Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 2


GPS (Mrs. Garmin)…

The Hotel Racket…

White-noise Machines…

Security Patrol…

Having procured plane tickets, a car, and places to stay at strategic locations along his itinerary, the modern Grand Tourist is on his way. Not quite. First, he must: call his credit card company to report that he will be away from x to y; ensure that he has adequate travel insurance (trip and medical); secure a month’s supply of his multitude of medications from the pharmacy and distribute them in their little plastic coffins; call his cell phone provider to buy a plan for Italy (he’ll need a phone to contact his hosts a couple of hours before arrival, in order to give them time to get to the apartment and hand over the keys); go to the AAA office in the suburbs to purchase an international driver’s license; then to Navigation Systems R Us in another suburb to get the European maps for his GPS; and down to the travel bookstore to buy a map-book for Italy just in case his GPS abandons him to his own resources.

Several days before departure, we turned our minds to that most unpleasant of preparatory rituals: packing. What would we require, as opposed to merely find useful, during our month away? (Here again, technology is oppressive rather than liberating.) We’ll need our laptop, of course–don’t forget the power cord, headphones, and wireless mouse–for checking the hours of museums, churches, palaces, and so on. (In Italy, the lunch-time siesta can begin any time between 11:00 and 12:30, and end from 2:30-4:30. Which means that any trip to Italy involves a lot of calculated temporizing, or else lurking suspiciously around doorways, waiting for buildings to re-open.) We’ll need our phones (don’t forget the charger). We’ll need the camera (charger, extra SD card, lens-cleaning kit). We’ll need Mrs. Garmin (as we call the lady who lives inside the black box of our GPS and imperiously barks out the upcoming turns), as well as its windshield mount and cable. We’ll need adapter-plugs for all of the above. And most important of all, we mustn’t forget our anti-noise noisemakers.


For serious noise, of course, nothing is effective short of the industrial ear muffs one wears while using power tools. But for side-sleepers like me, they’re painful—not to mention unromantic. Long ago, we purchased a special “white-noise” machine, which plays a variety of soothing and soporific sounds recorded from nature: a babbling brook; a crackling fire; rain; waves breaking onto shore, and so on. In theory, such devices work by cancelling out the more disruptive noises one encounters in typical hotel rooms: the self-closing metal doors that clang when they hit home; the machine-gun rat-tat-tat of ice machines; AC units that sound like the clashing of continental plates when their compressors kick in. The Socratic definition and telos of a hotel is a building in which guests exchange money for a good night’s sleep. One would think that the architects of hotels or their multinational management corporations would have given a minute’s thought to alleviating the aforementioned auditory assaults (a few rolls of Home Depot self-adhering weatherstripping foam, affixed to the jambs to cushion the blow of slamming doors, for instance). Instead, they imagine that what their customers crave are chocolates on their pillows. And so, wherever we travel, our white-noise machines travel with us.

But the manufacturers of such devices have given only slightly more thought to their design than hoteliers have given to that of their hotels. Their sounds are not, of course, recorded from nature, but synthesized: simulations that repeat themselves in an endless loop. “The seaside”, for example (our default setting), evolves in three distinct movements. First, one hears the sounds of a wave coalescing, cresting, and breaking against the rocks. Then, another wave waxes and wanes, this time to the accompaniment of the song of gulls. Finally, just before the third wave exhausts itself, comes the squawk of a single gull that is so loud and piercing that not even the dead could sleep through it. Then the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum.

Has the “composer” of these tracks or, the manufacturer the devices, ever taken one to bed with him? (Has a hotel manager ever tried to sleep in one of his own hotels?) It takes about three repetitions of “the seaside” before one has every sequential nuance memorized. Having been shocked out of sleep by the climactic shriek of gulls, one lies awake waiting for it to come round again. One counts the waves, registers the first chorus of gulls, and braces for the final fortissimo. Here is another human artifact that does precisely the opposite of what it was intended to. (Hence we travel with not one but two machines. If perfectly synchronized, they smooth over each over’s rough spots, and create the undifferentiated, amorphous “white” noise (the Pythagorean concors discordiae) conducive to sleep.


In the choice of clothes, one must be equally provident. September in Toronto is reliably cool, but in Northern Italy it can bring anything: scorching afternoon heat, cold nights, drenching rains. Packing clothes for, in effect, both summer and autumn, in addition to the electronic gear one has to haul, while staying within the airlines’ niggardly weight limits, is a balancing act that requires the brain of an accountant. The possible combinations are almost infinite. For two days, the candidates were strewn across beds, sofas, and chairs for adjudication. They were then provisionally folded, boxed, or wrapped, and placed in our suitcases for weighing.


A day before departure brings another ritual: security patrol. We live in a district of Toronto (not by any means the worst in our world-class city) in which the cliché about things being stolen unless they are “bolted down” doesn’t any longer apply. A neighbour recently had plants dug up from her own garden. I’ve had a ladder stolen while working on the roof just above it. A book that I ordered from was filched from my front porch where it was left by the courier. (I rejoice in the thief’s erudition, but wonder where he will fence a used copy of Felix Buffiere’s 1953 magnum opus, Les mythes d’Homere et la Pensee Grecque.) Leaving the house for any extended period of time thus fills me with paralyzing apprehension. For the first several days of any vacation, I am haunted by forebodings of break-ins, vandalism, earthquake, or conflagration.

Security patrol must be prosecuted systematically. One must find a trusted neighbour with whom to leave the keys in case of fire; then install new batteries in the smoke detectors. A padlock has to be attached to the garden gate, and the lock on the attic hatch secured. Eyebolts are then inserted in the holes drilled for that purpose through the sash of the double-hung windows (the old locks are too easily forced). Timers are set for lights in the living room and upstairs bedroom. (I don’t know why one does this; any half-way competent thief will deduce, after staking out the place, that if the lights go on and off at precisely the same minute every day, the occupant must be on vacation). Finally, in anticipation of a break-in, I open the doors to the stereo cabinet and gather easily fenced or portable valuables together, then place them on prominent display. (I’d rather burglars find the cash, jewelry, and electronic equipment immediately, rather than smash the gallery of my Georgian secretary-bookcase.) Heaping up our valuables on the altar of our hallway table is the last rite, so to speak, before the day of destiny.


I realize that a trip to the most beautiful country in the world ought to have been a joyful prospect. Whenever friends or neighbours heard that we were about to spend a month in Northern Italy, their common response was “Lucky you.” Pondering Northern Italy, visions of umbrella pines, prosecco, and high-heeled ragazze danced before their inner eyes. But they hadn’t undergone the pre-departure ordeal described above. What did they know about eyebolts, prevaricating landlords, threadbare mattresses, or white-noise machines that, every ninety seconds, sound the last trump?

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