but I’ll get better over time.

For loose fruits and vegetables, it turns out that transaction protocol was very easy. You simply say hello and they hand you a bag. It’s pretty much all downhill after that.

We’re back at home, now, eating lunch. Tomorrow, we’ll go back, a little bit wiser and hopefully more effective.

Changing money is a dirty business

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

Yesterday morning was tough.

We had until 13:00 to convert traveler’s cheques worth USD 2000 into Euros. The first bank we went to, recommended by Lucilla, had a USD 400 limit on currency exchanges. This was going to be a long morning.

After leaving the first bank, I was sure that, by the time we had converted half of our money, the guardia di finanza (fraud squad) would be trailing us around the city. By the time we had 15 minutes left, we decided to cut our losses and go to a bank on the Piazza della Signoria in the center of town, where we knew we’d get ripped-off. At least they were willing to exchange any amount of money.

After paying Lucilla, we went out for lunch. Unfortunately, we didn’t have breakfast because we wanted to have time to convert our money. It’s still pretty cold outside, so we headed for Piazza di Santa Croce to see what we could find. Although Santa Croce is a tourist attraction, it’s still a little bit out of the way, and therefore not as expensive as some other parts of the town. We actually decided to eat outside, because the sun was beating down and warming us up. The wind had almost completely died out, so it was a very pleasant meal.

We took a stroll for about an hour and wandered through some of the wonderful sights of Florence — the enormous Duomo, the square below the Uffizi gallery, and the Piazza della Repubblica, before returning home to plan the evening.

Before dinner, I returned to La Ch@t and signed up for Internet access and posted yesterday’s story. We had a wonderful dinner and decided that we can’t afford to do it all that often. Time to start working on making food in our flat.

My 36-hour Day

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

Today started like any other day. I got up earlier than Katie and started to clean up the place. Even though this is my usual routine, today was not to be a normal day. We had company coming over, and not the kind of company where you can simply stash everything in your bedroom until they leave. Serious company. Jay Gelman was coming over for a rather long stay, and there was nothing we could hide from him. Actually, Jay wasn’t coming today, but rather tomorrow, which, as you will see, are not entirely distinguishable from one another.

Back to my routine, I am on the computer, allegedly finishing things up. That’s when Katie usually gets up and starts making coffee, and today is no exception. The fact that I don’t get my customary hand-delivered cup is of no consequence. I’m really trying to finish “something” up very quickly, and pretty permanently. Today, I’m actually going to turn off some computers.

As per usual when I am either working on my computer or cleaning up the house, I become distracted many times over, each task left unfinished as I see something else that needs doing. These are the actions of an unorganized, rushed spirit. I am anxious. Very anxious.

Katie joins in voluntarily with the house-wide tidying. I finally complete my work on my computer and shut it down for the first time in a very long time. I also shut down Katie’s computer because neither machine will see much use for a while. I have neither lost interest in computers nor been fired from my job — not yet, anyway — and yet, here I am, shutting down the computer that I use every day to make my living. I’m disconnecting the umbilical chord. Leaping into the unknown with quite few unheroic looks over my shoulder. Katie is taking the entire process in stride.

The awkward dance is interrupted by hunger — another fixture in our daily routine. We generally do not consider food until it demands consideration of its own accord, and introduces a certain amount of disorientation along with its growing immediacy. We call Brian and Heather, who accept our offer for a quickie breakfast at the bagel shop. The errand turns into a much more complex outing than originally anticipated, but ultimately results in placating the beast for the time being. We return home, worried that our preparations will require time that we simply do not have.

We complete our tasks early, and are surprised that we have time left over, and we’re not sure what to do with ourselves. Best not to get there too early, because then we’ll be saddled with another form of anxiety — just as bad but at the same time much worse, because we’ll know we’re that much closer to our next big adventure. We load up the car and take out the mountain of recycling material down to the bins in our parking lot. We decide that we cannot sit around any longer doing nothing, and decide to leave.

Brian and Heather drive us to the airport after we call Jay to tell him that the house will be empty whenever he is ready. The adventure begins.

There are mundane details regarding our airline travel. We never received our tickets in the mail. We still haven’t paid the taxes due on the tickets purchased using frequent-flier miles. The in-flight staff is very gruff, and I’m pretty sure that a woman was thrown off the plane before it took off because she was questioning the authority of the airline gestapo.

The gentleman next to me reminds me of a G.I. Joe character and requires the overhead air stream to be pointed directly at my right ear, pushed to the upper limit of its output. To my constant detriment, I am plagued with a complete and utter avoidance of any kind of confrontation with people who are unknown to me. A reasonable person would turn to their neighbor and calmly ask “Pardon me, sir, I am very cold. Would you mind terribly if I changed the aim of your air hose slightly, as well as turned it down just a hair?” In a moment of triumphant pride, I seize the opportunity to turn it down myself while Sargent Slaughter is in the aft lavatory.

The airline food is not very good, but that’s to be expected. Knowing full well that becoming dehydrated is a recipe for jet lag, I carefully plan my trip’s intake of liquids and juicy solids including the moist, but poorly seasoned chicken cutlet in front of me. I have bet on the fact that if I drink a lot of other things, a few mini bottles of Scotch will help me sleep and not cause me too much dehydration. Sure, a semi-inebriated sleep isn’t as restful as normal sleep, but at least it’s sleep. I must fall asleep or tomorrow is really going to suck.

Alcoholic beverages turn out to be five bucks a pop. Helpfully, they’ve also provided our European friends with a price in their home currency — four Euro each. Thanks. Already, there’s a 30% exchange rate markup on Euros, which means that it would really cost me $5.20. I bought these Euros two years ago when the rate was lower, so I could make out slightly on top. But, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for booze on an international flight. It’s downright barbaric to charge for liquor on a transatlantic flight.

Sgt. Slaughter finally gets tired and cold and turns his air hose off of his own volition. Slow and steady wins the race. At least I tell myself that. Hell, it only took three and a half hours plus a clandestine kamikaze run during his trip to the head. Most of the lights in the cabin are extinguished, and the only really disturbing light is coming from the projection screen 6 rows up. It’s Pay it Forward, which is a pretty good movie. Fortunately, the airline has decided that my particular seat did not require a headset, and who am I to argue? I have to sleep anyway. Yeah. That’s the ticket.

Besides, why watch a movie when I can hum along to all the mindless boy-band-like songs that I heard on the radio earlier today while on my dump-and-chase romp through the house trying to pretend to a guest that I’m not one of those people who ends up being found by the police weeks after dying when one of the tunnels through their hoarded possessions collapses because there wasn’t enough structural integrity within the section of wire hangers and junk mail to keep the roof up. Modern rock my ass. Oh, man. I traded liquor for tea. It was a calculated move. I had rejected coffee — even decaffeinated — for tea because coffee is a diarrhetic. Foolishly, I hadn’t asked for decaffeinated tea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Speaking of stupid, why can’t I get this stupid song out of my head. Maybe if I really concentrate, I can get another one, one that doesn’t suck. Wait. Nope. That one sucks, too, and it’s got a faster beat. Maybe if I concentrate on Mozart, I can slow down the pace of my brain and drift off to sleep. No dice.

I open my right eye to see Haley Joe Osment getting the crap beat out of him by some school bullies. I switch eyes and Katie has her earphones on and is watching the movie. She must be in the same boat I’m in. The Colonel next to me is also watching it. We’re all screwed. I know they’re showing three movies on this flight, and the second one is almost over. This doesn’t look good for me. Time to really concentrate on falling asleep. Have you ever tried that? Does it work for you? Yeah, me neither.

I think I may have slept for 20 minutes or so. I ended up watching the last 45 minutes or so of Taxi, whose only redeeming quality was that Jeff Gordon makes an appearance at the end. That gives you some indication of the quality of this film. Finally, I get the only good news I’ve heard or thought up, or thought up hearing, since the flight began. We’ll be landing in 45 minutes. That’s about the time when the entire population of the 747 decides that they’d better get in line for that bathroom right now because otherwise they’ll have to use the facilities on the ground. Horrors. It’s amusing to me that some people end up standing in line for almost 25 minutes before being shooed back their seats by the in-flight enforcers.

Frankfort is a cool airport. A bit retro while being completely modern. I suppose this is how a lot of Germany feels. The Germans are supposed to be supremely stylish, but I don’t know enough to know the difference. One big problem in my opinion: too much smoking. In the US, it’s almost a crime to smoke cigarettes, at least in the Washington D.C area, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that personal freedom was one of the next to go. Frankfort Airport, in sharp contrast, has smoking bars. I’m not talking about a joint where you can get a pint and smoke a cigarette or cigar. I’m talking about an elbow-high counter-top, with nothing else around it, practically in the middle of the corridor in the terminal. And it’s not just one… there are dozens of them. Just a few short hours earlier, I recalled walking past the “smoking room” at Dulles International Airport as four or five people walked in, each holding the door for the next. I commented to Katie, “sheesh, they need an airlock on that thing because it just lets the smoke billow out of the room,” and here they are in Germany, puffing away in the middle of the terminal. What struck me was that these smoking bars exist in places which are clearly sanctioned by the airport (they have signs and everything), but no attempt of any kind of ventilation has been made, leaving the smoke to just hang around in the air. The constant eddies inadvertently produced by travelers serve to evenly distribute the smoke to every corner of the airport. I really believe that people should be allowed to smoke. I just really don’t want to have to breathe it. Especially not for five hours, which was exactly how long my layover was.

There’s an art to avoiding madness during an airport layover. You can take the easy way out and sleep in the boarding area until your plane is ready to board. Or, you can do what we did and tour the airport, wandering aimlessly in and our of duty free, travel electronics, and magazine stands. After trying to head-off the hunger beast at the pass by suggesting a bite to eat, we decide that we really should get some food. Unfortunately, 5 hours is just enough time to strand yourself in a city by missing your plane if you foolishly leave the airport. So, we decide to stay and endeavor to ferret out some authentic German cuisine. I suggest brats, sauerkraut, and beer. Katie points out that it is eight o’clock in the morning, and I acquiesce. There’s really no need for sauerkraut this early in the morning.

After trying very hard, we find a place willing to charge us 17 Euro for two coffees, two eggs and 4 sausage links. We return to the boarding area where Katie tries to keep her eyelids open with her pinky fingers. I tell her to just go to sleep. I’m pretty sure that it was at the exact moment she lost consciousness that the gate attendant announced that we’d be boarding immediately. We travel mit dem bus to the regional jet, which, from the length of the bus ride, probably departed from Zurich.

The Alps are absolutely breathtaking. [Update 2005-03-12: photo]

We passed over Zurich(?) and the terrain immediately transitioned from rolling hills and farmland to endless miles of show-capped peaks. Actually, the entire range was bathed in snow, as were the aforementioned hills. But, snow-capped peaks has a nice ring to it. I definitely have to go skiing here. Soon.

Unfortunately for Katie, the descent into Amerigo Vespucci Airport was less than smooth. I thought she was kidding when she backhanded me after a mock-vomiting incident in her lap. But the immediate opening of her air hose to full-blast-in-the-face after a sudden drop of a few dozen feet made me feel bad that I had joked about being queasy. I’m usually the one eying the steel-belted, quadruple-ply bag in the seat back in front of me, although I’m fortunate never to have required its services.

Getting out of the plane, I catch a glimpse of a rather high hill out of the corner of my eye. I had never really noticed that Florence is nestled in between several very majestic, green hills. Being outside the city offers me a new perspective that I hadn’t appreciated during our first trip, hundreds of digital photos now a blur in my mind. I snap a picture and the colors immediately begin to run.

It was June when last I laid eyes on fair Florence. It is way colder than I expected it to be. I’m sure it was only 50 degrees or so (11 in the local system) but it was windy, especially on the airport runway which we had to cross to get to the terminal, which is reminiscent of my trip through Central Wisconsin airport, except without all those gates.

All bags accounted for — let’s find a cab. We retrieved the second-to-last bag on the carousel, and were pretty close to the end of the line leaving the airport. I’m sure it only has a single runway, so I’m skeptical about the popularity of the Florence Airport for taxicabs. We jump directly into one and were on the road in a minute or so.

As we left the airport, I mentioned to Katie that we should see how much it would cost to rent a bicycle or even a scooter for a day. By my count, scooters outnumber people three to one in Florence. Scooters line the streets for blocks and blocks. If Ford Prefect had first researched Florence instead of wherever he did, I’m sure his name would have ended up being Vespa.

The ride to our flat took ten minutes, and probably should have taken fifteen or twenty. We almost ran several vehicles off the road, including bicycles, and had our fair share of close calls with pedestrians. I can honestly say that whatever desire I had to take any kind of wheeled vehicle on the streets of Florence has evaporated completely. After all of the weaving, honking, and near-death experiences, we made it to our destination near Santa Croce.

We had made excellent time, and the property manager was not scheduled to meet us for another 45 minutes or so. We decided to look around for a bank, because we were going to need to convert our traveler’s cheques into euros. On the way, I saw an Internet joint, and decided to poke my head in. I call them Internet joints because I don’t know what else to call them. In the US, I would probably call it an Internet Café, because most places that have fee-based Internet access also serve overpriced coffee and pipe Williams Sonoma’s Play and they will buy CDs all day long. I could also call it an Internet Access Point, but that term implies wireless access point to me. Ergo joint.

The woman behind the counter reading a novel is young. Very young — probably around my age or a bit younger. Maybe a college student. This is fortunate, because she is likely to speak very good English. Despite my willingness to both speak Italian and to simultaneously butcher it, this is a conversation that definitely needs to be conducted in English. Trying to explain that I have my own laptop that I’d like to use to connect to the Internet on their network is something that I cannot even begin to describe in Italiano. It turns out not to be as expensive as I had feared. If I pay in advance, I can get a pretty good deal since I will be using fractional hours each time I need to connect. I need to shop around a little bit, but if you are reading this, it probably means that I went ahead and made the deal.

One block away from La Ch@t, we find a bank. Banks in Italy have single-person cylindrical tubes that allow one person to enter at a time, and scan you for large amounts of metal such as a gun, samurai sword, or bag full of padlocks. In order to enter, you must push a button on the outside of the door, which then rotates open. You step in, wait a moment, and then the inner door opens — like an airlock. We were attempting to master this new type of door when we realized that it will not open no matter how much we try to outsmart the device. The bank is closed. We read the sign on the door which seems to indicate that it will reopen in 20 minutes. This is a perfect time for espresso, which we have been desperately needing since we stepped off the plane in Frankfort.

We haul all our bags, which are still carrying around with us, into the café across the intersection. A very friendly old man — probably the owner — comes over to serve us. He looks disappointed when we order two café lattés, so I order a 5-inch pizza along with our drinks. Yep. Coffee and pizza is just as good as I had remembered. We relaxed for a few minutes before Katie decided to return to the bank. I stayed in the café, since there was no better place for me to wait with the bags. There is no way we were going to get those bags into the bank, so I’d have to wait on the street otherwise. But, we had paid for the table, so I felt entitled to continue to sit.

Katie returns after about 4 minutes, which I figured was a world record in terms of currency exchange. Unfortunately, this particular bank does not exchange traveler’s cheques, so we will have to visit another bank. By this time, we need to meet the property manager, so we return to the flat about 3 blocks away. On the way, we stop at a Bancomat and withdrawal as much as we can.

We enter and meet Lucilla, who is very young and speaks excellent English. I’m sure that’s why she manages this property for the owner, Isabella. We tell her apologetically that we have been unable to exchange our cheques, which we got for the express purpose of travelling with large amounts of cash. She says that she completely understands, and that her associate, Mauricio de la Muerte, will stop by first thing in the morning to collect the balance. Seriously, though, she plans to return the next day or two days later to collect the balance. I give her my cell number so that she can call and set up a collection time. She knows of a bank in the Piazza della Repubblica that will do currency exchanges, and shows us on the map where they are. Feeling like an idiot, I start the tour of the flat. Thirty-five seconds later, we’re standing in our living room, again, saying goodbye to Lucilla.

I have a conference call scheduled for four o’clock, and I have 15 minutes. I send a text message to one of my colleagues that I’m ready to go, and Katie and I step out the door to explore more of the surrounding area. My phone rings after a few blocks and I stop paying attention to where we’re going — Katie is doing all the driving. For the next 13 minutes, I followed Katie around the back streets of the east end of the city. When I was finished, we were emerging into a piazza with a post office and supermarket. I believe Katie was trying to find the supermarket, so that we would know where it is. I decide to enter, because I will want something to eat for dinner. Katie stays outside with her bottle of water, no wanting to attempt to explain to the employees why she’s drinking it and doesn’t intend to pay for it on the way out. I browse around, discovering that it’s pretty much like an American supermarket except that I only recognize every fifty brand. I can usually tell what is contained within any given package, because it’s mostly food and there are pictures. I decide that a baguette, parmasean cheese, and wine makes a great meal. I grab these things and then wait in an enormous line to pay.

The woman at the checkout rings up my items and says something to me in Italian as she considers the bag in her hand. I look at her and proudly state “Non parlo L’Englese,” which prompts her to change the look on her face from partially blank to completely blank. I quickly straighten up and say “I mean… non parlo L’Italiano!” She holds the empty bag up a little higher, and Katie mutters to me “she wants to know if you want to buy the bag.” Feeling like an idiot, I decline the bag and we walk out with a bottle of wine and a cartoon-style brick of cheese stuffed into my coat pockets while Katie wields the baguette as protection from marauding wine-and-cheese thieves.

Fortunately, the supermarket is only 2 blocks from our flat, so we go home to rest. It is about 5 degrees in our flat, so Katie situates herself on the couch while I prepare the food. There’s a bottle-opener in the kitchen, which is fortunate, because otherwise I would be forced to resort to using the swiss-army-style knife that we brought with us. Using a swiss army knife to open a bottle of wine is about as easy to do as cleaning a fish with the same knife, which leads me to question the usefulness of the whole swiss army knife concept. By the time I have the wine open, Katie already has her eyes closed. I decide to skip the cheese, and break-off a quarter of the baguette and sit down on the couch. We toast to our first day in Florence and finish the bread.

I want to go back out into the city before it gets dark. It is only six o’clock or so, leaving us with at least forty five minutes of daylight left. Katie declares that she is both tired and cold, and will not be going out again. I’m freezing, too, but my thought was that we would warm up hiking around the streets. Not wanting to go out without her, I take a very hot shower and get ready for bed. Katie is nearly asleep when I climb into bed with my laptop. Normally, she would complain that I wasn’t going to sleep after getting into bed, but tonight, she doesn’t care one bit. Finally, Sunday is over. Wait. It’s Monday. How did two days go by that quickly? Oh, well. I’ll figure that out, tomorrow.

Nickie Ray gets a Blog

Thursday, March 3rd, 2005

My long-time friend and fraternity brother Nick Hurlburt has a new blog. I say new, but his first post was January 3rd, and he finally got around to telling me about it on 28 February.

Welcome to blogville, Nick. It’s nice not to be the newest kid on the block, anymore.

Just 3 days to go…

Thursday, March 3rd, 2005

The original plan was to for Katie and I, along with some other friends, to expatriate ourselves to Italy — specifically Florence. The plan was to leave on January 20th, or maybe even the 19th, and stay there for several months, if not years. You should have heard us. If the US re-elects that chimp, we gotta get the hell out of here.

But now, reality has set in. GWB was re-elected. Heather got a job (amazingly, in this economy … but then again, she actually has marketable skills). Everyone else flaked out for one reason or another. But not me. I’m committed.

On Sunday, Katie and I will be leaving for Florence, never to return. Er, okay. So, we’ll be coming back in May. But if we can get someone to continue to live in our condo while we’re gone, we might stay longer, or even just cancel our return flight altogether.

That will mostly depend on Internet access for me. Since I’ll be continuing my job from abroad, I need a pretty decent connection. Our research thus far has led us to believe that residential broadband in Florence simply does not exist. We’ll see once I get there.

Fortunately, I was able to get a GSM phone from a co-worker and purchase a SIM card from TIM, which apparently works. I’ve been able to send and receive text messages, and I got a call from a friend which seemed to work out okay. The phone is bluetooth-enabled, so I can allegedly use GPRS to get online from my laptop, when appropriately equipped with a bluetooth card.

My dad braved the new world of SMS messages and sent me a message, which I was able to use to call him back. Other attempts to make calls from my phone have failed. I wonder if that’s because the SMS message contained some info that I wasn’t providing when calling out with a normal phone number. I did discover that making a call from the phone required me to act as if I were in the US, rather than acting as if I were in my home calling area (Italy). I thought that’s what the whole “+” thing was supposed to accomplish. Oh, well.

I’m looking forward to whiling my day away at a caf�, leisurely attending to the needs of my software development team. I’ll have almost a solid month abroad before I have to do a product release. Hopefully, I’ll have Internet access by then ;)