Many women go topless on Italian beaches. During my stay at the Italian Riviera, I was not impressed. Every bare-breasted female looked like either a scrawny model or a sagging matron.
While strolling in a town near Siena, I was startled to see a butcher shop specializing in horse meat. Whoa! Now I know why the media used the call Sylvester Stallone the Italian Stallion.
When my wife and I first drove down the lane to our home-exchange house in olive grove country, thickets of huge flies attacked the windshield—an eerie Alfred Hitchcock scenario in the making. But there is more. Once my wife and I fled into the house, the owner cautioned us that we had to keep the doors and windows closed: otherwise, the nearby wild boars (this was their prime mating season) might molest us. I immediately remembered that in The Thorn Birds, a wild boar fatally savaged an unsuspecting young man. I hoped that our two-week vacation south of Florence wouldn’t be titled “Terror in Tuscany.”
I had always known that streets in rural Italy were extremely narrow, but I soon got some first-hand experience. After escorting my wife to a ski lift, I decided to take my morning power walk. Just then, I saw a small sports car coming at me. So I began to move out of its way. But as it got closer, the driver accelerated. To avoid getting hit, I had to flatten myself against the nearest building. Only a couple of inches separated me from the speeding vehicle. I soon regained enough composure to continue my walk, but I remained within hugging distance of the ancient walls of the town.
In northern Italy, we economized, seeking out only one-star (or a fraction of a star) hotels. These lodgings had very small, sunless, drab rooms with a sink but no toilet; the all too frequented communal bathroom usually was way down the hall. There were no elevators, but there were plenty of steep, winding stairs. My wife had no complaints. In fact, she kept emphasizing—accurately so--the one virtue of all of these places: cleanliness. I invariably responded with this refrain, “tres (pardon my French) elegante,” a quip that my wife enjoys repeating when she reminisces about our adventures in Italy.
As my wife and I were walking throughout the Ghetto Nuevo in Venice, a young bearded, tallit-draped orthodox Jew who rushed out of a storefront (flanked by the Star of David) asked me if I was Jewish. When I said yes, he eagerly removed my backpack and insisted that I give it and my wallet to my wife. We reluctantly complied.
When I was shorn of all material goods, he put phylacteries on my arms and around my head to properly outfit me for worship. He then escorted me to the make-shift sanctuary where I noticed that many Jews were chanting their morning prayers. I was then given a prayer book and told to recite the complete biblical injunction (the V’ahafta) that begins in English “You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your being…..” Of course, I was to read the familiar prayer in Hebrew. Whenever I stumbled a bit with the inflection or paused too often, my guide abruptly corrected me. I—more secular than religious—felt inadequate as the prayer progressed, and the words began to bleed into one another: I had been ambushed, inducted (or even abducted) into this initiation rite by a fanatically authentic Jew.
But I eventually passed this initiation rite—clammy but chastened. Now whenever I hear the V’ahafta intoned in my temple, its words reverently reverberate because of my close encounter in Venice.