Structures in Italy and then a lot of quid

An overview of fountains and related items, autumn 2004


It took us over 24 h door to door, thanks to two plane changes, a missed connection, and a few hours of admiring the culture clash as a planeload of disgruntled but laughing Tuscans crowded around the gate podium manned by two efficient but uncommunicative Frankfurters.

The Hanseatic league eventually brought in a spare zeppelin from Berlin, and we were on our way only several hours late. By that time Felix had finally fallen asleep.

A recommendation: if you choose to get delayed during a multi-change flight, avoid the culinary meccas of the UK and Germany. A long delay at Narita, Charles de Gaulle, or Los Angeles might net you a good meal.

We enjoyed visiting our friends in Florence and then at their farm house among the vineyards of Chianti. It was helpful for one of our hosts to have Americans on hand for the election debacle. Florence is certainly lovely, if not much to my taste or to Alaina's. The boys played a lot together, and I got to read them to sleep in Sam's room one night -- it's part of a 17th century abbey. I think it was probably the coziest corner of the refectory where the abbot slept. At the farm, I baked bread well before dawn in a wood-fired oven.

We went one night to a restaurant on the list of Alaina's chef-friend Mario's recommendations. It was not quite a disappointment, although it was not a raging success. The meal started with the maitre d'hôtel sitting at our table, explaining all the dishes. The two boys (Sam is six) were asleep or drawing through much of the meal. The sides and the appetizers were outstanding -- I've never had beets so simply or so well prepared, and I had a fish soup that was essentially essence of gilt-head (a Mediterranean bream, I think). The main courses were a bit too fussy, although they did emphasize the ingredients. And there was broken glass in my tripe. I quietly carried the plate to the maitre d' and showed it to him. He apologized a bit, and that was it. I also learned that eating broken glass is, at least sometimes, not fatal.

Fundamentally, I think I'm finished with restaurants for now. I like street food, I like diners, and I like noodle bars. But other than them, I'd rather be in the market and then in the kitchen.

And there are otters in the Arno right in the middle of Florence. You can walk across the Ponte Vecchio and see them. This is in November, of course. In May, you cannot walk across the P. Vecchio, you can only seethe with the crowd.

I understand why Americans are gaga over Tuscany: it's more or less a northern California landscape with the addition of culture and history. The sights are genuinely cool -- Santa Croce makes any wedding cake look half-baked; the tower at Pisa does, indeed, lean uncannily. (I went one morning on the first train; I've always wanted to see the place where Galileo proved that muscle fatigue affects physics experiments.) The food in Tuscany, or at least the raw materials, proved outstanding.

Rome is, without exception, the richest place I’ve been.

Providing you have a child agile at avoiding sidewalk feces and zipping Vespas, I can't imagine a better city for travelling with kids. Every bar and café seemed to love helping a little boy who stumbled through Italian 'per favore' and 'grazie', you can't sneeze without jolting a gelateria, and transport and most musea are free for young children.

And you can walk down most streets, go past the medieval church, and find a ruin from the Republic, or just a modern 2nd century building from the Empire. There will probably be a phalanx of youths sitting on the travertine blocks, smoking. An old lady's schnauzer will be peeing on the base of one of the columns.

Of course, for Felix, the presence of dozens upon dozens of fountains that he knew well from his books was the main attraction. I was a little worried that he'd be disappointed, finding some fountains not running, finding others smaller or bigger than he expected. On the contrary, he took each as it came, and he was prone to remark 'this is much bigger than I was expecting' and 'maybe we can come back tomorrow and it will be running'.

I took a train one morning before Felix and Alaina were up to Ostia Antica, which was a port nearly the size of 19th-century Baltimore. I -- and an ageing, laid-off Japanese dockworker, with whom I quickly established that I know much more Italian than I do Japanese -- were the only people in the ruined city until the French film crews and the German tour busses arrived at 10. Public toilets, huge markets, three major baths, temples to goddesses I'd never heard of.

I spent some custom at the enoteca close to our rented apartment, buying grappa for our friends in London. A well appointed woman tried to interrupt the proprietor, who was talking to me: 'I excuse myself deeply madam, but here we have a language challenge, and perhaps you will have some patience so that I can spend time with you a brief moment.' She half-bowed to me, saying she was sorry and she hoped I enjoyed her city.

Running water report

We had hot water for bathing in Florence, then no hot water (except from my giant pot on the wood stove) at the farm, then no water at all in Florence, then no hot water in Florence (except for my giant pot on the gas stove). The metro in Rome is plastered with ads for hot water heaters.

But we also visited Villa d'Este. It's in a town called Tivoli, which evidently has been a resort for several centuries. And it is fountain heaven. Since descriptions of outstanding places come out fatuous, I won't describe it.

Southern Modern Latin

Italian turns out both more straightforward and more interesting than I expected. The register and styles vary -- I could barely understand the family from Bologna behind me on the local train in Latium, and our Florentine cab driver ('my father's family has lived in our house only since 1550') says 'frathello' to talk about his brother.

I imagine that any Spanish speaker can easily do business in Italy. If you get a few of the simple sound changes down, Italian is much the same as Spanish. For makeshift conversation, the hardest thing is wrangling plurals. Italian follows the Latin nominative plural, so there are vowel changes at the end of each word. The western Romance languages all have a simplified pattern based on the Latin accusative, with plurals nouns generally ending in -s. Of course, this is fully active in Spanish and Catalan and it sounds like shushing in Portuguese. Dissimilarly, few French noun plurals are differentiated any longer from singulars (my favorite is oeuf / oeux) -- in spite of the written forms -- and French pluralization is normally marked only in articles and some adjectives.

Given the easy transfer of Spanish skills to Italian, it is no wonder Rome is full of American accents, even in November. I heard innumerable Americans chattering in both Italian and English, most of them clearly students, and many as young as 10 or 11.


I have been thinking recently about the Coliseum. It has modern concrete floors throughout the parts you will visit. This is the kind of concrete with larger pebbles in it -- very different from the concrete of which the Pantheon is made. I found the bits of schist distracting, but I am fortunately no geologist. There are also painted tube railings in many places. There seem to be fewer cats than at the Area Sacra.

I dragged Alaina and Felix on an overnight train from Rome to Paris. It was wonderful to me. I didn't know its precise route beforehand, but I stayed up most of the night as we passed through familiar train stations in the Rhone Valley in Switzerland. Our three-tiered bunk compartment turned out a little cramped for a Californian triad with all their accoutrements. Alaina asked me in the morning 'so, how long is the flight from Rome to London?' Next time, Felix and I travel in state, and probably on our own.

Fortunately, the train ride from Paris to London under the Channel is beautiful and typically less cramped: we had a table at the end of a car, and they served perfectly good food to us while we admired (and I frankly doted on) the flat beauty of northeastern France. After Italy, seeing innumerable Gothic village churches was like a time warp. (There is, I believe, one Gothic church in the city of Rome.) I could get Alaina to take that trip any day.


London proved both astoundingly culture-filled and astoundingly dear. As my (English, living in Sonoma County) row-mate on the plane described it: 'everything seems to be priced pretty much at the level of San Francisco, until you realize it's in pounds.'

Our hotel proved everything an American would expect from an English hotel. The paint peeled in spots. On arrival, we got 'Well, the lift is being repaired right now, but if you'll just go straight through the restaurant and parlor, you can take the rear lift up to your floor'. And it was all made up for by copious hot water from the taps and an electric kettle.

After we arrived, I went down the street (I gather they still say 'round the shops', even though I was going to a Safeway) to get markers and a sewing kit. On the way, I passed a bearded fellow missing his two front teeth, ranting loudly in Italian. When I got to the checkout, the clerk took my tenner and held it up to show the cashier two aisles away: 'Cor, 'lizabeth. Remember these?'

- I know it's old, I got it the last time I was in England, but it's still a five pound note.

- Wall, sir. We can't take it, sir. You might try bringing it to the bank. Like as not, they can give you something for it, sir.

Fortunately, I had a bit of actual, recent money.

The beer is sound, but a pint will set you back at least £2.10 -- closer to £3 in a descript pub.

Acceptable lunch with my friend at his local Greek place was a mere £45. We spent as much the next day at the inept but acceptable Jamaican joint in Chalk Farm the night before we left. All in all, I felt like a 3rd world visitor to Tokyo.

I also think, from listening to kids, that London speech is diverging from American speech. The vocabulary might be falling together, but the pronunciation is going the opposite way from Texas. And there is no way any Californian says 'like' as often as a London youth utters 'innit'. I heard one kid talking to his sister on the DLR say 'Innit I dunno innit' as a complete utterance. Riddley Walker, here we come.

All the same, Alaina enjoyed a much vaunted play called the History Boys, there were noontime concerts that we had to choose between, and I bought a perfectly delicious lamb and mint pasty inside London Bridge station.Incidentally, none of my stereotypes for the stations held true: London Bridge has a good food shopping section; King's X is neither particularly seedy nor particularly lofty; Euston doesn't scare the crap out of me; Waterloo is multi-pronged but, like all of London save the gents, quite clean.

Many quid

Thankfully, in London many of the museums are now free. A family day-pass on the entire urban network zones 1 2 3 4, all the way out to near reaches of Kent and Suffolk, is only £3.90. So you and child can have an economical day out, providing you don't eat. The transport is comprehensive, rather slow, and brilliantly well marked. Almost uniformly pale women apply mascara, lip gloss, and even deodorant on the underground, which is essentially a tiny metal capsule for squeezing hunched-over people from square to square.

Here are relevant figures:

At the market in central Florence, one of Italy's most prosperous cities: 1 kg perfect tomatoes, 1 kg cardoon (an artichoke relative) + the farmer put in a big bouquet of sage, savory, rosemary, and parsley as a regalo, and he didn't charge me for 6 small chili peppers, two different kinds: 3.50. ($4.51) This was sauce and a substantial side dish for 4. Good wine at a farm in Chianti, 1 per bottle (bring your own bottle) $1.29. Week's transportation pass for Rome, 16 ($20.48)

In London, an acceptable lamb-and-mint pie, light lunch for 1, £2.20 ($4.09). 2 pints of hand-pulled bitter, £4.80 ($9.06). Week's travelcard £29.20 ($52.26).

I went to an early music exhibition at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, and I got to play beautiful spinets, clavichords, and harpsichords; plus one of the sellers was doing hourly lute quartet play-a-longs in Skittle Alley. Imagine an American's response to hearing a bunch of frumpy old foggers chuff through a Corelli suite in the low, whitewashed bowling lanes of 1820. Pins still stand at the end of the lanes.

I found myself in the café at the Natural History Museum for the two minutes' silence on Armistice Day. They call it Remembrance Day. It is strangely moving to see the museum staff file into the space around the diplodocus, stand silently for two minutes, and then go back to work.

Probably one in five people on the underground had a paper poppy pinned to their clothes. Some of the poppies looked bedraggled. If it weren't Britain, I might conjecture that people forget to take their poppies off before indulging in furtive cuddling.

London impressed me: it seems culturally vibrant, and it is clearly not free. Fairly posh two-bedroom flats in okay, but not central, neighborhoods are running £800 per week. That would be expensive in dollars in San Francisco or even, I think, New York.

The flight home was agreeable, but a little bumpy. I still think terminal 3 at Heathrow is better than people make it out to be, and certainly more interesting than the dreaded intra-european part of terminal 1 at Frankfurt. It was only 12 hours from the time we got on the plane till we landed, and Felix evidently had stuff to do: we got to read very few books together, and none of us slept at all. Now that I've dragged Felix and Alaina through cramped seats in steerage on a full plane over Greenland and we all came out happy, I'll feel much more comfortable crossing the Pacific, or even the Gobi.

Travel, as Wodehouse is alleged to have said, narrows the mind. In my mind, the striking things on returning to California are the wide streets, better to accommodate the giant cars, and the spectrum of faces. Both Rome and London are diverse by local standards, but even in London, the statistics say, only 20 percent of the people are of non-European origin. One sees a lot of Anglo-Saxon-looking English people.

Across the checkout aisles at my suburban supermarket this afternoon here in Silicon Valley, I could see a rather different makeup. I don't mean that the diversity in itself is great -- London and Singapore probably take better public advantage or their social diversity than does the Bay Area -- but the range of faces here is remarkable. Fellini would be delighted to make a movie in a Pacific Rim city now.