Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Visit to America

I recently returned to the U.S. for a visit after having been away for about 21 months. I did not want to go. I did not want to leave Venice, I did not want to go through the trouble and expense of traveling, and I did not want to drive a car. I had not driven a car since I came to Venice nearly two years ago. I was afraid that they would not let me back into Italy (which fear was irrational, not based on any fact, and, as it turned out, unfounded and imaginary). But I had to go, and so I did.

I had to go partly because I needed to renew my driver's license, and partly for the purpose of visiting my friends and family. I was curious how I would come to view Americans, and what it would be like to visit the U.S., after being away for a while. It had also been about four years since I saw any of my family, and I was curious to see how people had changed.

As to the question of Americans, I have for a long time thought that we in America were raising a country of fools. Nothing I observed during my visit did anything to change that opinion. But there is one observation I made about Americans that I did not realize was true before: Americans are very nice people. They are the nicest group of people I have come across, although I note that Australians are very close, and the English are nice as well. But Americans are the best; the most friendly, accepting, helpful, and generally downright polite, in stark and glaring contrast to the Europeans. I say Europeans, although I have substantial experience only with Italians. Other people I have talked to about this, however, tell me that the same is true of most continental Europeans. That is, they are unfriendly, pushy, rude and obnoxious, particularly with strangers and foreigners. When going to the U.S. after spending so much time in Italy, the way strangers are treated in the U.S. in comparison to the way they are treated in Europe was noticeable and remarkable. Americans (at least in small towns) always greet you in a friendly way, with a smile and a “how you doin'?” They look at you and smile when they pass in the street and say “hello,” or “good morning,” even if they never saw you before. Italians divert their gaze. If an American bumps into you, he says “excuse me,” or “I'm sorry.” An Italian will bump into you as though you were not there, and not say a word – they will not even look back to see if you are still standing. They will actually push you out of the way.

Now, my beloved wife, who is now a citizen of Italy, and who is by blood half Italian, and who has Italian relatives, hates it when I say anything bad about the Italians. But these are observations I have made, are based on personal experience, and which have been confirmed by every member of the English-speaking world with whom I have discussed the subject.

On the other hand, the Italians are very warm and friendly to people they know – they shout “ciao” to their friends and relatives, and have the annoying habit of kissing, or pretending to kiss, both sides of a person's face. Don't be the last one to a gathering – you gotta run around and kiss everyone – even men kiss men (although my Italian friends have the decency not to force this disgusting habit on me, as they know I am a straight American man, and prefer the combined lengths of our arms as the closest male-male contact. I don't even like to do it to the women, because the women in America might cry foul). Our Italian relatives treat us like kings and queens. But this is not hard – it is easy to be warm to your family and friends. The real trick is to be kind to strangers, and in this the Italians fail.

I have, however, taken up some of the rude habits of the Italians, and find these habits somewhat liberating. It's work to make eye contact with, and to smile at and greet, every stranger. It takes a lot of energy to politely wait for someone, rather than simply pushing him out of the way. I would have missed more than one vaporetto if I did not push the occasional lollygagging tourist out of my way, generally without saying a word. - no “excuse me,” and not even a “permesso,” which phrase only the Italians understand. And Italians are not afraid to tell you when you are doing something that offends them. Putting cheese on pasta dishes containing fish (the waitress will take away the cheese); asking for cappuccino after 11:00 in the morning, or ordering a spritz with cicchetti. These transgressions are usually met with a simple “no.” Can you imagine going into an American bar or restaurant, ordering something that is on the menu and readily at hand, and having the waiter say “no,” solely on philosophical grounds? My neighbor across the canal complained because my air conditioner was dripping onto the cover of her boat. For Chrissake, it's a cover to keep water off the boat. But I tried to accommodate her, hoping that she would not rat me out when I cook on my charcoal grill outside.

I started my visit in Baltimore, because that is where my friends Steve Kraemer and Lisa Laramee live, and because that is where I would need to renew my license. To get to Baltimore, one must either go through Frankfort to Dulles, or from Venice to JFK. The problem with Frankfort is that there is never enough time to get from the arrival terminal to the connecting terminal. This airport must be a billion miles long. You gotta run, and there is a reasonable probability that your luggage will not make the flight. Then it is about a two hour ride from Dulles to Baltimore. The flight from JFK, on the other hand, goes right to BWI, but there is a layover of four or five hours. We always opt for the JFK route, and that's what I did this time. That whole part of the trip went without a hitch, and I arrived by taxi at Steve and Lisa's house at about 9:30 p.m.

Steve and Lisa live just around the bend from where we used to live, and were our best friends in Baltimore. They are foodies as we are, and we used to share dinners at each others houses. After dinners at our house I was ashamed to put out the glass recycling because of the quantity of wine bottles – and Karen doesn't drink. They had the great generosity to take me in for several days, cart me around to my appointments with the MVA and the AT&T phone store, to cook for me (they are both masters of the kitchen and the workings of its instrumentalities) and to feed me like I was the goddam king of something. I tried not to be too much of a nuisance, and not to make too much of a mess (which I am by nature given to doing). I will be forever grateful to them, and hope to return the favor when they come to visit us this coming year.

During the days I was in Baltimore I had hoped to see some of my other friends, but that didn't seem to work out, except for a short visit with my former art teacher George and his wife Maria. It was great to see them, and I wish I had time to tip a few with them, but we each had other fish to fry.

The next leg of my journey was to get myself to Dexter, Michigan, and visit with my family. The trip from BWI to Detroit was uneventful. I rented a car, which also went like clockwork, and was off to Dexter. I had to first stop in Chelsea, where my brother had arranged for a hotel at a huge discount. I got checked in without a problem, and the room was very nice. Shortly after I settled in I began to spread the joy that is my presence to my family.

Although I am a member of the bar, live in Italy, and fancy myself all high and falutin', I come from humble origins, and belong not to the aristocracy, but to a working class family. They work hard, but nevertheless struggle to keep roofs over their heads and to put food on the table. They marry and have children young, not necessarily in that order. They are the salt of the Earth, if I may use (uncharacteristically) a cliché. This I knew and have always known, and was not surprised at being reminded of it. Some members of the family are happy with their station in life and embrace it, and others find it unpalatable, but don't seem to be interested in doing anything about it. This is not meant to be a mean criticism, merely an observation. Note, however, that I did not finish my BS degree until I was 32, and did not finish law school until I was 41. In between those years I earned a Master's Degree in business. There is a way out, but it takes a little elbow grease, dedication, and hard work.

One of the highlights of the trip was visiting my sister and her family. She had five kids, and raised them in what I understand was a less than ideal environment – and it is my understanding that they had an unpleasant home life as children, and have struggled with their own demons, and continue to do so. But during my visit they were very friendly to your graying and humble author, and I sensed a great deal of happiness and love in spite of what may have happened in the past. We went out into their detached garage and played pool, where I waxed all comedic. The visit was very pleasant, and I enjoyed it very much. As a side note, one of my sister's kids had a hearse for a car. I mean a big black 1980-something Cadillac hearse, fancy lights on the side and everything, and fitted out all proper like as a love shack. Fuckin'-A.

The greatest surprise to come out my return was the rift between my two youngest brothers that has developed over the past few years. For those of you unfamiliar with my immediate family, these two guys are biologically speaking half brothers, as they have a different father, but the law ways they are full brothers, I and my closest in birth natural siblings having been adopted by our now father, to his credit. But to me they are simply my brothers. One was born when I was 16, the other was a pink little baby in my mother's arms when I got married for the first time four years later. They were raised together after my brother and sister and I had left home, and I thought they were close. I will not elaborate here, but one has rejected the other, making accusations most horrible, the truth of which I have not and will not investigate (and the other has made his accusations of crimes and other transgressions against his accuser).

It is not the accusations that offend me so much as it is the schism itself, and the way I discovered it. That these two guys were close brothers I took as one of the pillars of truth, and a universal constant. I would sooner learn that f = ma is false, or that the speed of light is not 186,000 miles per second, than to discover that these two hated each other. I was aware that they had had a falling out of some sort, but no one told me much about it before hand, and no one explained to me the nature and extent of it. I discovered it only when I invited them both to my hotel room to watch Monday Night Football, as my team the Baltimore Ravens was playing. One of these chillun arrived before the other, but immediately left when he discovered that the other brother was coming. This was a shock to me, and left me in a position most awkward. It also made my life much more difficult, because I had to visit each “side” separately. Someone should have told me.

Such, however, is the nature of families. Sometimes a transgression, real or perceived, great or small, will cause a division that is never healed. It seems that this is the case with my younger brothers.

All was not drama, though. My cousin and his wife came to visit me. They spent no small effort in doing so as they had to drive from Toledo after work, but I appreciated it greatly, as I had to drive all over the state of Michigan to visit other members of the family. I hadn't seen him in a few years. We are more like brothers, and it was very good to see him again. We also went to visit my parents at their house. My cousin and my mother got together again and had a nice visit for the fist time since my grandmother passed away. It was good to see, and I was happy they were able to do it. The rift there was created due to the disposition of my grandmother's estate, the division of which was more favorable to my mother than to my cousin's side of the family. i.e., they got jack, as did I (and I did not expect anything, and was not, under the law, entitled to anything). There are good reasons why the disposition of the estate with respect to my cousins was not unjust, but it did not ease my cousins' pain, nor my sympathy for the way they felt. For the sake of completeness in this discussion, I note that the failure of anyone to help pay for the funeral was not such a reason – these things are paid from the estate of the deceased, not from the pockets of those who got nothing, to the benefit of those who took all.) I digress.

I also went to visit my brother Tom to have dinner with him, his daughter, and his fiance and her son, at the restaurant where he works. He works as a cook at a huge sports bar, where they have a typical menu for such a place. It includes Italian and Mexican foods, as well as good old American specialties, such as hamburgers. I had a Mexican dish, which was not bad, but could have used a bit more spice. The generous lad intended to pay for the dinner by having it subtracted from his next paycheck. But I corrected this faulty thinking after he left, and picked up the tab. It was good to see him, and I knew he could ill afford the cost of the dinner. I drove the hour back to my hotel in the pouring rain on poorly marked roads, virtually unlit, shiny as a mirror, and almost impossible to drive on while wet. God, I hate to drive.

Get away day finally arrived, and I got myself to the airport. That whole operation was much less trouble than I expected. I am used to being in Baltimore and in Venice, where we are plagued by long lines and delays and snotty counter personnel. But it looked as though there had been a plague in Detroit. The place was empty. I was not sure where to check in with my baggage, and I found a sky cap, and he actually took the bag to the counter, went in front of everyone, and got me checked in. For this he earned a $10 tip. I got to JFK, waited around a while, got on the plane, and ended up back in Venice. It was less trouble to get back into Venice than it was to get into the U.S. I don't even think the Italians checked that my passport was valid. The Americans scanned it and asked me a boatload of questions, although I have God-given right to get into the U.S.

Other things took place during my trip, and I was shown other acts of kindness and generosity by my friends and family that I do not mention here – but that is not because they were not appreciated, it is in consideration of the limited attention span of my readers. All in all, it was a wonderful trip, I'm glad I made it, and it was much less trouble than I expected. I do not, however, intend to make any further sojourns to the U.S. for the next several years. I will be glad to entertain and even to put up any visitors who wish an audience. But from now until further notice, you will need to come to Venice to warm yourself in my light.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Case for Universal Health Care

Back when Bill was in office, and Hillary was trying to bulldog through universal health coverage, I was agin it. Mainly because Hillary was associated with it, but partly because it seemed a little socialist to me, and therefore suspect. That has all changed.

As the more learned among you know, Karen and I moved to Italy in 2008, and since that time Karen has become a citizen. As a citizen, she has a God-given right to be in the health care system here. As a hanger-on, I have the same right. We jumped through the necessary hoops and got ourselves hooked up.

A while back I developed some symptoms that I diagnosed as a hernia. I went to our doctor here, and he confirmed it. Although at first he didn't want to do anything, as it was a small hernia (“there is nothing to do now – it will get worse and worse, and then we will operate.”) he kindly allowed me to go see a surgeon. The surgeon confirmed that there was a hernia, and told me that someone would call me withing about 90 days to set up an appointment for the surgery.

After a while I got the call and a date was set. A short time later they called to change it. They actually would have rescheduled it earlier, but I was busy that day, so it was set about two weeks later. They told me to bring some PJ's, some slippers, and someone to take me home at the end of the day. Karen and I posted at the appointed hour (7:30 a.m.), and after a short wait we were taken to a hospital room with three beds in it. They said I would be first.

There was then some prep work to be done, which the nurse accomplished with a dry safety razor. It actually worked painlessly, but the final result was the ugliest thing I have ever seen. I returned to the room and was instructed to take off all my clothes and to wrap myself in the sheet that was on a gurney they had wheeled in. I did this, and within a few minutes was wheeled off to the operating room.

Everyone there was very nice, and they knew what they were doing. They put an I.V. in my arm with no trouble; I didn't even bruise. (When I had had a colonoscopy in the U.S., the woman putting in the I.V. brutalized me with a needle for half an hour before finally giving up and sticking it into my hand - I ended up a sickening bruised mess). Here, however, they talked to me nice, and made me feel better about whole thing.

Now you must realize that what they were about to do was to cut into my lower abdomen, put my guts back where they belonged, and stitch me up. Not exactly open heart surgery, but it was gonna leave a goddam mark. So my first real moment of horror was when they told me they were going to use local anesthetic. I was looking forward to getting some real nice drugs, and waking up to Karen's smiling face when it was all done. I did not want to be awake. I did not want to feel them pushing my innards around, or hear the clanking of surgical instruments. I wasn't worried about hearing what they said, because they were all Italian, and my Italian at the moment could best be described as rudimentary. I also had a concern that the anesthetic would not be as effective as your humble and pain averse narrator would like, or that I would actually be able to see the butchery. Nevertheless, instead of the horrified NOOOO that I wanted to scream, I squeaked out an “ok.” But now I was scared.

They then used an ingenious contraption to slide me from the gurney I was on to another gurney in the actual operating room. When I got to the operating room there was a big giant lamp over me, a couple of doctors and a few nurses. They hooked me up to the usual vital signs gizmo, and rigged up a blind so I could not see what the doctor was doing, thank God. They gave me a big shot of what I presume to be novocaine with a needle I could not see, but which I envisioned was as big as a clown might have in the circus – one he could shoot other clowns out of.

After a few minutes they went to work. After cutting into me the doctor kindly asked if I had any pain. So far, so good. Then a little while into it I felt a pinch and jumped a bit. Then again. One of the nurses looked around the blind and told me that the doctor says I should hold my body still. I did, of course, realize that the good doctor had sharp cutting tool of some kind in the immediate vicinity of my guts and other parts, and that laying still was not a bad idea. But I informed her that he was now cutting into a place that was not so numb. Within a few seconds a nurse produced a lovely syringe and put something into my I.V. Then another. After a few minutes I remember seeing the room upside down. It looked like they had the operating table standing upright. And I could not see anyone in the room. I asked “where is the doctor, and why was the room upside down?” (I don't recall any reply). Now this is what I'm talkin' 'bout - this is all I wanted all along. Was that so hard?

The next thing I remember is waking up in the room near the contraption they used to move me from one gurney to the other. I heard them bring some old man in with the contraption, screaming his fool head off. Then I heard him again howling when they put him on the operating table. “Wussy,” I thought.

They wheeled me out where I was met by Karen, who was happy to see that I survived. I recovered for several hours in my hospital bed, they made sure I could walk, and they sent me home.

Now here's the punch line: It cost me a total of about $75 in co-pays. From seeing the doctor in the first place (free) to seeing the specialist (18.95 euros) to the operation itself (36.15 euros). It went smoothly, was timely, they treated me nice, and it was a pleasant experience (considering that it was an operation).

There is no reason that a system like this cannot be implemented in the U.S. Who is gaining from the present system? The patients? No, they are paying through the nose for insurance, if they can afford it at all, and are at the mercy of the insurance companies. The doctors? No, doctors will tell you it's harder than ever to earn a decent wage. The insurance companies? Ding Ding, Ding Ding. All of the reasons I have heard put forth against universal health care, such as it takes too long to get treatment, that you'll lose several “freedoms,” such as the freedom to choose a high deductible (which nonsensical argument I read in a Fortune Magazine*, or that it's socialist, are all clearly propaganda by the insurance companies. It increases taxes? Well, you need to pay for it somehow, but what are you paying now? What is your premium? What is your deductible? What are your co-pays? Do you even have insurance? And that is really the point – how can we run a country where only the richest can afford even basic health care. Those of you who do not have insurance should rally in your millions and make sure this gets done.

*This article so parroted the insurance companies that its author and the magazine should be embarrassed.

Monday, March 2, 2009

All In

In poker there is a term “all in,” meaning that the player has put all his chips into the ante. With respect to our move to Italy, we are now “all in.” When we came here we still owned a house and all the stuff in it. Although we did not intend to go back unless the operation here was a total failure, and although we had the house on the market and wanted desperately to sell it, it was still there just the way we left it, and we could return and pick up as though nothing had happened. That has all changed. The house has sold, we have emptied it, and now there is no fall-back position. Some of our belongings we have shipped to Italy at no small expense. Most of them, however, have been sold for a song, or simply hauled away for not even a song. This causes one mixed feelings.

If we were going to live in Italy, then we needed to sell the house, pronto, and if I may use the subjunctive voice, I shit you not. We had it on the market for a year, supporting all the expenses that go with it, while at the same time living in Italy and paying dearly for that honor. This arrangement was about to become unviable when suddenly we got a contract on the house. We were very happy to have the contract. Although the terms were not particularly good, we could not afford to lose the sale, and a few grand was not going to ruin us. Keeping the house would. So we swallowed the fact that the house sold for quite a bit less than we had anticipated when doing the math as to whether we could afford to live in Italy, and went ahead with the contract.

To make things worse, we sold our things for about a third of what we had originally calculated they would bring, and the cost of shipping what we wanted to keep was more than double our original estimate.

All of these things, i.e., the substantial decline in the real estate market, the low prices we got for our things, and the high cost of shipping our stuff to Italy, are only further reminders that the gods have their heels on my neck. They giveth with one hand, and taketh with the other. This time, however, at least the balance sheet netted out in my favor.

As to our things, we made the decision to move to Italy for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was that we looked around at a house occupied by two people and two dogs, with ten rooms full of stuff. We had a few things that had some actual monetary value, and a few things that had sentimental value, but most of it was crap. We were slaving to support a house full of crap. We were also slaving to support insurance companies, car companies, mortgage companies, and credit card companies. We were not destitute, and between the two of us brought in more than the vast majority of people of this Earth, but we were being bled dry to live in what a professor of mine called the “Fordism Paradigm.” Basically, with the invention of mass production, there had to be a way for people to buy things that cost a lot of money. Enter easy credit - living on love and buying on time. Consequently, the idea of chucking in all, which would have to be done in order to live in Italy, had a certain appeal, and was a fundamental part of the plan.

It is easy to talk about doing a thing, but not so easy to actually do it. This reminds me of a line in a move, the title of which escapes me presently, but the hero (if such he be) wanted to have relations with a girl who always talked about sex. But at the crucial moment, she declined the invitation. Our hero observed: “She could say f___, but she could not do it.” The question was, then, could we say get rid of the crap, and also do it?

With a house full of stuff there are a couple of ways to go about getting rid of it. For example, one could have a yard sale, sell the stuff on eBay, or advertise in the paper. One could also have an estate sale. As we were limited in time and energy, we opted for the only thing that made any sense: an estate sale.

Prior to the sale we arranged for an international mover to come and take what we wanted to keep. This called for some hard decisions. We knew that the more we brought, the more it would cost to ship ($12 per cubic foot, plus $35 for the box). We also knew that whatever we left would sell cheaply, or not at all. If not at all, it would likely end up in a dump, or at best given to charity. We were deer looking into headlights.

Although I was not there (Karen had deemed me incapable of doing the job, so she went to the U.S. and took care of the whole thing herself, God bless her soul) I found the estate sale to be a bit sad and depressing. They put a big sign on our house like we had died. We were getting rid of stuff that took us years to accumulate. Most of my books (collected over 35 years); pictures of Beethoven bought in Bonn and framed at no small expense; paintings I had done; my records, etc., etc. I could say it, but could I do it? I did it.

Reader, dry your eyes. I am writing this sitting in my apartment in Venice (which I have already filled with new paintings). Our Sleep Number bed is on the way, as are some of my books and some of my pictures of Beethoven, as well as a large bust of Beethoven (whom I consider to be an incarnation of Jesus Christ) that Karen bought me for my birthday several years ago. The other stuff? Simply a payment to the gods for the privilege of sitting here telling you the story. The cost was low.

If I felt like it, I could get out of my chair and walk to St. Mark’s basilica. I could go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, or to have coffee at Campo Santa Margherita. Look in any guidebook of Venice, and everything in there is within a 15 minute walk of my apartment. Florence is three hours by train, Rome about five. I can fly to Paris in about an hour and a half at little cost. So, while the gods have taken a fee, they have left me with some legal tender, and the prospect of spending it here.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Slow Down when Visiting Venice

I live in the most beautiful and most romantic city in the world: Venice. Millions of tourists come here every year, crowding St. Mark’s Square, the Rialto Bridge, and the streets in between. Tourists can be seen trying to find their way in this medieval city, staring at their maps, looking up at the street signs, and back at their maps. Sometimes the frustration is obvious when couples, who should be enjoying such a romantic city, angrily argue over which way to go. This frustration is compounded by the bustle of the place. Locals are rushing about, trying to get through the throngs of gawking and window shopping tourists, rudely bumping into people, and exhibiting their own frustration. Add to this delivery men and garbage men pushing carts (there are no cars, and they must get things over bridges) through the masses, a day in Venice can seem hectic. Because relatively few of these millions venture away from the central tourist-choked streets to see the real Venice, people often come away with a bad impression. This is a shame. Once you get away from the touristy sections, Venice is uncrowded, interesting, and moves at a much slower pace.

Now, there are sights in Venice that once should certainly see, and which involve dealing with crowds. St. Mark’s, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridge, the Rialto Market, and certain of the museums. These places are necessarily crowded and difficult to move around, but by all means see them. If, however, you come to Venice and don’t venture away from these areas, you may be unhappy with your time here. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make your experience in Venice much more enjoyable.

Often the hotels give out small maps of Venice for free. On these maps are indicated in yellow the main paths from one sight to the other. One should generally look at these yellow lines as streets to avoid. Instead, try to find another way to get to the sights. Also, it is better to go early in the morning to see certain sights, as they are not crowded until midmorning, and in the summer it is a cooler time of day. Consider as well going at night. Venice is safe at all hours of the night, it is cooler, less crowded, and in some ways more interesting.

Consider hiring a private tour guide, particularly if you have only a short time in Venice. A lot of people come to Venice for only a day, or take a day trip from someplace like Florence. Other people are in Venice either to meet their cruise ship, or to spend a day or so after a cruise. These people would benefit from taking a private tour so they can see Venice in an easy relaxed manner, and at their own pace, and without the frustration of trying to find their way on a map. At the same time, such a tour will give you some history and lore, take you off the beaten path, and make your time in Venice infinitely more pleasant.

Don’t try to fit too much into one day, and don’t over schedule. Being a tourist is tiring work; leave time open to do whatever comes to your mind. Sit at a cafĂ© in a little square (campo), relax, drink some wine, and watch Venice go by.

Whether you come to Venice for a day or for a month, and whether you take a tour or simply meander on your own through the magical streets of Venice, take it easy and savor it. Take your time, look at the details, watch the people drink in its beauty. This is the best way - the slow way.

Visit my website for lots of useful information about Venice and tours of Venice.