Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
"Did you know Elmo was black?" my mother asks, in Rome, at the Villa Borghese, where we are about to rent a little motorized bike for two that is roughly the same size as a golf cart.
I try to think whether we know anyone named Elmo and why, if I did know someone named Elmo, I wouldn't have noticed that this person was black.
"The puppet!" my mother cries, seeing I don't understand.
I blink. "Elmo the puppet is red, mom," I say.
"I know that," she replies. "I'm talking inside. Inside Elmo."
"Inside Elmo is FELT," I say. "And frankly, inside every puppet, it's probably black."
My mother starts waving her hands at me. "I mean the hand that created Elmo," she says, and proceeds to tell me about a recent documentary she watched, The Hand That Created Elmo being the title I guess, in which a young, poor, African American kid from a pretty lousy neighborhood somewhere back East ("I think it was Pittsburgh?") develops an obsession with puppets he learns pretty quickly to keep quiet on the high school playground. The kid gets a great internship to work with some local tv channel, however, meets someone who knew Jim Henson, and the rest is history.
"Isn't that just an amazing story?" my mother says. "I mean, who knew Elmo was black?"
"Not even Elmo, I suspect," I tell her.
We are standing in a little patch of sun, enjoying our first few days of non-rain in basically a week. It's gorgeous at the park, all these villas and fountains and nicely manicured patches of garden, even a zoo that I can't convince my mother to go see.
"Too many children," she says, watching hordes of little Roman children trailing after their daycare providers, screaming and kicking at each other as they clutch their class rope. I find it amusing that my mother doesn't seem to like hanging out with children, considering she spent most of her life as a school educator and that now she collects Tickle-Me Elmo toys (she has three) for her home. Frankly, I should have known she was talking about the puppet. I suppose I just forgot, based on our surroundings--you know, the fact that we're in ROME.
And also, frankly, it's because my mother's conversation these 8 days together has been a lot like this: sudden assertions of personal or cultural facts, half-explained, always baffling, that appear mid-sentence or even mid-conversation stream. My mom has always had a tendency for this. Most of my life has been waiting for my mother to finish one or more of her jokes, which always seem to dead end just at the punch-line ("So the penguin says, and this is so funny you are going to DIE. I did when the janitor at school told me. The penguin SAID, 'Well, don't do it then!' No, that's not what the penguin said. It was much funnier than that, and actually I think the penguin really WANTED to do it, because the penguin was being, what is the word? Not licentious, but worse. Slutty? The penguin was slutty? Anyway, I forget, but it was SOOOO funny!") or waiting for her to actually finish her sentences at all. ("Tom, Pais? Could one of you go get me that.....?" "YES?" we'll prod. "Thing!" she'll shout back. "The THING!")
When I was in high school, to jolt her back to syntactic life, I'd shout random words to help jog her memory.
"We need to defrost the..." my mother would stall, and I'd yell, "GONADS!"
"The lasagna!" my mother would snap back, synapses refiring. "The lasagna, dammit!"
Now, however, my mother seems a little worried about this memory loss. It seems to be getting worse, she tells me. It seems like things are getting fuzzier more often. "I'm worried I have..." she begins, and her eyes cloud over. "SYPHILIS?" I scream, and a pair of Roman old ladies look over at me.
In reality, I don't think my mother needs to worry about Altzheimer's, or at least I hope she doesn't. She has, as I've said before, always been like this. The thing that scares me is the return of her cancer, and though her latest scans are still clear, the seriousness of her cancer before, the fact that she has more and more health problems to worry about (including the heart and cholesterol stuff; one whole day in Paris was devoted to getting her new medications after the NY TSA LOST HER MEDICATIONS AFTER THEY TOOK THEM OUT OF HER BAG), occasionally startles me into remembering that my mother is in fact 70 years old, and what's happening to her now might be the distant, but real, call of doom.
It's hard to remember this, because my mother is still extremely active, still spry and running around and doing all sorts of fun stuff with her life. Including renting a little motorized golf cart/bike with me.
"This is how you do it," the woman renting the carts tells us. "Both pedal but one steer only, one sit and watch. You peddle hard, the motor start, the cart go fast. You stop, pull this hand brake. Easy."
My mother nods, gets into the passenger seat and tells me I'm in charge. "I like that only one person is in control of this," she tells me. This, in itself, I realize again, is a real difference in her. Ten years ago, my mother would never have let anyone else be in charge.
Off we go. We pedal, grunting with the effort of trying to move a miniature golf cart from standstill position up and over a speed bump. The cart moves, we pedal faster, the engine catches.
And then the cart starts to zoom into the parking lot.
"Straight! Straight! OH! Car! STRAIGHT!" my mother yelps.
"I'm going straight! Fuck it! The brakes!" I yell, backpedaling, which is NOT what works in the miniature cart.
"Stop swearing! we are in a CATHOLIC COUNTRY. And you are going to HIT THE ZOO!"
It's true. The cart is now careening straight for a wall of the zoo. I crank on the handbrake, but we're going downhill, so the brakes give a repetitive, puling whine before shuddering the cart to something resembling slower. Two large poles suddenly loom up, evidently put there for people just like us, to stop the golf cart traffic that's gotten out of control. My mother and I give two cartoonish shrieks, like smurfs in peril, as we narrowly pass between the two poles.
My mother and I collapse laughing. "Now," my mother gasps, wiping her eyes, "we have to turn this thing around and go back!"
It turns out that you can't turn this golf cart around easily. It's too wide for the lane, and it's hard to get up the speed on any kind of incline or at a standstill. So my 70 year-old mother gets out to push the cart while I peddle, straining and grunting and cranking the wheel. Then the engine catches, my mother jumps in, and off we go again.
Until the next hill.
At some point during our ride, our engine dies, or just gets too tired of listening to us and quits. It quits just as we are on the crest of a really big hill, and just as the park's miniature tourist train is, we note with horror, coming straight at us.
The little train horn lets loose a menacing tinkle. "Oh no," my mother says, and starts to laugh, "the Italians are coming to kill us!"
The train is, in fact, veering right towards us, and though my mother and I are giving it our all, we CANNOT get the cart engine to catch. The train, going roughly 2 miles an hour, is now looming. We are going 1.6 miles an hour. It is the world's slowest, most agonizing head-on collision.
"Get out!" I yell at my mother. "Get out and push us to the side! I'll keep peddling!" My mother, weeping now with laughter, is out of the cart, heaving and pushing at it while I keep peddling and swearing. Families pass, grinning. Old men with canes hobble past. We are going nowhere.
"Push, old woman, PUSH!" I yell, but my mother is now too weak with laughter. The train is now almost right on top of us. Tourists are leaning out of it, staring at the road blockage that is us, some of them taking pictures--probably for the insurance. The train conductor is yelling something in Italian, probably, "This thing has shit brakes too! MOVE!" but I can't tell. My mother is grunting and shoving the cart with all her might, and I'm practically standing on the cart's pedals. The train horn gives another menacing tinkle and my mother and I look up at the conductor in terror.
At times like this, I like to imagine what the other Amy Lowell fellow is doing. Spenser Reese, I hear, is studying to be a priest. He's probably in some third world nation right now, mopping at the fevered brow of some faithful follower dying in his arms of a wasting disease. Meanwhile, I'm in a Roman park, screaming at my 70 year-old mother to "PUSH THE SHIT OUT OF THIS CART!" before we both get run down by a miniature train.
It's hard to imagine many worthwhile poems will be coming out of this.
Anyway, at just the moment of crisis--when all is nearly lost and we will be, if not killed, at least REALLY REALLY BRUISED AND EMBARRASSED--the engine catches, the cart leaps forward and to the left, and we miss the train.
But I also leave behind my mother. Because she's now a few feet behind, begging me to stop. "I can't stop!" I yell. "It'll never start again. Run and jump in!"
Which, amazingly, she sort of does. Which is when we hear another menacing tinkle, look over at our right and realize, THE TRAIN IS TURNING AND FOLLOWING US. And now we are going to be rear-ended.
"I hate this place!" I shout, as my mother collapses into a giggling fit, and our cart engine speeds us up, wildly, into a tree.
So that's what we did in Rome. Afterwards, we went out and had a wonderful dinner near our hotel close to the Spanish steps, then wandered around the town the rest of the days, watching people get all televisedly excited about Berlusconi's demise while eating gelato and shopping.
I have to say, however, overall this was the best vacation I've ever taken with my mother, and there have been lots of pretty good ones. Over our lives together, we've traveled to Hong Kong, Jamaica, Norway, Mexico, India, France and now Italy. And each time has been--if not exactly consistently amusing--at least an experience, as my mother would say. But this time was incredibly fun, and it was perhaps this way because it was also tinged with the knowledge that my mother's health is finally stable. It's good. She's good. Even if, as she'll admit herself, she can't remember anything.
"You know," she said picking up her original thought, five hours later over a dinner of pizza. "He wanted to create a puppet that loved everybody. That's what Elmo was supposed to be. And he really did."
"Do you feel you have your own personal relationship with Elmo?" I asked. "Is that what you're telling me?"
"I'm saying," mom snapped, "that Elmo was just a very loving puppet. That was his appeal!"
"You know," I said, "In Elmo's honor, I think I'm going to name my next book, 'Elmo's Blackness.'"
"Oh my God, don't you write about this!"
"I would never."
My mother looked at me, then went back to her pizza. We drained our glasses of prosecco. The waiter, noticing we were empty, came over and asked if we would like another. We looked at each other. We told him that we did.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
When last I left you, dear reader, my mother and I had just arrived in Venice on the Orient Express. I'm happy to tell you that during our stay in Venice, we managed to miss our very expensive train to Rome, almost lose a hotel reservation, nearly get bounced from another hotel, and finally got my direct deposit account shut down. All in one day.
I blame Italy for this.
More to the point, I blame Venice. There's something about Venice that leads one to a certain slackening of purpose, a slow erosion of self-resolve. Schedules get lost, maps are retrieved in shreds from purses, the spines of umbrellas become quickly snapped from the storms that, this past week, continued almost unabated. The rain was so bad that my mother and I--native Seattlites both--had to hole up in our hotel for half a day. Venice is a beautiful city, a fact which seems to be less about good urban maintenance than pure "genetic" luck, as the city seems to have done very little by way of repairing, updating or even repainting the increasingly decrepit architecture. Everywhere you look, paint is flaking, bits of building are chipped or falling off, there's graffiti coiled around columns and dog shit smeared on cobblestones, and the urinary smell of sewage wafting up from every corner. Venice reminds me a little of Kate Moss: considering all the wear and tear from the coke and other sundry drugs that woman has inhaled the past 25 years, the only thing keeping her going now is a famous name, an increasingly skilled airbrushing industry, and a killer bone structure.
Venice is really one building short of being a cliché, actually: it's so ALMOST like those terribly bad velvet paintings you see in third-rate Italian restaurants, it takes awhile to adjust and actually SEE the city versus the less-great versions you've already seen of it. On top of this, Venice is the most confounding yet still navigable city I've ever experienced. I always knew basically where I was, but I could never, EVER seem to prove it on the map. No street I ever stood on seemed to appear on any of the maps I was given or found, or downloaded--all of which I had to do, as every map seemed to disintegrate as soon as I touched it, as if Venice printed all its maps on pressed sheets of talcum powder.
Venice is also full of the angriest people I've yet encountered. I'm surprised that Paris has the reputation for rudeness when not a day passed in Venice when someone didn't yell at either me or my mother, shaming us out of restaurants and stores with his or her near operatic vitriol. "MADAME," the Venetian of the moment might declaim. "IF A GATE IS PRESENT, IT MEANS 'DON'T GO'!" "NO PICTURES! DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING!" "NOT POSSIBLE!" "MADAME, NO!" were all the most common shouts snarled after us, worrying our pant legs like little dogs. (Speaking of dogs, Venice is full of tiny dogs running around without, it seems, any human supervision. These dogs are clearly owned by SOMEBODY, however, as each one was wearing either a tiny rain jacket or a tiny hand-knit sweater. Even the dogs are better dressed than I am in Europe.)
Perhaps this anger is the inevitable result of having 250,000 residents in a town that has to service about three times as many tourists. Perhaps it's the mortifying fact that Italy is about to take down the Euro. Or maybe it's the city's highly regulated and bureaucratic tourist infrastructure that, inevitably, seems to fail, thus creating even more work for everyone involved. Every sign in Venice comes in five languages, with posters on top of posters to indicate recent and newly disorienting changes, so you can never figure out exactly what new bit of information you are meant to process until you arrive at the information booth, at which point you will be yelled at by the ticket seller. ("MADAME! WE HAVE SIGNS FOR THAT!") Likewise, you can try and buy your own tickets for water transport from the automated booths, only to discover that the automated booths--which offer your particular fare and fee rate--has some internal computer glitch that won't actually let you select the option that you need, though the option is always, tantalizingly, presented.
And then there are the strikes. "MADAME! WE DO NOT GO TO THAT STOP TODAY!" was one of the things shrieked at us behind the ticket counter's glass on Monday morning. "NOT FROM 10-1! NOT AT 3!," was another warning swiftly echoed by other water taxi drivers and public transport people all that day, but with totally different hours and for totally different stops. "Why not 12-2?" my mother asked, timidly, at which point a taxi driver glared at her and howled, "LUNCH!"
In general, the fees for everything were set on a fairly easy to understand pay scale, based on one's age, student or professional status, and country of origin. The basic rule was that, as tourists, we would pay a HUGE increase on everything, as our hotel concierge told us, chuckling mightily as he ran our credit cards for the hotel bill. "And now," he said, smiling broadly, "Our genius Berlusconi takes another 12% from you, madame!"
It was nice to see him so jovial about this, considering everywhere we went the news was on Berlusconi's removal and, in the Wall Street Journal, the possibility of an Italian bank run (7% on a national bond is a blood-curdling sign of just how precarious a position the country was in) and it certainly explained some of the panicky looks certain shopkeepers had when they saw our credit cards. "Cash please," many of them insisted--or begged--one of them explaining that the taxes they paid otherwise were cripplingly ferocious. The concierge seemed to be the only one willing to make a joke of it, winking at us about Berlusconi's particular financial hand in this matter. "And now, madame," he smiled when presenting us another bill (to pay for the night we were supposed to leave but, well, forgot to), "it is time to jack you up again!"
After two months of living in Paris, two things struck me about this. One: It's been a long time since I heard anyone make a conscious joke. None of the waiters I've come across in France is funny. None of the service people, either. Even my French teacher, who is very nice, seems, in place of outright humor, to have developed an exquisitely attuned sense of the absurd. (There might be a reason for this. Typical Monday exchange in French class:
Teacher: How was your weekend?
Rose, wailing: I HATE HAM!)
Two: Venice (and Rome) make Paris--Paris! City of "Please fill this out in triplicate" and "No photocopies, only handwritten, madame"--look like a model of efficiency.
This effect is not mitigated by the presence of certain older Italians, either, at least in the most crowded airports or train stations, where they bum-rush the café attendants, cut in line, drop passports and wallets and books, shove, and generally start arguing with everyone about who's paying for what, where and why. The café attendants, probably exhausted by this, seem to disappear almost as soon as they see people coming or, if they stay, stand snippish and tight-lipped by the cash register, where you are supposed to pay BEFORE you order anything from the counter.
By the end of the week, I began imagining for myself the particular traits and character deficiencies of Venice and Paris. If Venice is your hot cousin who shows up at the big family wedding with the bags under her eyes and the run in her stockings, who saves herself from physical disgrace only by dint of her magnificent hair--never in its life brushed or styled, but always still thick and luxurious as a medieval princess's--then Paris is the cousin with the navy blue dress sheath and tenderly highlighted pageboy. Venice is the one trying to make it as a graphic designer while still working as a waitress, Paris is the one who just finished at an uber-posh law school specializing in artistic copyright infringement. Venice is the one who plops down at the wedding table set up for the still-unmarried younger generation, knocking over her drink as she dumps her purse out on the table.
"Shit," Venice says, rifling her spilled receipts, matchbooks, used Kleenexes. "You got a smoke?" she asks your 12 year-old cousin.
Paris drags on her own cigarette, gold-tipped, slim as a woman's finger. She narrows her eyes at Venice.
"You know," she says. "Berlin and I are getting married soon. I hope you won't be making a scene like this one there."
Venice scowls. Several years ago she had a thing with Berlin, too. Something nasty happened, however, and she still doesn't like to talk about it. To change the subject, she takes a gulp of someone else's (unspilled) wine and jumps up to start shimmying along with the other dancers now twirling on the floor, but as she does, the back of her multicolored beaded dress (fading in patches and stained yellow, Paris notices sourly, under each armpit) catches on something, and there's a sudden, sickening tear.
Everyone at the table stares in embarrassment as Venice's dress splits down the back. Beads scatter. Venice, weakly, mutters a joke about necessary ventilation, and starts to giggle.
"Venice," Paris snips, ashing forcefully in her cousin's uneaten millefeuille. "PULL YOUR SHIT TOGETHER."
At least, this is how I imagine it. Because by the end of our time in Venice, my mother and I were also not pulling our shit together. Sodden, disoriented, we staggered into and out of cafés, museums, stumbling over bridges, dripping and exhausted. Because it was raining, we spent too much time avoiding the elements in restaurants, eating too much and taking too many pictures of our food (in place of all the sights we couldn't see or photograph well in the rain, in part, but also in part for my next book project, tentatively titled, "What Will The Bitch Eat Now?" to be followed by my eventual masterpiece: "Fatty Want Another Snack?"). We lost museum tickets and guidebooks and maps. We lost track, utterly, of time.
Which is how, coming back from our hotel for what we thought was our final night in Venice, we were informed that we were supposed to have left already. Like, in the morning.
And that is how we also lost train tickets, as well, and a whole day in Rome and (almost) a hotel reservation. Which is also how I ended up shutting down my checking account, because I was now desperately trying to get cash to purchase new expensive tickets (the others being, naturally, nonrefundable as they were purchased via RailEurope. "MADAME! THERE IS AN OFFICE IN LONDON FOR THAT!") and, along with all the other things that seemed to have dissolved in my purse and brain from so many hours in the rain and in the company of dissolute Venice, I FORGOT MY PASSWORD. How that is possible, considering I live on that card, I don't know. Anyway, I tried different wrong options one too many times and my account got frozen.
So. That's Venice. Or, more accurately, that's us in Venice. Well-meaning but vaguely dim, clad in our best dresses with part of the hems dragging. Rushing wildly around as we try to photograph everything we can on the last, and only, partly sunny day we had in Venice.
"Well," my mother says, trying to fold her ruined umbrella back up into a recognizably umbrella shape. "At least we tried."
Somewhere, off in the distance, Paris rolls her eyes.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Hello. I have just ridden The Orient Express.
That's right: The Orient Express, the Venice-Simplon line, which travels overnight from Paris to Venice. This was, if you recall, dear reader, entirely my mother's idea. It was her idea of how one might travel around the world for at least part of a year abroad, and my presence on this fabled Junket of Dreams was the result of her very generous offer to allow me to live vicariously (or, actually) through her.
I have to admit: I thought this seemed like a pretty odd idea at first. Something a little stuffy, perhaps, a touch kitschy and out of date. But the night of our departure from the Gare de l'Est at 10 p.m., standing on platform #5 on an actual red carpet, watching women and men swan past in full 1920's style evening dress, complete with tuxedos and backless dresses and whole fox pelts draped around their shoulders, I had to come to one conclusion:
THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME.
It was a slowly dawning realization.
The first sign that this might actually be awesome was the fact that there were little adorable Italian men in uniform everywhere.
And not only were these adorable little Italian men in uniform everywhere, they were everywhere WITH CHAMPAGNE.
And not only were there glasses of champagne being poured by little adorable Italian men in uniform everywhere, the whole train was kept in mint-1926 condition, which meant wood paneling with floral parquet inlay, plush carpets, attractive pseudo-gas lamp mood lighting, and brass fittings up the proverbial wazoo.
And not only were there adorable little Italian men in uniform everywhere, glasses and glasses of champagne, and now my own newly Art Deco-stuffed wazoo, there was also A FOUR COURSE GOURMET MEAL.
And not only were there a pants-filling four-course gourmet meal, my Art Deco-filled wazoo, glasses of champagne, and these innumerable wee Italian waiters in uniform, but there was, at the end of it all, Venice.
But, because I am me, there was still something standing in the way between all this and utter bliss.
And what was it?
For those of you who know me, you know that if there is one thing I love more than a big free meal and a newly popped bottle of Prosecco, it is the chance to dress up. I dress up all the time, for little to no reason, and since I've moved to Utah, I now dress up consciously, even a touch vengefully, as I am annoyed and even a little horrified by the utter lack of sartorial sense that the bulk of Utahns seem to possess. These are people who go to the Opera in SLACKS. These are people whose idea of a big night out means wearing something studded with rhinestones atop a pair of jeans so tight they don't just give the unfortunate wearer a muffin-top, they give her a portabello mushroom overhang.
In my private protest of Salt Lake City's lack of style, I show up to department meetings in a Prada coat (sold my house: it was my one big splurge). I am the kind of woman who owns a Marchessa ball gown (bought on Gilt!) and saves up her money all year to buy Italian leather riding boots. I am the kind of woman who owns not one but FIVE little black dresses. (And a lot of blue ones, too.) And, living in Salt Lake City, where you can go to the town's best restaurants in a pair of pressed jeans, there is absolutely no reason ever, EVER, to wear any one of these things.
Essentially, I've been overdressed for the past 9 years.
But not on The Orient Express. As I watched women walk past in whisper-thin silk gowns and Manolo Blahnik heels, I almost had to swallow a scream. Because I was wearing a dumpy white shirt over jeans and a stupid tie-die scarf tucked under my boringly servicable winter coat. My good outfit was a very cheap Alexander Wang t-shirt dress I would be wearing with a drapy black smoking jacket, topped off with a swipe of Carnal lipstick. This was it. That's all I had. Meanwhile, the train was filled with women and men in jewel-toned evening wear, dripping jewelry--real and costume. There were people wearing silk stockings that cost almost as much as my entire outfit.
I just about threw myself under the train.
I know it's shallow. But you don't understand. For nine years, I'd been complaining about other people's lack of dress style. FOR NINE YEARS, I'D BEEN TRAINING FOR THIS VERY MOMENT. AND NOW THAT IT WAS HERE, I HAD NOTHING TO WEAR.
My mother, tipsy from the champagne, waved me off. "Oh, don't worry about it," she said. "People will just think you're a graduate student from the Eastern Bloc or something."
Sullking in my cabin, drowning my sorrows in champagne, I thought of all my lovely clothes stored right now in linen garment bags, shelved and unloved in my apartment wardrobe. My beautiful Anna Sui dresses. My Marchessa. My gold fringed sandals with the sky high heels. How, I could hear them pleading at me all the way from Utah, HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN TO US?
Easy, I thought. I couldn't fit any of you into my suitcase.
Sigh. I just had to resign myself to enjoying the ride in full scruffy glamor. Which, I'm glad to say, I did. It certainly helped meeting two of the loveliest people during dinner: a long-married couple from Long Island who were celebrating the husband's recent retirement from teaching music to 5th graders for the past 33 years. If anyone deserves to ride The Orient Express, it's a pair of public school teachers of music from Long Island. And from them, over a three hour meal together, I happened to learn this little interesting fact: Public school teachers in Long Island make upwards of $100,000 a year.
That's right: $100,000.
Let's all offer up a moment of gratitude to the great state of New York. At least teachers are appreciated somewhere.
I also learned from them a nifty personal fact about their traveling life together. Evidently, whenever this couple goes on vacation, each of them chooses a different cologne or perfume to wear for the entire trip, so that later when one or the other wears this scent, they both get to relive the pleasures of the trip during which they first encountered this scent. It's kind of Proust meets The Bridges of Madison County, and I thought it was really the sweetest thing ever.
And then it made me mad that I hadn't packed my perfume for this trip, either.
Regardless, that night my mother and I tucked ourselves into our luxuriously compact sleeping compartment, to be rocked gently asleep across Switzerland and Austria before waking up at 3 a.m., dehydrated from all the champagne and the lack of circulating air.
And that's The Orient Express. No Dimitri, no handcuffs, no (free) trays of martinis. But amazing nonetheless. Even with me on it, wearing this godforsaken outfit.