Florence. As soon as I got there last month I thought: Now things will be all right for a while. I had booked a flight for Tirana when an apartment in Fiesole fell through. The only things they have in Tirana are the Enver Hoxha Mausoleum and an airport named after Mother Theresa. I thought that might be a good situation, work-wise. Then an apartment came available on Via Monaco. So I went there instead.
The apartment overlooked the train station. I took photos of people walking in the street below the balcony. I know why Genet always stayed in station hotels. If you get fed up you can just walk out the door, buy a ticket, and go somewhere else.
It turned out that the apartment had been double-booked by the owner's agent. So I had to leave. I found a place off Via dei Bardi, a couple blocks from Ponte Vecchio. An apartment with everything in one room except the shower and W.C. The balcony was about an inch wide. It scared me. If you fell you might not die but just end up on life support.
I have always had vertigo, but it's worse now than before. I only have to imagine standing at the top of a very high building to feel myself falling, and immediately throw up.
The street was tiny. It was almost adjacent to the Palazzo Capponi, where Hannibal Lecter lived in that shitty Ridley Scott movie. The equally banal Thomas Harris novel it was based on is very popular in Florence. So is the Joker from the Batman movie. They print his face on scarves. Around the corner, where the only porn theater in the city used to be, there is now a fabulous Saponi & Dintorni supermarket. They had everything I like that would not be in the porn theater, if it were still there.
I had to make maquettes from contact sheets for a show I'm doing next April. I bought a good pair of scissors from a 99 cent store. My friend Marco said he collects scissors and could he have them when I left. I had to restrain myself from buying things I had no use for: bags of clothespins, squeaky toys for dogs, a gallon of windshield wiper fluid. This only happens in 99 cent stores. I will buy things that are only worth 50 cents, just for the thrill of not paying more than 99 cents.
I also bought two rolls of tape in dispensers that were clearly meant for children. My fingers were too big to use them. I fucked up several maquettes and had to very gingerly remove the tape and start over. I could have bought one "adult" roll for 99 cents but could not resist getting two hopeless ones for the same price.
There were so many tourists that I only took an occasional photo outside the apartment, usually of people taking pictures. I wanted to replace photos of rainy Italian streets that went missing from my computer. Luckily, it rained every day. Cell phones and cameras have achieved a critical mass in these tourist cities. Every person in the street was holding one or the other, or both, as if these things were their source of oxygen. The tourist thing has reached a psychotic level. No one in his right mind would dream of going into the Uffizi or the Pitti Palace unless it were the dead of winter.
The Vatican is worried, according to the Herald Tribune: The density of cattle breath and condensing sweat from legions of "sightseeers" is damaging the Sistine ceiling. In the Guardian, the scary-looking Jonathan Jones countered that the Church has been desecrating the Sistine ceiling for years, having painted "draperies" over a lot of private parts in the Last Judgment after Michaelangelo's death. The Church, Jones harrumphed indignantly, "has the gall to accuse us legions of art lovers of killing the thing we love? At least we love it." I don't think so. The package tourists from Chengdu, Kanagawa, Novosibirsk, and Omaha who go to the Sistine Chapel don't even look at the famous objects they snap pictures of each other in front of. If you gave them paintball guns and told them that blasting the Sistine frescoes with wet pigment was the thing to do, they'd do that.
There is something unbearably corny about identifying yourself as an "art lover."
You can only be sure someone lives in Florence if they are walking a dog or selling handbags on the sidewalk.
I made a list of dreary expressions in three consecutive editions of The International Herald Tribune:
"speaking truth to power"
"may you live in interesting times"
"the devil is in the details"
the new normal
"it is what it is"
"jumped the shark"
describing someone as "an avatar"
describing Twitter tweets as "like haiku"
If you read enough journalism you notice when the profession falls in love with a new word. A Times writer, for example, will suddenly start describing all kinds of things as "roiling"—almost anything, in fact, except a swirling liquid; within a month or so, across the media spectrum, everything from evening wear to mental illness will be characterized as roiling up a storm. And will continue to roil, meaninglessly, from here to eternity.
At times like the pre-election weeks, before Hurricane Sandy came up from the gulf, a tsunami of icky language roared through the information system like proverbial shit through a canebrake. Romney was doubling down, or "walking back" some egregious position, in a marathon of cynical poses. The president was standing firm, but "lackluster" in the first debate. The hurricane, on the other hand, outran cliches and hyperbole. It was something tangible that didn't leave blather room for media.
What often happens is that an expected storm fails to materialize, or proves less spectacular than anticipated. Hours and hours of air time are cleared to cover it. The expectation of catastrophe becomes impatience at its not arriving, with the threat of boredom, as reporters posted throughout the landscape scramble to fill "dead air."
Rome. I found Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham in a pile of used books near the Piazza del Popolo. I'd thought for a long time to reread "Rain." The movie didn't do Joan Crawford any favors. No one reads Maugham any more. If I think what a queen he was his stories seem written mainly to dissemble his ambitious, lifelong, international quest for young cock.
"Rain" is not bad. If you read it now, what's striking is how big the world was when Maugham wrote his stories. Pago Pago was an exotic place, and Sadie Thompson could go there certain the law would never find her, or even look. Today, some tourist would snap her with an iPhone and post the picture on Facebook.
Before the First World War, you could travel anywhere on Earth without a passport. It was possible to disappear. Now people reinvent themselves in full view of others, and simply demand to be recognized as someone else.
The thing that holds up about "Rain," unfortunately, is that the shrunken world still crawls with Christ-happy troglodytes like the Reverend Davidson. And squalid turds like Romney, whose religion is a repellent fusion of avarice and piety. And then there are Wahhabis, and Zionists, with their malefic gods and primitive wishes. I'm writing after the storm, after the election, and after the start of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, about which I wanted to say: Fuck Israel. As Gideon Levy put it in Haaretz:
Given the current reality, making peace would be an almost anti-democratic act: Most Israelis don't want it. A just, egalitarian society would also violate the wishes of most Israelis: That, too, is something they don't want. They're satisfied with the racism, comfortable with the occupation, pleased with the apartheid; things are very good for them in this country. That's what they told the pollsters.
Levy is referring to the recent survey by the Dialog polling group, revealing that 1/3 of Israeli Jews think Arab citizens should not be allowed to vote; 47% said that Jews should be treated better than Arabs; 40% want segregation in housing and education; 59% want Jews given preference in public employment; 47% want citizenship taken away from Israeli Arabs; 3/4 want Israelis and Palestinians to use separate roads.
The American taxpayer underwrites the existence of every Israeli citizen to the tune of $3 billion a year in subsidies—over the past ten years, that's $200,000 per every Israeli family of five. Things are very good indeed for Israelis, as long as they're not Arabs; far better, in material terms, than they are for the majority of Americans. What are we getting for our investment? Obviously, we haven't bought a wonderful democracy in the theocratic desert of the Middle East, but another fascist enclave of masters and servants that happens to be run by Jews.
For $3 billion annually: Israeli industries competing with ours using seed money from the US Treasury; the ridiculous Netanyahu's attempts to interfere with our elections; a 400-mile wall designed to annex all the water and arable land in the Occupied Territories on behalf of settler thugs; the demagogic use of the Holocaust to excuse any barbarity the Netanyahu government perpetrates. If you revealed incontrovertible, documentary proof that Netanyahu had personally slaughtered an entire Palestinian village and then fucked a pig while eating shellfish, this would be dismissed by true believers everywhere as another sad example of anti-semitism. It's too much to hope that any American government will ever even threaten to turn off the spigot, though the whole Israel-Palestine conflict would be settled in a half hour if it did. All right. And yes, I'm a quarter Jewish—in the demagogic vernacular, a self-hating Jew. But for the record, Fuck Israel.
Previously - Room Service with Tracey Emin and Gary Indiana