Act 2, Scene 7
Mel's Praha tale, Orvieto

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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After a lot of sampling I came to the conclusion that Italy’s famed cheeses are not that great.
“Blasphemy!” you gasp?
Fah. The “fresh mozzarella” everyone is so in awe of is completely devoid of taste. It only ads a little rubbery texture and nothing more. Various gorgonzola varieties taste like old socks (and smell far worse) and you damn well better like that taste because you’ll have the flavor in your mouth for two full days after even the smallest nibble.
There are a few exceptions. If you want to taste the provolone, order the strong, “picante” variety – you’ll understand what it’s supposed to taste like, unlike the provolone we get in the states, which is the tasteless, rubber variety known as fresh provolone in Italia. The ricotta is a little watery but quite good and can be spread on a sandwich like butter.
But for the most part the meat, condiment or even bread can overpower most Italian cheese flavors. So after sampling all the local cheeses the shops had to offer I gave in and tried the Swiss, imported from their northern neighbor – delicious, packed with flavor. Put that on a roll with some Italian salami and I need little else.
As for other senses, Cortona, and most of Italia, is a marvelous place for those who enjoy smells. Between the rows and rows of flowers there are pastry shops and restaurants, as well as the occasional open sewer and frequent pile of dog shit. Add to this the perfume shops, rarely bathed Italians, bakeries, and smoke from burning trash and soon a walk through town becomes a survey course in the odors of Earth.
So with all these sensory distractions your brain forgets about the familiar and eventually you forget about what you miss from home until you are reminded by some chattering fool in the dining room or some newspaper and suddenly you’re craving a burrito, some old funk music, and sweet tea.

Each day we get a bit farther up the neighboring mountain on our bike trips. It’s a heck of a climb but we’re determined to reach the top. One week we finally reached a plateau about 3/4 the way to the top of the ridge. The road forked by a lone pizza restaurant. Signs pointed to a swimming pool on the uphill fork so we decided we’d go that route next trip. A few trips later we were in shape enough to reach a switchback where we pulled off the road and admired the incredible view, pretty much the same view we’d had all along just a bit higher each time we climbed the hill. We cruised off the road a bit on a little dirt path but a few yards off the pavement I heard the tell-tale hissing of a tire going flat. I hopped off and found a large thorn stuck in my rear tire. Foolishly, I pulled it out and was rewarded with even louder hissing. I jammed it back in, even tighter than it was before, and the hissing slowed.
“Uh… I guess we’d better turn back.” I said to Heather.
“Do you want me to ride down and come back with a car?”
“No, it’s not too flat yet, but the longer we wait the flatter it gets. Let’s go.”
So we turned back. The ride down the mountain was always thrilling, but with the back tire sliding around worse and worse by the minute the thrills were turning to chills until I seriously doubted my ability to dodge or brake should a car come around the too-tight bends, but as stubborn as I am I wasn’t going to get off and walk those many miles. I made it back to town without busting my thick head.

Heather's friends, Melanie and Bec, arrived that evening. We dragged them to our favorite secluded hillside spot with a couple of bottles of our favorite cheap vino. We lazed around and chatted. Heather told stories of our journey thus far, they told us stories of their trip (more on that later), but like most young people with a bottle of wine in them the conversation soon turned to sex. By the end of the second bottle the conversation had completely degenerated, culminating with this little quip:
"So what you're saying is that while you may be an incestuous voyeuristic bisexual pedophile, at least you're not into bestiality?"
"Yeah, you gotta draw the line somewhere."
The next day, in a more sober light, Heather denied some of the above statement. Which part? The part about NOT being into bestiality, of course. People are strange. I’m convinced that if aliens are watching they’re going to nuke us from orbit just to be safe.

"Only the insane take themselves quite seriously."
Max Beerbohm, from Zuleika Dobson

Bec is an English woman with that charming accent that we Americans find so oddly delightful. I say odd because they don’t find our accents delightful, usually quite the opposite. Bec also has the gutter vocabulary of the English youth so when her accent has stopped dazzling your ears her words will shock your sensibility. A true degenerate from the motherland who I respect more and more each day.
Melanie is Heather’s best friend, an American who's on her “last trip while being an irresponsible college student." As such, she's had an interesting adventure in Praha (Prague) that made our jaws drop. See if it does the same to you.
Praha had already become the trendy place to visit, though still it retained some cool, out-of-the-way factor. Each night Melanie would head down to Charles Bridge, where there was always a gathering, and sat and listened to a band that sounded a bit like Tom Waits. One night the bass player, a man in his 50's with immense gray sideburns, began flirting with her and asked what she was doing the following night. It turns out his other band was headed to Austria, which was Melanie's next stop. He invited her along and she thought about it and decided to save the train fare and join him. However, he was leaving at 6 AM so he asked her to sleep over. The look on her face made him scramble for a recovery "No, no, we sleep separately!" he said in a thick Germanic accent.
She believed him to be harmless so she took him up on the offer. They headed to a bar, where the bass player's other band was playing, before heading to his apartment around 1 AM, sneaking quietly up the stairs past the landlady's door. Melanie was shown to her bedroom and the host wandered off. Melanie clambered under the blankets and reached up for the light just as the man reappeared, now clad in only boxers and a tank top.
Scared yet? I was when she told the tale. Here's where the eerie horror movie music should build up and we should cut to close-ups of the taxidermy animals on the wall.
He slithered over to the bed and said "It is very dangerous to have woman like you here", apparently referring to his conservative landlady downstairs.
Melanie was blatantly resistant to his attempts to get into the bed so he backed off. Melanie turned off the light and lay there, staring at the ceiling.
He appeared again, planting himself on the bed next to her. She kept him at arm's length but he pushed closer.
"Sleep, sleep..." he cooed, playing with her hair.
Of course the movie version would cut to a shot of two kids walking in the woods as we hear the muffled scream in the distance, but then she couldn't have told me this tale herself could she?
He soon fell asleep on her shoulder while she lay sleepless for the remaining 4 hours of the night, staring at the ceiling. She rode with the band to the Austrian border town where they were playing and ditched him as soon as his back was turned. She's got their CD, however, and claims "he seemed completely harmless..." but that's what the neighbor always says on the news as they’re pulling the bodies out of the basement next door.

Another field trip headed out without me. I seem to miss about half of them and so far I'm batting 1000. I always have a great day while the victims come home tired and despondent. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve gone on. The latest tour I skipped was Bologna, with a 3 - 4 hour bus trip starting at 7 AM. I slept in, then went with Heather, Melanie and Bec to Orvieto, a 15 minute train ride away. Cortona/Orvieto ticket stub
Orvieto sits atop a pinnacle of rock in Umbria, just southwest of Tuscana. The surrounding lands are covered in orchards that produce our favorite vino, Orvieto Classico, a fruity white wine I still love to this day. We walked across the street from the train station and took to funicular up the rock to the town.

funicular stub

The town itself turns out to be a bit of a let down - expensive and not that much to see, with a few exceptions.

Orvieto’s Duomo has an amazing façade, the precursor to the modern media age, as it is obviously targeted at those with short attention spans.

Inside are frescoes by Luca Signorelli, some really cool ones that unfortunately were being restored and were completely covered in scaffolding. We settled for more postcards showing devils and hell and such.
"Beetlejuice's palace," Bec named it due to the black and white striped exterior and the scenes of hell in the relief's out front, done by Lorenzo Maitani in the early 1300's.


Orvieto Duomo

Orvieto Duomo

Orvieto Duomo

Meandering on, we stumbled across a local woodworker's shop who's work is in every cafe and bar in town. Michelangetti, or something like that, does cutesy animals cut from plywood and layered so that they have some depth and detail. OK stuff, but what sucked us in were the huge black horses out front, wooden with leather and metal all over them and big enough to climb. They looked like they'd fit well in any S&M club back in the states. We sat on them and had lunch.
Around the bend we encountered Guisseppo, a senile little old man who chops out crude Pinocchio’s in his cave-like shop and babbles endlessly in Italiano despite our attempts to tell him we didn't capice. He grabbed Heather and dragged her into the back to show her his crucifixions, one in particular sporting a huge erection (insert your favorite "woody" joke here.) When Heather shook her head at the sight he picked up his machete and motioned to cut off the offending member. Heather shook her head with greater force and he skipped the circumcision.
That's about it for Orvieto. Oh, there’s a stunning view from the cliffside park, but I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about the stunning views.
But it did give me a chance to ride the trains. Cheap, quiet, efficient and generally on time (thanks, Mussolini!) though the schedule can be tricky to figure out if you don't read Italiano.

Back in Cortona the cattle who were shipped to Bologna were in the usual post-field-trip state - irritated. "A waste of time," they said over dinner.
Heather and I started to look ahead to see what else we could skip.

Orvieto view
A couple of views from Orvieto.
Orvieto view

Italian train station
Even the train stations in Italy have extra little decorative details that make other countries' architecture seem bland and dull.

Bec told us a funny tale that led to yet another running joke for the trip. Her first morning in Cortona a New Zealander woke Bec up in the hostel asking if anyone was going to Assisi. No one responded so she asked again, then again, then several more times, despite everyone ignoring her. Bec didn't take kindly to this and spent the rest of the week repeating the phrase "Is anyone going to Assisi? Is anyone going to Assisi?? Is anyone going to Assisi???", louder and louder and with a higher and higher pitch until it was a screaming squeal. Each time she'd go into the frenzy we'd laugh hysterically but it got even funnier when, in the middle of her tirade, who should come walking past but the New Zealander herself.
Another running joke that Bec generated was her impression of the FP conversation she had overheard, "A thousand leer, that's a lot, right?" We'd been in Italy almost a month and I was astounded that the FP still had no grasp of the currency, 1000 lire being 66 U.S. cents. To top it off, the FP member’s mispronunciation of "lire" perfectly illustrated the difficulty some of us Americans have in escaping the stereotype that other Americans have generated for us. Bec could imitate her flawlessly. “Uhthousand leeer.”
I imagined running into the head of the FP and saying “Yeah, 1000 leer is a lot, would you suck my dick for 2000?” Fortunately I don’t drink enough around them to let my inhibitions slip that far.
If it weren't so cold I'd defect to Canada.

Last night as I was showering I heard a lot of racket, yelling, banging, tromping and the like out in the hall. After I'd dressed I wandered out into the middle of a running squirtgun battle. I took refuge in my room in preparation for my evening's more serene activities and later emerged into a big wine party in the hall. No, I don't mean a big party with wine. I mean a party with big wine. The bottle was easily three feet tall and a foot across. In celebration of two guys’ birthdays, a bunch of the gang were getting plastered ("frescoed" in Italiano?) Later they trekked up the old Roman road and discovered our “secret” field, where several of the males decided to remove their clothes and run about, as one with nature. Rumor has it several females were convinced to do the same but the story gets much hazier there and I couldn't confirm who, how many and to what degree. As the rumor spread it evolved into a full blown orgy and I was wishing I’d been there to see it, if not partake, just to know if the rumors were true or not. People are getting a bit stir crazy in this small town and many have paired off for a bit of summer romance, or at least a good screw, while others have immersed themselves in their work and call home every night.
Speaking of summer romance, or lack of, Heather kicked my stupid ass out of her evening for a night on the town with just the ladies so I pedaled off the frustration on my bike (around the entire mountain) and fell asleep over the Art History books. Normally I wouldn’t begrudge a girl her time out with her girlfriends but I'm having a tough time getting my own time alone with Heather. She works furiously late into the night several nights a week and studies for our Art History class obsessively.

She swung by after midnight sometime to tell me that they met some local guys and she had a tentative date later in the week with one of them, then slunk off to her room to sleep. On one hand, I was glad she’d had a good time, but on the other I couldn’t help but be jealous, both of her date and my lack of. I had a rather hard time falling back asleep.

The next day I couldn’t take the mess swimming around in my head any longer so I wrote Heather a letter. Whenever I can’t say what I mean, which is often, I can occasionally write it. Unfortunately for you I don’t have a copy, but I assure you it was a moving, heartfelt, well-written masterpiece expressing my emotions for her. I gave it to her and waited while she read.
Her response?


No, nothing more, just a pause, “Oh.” And a long silence.


Countless people told me I was being a fool.
They’re right, of course.
“Get it while you can” Janis Joplin sang.
She’s right too, of course.
Somewhere in between was the reality of the situation, yet the situation felt far outside the bounds of reality. Or at least my brain had lost touch with reality. Or had reality lost touch with my brain?

"Your reality, sir, is nothing but lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say I have no grasp of it!"
from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen


As you, the reader, and I, the hero suffer in confusion together here’s a little song by Jimi Hendix, Love Or Confusion, from Are You Experienced?
Is that the stars in the sky, or is it
rain fallin' down
Will it burn me if I touch the sun-uh, yeah
so big, so round
Would I be truthful, yeah, in, uh
in chosin' you as the one for me?
Is this love, baby
or is it, uh-huh,
just, uh, confusion?
O-Oh, my mind is so messed up-uh
Goin' 'round and 'round
Must there be all the colors-uh
without names, without sound, baby?
My heart burns with feeling, but, uh
Woe, but my mind, its cold and reeling
Is this love, baby
or, uh-huh, or is it confusion?
Oh, my head is poundin', poundin'
Goin' 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round
Must there always be these colors?, uh
without names, without sound
My heart burns with feelin'
Oh, but my mind is cold and reelin', uh
Is this love, baby
or is it-uh, huh, just, uh, confusion?
Oh, you tell me baby, is this , uh
love or confusion?
Mama, we must get together and, uh
find out
exactly what we're tryin' to do
Love or confusion?
Orvieto map
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