Come on baby, do the loco-motion with me

You know what’s great about Europe? Trains. Trains everywhere. Slow trains. Fast trains. Red trains. Blue trains. Twenty-seven smelly, old, car trains. Trains to Paris. Trains to Milan. Train rides next to old man John.

Stop! But you gotta know the territory.

Florence is north of Rome. Let’s go to Florence. We need to buy a ticket. We buy tickets at the station. If you’re brave (or dumb as a rock) you can try buying tickets at the window which are run by people who hate their jobs and get paid the same regardless of whether or not they help anyone. But you must be there between the hours of 0927-1053, 1127-1346, 1555-1556, 1643-1801 on most weekdays except Tuesday and Friday, religious holidays, federal holidays, undeclared holidays, transportation strikes, when the powers off, and when people forget to go to work. Good luck.


You can use the automated machines, which are 100% reliable 68% of the time. After pecking away at the abysmal touch screen, you are confronted with a myriad of poorly formatted choices. Blindly you choose one. “Warning! : The train you have selected is a train!!” I’m sure that makes more sense in the original Italian version. You dismiss the warning while simultaneously fending off the station’s designated homeless man’s arrant “helpfulness”. Basta! Basta! Basta! Finally, all is sorted out and it’s time to pay. Congratulations! Your stupid face managed to pick the one machine that only takes cash and you only have 10 Monopoly monies with you. Chance: Go back three spaces and start over at a better machine this time.

Regardless of where you are going in Italy it seems like you are going to pass through the madness at Roma Termini at some point, even if it is out of the way. Just think of Steve Miller. “You know you’ve got to go through hell before you get to heaven.” I highly recommend pulling up some Steve Miller, or anything that can be piped through headphones at high volume, while you trundle along the countryside on the Frecciarosa, Frecciabianco, Frecciagento, or Freccia-holy-cow-this-was-an-expensive-ticket. You are guaranteed to sit in a group of four seats of which yours is the only one not belonging to the Minicucci family and their three screaming kids all in desperate need of a diaper change the instant the train rolls away from the platform.

Fear ye not. When this baby hits 180 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious scenery. Before you know it, or manage to cram down that over priced tremezzino sandwich from the dining car, you’ll be in Florence wading through a sea of umbrella salesmen.

Italian life and culture: Opera

Monteverdi, Cavalli, Piccinni, Paisiello, Verdi… with so many Italian opera heavyweights, and as an opera fan myself, I knew I would have to see one at least one during my stay in Rome, but thought nothing of it for a while. However, by chance, I was eating lunch and noticed a flyer advertising a small Werner Herzog film retrospective, and took it (of course, I’m a big Herzog fan as well). The server noticed and said to me, “if you like Herzog, and opera, he will be here: he is directing an opera.” And so then I knew I had to make plans sharpish. Trucking down to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma I found that he was directing a staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s I Due Foscari, and would have bought tickets then except they were closed. I was so excited at the chance to see one of my film heroes direct a performance of one of my favorite  art forms.

Of course, by the time I was able to get down to buy tickets, they were sold out. So I made arrangements to go to Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns instead. I had seen it before on video, but this would be my first live opera. Despite not getting to see Herzog’s I Due Foscari, I was excited: Saint-Saëns is a composer I admire greatly, and Samson et Dalila is nothing if not dramatic.

The drama of the night actually started when my date and I left a little too late to get to the theater with a comfortable margin of time. There is a bus by our apartment that takes us very near the theater, so we stood at that stop in what we quickly decided was a futile attempt. Panicked, we rushed up to the tram that goes from our neighborhood to Largo Argentina. There is construction related to a new tram line, so much is cordoned off and bottlenecks abound, forcing us to Bogart our way upstream to the bus stop. The bus came and went without us, as we noticed how many people it was carrying and decided that after doing our best salmon impressions we didn’t want to also pretend to be sardines. We did what was previously unthinkable. We hailed a cab.

It was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had in a car. We got across Rome in two minutes.Upon entry, we made our way up to the nosebleeds, and took our seats. We envied those sitting further forward than we, and noted that there were some empty seats in the front row. As soon as the lights dimmed, before any coherent thought could go through our minds such as “we should go sit in them things up there”, a horde of Romans leaped over the backs of seats to occupy those spaces. We shrugged our shoulders, resigned to our fate in the back.The show itself was really neat; the costumes were really contemporary (the Philistines’ costumes had an especially cool cyberpunk theme involving spring stilts, hockey masks, and QR codes) and they made great use of a projector. Despite being epic in length (three hours, give or take), it went by quickly. The main, mezzo-soprano aria “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” was done well and moving when Samson joined in for the duet portion, and the bacchanale in the final act was surprisingly physical and involved. It was definitely a wonderful live performance to have as my first live opera, and a great memory from Rome.

Italian life and culture: il Giardino di Ninfa

If there’s one thing that can be said about Italians (and there are at least five), it’s that they design everything. “Made in Italy” is a phrase that indicates quality workmanship, ergonomics, attention to detail, premium materials, etc. So, it’s no surprise that a visit to the gardens of Ninfa showcased Italian design applied to green space.

First, some background: Ninfa was a medieval town that was deserted in the 16th century due to outbreaks of malaria, and revitalized in the early 20th century by using the ruins as a backdrop for the park. It is now something of an oasis, being host to over a hundred bird species as well as a diverse array of flora – including many varieties of my favorites, magnolia and Japanese maple.

To get to Ninfa from Rome is something of a task, especially without a car. There is a train from Rome to Latina, and then there are taxis to convey you the ~€15 distance to the gardens themselves. Latina lies along the Appian Way, and is a doable 68 kilometers for the dedicated cyclist, but for the rest of us it is more cost-effective to make sure to get a regional train from Rome (€4/person compared to the €9-11 high-speed ticket on the line to Naples) and go with some friends to split the cab fare. Also, a good camera, your favorite macro and wide-angle lenses, and a fresh battery are necessities.

Latina Scalo, the train station, is best described as “charming” – a cute design from the ’30s, two tracks, a taxi stand, and a bus stop outside are what welcomed us to Latina. The station is actually nine kilometers from the city center, so there isn’t much. The station has a bit of a Wild West vibe, actually: the dingy attached bar was filled with flies and rough-looking men playing video slots, while the taxi drivers smiled in a way that says “finally, easy marks” in any culture. So of course, we took a taxi. The ride to Ninfa was uneventful and pleasant, and the fare wasn’t too inflated. Entrance to the gardens cost €10 each to pay for a guide, and we entered.

The gardens are laid out amongst the ruins of the town, and various buildings are still recognizable as the town hall, castle, etc., making it one of the most hospitable post-apocalyptic landscapes I’ve seen, in fiction or in real life. There is water and green everywhere; one of our fellow tourists remarked that it was “like Alice in Wonderland”, which is either extremely accurate or not at all, depending on how you view Wonderland. Also, the microclimate surrounding Ninfa is really something spectacular, with a certain spot – the warmest and the only area that needs regular watering – even able to grow mild tropical plants such as avocado and banana.

At the end of the tour is an additional €2 fee to gain access to the hortus conclusus – walled garden – which in contrast to the main gardens is an Italian formal garden which, while not as horticulturally impressive as the main garden, is an excellent end to the tour, where we were left alone to stay as long as we wanted amongst the box hedges and grapefruit trees.


I had just removed myself from an incident involving the police and an umbrella salesman when an old and familiar sensation wracked my body. I was hungry. And none of that “Hey, let’s eat because you’re bored” nonsense. Ho, ho, no sir bubba. This was a true, raw, animalistic feeling.

I need a sandwich.

Repressed, instinctive actions kick in and I’m on the prowl. One minute you’re a civilized member of society and the next you’re some crazed animal drooling at the mouth, nose pressed to the ground, hunting for any scrap of nourishment. This is what life in the big city looks like.

As I comb the cobbled streets I encounter an obstacle in my path. What could this be? Ye gads! It makes noise. It moves. It seems familiar, yet I know it not. It’s another animal, a human. My eyes peer upon him, distrustfully, as he makes a multitude of gestures and throaty noises. Suddenly he latches on to me. He’s dragging me to his lair. Every fiber of my being wants to snap at him and run.

Wait. What’s that smell?

Food. And it’s getting stronger. This crazed mustachioed person is pulling me toward food. My animalism lessens suddenly. I am pushed down into a chair. Another man wearing an apron that might as well be a dress, begins arranging a multitude of things on the table before me. Suddenly a hateful looking female drops a generous load of pane in front of me. I eye her cautiously as I stealthily slip a piece of warm, fluffy goodness from its berth. This woman could be trouble later. Fine now, but a threat nonetheless.

Shut up, you fool! Eat.

A book, filled with what might as well be hieroglyphs, is put in my hands. The man with the mustache waits with his beady eyes staring at me, for what I do not know. Wait. I’m supposed to say what I want from this volume of things which I cannot read. Uh. Uh. Uhhhhh.

Suddenly the moustache wiggles and says, “Vuoi un panino con prosciutto e pomodoro?”

Well when you say it like that, sure. I’ll have one of them things with them pompadours or whatever.

“Si, e una bottiglia d’acqua, per favore.”

“Frizzante o naturale?”


As he leaves, I begin to contemplate what place sparkling mineral water holds in this world. Surely its somewhere between that ring of white stuff boiling water leaves in a pot and the last bit of soap that won’t drain out of the shower. Perhaps I should bottle well water from out of the ground in Sulphur, Oklahoma and slap a label on the bottles heralding its foul taste as “Mineral Water – Fresh from the source.” Then I can pump CO2 into it and the world will finally know what static tastes like.

I’m disturbed from my musings by a series of clunks in front of me. The man in the apron-dress has returned, this time with food. His dress is of no concern now. There’s eating to be done.

A thought crosses my mind in between sounds of my teeth breaking the crusty bread and squishing tomato slices. This is a darn good sandwich. Not five minutes ago I was contemplating eating my own hand and now I’m devouring a fantastic sandwich, prepared by strangers in a foreign land. And to think, I nearly missed the opportunity. My, my, this gets better with each bite. Aaaannnd, it’s gone. Well nothing left to do here but leave.

“Scusa. Il conto, per favore.”

A small sliver of paper is brought to me. What does it say? €8,50 for a sandwich! €2,00 for water! What’s this? €1,50 for bread. This is an outrage. This is highway robbery. This aggression won’t stand.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have eaten lunch so close to a major monument.

I leave the funny coins and monopoly money on the table and make for the door. The sun strikes at my eyes before I can slide the borrowed aviators onto the bridge of my nose. I’m nourished, refreshed and peeved. It’s time to wade through the teeming masses of humanity. It’s time to cause trouble.

Italian life and culture: bistecca

For the past three and a half days I (meaning we, meaning us so-called “Sooners in Rome”) have been in Florence, experiencing la dolce vita in a leisurely way befitting the smaller size of the city. Just kidding, the sweet life was lost in a haze of sketching. Upon arrival in Florence at 9 AM, the hostel disallowed checking in until 2 PM, so of course there was nothing to do but sketch. The meetup times over the next two days had us sketching, and on Sunday before we left – why, what else but sketch? So much collective ink and graphite was used over the trip that, were it to be force-fed to a student via gavage, it would produce the most succulent of sketch-themed foie gras. A delicacy, to be sure! Maybe even its own dish: fegato grasso alla fiorentina.

Speaking of ____ alla fiorentina, the bistecca adventure. The setting: Osteria Santo Spirito, on recommendation of Dr. Pilat. The meal: bistecca alla fiorentina, a steak rumored to rival those of legendary (if perhaps ignobly) Amarillo attraction The Big Texan Steak Ranch. A fellow student and I (name withheld to protect the guilty) felt that when in Florence, do as the ridiculous tourists who want huge steaks, right?

We arrive. We sit. We scan the menu: €35,00 for this behemoth. We are brought bread: it is good. There is an olive tapenade: it makes the already-good bread better. Fun fact: although tapenade is a French word, the oldest tapenade recipe is found in de Re Rustica, Lucius Columella’s twelve-volume opus published in the first century CE, some thousand or so years before the appearance of anything resembling a discrete French. We banter. We are excited. French is a time of saying one syllable and whizzing through nine letters, so we read the menu aloud and enjoy Italian phonetics. Steak is ordered, and we are informed that it is a kilogram. Bring it on, we say. Challenge accepted. Never trust an American bearing hunger, particularly if their meat intake has been drastically reduced since arriving in Italy. Steak is coming. Steak arrives. It was 1.2 kilos, the waitress apologizes. Pfft, we say. Kid stuff, we say. Only 42.3 ounces – not even 60% of the 72 ounce Big Texan T-bone, ripped from a frozen wooly mammoth they keep in the back. Cut, tear, salt, put on plate. Chew, swallow. Easy. Cut, rotate, put on plate. Place in mouth, chew, swallow. For us, consuming all the steak is an all-consuming goal. We finish, and we are not sated. Our dormant stomachs, growing used to Italian portions, have been awakened by this challenge and they yearn for more sacrifice. Gnocchi is considered, agreed upon, and handily dispatched. Il conto, per favore, we ask smugly. We know this. We are highly able to enter and leave a restaurant without any rude awakening, gosh why does the check say €42,00 for the steak this is not correct at all and we demand an explanation.

The restaurant prices bistecca alla fiorentina based on weight. If only it said that on the menu. If only this was made clear by our waitress. Lesson learned for next time, we grumbled, and paid up. After all, it was still worth it – even at that price.

One little letter

My name is Grant Newby. You may call me what you like. I tried to mail a letter. Just one little letter. I wrote it. I signed it. I folded it. I sealed it. I addressed it.
Shoot! I need a stamp!
The post office is where I need to go. They take care of my letters when I let them go. They sell me stamps, or at least they do at home. Home. Where is home? It’s far away. In a place called America. I live in the middle, in Oklahoma. No, I do not ride horses. Or sleep in tepees. No, there are no hills full of people named “Billie”.
I’m outside the Poste italiane. I use deductive reasoning to decide that this place is the post office. I’m glad I can read and understand, because there is an ATM next to the entrance.  An ATM at the post office? I guess it’s convenient when you need to buy a ton of stamps and forget your cash monies.
It smells loathsome in here. This has to be the post office. Only the post office and the DMV smell like anguish. But why so many people? Young people with many pieces of paper. Old people with little booklets in hand. Middle aged people with briefcases full of papers. No one has a letter. Everyone is standing around. There are a dozen windows. One is open. I put on a cheerful face and decide to ask Adreanna to mail my letter. It’s to my girlfriend.
I immediately regret this decision.
I run away in a hail of hateful sounding words. Un turista fastidioso! My pride is hurt. I am embarrassed. All of Rome is staring. Old women are shaking their heads at me and pointing their fingers. They aren’t pointing at me. What could it be? A little yellow machine. It has buttons. I like buttons. Buttons make things happen. I think I’ll push a button. There’s one with an envelope. I have an envelope! It says servizi postali. Hey, that’s Postal Service.  They’re an ok band. “Such Great Heights” was their one big hit, from a while ago.
I push the button. It throws a slip at me. P097 This is what my life has been reduced to. I am a number.
I hear a loud beep. Lights flash. There are other numbers on a board on the wall. Wait, there is some sense of organization going on here. This isn’t Italy. Italians don’t get organized.
BEEP! P094
That’s close to my number!
BEEP! P095
BEEP! P096
Boy, this is going fast. Maybe I’m not really ready. Maybe I should think this through a little more. I’m still young. I have a lot of life left to live! AAAAHHHH!!!!
BEEP! P097
I am thrust forth by my own stupid will. Uncertain of what lies ahead. It can’t be pleasant. Nothing in this dingy place is pleasant. I’m at Adreanna’s window again. Her dark eyes stare into my soul. I’m suddenly flustered as I remember I need to speak Italian. I don’t speak Italian. Claudia hasn’t taught me what to do at the post office. Un pezzo di pizza con prosciutto, per favore. NO! You dingbat! You want to mail a letter to your girlfriend. You miss her pretty hair, you said so. The act of sliding the envelope under the glass signifies not only my helplessness but also my defeat and surrender. Adreanna pecks away at her keyboard with a smirk. I need to pay €0,85. The strange brass coins clink as they hit the counter. I can’t even look up. I just miss my girlfriend. I just wanted to tell her. She puts a stamp on my letter with a bureaucratic slap and tosses it in the bin.
“Buongiorno.”  I mutter as I turn toward the door.
Well, I mailed my letter. Just one little letter. Now my girlfriend will know how much I miss her, when she gets my one little letter, in three weeks’ time.

Italian life and culture: caffè

My name is Michael Dean.

I’m working on an assignment for class with my pal Grant. We have to document Italian life and culture. I am not Italian. He is not Italian. We are in Italy, but do not belong here.

My name is Michael Dean. I have a headache. Coffee. Caffè latte. Cappuccino. Caffè macchiato. The words roll off of my tongue as I practice ordering. Buongiorno, vorrei un caffèccino. I messed up. The woman looks at me like I have three heads. For all I know, I do. Grant isn’t with me. He could save this; he’d say something funny and we’d all laugh. Mi dispiace; vorrei un cappuccino. I hand over €1,30. In Italy they use commas as decimal points. While I’m patting myself on the back over this knowledge the lady scowls and gives me back the €0,20 coin I overpaid.

My name is Michael Dean. I have to keep it in my head so I don’t lose myself. Mi chiamo Michael Dean. The headache never went away. Grant still isn’t here. I don’t know why he would be; I never asked him to come. On the TV there’s a commercial for CRYSTAL PARTY. It’s mesmerizing. It’s from the early 90s, it has to be. CRYSTAL PARTY wants me to buy things from it. CRYSTAL PARTY is so self-consciously cheesy I can’t tear my eyes away. CRYSTAL PARTY is my entire world for the next twenty seconds.

My name is Michael Dean. I’m being jostled by Italians. Why do Italians like to jostle? I’m in their way, obviously. Scusi. Permesso. I’m taking up valuable space at the coffee bar. Cafffè Camerino: il caffè con tre “effe”. I struggle to figure out what this means. Why is there an extra F? It’s making my headache worse. CRYSTAL PARTY isn’t helping, at all. It’s the third time I’ve seen the commercial. I am so confused. I do not speak Italian. I pat my shoulders to reassure myself I have only one head. The barista looks at me even more strangely than the lady at the register did.

My name is Kool Moe Dee. I am so kool. I have achieved this level of kool by jostling, and by speaking Italian. I am Italian. Il conto, per favore. Buonasera. I can sling travel-guide phrases with the best of them. I do it with confidence. Wherever Grant is, surely he is also Italian. We are jostling together, in spirit. The embarrassing €0,20 comes in handy because I want another coffee. I don’t mess up this time. Vorrei un cappuccino. Perfetto. Va bene. Bravissimo. CRYSTAL PARTY shows up again. I dismiss it. CRYSTAL PARTY is banishèd forthwith. I jostle my way back to the bar. The barista nods approvingly. The cappuccino is delicious, better than the first one.

My name is Michael Dean. I am in Italy. I can buy coffee. My headache is even gone.