Act 2, Scene 4
More on Cortona and Italia

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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There is an entire handbook of rules that you have to agree to when signing on with the program. After reading the commandments I was deeply annoyed, angry even. However, I read them again and realized that they were only fodder for the concerned parent and lawyer. So decided to make a concerted effort to violate them all:
No members of the opposite sex in your dorm room. Broken day 1.
No driving motorized vehicles. Broken day 2.
Read the entire student handbook. In the trash.
Since the book was in the trash I couldn't get the rest of the rules to break so I make sure to have some fun every day and that undoubtedly violated one of the endless regulations.

My roommate, John, disappeared to his girlfriend’s room a couple of days after we arrived in Cortona. He shows up occasionally, often at awkward moments, to change clothes and shave but he seems to be avoiding me like the plague. I'm not sure what repulsed him but I don’t mind, I like having the room to myself, despite the lousy location.
The non-stop racket in the hall was driving me insane. I don’t do well with a lack of sleep. So I finally decided on the wording for the sign I wanted to post and put it in the lobby:

PLEASE be quite in the hall between 11 PM and 8 AM. Some of us have 8 AM classes, some don't, some of us turn into homicidal Neanderthals when awoken at such horrid hours and I'd hate to see anyone BEATEN TO DEATH with the Italian Renaissance Art History book and ruin a perfectly good, if dull, text.
Grog, slayer of those who flirt until 3 AM or gossip at 7 AM

It got its share of graffiti in response but the noise stopped.

The field trips continue, leaving earlier and earlier in the morning. The worst of the atrocities was a 5:30 AM trip to Carrara for the sculpture students, and a 6 AM trip for the book arts class to some famous paper making places. After the initial field trip for the painting class that I'd skipped, there wasn’t another trip I was supposed to be on for the first several weeks, but the 8 AM class is torture enough. Fortunately my professor, Hal, is also a slacker. I’d be on my way to class and see him sitting in the café sucking down coffee and cigarettes. His doctor had advised him against caffeine and nicotine due to his blood pressure or heart or something, and his wife had enforced the edict. But he was on the verge of retiring so he decided for his last quarter of teaching he’d run off to Italia and escape the controlled substance police. I found all this out when I stopped at the café to join him for coffee, really just an excuse to be as late for class as he always was. We sat and admired the café, both for its efficient and busy staff and for its gleaming stainless steel appliances and counters.
“Beautiful” he called them.
“Yeah,” I said, ” one time I stayed in a hotel, South Carolina somewhere I think, and they had an indoor swimming pool that was entirely stainless steel. It was gorgeous – big, swirls left by the polishing brushes, the water adding to the sparkle effect. I just sat and felt it with my toes. I don’t think anyone else had much appreciation for it but I thought it was marvelous. Like some stainless steel cathedral.”
His eyes lit up. Apparently we shared a love of gleaming metal surfaces.

Here's one of those little things that make you realize you're not at home. Italians do not have the same amount of personal space that we Americani are used to. For example, in the bank I was exchanging  traveler’s checks for lire. As I counted my money there was an Italian standing on either side of me right against me watching me count. In the U.S. I'd be watching my back on the way out the door but here it’s standard procedure. In the post office you'll think they're trying to cut in line if you stand what you'd consider to be a respectable distance from the person in front of you. Others will walk right past you and snuggle right up to the person at the counter. However, they will point to you when it's your turn, confused as to why you're standing way over there, a foot away. It takes some getting used to.

There was a room in Villa Borghese, the museum in Roma, that was under restoration but we poked our heads in through the "Do Not Enter" signs for a look. The walls were painted with a weird combination of Roman and Egyptian images used to represent a Christian scene. This was a popular style during the Renaissance, but is somewhat disturbing today. In one particular room Hieroglyphs are used as tracery to border paintings supported by roman columns topped with Egyptian gods surrounding a painting of an angel with a dog's head. Not just any dog but a black-and-white-spotted cocker spaniel looking thing. It's like a room you'd find in some Lovecraftian novel designed for strange ceremonies led by insane, black-robed priests. So what's the first dog I see in Cortona? A black-and-white-spotted cocker spaniel that looked precisely like that angel's head in Roma. Jokingly, I say every time the dog passes "There goes that dog with the angel's head."
I'm scared to ask the owner what the dog's name is because if it turns out to be Angelo, Italiano for Angel, I don't think I'd be able to sleep.
Speaking of dogs, the dogs of Cortona could take on the entire pack of Pompeii and slaughter them wholesale. Dogs in Cortona are healthy, clean and friendly. They parade around town like they own the place, heads held high and unafraid of anything. They're treated like royalty as they visit shop to shop, each shopkeeper giving them a treat or a friendly pat.

Italia is always a hotbed of political turmoil and the current decade is no exception. The rich North, just about anywhere north of Roma, wants to succeed from the poor South, such as Napoli. The Southerners don't like the snobbish Northerners. The Northerners think the Southerners are poor, filthy rednecks. Basically, just like home.
There are communist posters plastered everywhere, often with swastikas spray painted over them, and even Attila says it's a difficult time, sociopoliteconomically speaking. But in Tuscany you'd never know it and that is fine with me. I'll get enough mud slinging when I get home, 3 months before the next presidential race.

While Heather was dragged off for a tour of paper factories and Pisa I took the opportunity to bike to some of the places we'd seen from a distance. Not an easy task in the hills of Tuscany, as none of the roads travel in a straight line for more than 100 meters and a stretch that far is a rare find. This wouldn't be a big deal were it level ground but a wrong turn in an Italian hill town can mean a 20 minute bike down, then back up, a serious hill. An exploratory trip around the block can end up an exhausting 2-hour ordeal. Today's challenging trip eventually led me to the cemetery.
Like most mortals, I have a morbid fascination with Mr. Reaper and graveyards provide a wonderful place to satisfy that curiosity. The one outside Cortona is very interesting. Pictures of the deceased adorn most of the tombstones, sporting cherubic frames, sconces, flowers and other decorations. The pictures really "bring to life" the image of some actual person who is no more. In the States we have drab stone markers with only the names to remind you of what was once a person. The fading pictures on the crypts here don't allow abstract, disconnected thoughts about the friend or relative. They call out "Hey! I'm dead. Miss me? Too bad." I don't mourn much when I see friends' or relatives' graves. Faceless, generic markers don’t represent the living at all, but these strangers' pictures bring an instant sadness.

Since I've mentioned how good the food can be, I should provide more examples. There's a deli in Cortona that will fix you a sandwich that costs from 2300 - 5000 lire with proscuto (ham), salami, artichoke hearts, spinach, olives (ohhhh), tomatoes, any condiment from mayo to pesto and a variety of cheeses, most of local manufacture, all slapped on a big salty bun that will fill you to the rim.
In all my travels back in the U.S. I have found only one deli that compares, a little place in Clearwater, Florida, a beach town just outside of Tampa. The joint was run by an Italian family and I thought I’d stumbled into heaven when I found the place years after my return to the States.
Another helpful hint for your culinary edutainment - get off the main tourist road and hit a fruit stand where the locals are getting their supplies for the day. It’s usually cheap, and the fruit is ripe, juicy and sweet. The best one in Cortona, just off the main square, is run by a couple who speaks little English but it's easy enough to just point and gesticulate.
(A note about gesticulating - the more and the wilder, the more likely you are to be mistaken for a local, which is a good thing. Hop about in epileptic fervor, enough to draw a crowd in the U.S., and use one or two words of Italiano and the shop keeper will attempt to strike up a conversation with you while charging you what he charges his neighbor instead of the inflated tourist prices.)


Back to the fruit stand, don't touch. They get irritable if you handle their goods but they will let you point to the specific pieces you desire or you can specify soft and ripe and they'll do a fine job selecting good ones for you. In Vico Equense I had the best peach I'd ever had in my entire life, and me from "The Peach State."

In Cortona we had nectarines that were like candy. No, better than candy. Sweet juice running down my chin, watching Heather’s eyes light up in delight, sitting on a bench overlooking a Tuscan valley painted yellow and green with sunflower fields...
It makes me weak with joy to this very day to think about.

The program pays for dinner every night at Tonino's, one of the finer restaurants in Cortona. But we don't get their finer food, we get their industrial bulk food, but it is good. Fresh raw veggies, bread and cheese for starters, then pasta (the ravioli stuffed with crab was the best by far), then roast meat, almost always pork, and fruit for desert, or if we're lucky something more desert-like, such as cake or flan (not my fave.)
If desert is not up to par we head to the best pastry shop in town. Behind the counter is a quiet little old lady who doesn’t speak a word of English but we point at something new each time and every time it’s absolutely wonderful. Some nights we opt for Gelateria Snoopy for ice cream (crema limone kicks ass!) It’s not the best gelateria in Italia, but we’ll get to that later. Were I not hiking that blessed hill and riding my bike every day I'd be as big as some of the hefty Italians I see rolling out of their clown cars.
Tuscany has a couple of traditional dishes you’re bound to run into if you journey through the area. Pork is one, roasted usually. In Siena and other towns you’ll see boar’s heads mounted in many of the stores. You’ll find every possible use of pork in Tuscany, and I tried each one as they came. So far I’ve been impressed with them all, though I occasionally miss the flesh of other animals.
Another staple is white beans, drowned in olive oil and garlic. It’s an excellent dish to have once or twice a week but after having them day in and day out it’ll be a while before I want to see another bean again.
Then there’s the one you’re familiar with, pasta.
Oh Lord, the pasta.
It, too, is served every day and many of the students got tired of it but I adore it. Even with the few variations Tonino’s offered, I ate it daily.
The thing that is so good about Italiano food is the freshness and simplicity. Few dishes have more than four or five ingredients but they donít need more because they were picked, plucked, slaughtered, sliced or squeezed that morning. They donít need a whole team of flavors to get your attention, they speak for themselves. The town markets go to the farmers in the valley in the morning and get whatever is in season. By that evening itís on your dinner table. This is a strange thing to experience coming from the land of two all beef patties, special sauce, pickles, onions, lettuce, cheese on a sesame seed bun. An Italian wouldnít understand such a mess and the frozen/preservative-filled ingredients would hardly be good enough for dog food. When I came home the first mediocre meal I had was about as appetizing as a plate of raw sewage.

Italia is a country that shuts down from 1 to 4:30ish for a long lunch and an afternoon nap. The shops reopen and stay open late, then everyone heads home for a late dinner (sometime between 8 and 10), after which the locals all go out for a stroll. You'll see kids playing in the park as late as midnight, later on weekends. This means that if you have errands to run for the day you'd better get your slack ass out of the sack and hit the cobblestones before lunch or wait until later. But having traveled in Mexico I was familiar with the schedule. In fact, I love it – every day feels like two. You do some errands, see some sights, have a big lunch, catch a buzz from half a carafe of vino, sleep it off with a nap, then you’re up again and it feels like a brand new day.
When we asked Umberto, the woodworker Rick had introduced us to, what the name for this nap is he said it didn't have a name.
"No, really, is it 'siesta'?" I said.
"No, that's Spanish," he answered.
"So what is it called?"
"It doesn't have a name, it's just something we do."
"Breathing is just something we do but it has a name."
"What do you call the time after you go home from work in English?" he asks.
"Umm... evening?" I answer, beginning to see his logic.
"Well we just call the afternoon 'afternoon.'" ("Pomeriggio" in Italiano.)
We gave up and called it siesta for the rest of the trip, much to the chagrin of the local populace.
In addition, lots of places in Cortona are closed on Mondays so that the proprietors don't get the Monday blues. This means they get the Tuesday blues and since many are open Saturday mornings to make up for the Monday thing, Friday nights are not the party nights they are in the U.S.

Had enough travel tips and pointless babble? Back to our regularly scheduled plot, already in progress.
Heather returned from her paper mills and tour of Pisa. Pisa was packed with tourists, overpriced and "underwhelming," she said. Were it not for the free bus ride to some of these places I doubted they could get me on another tour. I, on the other hand, had a marvelous day exploring the cemetery as well as hiking to the top of the mountain on which Cortona is built. Just another breathtaking view!
My father tells stories of the endless artists to head down to the Florida Keys to "get away from it all and focus on their work." Six months later they're scrubbing boats hoping to get the money to get the hell out. They can't get any creative work done there, the scene is just too pretty, too easy and too relaxing to inspire one to create. (This might explain all that bad beach-and-pelican pastel airbrush seashell crap that masquerades as art all over the state.) I'm finding a similar phenomenon here in Cortona. It's far more pleasant to sit on a wall with a sandwich and gaze out over the amazing view than it is to go into a stuffy, drab studio and concentrate on creation. Why create when perfection is in plain view? The Master, be it God or gods or random chance, has already one-upped anything I could hope to achieve, and then some. It would be a pale mockery of the reality.

So every day I get a sandwich and a bottle of wine and tell Hal, my painting instructor, I’m headed off to work. I find a pretty scene and I set my stuff up and I sit there.
And I sit there.
I have a bite of sandwich.
And sit.
I have a sip of wine.
And sit.
And sip.
And sit.
And sip.
And three hours later the trees have waved in the gentle, warm breeze, the clouds have moved and my mind drifted with them but little else has happened.
When Heather and I get together after dinner it’s more of the same. We sit on the medieval wall on the edge of town nightly watching the sun set over the sunflower fields of the valley below, eating gelato and saying little. Why speak? No audible conversation need occur to break the inaudible conversation we are sharing, us and nature. Near our favorite perch is a school of opera and in the evenings you can hear the voices bellowing out classical Italian opera, occasionally interrupted by the bells from the neighboring church.
It’s about as Italian experience as you can get.

View from Cortona

"Given under my hand this second day of January, 1893, at the Villa Viviani, village of Settignano, three miles back of Florence, on the hills - the same certainly affording the most charming view to be found on this planet, and with it the most dreamlike and enchanting sunsets to be found in any planet or even in any solar system--and given, too, in the swell room of the house, with the busts of Cerretani senators and other grandees of this line looking approvingly down upon me, as they used to look down upon Dante, and mutely asking me to adopt them into my family, which I do with pleasure, for my remotest ancestors are but spring chickens compared with these robed and stately antiques, and it will be a great and satisfying lift for me, that six hundred years will."
Mark Twain, from The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

On the other hand, when we biked into town to get Heather's brakes adjusted we passed the Michelin tire store just across from the Cortona Lion's Club and the pizzeria playing James Brown and advertising the big 4th of July bash. We got to the bike shop, which doubles as a scooter repair place, and stared at the half-naked-chicks-and-tools calendar while country music played in the background. Kicked the Coke cans aside, scattering the flock of pigeons, and headed back past stores selling the same touristy trinkets made in Hong Kong you'll find in every town I've ever been.

"Wherever you go, there you are."
From the film Buckaroo Banzai

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