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Strolling in Italy (28 March - 4 April 2000)

Travel lust is not something important in my life, to put it mildly. I plainly don’t like to travel and consider (or, rather, considered) it a waste of time, or maybe a distraction invented for bored people. I’ve never been to Italy and for some reason had no desire to go there; Italy simply fell out of my view. It was a friend of mine who’s been there twice that reminded me of that country. To hear him tell it, it is full of dirt, pigeons, and crooks. Some other acquaintance confirmed these stories, and I developed a certain prejudice against Italians. I thought: why in the world would a normal person go there and spend  substantial sums of money, only to acquire the above-mentioned impressions?

But one day my son remarked that we really should see Italy. I started to object, but he replied reasonably that the trip is intended not so much for me as for his mother, who is an artist and needs to see the works of great masters with her own eyes; so she was to sponsor the entire shebang, and I would only accompany her. I steeled myself for  nonsensical exploits, but agreed grudgingly, due to that typical trait of the Russian man: desire of food and entertainment for free. My wife started to peruse feverishly all sorts of travel brochures and tourist information centers, collected information in the Internet about the work hours of all the museums she needed to visit. I bought a Russian-Italian phrase book to train my brain a little when I get bored, and memorized several words: buongiorno (hello), arivederci (good-bye) and scusi (excuse me). Even before that, I knew the important word grazie (thank you). I stopped my studies then, because my son said that one only needs to say one key word in Italian, like Uffizi, and the Italians around will start chattering in their tongue with such ample gesturing and mimics that it’s impossible not to understand.

Our tourist itinerary was by way of Munich to Florence, where we were to stay for three days, then Rome (two days), then Florence again (one night), then back to Munich and then to Moscow, the capital of our boundless criminal-capitalist Motherland. Since I was traveling involuntarily, from the start everything seemed wrong to me. The plane in Munich was one hour late – what about the fabled German order? I took a dislike to the celebrated Lufthansa: everything is too orderly and businesslike, no soul. The beer was excellent, though, especially Loewenbrau; better, at any rate, that our "exemplary" Russian brand Bochkarev. I had to admit to myself (not aloud) the efficiency of the crew and all services, and the plane was late not through Munich’s fault, but still I held to "my tune".

Then we arrived in Florence. The tiny airport is nothing to look at; service is absent. We had some difficulty finding out where to buy local currency; in the meanwhile a lineup formed for taxicabs. This will take a while, I thought. Valya took a place in the line, and I went to inquire if it was possible to reach downtown with some other transport.

I asked one Italian in English and got a torrential reply in gibberish. Well, I thought, so far things are going as predicted. Our turn came in some 15 minutes, we got in the cab and in just 10 minutes we were at our destination – the 5-star hotel Helvetia & Bristol. The meter was showing 15,000 lire when we were arriving, but the cab driver cranked something, and the figure changed to 21,000 lire. I was told that this is common practice in Italy. Valya apparently recalled the guide book instructions and our son’s information that tipping is de rigueur in Italy, and gave 25,000 lire. My heart ached with the passion of the proletarian idea of fairness, acquired in my childhood. Oh, to hell with them all.

After the formalities, the porter grabbed our half-empty bags and raced to our suite, his back bent and crooked, which was supposed to merit him some 5,000 lire. I raged inwardly, recalling my trips to my beloved Japan, where it is simply impossible to give tips even if you want to; there they give you your change to the yen, and if you don’t take it, they send it to you. In the suite there was no water in the carafe and no toothbrush or toothpaste. I didn’t care that the suite consisted of two luxurious rooms with silk draperies, with a view of the Medici castle, that everything was fragrant and fresh roses lay on the table. The toothbrush was missing, dammit! The bathroom sparkled with the world-famous marbles, it longed to embrace and sooth you with its oils and fragrances, but I wanted ceramic tiles, fairness and a toothbrush. When room service knocked on the door late in the evening and offered to undo the bed for us, my concepts of what is normal simply crumbled; we humbly declined, since we can manage with beds ourselves.

The next day we went, after Valya’s plan, to the famous (not in my eyes, naturally) Uffizi Gallery. This gallery, one of the best known in the world, is home to many works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Giotto and other celebrities whose names I know from books, naturally, but my heart sets its pace by thought, not by beauty. I should tell you that not long before that trip I read an interesting article about measuring the energetics of beauty. It turns out that the truer the beauty, the stronger the energy emanating from it. The article caught my interest precisely because people coming to our home take long looks at my wife’s paintings and are reluctant to leave them. They all say as one that they don’t feel like hurrying, and some even start feeling better physically. The Oriental saying is correct: beauty is a concentration of truth.  In order to get into the gallery, we stood in line for 2 ½ hours. But even I wasn’t sorry about that lost time, for the gallery impresses. My eyes kept searching, though, for confirmations of my baggage of prejudice: staircases were "not resplendent", unlike the Hermitage museum, some rooms were closed. But then my inner state changed to the opposite: amazement at the beauty and power of the culture that stood at the source of humankind’s development. The feeling of communion with places where untold energy of beauty erupts as from a volcano never left me since. Valya was ecstatic, and there was nothing left for me but to   join in.

Then we proceeded to view the city’s other attractions, and an incident occurred that made me recall my friend’s tales. We were walking from the train station and encountered a woman, Italian or maybe Gypsy, with an infant in her arms. She pushed into my chest a piece of cardboard with a glass on top of it, as if a hint to put something in the glass. I decided that I would give her nothing, since there are plenty of beggars in my hometown of Moscow. I started pushing her cardboard away, glaring at her silently. She held her ground and chattered. I was about to grab her cardboard and tear it in pieces, but then there fell from my pocket my calculator and billfold, containing our cash, Valya’s credit card and airplane tickets. Only then did I realize the purpose of the cardboard: pushing it in my chest, she used the other hand to search my pockets. Thank God that the calculator fell with the billfold and made some noise. It was a close call, and I narrate this incident in order to warn other travelers about this particular method of pocket-picking. It reverted me to the state of mind which I brought with me into Italy.

The next day we continued acquainting ourselves with the capital of Tuscany. The mind-boggling sights swung the scales of my soul in the other direction again, where they remained, weighed down by the cathedrals, the Gates of Heaven, the Antique Era marvels and the invisible energy of Michelangelo. This is where Renaissance began. The 107-m tall Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral stunned me, especially its fasade; I’ve never seen murals like these. Another unique cathedral is the burial place of Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Marconi (the inventor of radio). The appearance of the city is quite unusual, thanks to the Medici dynasty. All the worldly distractions – the bazaar at the Temple walls, the crooks, the pickpockets, the exorbitant tips – could not shake the enchantment; I was vanquished.  Two days later we took the Eurostar Express to Rome; at 150 km per hour, we got there in 1 hour 50 minutes, quickly and comfortably. We settled in the 5-star downtown Regina hotel. Toothpaste and toothbrushes were absent again; we asked to include them in "room service", which was done for 10,000 lire. Following Valya’s plan, we started with the classical landmarks, went first to the Coliseum, got an eyeful of the Forum from there, then went to Venice Square with its masterpiece of a palace and gigantic statues. All these landmarks are so colossal that no camera can capture them; you ever get the whole but small picture from afar, or close-ups of parts. Next were the Pantheon, Navona Square, the famous Trevi Fountain, Espagna Square with its famous Stairs, crawling with tourists. We made sure to visit the museums, the Borghese Gallery, the Sant’ Angelo castle and many other museums and cathedrals whose names I didn’t memorize. But I did get to partake of them all.

Quite tired, we went in the evening to a Chinese restaurant, whose owners turned out to be from Shanghai. I got to enjoy one of my favorite beverages: Tsingtao beer, and struck up conversation with two Japanese girls from some little-known university in Tokyo. They nearly fell off their chairs when a "round-eye" addressed them in Japanese, and in parting I asked them to give my regards to the Emperor. Quite embarrassed, they asked if they heard right: to the Emperor himself? Yes, to Akihito, I told them. It turned out that they didn’t know the current Emperor’s name, and then it was my turn to be startled; it was the first time I encountered Japanese who didn’t know their Emperor’s name. Perhaps they were just bewildered, or maybe their Oriental minds were numbed by the grandiosity and splendor of the sights of Rome.

The next day was the pinnacle of our program – we arrived in Vatican. St. Peter Square was flooded with people. Valya somehow managed to get far ahead in the crowd, and after only 20 minutes we were inside the St. Peter Cathedral. Its inside dimensions are stunning, creating the impression that all the edifices of the Kremlin would fit in there.

Words can’t describe the beauty and splendor of the sculptures and bas-reliefs, including the Pieta, Michelangelo’s highest creation, depicting Mary with Christ’s body in her hands – it can’t be described, it must be seen. The throng of people was there to hear the Pope, since it was a Sunday. We didn’t get a look of the Pontiff, but we did get to hear him loud and clear; his voice turned out to be pretty cheerful, despite his illness. Valya ventured a guess that we were hearing a recording. Anyhow, we partook of the event. The following day we visited the Sistine Chapel and beheld the creations of Raphael and Michelangelo. There was no need for words.

In conclusion I want to say that Italians proved to be very charming people: open, sociable, helpful, resembling to a degree the Russians of the Stagnant Socialism era. Arivederci, Roma. We left Italy with the warm feeling of high satisfaction, inspired by their culture and their technique of emptying visitor’s pockets.

In Munich airport I had to get rid of Deutsche Marks, which I exchanged with pleasure for our dear Russian poet Pushkin in the guise of a vodka beverage, filling an elegant bottle. Now I am in wait of a drinking buddy to drink down the Pushkin and hear out me story to the end.

 From  Oleg Arin and Valentina Arina. Between Titi and Kaka. The Impressions of a Tourist…but not only (Moscow: Alliance, 2001).