Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 4:44 pm — Comments (1)

A commenter in the post below referred to me as “American.”  The adjective not the noun.  You know what’s cool?  It didn’t even occur to me to wonder if it was a snark.  You know why?  November 4th, 2008, that’s why.

I have always been proud of being an American.  I love my country, no qualifiers.  I’m not one of those Americans who sews a Canadian maple leaf to his shirt.  But that being said, is there an extra swing in my usual American swagger?  Yeah.  You bet there is.

The first African slave stepped off a boat in what would later become the United States in 1619.  (Or, “recently” as they would say here in Italy.)  In 1860 (last week in Italy) we had a staggeringly bloody civil war that resulted in the end of slavery.  Another 100 years (a long week-end) until we ensured legal equality for African-Americans.  40 years later:  Barack Hussein Obama.

But as pleased as I am to see my country move past the idiot obsession of race, that’s not really the point of this election.  In this election the American people were given a clear choice between hope and fear.  We chose hope.  I never doubted that we would.  We had a choice between the future and the past.  We chose the future.  

That’s what makes Americans cool.  We’re ass-deep in debt, scared, every objective indicator heading south, trapped and all but written off as a fading relic.  So we take a flyer on the new kid who offers us a chance to dream again. 

“American.”  A compliment again.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:08 pm — Comments (11)

I have been hesitating over this post.  

I’ve moved around a great deal in my life and I have yet to figure out how to do it without making people feel as if I am somehow insulting them and rejecting their town or city or country.  I never intend it that way.  I have my own odd preferences, my own peculiar tastes, and of course my own agenda.  

Long story short, we’re leaving Italy and moving back to the States.  

Our visa will expire in spring, so one way or the other we were going to leave in a few months.  But we’re bailing early.  Like in a week.  And here’s the part that’ll make you spit up your Amarone: we’ve chosen southern California.  Trading villas and vineyards for used car lots and, um, new car lots.

I am the most impatient person I’ve ever met.   I go through life wishing everyone, everywhere would get the hell out of my way.  On the road, on the sidewalk, in lines at the store: move!  I want all my questions answered instantly.  I want everything right now.  I am in a huge rush and have been my entire life.  Which is odd considering that I’m pretty much inert most of the time.

So you’re thinking, “Well, Michael, it’s good that you’re self-aware enough to know this.  Now, what in hell are you doing in Italy?  Why didn’t you move to Japan or Germany or New York?”

That’s an excellent question there, theoretical interlocutor.  And I have an inadequate answer:  I thought I might change.  I thought I might slow down, take on less work, stop and smell the flowers.  Instead, in the seven months I’ve been here I’ve gone from one book a year and one blog, to two books a year and three blogs.  And I’m angling for a third book a year.  And I want to start doing a lot more promo.  And I’m tangentially involved in a new technology company.  Plus I’m thinking of getting involved in book packaging.   And e-books.  And I’d love to learn how to write scripts.

You’d think a writer would know that core character doesn’t change that much.  I’m still impatient and ambitious and greedy and controlling.  And to put it bluntly, Italy is getting in my way. 

Partly it’s just this rustic lifestyle.  It takes forever to get anywhere.  If I were willing to shop old-school Italian — make the daily pilgrimage to macelleria to polleria to salumeria and all the other rias — I’d still have to drive fifteen minutes into Pontassieve, search for scarce parking, maybe find it, maybe not, climb the hill to the Centro and spend an hour waiting in line, waiting for things to be wrapped, waiting and walking around with all the string-bag ladies, and all for what? So that I could spend an hour cooking dinner?  Who has time for that?

So it’s the local mini-supermarket or a major haul to an Ipercoop.  Down narrow, windy roads dodging cars that cross the line into my lane, resisting the urge to nail a passing motorino just for the hell of it.  All of it taking time.  Time on the road.  Time in the absurdly long lines.  Time here and time there in little increments, but all of it coming from either my work time or my precious inertness time.

Partly it’s rusticity.  Partly it’s Italian rusticity.

Mostly it’s the lack of control.  Control freak?  Yeah.  Just a little.  I hate that if I’m hungry at 4:00 pm I won’t find anything, anywhere but a stale prosciutto sandwich.  I hate that I can’t just pull into a Wendy’s.  I hate the way I can’t do business from noon till 2:30, or 3:00 or 4:00.  And I hate the way the country shuts down on Sundays.  It offends me.  I want to decide for myself what I’ll do and where I’ll go and when and for how long.  And as far as I’m concerned the world should wait with bated breath for me to make those decisions and then leap to satisfy my every wish.

I can’t get phone calls returned, or emails answered.  Even when all I’m trying to do is get someone to provide the service they presumably need to provide in order to pay their rent.  I can’t stand it!  I can’t stand the fact that I can’t just wave an American Express card and get people to actually deliver what they are in business to deliver.  Don’t these people understand that money makes the world go round?

I can’t get Italy to give me what I want when I want it.  I want 250 Advil in a bottle I grab from the shelf, not 12 ibuprofen I have to wait in line for.  I want fried eggs in the evening.  I want coffee in a take-out cup.  I want an ATM card that dispenses more than 750 Euros a month.  Italians seem to think that just because they’re a two thousand year-old civilization that they have a right to do things in ways of which I disapprove.  They seem determined to deny my God-given American right to have whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want it.  And in a wide variety of sizes.

And then, there’s the girl.  (No, not a mistress:  my effort to convince Katherine that I should adopt what I was hoping was the local custom went nowhere.)  I mean our daughter.  Kid likes people.  Go figure.  She needs friends.  She needs a group.  She likes sports.  She wants to be on a soccer team and take gymnastics and fencing and surfing and skateboarding.  (Strange the way she likes humans and physical activity.  She may need therapy.)  

Arranging to ship our car home I ran into a brick wall.  No answers.  No one who seemed to know anything.  10 days and it was like I was howling into the void.  But after numerous unanswered emails and ignored phone calls I finally found a responsive, competent person who could answer my questions directly.  She replied instantly to my emails.  She knew her business.  She had definitive answers.  She was . . . Finnish.

Our competent Finn has lived in Italy for 20 years.  Here’s what she told us, unprompted:  Italy is for visiting.  It’s a great place to visit.  But you wouldn’t want to work here.

And unfortunately that’s my conclusion as well.  I will probably never live any place as beautiful as Tuscany.  I walk the dogs in the morning with the mist rolling over the vineyard and it’s lovely.  It’s a beautiful, beautiful place.  If I was retired it might work.  But I’m an impatient workaholic and man, this is just the wrong country for me.  I just don’t have the time for Italy.

A week from now we’ll be in L.A.  A week after that I’ll be bitching about it.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 5:45 pm — Comments (7)

I saw women clutching their babies to their breasts as they tried to shield them from the deadly blast of arctic air.  I saw strong men dressed in multiple layers, hats pulled down over their ears wincing and bowing their heads in the face of the gale.  Elderly Italians shuffled with grim determination through what might prove to be their last winter storm.

Yes, a dangerous blast of cold air struck Tuscany today.  It was 65 F.  18 C.  A little breezy.

Seriously.  People.  Come on.  Cowboy up a little, huh?

We come out of the Carrefour loaded down with groceries and it’s about 6:00 pm, give or take.  Getting dark.  A little breeze kicking up.  Nice.  Pleasant.  I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt.  The wife likewise. The boy’s in shorts and a tee.  The girl’s in a skirt and a tee.  None of us wearing a jacket or sweater.

We looked like crazy people.  We looked like we were endangering the children.  People stared at us in horror.  They made the sign of the cross.  Had we not hurried along I’m convinced someone would have called the Italian version of child protective services.  (The Carabambini?  The Miseragazzi?)  Because everyone — everyone, all, 100%, the totality of visible humanity — was dressed in layers, many with hats, some with fur collars clutched to their throats.  Fur!  

They cringed!  They cringed and grimaced in the face of what was maybe a 10 mph breeze and mid-60’s F temperatures.  

We looked like Vikings.  Crazy-ass, American Vikings indifferent to cold and quite possibly drunk.  Even the kids.  

Three winters in Portland, Maine.  Five winters in Chicago.  And three winters in Minneapolis.  

I remember once in Minneapolis trying to get a jump start for the car.  It was minus 30 F.  That’s -34 C.  I’m not talking wind chill, I’m talking absolute temperature.  Now that was cold.  In Minneapolis anything above freezing is kinda nice, and it isn’t considered cold until you hit the point where losing a button on your coat can threaten your survival.  In Minneapolis summer begins promptly on July 1st and ends the next day. That’s cold.

Now Italians up north, up in the Alps, they must be a bit hardier.  But Tuscans?  Hah!  They couldn’t survive a stroll through a Houston shopping mall, let alone Minneapolis in January.  

Ah hah hah ha!  Gaze upon the thin cotton fabric of my Eddie Bauer t-shirt and despair!

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:20 pm — Comments (3)

I am not a rustic.  Not “country.”  Not even a little bit.  I know, this shocks some regular readers who will say, “I am shocked:  I pictured you as a guy who milks cows and shears sheep.”

Well, no.  No, I’m not country folk.  I am not city folk, either.  I am suburb folk.  A member of that hardy, salt-of-the-earth, soccer dad, Target-shopping, private school tuition-paying, mall-cruising, TV watching, SUV driving, anti-depressant swallowing, social drinking, flirting pathetically with waitresses who think you remind them of their dad, oh my God my life is empty and boring and how has it come to this, tribe. 

Where was I?

Oh, yeah:  wild boar.

Here in Italy the nationally mandated dinner hour is 8:00 pm.  In the privacy of our home we sometimes violate this rule, risking the wrath of the Meal Time Enforcement Police. (Penalty?  A year without antipasto.)  But of course when we eat in restaurants we have no choice but to knuckle under to the heavy hand of The Man. (L’uomo.)

So, we’re usually driving home about 10:00 pm or so, because, as many of you know, there is no force known to man, no threat, no blandishment, no sob story, no special pleading that can convince an Italian waiter to present you with your dinner check until two hours have passed.  

We drive through some fairly rustic territory on the way home.  And there are animals.  So far we have seen:

1) Gigantic rabbits.  (Hares.) These are fun because they don’t seem to get the whole concept of running away at right angles to the car.  They just flee in a straight line, directly away from you, down the road.  You can drive behind the ninnies for half a mile before it occurs to them to hang a left and escape.

2) Pheasants.  There’s a nice pheasant couple that wait by the side of the road and as soon as we drive up they dart out in an attempt to cause us to swerve and plunge to our deaths.  Never fails. They hide in the brush, chatting (as pheasants will,) then they hear our car.  ”Here they come!  let’s run in front of them.  It’ll be great!”

3) Porcupines.  Big ass porcupines with quills from six inches to a foot long.  They don’t scurry.  They meander.  They are not afraid of you, and if you attempt to drive over them they will totally stick quills in your bumper.  (Porcupines are so arrogant.)

4) Boar.  Wild ones.  Like there’s another kind.

These creatures we first saw in a brief headlight flash and decided they were aardvarks.  Until Wikipedia explained, “Aardvarks?  Seriously?  Ardvarks live in Africa, you suburban imbeciles!  Why not giraffes, geniuses?  Why not the Italian Hippo while you’re at it?  Oh, look!  It’s the rare Tuscan polar bear.  Idiots.”

A couple of nights ago we hit the boar extravaganza.  As we’re driving home in the dark, somewhere between eight and twelve boar piglets come rushing out across the road.  Jostling and shoving and finally deciding to head into the vineyard.  That was way cool.  We actually applauded.  Then we started up again and out dashed Mom and Dad boar.  Big, long-nosed, (like aardvarks) hairy and a little scary pigs.  They tore right across our path in hot pursuit of their piglets.

The entire wild boar clan.  Right there out in the open.  Probably no big thing for rustics, but exciting and a little disturbing to suburb dwellers.  Boar can hurt you if they get it into their heads to do so.

Anyway, since then, whenever I walk the dogs at night I shine the flashlight around for boar.  You never know.  My plan, in the event of wild boar attack is to let go of the leashes, hope the boar go after the dogs, and run like a little girl.  (Not our little girl, she’s brave.)  

My alternate plan involves releasing the pug into the wild where he might be adopted by the boar family and raised as one of their own.  He’s the right size, the right shape, and he snorts like a pig, so I think he’d be perfectly happy with his new boar family.   If not, maybe the porcupines would take him in.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 3:50 pm — Comments (9)

Here in Italy the kind of advanced technology that allows Americans to seal their garbage bags by pulling on a space-age device called a “drawstring” is unknown.  Trash bags here come with a sort of filament.  A long and exceedingly fragile plastic thread that is in no way capable of actually sealing the bag against the sorts of super-pressures built up by American waste production habits.

There’s a five stage process involved in properly sealing the Italian garbage bag:

1) Stall until garbage is spilling over the top.

2) Lift garbage bag up while producing old man grunts.

3) Attempt to use the filament despite the failure of the previous 912 attempts.

4) Find the duct tape, curse Italians for their refusal to do the hard work necessary to produce state-of-the-art bag-sealing technology, the children for creating trash, the wife for creating children, the numbness in my left thumb caused by stabbing myself with a knife opening a Nerf pistol two years ago resulting in a degree of clumsiness in tearing off duct tape, and George W. Bush because why not?

5) Drop the stupid string on the floor where it will be eaten by the cat.

So we go on vacation for a week — if by vacation you mean driving around France screaming “goshdarn it, if you two scamps don’t pipe down I could have a serious accident and then I will be very disappointed in you.*”

And we come home to Florence.  Okay, Pelago.  Which yes, does sound like a skin disaease.  We drive over to see the Cat Lady.  She’s British, lives up the side of a mountain that would daunt Granny Clampett, and we pick up Lightning the kitty.  Take Lightning home and it seems Lightning isn’t acting like her usual self.  In this case, howling much of the night causing me to cry out, “Oh, please, kitty, won’t you cease disturbing my well-earned repose?**”

This morning we discover that Lightning has a garbage bag string hanging out of her butt.  Which quite frankly took some of the steam out of my irritation.  Under similar circumstances I doubt I’d curl up in a  ball and go to sleep, either.

There’s a vet right at the bottom of our hill but Katherine made an appointment with her regular vet who is much better.  He’s more expensive, further away, slow and inconvenient.  But purely by coincidence he is the handsomest vet ever.  If you like young, swarthy, five o’clock shadowed with great hair, dreamy eyes and the cutest accent.  

Katherine and The Girl spend two hours discussing butt string with Dottore McSogno.  The Boy and I sit in the car playing Quordy on our iPhones.  

Lightning is home and doing better.  If by “better” you mean producing vast piles of diarrhea so toxic that I’m thinking of sleeping in the office.  Katherine and The Girl are digging through the piles of poo looking for string.  They’re going to measure the string, add it up.  

It’s a kind of home school math project.   


*translation:  ”G—– it you little —–, if you don’t —- —- —- — I’ll —– —- and ——-on a —– killing spree!”

**translation:  ”G—– it you —— cat I am going to —– —— and ——- —- cat cassoulet!”

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:18 pm — Comments (5)

So, this was the trip.  Two disobedient, violent, manipulative, evil children and two cranky, snide, critical adults, trapped in a Toyota RAV 4 with nothing to occupy them but 3 computers, 2 iPhones, 2 seat-back DVD players, books, iPods and local radio.  

Not since the Donner Party . . .

Florence to Nice.  Nice to Carcassonne.  Carcassone to Rochefort-Fouras-La Rochelle.  R-F-La to Saint Lo by way of Mont St Michel.  Paris for just long enough to eat a croque, notice how weird Notre Dame looks all cleaned up, and a quick trip up a blue-lit Eiffel Tower.

The homeward leg was Lyon and Genoa, so far.  We reach Florence and home tomorrow.

Some great hotels — God I love Sofitel.  And some not great hotels.  I’m looking at you Villa Henri IV in Saint Cloud.  The restaurant’s closed, the elctricity goes out all night, there’s no hot water and the WeeFee (WiFi) amounts to leeching signal off the unwary local NetGear guy.

Twice the Douane — the French customs cops — asked me why I don’t have a front license plate.  People here are very aware of the front license plate.  People point and stare.  Having no front plate is the automotive equivalent of flying a skull and crossbones from the antenna and waving a saber out of the window while winding our way through traffic.

The entire speed enforcement system in France rests on machines photographing the front license plate.  North Carolina, with it’s parsimonious insistence on only a rear plate, has allowed me to utterly defeat the speed control regime of the French Republic.  

That makes it twice with the French, once with the Italians, and in each case I drove off freely because 1) I don’t look like trouble, 2) None of them knows what the hell form to fill out to deal with plateless Americans, and 3) none of the cops wants to be the guy who dumped this load of crap in his superior’s lap.

If you want to break a law, make sure it’s one nobody has a specific form for.

Anyway, I’m tired, so I’ll limit myself to pointing out that the French are not assholes.  The Parisians are assholes.  Like assuming people in Atlanta or Houston are just like New Yorkers.  The French were universally nice — except the biker who checked out my North Carolina plates, and my Obama sticker, pulled in front of us and carefully gave us the finger,  

Actually Frenchmen, as opposed to Parisians, were very tolerant of my mangling of French.  More tolerant even than the Tuscans who, God knows, have had to endure a lot from me.

Comparing the French and the Italians I focus on this:  the French have simply surrendered on coffee, while the Italians keep the religion alive.  Nothing but automat coffee at roadsides stops in France, while every last Italian stop has a full-function espresso machine and barista.  Frenchmen drink coffee an American would spit in.

On the other hand, could the Italians please, please, please, pick up a book on French baking secrets.  The Italians make bread that could be used as a murder weapon.  And their attempts at desserts (with the exception of some gelato) are pathetic.  I mean, come on people:  drive a few miles into France.  Buy a loaf of bread.  Think about it.  Reverse engineer it.   It’s not advance physics.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:41 pm — Comments (4)

I sense a huge wave of work heading my way.  GONE 3 is just begun and I’m slowly gathering momentum.  (I’m toying with cannibalism, crypto-Nazis and false prophets.)  And there’s other stuff on the horizon.  Maybe a lot of other stuff.  And it’s probably revealing that I look forward so happily to all that writing. It will be damned near impossible.  The very thought of it brings out a happy/evil smile.  

It all goes back to waiting tables.  I loved the nights when another waiter wouldn’t show up and I’d cover his station.  Eight tables?  On a Saturday night?  Oh yeah.  Caffeine and illegal shots at the bar, and just go, go, go eating Advil for the sore back and feet and just blazing along at full speed.  I love the rush.  I love pressure.  I love when someone says, “There’s no way . . .”   Life is boring until it becomes impossible.  

A sh**storm of work is rolling my way and I am giddy.  If I pull off everything I currently have in the works I will be . . . um, not sure.  Hmmm.  I’ve never been quite sure why I’m almost erotically attracted to speed and pressure.  All I know is that I am most alive, most happy, when someone gives me an Augean stable to clean out and I pull it off.

That’s right:  I am going to the Hercules reference.  Possibly because I’ve just turned my daughter on to Xena: Warrior Princess.  The Girl is so Xena.  This is a girl with never fewer than 8 scabs going at any one time.  We box — with gloves — and she is dangerous.  I’m not kidding:  she will kick your ass.  And we swordfight with foam swords.  And now she’s waking me up with Xena moves.  

In any case, we are taking our too-loud American family show on the road.  A week.  We’re driving from here to Provence, Languedoc and Charente.  I was raised part of my life in Charente Maritime.  It’s the redneck riviera of France.  So I’m going back to old haunts.  La Rochelle,  Fouras, Royan, Rochefort.

And then we’re driving up to Normandy.  I’ll try to blog from the road.  For a week, I won’t be another lucky b*stard living in Tuscany, I’ll be another lucky b*stard tripping through France.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 7:28 pm — Comments (4)

I apologize in advance because it’s another bourbon and Ambien night.  I’m typing softly because my wife is already asleep.  I tend to type very loudly.  Two fingers beating hell out of the keyboard.  Irritates everyone around me.

The weather broke, that’s the headline.  Storms came through yesterday and we went from hot and humid to cool and humid.  70 degrees fahrenheit.  (As always, to convert to celsius merely multiply by your social security number — or codice fiscale — and divide by the number of gelato flavors you can recall.  Over two.)

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that as a native Angeleno (Los Angeles) I hate the weather.  All weather.  Hot.  Cold.  Humid.  Anything that isn’t 78 degrees, sunny and dry, is anathema to me.  You thought I could bitch incessantly about food?  Hah.  Try me on weather.

I must interrupt for a brief aside to Italian women:  Step away from the cowboy boots.  For the love of God, step away from the cowboy boots.

Anyway, where was I?  Was I whining about something?  Oh yeah, weather.  Here’s the thing:  when it’s hot I just want to sleep.  I’ve taken a grand total of about six naps in my life.  Until I came to Italy.  Now it’s all I can do to stay away from the bedroom after lunch.  The bed calls to me.  ”Come.  Come and rest your giant bald melon head on my IKEA Tormso softness.  Now with extra umlauts.”  

Everything is hanging fire right now.  I’m pecking away at GONE 3 which, for the moment at least, I’m calling LIES.  Don’t quite have the rhythm down yet.  But it’s coming together.  And God I love writing first drafts again.  

I’m sorry, I must interrupt for a second note to Italian women:  how is it you all seem to know who can and who cannot show bare midriff?  Would you mind sharing that knowledge with American women?

So I’m writing GONE 3 and have like eight other ideas jostling for attention.  Pay attention to me, your stupid single title!  Pay attention to me, your sci fi series!  

Plus, the kids.  And really, since they have, like, feelings and all, I should probably be spending my free time with them, right?  As opposed to playing Quordy on my iPhone hiding out in the bathroom.

Oh yeah, the 3G.  Who but a punk would still have a 2G iPhone?

Nope.  No idea what the “G” means.  But I know for sure that 3 is bigger than 2 and that bigger is better.  After all, I am an American.  Unless we’re talking the locker room at the Virgin Active where I occasionally have to take my kids to the pool.  There I think big may be overrated.

So, the weather’s cooler, and I have lots of work to do, which is always a rare gift for a writer.  More work coming down the pike.  Various blogs.  All of it good, because the one scary thing for a writer is having no work.  Well, that and strokes  And brain tumors.  

I’m totally out of cigars.  They really help me focus.  I don’t have one right now and you see results.  It’s not pretty, is it?

A nice email from a friend.  My wife coughs in her sleep. The Ambien kicks in.  Kids asleep.  Dogs ready to bark at killers or porcupines.

Yeah, okay, another day.  



Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:45 pm — Comments (1)

I don’t think the obvious fact that I can’t keep up with this blog should stop me from starting other new blogs, do you?

I have two new work-related blogs.  One is called TheFAYZ.  It’s written as a sort of bridge between books in my GONE series.  GONE is out now.  HUNGER: a GONE novel comes out next year.  TheFAYZ is written by a non-book character named Sinder. She’ll see some of what happens on-camera in the books, but otherwise will be involved in a separate, free-standing storyline, with new characters.  

And I get to have fun with Photoshop.

The second blog is still in development.  I’m calling it Stupid Blog Name.  It will be a group blog focusing on YA literature.  So far I have a kidlit agent and former Harper editor, a Simon editor, and a handful of YA authors.  I’ll add a bookseller or two, more editors and writers.  And I want to add some actual kids — you know, the readers.  I have a piece of lovely artwork up there holding the place down for me.  I hope to have it all up and running in a week or two.

Category: Uncategorized — admin @ 5:22 pm — Comments (3)

Il Campo, Siena.  Germans drinking beer.

Today we went to Siena.  Lots of traffic on the way, not helped by the fact that I missed the turn-off and, as people who’ve driven in Italy know, it is 850 kilometers between any two autostrada exits.

Siena is way cool.  Coolest Firenze day trip yet.  Liked Fiesole, liked Lucca, liked Arezzo, but Siena is the place.  

Siena is medieval.  None of this namby-pamby Florentine Renaissance thing.  Medi-freakin-eval “You want some rebirth?  Talk to my mace, mutha-ravager!”

You walk the streets of Florence and you picture guys in tights and pointy-toed elf shoes slipping poison in each other’s wine and slitting the occasional throat with a jeweled dagger while quoting Shakespeare.  (The Italian translation, of course.  ”Uscita, uscita damn-a spot!*)  You walk through Siena and you’re seeing guys wearing greaves and braining each other with war hammers while quoting Conan the Barbarian.  (Italian translation again.  ”I’m-a crush-a my enemies, I’m a drive them-a before me, and then, maybe a nice macchiato.”**)  They didn’t slip poison in the wine, they slipped rabid badgers in the mead.

The key difference between Medieval and Renaissance periods, aside from the main methods of mayhem?  Art.  Renaissance art is suffering Jesus, heaven-gazing Mary, and whatever rich guy was paying the bills.  Medieval art is the same, but flat.  And so was medieval Mary.  (Badumpah!) And medieval Jesus?  No muscle tone.  

(A quick note:  if you are a student using this blog as a reference to research your paper on either the middle ages or the Renaissance, you’re going to want to start planning your career in lawn maintenance.)

So, anyway, it seems Siena was the precocious sibling, way ahead of Florence in the important things:  heretic-torturing, Jew-purging and banking.  Siena thought it was the shit.  (La merda.)  

Then, in the fourteenth century three quarters of the city died of the plague.  Which caused one hell of a drop in property values.  (Almost as bad as Orange County!) The Sienese leadership would have cut interest rates and passed emergency legislation to keep major mortgage lenders solvent but, unfortunately, they were distracted by the giant blackened, pus-draining buboes in their groins and armpits.  Plus the whole blood vomiting thing.  And what with the dragging the dead bodies into the streets and the self-flagellating and whatnot, fiscal policy was somewhat neglected.

Which explains why even today Siena has not managed to create its own unique tourist kitsch and must borrow glass, paper and creepy masks from the Venetians.  Seriously, this is a town badly in need of special tchothkes.  

You know what they need?  A mascot.  Buboe Boy.  He would stagger around through crowds of tourists crying out to heaven for mercy while smearing himself with bat dung and attaching leeches to his tender bits.  Disney’s Medieval Land.

Every year they hold a big horse race called Il Palio.  From the Wikipedia description of Il Palio:

On the dangerous, steeply-canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips (Nerbo - a stretched, dried bull’s penis) not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders.  …

There is some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16, 2004 the horse for the Contrada of the Bruco (Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled as the race was not stopped, despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal rights organizations.

So it’s pretty much like driving any road in Italy.   Let me just tell you:  it is not easy parallel parking when some guy is whipping on you with a stretched bull penis.

*Alternate selection: “From-a inferno’s heart I’m-a stab you!”

** I know, it’s bad.  But not nearly as insulting as my California version of Shakespeare.  ”Horatio.  Dude.  You’re like . . . dead or whatever.”)