Thursday, April 13, 2017

Italy Flashback #4: Road worrier misses home

     I'm on spring break. And since my older boy will soon be exploring Venice, I thought I would reprint a column from when I visited there in 1999.

Venice, by John Singer Sargent (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
   DATELINE: ABOARD THE EUROSTAR TO VENICE — The moment I opened my laptop computer on the little pale gray fold-out table at my seat on this lovely Italian train, flashing through the Tuscan countryside at 90 miles an hour, it struck me:
      "This is it. This is the dream. The success fantasy from all those financial security TV commercials."
     You know what I'm talking about. Those companies — and I have no idea what they do. Something financial. They take your money and, in theory, give you back more money, keeping a bit for themselves.
     Anyway, you see them all the time on TV, flashing images of the kind of good life you'll enjoy if you do business with them. You'll stride across cobblestone streets while pigeons take flight. You'll confer with colleagues, eat room service breakfasts, climb into luxury cars.
     And, inevitably, you will curl up with your laptop in scenic spots -- on mountaintops in Katmandu, beaches in Bimini, at the end of rustic wooden docks in Maine and — I was thrilled to realize — on foreign trains while terra-cotta towns fly by.
     I've seen the image 100 times.
     Reality of course doesn't quite measure up. Those men floating across the globe like milkweed tufts seem so at ease, so happy.
      Even after two hours on the train, listening to light pop music on the tiny pair of headphones they give you, even after the nice man came by with the trio of fancy cookies handed out in first class (second class gets a trio of malt biscuits), I didn't feel quite at ease, not the International 1999 Businessman in Motion.
     For one, I was worried about being robbed. Sports columnist Rick Telander, a man projecting an air of calm, competence and control, got back from Italy the week before I left, and reported the only flaw of his trip was getting his briefcase lifted on the train. This was deeply troubling to me. I figured, if it happened to a cool character like Telander, who played one-on-one with Michael Jordan, what would happen to me? Robbed and beaten and left naked and weeping by the side of the tracks. In the rain. In Italy.
     So whenever I walk the 10 feet to the bathroom, I have to fold up my laptop, tuck it under my arm, and cart it with me. And even then, I cast a long, appraising look at the pair of innocent, grandmotherly types dozing in the seats across the aisle from me, trying to determine if they were tensing to leap up and rifle my luggage the moment I step into the bathroom.
     But they haven't, yet. In fact, none of the thieves waving newspapers and pickpocketing people that every guidebook warns about in five separate places have made an appearance. I've been wearing this stupid money belt, fishing around in my pants like a man with a rash, for a week, for no reason. Nobody has so much as asked me for spare change.
     Perhaps because I've been gone for 40 days — the same amount of time, I realize now, that Noah was on the ark. I don't know how people in times past traveled for years. Even with Venice before me, the city of Thomas Mann and Henry James, do you know what I find myself thinking about? The bratwurst sandwich at the Berghoff stand-up bar. Awash in mustard and sauerkraut. Fresh rye bread. Companion pickle. Stein of cold Berghoff brew. I'm not saying that I won't enjoy Venice. But that's not what, at this point, I'm really, honestly, looking forward to. Maybe some people aren't made to travel.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 6, 1999


  1. The building depicted at the top of the blog today seems to represent a sort of medieval information overload. All those statues and other intricate carvings, most far removed from the possibility of close inspection in the days before photographs and binoculars. Were they made to impress onlookers or heaven?


    1. If I'm not mistaken, it's the facade of Santa Maria del Fiori, in Florence. They were, one supposes, designed to impress the populi that only through these doorways could they reach heaven.


  2. The passage of time -- as the bulk of my years reading you have coincided with you being a non-drinking nonpatron of the Berghoff, your last paragraph was jarring in ways the 1999 you never intended when writing those words!

  3. Yes, after a while there's no place like home.


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