Saturday, September 21, 2013

Monte Carlo, Bird Watching, and Pisa

I made a grave tactical error when packing for our APHC Mediterranean cruise. I did not pack enough light clothing, and we encountered nothing but hot, humid weather everywhere we went. I packed a pair of jeans and a pair of black dress slacks (neither of which I ever wore), a pair of shorts, a pair of white pants, and a brand new pair of khakis which turned out to be mislabeled and were four sizes too small. The first day of the cruise I got a nosebleed, which of course dripped onto my white pants.

Not to worry. There was a laundromat on board the ship.

I wore my shorts in Monte Carlo, and I felt like a slob. In Monte Carlo, you expect everyone to go around looking like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, and a lot of them do. If they wear shorts and tee shirts, they wear designer shorts and designer tee shirts—with thousand-dollar Italian sandals. In the fashionable, art-nouveau-style cafe where we had lunch, I felt especially self-conscious and out-of-place.

Then a man came in. Until the maitre d' seated him, I figured he worked there—probably as a dishwasher. Think of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Got the picture? Okay, now forget Brando and picture Danny DeVito in the same role.

After that, I felt a little less self-conscious.

On the circle outside the Casino and the Hotel de Paris were parked only Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and pricey Italian sports cars. We tried to go into the Hotel de Paris lobby, but the doorman wouldn't let us. (How did he know we weren't guests?) We didn't try to go into the Casino.

Monte Carlo Casino

I think everyone from our ship felt a little uncomfortable in Monte Carlo. Most of us were Midwesterners and not used to such extravagance. (Although I suppose it could be argued that being on such a cruise was fairly extravagant itself.) As Garrison Keillor sang at the APHC performance that evening:
Here you are, an American, sweaty, in T-shirt and jeans,
Monolingual, innocent, whatever that means,
Pale, and you have no yacht with whistles and bells,
But as your mother said, You're as good as anyone else,
So don't stand there, averting your gaze, twisting your right shoe.
You have a right to be here too.
Your manners are nice and you speak English rather prettily.
So let's go to Italy.
And so we did.

Our first port in Italy was Livorno—which for some reason in English is called "Leghorn" (and yes, it's where the chickens come from). We had several options for excursions, including Florence, Pisa, and Tuscany. We chose the "Lake Massaciuccoli Bird Watching & Pisa" excursion (primarily because it included a visit to a winery). While it's not a bad idea to wear shorts when bird watching, you cannot wear them in a cathedral. Therefore I wore my clean white pants, in case we should decide to enter the cathedral in Pisa.

Our guide was an Australian transplant named Jon. He and our bus driver, Giovanni, took us to Lake Massaciuccoli, where we met up with our bird-watching guide, a local named Gabriele. Gabriele was very knowledgeable about birds, although he only knew them by their Italian names, which led to some confusion among the serious birders on our tour. We had some very serious birders on our tour. I am not a serious birder, but I enjoyed the boat ride on Lake Massaciuccoli, which, aside from being a wildlife preserve, is also famous for being the location of Puccini's summer home. We saw a lot of birds, but I only got a picture of one. I think it's a cormorant, although it may be a penguin. It's difficult to tell from this picture.

Lake Massaciuccoli Cormorant (or Penguin)

I enjoyed the boat ride far more than I enjoyed our hike through the wetlands afterwards. It was hot and humid, and there was no shade. At least for most of the hike we were on a board walk. However, at one point, Gabriele picked three "volunteers," including myself, to get off the board walk and jump up and down on the ground, in order to demonstrate that the "islands" we were walking on were actually floating masses of sphagnum moss. Three large people (Gabriele clearly chose his volunteers for their size) jumping up and down in unison had the desired effect of causing the island we were standing on to bob up and down like a raft. It also had the undesired effect of splashing mud onto my pants.

My clean white pants.

Before visiting Pisa, we stopped for lunch at Tenuta Gaetano Spadaro, an organic farm which produces wine and olive oil, nestled in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. It being a winery, there was, of course, wine: red to go with the pasta, white to go with the pork ("the other white meat"), and sweet "vin santo," or "holy wine," in which to dunk our biscotti.

Tenuta Gaetano Spadaro

It was Saturday afternoon, and Pisa's Piazza del Duomo was hot and crowded. According to Jon, the baptistry, cathedral, and bell tower all lean—each in a different direction. You may be able to see that in the following picture, or maybe not. I discovered that it is difficult to take a picture of any of these structures while keeping the camera level; one has a tendency to tilt to compensate.

Baptistry, Cathedral, and Bell Tower of Pisa

We did not enter the cathedral, so I needn't have worn my long pants after all. We also did not climb to the top of the tower. We did not have time. Even if we had had time, I don't believe I could have done it—especially after reading Twain's account in The Innocents Abroad: "Standing on the summit, one does not feel altogether comfortable when he looks down from the high side; but to crawl on your breast to the verge on the lower side and try to stretch your neck out far enough to see the base of the tower, makes your flesh creep, and convinces you for a single moment in spite of all your philosophy, that the building is falling. You handle yourself very carefully, all the time, under the silly impression that if it is not falling, your trifling weight will start it unless you are particular not to 'bear down' on it."

The best thing about Pisa is that none of us had our pockets picked there. From what Jon told us, we were lucky. Near the cathedral, we saw a handbag that had been picked clean and discarded, and, as we were leaving, Jon pointed out a gang of young women who were working the crowd near the bus stop.

Everywhere on our trip, we saw traces of the Roman Empire. On the drive back to the ship, our route took us on what was once an old Roman road. It was lined with beautiful umbrella pines—the same type of trees (though not the same trees) planted by the Romans to shade the road from the hot sun. We also saw sections of an aqueduct. I was reminded of a line from Monty Python's Life of Brian: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Of course the best place to see evidence of the Romans is in Rome, which was to be our next stop.

But first I needed to wash my pants again.

No comments:

Post a Comment