Saturday, February 20, 2010

Four Nights at the Opera: Der Ring Des Nibelungen

I love music; I can listen to it all day, on any format you give me, until my head splits open and my ears bleed rock n' roll all over the keyboard. And because I am a nerd, I must do more than love my music: I must hoard it, categorize it, analyze it, and most importantly, pontificate about it. Yes, it falls to me to listen to things, and tell the rest of the world whether it's worth their precious time or not.

As a mere human, however, I am sadly limited. There is just too much recorded music to listen to in one lifetime, and so you will probably never get to hear my conclusive opinion about Swedish Death Metal, or Zimbabwean Electric Folk, or many other genres which may or may not exist. I'm just not likely to get around to it. But every once in a while, I like to take a step out of my pocket pop/rock universe and explore something "weird." And in the depths of our vulgar modern days, what could be weirder than opera, the highest tower in the ivory skyline of classical music?

So when I found a complete recording of Richard Wagner's magnum opus, Der Ring Des Nibelungen, on iTunes for a mere twenty dollars, well, I knew what I had to do. I had to buy it, and I had to listen to it, and then I had to let the world know what I thought.

So that's what I did.

The Ring Cycle, as it's known by the lazy of tongue, is an intimidatingly monumental work of the late Nineteenth Century, composed of not one but four individual operas, intended by the composer to be performed as whole over the course of four nights. It's an epic tale of heroes , gods, magic rings, dragons, and the end of the world, so you know Wagner means business. The language is German, and the setting is the imagination of the ancient Germanic myths, spliced and rearranged in dramatic fashion, presumably in order to include references to as many as humanly possible.

Because it's in German, I entered the arena at a significant disadvantage: I had no idea what the hell was going on. I partially overcame my handicap by reviewing the individual plots of the operas on Wikipedia; furthermore, I ran the titles of the individual tracks through Babelfish, in order to give myself a rough idea of where I was in the narrative. It worked, barely. In a nutshell, here's how it all goes down:

The first opera, Das Rheingold, introduces us to the Norse Gods (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc), renamed in German fashion (Wotan, Donner, Loge, etc) and fighting with giants and dwarves over a magic ring. The ring was forged by Alberich, a lustful dwarf who stole a magical hoard of gold from the nymphs of the Rhine river. What can the ring do? Well, it grants its bearer the power to conquer the world, but also drives him insane and inspires jealous rage and desire in those around him. This does not sound familiar at all. The ring comes with a magic helmet (magic helmet!?), which transforms the giant Fafner into an invincible dragon.

The second opera, Die Walküre, tells of how Wotan set up the hero Siegmund to defeat Fafner and claim the ring. Unfortunately, Siegmund throws a wrench in this plan by having sex with his long-lost sister, Sieglinde, earning him the wrath of the gods. Wotan reluctantly decrees that the pair must die, but the Valkyrie Brünnhilde takes pity on them, and manages to save Sieglinde and her unborn child. For her insubordination, Brünnhilde is then sentenced to a magical sleep within a ring of fire, to be awoken only by a great hero. I think we can all see where this is going.

The third opera, Siegfried, tells the story of the creatively named progeny of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Orphaned from birth and raised by Alberich as part of a convoluted plan to reclaim his lost treasure, Siegfried asks the dwarf Mime to reforge his father's sword (this also does not sound familiar). Mime fails in this task, so Siegfried forges it himself, and proceeds to slay the dreaded Fafner. Siegfried gains magical powers from the dragon's blood, and slays Mime, who intended to betray him. Siegfried then discovers the sleeping Brünnhilde; she awakens, he gives her the ring, they fall in love, and sunshine and happiness reign o'er the land.

The final opera, Götterdämmerung, sounds like the most awesome curse word in existence, but it isn't. Siegfried goes off in search of adventure, and comes across King Gunther. On the advice of Hagen, Gunther's half-brother and Alberich's son (good Lord this is confusing), Gunther and his sister Gutrune decide to trick Brünnhilde and Siegfried, respectively, into marrying them. Siegfried drinks a magic potion that makes him forget about Brünnhilde; disguised as Gunther, he then kidnaps Brünnhilde for Gunther and seizes the ring from her. Brünnhilde discovers the treachery, and vows revenge; Siegfried is killed by Hagen on Gunther's command, as punishment for his dishonorable behavior; Hagen kills Gunther and attempts to claim the ring, but is thwarted by Siegfried's still-moving hand; Brünnhilde builds a massive funeral pyre, returns the ring to the nymphs of the Rhine, and finally burns Siegfried and herself. This leads directly to the destruction of Valhalla and the gods, in a clear and obvious manner that certainly needs no explanation from me.

Neat story, Wagner. So how's the music? Very, very interesting. The series is famously characterized by the extensive use of leitmotifs, which is a real boon for a novice like me; the sudden recurrence of a musical theme, such as the famous "Ride of the Valkyries," helps somewhat in keeping of track of the characters and plot in such a dense, impenetrable story. I could hardly tell most of the characters apart (with the obvious exception of females and males), but with a leitmotif here and a quick Babelfish translation there, a semblance of order ultimately emerges. Making sense of this semblance, however, is an awful lot of work.

It's largely my own fault. The music is only one part of Wagner's whole creation, as essential to the whole as it may be. By necessity, I missed out on the elaborate staging that goes with a proper performance of the Ring, and while Wikipedia is helpful, it's no substitute for a real libretto. Thus, the poor opera naif is up a creek with nary a paddle or a magic helmet to save him. I can hardly say I experienced the entirety of the saga without its visual, dramatic elements.

Of course, I didn't go in wholly ignorant of Wagner. Thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, everybody knows the Ride of the Valkyries, and I recognized several other pieces from various sources. I was also fully aware of the more troubling context surrounding Der Ring des Nibelungen: namely, the composer's antisemitism and the subsequent appropriation of his work by Hitler's Reich. Though it is a plain anachronism and slander to say that Richard Wagner was a Nazi, his music was put to the Nazi's purposes, and his legacy of racism is tied up with that of the nineteenth century, which for my money was the most deeply racist epoch in western history.

But is Der Ring Des Nibelungen a racist opera? I may be ignorant of its subtler themes, but it doesn't seem that way to me. The legends and myths that inspired it are older by far than the modern racist phenomenon that troubles us to this day, and whatever purpose Wagner may or may not have had in mind in celebrating the German "race," it's the more ancient aspects of the story that shine through the brightest. At any rate, condemning the work because of its historical circumstances is hardly a fitting treatment for such an ambitious piece of art.

Besides, as I said before, I like music. Wagner's Ring is not only "important" music, but big, dramatic, and often very beautiful music. It may not be a very good introduction for opera noobies, especially in such a denuded format, but it kept my attention for four nights and gave me plenty to think about. If you're in the mood for a little dragon slaying, why not give it a try?


For the record, the version of the Ring which I bought from iTunes was recorded by the Orchestra Sinfonica E Coro Della Radio Italiana, with Wilhelm Furtwängler. I don't know who any of these people are, but I thank them for their hard work, and for making that work available to me at such an absurdly low price.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Italic Adventures

Grad school is eating my soul, slowly but surely; however, for the first time in weeks, I'm not stressing about anything major coming up. So let's have another journal entry, shall we? Today's section covers roughly the week we spent in Italy, which is nearly as hot as Greece, and only slightly more crammed full of monuments. Once again I have modified the original journal, which was written in haste and frequently sucks, into a more readable format.

Day Eight: Many, Many Ferries

We checked out of the hotel bright an early in the morning, which turned out to be a mistake, because the bus did not come to take us to the docks until about six in the afternoon. Rather than spend the day in our lovely, air-conditioned rooms, we sat with our luggage in the lobby and waited for mosquito-induced death.

With the whole group together again, we traded interesting stories, especially about the creepy, creepy bellhop who managed to make inappropriate advances on ninety per cent of the female contingent over the course of our stay. (As for me, he offered to carry my bag. I thought he was just helpful). Nobody bothered telling Jacob, the guide, about it until we were long gone, but he promised to write a report about it. Maybe someone will read it?

Owing to the utter incompetence/inadequacy of the bus company, we again had to cram much of our luggage into the aisles. Owing to the incompetency of the tour company in arranging schedules that make sense, we sat around the ferry dock for hours with only stray dogs and bad food to raise our spirits. There are, as a matter of fact, thousands of stray dogs on Corfu alone, and some of them are probably rabid. We didn't care.

This ferry was a big improvement over the last one, because it had an open deck, the better to watch the waves and admire the sunset and scenery. But it was also cold as hell, so eventually I found my way down to the lounge with some friends for a rousing game of "BS," a game I hadn't played properly since middle school, and for good reason: it's very, very stupid.

We landed in another Greek city that nobody ever bothered to tell me the name of. After an absurdly long walk with heavy luggage in tow, we waited for hours in yet another terminal, because apparently we hate ourselves that much. It was night time, with nothing to do but eat gelato and whine, so we whined.

Getting on the boat was not half as painful as I'd come to expect of boats and such bull, although we did have to show our passports, Schengen Agreement be damned.

Day Nine: Naples, Pompeii, Rome

The Greeks do not know how to make a decent travel breakfast. This has nothing to do with Greek cuisine in general (though I am not a huge fan), they just don't seem to understand the principle of scrambled eggs. I didn't realize the concept was so hard. Too make matters worse, today they offered us free "breakfast vouchers," but they were only good for orange juice and crackers. Eggs and sausage were "extra." Good riddance, Greeks.

We landed in Brindisi, a lovely Italian port town, and then got on ANOTHER bus, with a new Italian driver and a mercifully spacious cargo bay. With no time to spare, we set off for Naples post-haste.

They say Southern California has a "Mediterranean" climate. Sitting on a bus for five hours gave me plenty of time to reflect on the many truths of this observation; the mountainous terrain, temperature, and weather were all very reminiscent of my sun drenched stomping grounds. Yes, for five hours I reflected on the similarity. Five long hours.

Jacob played us a couple of movies to relieve the tedium: first, the utterly abominable Blue Crush, and second, the infinitely more tolerable Marley and Me. I elected to ignore the screens and listen to my iPod. Around the time we rolled into Naples, under the imposing shadow of mighty Vesuvius, Jacob had the nerve to castigate us for watching movies on a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Italy, Italy, of all places. Real funny, jack ass.

Just outside Pompeii, we stopped for a very classy lunch, because the Italians know how to make a damned fine pizza. We were led to believe it was covered by the tour company, and nobody bothered to tell us otherwise until the waiter came back looking to take our Euros.

Just outside the Pompeii site we had our first experience with "Whispers" devices, portable radios that allow local tour guides to speak directly into the ears of distractible tourists over great distances. A clever idea, but thick Italian accents over fifty cent radio speakers do not make for tasty ear candy.

Pompeii was a real trip, absurdly well preserved in the face of utter destruction; if only Delphi had been cataclysmically buried under four meters of ash and mud, maybe it would have been half as well preserved. We saw all of the interesting sights there, like temples, baths (Neptune's face still peering creepily out of stucco walls), a bakery, a brothel (complete with hilariously pornographic mosaics), and a fancy mansion on Fancy Mansion Street (not its real name). I found the little things most interesting, like the lead water pipes sticking out of the ground by the sides of the road. Making them out of lead may have been an astoundingly poor decision, and our guide confirmed that the people of the time suffered heavily from lead-related diseases, but isn't it incredible that these people had plumbing, of all things?

Pompeii is an entire city preserved from two thousand years ago, so the site is very large; the majority of it is covered in archaeological work, and not open to the public. We explored the ruins for an hour and a half, even coming across some of those famous plaster people casts, showing the volcano's victims at the moment of gas-induced death; from there, we made our way back to the tourist market.

In the market, I found even more disturbingly penis-shaped merchandise, reminiscent of Athens' infamous bottle openers, in a booth labeled "Erotic Pompeii." Seriously, Europe. Children come here too. They're all around this place. Put the penises away.

Back on the bus, and another four hours of riding to Rome. Absolutely nothing interesting happened in those hours.

The suburbs of Rome appear much more modern than those of Athens, a point driven home when I spotted not one but three Gamestop stores; I used to work there, and I had no idea they even had any locations in Italy. Apart from an aqueduct or two, there weren't many of Rome's famous monuments to be seen in the outer parts of town.

Our new base, Hotel Cilicia, was very nicely built but suffered the critical flaw of broken air conditioning units. The Italian summer is ungodly hot, and broken AC units are absolutely unacceptable, as are lies about when and how said units will be fixed. In the bathroom, I at last encountered the fabled bidet, Europe's elegant answer to the admitted inadequacies of toilet paper. Not wishing to make an ass of myself, I refrained from using it.

Day Ten: Rome

Today I learned that awful breakfast is not a specialty of the Greeks. It is European Law. Scrambled eggs are for all intents and purposes forbidden: you're better off praying for the occasional authentic orange juice and croissants. Bring your own food.

We took a bus to the Colosseum, at the heart of what you might call "Theme Park" Rome. At first impression, the monuments seem to be much more well-integrated with the modern infrastructure of the city, and it would probably be easy for natives to take for granted the huge, crumbling arches and amphitheaters. In fact, that part of town is convincingly "old Rome," with the Colosseum, Hadrian's Arch, the ancient Forum, and the Palatine and Capitoline hills all in easy sight of one another. Even the ancient Roman motto, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, I explained, fresh out of a Roman history college course) is stamped on manholes and gates for that extra Imperial feel. The modern city simply goes about its business in all directions, while the tourists move in and out, cameras a-snappin'.

The Colosseum, fully restored, would make an excellent football/soccer stadium, the biggest drawback being the lack of parking space in the immediate vicinity (and, you know, protesting archaeologists). It was hot that day, and stadia (to use the Latin plural) always seem hotter on the inside than on the outside, so of course the Amphitheatrum Flavium was sweltering. I fantasized about the days, over a hundred years ago, when the structure was over-run with plants and trees, which might have provided some decent measure of shade. At one point, I found a view of the arena that seemed an exact match for a photograph I'd once seen in a textbook, for a delightful jolt of deja vu (not Latin, but close enough).

Another bus hop, and we met up with our local guide for the day, who took us on a walking tour through commercial streets, where we saw some very famous, very notable buildings, chief among them being the Trevi Fountain. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the Trevi Fountain is the coolest freaking thing in the entire city. When you turn the corner to see the fountain, it's as if a glittering wall of water, gods, and horses are suddenly bearing down on in you in a furious sweep of noise and fury, leaving you quite literally breathless. Also, it's full of pennies.

The guided tour ended at the Pantheon, once a pagan temple but preserved through the centuries as a Catholic church. The building and its famous dome are large and impressively built, with a little hole at the top to let natural sunlight in (I'm not sure what they do when it rains). As for me, I don't believe that I knew that King Vittorio Emanuelle II was actually entombed in the Pantheon, but he couldn't have picked a more stately, or ego-gratifying, place.

Jacob had secured a mass-ticket for all fifty of us to enter Palatine complex and the old Forum, but when it came down to it, the masses seemed utterly uninterested: some claimed hunger, or exhaustion, or even claimed not to know what the Forum even was, for shame. As it turned out, only myself and one other guy elected to claim the fifty-person pass, thus ensuring odd stares from the ticket counters at the gate.

On the way there we passed the appointed rendezvous point, the monument of Vittorio Emanuelle II at la Piazza Venezia, the city's most spectacular modern structure. Across the street from there we found the slightly more recent Imperial Forum, built to supplement the old Roman Forum in the days of Trajan, whose funky-looking column remains the most interesting thing at the site. Really, the only interesting thing.

The entrance to the real Forum is at the Palatine hill, close to where the day's adventure began. My buddy and I kicked around the hill for a while, refilling our water bottles, then taking some sophomoric satisfaction in running around in the hollowed-out place where Augustus' palace once stood. Reading for some hard core ruins, we descended into the Forum proper.

There are many old buildings still standing there, and the complex has a very park-like aesthetic, with no modern structures and only a few archaeology-related KEEP OUT signs here and there. The best preserved is the Curiae Iulia, the Senate meeting house built by Julius Caesar himself. Like the Pantheon, it was well maintained over the ages as a Christian Chapel, and kept its dignified look against a background of later, Renaissance-era buildings.

Less immediately appealing were a pack of abstract modern sculptures dotting the grounds around the various ruins, which seemed to depict a series of monstrous orb-babies hatching from primordial pudding eggs. I have a certain fascination for abstract art, but while I liked them well enough for what they were, I'd really like to know what city hall was thinking when they decided to install them there. Ignorant tourists might get strange ideas, after all.

With that grand adventure done, we still had four unbearable hours to wait for the bus to take us back to our suburban hotel. We decided to look for an internet cafe, and after nearly forty minutes of walking we found a ridiculously over priced one. To hell with that; we next found ourselves in a Borders-like book store, conveniently air conditioned and stocked with many wondrous things. We finally settled down in the one place we knew we could sit for three hours without being kicked out or treated like bums: McDonalds.

At the surprisingly posh restaurant I finished another book, Volume One of the most excellent manga series, Lone Wolf and Cub. Though it would cost me well over two hundred dollars to own the entire series, I fear I may end up doing just that; it's really very good. Meanwhile, we met a traveling couple from Latvia who were keen to show off their little daughter's English skills. Pretty darn adorable, if you ask me.

Back at the Piazza Venezia, and then back on the bus for the end of a day that, in retrospect, was just a little bit too long. I didn't regret a single thing I saw, but I began to perceive a flaw in our normal operation of leaving us stranded in the middle of giant cities with no way out except for the suspiciously over-priced taxis. Five or six of those eight would have been plenty to see the big, important sights, with time for a little lunch and rest.

Back at the hotel, I made the mistake of telling people I only drank what was in front of me, and I soon found in front of me more shots of Jaegermeister than I had ever seen in my life. In this way I learned that Jaeger, and those who provide it, are the devil; also, that it is surprisingly easy to crash into walls. I tried to join my diabolical compatriots on a rudimentary pub crawl, but I was quickly overwhelmed by the noise of bad techno and retired to the hotel for some badly needed sleep.

Day Eleven: Vatican City

Mercifully, I awoke sans-hangover. That means the score is Jaegermeister 0, David 1. Let's keep it that way.

There was a small uproar over what was considered appropriate attire in the Vatican city State, AKA Catholic Ground Zero. At least one girl had to go out that morning and buy a new dress; while we waited for her, I started reading my new copy of the Bhagavad Gita, which I had purchased from a member of International Society for Krishna Consciousness on the University of Oregon campus that spring. Ironic? Maybe a little. Don't tell the guys at St. Michael's.

The bus drove us over the famous Tiber river, which was honestly not that impressive, looking a rather sickly shade of green. It didn't look like a river that would nourish a mighty empire like Rome's. The bridge was very nice, though.

We parked out in front of St. Peter's Square, which of course was covered in pigeons and looked absolutely amazing, and then we hiked all the way around the Vatican City Wall to reach the entrance of the museum. What awaited us inside? Even more walking. Fortunately, there were loads and loads of amazing sculpture and paintings all the way through.

I suppose I should have known about this, but I didn't realize the original Laocoön and His Sons was on display in the Vatican. Upon seeing it, I geeked out a little, determined to tell everyone there exactly how amazed I was to see it. The Pope has way too much cool shit in one place. In ever gallery, in every room, I saw statues that I'd only ever read about and seen in pictures, just sitting there, existing, barely protected from my grubby hands, about as nonchalantly as you can imagine. Then you've got these incredible antique maps (I love maps), mosaics, paintings and gilded ceilings, and you throw in the fact that all of this was once closed to the public, for the Pope's own private viewing, and dammit, it's not fair. Not fair!

The Sistine Chapel ceiling, only one of Michelangelo's resident masterpieces, was amazing in its own right. However, I left the room in a crummy mood, feeling quite irritated at the unwashed hordes inside who insisted on taking pictures, in spite of posted signs, genuine concerns about the effect of flashes on the artwork, and plain good taste. I felt sorry for the guards who had to shout "No Foto!" over and over, ignored by self-righteous tourists who were APPARENTLY unaware that you could find high quality images of the ceiling on the internet for free. And they're better pictures than their little cameras could take in the dim light.

Anyway, everyone always gets excited about the ceiling, but I was actually more impressed by the Last Judgment, the huge mural on the wall behind the altar. Something about Michelangelo's furious, beardless Christ sorting the good from the wicked captivated me: probably, I was thinking about all of the photographers in the room.

Shortly thereafter, the path took us to St. Peter's Basilica, and Lord help me, I sinned the sin of Envy. Why couldn't I go to that Church when I was a little kid? The chamber is unimaginably huge, there's an original statue by Michelangelo tucked in a corner, an impossibly tall, impossibly pointy altar, gold leaf on just about everything, and mosaics so meticulously arranged that until you stepped within a few feet, you'd swear that they were paintings. Photographs were permitted, and we took many.

After the tour, we had forty minutes of free time to chill in St. Peter's Square, and as luck would have it, a Mass was scheduled to begin in ten. The Catholic in me wanted to go, but alas, I could not. I had checked my backpack at the museum entrance, and I realized then that I had to walk all the way back to the other side to retrieve it. Bear in mind, I effectively had to walk the perimeter of an entire sovereign nation, a journey that took a good half hour.

Back in the square, I took a good look around at things, like the Swiss guards (they dressed funny), the pigeons (some of them had deformed feet), and the Vatican Obelisk (it's very tall). We assembled, and took the bus back to the hotel, where it was definitely nap time after all that walking.

After an epic nap, the majority of the group was preparing for a rather serious pub crawl, an endeavor I rejected as uncouth and undesirable. My behavior the previous night notwithstanding, I hate pubs, dislike crawling, and bear no great love for booze. Instead, I decided to go exploring the vicinity of the hotel.

To my surprise, I saw signs indicating that the Appian Way, one of Ancient Rome's most well-preserved cities, was nearby (as a matter of fact, the hotel was located along the modern day Via Appia). Alas, I could not find it: the sign pointed toward a fork in the road, and I went the wrong way, finding myself in the middle of some kind of crazy folk festival. Rather than retrace my steps, I admitted defeat and went to get some delicious Italian pizza. Then it was back to the hotel, where I resumed my study of the Gita, like a good little scholar.

Day Twelve: Florence

I awoke the next morning to find most of the group wearing "When in Rome, Pub Crawl" t-shirts. Brief interviews with the participants indicated that shit went down. One pair of girls told me how they'd hitch-hiked home with a famous opera singer, whom they regrettably could not remember the name of. That is clearly either the greatest true story, or the greatest drunken hallucination, of all time.

And so we boarded the bus and bid goodbye to the Eternal City, heading north for Florence, the heart of the Italian Renaissance. The drive, like all bus rides, was fairly boring.

Our new hotel, Hotel Patrizia, was classy enough. However, the hotel itself was not to be found on the first or even the second floor, but the third floor, so it took ages for the fifty of us to get all our things up the stairs; there was only one, tiny elevator. There was no air conditioning at all, but mercifully, the heatwave that had oppressed us in Rome seemed to be on the wane.

Schedule-wise, we had a problem. It was Sunday, about four-thirty in the afternoon. We were told that all of the most famous museums in the city, including the Galleria and the famous Uffizi, would be closed on Monday, leaving us no time to enjoy them before we left town on Tuesday. We were also fairly certain that the galleries would close early on Sunday, and we despaired to think that we'd narrowly missed a chance to see some of the city's greatest art works. A few of us, deciding to at least see Michelangelo's David if we could, set out running in the direction of the Galleria.

Florence is just lovely. I came to regard it as more classic and authentic than Rome (the mountains of fake leather goods notwithstanding). A friend and I got sidetracked on the way and found ourselves in front of the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria De Firenze, a beautiful building whose exterior, at least, rivaled that of St. Peter's. Atop the building sits one of the most famous domes built in the Renaissance period, engineered by an architect whose name escapes me (Bernini? Berluchi? Wikipedia tells me it's Brunelleschi). The structure is commonly called Il Duomo, but I learned later that that word means house, not dome, and refers to the cathedral's status as a house of God. Shows what I know.

We reached the Galleria, and thankfully it was open, but tickets were ten euros a pop. Most unfair, but we paid, figuring that it was probably worth it to see art that could literally change our lives. Right inside we saw a very famous sculpture, the Rape of the Sabine Women, situated in the center of a big room. It's a very nice stature, as depictions of kidnappings go. Especially ones with the word "rape" in their titles.

We turned a corner, and lo and behold, there was David, standing there, doing his David thing. He was lit rather magnificently from below, giving the marble a rather translucent, transcendent quality. Pictures don't really do it justice, and in any event my sister had the camera, and she wasn't with us. So I took no pictures of it while I was there, opting toburn it as deeply into my memory as possible.

Also showing at the Galleria that month was an exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe, also known as Jesse Helms' favorite homoerotic photographer. As a matter of fact, four of Mapplethorpe's enormous photos were set up all around David's pedestal, as if trying to steal some of his Renaissance thunder. I was a little put off by this, having definitely not come to see Mapplethorpe's work. When I considered, however, that I had in fact come to the Galleria to see a statue of an enormous, well-muscled naked man, I had to concede a point. That makes the score Mapplethorpe 1, David (Miller) 0.

Back to the hotel and then out again with friends for a classy (but ridiculously expensive) dinner. I decided then and there to stop tipping at restaurants that not only charged you for water, but included a service charge just for sitting down. It's just greedy, is what it is.

I was very happy to see that our hotel had free Wi-fi. However, for whatever reason, the manager was in the habit of turning it off every night at ten. Hey, buddy! We've got e-mails to check!

Day Thirteen: More Florence

We woke up again to another sub-par breakfast, but by now nobody cares. Today's special entree was twinkies.

Once again the group assembled, and we marched downtown along the Arno river (which is much nicer than the Tiber). We met our local guide at La Piazza Della Signoria, underneath a statue of Cosimo d'Medici. Sharing the square with him were a number of other statues, including a replica of the David where the original once stood, and the original Rape of the Sabine Women. The one I saw the day before was a copy, commissioned to eventually stand in the original's place; constant exposure to rain and pollution has threatened the original's integrity.

From there we walked back to Il Duomo, and this time we got to go inside. The interior was not quite on par with St. Peter's, but it had a very mellow, reverent atmosphere, and the fresco on the inside of the dome was very lovely. There was also an awesome giant clock, which was chiefly awesome for being a giant clock.

We saw some more sights on the tour, including the Piazza di Repubblica, the Jeweler's Bridge (the only historical Florentine bridge to survive World War II), and the entrance to the Uffizi, which was closed due to Karmic injustice. Then it was back to the Piazza della Signoria, where we again admired statuary and said goodbye to our local guide.

Jacob led us to a local leather shop, Studio Leonardo if I remember the name, and the workers there gave us a neat presentation about the history of the Florentine leather-working trade, as well as a demonstration of key aspects of the process. We saw one of the shop's most remarkable products, a jewel box made of hardened, shaped leather, with no metal or plastic parts, even for the hinges. We had an opportunity to do some shopping in the store with a group discount, but as fascinating as the presentation was, most of the good stuff was still prohibitively expensive. I thought about replacing my wallet, since it has a hole in it which allows coins to slip out, but I couldn't find a decent one for less than twenty euros. So I merely browsed, then took off with some girls for panini (prosciutto crudo = GOOD) and gelato.

The bulk of the tour boarded a train for an optional (and costly) excursion to Pisa. It was my understanding that Pisa's only recommending feature was the leaning tower, and against that I had to stack my two pressing needs: a nap, and laundry. I was very close to finally running out of clothes, so Pisa had to go.

The hotel did not have laundry facilities, as the uncivilized Europeans scorn us and our mechanized washing and drying of clothes. Fifteen minutes away was a laundromat, which catered to tourists via exorbitant prices that no self-respecting Florentine would pay in a million years. Washing and drying two loads of laundry cost me eleven euros; in America, I could have done the same for two dollars. Feeling cash-strapped, I bought a cheap pizza for dinner and went back to the hotel.

Feeling tired, I spent the evening listening to music and looking out my window at the townspeople. My sister, who mysteriously disappeared to go hiking in the countryside with her friends, finally returned around midnight; this was good, as I wasn't entirely comfortable with leaving her behind. I chided her gently for not coming with us, as she missed an opportunity for some awesome pictures.

Most of our group went out to a nearby disco called "Space Club," which is just about as campy as it sounds, to do body shots and other such nonsense. I was invited, but I was having none of their tomfoolery that night. Instead I went to bed at a decent hour and got plenty of sleep, as a wise traveler should.

Day Fourteen: (Almost) Venice

Two weeks we've been traveling! I've stopped trying to keep track of the days of the week. They're not really important: what matters is hitting our scheduled stops at the appropriate times. Today we had another long, boring bus ride through terrain that looked mostly like the rest of Italy, but gradually grew a bit greener and swampier: we were on our way to Venice, baby!

As we approached our destination, Jacob told us that, owing to Venice's unique island situation, it was too expensive for us to actually get a hotel there. Instead, we were to stay in a little beach town called Jesolo. The place was actually fairly accommodating, with a working air conditioning unit even, although we did have to pay two and a half euros to turn it on. The beds were comfortable, and for once the TV even worked. To my surprise and delight, I found an Italian dub of Star Trek on that afternoon. The episode, Who Mourns for Adonis?, was rather appropriate, given our recent Greco-Roman adventures. I couldn't understand the dialogue at all, but Star Trek is Star Trek.

That evening we had a special treat: wine tasting and dinner at a local winery. Apparently, this vineyard gives tours often; I noted a number of signs indicating "Agriturismo" services. Now, I am not a big wine drinker. As a matter of fact, I don't care for the taste of most alcoholic beverages. But strawberry wine? Pretty darn tasty.

We got a brief tour of the vineyard, and the sheds where the magical fermentation process occurs. It was educational, and I probably would have learned more, but the lady's accent was unfortunately thick. My sister and I considered buying some wine for our parents, but ultimately decided against dragging fragile bottles halfway across the continent for three more weeks.

Dinner was fabulous, with some Italian meats, a pasta dish, and of course, more red wine. Many of us enjoyed that last part quite a bit, and the hall was full of singing. Eventually our host gifted us with an Italian song in a stunningly profound voice, and a grand time was had by all.

Back at the hotel we met our temporary neighbors, a gang of German high school students, who seemed to be "enjoying" their trip as much as we were. In fact they were quite noisy well into the night, but our walls were fairly soundproof.

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