Renaissance Comes Alive in Florence

So I’m sitting across from a nun on a high-speed train on the way from Florence to Venice. Although it sounds like a joke, it’s true. And she’s nun-spread to the seat Declan’s supposed to be in. But who’s going to tell a nun to move the hell over?

We spent nearly two days in Florence, following our first of two forays into Rome. Where Rome was somewhat chaotic, with centuries of history piled atop one another, Florence definitely remains a product of the Renaissance it helped create. The streets, though still narrow, are uniformly level and easy to walk on. The city centre is compact and chock-full of interesting things to do and great places to eat.

But with the Renaissance comes Renaissance pricing. Fortunately for us, low season means we snagged a primo room at the Torre Guelfa for about half price that included a sumptuous meat, cheese and croissant breakfast. It also means that every high-end retailer you’ve ever heard of has an outlet here. Tiffany. Mont Blanc. Prada. In other words, the Renaissance meets the Miracle Mile in Chicago or the Streets of Buckhead in Atlanta.

Another room with a view

But high-end retailing aside, the beautiful buildings, priceless artifacts and great dining (if you’re careful) are the main attractions. Luigi, our front desk clerk, raved about the view from the hotel’s tower, built in the 13th century. And he was right, as you can see from the photo.

We visited the Duomo, a 15th-century cathedral whose red dome dominates the Florence skyline (and the photo), and the Medici Chapels, which includes many funerary items that contain sacred body parts and several Michelangelo sculptures.

Later, we walked along Ponte Vecchio, the central bridge across the Arno along which the Medici family famously ousted more common merchants like butchers and bakers in 1593 and installed jewelers and goldsmiths, a tradition that continues to this day.

Today we visited the Palazzo Vecchio Museum. This second palace of the Medici family housed popes back in the 16th century and once was the center of government in Florence. Today, it remains a popular event venue, as evidenced by the fact it was closed yesterday for a Valentine’s Day event. The central hall rises more than 100 feet and is dominated by large paintings and sculpture. Most interior rooms feature intricately decorated ceilings and walls that remain striking centuries after their installation.

We capped our Florence visit at the Uffizi, which has housed the Medici family art and sculpture collection since the 16th century. Da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo are just a few of the artists represented.

We had a memorable Valentine’s Day meal at La Casalinga, including maybe the best steak I’ve ever wrapped my lips around that didn’t come off hot from my Big Green Egg.

While I appreciate all types of art, I do admit being tired of Mary and Jesus portraits (forgive me, sister), and men sculpted in combat while not wearing pants (either the English or the American kinds).

Not sure what that portends for our trip to the Vatican on Saturday.

Every Day is V-Day in Italy

Italians love to snog in public. Not a chaste peck on the cheek while hand-holding. Oh, no …  we’re talking about full on, tongue on tongue action, lemme see if I can taste what you had for dinner last night snogging. Sit on my lap and look like you’re trying to eat my face snogging.

I’m reminded of lyrics from “The Bad Touch” by the Bloodhound Gang: “Love, the kind you clean up with a mop and bucket.” This is juicy love I’m talking about here, the kind you know Barry White was having before he went to the mirrored-ceiling love nest in the sky.

And these couples are everywhere. I noticed on our first day in Rome. Nothing like looking at the ancient ruins of the Coliseum to stir one’s desires, I guess. The Coliseum certainly was impressive, but not pop a stiffee impressive, if you get my drift. But that didn’t stop the several couples I saw going at it in public.

It’s like seeing a kid with snot dripping out of his nose. You don’t want to look, but you want to know the outcome. Will the snot bubble burst? Will he grab her ass with both hands?

Same snog, different verse

And once you notice what’s going on, you’re more attuned to seeing it again and again. So I started talking fake sexy to Marilynn when we saw a couple going at it. “Oh baby, I love you so much I want to stick my tongue down your throat right here in front of God and everybody to show it,” I’d say in my best Barry White impression. “Ewww,” she’d reply.

During the Rome visit, Declan started noticing SPQR everywhere—old monuments, relatively new buildings and manhole covers everywhere. The initials stand for Senatus Populus Que Romanusa—the Senate and the People of Rome—and are still in use today by the Rome government. When he pointed out the 20th one, I finally said it was like shooting fish in a barrel and suggested he concentrate on something a little more rare.

Public snogging in Rome (and Florence, too, it turns out) is as common as finding Irish in an Irish pub. The photo that goes with this post was taken today. I have enough different snogging couple photos to make a collage. Marilynn and Declan went out later while I did a little work, and they reported seeing several more couples in amorous, public embraces.

I decided a couple of days ago to write this column for Valentine’s Day. You’re welcome, by the way. Not 10 seconds after we started talking about this column over dinner last night, the woman at the table behind us was sitting in her beau’s lap. They weren’t going at it (fortunately for me, because I’d just tried the chicken pate and was having trouble keeping it down), but they were getting friendly. Very friendly. And there’s no way they overheard us.

We all think that when our parents created us, angels were singing softly while God shone his gentle light upon us. It’s inconceivable that your mom was wearing a leather bustier and holding a riding crop while your dad screamed about being a bad boy and needing punishment. But I’m sure it happens that way for some couples.

Please don’t misunderstand … I love people who are in love. That’s great. I just don’t need to see it. Aside from a little hand-holding, save your juicy love for the bedroom—or the dungeon, because who am I to judge.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

Rome: Ain’t Nobody’s Pace But Mine

The pace of Rome matches the pace of the Italian people—full throttle. The hucksters outside the Coliseum talk fast while trying to sell you an upgraded tour (no lines!). Or they swarm you with selfie sticks, crystal baubles (“Only 1 euro!”) or really weird, round iridescent blobs that cry plaintively and flatten out when plopped against a table, only to pop back into shape a few seconds later.

The only problem? That’s not my preferred pace, so it was all a bit too much until we learned how to navigate this ancient city on our terms.

Coliseum: 8:30 a.m. or bust

Our first mistake was trying to visit the Coliseum mid-day on a Sunday after a home 6 Nations match between Italy and Ireland. Even though this is low season, the lines were long, which gave the hucksters a captive audience. Marilynn, who visited Rome during grad school, said it was the same way when she last visited, although the proffered items were postcards.

So after waiting for a few minutes in the Coliseum line and then considering the line to get into the Forum, we opted for Plan B—chucking it all and taking a walk. And that’s when things started to come together nicely.

For nothing but a little rubber off your trainers, you can take in 2,000-plus years of Roman history in just one afternoon. Ruins give way to marble and travertine and statues, with tall, shapely trees on the hillsides to provide perspective. We spent a terrific, warm morning taking in the sights, then enjoying an Italian lunch of pizza margherita for the adults and pasta with sheep cheese for Declan.

We made time for the Trevi Fountain, which lived up to the hype about its grandeur in every way, and the Pantheon, a pagan temple that was converted to a Christian church (which is why it survived).

After the Sunday surprise at the Coliseum, we were going to wait and see it on our return journey this weekend. But the apartment that Declan found was so centrally located (“Perfect!” the cabbie declared at least twice on the drive from the airport), it seemed wrong not to try again. So armed with advance-purchase tickets and arriving 10 minutes before the venue opened, we had a trouble-free (and huckster-free!) entry to the Coliseum.

Worth the wait

It truly is one of the wonders of the Western World: the scale, the ruined grandeur and the complexity of the underground passages for gladiators and animals and servants. Marilynn rightly said that it looks like athletic stadiums of today, so well was it planned.

We also briefly visited the Forum, the remains of the Roman market. We had seen an overview of most of it during our Sunday stroll, so we didn’t linger.

To cap off our first visit to Rome, we took in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, an enormous family home that dates to the 15th century and remains in family hands. The family cemented its prominence when a Pamphilj became Pope Innocent X. Fortunately, he entailed the mansion and its artworks, meaning they couldn’t be sold off piecemeal.

The opulence of the rooms is matched only by the quality of the paintings, including works by Velasquez and Caravaggio. We particularly enjoyed the Gallery of Mirrors, where nearly every inch of wall was taken up by mirror, window, painting or gilt of some sort. It reminded Marilynn and me of the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia where patent medicine magnate Robert Barnes crammed Impressionist masterworks against each other in every room, complemented (?) by door hardware he apparently found interesting.

After stops in Florence and Venice, we’ll be back in Rome before the journey back to Belfast. Although the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj seemed over the top to this simple tourist, I feel it may take a back seat to our next Rome destination—the Vatican.

About the photo: Forum in the foreground, Coliseum in the background, thousands of years of Roman history in between.

Friends with Stewart, 30 Years On

Although none of us ever met playwright Stewart Parker, he’s largely responsible for us being in Belfast and knowing as many people in the city as we do. So it was like homecoming on Friday when we attended a staged reading of Stewart’s final play, “Pentecost,” first performed 30 years ago.

Among those in attendance were Stewart’s niece, Lynne Parker, who is artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin, and her parents, George and Margaret Parker. Lynne was helping members of PintSized Productions, a troupe of up-and-coming performers, as a veteran presence among the younger artists.

Fortunately, Stewart remains a fantastic playwright whose work is just as fresh and vibrant in 2017 as it was when it premiered. Who needs a set when you have a talented set of performers and a sizzling script?

A little backstory

Marilynn’s second book is a critical biography of Stewart, “Stewart Parker: A Life.” Published in 2012, it was enthusiastically reviewed on both sides of the pond and won awards from the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) and the American Conference for Irish Studies.

She discovered Parker while researching her first book, about the first five years of the Field Day Theatre Company, an influential outfit that staged plays and published books and other materials from both sides of the sectarian divide in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Parker died tragically at 47, just as he was hitting his stride as a writer. While researching the book, Marilynn interviewed 150 or so of his friends, relatives, school chums, other associates and former teachers. And many of those people are now our friends–hence the homecoming with the Parkers, with Lynne’s parents treating Declan like another grandchild.

The script’s the thing

This was the third time I’ve seen “Pentecost” in some form, including two staged productions—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Belfast in 2008. “Pentecost” is about life, loss and redemption as glimpsed through the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974. Each of the five characters (including the ghost of the woman in whose house the play is set) has secrets that are exacerbated by the backdrop of the Troubles.

I’ve also seen his plays “Spokesong,” a musical about bicycles set against the Troubles; “Northern Star,” about the 1798 rebellion; and a staged reading of “Catchpenny Twist,” about songwriters who get in trouble by penning ditties for both sides during the Troubles.

The version of “Northern Star” I saw was in London, where it was in repertoire with another play that had a real set. “Northern Star” was staged on the other set that looked like a rich man’s study—and it mattered not one whit. The brilliance of the writing and a talented actor who portrayed Henry Joy McCracken carried the day despite the odd setting.

Marilynn and I have seen countless plays that start off strong (or have a good premise) only to disappoint by the time the final curtain falls. The sets can be fantastic and the cast Broadway quality, but if the script doesn’t deliver, then the play ultimately fails.

We’re fortunate that Stewart Parker is that rare combination of great playwright and great guy, as evidenced by the quality of his plays and the abundance of friends and family who still recall him fondly.

About the photo: This is the picture of Stewart we have in the living room of our house. He looked down on us from a wall in Marilynn’s open office into the dining room of our house in Atlanta for the 13 years we lived there.

When we moved to Decatur, Stewart’s photo was moved to her new office, a suite on the main level. But after two weeks, I asked that he be returned to his rightful place in the center of the action.

For the Love of a Feline

It’s not all raindrops and roundabouts here in Belfast, because we left a cherished family member back in Decatur—our beloved cat, Gunner.

Even Marilynn, who wasn’t much of a cat person before she met me, quite likes our mainly black, mainly Burmese (according to the vet) cat. It’s funny, but despite growing up with cats and living around them all my life, she is the first cat I’ve ever picked.

And Gunner definitely is Daddy’s little girl, racing me up the stairs (or down) from my office or seeking attention while I’m in the office. Most afternoons, after her nap, she will either stretch out and knead the back of my chair or sit beside my chair and touch my elbow with her paw until I respond.

It’s to my advantage with Gunner that I’m home all day, since my office and house are the same place.

New house, new cat

Our old cat, Bogger, died a few years back, and we already were considering moving from Atlanta to Decatur and didn’t want to get a new cat immediately, much to Declan’s consternation. And when we did move, we rented the house for several months while old house was on the market.

But the weekend after our house closed, Declan and I went to Petco to see the adoption cats, to just look, you know.  We often visited the PetSmart near our old home on the weekends, so I thought all pet stores did this. Apparently not, so, not wanting to disappoint the lad, I suggested visiting the DeKalb shelter. I knew that cats had been free during November and were just $10 in December, including shots, fixing, microchip and certificate for follow-up vet visit.

Don’t tell Gunner this, but we actually picked another cat that turned out to be adopted before picking Gunner. It was destiny, though, that we found Gunner, who was called Jenny at the time. Declan and I are fans of Arsenal in the English Premier League, and we knew any animal we adopted would be called Gunner.

She took to us immediately. When Gunner was smaller, she’d stand on the supports under the chair and walk among the chairs that way. She would also sit in in the well of the front-loading washer and watch the clothes spin or climb the floor fan in our bedroom, wrapping her paws around the motor and hanging on.

Gunner loves to play laser mouse, sometimes jumping half way up the wall in the TV room. She also likes looking out the window (especially with the window open), chattering at the birds gathered at the feeder or flitting around the yard. And she knows how to get what she wants, with a look or a well-placed paw. She’s like the dog we’ve never had.

When needs must

But as any animal owner knows, adulthood can be somewhat different than a pet’s childhood. Gunner has mellowed somewhat, and we really didn’t want to move her while we were in the UK, but one of our renters is allergic to cats.

After a few false starts, Gunner has found a temporary home with one of Marilynn’s grad students, who has an older cat that apparently doesn’t care there’s another cat living there.

Here’s part of Nancy’s mid-January report: “But to be honest, she hasn’t made herself completely ‘at home’ at this point; she stays upstairs, in my room the majority of the time, but has been slowly venturing forth (especially when she’s in ‘Jungle She-Cat’ mode!). That said, it’s not like she’s ‘unhappy.’”

Nancy reported several days later that Gunner and her cat Malachi were sharing the bed with her, albeit on opposite sides, so progress continues to be made.

So while we’re having a blast here in Belfast, we have mixed emotions about leaving Gunner behind.

Muslims Are People, Too

Visit My Mosque day had already been scheduled for 150 mosques in the UK when Donald Trump announced the immigration ban on seven majority Muslim countries. If what we heard on Sunday while visiting the Belfast mosque held true in the other 149 locations, local residents and visitors like us turned out in record numbers.

We went to support the local mosque and Muslims in general, showing them that not all Americans hate them and their religion. Sure, certain Muslims want to do us harm. But so do people from all walks of life and religions, including people born and bred in the US. As a Christian, I feel it’s important to acknowledge and respect other religions—especially those unfairly under persecution.

Taking such broad strokes in the name of preventing terrorism only makes the world mad at us—it does nothing to make us safer. Do you really feel safe after you pass through airport security, or just dirty and degraded?

Leave your shoes at the door

The Belfast mosque is located along a residential street a few blocks from our flat. Upon entering, we removed our shoes just inside the front door (photo). Women on hand in the first room to our right plied us with tea, coffee and biscuits (it is the UK, after all). Then we went upstairs to the prayer room, where a mosque leader gave a 10-minute presentation about Islam, the Prophet Mohammed and the Quran, then took audience questions. A local man asked about how his son, who is dating a Muslim woman, could marry her. The response was that the man would have to convert.

I’m glad we visited, but I won’t be converting to Islam—ever. God issues aside, I could never practice a religion that subjugates women. My deceased mother, grandmothers and aunts would claw their way out of their graves and smack me upside my head—not to mention what Marilynn would do to me if I ever told her to shut the hell up and make me dinner.

As we were leaving, a nice Muslim man with a distinctive Belfast accent was coming toward the mosque and engaged us in conversation. We explained why we were there and talked a bit about the US political situation/attitude toward Muslims.

He said Trump’s executive order could be a blessing in disguise, because apparently the attendance at this event was up considerably over past years. At one point, he also said, “We are extremists. Extremely nice, extremely caring and extremely compassionate.”

And after talking with him and visiting the center, I couldn’t agree more.

Enjoying a Sunny Day at Belfast Castle

Although this weekend has been one of the coldest we’ve experienced in Belfast, it’s also been the sunniest. So what to do when it’s cold and sunny? Go for a walk in the park, of course.

And not just any park, but Cave Hill Country Park, steeped in history and steeped in, well, steep. The paths are generally unpaved muddy trails carved into the side of a mountain. While the views are spectacular, the footing was treacherous.

The park includes Belfast Castle, where we had lunch, as well as the Belfast Zoo. Declan and I visited the zoo on a previous trip, but you could see bears and deer of some sort from our vantage point high above Belfast Lough while walking along the Cave Hill path.

‘Citizens of Belfast, Unite!’

Our destination was McArt’s Fort, a promontory about halfway up the trail. We were interested because it was here where United Irishmen, including Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken, first pledged to fight for Irish Independence in 1795. It was also where McCracken was arrested in 1798 after a failed uprising. The evening of his capture forms the basis of the Stewart Parker play, “Northern Star.” Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, so anything Parker-related is interesting to us.

However, we gave up a decent way into the climb. The footing wasn’t getting any better, and we knew that however far we went up, we would have to walk that far back down. It didn’t deter the locals, though. Despite the slippery conditions, we saw literally dozens of peoplemost with either kids or dogsclimbing all over the mountain. It’s heartening to see so many people out on such a fine day.

A walk back in time

Cave Hill Country Park also encompasses Belfast Castle, which serves as the focal point of the park. This is at least the third castle on the site, dating to the Normans in the 12th century.  In 1611, the Baron of Belfast, Sir Arthur Chichester, built a new castle on the site, but it burned a century later.

The current castle was completed in 1870 by descendants of Chichester, now known as the Donegalls. A few generations of aristocrats later, it was donated to the city in 1934 and plays a prominent role in the city’s cultural life as an event space. Prospective brides even have their own toilet, although I didn’t open that door for a peek. Forgot to take a photo, too. Sorry.

Some aristocrat had a thing for cats, because there were two cat mosaics on the grounds to go with a cat topiary, a bronze statue on the base of the central fountain, a concrete cat to one side and an engraved marker featuring a TS Eliot saying that could have marked a feline grave.

Taking in the sun in such beautiful, but muddy, surroundings, made us feel like the localsSouthern accents, notwithstanding.