A Philistine’s Guide to Italy

When in Rome, order beans for dinner, take the bus instead of renting a car, and get to know your Jesuses.

I just got back from honeymooning in Italy. Before I went there, I was a philistine. Now I’m a philistine who’s been to Italy. I did learn a few things. Chiefly, I learned that Italian guidebooks are designed for people who are interested in broadening themselves. Here’s a guide for the rest of us.

Art. In the country, the big attraction is villas, which charge you a few thousand lire to admire their gardens and sculptures. The gardens are half patio and half golf course. Some sculptures depict the Count of So-and-So, who used to own the villa. Others memorialize his bad taste. In cities, most of the art is in museums and big churches called duomi. The ceilings of the duomi are spectacular. So are the floors. My wife suggested that we model our bathroom floor after one of them. The floors are checkered with marble slabs commemorating rich people. The more money you give to the church, the bigger your slab, and the better your location. Basically, it works like the Republican National Committee.

Religion. Most of the art in museums is religious. The big theme is Jesus. There are four kinds of Jesuses: Baby Jesus, Spurting Jesus, Floating Jesus, and Propeller-Head Jesus. Baby Jesus sits in Mary’s lap. He has adult features and expressions wholly inappropriate to an infant. In some paintings he looks like Joe Pesci; in others, Don Rickles; in others, Christopher Walken. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has a Baby Jesus that’s a dead ringer for Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz. Occasionally, Baby Jesus suckles at Mary’s breast. Evidently the artists who painted Mary had never seen a naked woman. Her breast starts around the collarbone and takes off like a torpedo.

Spurting Jesus hangs on the cross and spouts blood from a gash in his chest. Lots and lots and lots of blood. In the Dormitory of San Marco in Florence, there’s a whole row of monks’ cells, each of which has a Spurting Jesus on the wall. The monks were supposed to meditate on these paintings all day. This can’t have been helpful. Maybe they meditated on whether the Jesus-on-the-cross had a penis. He seems to have had one when he was a baby, but now bits of fabric are conveniently placed to obscure it.

Floating Jesus is my favorite. He wears a white robe and hovers over the thieves who have just dug up his grave. With one hand, he makes Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” sign. With the other, he carries the flag of some Scandinavian country.

Propeller-Head Jesus has a halo with a red cross in it that looks like a propeller. This is the easiest way to identify Jesus. Lots of guys in these paintings look like Jesus, and they all have halos. Sometimes one guy’s halo blocks your view of the guy behind him. My wife and I spent several minutes discussing a huge mural of the Last Supper before we realized that the guy we thought was Jesus was really Judas. Very embarrassing. We should have looked for the propeller. What it’s supposed to convey, I don’t know. What it conveys to me is: “Hey! Over here! This one’s Jesus!”

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to religion. I loved the duomi and the little shrines nestled into odd corners of the hill towns. But let’s face it, much of Christian history is bloody awful. In San Gimignano, there’s a whole torture museum specializing in instruments of the Inquisition. (The “skull crusher” and “rectal pear” are particularly memorable.) The museum charges twice the admission fee that other museums charge, and people pay it because, basically, we love cruelty. The museum pretends to teach the lessons of man’s inhumanity to man–especially man’s inhumanity to woman–and visitors make the appropriate noises of disgust as they study each device. But the truth is, we’re fascinated. One exhibit presents the electric chair as a testament to American brutality. I suppose I am a brute. On the train to Venice, packed into a compartment with several nice old Italian ladies, I peered out the window at the sky stretching toward Yugoslavia and pronounced it “excellent bombing weather.” “Charming,” my wife replied coldly as she shrank into her seat.

Driving. If you take the “scenic” back roads, don’t expect to notice the scenery. You’ll spend the whole trip with your eyes glued to the road and occasionally your rearview mirror, in which a caravan of Italian drivers will be tailgating you. You’re too terrified to speed up because the road is narrow and winds sharply around hillsides. They can’t pass you for the same reason. My advice is to take the bus. The bus we took along Lake Como to Bellagio careened around dozens of bends, any of which could have plunged us hundreds of feet into the lake. At first I thought the drivers we passed on that road were nuts. Then I saw the bikers. They wore racing gear and refused to get out of our way.

Cars. Americans build wide roads and new cities to fit big cars. Italians build little cars to fit old cities and narrow roads. In Siena, the locals drive miniature three-wheeled vans, pickup trucks, and even dump trucks designed to navigate the city’s tiny medieval passageways. Thanks to the proprietress of our hotel, who climbed into the passenger seat and issued directions, I maneuvered our Fiat Punto through a 7-foot-wide stone maze, up and down a series of alleys at harrowing right angles, past scaffolding and cafe tables, to the parking lot.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

L anguage.  In preparation for our trip, I spent months studying Italian soccer on television. I mastered the words “portiere” (goalkeeper), “colpo di testa” (header), and “quattro minuti di ricupero” (four minutes of injury time). Italian is better-known as the language of lovers, of course, which is one reason why people honeymoon there. The other reason is that the words “husband” and “wife” are easier to practice in a foreign language.

Less than a week into our marriage, we were touring Lake Como on a ferry when we cruised past a wedding party. The captain tooted his horn and called out over a megaphone, “Vivano gli sposi!” (Long live the bride and groom.) Everyone smiled and sighed. The scene was perfectly scripted for a honeymoon. What wasn’t scripted for a honeymoon was our phrase book, which included translations for “Is your wife/husband here,” “I’d like you to use a condom,” and “You can’t stay here tonight.” Part of the problem is that Italian makes everything sound like a sex act: Menaggio, Dongo, Lemna, Cadenabbia, Faggeto, Bellagio. And those are just the towns along Lake Como.

Pigeons. Italian piazzas are full of pigeons. I hate pigeons. They’re slow, stupid, ugly, and rude. Not only do the Italians feed them, they sell bags of birdseed to tourists, who in turn feed the pigeons. Naturally, the pigeons hang out in the piazzas all day, cooing and crapping and waiting to be fed. Welfare for flying rats. I was delighted to discover skyward prongs in the ledges of the Basilico San Marco in Venice, designed to prevent pigeons from alighting there. I also watched a boy in Lucca try to run over pigeons with his bike. My only regret is that I passed up a chance to order roasted pigeon in Florence.

Tourists. The affinity between pigeons and tourists makes sense. The tourists, too, are slow, stupid, ugly, and rude. They set off flash bulbs in churches. They thrust their fingers within an inch or two of priceless paintings, pointing out the obvious. Years ago, the tourists took snapshots. Now they make videotapes. They videotape anything that moves and much that doesn’t. In San Gimignano, I watched a man painstakingly videotape a door. In Venice, I watched tourists on a bridge videotape tourists on a boat, who in turn were videotaping the tourists on the bridge.

Germans. Italy is one of their favorite travel spots. Somehow this makes me uncomfortable. German travel, particularly in Europe, has never been good news. Everyone has their ethnic hang-up; I suppose this is mine. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s that Holocaust thing. Not that I hold it against all Germans. In fact, the hotel we stayed at in Bellagio was run by a nice German family. Lovely people. And I was becoming quite comfortable with the whole German atmosphere, really—right up until the Lufthansa flight attendant showed me how to place the mask securely over my nose and mouth and breathe deeply.

Food. The best advice I got before the trip was from my colleague Jacob Weisberg, who said, “Order the beans.” If the waiter asks whether you want gas or no gas, he’s referring not to the beans but to the water, which comes with or without bubbles. The only bad food in Tuscany is the bread, which provides all the blandness of matzot without the moral satisfaction. The ice cream varies. In San Gimignano, it’s outstanding. In Lucca, it’s a rip-off. In Venice, every vendor sells the same bad ice cream, evidently at the behest of a conglomerate whose boats we saw unloading their sinister cargo at various docks. In case you get homesick, Venice now has four McDonald’s, with menus tastefully adapted for Italian sensibilities. A McChicken is called a McChicken. A Filet-o-Fish is called a Filet-o-Fish.

Cell phones. In Venice, we saw a man in a green suit and sunglasses prancing around a storefront, gesticulating wildly and apparently arguing with himself. Eventually we figured out that he was talking to a tiny phone in his ear. People go out to eat with friends and spend the whole time yapping with somebody else on the phone. In Siena, a man and woman dined at the outdoor table next to ours. They both wore wedding rings. The man had brought his dog along. His phone rang, and he spent the rest of the meal in what sounded like a playful conversation with a child. The woman just went on eating. It doesn’t add up. If the guy wanted to talk to his kid, why did he leave the kid at home? If the kid was at home, why was the dog at the restaurant? If the woman was the guy’s wife, why was he ignoring her? If she wasn’t his wife, why were they wearing rings? If she was the kid’s mom, why didn’t the guy hand her the phone? I don’t get it. But then, being a philistine is all about not getting it–and never having to say you’re sorry.