Sunday, February 2, 2014

No. 123 – This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)

Performer: Peter Gabriel
Songwriters: Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson
Original Release: So (CD, tape version)
Year: 1986
Definitive Version: So 25th Anniversary Edition, 2012. This is the recording from Gabriel’s Athens concert that made up the bulk of the POV video. The version on POV is cut short. This is the full song.

Buying the reissued So is worth it for the Live in Athens double disc that captures that entire concert. That said, the remix of Mercy Street is unfortunate, and several minutes of the somewhat repetitive (but still amazing) extended break during Lay Your Hands On Me have been trimmed.

When Laurie and I traveled to Italy in 2012—mere days after seeing Peter Gabriel play all of So in Chicago—the second leg of our trip after Venice was Florence. Florence had been my call, although Laurie certainly didn’t fight me. I’d heard great things about it since college. It also would be by far the largest city we’d visit, excluding Milan, which served only as our air travel hub.

It was somewhat rainy when we left Venice, and the rain followed us most of the train trip to Florence. By the time we arrived, however, it was clearing off. I determined that our hotel was about one-eighth of a mile from the train station, so we could hike with our carry-on bags. However, walking a wheeled carry-on bag over uneven cobblestone streets isn’t the easiest task.

Our path took us through a street market of leather goods, which we learned not only was a regular thing but something for which Florence was noted. In the distance I could see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or il Duomo, which is the most famous building in the city. This was the first iconic building that truly thrilled me to see it.

We stayed at the Hotel Europa, just around the corner from the Medici Palace, and the sign over the street was so small that we hiked right past it. Fortunately, we had a good map, so we didn’t walk far. We were just on the wrong side of the street.

The entry way made it so it appeared that the hotel was part of an ordinary (for Florence) apartment building. Hotel Europa was on the fifth floor, so we either could take the stairs or the elevator. We chose the elevator, which was just large enough for two people and two suitcases (no exaggeration). It was one of those elevators where you have to raise and lower a gate before it moves, which was cool.

The hotel itself was little more than a bed and breakfast, which was fine with us. It was run by Robert and Miriam, who spoke fluent English as well as Italian, which was even more fine with us. Miriam gave us a quick map tour, pointing out where we were, where everything of importance was and where the best restaurants were.

Then she led us up one flight of stairs to our room, which had its own bathroom. It also had Wi-Fi, which made it the first place where I could let everyone from home know we made it. I also could see that my beloved Reds tanked a 2-0 lead in the playoffs, losing three home games against the Giants. Good thing I wasn’t home for that fiasco.

But best of all, our room had a view of il Duomo, not two blocks from where we were. Welcome to Florence.

We unpacked and dove out into it. I wanted to hike to il Duomo first, just to see it, then we could get lunch. Like I said, Florence was a real city—a city that had cars, which was something we hadn’t seen since Milan. It also was vibrant in a way that Venice wasn’t. A lot of people were on the streets, in the sidewalk cafes and restaurants. The only thing that was constant was that your schedule was your own.

We went to Via Borgo San Lorenzo, the next street over from ours and stopped at the first place where the menu looked good, which is to say the first place we came to. We sat out on the sidewalk; I had pasta and Laurie had chicken. So far so good.

We had four days in Florence, so we just kind of hiked around our general neighborhood that first day to get our bearings. We stopped for a glass of wine at a place that we found had chairs that were identical to one of our favorite Mexican places in Chicago, and we went back that night for dinner—Za-Za. We sat out under a huge tent in a piazza with other folks and dined on veal and seafood.

The next day was the first of our big activities, and it ended up being a bigger day than we anticipated. Our first order of business was the Accademia Gallery, which has a number of sculptures, the most famous being one you might have heard of—Dash or Darren or David, you know, something like that. We made reservations back in August, so our wait to get in was only about 15 minutes. (Other saps had to wait for hours.)

It was cool to see Michelangelo’s David, which arguably is the most famous statue in the world. After we were inside the gallery, we could stay as long as we wanted, so Laurie and I probably were in the main room with David for an hour.

Two things stood out to me about the statue. The first was the size of it. I didn’t realize it was about 20 feet tall. I’d never gotten a sense of it from photos, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

The second was its history. It had been at the Accademia for about 140 years, but it’s a 510-year-old statue, which means that for nearly four centuries, it stood outside in the rain, in the Palazzo Vecchio like a lawn troll. What’s that? Oh, just David by Michelangelo. Big whoop. Let’s get some chingale and vino.

We hiked all around it, standing close and then moving back. We sat on a bench in front and to the right. Laurie wrote in her journal while I tried to figure out how I could skirt the regulations prohibiting photos. Hmmm, you know I can hold my iPhone like this so it looks like I’m texting someone, and, hey, how did that image of David get on my phone?

After David and lunch, we went back to our hotel room to change and then made the mile-plus hike to the Piazzale Michelangelo, which is across the Arno from the central city. If you’ve seen a photo of Florence, you know this site even if you don’t recognize the name. This the vantage point that looks over the entire city. The view is impressive in a photo. It’s breathtaking in actuality.

I took dozens of photos, using different zoom settings and angles. The sky was mostly overcast, but every now and then, the clouds would part just enough to shine a sunbeam onto il Duomo or some other focal point.

I must have given off a photog vibe, because I had a half-dozen couples ask me—almost none of them in English—to take their picture with their camera. Laurie said they could tell I had a good eye. What was the giveaway, my Ayutl T-shirt from San Miguel or the ponytail that’s emblematic of a tortured artiste?

As we hiked back to town we went through the Giardino delle Rose—just your basic rose garden with about 200 bushes—through the old city wall, whereupon we found the best gelato place of the entire trip. I had a chocolate that tasted like devil’s food cake frosting. Eating great food never gets old.

That night we went back to Borgo San Lorenzo for dinner, but first we made a quick stop in a clothes shop next to our hotel that sold umbrellas for three euros. That was a necessary purchase, because the sky, which vacillated from cloudy to sunny all day, opened up as night fell. We didn’t get too soaked before we made our way to Trattoria San Lorenzo.

As the rain poured just outside the window of our second-floor table and our waiter entertained a shy 11-year-old girl who was crushing on him obviously to Laurie, Laurie and I had veal marsala that knocked our socks off (and quartos of white and red house wine, as per usual). We knocked off a panna cotta before heading home for the night. The Uffizi Gallery was the next day, and we’d need our rest.

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