Verona

After a hefty break, I am continuing my series of Italy Stories. The following takes place during my first night in Verona, after spending two nights in Venice.

From Venice Kay and I took a train to Verona. Even though it is a city so old that its origins remain unknown to this day, Verona felt more like a modern city than any we’d explored in Italy yet. But despite having fewer dilapidated roads and a more familiar style of street-arrangement, getting from the train station to our bed and breakfast proved difficult.

Kay had a picture of a map and directions on her phone, and so, like normal, she led the way. My friend is her least communicative when she’s lost or stressed, and so we lugged our belongings around Verona in silence. After a fair amount of struggling to make sense of what the directions were saying, we agreed to peek into a bar and grill restaurant to ask for some guidance. It was a hot, clear-skied afternoon, and the bar appeared to have just recently opened for the day’s business. The first person we saw was a large man sitting on a bar stool, and so Kay asked him for directions in broken Italian. He could tell from her speech and accent that Kay was not Italian and responded in English that was far-less-broken by comparison. He understood where we were trying to go and told us, “Forget everything Google has told you.” The man set us straight, and we tried to memorize his verbal instructions. At first, Kay was no more relaxed in her stride now that we knew what was allegedly the correct path to our newest temporary home, but we came across an area that looked more metropolitan, and then found our bed and breakfast, and a wave of relief washed over both of us.

We were greeted by Stefan, the man who owned and operated the bed and breakfast. Stefan was short and fit, with a thick black beard and a full head of groomed black hair. He also had black hairs covering his forearms and protruding from the collar of his polo shirt, like they were gasping for air. He spoke in a somewhat nasally voice, and he spoke very fast, in an accent that was difficult to pin down—perhaps vaguely Irish or Scottish? His eyes and eyebrows were very expressive and the way he looked and spoke reminded me of Robin Williams (like, if Robin Williams had just inhaled in a little bit of helium).

Stefan was very sweet to Kay and I, and he was very passionate about his B&B. To keep the accommodations in tip-top shape, he posted adorable signs throughout the rooms, halls, and kitchen, which said things like, “I’M MISTER DOOR. PLEASE DON’T SLAM ME! IT HURTS!” Several of the objects in the house had particular requests as to how they should be treated—Mister Refrigerator insisted that one make sure his door was closed, Mister Toilet asked that his trip lever be held down for a few seconds to ensure a complete and satisfactory flush, etc. Strangely, no objects of the female gender could be found in the place.

Stefan recommended some attractions for Kay and I to experience while we were here, including art museums, a few restaurants, and a trip to see Italy’s largest lake. We decided to make our trip to the lake tomorrow, and so our first order of business now was to get some food and explore the city by foot.

We left our B&B, then almost immediately returned, because I forgot my water bottle again, and today’s heat made having water readily available an absolute necessity. Stefan would randomly fire off a series of complaints about the heat wave Italy was experiencing. “It’s mad, just mad outside,” he would say, brow furrowed and eyes wide. Water now in hand, Kay and I made our way to a “fast food” pasta restaurant. After having so many spectacular pasta dishes, we doubted that this restaurant would meet our expectations. And it didn’t. But the food wasn’t terrible. I remember my affordable pasta carbonara tasting fine, but most of my memory of the restaurant is dedicated to a series of dopey murals painted on the dining room walls. Each mural depicted a couple of hip pasta noodles, a cool pasta noodle dude and his cool pasta noodle lady, each never not wearing sunglasses and doing something that only the coolest of cool teens would do. Such activities included skateboarding, roller blading, surfing, or throwing snowballs.

It must have been around 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and for some reason we thought this would be a great time to eat dairy. Stefan had recommended a gelato shoppe that had the “tastiest, most creamiest ice creams.” The location was farther away than we thought, and the walk made us weary. Despite being off the beaten path, a crowd was in line to try this locale’s cold treats. The flavors were not on display beneath a glass counter, like in the other gelato shoppes we’d visited, and the flavor descriptions were also not translated into English. I could read enough Italian to identify lemon and chocolate, and those were the flavors I selected. What was served to me had a texture more like frozen custard than gelato, and it was probably the best desert I’d had during my entire stay in Italy. The ice cream didn’t quell my persistent sweating, and in fact it kind of disturbed my stomach, which was uncomfortably warm and already full of cheap pasta. I wanted badly to finish eating, because it was delicious, and because of the whole “stuffed dogs” thing, but I also didn’t want to vomit on the streets of this beautiful city, so I reluctantly tossed the last quarter of my ice cream in the rubbish bin. Kay finished even less of hers.

From there we hoofed it to an old castle, which had been converted into a museum, because apparently that’s all old Italian castles are good for anymore. Before entering the museum lobby inside, visitors were funneled through a wide and sweeping courtyard contained within the tall brown brick walls of the castle. The courtyard contained massive statues of bodiless heads and limbless torsos, scattered haphazardly, jutting out of the earth, like some sort of horrific necropolis for giants who had been either decapitated or drawn and quartered. It was my favorite part of the museum and I snapped lots of pictures.

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The pre-entrance courtyard might have been my preferred section of the castle because it was the only section that wasn’t crawling with security personnel. I have nothing against human surveillance in a place displaying old and precious art, furniture, and weaponry—in fact it makes a good deal of sense to me to have humans watching over the safety of such relics—but the security guards of this museum were a collection of stone-faced, haggard, unsmiling, all-seeing, intimidating elderly women. Each one I passed I regretfully made eye contact with (as if my eyes were magnetized to theirs), and they seemed to deliberately maintain eye contact for what was certainly longer than what is socially acceptable. And their manner never changed, even when staring directly into another human’s face—not one of their angry eyebrows ever untightened into amiable relaxation. Their facial expressions were as hardened and permanent as petrified wood.

One of the many courtyards within this museum.

One of the courtyards within this museum.

At one point Kay placed her hand on a glass case containing some much-aged items, causing an especially droopy old woman to shriek the fastest- and angriest-spoken Italian I had heard yet. We didn’t notice the rebuke for a minute or so, though, because we’d conditioned ourselves to ignore most Italian conversations, assuming they must not be meant for us. We finally did acknowledge this potential gypsy curse, but only once this terrifying ancient was right at our sides, hunched over and looking up at us, still spitting some angry words our way. This pre-ghost pointed her finger and kept reprimanding until we left that room, and we didn’t take long.

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The museum had a gift shop, and it seemed to have all of the normal souvenirs a tourist might want: bottle openers shaped like The David, keychains shaped like The Colosseum, postcards of places impossibly beautiful…save for one item, which was Dante Alighieri’s famous Inferno, but drastically abridged and colorfully illustrated in order to serve as a children’s book. The high school AP English standard was particularly disturbing as a story intended for children—seeing cartoon illustrations of hell-dwelling sufferers being chopped up, wading through a sea of feces, or being lashed by serpents and other reptilian torturers, for example, is much more troubling than just reading the text alone. It seems simply wrong for children to be exposed to it, but maybe Inferno is like the Italian Good Night Moon. Who am I to judge?

Sweet dreams, kiddos!

Sweet dreams, kiddos!

Dante Alighieri considered the city of Verona to be his “first refuge and first hostel” after being exiled from Florence. Dante’s connection to this city felt especially appropriate during our visit because Verona was an utter inferno during our stay. The museum was even hot all the way through. No room or hallway was air conditioned, and many of each had large doorways open wide to greet the sweltering world. Kay and I had planned to walk along the Adige River following our exploration of the museum, but after sweating for several hours on what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll, I wasn’t sure if I’d live to complete a riverside hike.

“We aren’t still thinking of walking around all day are we?” I blurted out once we exited the courtyard of half-buried giants.

“I’m so glad you said that,” Kay whewed.

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We found our way back to the B&B and I sat myself down in front of two gusting fans for an amount of time I completely lost track of. I attempted to read an essay by David Sedaris, but wound up napping in an inadvertent attempt to be Italy’s most boring visitor. Looking back, I’m somewhat disappointed in myself for being so frequently tuckered out during the afternoons, and succumbing to sleep when I could have been exploring more, but according to my journal, I found these naps at the time to be as necessary to my life as oxygen or hope.

I was essentially using naps as a way to travel through time, my unconscious body being the time machine, taking me forward until Italy’s climate could support human life again. I awoke when the sun was setting, and Verona’s temperature had dropped from around 36 to 30 degrees celsius—this is a change of 96 to 86 degrees fahrenheit, basically. (Verona’s average summer temperature is 26 degrees celsius/80 degrees fahrenheit, so Stefan’s complaints about the heat wave were understandable.) The city felt much cooler now. Without a dairy-filled stomach or a sweat-covered forehead, Kay and I were able actually take in the atmosphere of Verona, and we concluded that we liked it. Verona felt calmer than the other cities we had visited. This could be because the city’s layout was easy to navigate, and so the entire population wasn’t frantically lost, like most everyone in Venice, for example. This could also be because there are fewer tourists bustling around town, though Verona is not lacking in tourist attractions. For instance, Verona is home to the third largest Roman arena. The Arena di Verona was built in the first century and could originally hold an impressive 30,000 spectators, who would most likely be there to watch gladiators participate in glorious murdersport. Despite its original outer wall being demolished by an earthquake in 1117 (and then rebuilt many years later), The Verona Arena is one of the most well-preserved structures of its kind, and is still used today for internationally famous operas. The Arena had never used microphones or sound speakers until 2011, and has recently started to feature more large-scale acts than just the world’s finest opera singers—including some of the greatest, most famous rock and pop acts of all time, such as Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, The Who, and Jamiroquai. The Arena also contains many dark and mysterious catacombs, causing some to refer to it by its nickname, the “Labyrinth of The Devil.”

I learned all of this information about the Arena di Verona well after leaving the city, and so as Kay and I walked across the coal-colored, fan-patterned brick streets of Piazza Bra, in the heart of Verona, we interpreted the monument to be merely a smaller, negligible copy of the Colosseum of Rome. We observed for a moment the impressively ancient structure, and, unfortunately, foolishly, for whatever reason, decided not to enter. A very large stuffed dog gone unbought.

On our way to whatever restaurant we wound up at, Kay and I passed by a number of men peddling fake luxury items and pointless knickknacks on the street. I cannot remember if I have mentioned these hucksters in a previous essay, but if I haven’t, I must take a moment to address them, their interesting career choice, and their perplexing existence.

I’d seen these street salesmen in every Italian city I’d explored thus far, with the exception perhaps being Cinque Terre (I assume because there were none present—though if I happened to ignore these doohickey hustlers, and they were actually existent and nearby, it was because I was too engulfed in the mountainous and costal sights provided by the towns), and I never got used to seeing them. These folks set up tables covered in watches and jewelry, carts full of hats and Tshirts, or a blanket on the ground covered in purses, each item either obtusely touristy or designed to appear “designer-brand,” though it is actually just a stylish placebo. Some hucksters dedicated themselves to selling the most inane objects ever conceived, like an eyeballed gelatinous sphere, which when thrown against the ground makes a shrieking noise. I can recall seeing suntanned men standing around for hours just throwing these little bits of nonsense against the ground, to demonstrate the squeal the toy made, and then would pick it up, and repeat and repeat, their faces only deviating from expressions of apathy to occasionally holler at people in broken English about their merchandise. A lot of these vendors hollered.

I saw countless hawkers on my walks through Italy. It was usually blistering hot, and I had no idea how they weren’t shriveling up into creepy little husks. They weren’t even dealing water, like people do outside of baseball games. That would have made way more sense. When I wasn’t not understanding how they weren’t being murdered by the sun, I was not understanding how they acquired so many of whatever category of crap they were selling. How does one amass two dozen counterfeit designer purses, or 400 scarves that say “ROME” on them? And not to insult the lives of these people, but how does one fall into the business of hawking and huckstering? How does one convince himself to invest day in and day out into shamelessly bothering tourists, trying to swindle them with his table of cheap whatevers. I refuse to believe it is worth whatever paltry sum they earn at the end of the day. It’s a step above food service, but still.

I don’t mean to sound harsh towards these people—I don’t hate them or anything. I just don’t understand their chosen occupation. All I really do know is that I feel bad for them; I especially felt bad for the ones in Verona. Without the flocks of tourists other cities easily sported, the purveyors in Verona just looked lonely. A good fraction of these guys made their choice of merchandise a missile-shaped toy, which shot into the air from a handheld base, and then slowly helicoptered down to earth by extending some tucked away fan blades and spinning around. Why so many of these? Just in Verona? I had so many questions. I thought about talking to one of the helicopter toy vendors, but my hunger for knowledge was no match for my actual hunger, and so we just continued to the restaurant.

We sat and ate our food outside. Kay and I split a pizza, some sort of pasta, and a liter of wine. The restaurant and the food were quite fine, but nothing about my dining experience really stood out to me except for when the band showed up. All of a sudden a band full of men holding guitars and mandolins of various sizes appeared, sat down at a few outdoor tables, and began to put on a show. The songs were lovely, each strum and string-picked melody crisp and clear, and the lyrics were very romantic. Or I assume so, I couldn’t understand because they were in Italian. But also, the only reason I assume the lyrics were romantic is because they were in Italian. Some people danced, but we didn’t. Dancing seemed like a great idea to me for a moment, but I wouldn’t have known what to do once I stood up (what I’m supposed to do with my knees and elbows continues to confound me), so I stayed seated and drank wine, an activity at which I am quite skilled.

Full-bellied we walked back through Piazza Bra, admired the soft lights displaying the elegant homes and shops, lazily acknowledged the Arena once more, returned to our room, and slept in the mad heat.

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