Story #15 April 13, 2021
Hitler & Bismarck at Ilse’s ‘Cafe Berlin’
Ilse was so jarred by the enraged voices from across the Brandenburg Gate Plaza, she thought even her granddaughter Hannah would hear them. ‘Here ya go, darlin’, said Hannah to a customer, unperturbed by the shouting she was unable to hear or the spirit of her grandmother next to her in the food truck. Ilse glanced a few yards away at the two men as they thundered at each other from across the decades, then back at her granddaughter. Hannah had taken over the tiny shop after Ilse had died but Ilse showed up for work every day, regardless.
‘You righteous rube, you hackneyed hick, you Austrian guttersnipe. You were a media sensation, a cult figure, but NEVER a leader!’, Bismarck bellowed at Hitler. ‘Nothing but a fool in a stage play, all sound and fury. And Charlie Chaplain did it better than you!’
‘Lies, all lies,’ Hitler screamed as he struck a pose, arms across his chest, pugnacious and combative. ‘You! You were the fool, Bismarck. You beat France in 1870 and could have made France into West Germany but no, no!, you retreated!’ The two sat on a bench at the edge of the Tiergarten, the expansive city park in central Berlin, as sleek autos sped past and jet airliners glinted overhead. Mothers with children, old folks out for a walk, knots of tourists, paid no heed to the two, unable to hear or see them; only Ilse could do that.
With a break in the crush of customers at the tiny egg-shaped food truck, still named ‘Ilse’s Cafe Berlin’, Ilse turned her attention to the two men on the glossy green bench, 10 yards away. She listened to Bismarck, about 200 years old and Hitler a much younger 130, as they ranted about a history she knew well. Bismarck had first come to her coffee shop when he was in government in the 19th century. The shop girl and the minister had formed a bond because of her honesty. The same trait had made her relationship with Hitler acrimonious.
‘By 1892, I had been the Prussian prime minister, and then the first chancellor of a Germany I had united myself. Yes, I won the Franco Prussian War in 1870. Had to. France wanted to keep Germany weak and in pieces. And you?!?! What had you done by 1920? You were an unemployed, homeless tramp from backwoods Austria, uneducated, indolent. All you could do was lie and scream. Everyone else was to blame for your troubles.’
From her vantage point in the cafe on wheels, Ilse had heard quarrels, political speeches, jubilant voices of children, people’s deepest disappointments and loftiest joys. After being here for 126 years, an argument like this between Bismarck and Hitler was nothing new to her. The excitement of these scenes kept her here, even in death. She had served coffee and sweet rolls to counts and queens, rogues and royalty. Marlene Dietrich was a big tipper, Winston Churchill always had 3 chocolate rolls and extra sugar in his coffee, and George H W Bush was a charmer. In a century and a quarter, this plaza had gone from tranquil to war zone and back several times, but Ilse’s spirit was still here.
‘When I retired in 1892, Berlin was a place of beauty,’ Bismarck said and he snapped his fingers. In an instant, it was summer, 1892. The Brandenburg Plaza was a hum of motion. Horse-drawn carriages clattered across the cobblestones, women in sidewalk-length dresses strolled with parasols, arm in arm with men in bowler hats and tailored black suits, set against the deep green of the Tiergarten Park. Across the plaza, the Greek columns of the Brandenburg Gate rose in elegant glory, topped with the Quadriga, the four bronze horses tethered to the chariot of the Goddess of Victory. The scene was tranquil, almost serene.
A short distance from the Brandenburg Gate was ‘Ilse’s Cafe Berlin ’, where, in 1892, she charged 10 pfennigs for a cup of rich coffee and 15 pfennigs for a cinnamon roll. Several people were in line and Ilse chatted with each of them. She greeted their children by name, asked about their families and waved as they drifted away.
‘Look, Guttersnipe,’ said Bismarck, as he swept his arm to take in the plaza of 1892. This is what Berlin and Germany looked like. We had an empire, peace and prosperity. Our borders ran from the Rhine in the west to the Russian border in the east, from the Baltic in the north, to the Alps in the south. It wasn’t perfect, we had poverty and disease, yes, but it was as good as it gets for the time. Then you came along! This is what the plaza looked like in 1945 after your disasters!’ Bismarck snapped his fingers again and the plaza was May, 1945.
Thick, acrid gray smoke hung like fog all around them. The muddy plaza, cobblestones gone, was choked with Soviet tanks, blown out German army trucks, piles of bricks and twisted metal. Bombed out skeletal buildings surrounded the Gate. Headless torsos, a single arm, the remnants of a leg, were scattered about. The blackened, bullet-ridden hulk of the Brandenburg Gate, a Soviet flag flapping atop the Quadriga, sat in the middle of the plaza.
‘Ilse’s Cafe Berlin,’ lay on its side, gray and ash covered, wheels gone, the side caved in, windows smashed. Ilse sat on the ground a few yards away. The Tiergarten Park, once a dense forest of linden and oak, was now a wasteland of charred stumps, apocalyptic, muddy and desolate. The wind whipped across the plaza and brought more ash and debris from the burned city. Ilse sat with her hands over her face, knees drawn up, alone.
Hitler was stupefied. He had spent the final weeks of WWII in his bunker far below the streets of Berlin and then committed suicide on April 30, 1945. He had never seen the destruction of the city and was thunderstruck.
‘This…….this wasn’t my fault!’, Hitler whined. ‘I made Germany great,’ he insisted, ‘but the generals hated me and the people were weak and stupid, not worthy of me! It’s their fault, not mine! I was a great leader. I was the Führer!’
‘You? A leader?,’ Bismarck barked with incredulity. ‘Herr Schicklgruber,’ Bismarck used Hitler’s original name as a slur, ‘you were a con man who played the part of Führer in a drama of hate and racism. You strutted and bellowed across the stage and played to a willing audience who eventually believed your Big Lie, your con. But a leader? Never! You couldn’t lead a pig out of a barn!’, Bismarck spat with derision. ‘You were nothing but a huckster!’
Bismarck snapped his fingers again and the modern city reappeared. The Brandenburg Gate had been renovated into a golden marble masterpiece, the German flag atop the Quadriga. New embassies and shops and stores appeared around the plaza. A shiny ‘Ilse’s Cafe Berlin’ sat 10 yards away. Traffic whistled along the wide, leafy boulevard.
‘Look around you, Schicklgruber,’ Bismarck said. ‘From the destruction you left behind to this Berlin, this Germany, has taken 75 years. Your legacy was hate for ‘others’ and a population so brainwashed they no longer knew what truth was. You created a divided Germany, a walled city, a Cold War. So much for your 1000 Year Reich.’
Ilse, still hovering in the cafe next to Hannah, waved to Bismarck and smiled. As always, he waved back. Hitler sat without expression, quiet, abandoned. He stared across the city. No Nazi flags, no Heil Hitlers, no round up of Jews or journalists or ‘others’.
The morning rush over, Ilse walked to the park bench, shook hands with Bismarck and nodded at Hitler, who stared past her.
‘How’s it going Otto,’ Ilse asked with a smile. I saw ya here last week chattin’ with Eisenhower but Hannah was too busy for me to come over. Can’t just go floatin’ off when she’s so rushed,’ she said in a Berlin accent thick as a potato dumpling.
‘Fine, Ilsa, just fine, thanks. Looks like Hannah is pretty busy today, too,’ Bismarck said. ‘By the way, I think Churchill will be back next month,’ he added. They both looked sideways at Hitler, the elephant in the room.
‘What’s with you, Schickl-baby?,’ Ilse asked. ‘You look like you lost Stalingrad all over again.’ While Hitler steamed at this remark, Ilse turned to Bismarck and said, ‘Ya musta shown old Schickl-baby here what Berlin looked like in 1892, didja?’, and smiled. ‘It was sumpin’ back then, wasn’t it! Quiet and peaceful like. Such manners people had. It’s pretty today,’ she continued as she surveyed the plaza, ‘but I liked the horses and cobblestones back then.’
Hitler looked up at her in defiance and found his voice. ‘Lost Stalingrad!?!? I never lost ANYTHING!,’ he shouted as he pumped his fists and jerked his head. ‘The people and the military lost it all. I take no responsibility! None!’,
Ilse sighed and sat next to Bismarck. ‘So the bum still believes his own crap, after all these decades? You’da thought by now he’d see the facts but I guess he ain’t ever gonna wake up’.
Bismarck and Ilse glanced at Hitler as Ilse continued. ‘Ya know, we shoulda thrown the Scheisskerl out when we had a chance, back in ‘33, but it was an exciting team to be on.’
‘Team to be on?,’ asked Bismarck, not quite understanding.
‘Well,’ Ilse said as she thought, ‘we’d been so torn apart for so long, what with the Great War, the 1918 pandemic, the Depression, inflation. We was lookin’ for somethin’ to agree on. This Scheisskerl,’ and she cocked her thumb at Hitler calling him a shithead again, ‘comes along and some of us hears he’ll feed the kids, others hear he’ll make the country proud, others hear we’ll all have jobs and money. Everybody heard what they wanted and ignored the rest of his crap.’ She sighed and continued. ‘He said the hard times was all because of them Jews. Or the Commies. Or the ‘others’. All our troubles’d be gone if we just got rid of’em, he told us. We shoulda known better cuz by then we all had MEIN KAMPF but ya only read it to put ya to sleep. Or as toilet paper!’
‘I’m right here, woman, I can hear you and what you say is an insult!,’ Hitler snapped back.
Ilse looked at him without a trace of expression and continued. ‘By the time we knew he didn’t have all the cups in the cupboard, it was too late. Even then, some of the hard cores loved him. Stupid sheep, they were.’
Hitler leapt up and wheeled on them. ‘You’re the same as the others! Never understood what I did for the country! The country I made great!’ With each word he became more and more transparent, less substantial, like smoke in the breeze. ‘I’ll be back!’, he tried to roar, ‘I’ll be back!’, but it was a whisper, lost in the wind. And then he was gone.
‘Yup, I ‘spect he’s right,’ said Ilse. ‘He’ll be back. Wherever ya got folks to be conned, there’s a con man,’ and nodded to Bismarck. ‘We got’em today. There’s them Neo Nazis, Thumbtack Thugs, Proud Poppinjays and the like. We just gotta keep pushin’ back.’
‘New fools are born every day, aren’t they, Ilse,’ Bismarck said. ‘Didn’t someone named Barnum or Bailey say that once?’, he asked. ‘By the way, Churchill and I will come by for a chat when he arrives. He likes the smell of your cinnamon rolls and coffee,’ and smiled at her.
They both stood and shook hands. Ilse returned to the cafe and Bismarck strode down the avenue, through the Brandenburg Gate, and out onto the Unter den Linden Street.
Story #14 March 19, 2021
THE BLUFF and HOW TO MAKE IT WORK.
Bridge and canasta aren’t my games. Too dependent on others, I guess. I’ve played poker most of my life and must be ok at it since it paid my college tuition. In everyday life, the tap-tap of fingers, a sigh, or an eye roll are ‘tells’ which give away how I feel about something. In poker, such ‘tells’ are how an opponent knows if you’ve got a good or bad hand. It can mean the difference between a semester at university or 4 months delivering pizzas. If you learn to eliminate all of your tells, not easy, you have a great advantage in any game of bluff. As a tour guide, this poker skill came in rather handy.
I had started with a $20 bet several hours before in a tournament I had entered and by mid afternoon the 23 original players had been whittled down to a cigar-chomping 58 year old from Amarillo in a huge cowboy hat, and myself. Big Hat munched his cigar like it was a carrot each time he had a bad hand, but put it on the ash tray each time he had a good hand.
I had learned to never smile, squint, blink too hard or fast, or to even move a muscle regardless of the cards I held. Stare at the opponent in any case. Don’t twist, sigh, eye roll, tap or rock in your chair. Keep the cigar in one place.
The stake was now $1100 and I had $1100 left in chips. Big Hat dealt. I looked at my cards: two of a kind. I shoved all $1100 of my chips into the center, which doubled the pot. I stared and didn’t move a muscle. I didn’t breathe.
Big Hat sat there for a moment or two, glanced at me a few times, and set his cigar in the ashtray. He began to tap the table, looked at the ceiling, then around the room at the other players he had defeated. No one budged. He sighed, put the cigar back in his mouth, set his cards face down on the table, and gathered his chips. Without a further look at me, he slid back his chair, rose, and stomped out of the room. I had $2200 toward tuition from a $20 seed. I turned over his cards. A flush.
Years and many poker games later, I was the guide for a full bus load of travelers in Britain and we had just pulled into York, a large town in north central England. We had been underway all day so the group was hot, tired, hungry and in need of beverages. The last half hour of the drive I had looked up the Palace Hotel on the internet, had found out it was part of a large but independent chain and was owned by the knighted Brit, Lord Peter Shaftesbury. A picture of him on the homepage of the chain’s web site showed a man just older than myself who had been educated at the University of London School of Business. I scrolled down to a photo of Shaftesbury as a young man, taken inside the Royal Scots Bank, Townsend Road, London, when he had interned at the branch. It didn’t seem important at the time but it was a detail I tucked into my memory. We arrived at the Palace Hotel near central York and I went into reception to check in and get the room keys which I would distribute on the bus.
Several guests were in front of me so when it was my turn, the fellow at reception, name tag of William, took the sheet of paper I had slid across the marble-topped expanse, squinted at it, glanced to the side at a note, then back at me and said,
“Your group has been reassigned to another hotel, in fact, three hotels in different villages near here. I’ll get you the details,’ and he turned to go.
‘Just a moment,’ I stopped him. ‘This sheet of paper says I made the reservation 14 months ago for the Palace Hotel, 17 rooms for my group, on today’s date, and it is signed by your manager, Mr Hildebrandt. Therefore, this is the correct hotel, date and I have a guarantee. Please give me the keys to the rooms.’ My voice had become somewhat frosty by this point.
‘Sir, let me explain since you have failed to grasp my original statement. YOU. ARE. NOT. IN. THIS. HOTEL.’ He had raised his voice and many in the lobby had turned to look at us.
I hoisted myself across the counter, grabbed William by the lapels, slammed his head on the marble surface several times until his nose broke, grabbed 17 keys off the backboard, thanked him for his service and marched off.
‘Look, William,’ I said, having the desire but not the size to slam his nose into the counter, ‘fetch Mr Hildebrandt because there’s been some misunderstanding on your part. Do this now because I won’t budge from this spot until he appears.’ The line behind me had grown to at least 8.
William looked at me as he would at an errant grease spot on his tux, turned and stalked off. Behind me I heard the conversations of the other guests in line to check in. I assumed they were peeved at me for taking so long but they were instead preoccupied with the event they had been invited to at the hotel. The marriage of the town mayor’s daughter to a local nobleman was the event of the year and to be invited was quite an honor. The evidence of tonight’s party was everywhere, from the lobby into the huge reception room.
The wedding decorations were elegant in white and kelly green, sashes and banners, long silvery streamers, and bouquets the size of VW Beetles. An enormous buffet had been set up in the dining room for the after-ceremony dinner.
William returned with Mr Hildebrandt in tow and just as he reached me, Larry, one of my passengers, tugged at my sleeve. Curious why I was delayed and quite thirsty, he’d come into the hotel to find me.
‘What the hell’s going on? We’ve waited in the bus for more than half an hour. It’s hot!’
I’d known Larry for years. He was a good ally to have and could play the game as well as I. In other tight spots, we had worked in tandem.
‘Bring in everyone now, please, and have them wait near the door of the reception room,’ I pointed. ‘Thanks.’ He went back to the bus while Hildebrandt rounded the reception desk and I moved out of line to speak with him.
‘Mr Hildebrandt, there seems to be a misunderstanding. I have a reservation here,‘ and waved the paper in hand, ’with your signature on it which guarantees my group 17 rooms on today’s date but William tells me otherwise.’
‘Yes,’ he sniffed, ‘well, there’s been a slight change of plans. I’ve arranged for your group to be in another hotel……well, 3 other hotels…..in nearby villages. It was unavoidable.’ He clasped and unclasped his hands. ‘I’m sure you understand and find it acceptable,’ he said with a smile thick with grease.
Larry had returned with my group of 33 guests who had assembled, as requested, near the double door entrance to the wedding reception room. In their rumpled and sweat stained travel clothes, they were quite a contrast to the starched, striped men and gowned women, who buzzed about as they sipped champagne and chatted in bright voices about the wedding.
‘Mr Hildebrandt, it is not acceptable, ‘I said. ‘You gave our rooms to the mayor’s daughter for her wedding.’ This was a guess but from Hildebrandt’s reaction, I knew it was correct, and it helped me set up my bluff. ‘What do you think Lord Peter Shaftesbury will say when I call him with this news?’ Hildebrandt’s face went white.
“What do you mean?,’ he stammered. ‘ You don’t know Lord Shaftesbury. You can’t know him!!’.
I stared into Hildebrandt’s unbelieving face. ‘Peter and I were together at the University of London School of Business 22 years ago and had internships together at the Royal Scots Bank on Townsend Road in London. We have been close friends ever since.’ I took out my cell phone.
‘You have 10 minutes to get my group’s keys. If at the end of 10 minutes I don’t have the keys, I will instruct my people into the buffet and will call Peter. Your 10 minutes start……’, I looked at my watch, ‘NOW”. The bluff was activated.
I looked at him. I didn’t blink or move a muscle, Didn’t tap. Didn’t breath. Just stared. I had a pair and he, with all the rooms, had a flush. But he didn’t know that.
‘You don’t know Lord Shaftesbury and you won’t eat the buffet!!!,’ Mr Hildebrandt almost squealed. By now, he had drawn the attention of the entire lobby to him. Larry had heard the exchange and on queue said,
‘Hildebrandt, ya got 8 minutes left and I take these locusts into the buffet!’ Larry was a good ally to have.
‘I won’t allow it, I simply won’t allow it and I don’t believe you!’, he said.
Only my lips moved, not another muscle, as I glared into his face and said, ‘Are you willing to take the chance? Will you think about this exchange in the unemployment line next week? By the way, you are down to 7 minutes.’ I brought my cell phone up and began to tap.
Hildebrandt took off like a rocket, the tails on his tuxedo trailing after him. At just short of 10 minutes he returned, red faced and a bit damp.
He opened his mouth to speak but before he began, I added, ‘And by the way, we’ll have dinner tonight in the Rose Room at the invitation of the hotel, thank you. For our inconvenience you understand. I’m sure that’s acceptable.’ He froze. I had decided to push my luck. With a pair, I had thrown in all my chips.
I stared unblinking into his face until he looked away, hesitated, and said, ‘Yes. At least for the moment. See William about your keys.’
I had some apprehension about his ‘for the moment’ but nodded in agreement. We didn’t shake hands. Hildebrandt disappeared. I gave my people their keys, told them where and when to meet for dinner, and went to my room.
About 30 minutes later, I heard a knock on the door and I opened it to a stern faced Mr Hildebrandt. I felt in my bones he had called my bluff. Somehow he had gotten hold of Shaftesbury and found out I was a fraud, just a guy who held only two of a kind. Now he had a royal flush and would cast me and my group into the darkness. What hotel would still be available with17 rooms? Would we have to sleep on the bus? Would my group revolt? I reddened and began to sweat but put on my poker face.
‘William, the desk manager, called Lord Shaftesbury’s office,’ he said. I wanted to gulp and take a deep breath but didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Here it comes, I thought. I’d have to tell my group we were out of the hotel and might have to sleep on the coach.
‘I must apologize for my earlier behavior,’ he said.
I was thunderstruck but looked straight into his face, my own stony. If he had said he was the real Tinkerbell and floated off down the hall, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. I stared at him in silence, afraid I would give away my relief. He continued.
‘William spoke with Lord Shaftesbury’s secretary and asked about you. She confirmed all you said. The Lord had been at the University of London School of Business in those years and had a close American friend from those days who was now on holiday in England. William asked her about Royal Scots Bank and she said yes, the Lord had interned in the Townsend Road branch, but wasn’t sure when.’
After a short pause, he added, a bit embarrassed to be a messenger boy, ‘She asked if you still planned to play golf with the Lord next Wednesday.’
Not able to carry it off any longer, I exploded in laughter, doubled over, tears rolled down my face and could hardly catch my breath. Then I told him I had no idea who the hell Shaftesbury was, that I had read all of the information in the company brochure and that he had been duped.
What I said was, ‘Provided it doesn’t rain pigs, I will join Peter on the links next Wednesday. Are we finished?,’ I asked. I had to get rid of him as fast as possible. He nodded and moved off down the hall.
After breakfast the next morning, as I counted my passengers on the bus, Mr Hildebrandt boarded the coach to wish everyone a good trip and to hope they had enjoyed their stay. We shook hands, he got off the bus and we left.
I’d used bluffs on a train in Italy, with police in Budapest and once with a robber in Rome. A bluff is a bit like Russian roulette. If successful you get your rooms and dinner, maybe even a semester’s tuition. If you lose, you sleep hungry on the bus and have a hole in your head. To think of it, it isn’t much different than a lot of daily life.
Story #13 March 5, 2021
SMOKIN’ IN THE GIRLS’ ROOM
After a long day of museums and monuments in Munich, palaces and beer halls (the latter was the most popular), several of my people in my small tour group joined me for some sun at the city pool complex. Among the visitors that day was a bunch of about 20 middle aged American men, most of whom wore ‘Milwaukee Men’s Soccer Team’ t-shirts. Why they were in Munich, I hadn’t a clue.
One of the team members who turned out to be named Beau, yelled to the crowd, ‘Yup, I guess I’m the only one with the guts to go off the high board.’ He repeated it to catch everyone’s attention and sauntered toward the ladder. A lot of drama was in that walk. He turned, waved, and shouted clever remarks to his buddies who were surrounded by heaps of beer cans and chip bags. They hooted and howled at Beau’s fist bumps. He climbed the ladder with measured steps and, at the top, walked to the edge of the platform. He surveyed the crowd from his great height, waved again, and hesitated at the board’s edge. Then, with flourish, he plunged to the water in an awkward dive.
A moment later, he surfaced and smiled a triumphant grin to his cheering audience. As he moved to the pool side, his victorious expression turned to confusion. The confusion changed to shock.
Beau’s swim suit was gone, ripped off by the dive.
He tried to appear nonchalant as he scanned the surface for the trunks. He figured they were somewhere near him so he could pull them on before anyone noticed. A flicker of red caught his eye and he glanced into the water. His bright red trunks had drifted to the bottom of the pool, sucked down by the vacuum of the drain. By this time, the entire crowd had noticed.
An attendant waited at the pool’s edge with a towel as Beau heaved his body out of the cold water and wrapped himself in the terry cloth but not before his buddies, and half the crowd at the pool, made inch signs with their fingers and roared with laughter at this fool who had neglected to tie his swim suit strings. Red faced, Beau stalked off to the changing room. He didn’t reappear.
Not all self-made embarrassments involve a 30 foot high diving board or a crowd of hundreds. Nevertheless, they may be just as memorable.
We were in the airport in Zurich when one of my ladies excused herself to go to the restroom. Several minutes later, Maude finished, hiked up her panty hose, smoothed her skirt, and sashayed out into the terminal. She hurried to the gate, waved to us as she arrived, then turned to retrieve her bag on the floor. The group behind her had been alive with conversation but became dead quiet like a radio had been snapped off. Maude turned and faced a silent sea of eyes wide open and hands to mouths.
‘Maude?,’ one lady in our group rasped, almost in a whisper, ‘your skirt, in the back…….’, and she trailed off. Maude ran her hands behind her and felt her rear end clothed only in thin, transparent pantyhose. In her haste, the skirt edge had caught in the waist of the hose. When she pulled them up, the whole skirt came with it and hiked above her now bare buttocks. She had just mooned an entire airline terminal. This was not an uncommon error among women at the time, but Maude’s reaction was unique. After a moment of hesitation, Maude half smiled, turned, and without a clothing adjustment, strode off to get a coffee, her well-shaped buttocks on full display. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, seemed to be her philosophy.
Embarrassment may be an individual decision. A guy without a swimsuit chooses humiliation; a lady with bare buttocks, chooses cheeky indifference. Most awkward moments are like this, careless, self-made. How folks react when embarrassment is foisted upon them is another matter.
Barb McCloskey had traveled on several of my trips and she could handle awkward situations better than anyone I’d ever known. Once, she visited the home in Greece of a former exchange student who had lived with her family in the US. The kid’s mother, Helene Papadopolis, spoke little English but wanted to be chatty.
Barb was a bit queasy after the long flight from Minneapolis so ate little of the meal Mrs. Papadopolis had served. After half an hour of just nibbling, Helene asked Barb in broken English, ‘You no hunger?’ Barb, who had missed few meals in her life, said she suffered from jet lag and had little appetite, but Helene didn’t understand. She shook her head and said, ‘You eat so little. Why you so fat?’ Mrs Papadopolis perhaps didn’t mean to offend, but all the English speakers at the table were shocked. At this moment of tension, Barb threw back her head and laughed, the tension eased, they all relaxed and Barb asked for a cup of tea. It was a minor awkward moment but a major one was on the way.
Barb was on my tour of Austria that summer and via Boston planned to fly over early to visit her daughter in Switzerland.
‘I had my flight booked from Minneapolis to Boston,’ she chuckled, then continued, ‘on Northwest Airlines and had a 3 hour wait before the flight to Europe so I spent some time in the coffee shop.’
She told the group this story at dinner the first night in Munich and we all wondered what could be so interesting about a Minneapolis to Boston flight.
‘We’d taken off, eaten lunch and there was about an hour left in the flight. I’d drunk several cups of coffee and then more with lunch so decided I’d go to the lady’s room.’
So far, this was a rather slow story but it picked up steam in a hurry.
‘We were on an old DC-9 and the door of the washroom faced the cabin so when the door opened everyone in the cabin could see inside. It never occurred to me it could be a problem. I closed and locked the door and had my knickers around my ankles when there was a whisper at the door.’
Now everyone leaned toward her. Time in an airplane washroom is sacrosanct, not to be messed with or interrupted. No one whispers to you from the other side, ever.
‘I was so startled, I couldn’t think of anything to say. The voice, a woman’s, asked me if I was alright. I said I was, and then she said, ‘Madam, you will have to stop smoking this instant. This is a non smoking flight.’
Understand, Barb had never smoked in her life. This would have been analogous to accusing Ghandi of carrying an AK47 or Shirley Temple chugging a liter of beer on film. Barb continued.
‘M’am,’ I whispered back, ‘I am NOT smoking!’ Then the woman says she’s a flight attendant and the captain has told her the smoke detector has gone off in this washroom and she knows I’ve lit up!’
We began to smile. Each of us had been in the postage stamp-sized cubicles and could imagine this scene.
‘Well, now the attendant shouted at me. I was to put out the cigarette and leave the washroom NOW. If I didn’t, I’d be charged with a federal crime. I yelled back I wasn’t done yet and to hold her horses. She screamed at me, I mean, the whole plane heard it. She told me to get out now or she would take action.’
Few flight attendants are this aggressive but if provoked, like rhinos, you never know what they will do. One overwrought attendant had once opened the emergency exit, the evacuation ramp inflated and he slid down it to escape his pack of wild passengers. Fortunately the plane was on the ground. He’d reached his limit and had snapped. As a tour guide of several decades, I can sympathize.
‘The next thing I heard,’ Barb continued, ‘was a funny scraping noise at the side of the door. It went on for several seconds and stopped. Then the door wobbled and shook a bit and came right off!’
Now she had our full attention, a clear picture of the scene in our minds. No one made a sound.
‘There I sat,’ Barb went on, ‘on the commode, my unmentionables around my ankles, and faced the entire first class cabin. The flight attendant just stared at me. I think she was horrified.’
‘What did you do?’ I asked, ‘what did you say?’
‘I looked up at her and said, ‘See, no cigarette! No smoke!’ Then I smiled and waved to everybody. I told them to please forgive my attire because I hadn’t expected to be in public. Then I told the attendant to put the door back so I could finish.’ At this she howled with laughter. In fact, we all did.
The attendant replaced the door, Barb finished her business, stepped into the cabin to the applause of her audience, bowed a little and took her seat. She never saw the attendant again. At the Boston Airport, an official of Northwest Airlines met her, red faced, sheepish and contrite. In compensation for the, eh, incident, the airline gave her free travel for a year if she didn’t press charges. She took the offer.
A few days later, I asked Barb what she thought of the whole mess.
‘Ya know, I think it bothered the flight attendant and the airline rep more than it bothered me. But I tell ya, from now on when I fly, I just may wear Depends.’
I considered this but thought about a whole year of free travel. It just might be worth a bit of embarrassment.
Story #12 February 19, 2021
THROW MILDRED FROM THE TRAIN
People will tell you most anything if they don’t know you, especially seat mates on trains. There’s time, anonymity and it’s a form of confession when Father ‘Your-secret-is-safe-with-me’ isn’t available. Maybe it’s guilt they want to get rid of. It could be a ‘I’m frightened of silence so I will run my mouth’ conversation to fill time. Or it might be their version of a reality they wanted when events turned out a different way, a wish fulfilling fantasy that makes them feel better even though it never happened that way. You just never know.
The guy in the seat next to me on the London to Paris Chunnel talked about his family and business and how bored he was with both. To spice up his life, he had taken up shoplifting as a hobby and told me several detailed stories. For the most part, he said, he stole small items, kitchen tools, cufflinks, ties, but once at Selfridges Department Store in London he had taken a pink Barbie Doll electric mini coupe big enough for two children to ride in. I imagined him bumping down the escalator in it but he said he had driven it into an elevator, down 4 floors, then out the front door. That was difficult to imagine since he was over 6 feet tall and about 250 pounds. As proof of his new hobby, he showed me a Rolex he had lifted that morning with a ‘Harrod’s of London’ price tag dangling from it. What I wouldn’t have given for a silent drunk, a narcoleptic or Helen Keller as a seat mate right then.
Once, a lady on the Hamburg to Berlin express began with an innocuous story about her daughter’s wedding. I brought out my German newspaper and stared at it but she didn’t get the hint. She told me how much she’d paid for the wedding, which she wasn’t able to afford, so she embezzled the cash from her employer. In the same sentence and tone of voice, she described the weather the day of the wedding, her daughter’s gown and how her ankles hurt from her spiked heels. She seemed to think embezzlement was something that everybody did so was unremarkable. She had continued to embezzle because it was so easy and had become accustomed to the extra income. In fact, she’d paid for her European vacation with it. These people had no sense of guilt or shame. They could have been Putin.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many of these people there were in the world, but I wished they wouldn’t sit next to me or be so chatty. As often as I had heard such stories in 40 years of being a tour guide, I wasn’t prepared for Mildred. No one, except Stephen King, could have been prepared for Mildred.
She had boarded before me on the Venice to Rome train and had taken the window seat. At first quiet while she composed an email, she finished and turned to me.
‘Hi,’ she said in a ‘I-own-a-Buick-so-I’m-normal’ voice. ‘’I’m Mildred and I’m from Buffalo.’ Why do Americans always presume the whole world speaks English? When the intended victim doesn’t speak English, Americans raise their voices and repeat the same sentence with slow, widely spaced words, sure that the added volume and slower speed will induce comprehension. I said hello, didn’t introduce myself, and made the mistake of smiling. The smile was her cue to start.
‘I’m on my first European vacation!’, she gushed. “I’m just lovin’ it! Is this your first time?”
No, I said, I was on a job, but wished her well and opened my newspaper. It didn’t work any better than it had in Germany.
Mildred rattled on about her first husband, Charlie, he sounded like a regular St Francis, who was the most perfect man ever alive, dontcha know, and they had had 19 wonderful years together until Charlie fell into the combine harvester. Such a shame but at least it was fast, she assumed.
‘There he was’ Mildred said, ‘just sittin’ next to me on the combine like we did sometimes, going up and down the rows and the next thing I knew, he was spewin’ out the back.’ She shrugged her shoulders and put on a ‘what’re ya gonna do!,’ look.
Mildred continued as if that horrific detail was preamble. ‘We walked through that soy field to collect him. An arm here, a leg there. It took ever so long to find all three parts of his head. I said right then, I did, it would be a closed casket, ya understand.’ She said this in the same tone she would’ve used in a deli: ‘I’d like 1 ½ pounds of sliced turkey and a ½ pound block of the cheddar.’ I nodded to show I understood about the closed casket. Charlie’s love letters to Ruthie Ann, which Mildred had found a couple days before his death, never did upset her, she said, because she was sure he loved her more. Or hoped he did. She had remarried soon after Charlie’s demise.
‘Oh, I fell in love in minutes!’, she exclaimed. ‘After bowling Wednesdays I always go to Potters Pub for a pint, sometimes other girls go with me but this time I was all alone. Lucky that was! One of them would have scooped up Fred in a New York minute if I hadn’ta seen him first!’ I nodded again, but couldn’t rid my mind’s eye of the vision of Charlie spewing out the back of the combine.
Mildred said, ‘This guy threw his keys on the bar and I knew he was perfect for me. Right there on the ring was a Cadillac Escalade key and that got my attention like quick, let me tell you!’, and she smiled with the memory of it. ‘We went to Las Vegas the next week, the very next week, I tell you, and had a ceremony in the Little Chapel. Fred even hired an Elvis impersonator. Oh, he was good, and he was Fred’s best man! It was so romantic!’
I agreed it must have been romantic and asked where Fred was sitting. I would switch with him so they could sit together. She put on a sad face and looked away.
‘Well, that’s another story,’ Mildred said. My heart sank. Another story. The one about her first husband had been enough. She continued, ‘Fred turned out to be no saint. He liked to drink a lot and was pretty mean when he was boozin’ and he boozed a lot. I mean, I musta bought 3 sets of dishes. Then there’s my jaw but it’s fine now that the screws are out.’
I wasn’t sure how to react to this so I just stared. Please stop, I thought. Maybe they divorced and this trip was a celebration. Maybe I’d have a stroke and they’d take me off the train on a stretcher, anything so I wouldn’t have to listen to more of this Jerry Springer Show on wheels.
But Mildred went on. She said, ‘I thought he was gettin’ better when he was down to a litre of bourbon a day but he wasn’t. He wrecked the Cadillac ya know, but those orange cones he plowed through were really hard to see. They tossed him in jail for a while even though that road worker survived. Didn’t seem fair.’
I said it was good the worker hadn’t died but Mildred ignored my concern and said, ‘Fred stumbled home one night, he was drivin’ again but without a license, he had no choice, you understand, and he smelled of perfume and had lipstick all over his face. His pants were unzipped,’ and she pursed her lips and looked up at the ceiling. ‘That did it!,’ Mildred added with anger. ‘I decided to do something when he fell on the kitchen table and passed out.’
I figured they divorced, or I hoped it was a divorce, quick and painless. But it wasn’t. Mildred’s solution was more permanent.
‘I stood there,’ she said, ‘I tell you, and knew, just knew, felt in my bones like, I was done. I packed some things and put a kettle of water on the stove, then a tea bag in a cup on the table, like he was makin’ hisself some tea, then turned on the gas without the pilot light. That’s exactly what I did! I was so proud of myself The gas would get him in less than an hour!’
Without sounding judgmental, there was nothing I could say to a woman who had killed her second husband and perhaps the first. She looked like a middle aged Mary Poppins so it was hard to imagine all this.
Mildred sighed and said, ‘I was at my sister’s when the house blew. I thought the gas would get him and it did, but not like I’d planned. It was a cigarette! That’s what the rescue squad said!,’ and she nodded. ‘The idiot came to and lit a cigarette. The place went up like a Roman candle!’, and she laughed, slapped her thighs and doubled over. ‘The rescue squad found him all over the neighborhood, a little like my first husband,’ and she winked at me as her new confidante.
I wondered where the conductor was, desperate to get away from Bloody Mildred. I spotted him 3 rows ahead and prepared my line.
Excited, Mildred said, ‘I made sure Fred was really well insured so I’m in Europe now! Can you believe it!’, she added right as the conductor arrived.
‘Biglietti, per favore’, tickets please,’ the conductor said. I looked up at him and in rapid Italian said I had to get away from this woman, to please tell me in English I’m in the wrong seat and to move. He examined Mildred’s ticket and nodded, then mine and said in English, ‘Signore, you must move. This is not correct seat. You are 17C.’
“Sorry Mildred,’ I said to her. ‘It’s been nice to chat with an unrepentant serial killer but I have to go. Have a nice day.’, and moved to 17C. OK, I didn’t say ‘ unrepentant serial killer’ but it was in my head. I resolved to make all my seat reservations in the future to be singles.
Mildred got off the train at Tibertina, a suburb of Rome. She waved to me through the glass, and I continued to the main station.
Was her story true? If it was, I had just traveled across Italy next to a murderer, even if she looked like Mary Poppins. But her story might be something else. It could be her way to cope with two marriages gone wrong, the fantasy retributions she wished for both ex-husbands. The men might be alive someplace in New York, as glad to be rid of her as she was of them, telling their own version of reality that involved drowning her in a toilet or cutting her car brakes.
I thought of the earlier stories. Maybe the guy with the Rolex wanted to be a show off and saying he was a shoplifter was an exciting way to tell the story. Perhaps the embezzler covered up the embarrassment that she’d filed for bankruptcy with the false admission that she’s stolen money from her employer.
I knew if I’d spent another 20 minutes with Mildred, I’d have had stories of throwing her from the train. We all do a bit of this, create an alternate reality to cope with the one we don’t like, the one that is disappointing, imagine things that we wished we had said or done at the time.
Was Mildred even her real name?
Later at dinner with my group, one of the members asked me, ‘Any good stories from your travels?’ I ordered two bottles of wine, let them get comfortable, and started.
Story #11 February 5, 2021
Mr. Zolton’s Wild Ride
Across the roof of the taxi, a black Mercedes, Ron yelled to the guy standing outside it, ‘Keleti Station! NOW!’, as we yanked open the doors of the car and jumped in. ‘NOW!’, Ron screamed again at the driver who had slipped into his seat. He stared at us open mouthed, in absolute bafflement, confused and a bit scared.
A rail agent had directed us to the Nyugati Train Station instead of the correct one, the Keleti Station. The two stations were at opposite ends of Budapest, a good 30 minute journey in light traffic. We had only 15 minutes to get to Keleti to catch our train to Prague, the only one of the day. No expressway connected the two, just city streets, alleys, parking lots and drive throughs.
In the early morning darkness, the driver glanced around, I thought, for police, afraid these two crazy guys would rob him. He fumbled with the key, which fell to the floor twice, looked two or three times at the controls and frowned, as if unsure how to start the vehicle, but after a moment or two, it roared to life. A few more seconds passed before he managed to put the car in gear.
Just before he floored it, two men ran out of the station toward the taxi and screamed for us to stop. Frantic, they waved their arms in a frenzy and beat on the trunk. I felt a bit sorry we had commandeered their taxi, but we had an emergency.
We rocketed away from Nyugati and careened into the street. Ron took out a handful of coins and slammed them on the dashboard, then fumbled in his pockets for bills. The driver, whom we later dubbed Zoltan although we never knew his real name, stared in wonder at the cash. I took out everything I had in my pockets, Euros, pounds, Francs and some Hungarian forints and began to throw them up onto the dashboard. Zoltan smiled at us in wonder and confusion. The more money we threw at him, the faster he drove, glancing in the rear view mirror every 4 or 5 seconds, I assumed, for traffic police.
Our two days in Budapest had been wonderful but hurried. The Hungarian Parliament, a late 19th century masterpiece of Victorian and mock Gothic topped by a huge ruby dome; the quiet residential backstreets filled with fragrant bakeries and delicatessens, the broad tree lined sidewalks, the broad-shouldered Chain Bridge over the Danube, and the smell of paprika laced meats and vegetables, a mix of oriental and western cooking to melt the staunchest food critic. All of this was Budapest.
I was plunged back to the present when we swung around a corner and seesawed as the car regained balance. We roared down an alley, scattered trash cans and crates, and slipped back onto the street. When a car was in front of us, Zolton swung into the opposite lane toward oncoming traffic. He screeched through parking lots and drive-throughs and, without seatbelts, we were thrown helter-skelter from one side of the car to the other. We had 9 minutes left.
Ron and I had come to Hungary to see if it was ready to welcome tourists after a half century of communism. Budapest turned out to be a lovely, almost genteel old town, and the patina of 50 years of Soviet-drab had begun to wear off. Whole blocks had been freshly stuccoed, the grandeur of late 19th century shops and apartment buildings restored. Few of the old communist markers remained. A Stalin statue had been replaced by a Wall Street Bull, and a billboard of Karl Marx had become Kim Kardashian hawking a perfume.
Zolton burst through a row of orange cones, the road ahead of us vanished, the vehicle airborne in a rollercoaster moment, and we landed with a thud on the new pavement, several inches below. Ahead of us I saw some flashing red lights and as we drew closer, the blurs became policemen with Kalishnikovs and barricades. The officers waved to stop traffic. Zolton spun the steering wheel like a frisbee and veered down the next side street. In the distance I could hear the faint klaxon sound of sirens but up ahead was the rounded arch of the facade of the Keleti Train Station. 2 minutes to go.
Zoltan barreled full speed toward the concourse as if he intended to drive right inside the station, but he slammed on the brakes and we skidded to a halt. We spilled out onto the pavement, the doors barely open. A second later, he rocketed away before we could thank him. Hell bent, we ran to the tracks, threw the luggage onto the smokers’ rear deck, then hauled ourselves up onto the train. Two breaths later, it lurched forward and took off for Prague.
We stood on the metal deck and leaned against the railing, breathing hard. The Keleti Station, a magnificent symbol of the former vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, diminished in the distance. After a minute or two, we went into the club car, found a couple of seats, plopped down and ordered beers.
Ron looked out the window and then back at me. He asked, ‘Did you see a meter in the taxi? I didn’t.’
The beers arrived and we began to sip.
‘No,’ I answered, ‘and I don’t recall a TAXI sign on top of the car.’ I thought another minute. ‘Zolton didn’t wear a cab driver’s badge and I don’t recall a taxi license on the sun viser.’ I had a bad feeling.
We sat in silence for a moment. ‘And who were the guys who ran after us at the Nyugati Station?’, Ron said, a bit more nervous.
‘Zolton seemed like he didn’t know anything about the car,’ I said, ‘like he’d never driven it before. Pretty odd.’
Ron peered at me over the rim of his beer glass. We both were silent for a minute, a common thought forming.
‘Did we just help Zolton steal a car?’, I asked. ‘That belonged to the guys who ran out of the station?’ We gulped more beer in silence for a while.
Although we tried to be serious about the carjacking we’d just been a part of, the more we thought, the more the incident morphed from crime into adventure. There had been no surveillance cameras, the two guys at Nyugati Station couldn’t identify us in the early morning gloom and Zolton hadn’t a clue who we were. We took it as it was. Zolton would be arrested but be able to pay the fine with the cash we had put on the dashboard. And we had caught our train for Prague, the only one of the day. All in all, not a bad trade off.
Story #10 January 15, 2021
MA & PA GO TO VENICE
‘Ya thenk these Nah-zees’d stop me if’n I’s stole this stuff?’, Pa yelled to me across the little country store in a German village, his hands full of chips, Coke and candy bars. I was a couple aisles over and moved toward him. For two weeks, in public, he had called the French Frogs, the Germans Nazis and the Italians wops. He’d stolen chips, gum, sunglasses, hotel towels and bar glasses. He had called me ‘stoopid’ for the lack of a Holiday Inn in the Swiss Alps, ‘ignunt’ because of no Subway or McDonalds in Grindelwald, Switzerland, and, as he had forbidden making hotel reservations, we had slept in a Russian-owned whore house in Lauterbrunnen.
I grabbed an axe from a display, walked up behind him, raised it high and brought it down with all the force of a crazed tour guide who had endured too much of this. The axe head cleft his skull to the neck. Pa pitched forward and smeared his blood and what little brain tissue he had on the Cottonelle toilet paper and Kleenex packages he fell into.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said to the proprietor in German, ‘he’s mentally challenged and has Tourette’s Syndrome. He has no control over what he says.’ I whispered to Pa to pay the man so we could get back on the road to Venice.
‘WE WON THE WAR’, Pa brayed with glee as he walked out. ‘I oughts ta take whuts I wants,’ he shouted. Pa bragged that he short-changed every store, dumped trash wherever he pleased and stole hearing aid batteries. And porno magazines, I found out later.
I named them Ma and Pa Kettle. To celebrate an inheritance, they had hired me to drive the two of them through central Europe to visit ‘purr-tee places.’ No big cities, no churches, no museums, no fancy hotels, no hotel reservations, no ‘Euro-trash’ dinners, no festivals, and above all, no boats. When we planned the trip, Ma Kettle told me she wanted to go where ‘all thems waters is’ but she was unable to remember the name of the town. I suggested Amsterdam but she added, ‘thems sings in them little boats’ to which I replied, “Venice’. She said yes, ‘Vee-henna, that’s it.’ I corrected her but it made no difference.
Pa was 153 years old and she was a few years younger. He was 5 feet tall, showered once a week, avoided deodorant and used WD 30 motor oil on his hair. Ma was under 5 feet, somewhat quieter and carried a camera with a telescopic lense the size of a child’s arm. I drove, they snored. I would wake them at purr-tee places, she would rush out, take 50 photos in 3 minutes and we’d be on our way. To any explanation or history of what they saw, I received the same answer, ‘That’s jest yippee fer thems thet ain’ts got to bust it,’ translated as ‘Knowledge is fine for people who don’t have to work.’ No history, no context, no explanation, please, just purr-tee places. I was a taxi driver in Hell. I had committed some heinous tour guide sin, perhaps blamed Emperor Constantine for the Fall of Rome or called Julius Caesar a vicious dictator (always dangerous to utter), and the Tour Guide gods had consigned me to everlasting torment, or at least 3 weeks of it. Moral of the story: be careful with the truth, else the messenger be punished.
The temperature was 101 when we reached the ferry to take us to Venice and Pa realized a boat was involved. 2 ½ hours later when he accepted I was not Moses and therefore unable to part the waters, we boarded the ferry. Ma went to the bow to take photos.
‘Don’t get off until you see me. It’s about 90 minutes from here,’ I cautioned.
She looked at me, wounded to the core. ‘I ain’t gettin’ off! Pa, he thinks I’m an idjut! I ain’t no idjut, I ain’t gettin’ off! I tells ya! Tell him Pa! Tell him I’s ain’t be no idjut!’ But Pa was silent and she moved to the bow.
She got off at the first stop.
Unaware of this, Pa and I sat in the sweltering heat of the cabin as we sailed from stop to stop on the ferry. Even in the heat and with clients like this, I loved to see the domes, spires, Byzantine wedding cake of St Mark’s Cathedral, and Middle Eastern architecture of Venice. The swirling columns, Indian filigree, peaked entrances and geometric designs were out of a fairy tale. We had no idea Ma was gone from the overcrowded ferry until we reached our stop, St Mark’s Square.
‘Ya gots to find the woo-mun,’ he bellowed, ‘ya gots to fetch her!’ Pa became so agitated I thought he’d explode like a tomato in a microwave. He bobbed up and down, an ostrich in distress, he jerked his head from side to side and his face turned various shades of purple. Ma carried neither identification nor money because, as Pa revealed, ‘she’s a woo-mun! Ain’t no woo-mun packs such stuff, only meh-un’, as if all women were bubble-headed dolts. For a moment, I pondered what kind of life these two had grown up in, whether he found his position as supreme ruler a burden or if she found her life claustrophobic, but the moment of near-sympathy passed. Ma was gone and helpless. Pa and I were on a deserted ferry landing. He stood, back to the precipice of the dock. He could not swim.
I thought about the Russian-run whore house, his insults of ‘stoopid’, ‘ignunt’, wops, Frogs, Krauts. He could accidentally fall into the Adriatic and the world would be a better place, or at least my world. If his body were found, ground to chopped liver by the propellers of a ship, his death would be ruled an accident. This was one of those sustaining thoughts, when you close your eyes and envision a better place, warm, snug and happy. An instant later I was shocked back to my senses.
‘Pa!!!’, came the outrageous and unmistakable shriek of Ma. ‘Pa, I’m here, I’m a comin’!’ and she waved her arms like she was swatting away a swarm of wasps. It seemed impossible that she was on the ferry only 12 minutes behind us. As the boat approached the dock, Pa jerked to his right to see Ma, lost his footing, and pitched headlong into the sea.
With witnesses, it would have been inappropriate to toss the luggage on top of him, so I found a length of rope coiled on the dock and threw it to him. The ferry crew dragged him out as he screamed ‘worthless wops’, ‘Mafia monsters’, and other slurs hurled at the folks who had just saved his life. Beauty may be skin deep, but mean goes to the core.
About 3 A.M., Ma pounded on my door and yelled, ‘Pa’s a dyin’ and needs a doc!’ I opened the door, as did everyone on my floor, and looked down at Ma in her sloppy men’s pajamas, wig off, and thought I’d stepped into a Dickens’ novel. There stood Miss Havasham, except her hair wasn’t on fire.
‘Perhaps he needs an undertaker rather than a doctor. If we hurry, we can arrange the cremation and interment at sea before sunrise. Then it won’t disturb breakfast.’ What I said was, ‘I’ll call a physician’.
‘Severe ear infection from the water,’ I translated the diagnosis to Ma. Pa rolled in agony on the bed, back and forth several times, went too far, and dropped to the floor. Dr. Agnelli’s initial sympathy worn away, he never glanced down at Pa on the carpet but continued to explain the prescription to me. The doctor understood little English but had caught the drift of ‘you wop’, ‘you worthless day-go’, ‘you pot-lickin’ Kath-lick’, Pa had shouted at him. I took money out of Pa’s wallet, paid the doctor and walked with him to the lobby.
‘I must apologize for Mr. Kettle,’ I said. ‘He’s mentally challenged and suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome so has no control over what he says.’ It was a well-rehearsed line and now sounded stale. The doctor nodded sagely, patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Buona fortuna,’ good luck, and left.
The trip was supposed to last a few more days but it was impossible for Pa to continue with such an ailment, I explained to Ma, and very dangerous for a 153 year old man. They would have to fly home. Within 10 minutes if possible, tomorrow at the latest. Ma rocked and agreed, Pa shrieked. Long skinny rolls of cotton batting hung out of his ears and looked like cartoon smoke. I got little sleep.
When I returned to the hotel from the airport in the afternoon the next day, Antonio, the young man at the desk, opened a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate the departure of Ma and Pa. As we toasted one another, he asked, ‘Do you have many clients like Mr. and Mrs. Kettle?’. I considered the wrath of the Tour Guide gods if I told the truth but only as long as it took to have three glasses of Prosecco. ‘Let me tell you about Marge Mahoney from Mississippi.’
Story #9 January 3, 2021
GIULIANO & THE WHORES
Ever go to a party dressed as the Mad Clown with floppy pointed shoes, orange hair and white makeup, only to discover that it was a formal dinner party and you had misread the invitation? Or realize to your discomfort, after you have laid out your towel and settled down for a nap on the sand, that the ‘swimsuit optional’ beach is two miles down the road? Maybe not, but things like this happen.
In an era where more and more people work at home, wear pajamas and bunny slippers at Walmart, attend church weddings in shorts and flip-flops, and no one has a clue any longer what ‘smart casual’ means, it would seem that clothing has lost most of its defined uses. Some taboos exist, like socks with sandals or plaid with stripes (although even that prohibition has waned), but generally it would seem that most folks have embraced the “let it all hang out” attitude when it comes to clothes.
Yet people sometimes ignore clothing guidelines at their peril. This particular incident happened in Rome, a city with high fashion, casual fashion, as well as tourist sloppy. It may be ugly or weird or impractical but even those loose parameters have limits.
I have always given my travel groups guidelines for clothing and although it’s a spare list for most, it is practical and complete. One lady told me, if she’d followed my suggestions, she’d fit in at the casino table, a funeral or as a night stalker, all of which I took as a compliment. Granted, my emphasis was a bit heavy on black, but at least it is always well coordinated. Black hides mistakes. The spilled soup, the sweat stains, the odd bit of blood and dirt. Think of the alternative. Once a woman wearing white linen shorts said a chunk of raspberry gum levitated off a bench and chased her down the sidewalk until it caught her and adhered to her backside. She threw away the shorts now with a large bright red stain. Another time a high heel became stuck in cobblestones and the woman broke an ankle. Usually the results were not this extreme but what happened in Rome had no precedent.
Two of the women on the tour, friends and roommates, had decided against my list of recommended clothing. They packed blouses they had bought the previous winter in Florida. If you’ve ever been to Florida in the winter you will already have a vision of the typical fashion. The men wear white polyester pants, wide open shirts stretched across enormous bellies, with gold chains dangling from their necks. The women wear chaotic blouses with huge brilliant flowers, white shorts, and sandals they refer to as “kicky”. What that means I haven’t any idea. These two women wore these Florida blouses for our arrival in Rome and assumed the garments were the height of fashion. The tops were the latest look from Miami Beach and they felt elegantly ahead of the fashion curve in Rome.
Our hotel was near the Rome opera house, a respectable neighborhood, and the receptionist I’d known for years, Giuliano, greeted me. As he retrieved our keys and pointed out the breakfast room, he broke in mid sentence and stared across the lobby, peeved and a bit exasperated. I followed his stare to my two women, standing apart from the group. Giuliano called security, which appeared a moment later, and pointed to the two women. They smiled back at the men, a little giddy from the attention. They almost posed, proud of their fashion sense, but then Giuliano spoke.
“Get those two whores out of here!”
Italians, Americans, Brits, everyone in the lobby, turned to look at the two women whose blouses revealed them, in Rome at least, to be prostitutes. The security guards moved toward them. Guests chuckled, others looked stern in evangelical disapproval, but everyone was riveted by the scene.
“Giuliano,” I interrupted, “those two women are with my group. They are two of my passengers,’ and pointed to their names on the roster.
He looked shocked, ‘You bring prostitutes on your tours?!’
By this time, the two security guards had apprehended the women and intended to chuck them onto the street. Although he looked unconvinced, Giuliano shouted to the guards,
‘Bring back the whores!’
His continued use of the term convinced everyone within earshot that, indeed, these women were prostitutes. Repeat anything enough times, even a lie, and people may believe it. Condemned by a fashion faux pax; this was a new one. Far more guests had entered the lobby and when they heard the word “whores” became quite interested and craned their necks to see the street walkers who had had the audacity to come into this fine hotel. How dare they!
The women were now scuffling a little with the security guards as Giuliano and I made our way over to them through the throng. Resistance had given way to tears and the women wept but insisted they were guests.
Without a trace of self-restraint, Giuliano asked me, “So these two women are with you?” I nodded. “Then why are they wearing whore outfits?,” and pointed to the blouses. I knew of no politically correct way to answer but I had to give a reason. “This is what women wear in Florida. It’s fashionable,” I said.
“Older women in Florida dress like whores?” he said, perplexed. Now he had done it. Not only had he called them whores (several times) but worse, “older”. Between the sobbing women, the aggressive security guards, the melee of the crowd and my people who just wanted their keys, it felt like a ‘Seinfeld’ episode.
Giuliano in speedy Italian explained the situation to the guards who backed off but continued to look at the women with suspicion. I steered the two ladies to a secluded place off the lobby and asked Giuliano to order them drinks, something strong, and went back to the desk to give out keys. Some of my group comforted the two friends, put their arms around their shoulders and told them no one would remember the ordeal in an hour or so. If they repeat it enough times, I thought, maybe someone will believe it.
That evening, while I waited for the group in the lobby, I noticed a maid as she polished a mirror with a bright scrap of cloth which looked identical to the blouses of ill repute. The women had thrown them out. Not acceptable as clothing, they were now put to good use as rags. The women emerged from the elevator in tailored gray silk blouses from Prada around the corner, noticed the maid, looked at one another, but said nothing. We walked out to dinner.
Story #8 December 2, 2020
SLICK & the MISSUS
The sleek high speed train slid into the Frankfurt Main Train Station with a low steamy sigh. I had given everyone in my group the car number and their seat reservations to make boarding easier. My people stored their luggage, claimed their seats from the current occupants who had hoped the rightful passengers would not show up, and sat down. Someone was in my seat, car 8, seat 17B, so I explained to him in whispered German that I had reserved this place so would he please move. He scowled at me and in English said “I don’t talk the Dutch” and waved me away. He muttered to the woman across from him, “Idjut ferner!” I bent to show him my reservation card and he exploded from his seat, jammed his face close to mine and through clenched teeth hissed that this was his seat, he could prove it and I was to back off. The reek of old cigarettes and cheap whiskey mingled with the spit.
I stepped back a little, not sure what to make of the theatrics. The passengers in the car were silent but stared at us, as if we were two gunslingers about to have a shootout in Dodge City. He looked up into my face, snarled, parted the cheap plaid shirt, and stuck his thumbs in his waistband. A 4 inch blade sheathed in leather hung from his belt. Out of the breast pocket he took the heavy card stock of the rail ticket and flashed it in front of me, car 8, seat 17B. “Read’em and weep!”, he exclaimed with triumph. I reached for the ticket to get a better look but he gripped it so hard I thought the ink would come off. Then he yanked it back and said, “You tain’t gettin’ yur hands on this! Now skedaddle and leave me and the Missus in peace!” I found an empty seat but the light above it indicated someone had reserved it at the next station. I’d have to play musical chairs all the way to Munich unless I got my own seat back.
Skinny as a reed, his cheap blue jeans were held up by a three-inch wide leather belt festooned with an enormous silver buckle speckled with turquoise chips. His hair was slicked back, shiny with oil, and he looked like a carnival barker (‘Step right up and win a panda for your sweety pie’) or a used car salesman from the 1950s (‘I can let you have this baby real cheap but lots of folks wants it so better grab it now!). His wife, altogether different, played the part of a handmaid, quiet and obedient, and never looked up from her book.
The conductor came through to check tickets. While he held mine, I asked if my seat reservation for 17B had been double booked and nodded toward Slick. The conductor looked curious, took my ticket and returned to Slick to re-examine his reservation. Again, Slick had a vice grip on it with his thumb in the same place as before, as if he had to cover up something. With one jerk, the conductor yanked it free and examined the tickets side by side. The conductor fixed Slick in his gaze and said, “You are on the wrong train. You will get off in Würzburg and pay the fine for fraud”. Then he loomed over Slick and crossed his arms for emphasis. ‘Nazi thug!’, spat Slick. ‘This here’s a po-leese state!’ The train slid into the station in Würzburg.
Furious and humiliated, Slick thrashed about and sputtered he’d sue when he got back to “siv-la-zay shun”. He tossed his bags about, magazines and coffee cups flew off the table and passengers ducked to avoid the airborne debris. The conductor didn’t flinch. “Sumbeetch, can’t even set my ass in my own seat! Ain’t done nuttin’ wrong!”
As he moved toward the exit, the Missus’ turned to me as if to apologize but Slick grabbed her arm and dragged her and the luggage down the aisle. At the end of the car, Slick and the Missus tumbled down the steps as he threw bags out of the train. Two robust rail policemen grabbed him when he tried to hustle away while the Missus rummaged in her handbag for a means to pay the fine. Slick tried once more to bolt but this time one of the officers grabbed his jacket collar and hoisted him from the pavement. I stood in the open door between cars and watched this drama, just a couple yards away.
Slick looked up at me, curled his lip, and raised his middle finger. Just loud enough for him to hear, I said, “Hey Slick,” and held up my ticket. “Read’em and weep.” A second later the door hissed shut and the train whooshed out of the station.
Story #7 November 13, 2020
MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Her rage boiled as she heard that awful rhyme float up from the lawn below, chanted by a group of children waiting for a school bus. If she, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, still were on the throne, she’d have all their heads lopped off, even if they were children. Especially if they were children.
She looked out at the watery morning, the misty rain in the early light, and wondered what it would be like to play golf again, a distraction from the vile children below her window in Holyrood Palace where she had been for over 400 years, even though she was buried at Westminster Abbey in London. She’d play if she could hold a club since nothing had stopped her before. After all, the day she helped murder Lord Darnley, her pesky second husband, she had played golf and it was raining torrents. To be appropriate though, she had worn black.
She lifted her head off her neck, set it on the vanity and braided the hair, wrapped them into a swept up coil and replaced her head on her neck. The jagged marks of the three axe hacks it took to remove the cranium were still visible 400 years on, but the scar of humiliation was worse. The incompetent executioner had picked up the head by the hair, which was a wig, and the head had thudded to the floor and rolled some distance, to the horror of the crowd and the outrage of Mary. So spiteful was she, that her spirit had made all of the executioner’s children look like pigs.
Mary’s execution had stemmed from one tiny, insignificant indiscretion, namely, the liquidation of Lord Darnley, the father of her insolent pipsqueak son James. The incident had not gone well. Out of jealousy Darnley had murdered her secretary, David Rizzio, without her permission, so she’d sworn revenge against him and had ordered Lord Bothwell, her lover at the time and soon-to-be husband, to blow Darnley’s residence to dust with gunpowder. Sadly, Darnley survived the explosion so Bothwell had to smother Darnley in the garden. Messy business, that was. She married Bothwell too soon after that and the squeamish nobles had revolted over the scandal. Murder, more murder, and affairs were, she guessed, too much for the dainty nobility. Because of Bothwell’s botched butchery of Darnley and her involvement in the incident, she had been replaced on the Scottish throne by her whiny, mewling one year old son, James. Irritating, ungrateful child, she thought. Should have drowned him in the river with the kittens. Thank the heavens she only had to spend the first month of his life with him. She understood why some animals eat their young.
The rain had stopped and she gazed across the Scottish countryside, the brilliant slants of sunlight illuminating the jade and kelly green of the hills. The low mountains looked like giant puffy, moss-covered muffins, with patches of bluish purple as the silver and pewter clouds scudded overhead. From the third floor of the Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, she could clearly see the mass of Edinburgh Castle, one mile to the west, perched high on the cusp of the remnants of a volcano, and the old town, that clung to the downward angle of the crater’s edge, and ended at the palace below.
The Castle, massive-shouldered, rough and formidable, was the symbol of Scottish history, the icon of the nation. It commanded the bay and the valleys, and still had the enormous shiny black cannons of Mary’s day, the late 1500s, pointed out to sea. The chapels, the great vaulted dining hall with a stone fireplace a man could stand up in, even the tiny chamber where she gave birth to James, were all up there, she reminisced. She looked at the Royal Mile lined with the creamy stone structures from the 17th and 18th centuries, built in elegant Georgian style with large mullioned, rectangular windows, fluted columns and grand entrances. Built 200 years after she had been queen, they spilled from the sides of the avenue to the valley below and nuzzled against the hillside.
From below she could hear fragments of conversation about something called ‘Brexit’ and calls for Scottish independence but she had not followed the news in a couple of centuries. Her place and self importance in World and Scottish history was secure and permanent, she knew, which gave her great comfort. But in the next instant, her musings were shattered.
‘You wench!! You thieving, conniving, traitorous slut!’, boomed a voice through the stone wall as an apparition oozed into her view and became Bothwell, her last husband. He moved forward, hands raised as if to strangle her, but the two figures passed through one another harmlessly, which quite embarrassed him. ‘Damn!’, he said, as he looked down at his insubstantial body.
‘You’ll get used to it,‘ said Mary sarcastically. ‘So why are you here, you dobber? Your prison was the perfect place to work on your book, Gun Powder for Dummies’. After the murder, Bothwell had fled England but was imprisoned in Denmark, and by the end of his life was as mad as a March hare.
‘You, Bothwell, were the putrefaction of the problem. You couldn’t kill a cockroach without a committee,’ Mary chided. He came at her again but was suddenly arrested by the view of the landscape out the window. He stopped in mid float to stare at the breathtaking town and countryside, a wonder he had not seen in 400 years. Mary and Bothwell stood side by side for the moment in mutually acceptable loathing, Edinburgh and Scotland spread out before them.
‘I miss the old town of 1560,’ she whined, ‘the haggis washed down with a pint of scotch, the bagpipes on the lawn and the kilts on the young men.’
‘Tell me, Trollop of the Town,’ asked Bothwell, ‘what do you miss the most? The ramshackle, tumbledown, oily huts of the stinking peasants, the horseshit, the dead in the street, the reek of damp peat smoke hanging thick as cake layers and mixed with the foul frothy fog? Look at the town today,’ he said. ‘It is a gleaming, glowing, spire-filled metropolis of cafes, museums and elegant shops on a bay of sparkling beauty,’ he said, sweeping his arm across the window. ‘It is filled with leafy squares, broad avenues, and the pulse of life.’
Mary turned on him and spat, ‘Why must you ruin every good rant of mine?’, and regally tossed her head, which dropped suddenly to the table.
Silently Mary had to admit that Edinburgh was miserable in 1560, though the countryside was magic. She imagined it still was. “This Brigadoon beauty, this lone and fragile landscape, this stark and solitary transfiguration of soul, this Scotland,” she quoted from some forgotten poet. She loved the fjord-like lakes, the hills of the Trossachs and the lochs in the West, the muddling brooks, the gorse and thistle carpeting the fields and hollows, the aroma of cherry blossoms and heather and cloveroot, the purple and pewter clouds, mists like veils and an enveloping silence.
‘Those days in the country were idyllic, you know, before Queen Elizabeth locked you up for treason then ordered your head chopped off.’, Bothwell said smiling with pleasure. ‘And then the executioner dropped your silly head!’, as he floated into the chandelier, as he howled with laughter.
Mary replaced her head and dismissed the remark, ‘Tut, tut. So I tried to start a civil war and steal the throne of England from her. Minor matter. And then that skank Elizabeth made my son king of England and unified the nations! Outrageous! Should have been me,’ she whined shrilly. ‘My subjects adored me then and adore me now.’
‘Adored you?!‘, Bothwell said with a grimace. ‘They spat at you after you paraded past them, they pissed in the street behind you, they made up horrible rhymes, like ‘Mary, Mary…….’.
But she cut him off with a shriek of outrage and humiliation, ‘NO, NO! I won’t hear it!’, she wailed, covered her ears and sang a ditty to drown out the poem.
‘Face it, Harlot of the Highlands,’ Bothwell continued, ‘we’re both just footnotes of Scottish history. Compared to the Celts, Hadrian’s Wall, the Vikings, ‘Braveheart’, the wars and union with England, we’re just an entertaining side show, if that. We’re the hapless stars of a Jerry Springer segment, strutting about, screaming and yelling accusations at one another playing as if it’s of great importance, while it’s really just sound and fury, signifying nothing. After a while, people tire of the drama and move on. Our show’s been cancelled Mary. I’m forgotten already. And the moment you don’t make money for them with your face on souvenir cups and refrigerator magnets, you will be forgotten, too, and only the stupendous beauty of the nation will remain.’
Ignoring the rest of what Bothwell had said, Mary asked, ‘Who is Jerry Springer?”
Bothwell looked at her in amazement. ‘Stone the crows, woman. If you’re in a Danish prison for 400 years, you’ll watch anything on the light box for distraction, even that dreadful Springer show, with dreadful people tearing one another apart. By the by, that reminds me of the reason I came, to find out why you had me imprisoned!’
‘Oh, that,’ said Mary with a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘Darnley murdered Rizzio so I had you murder Darnley but once that was done, I wanted you out of the way so I banished you to Denmark and had you imprisoned. You went quite mad all on your own, probably from watching Jerry Springer on that light box thing.’
Suddenly Mary seemed to have remembered what Bothwell had said earlier. ‘A footnote in history? Is that what I’ll become?’ Mary had always thought that her legacy would endure as long as the beauty of Scotland, but now she was not so sure of her importance in a world that had clearly gone past her. She wheeled angrily.
‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ she commanded Bothwell, who smirked with satisfaction and floated off, into the gathering gloom, leaving only his footnote behind. This can’t be true, she thought, ‘I’m important, I’m permanent’, but something gnawed at her. The mantel clock, its monotonous tick tock, pendulum swinging, thrummed ever louder, louder still, until she wanted to dash the mechanism to the floor. The memory of Bothwell’s words, ‘all that’s left of you is a face on a mug or a fridge magnet’ crawled through her head and depressed her.
The school bus pulled up, discarded the children and she heard again, muffled, from the lawn below, ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary…..’ but this time, instead of rage, she felt a kind of relief. Perhaps her legacy would live on after all. Yes, she was sure of it.
Story #6 October 30, 2020
‘A STRANGE THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’
There was such a crowd in the subway at the main train station in Rome that it felt claustrophobic. Even for July, the day was unusually hot and sticky. Mirages blurred, distorted and disappeared in the shimmering heat that rose in waves from the pavement. Below ground, the narrow platform in the low-ceilinged tunnel amplified the bustle of noise of the crowd. The station above was open, airy and efficient, but below, the subway yearned for long-overdue maintenance.
In case we should become separated, I had told my small group that we would exit the train at the ‘Cipro’ stop near the Vatican, 8 stations distant, and turned toward the track when I sensed someone or something uncomfortably near me. It might have been smoke or refracted light but the figure seemed translucent as it coalesced, staring hard. A face formed, one I vaguely recognized because this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, then a body cloaked in white took shape. The arms raised slowly, the hands came up and a sudden wind-like force pushed me into the air. It was all very ethereal and dream-like, as I flew out over the open tracks, hung in the air a moment, then fell head first, my right shoulder striking the steel of the rail five feet below.
My vision blurred, blackened, cleared a bit and, in a fog, I smelled the soot and coal of the tracks I lay face down on. The muffled voices of those scurrying on the platform sounded like a distant, boisterous party. Someone gingerly helped me stand and led me stumbling to the stairs and back up onto the platform. Hazy faces swam in front of me, lips moving, but the words were lost behind the ringing in my head.
Minutes passed, trains arrived and departed, my head cleared and the waves of nausea subsided. Looking down I saw that my pants and shirt were filthy and greasy, the right shoulder slumping awkwardly at an oblique angle, the Vatican Museum tickets sticking out of my shirt pocket. We had a timed entrance and this was our only chance to visit. The pain was like a migraine, sharp and blinding, but I figured the shoulder was only dislocated so I assured everyone that we would continue, and, gently sticking my right hand in my waistband, we boarded the next train. With relief, I sat as the car rumbled away. I breathed deeply and mulled the events, trying to remember when I had first seen that ominous face.
The previous day we had scoured the Colosseum, that immense stone amphitheater that has become the symbol of the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. The design is so elegant and simple, the beauty so remarkable, that even though a large section is missing it still retains the aura and majesty of when it was built. Walking up into the empty stands where once 50,000 spectators roared with delight as gladiators fought gladiators or wild beasts, where countless emperors had commanded life or death, it took little imagination to visualize those gory spectacles. We clambered around it like kids enjoying its myths and legends, staring down where the arena had been, imagining the chaos in the labyrinth of tunnels and cages beneath the sand covered floor.
Afterward, we had gone to the Roman Forum where the city was founded nearly a millennium before Christ, to view the ruins of the once monumental gleaming marble basilicas and temples along the Sacra Via, the Sacred Road, a passage back in time, older than the Empire, back to the age of the Republic. In the middle of this open air museum is an odd little structure, a stone hut where the remains of Julius Caesar, the historical fulcrum between the Republic and the Empire, had been cremated. Julius, I explained, had cast himself as the liberator of the city but quickly became a dictator who set in motion a titanic civil war. He had wealth beyond imagination but he longed for absolute power to satisfy his towering ego and he destroyed the Roman Republic to get it. Neither Julius nor his mother would have appreciated my explanation.
Sitting there on the train, that thought jolted me because it was near this cremation hut, immediately after I had told the group of the treachery and deceit of Julius Caesar, that the smoky figure first appeared, shadowy and nearly transparent. I had barely said the words when I noticed a light cloud, perhaps a figure, drifting near the Temple of Saturn, but when I blinked, it had dissipated. Ghosts and apparitions don’t exist so I knew it was just a trick of the shadows and bright sunshine.
From what I was able to remember just then, there was no reappearance of the shadow at the Pantheon, with its immense 2000 year old dome, nor at the nauseatingly overrated Spanish Steps. Steps? Where the hell are they? You can’t ever see them because of the permanent carpet of tourists, panhandlers, townspeople and pigeons that cover them. Maybe at 3 a.m. they’re visible but I don’t intend to get up at that hour to see stairs.
Sitting on the subway to the Vatican, right arm hanging loose and useless, the memory of the previous day was becoming hazier. Sometime in the afternoon there were the sparkling waters of the Trevi Fountain, Anita Ekberg in an elegant black gown, the movie “La Dolce Vita”, the graceful figures of Poseidon and his team of horses spouting water into the huge marble basin. No, I shook my head, Anita hadn’t really been there but neither had the apparition. The memory of the smoky figure in the Forum had been pushed out of my mind in order to find toilets and beverages for my people. But then we went to the Area Sacra del’Argentine, the place where the conspirators, Brutus and the boys, had murdered Caesar.
I remembered explaining the ruins which lay about 20 feet below the level of the modern city, and was pointing to a temple when there was a slight flicker of motion to my left, almost like a tiny flame in the wind, out of direct view. When I turned, I saw nothing but I had sensed something. My people looked at me a bit strangely but kept quiet and we moved on, the apparition lingering in my head. My cognition was increasingly challenged, it seemed.
The train jerked to a halt at Cipro, I secured the right hand again in the waistband, and we walked to the Vatican Museum, a huge complex of halls and rooms filled with artistic treasures of the world. Most famous is the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling and altar painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago. If all you did was journey to Rome to see this masterpiece and return home, the effort and expense would be worth it. The work is that awe-inspiring, the Old Testament come to life, a living, breathing, and in many ways, quite modern work. The adjoining St Peter’s Basilica is so gigantic that one expects to hear conductors calling out the arrivals and departures of trains. By that time though I had trouble remembering where the exit was, my speech was slurred and the shoulder looked as if I had a melon perched there.
When I awoke from the surgery, again dazed and confused, it took several moments before I began to piece together what had happened. I had simply been knocked off the platform by the crowd, and the shadow I had seen several times was just that, a trick of the light. Long dead people, even Julius Caesar, don’t get pissed off enough to enact revenge just because they are described as vicious dictators by a guide.
I’m still convinced of that, although in the future when I describe Mao Tse Tung or Stalin, I may be a bit more cautious.
Story #5 October 16, 2020
‘THE PHANTOMS OF FLORENCE’
From his cloud, Angelo gazed down at the dusky brown town. The intervening 500 years had spared many of the Medieval villas and apartments, the streets looked just as crowded and chaotic, but he wondered if the soul of the city remained. Like a puff of smoke, he floated down into Florence, the city he loved, the city of geniuses, of architects, poets and philosophers, and birthplace of the Renaissance. He had heard that his statue was in the Accademia Museum, moved from the Piazza della Signoria, and Angelo drifted through the glass cupola as if it were a sieve.
‘What are you doing here, Spawn of Pond Scum?’, Leo asked the transparent figure of Angelo. “I could ask you the same, Son of a Street Whore,’ Angelo retorted. Da Vinci had come to admire the DAVID but could not admit that to Michelangelo, who had just pinched his nose against a wretched odor. Fluttering not three feet away was the bedraggled, vermicious figure of Rola, still reeking of the fire that had burned him to death five centuries ago. ‘Well Stinky’, said da Vinci, ‘why are you here? Planning another fire and brimstone tent revival?’ ‘Shut up,Traitor for Hire,’ said Savanarola to da Vinci. The verbal blow stung because Leo had designed all sorts of military machines to sell to the highest bidder. The three floated a few inches above the marble floor of the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy, and surveyed Michelangelo’s DAVID, 15 feet of solid, perfectly chiseled white marble. Somehow this solid stone expressed perfect confidence, absolute purpose and the daring to act. It seemed alive, as if it would move any second.
“You know Angelo, this is quite good, despite the giant hands and feet,’ remarked Leo. ‘I hate to admit it, but it reflects Florence and the Renaissance very well,’ Leo continued. Michelangelo considered this unexpected compliment a moment. “Carving is easy,’ he said. “You just go down to the skin and stop.” Seething, Rola spat out, ‘It’s a piece of bourgeois trash that represents the oppression of the masses.’ He sounded like the holy roller monk he had once been, purveyor of gloom and doom who had so frightened the citizens of Florence that he had destroyed the Renaissance spirit of the city with his fiery, divisive and hate-filled speeches.
Michelangelo rounded on him. ‘Hey Rola, let’s visit the site of your greatest fame,’ and drifted outside and down the street, the other two following. Ahead of them was the dome of the Florence Cathedral. The giant orange structure by Brunelleschi was already in place when the three men were children. They hesitated a moment in front of the white, green and pink marble mosaic that festooned the facade of the cathedral, gaudy but striking, before they moved on toward the Piazza della Signoria, town center then as now.
There was a cluster of people in the middle of the square, all looking down as they listened to a guide explaining a large granite circle embedded in the paving stones with an inscription in Italian. “This is the spot where Savanarola was burned at the stake,’ the guide said, ‘after the monk declared he was mightier than God. But by that time, the great artists and philosophers of the city had fled, fearful of Savanarola’s so called bonfires of the vanities. The town was nearly destroyed by his deceptions, lies and conspiracy theories and the people finally called his bluff.’ Rola fidgeted nervously, remembering the flames as the heat flayed his skin and the smoke choked his shrieks of agony. ‘I was a saint,’ he protested, ‘I was the Great One!’ But he floated away quickly when he saw the ghost of the sharp-tongued Machiavelli approaching.
‘I see that Leaking Sewer of a Corpse Rola just left. Can’t bear that smell,’ said Machiavelli. ‘Odd little fellow, that one, but Florentines revered him once. One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.’ Clearly, his political wit had not abandoned him, even in death.
Drifting along, the three spirits marveled at how much of the old city remained, still filled with Medieval structures they remembered from 500 years ago, the crowds of people in the alleys and lanes, teaming squares, cafes jammed with students, mobbed restaurants and lively market stalls. The clothes had changed, the horses and horse shit were gone, and in their place, contraptions that were called bicycles and motorbikes, autos and trucks. But most people walked, just like when the spirits were children.
Around the corner from the Piazza, the three stared at their own stone effigies displayed in the large rectangular courtyard of the Uffizi Museum, among a collection of statues of other famous Florentines. There stood the patron of the Renaissance Lorenzo Medici, the writers Dante and Petrarch, and Amerigo Vespucci, the cartographer after whom America was named, all sons of Florence. ‘Rather nice to be remembered this way, isn’t it?,’ remarked Leo. ‘I would think your paintings in the Uffizi would be a more fitting tribute,’ said Angelo, referring to da Vinci’s The Annunciation and The Adoration of the Magi. ‘You were always a better painter than I,’ admitted Angelo. ‘And you the better sculptor,’ whispered Leo. Neither would face the other but after 500 years the truth was easier to say.
Out through the Uffizi portico, the three drifted a moment above the Arno River and spotted the Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge. ‘Now that is a welcome change,’ said Machiavelli, seeing the gold and jewelry shops lining both sides of the bridge. When the three were young, the bridge had been the site of the tanners, creating the leather that was made into shoes, coats and saddles for the wealthy, founding a craft that still made the town famous. They remembered the leather workers throwing buckets of chemicals and human waste from the tanning process into the river, so much that no one drank water from the Arno. The smell had been foul and death-like. But today the river was clean and the bridge was graceful and lovely with shops that glinted and glowed with necklaces, bracelets, and pendants festooned with diamonds and emeralds. It was a glorious transformation, they all agreed.
They flew on, down the alleys and lanes, passing the Medieval facades that hid the glossy, streamlined interiors of Prada and Cartier and elegant hotels, leaving the old town looking much as it did in 1500, although now paved and with street lamps. As it was when they were young, they noticed that the atmosphere was a bit chaotic, with the masses of people, snarky tourists, motorcycles, bicycles and delivery people all crammed into the narrow Medieval lanes bordered by even narrower sidewalks, often blocked with errantly parked bikes, little different from 500 years ago when it was a town of dirt streets and mobs of shouting vendors. The vibrancy, the excitement, the energy was still there, like electricity in the air.
On they went into the ancient Florentine neighborhoods south of the river to the Santo Spirito Church. ‘Michelangelo, you did illegal anatomy in the basement of that church,’ said Leo to Angelo, poking him in the ribs. ‘And you locked me in and called the police, Wart on a Pig’s Bottom,’ said Angelo. In the square there was a little local restaurant, the Osteria San Spirito, spilling out onto the plaza. Leo, Angelo and Machiavelli closed their eyes and inhaled deeply, as the aroma of walnut cream tortellini, gnocchi gratinati, and tagliatelle con peperoni filled the air. Bottles of deep red, rich, Sangiovese and Chianti were on every table, shimmering in every glass, and the three spirits savored the moment, regretting they were allowed to smell, but not to eat. Candlelight illuminated the vivacious faces of the diners, relaxing in smart jackets from the centuries old Florence leather markets.
‘Why do people still come here?’, wondered Leo. ‘What is the attraction of this old town?’ He and Angelo looked at Machiavelli, knowing his logical mind would already have figured this out. ‘It is because of us, gentlemen, the lure of the great past and the vibrancy of the present. Look at those diners, their glowing faces, they enjoy every aspect of Florence. Not just the DAVID and the Adoration of the Magi, but the leather markets, the jewelry shops, the walnut cream tortellini and Chianti. That’s the attraction,’ said Machiavelli. “I must run,’ he continued. ‘I have a roundtable discussion this afternoon with Attila the Hun and Socrates.’ I, too, must be off,’ said da Vinci, ‘I’ve a journey back to Paris.’ ‘Still working on the Mona Lisa?,’ Angelo inquired. ‘On and off, ‘ sighed Leo. ‘It’s hard with the crowds but I’ve made progress. Art is never finished, only abandoned,’ and he drifted off as well.
Michelangelo returned to the Accademia for a final glimpse of his DAVID. ‘The feet and hands are too big,’ he admitted to himself. ‘But I still like it.’ And with that he, too, was gone.
Article #4 October 2, 2020
THE DAYS OF WINE AND SUNSHINE
The first time I saw Volterra high above the winding vertiginous road, it looked like a storybook village created by Disney, perched on a hilltop with crenellated fortress walls and jutting turrets, damsels in distress, knights riding to the rescue, all aglow in the early evening sun.
But at that moment I didn’t give a damn about damsels, knights or fortresses, and instead cursed the 96 degree parched late August heat, relentless sun and no air conditioning in the car we had picked up at the Florence Airport, about two hours before. The AC had worked until just past the halfway point of the journey, too far to turn back, when there was a wheeze, a cough and then nothing, the previously cool dry air spilling out from the vents becoming warm, then hot, then “time to put the bread in the oven” level. We kept driving and I figured we could get the AC repaired locally. As it turned out, it was a good decision because to have missed any time in Volterra would have been a mistake.
The higher we drove, the air became cooler and clearer, until, at the top, the breeze was mild and dry. Just outside the 15th century walls was our hotel, the Villa Nencini. Our balcony overlooked the valley, undulating fields of gold, green and purple, in rectangles and rhomboids, baking under the sun. Dotted across the fields were stands of cypress, tall and slender, dark green and elegant against the blinding sun. The mid afternoon haze had just begun to settle into the valley, diffusing the light, softening the hard outlines and turning it to a watercolor.
Silvano, the hotel owner, called an auto repairman who showed up an hour late, smiling and affable. Angelo’s English was as limited as my Italian but it was easy to explain the problem. ‘Non aereo condizione’ said it all. He nodded, fiddled under the car hood, started the engine, fiddled some more, and came to me wiping his hands on an oily rag. He’d order a new condenser and have it ‘soon’. ‘What is soon’, I asked, wanting to have it done in, say, the next 10 minutes. ‘Soon is soon” he grinned. ‘Domani?’, tomorrow, I hoped? “Si!!, domani!’, and he grinned. I kept my doubts to myself.
We strolled up the hill into town under a blazing sun, a beaten copper disc in a bottle-blue glass sky, past the ubiquitous rosemary bushes the size of compact cars, the spicy and slightly pine fragrance light and fresh in the shade, past tall stands of chestnut trees right out of a Van Gogh painting, up to the closed Etruscan Museum. That was a stroke of good luck because right across the way was the Bra Bar.
The Bra Bar was like nothing any of us had ever seen. We walked into the dark cave-like space and had waited a minute for our vision to adjust to the darkness. Then it hit. Hanging from every wall were hundreds and hundreds of women’s bras in every shape, color, size and condition. They were everywhere, on the walls, the window frames, the front of the bar and down the hall. I could only imagine how many women were strolling around the town bra-less, which in itself was a pleasant idea. Lost in that thought, I almost missed the 1967 VW Beetle hanging upside down from the ceiling. It was so incongruous we just stared at it. ‘My first car.’ said the bartender, ‘I just couldn’t part with it so I decided to hang it on the ceiling.’ As a conversation piece, it was unmatched.
We sat at a table off to the side should the contraption suddenly snap its moorings and plunge to the floor, and ordered a typical Italian mixed cheese and meat tray with 4 bottles of Moretti beer, a good sturdy Tuscan ale. There were 6 different cheeses and as many meats, olives and several slabs of rough farmer’s bread. When we paid, the barkeep recommended a restaurant for the evening that specialized in ‘cingale’, wild boar, and panzanelle, strips of bread topped with tomatoes, red onions, basil, olive oil, vinegar and salt, typical Tuscan food that turned out to be so good, we ordered it several times. The ribolleta, hearty vegetable soup on top of a crusty slice of bread, made a great lunch on other days. The food everywhere was excellent and unique but the best was the wine. The local Montepulciano was like drinking liquid sunshine, rich, full bodied and as relaxing as a hammock on a fine summer’s day.
We strolled back to the town’s main square, the stone rectangle of Piazza dei Priori, with the town hall, a couple of banks and some apartments filling the tall golden limestone structures from the 13th and 14th centuries. We found an umbrella covered table at a cafe and ordered a carafe of the house wine, of course a Montepulciano. Like easing into a pleasant dream, the real charm of Volterra began to drift over us. The heat of the day, the auto problems, the jet lag, started to fade.
The appeal of the nearly tourist-free town is not just the rich 2500 years of history. It is the ambience, the pace of life, that is so enjoyable. No Walmarts, Applbees, Citibanks or Macy’s, but instead, tiny shops scattered up and down the alleys and lanes, places to bring your own jug to fill with wine or olive oil; gelato, chocolate, olive wood, yarn and woolen wear shops; bakeries, fisheries and meat markets, and above all, alabaster, milled into lamps and bowls and chess sets. Life is spent in coffee houses and wine cafes, meeting friends for lunch or after work, calling out to neighbors from upstairs windows across freshly hung laundry. There is a pervasive calm across the town, as if someone put a bit of propofol in the Montepulciano.
A while later, I recognized Angelo, the auto repair guy, coming toward us across the square. How he found us I haven’t any idea. “Non domani”, not tomorrow, he said. ‘Piu tardi. Mi dispiace’, a little later, I’m sorry, and he put up his hands in a ‘can’t do anything about it’ gesture. Three hours earlier I would have done my ‘I’m mad as hell and I demand fast action’ dance. But the storybook town had already taken effect. We invited him to sit and share our wine and decided we’d just take the bus for a few days. Thus began the love affair with Volterra.
Article #3 September 18, 2020
DON’T DRINK THE WATER
Over a thousand years old, the monuments wear the moss of the faded glory of an empire, the tangled web of warren-like alleys link the mosaic of piazzas, a whiff of enchanted decadence drifts with the breeze, and the dark and twisted history of the town lurks around each corner. Mystery and death intermingle with intrigue and treachery, the companions of great wealth and power.
Today there are still no cars, no sounds of traffic, no hissing or squealing of tires, no exhaust, no traffic signals and walk/don’t walk signs, just endless narrow canals separating little islands of calm and tranquility. The sidewalks are lined with shops, cafes and boutiques, with restaurants spilling out into the squares, bustling waiters in starched white shirts under formal black jackets.
There is only one Venice, Italy. In the late afternoon when the throng of the “3 hour tourists’ scatter like the pigeons (yes, during midday it is best to explore the Castello or Dorsoduro neighborhoods and stay away from the central square) it is wondrous to visit St Mark’s Cathedral, the 10th century hodgepodge of architectural styles that Rick Steves calls “early ransack.” He’s right, but it is still a magnificent mix of Christian, Muslim, Arabic, Byzantine and You-Must-Have-Found-This-In-Your-Grandmother’s-House styles. At night with only the moon overhead and a few ornately delicate gaslight lamps to illuminate the facade, it seems to float above the square. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see the walls and columns are at crazy angles, shifting and leaning ever more as the wood pilings on which most of the city is built, shift and erode. The cathedral occupies one side of the huge rectangular St Mark’s Square, which is surrounded on the other three sides by elegant white marble Renaissance buildings, festooned with tiny twinkling lights along the even rows of windows. The history is epic, the sea food world renowned and the gondola rides enchanting, (at least once but don’t expect the gondoliers to sing for free).
No, the town isn’t really sinking much, but yes there is ever more flooding because with climate change comes higher sea levels. Hence, Venice is prone to have ever more high water days. Usually ‘high water’ means something like ankle deep, flowing in from the Adriatic Sea for a few hours and then out again. If you were so inclined, you could look at that as an efficient way to keep the streets clean, and indeed, they are unbelievably clean.
Sometimes though, Mother Nature conspires to have the tides coincide with the wind direction which causes high water, but the Venetians have a better and far more colorful myth. The sea sweeps into the town when Mama Giacometti’s pasta turns out badly. If it’s a good batch, you’re safe. If it sticks together and is pasty, she rants throughout the apartment building yelling and pounding her feet, causing the wood pilings beneath to vibrate and the sea to flow into town. At least it seems that way to me, much more random than the meteorologists would have you believe. I’ve met Mama Giacometti and believe me, she could cause this.
In the past, the flooding occurred rarely and only in winter so, having only been in the other seasons, I’d never experienced this adventure. That was about to change one beautiful summer day. I had a wonderful group of sturdy, adventurous folk, a terrific family among them, and we had enjoyed sunny, mild June weather for our time in Venice when on our final afternoon, I heard a steady, low siren drift across the town. I didn’t think much about it but noticed the shopkeepers begin to install barriers at their front doors low enough to step over but a good foot in height and very tight fitting. After the second siren call, I stepped into a cafe and asked in my broken Italian what was happening. The woman looked at me as if I were an addle-headed fool. FLOOD!, she pronounced! I glanced at the dry pavement outside and she said with exasperation, ‘Non adesso, piu tardi! Not now, later!’ Relieved I interpreted later as ‘late that night’ and the group and I walked to our dinner restaurant, avoiding the few damp patches, and dismissed the reactions as exaggerations
After dinner, we stepped onto dry pavement and began to walk back to the hotel, talking about the great meal and how lucky we were to have avoided the problem. Then we turned a corner and saw the sheen of water covering the sidewalk. Even as we stood there staring, we could see the water snake its way toward us, mirroring the shops’ bright lights and displays, filling the lane from side to side. I turned a corner abruptly and took another route but that too was blocked. Then another and another until I realized that we were on an island and that every route back was covered with water.
Since it seemed only a few inches deep, we took off our sandals, rolled up our pants and walked through it but the closer we got to our hotel, the deeper it became. By the time we reached St Mark’s Square, the water was thigh high and swirling. We darted down a side alley where it was shallower, passed diners sitting at tables with their feet in 5 inches of liquid and noticed they were being served by waiters in shorts. Why interrupt dinner for a bit of extra water? The whole scene was out of Bizarro-Land. We all laughed at the wine sipping diners who toasted us as we slogged past.
By midnight, all of the water had drained away more quickly than it had come, the squares and lanes now drying and swept clean. I went out for a quick stroll past St Mark’s. The Square was empty, the moon high, and the tantalizing sense of mystery and intrigue settled once again over the town, the whiff of decadence returning. Venice, as Babylon and Nineveh, will eventually disappear because nothing lasts, but for that moment, it was mine to enjoy.
Article #2 September 4, 2020
MADAM & THE METRO
When people are asked to conjure up a vision of London, they usually select all of the well known icons that most of the world easily recognizes, even in silhouette. The first is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s impressive, no question there, and has come to represent the city well. The glowing circle of the clock can be seen all up and down the River Thames and the tolling of the bell heard for miles. It’s wonderful. Then there is the inspiring dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the historic Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. All worth seeing for various reasons, at least once in your life. Others that are hawked to tourists like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Dungeon are just dreadful, as boring as a collection of past- their-prime stuffed animals. Ever been to a Madame Tussaud’s? It’s as if you died and went to Hell, that being the worst cocktail party of your life where no one spoke to you, everyone was stiff and lifeless, the beer was flat and the food tasted like wax.
None of the above is my favorite London icon because after a couple of viewings, all of them get a bit stale. The Crown Jewels don’t glitter any brighter, St Paul’s dome looks the same after 350 years, the Abbey hasn’t had a recent wedding or funeral, and Big Ben tolls now as it did when Victoria was queen. They are great in their own ways but I now prefer something not so static, something that is changeable and vibrant. My favorite London icon is the London Tube, or subway.
Yes, you read that right, my favorite is the Tube. It is rich with history but changes day to day, in fact, minute to minute. It is the embodiment of the modern era as well as a bridge to London’s Victorian past. It is the soul, the heart and blood, of a living, breathing city, not some ‘made for tourists’ attraction.
The Tube, so named because the tunnels are circular, is the great melting pot of the city. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns ride with beggers and street people, tourists with locals, doctors and lawyers with shopkeepers and street cleaners. The wonder of it all is often how courteous people in this big mix are to one another. It is simply expected that riding the escalator to or from the subway, if you want to stay put, you move to the right and let everyone who wants to move past you do so on your left. If there is a space between the train and the platform, a kind voice reminds you to “Mind the Gap”, a phrase that has also become iconic. Riders routinely stand to give up their seats to pregnant women and the elderly. It’s quite remarkable.
Every day there’s a new adventure. Once I glanced down an impossibly long escalator and saw at least 30 pandas on their way to the Jubilee subway line. In a stunt to publicize the new panda exhibit at the London Zoo, a few dozen employees dressed up as pandas and rode the subway for much of the day. Another time a sign posted by the city advised that there had been ghost sightings recently and that since they were riding without tickets, other travelers were to report them to authorities immediately. Then there was the large group of pranksters dressed as Antarctic puffins who handed out shaved ice on a particularly hot day (they must have roasted in those costumes.) And none of my friends can forget the time a bunch of us on the Piccadilly Line sang ‘Love Potion Number 9’, as loud as we were flat, and we were very loud. But my favorite was when an older well-dressed gentleman boarded the car at Victoria Station with a small bistro table and chair, set them up at one end of the car, poured himself a glass of wine, sat down and read a novel. The other riders, having become completely used to strange behavior, hardly gave him a glance.
Even the station names are synonymous with something exciting. Piccadilly Station in the vibrant theater district; Trafalgar Square for the National Gallery of Art; and Covent Garden for the famed market and restaurants. Many have been enshrined in literature and film such as Charing Cross and Baker Street, woven into English language culture like infinite threads.
Others can drag themselves through Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but give me the Tube any day for new excitement and wonder.
Article #1. AUGUST 21, 2020
Life, Death and Progress in the Era of Pandemic 1348-2020
Imagine if you will, just for a moment, that you live in the small English countryside village of Kingchester. You are a prosperous wool merchant with a family and life is good. You regularly go to the market in Shiring, a larger town a half day’s ride distant, to sell your wool and bring back grain. The year is 1348, King Edward III is on the throne and all is well.
One market day in Shiring you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home with bags of grain you traded for your wool. The grain has some live rodents in it but that’s normal and you share the grain with your large family. Soon after however, members of your family begin to sicken with high fevers and develop huge black blotches on their skin. You need to go back to Shiring to sell more wool but Old Lady Maude, who brews potions for sore throats and sets broken bones, warns you against returning. Although she has always given good advice, you now think she’s daft because you want to sell more wool, you have always traveled and you have always done exactly what you wanted.
This time the grain you return with has both live and dead rodents in it and even more people are sick and dying of what they call the Black Plague. You argue that the business must continue or everyone will starve but you look around and see that there are less and less to starve since so many have already died. The villagers begin to perish by the dozens and you know that Maude was right. One morning you awake with a high fever and notice the ominous black blotches and realize that you are next.
It’s late January 2020. You are a prosperous computer chip entrepreneur in Seattle and make frequent visits to the tech centers in China, including to a city named Wuhan. You sell your products and purchase semi conductors which you bring back to the US. The economy is good and all is well.
One day in Wuhan you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home. Some health experts begin to issue dire warnings of the fast spreading virus that can sicken and kill in as little as 4 or 5 days. Heedless you return to Wuhan, ignoring the concerns of the doctors and nurses.
You enter a city that is locked down, scores of neighborhoods that people are not allowed in or out of, dead bodies left in the street for pick up, overwhelming crematoriums and funeral parlors. Everyone must wear a mask and stay 2 meters from each other. You are in the middle of a pandemic and if you don’t leave immediately, you will not be allowed back in the US. You hastily return but you are now burning with fever and doubled over with wracking coughs. Your final thought is the question, ‘what are they putting down my throat’.
“We suffer into knowledge,” the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus wrote. Apparently, sometimes we simply suffer and reject the knowledge we should gain. 700 years separates us from that pandemic, yet despite our supposed progress, we seem still to self victimize as they did. There were conspiracies and massive misinformation in the 1300s exactly as today. It makes one wonder how much knowledge we have gained and how much progress we have made.