Dear Lenny and Bekka,
Sorry I haven't written for several days. We're in Athens, Greece. We spent two days each in Le Mans and Reims. Le Mans was kind of dull, except for the racetrack. No racing going on while we were there, but apparently France has plenty of mega-rich people who own their own race cars. The track allows them to run solo laps, only one car on the track at the time. These rich guys have their cars trailered out to the track, pay some massive fee, and work on their skills. Ten laps, it's the next guy's turn. The public is allowed to watch from the stands, for free. I don't know how, but Vito somehow cajoled a track worker into letting us walk to the pit area, so we could get a closer look at the cars. We talked with a couple of these amateur drivers (well, Vito did) and they admit, it is a very expensive hobby, but worth it to them. They both said if they'd had their choice, they would have been professional racers and lived fairly poor, rather than going into business and being rich.
I got to drive two laps in one of them! We were talking to the owner, a little guy, like my size. Him and Vito were going on in French, then the guy turns to me and says in English, "Your uncle, he says you drive well, you drive fast cars in California. Yes?" I said yes, I have a '71 Cutlass 442 as a daily driver at home. The dude was a serious car buff, he was the first European I'd met that knew what a Cutlass 442 was. He asked, "Is your car is fast as mine?" I said of course not, nothing street legal in California would be. "Would you like to try my car?" Wow. I told him sure, but he'd have to show me what to do. He had me get behind the wheel, the seat fits like a body cast. F1 cars have, like, semi-automatic transmissions in them. You upshift and downshift by pressing on a paddle on the steering wheel with your thumb. You use the clutch to get into first, and after that you just use the paddle, no clutch. He had me put on his helmet and told me to push a button to start the car. This thing is LOUD up close. Then he yelled, "You go two laps, you will see why I enjoy my car."
I revved the gas a couple times to get a feeling for the pedal, then clicked into first, gave it some gas, and let out the clutch. This thing SHOT down the pit lane, I was being pressed back in my seat. I clicked into second and got onto the track. It's a road course. Going into the first curve, I realized how incredibly stiff the steering was. I clicked up a gear, then shifted back down for the next curve. There was a straightaway, and I got up to fourth gear, then had to shift back down for another curve. I was in a car I'd never driven, with controls I'd never seen before, on an unknown track, so I wasn't pushing it too hard. It didn't matter which gear I was in, the G-forces pushed me in my seat every time I hit the gas. By the time I started my second lap, I was more comfortable and knew where I was going, so I pushed it harder, That thing was amazing. There is no speedometer, just a tach and a bunch of warning lights, so I had no clue how fast I was going. It felt very fast. I pushed it harder on curves the second time around, expecting the rear end to break traction like in the Cutlass, but that thing stayed right in line. I pulled into the pit area and stopped where I could see people waving at me. They pulled me out of the cockpit, which is how everybody has to be removed. I realized how tired my arms were from the steering wheel. The car owner said to me, "Your second lap, it was very good for your first time at the wheel. Look." He pointed up to a big display sign that had a time on it, I guess my time for completing a circuit. He asked, "You have raced before, yes?" I told him except for a few drags in the Cutlass, no, and those were just in a straight line for a half mile. He said, "But you show great skill, you must have learned somewhere." I thought about it, then smiled and said I often drive on freeways in Los Angeles. He took this in, then nodded knowingly.
Reims is a neat little city, with no tourists but with very nice museums and galleries. Vito were walking down the street in a neighborhood of storefronts when I realized I was going past a record store, and it had the poster for the Dwarves "Blood Guts and Pussy" in the window. I told Vito I wanted to go in, and I was glad I did. They had an awesome selection of punk and hardcore. Watch for a package, I bought about thirty records, almost all by bands I'd never heard of. From all over Europe, too. The clerk (who was covered in tattoos and had a ten gauge septum piercing) smilingly gave me a cardboard box, so I'd have something to ship my records in. I don't know why everyone thinks the French are assholes, everyone I've met has been wonderful. The clerk asked, "You are American?" I said yes, California. He smiled widely and said, "Such a wonderful place to be, life is a party in California!" I just shrugged and smiled.
We left Reims and drove to Orly Field, where we turned in the Mercedes. Vito made a call, and five minutes later a limo(!) from the charter jet service pulls up to take us to their terminal. We were driven straight to the steps of a twelve-seater Lear jet, and we got on. Once again, we were the only passengers, I don't even want to know what these jets are costing Vito. One of the pilots greeted us at the door, and told us (in English) that we would be taking off in about ten minutes. We made small talk for a minute, he was yet another one who was inordinately happy to be dealing with Californians. A tray held coffee, croissants, cheese, and fruit, and of course wine. Once the door was closed, I stripped down and me and Vito snacked. The cabin attendant appeared from somewhere and only looked a little surprised to see I'd taken my clothes off. He told Vito and me it was time to take seats and belt in. As he checked my belt, he said, "So you are from California?" Yes, I am. He smiled and said, "Yes, you could be from nowhere else."
Dear Lenny and Bekka,
We are in a small but luxurious hotel over the Aegean Sea in a place called Rafina, about fifteen miles outside Athens. Fantastic white beaches, cliffs, birds, and always the sound of the ocean. And a nude beach, which I will be frequenting when not out exploring with Vito. We've already visited this afternoon. As soon as we were there, I got my clothes off and put them in a bag I'd brought for that purpose. Vito's only concession was to remove his shoes and socks while we walked on the beach. Vito has his opinion on how a man should appear when in public, and sticks with it. Proving how cool of a guy Vito is, he's in a suit, at the beach, and it's warm, but he isn't even breaking a sweat. He brought a folding chair from the hotel with him, so he'd have a place to sit while I laid in the sand and swam. I said I hoped he wasn't bored, and he told me that watching the ocean was a meditative thing for him, he could stare out to sea for hours. He said, "I occasionally regret having settled in Bel Air, and not Malibu. Then I remember, when Malibu is not sliding into the ocean, it is burning to the ground, and decide I am happy enough just visiting the beach."
This may sound mean, but one thing I've noticed is a big difference in body types between this beach and Lake Como. At Lake Como, everybody was fairly fit, regardless of their age, they weren't hard on the eyes. Here, oh boy. I'm sorry, but some people just shouldn't be naked where anyone else can see them. If you're five foot eight and three hundred pounds, a nude beach should not be on your list of places to go. Some of the women were case studies in why bras are a good idea. Their tits sagged down to their navels. And I know this is Greece, and it's just the way things are, but every guy over thirty had a crop of back hair you could lose your car keys in. Greek dudes are always a bit hirsute, and just get hairier as they age. I thought I saw a few dudes who looked appealing, then they got up closer and I realized they were fourteen years old.
Athens was fun. We were in full tourist mode while we were there, taking guided tours and walking around staring at things. Athens taxi drivers are even crazier than Roman ones. It's weird, massive ruins will be sitting next to a modern building, a strange juxtaposition. (I've been looking for an excuse to use that word for months.) Going through museums, you are greeted everywhere by marble statues of naked men with tiny dicks. Okay, I know, I'm kind of a size queen, but if those statues reflected reality, I can't imagine any woman being satisfied with what was offered. I pointed this out to Vito, who explained, "The Greeks believed small, smooth penises were the artistic ideal. They thought large penises were vulgar, animalistic. They also knew which fit better up another man's asshole."
We don't have a car right now. Vito felt it would be simpler to hire drivers while we are in Greece, especially if we're in rural areas, where the road signs may be only in Greek, not multilingual like on the highways. Due to the short distance, we just took a cab from Athens to Rafina. The town is dense and not too hilly, so we'll walk most places. There are also these weird mini-cabs, small trikes with a seat for the driver and two seats behind him, covered with a canopy. If we use one, I'll leave it up to Vito to figure out how the fare is calculated.
After the dinner I had tonight, I'm never eating at the gyros place at the mall again. Awesome food. Vito introduced me to retsina, a rich red wine. We each had a glass with dinner, and brought back the bottle to the room. Vito warned me retsina has a kick to it, and right now I believe it. I just finished my third glass and am feeling the effects much more than I would any other wine. I can hear bazuki music and rhythmic clapping through the open balcony doors. I'm going to ask Vito if he wants to join me in investigating what's going on.
Dear Lenny and Bekka,
We're on another charter jet, flying from Athens to Hamburg, Germany. Yes, we are the only passengers. Yes, I'm naked. And yes, the cabin attendant has adjusted. Vito found a book of English crossword puzzles in the airport, and is engrossed.
Ha! The attendant (a woman) just came over and asked, very politely, why I took all my clothes off. I told her I am a nudist, I am far more comfortable sans clothes, and if I had my way, I would go everywhere naked, except for shoes. I explained further that this was a recent change in my life, that I had visited a nudist resort and found I had never felt freer in my life, truly unshackled. She asked, "It does not bother you that if you did go everywhere nude, many men would see you as an object of lust?" I told her that so long as they were not crude and kept their hands to themselves, they could look at me all they want, I was flattered they found me sexy. With an uncomfortable look and a vague gesture at my crotch, she said, "From the waist down, you, uh, would appear to still be a child." I explained that yes, I shaved. It was partially fashion statement on my part, and partially for enjoyment, certain things felt much better without any hair there. She looked a little shocked, then smiled politely and went back to where she hangs around at the end of the plane. It struck me that Vito has never once asked about or commented on my bald snatch.... But I also know Vito watches Inana's videos, so he would have been seeing pussy that was shaved to one degree or another for a while.
Oh, shit. Last night while Vito and I were eating dinner, we were approached by the most horrible people in the world. It was a couple in their fifties, from some town in Minnesota. Total tourists: baggy shorts, fanny packs, sensible shoes, and the man had an Instamatic hanging by a cord from his wrist. They'd heard me and Vito talking in English, and decided to glom onto us for that reason, and that reason only. The Mercers came over and said, "Are you American?" Vito said yes, California. I take it you are Americans. May we help you with something? The man started going on about how gosh, it was so darn wonderful to hear a language they understood, none of the signs on anything were in English, only in that weird alphabet they used here ("You mean Greek?" asked Vito), and how were we able to cope? Vito said, "You will find most Greeks multilingual. When conversing, I ask first if the person I talking to speaks English. If not, I will try Italian. After that, French. If we cannot communicate at all at that point, I will politely excuse myself and find someone else. However, this is rare. We will find some common language, where we both have a basic grasp. I have found Italian the most common second language skill for Greeks. Fluency in English is not so common here. Why do you ask?"
The woman starts going on about how it was impossible to get anything done, these Greeks did not understand them, no matter how slowly or loudly they spoke. She said that, and Vito and I started laughing. Vito said, "You are trying to communicate with a citizen of Greece, not a house pet. Tell me, did you decide to travel to Greece on a whim?"
"We've been planning this trip for nearly nine months," said the woman.
Vito told her, "And in all that time, it never once occurred to you to develop any sort of grasp on the language of the country you are visiting? Not even a phrasebook?"
The man picked up on Vito's sarcasm and started going off on how English was an international language, and how all these countries over here were totally dependent on tourism money, and they ought to have the basic decency to speak the language of the people who were spending all their money. And just who did Vito think he is, speaking three languages, being all fancy? Vito gave him a look that would have been a death sentence in Los Angeles. Then he said, "Sir, you are a fool and a lout. You are the reason why the phrase 'Yankee dipshit' is recognized internationally. Still, I will humor you and answer. My name is Don Vito Ventimiglia, of Los Angeles, California. I am originally from the Tuscany region of Italy. I left home for America at the age of sixteen, by myself, and with no real grasp of English. When I arrived, I was able to communicate, barely, by using an Italian/English translation dictionary which I carried everywhere. Due to immersion, I learned American English. I was fluent by my eighteenth birthday, by working at it. I became a citizen at the age of twenty-three. My French is fair, picked up in my youth and coming back to me later during business dealings.
"The fact that you cannot communicate with the local citizens should disabuse you of thinking English is international. No language is, and never will be. Your assertion that Europe is dependent on the dollars of tourists ignores that all these countries are far older than the United States, and have kept their economies afloat for hundreds of years. In Greece's case, a couple thousand years. Europe would barely be impacted if all American tourism ended tomorrow. You believe you are owed the courtesy of a common language because you are paying for a hotel room and meals? You have the entitlement issues of a small child.
"Jane here had no other language skills besides English when she arrived, but then, she was with me, and I was willing to translate for her. In the countries we have so far visited, Jane has made an effort to learn some basic phrases, so she can accomplish some tasks without aid. Some I have taught her, some she has learned from friendly locals. When we arrived in Athens, the first thing she did was buy a phrasebook at the airport, so she would not be completely stymied by the language barrier. It may take a while for her and a Greek to communicate, but the Greeks are patient with her, because they can tell she is at least trying. You have made no such effort, and are not owed the courtesy of their patience.
"I make two suggestions. The first is you go to Athens and avail yourself of any phrasebooks and translation dictionaries you can find, and always keep them with you. Try to be a good guest in this country, do not bray your ignorance as if it was a source of pride. Or else, you may return to Minnesota at your earliest possible opportunity, and never again consider any vacation more challenging that visiting the Wisconsin Dells. You will have a life that is simple, poses you no challenge, and is utterly void of enriching experience. It will not be a life, just an existence. And you will go to your grave knowing you never had an impact on the world. Do you have anything you would like to say to me?"
The Mercers looked angry and flummoxed. The woman said to me, "What's your story? You supposed to be his paid escort or something?" I grinned and said no, I'm his grand-niece, Uncle Vito and I are very close. I told her that I had overcome some communication problems because I was so gifted at pantomime, I made Harpo Marx look slow. And what other countries are you two visiting? She said they were going to Italy, France, and Switzerland. I told her to take a bit of comfort in the fact that if they were driving, they would find the signs on major highways were multilingual. But to make phrasebooks and translation dictionaries the very first things they bought in each country, so that just maybe people over here wouldn't thing Americans were quite such assholes. And I'm not American, I'm Californian. There's a difference, ask anyone in Western Europe.
The man started going off on us about how he couldn't believe that fellow countrymen of his wouldn't show any sympathy, that Vito just insults him, and why the hell is a blue-haired teenage weirdo traveling with an old man? Vito just looked at him and said, "I am at a place in life where I no longer need to humor fools. As Jane said to you wife, she is my grand-niece. She is my traveling companion this summer. Jane gives me energy, and brings joy and light into my life. Being around Jane has added ten years to my life."
Then the guy says, Oh, she's not just some teenage hooker you're paying to travel with you and keep your bed warm? Hearing that made my blood run a little cold. I knew if someone had said that to Vito back home, that person wouldn't live to see another dawn. And Cosa Nostra would have sued the estate for the cost of the bullets and shovels. Vito just looked at him and said, "You have just called a relative of mine a prostitute. There are some things which will not stand. Jane, shiv this man in the gut."
I pulled my butterfly knife out of my purse and spun it open, then I stood up. The looks on their faces was priceless. They froze up for a second, then I started to move towards them and they began running for the door, moving much faster than I would have imagined possible. (God, is everyone from the Midwest really lumpy?) Vito said we should probably pay up and leave, before those two found a constable. We went back to the bar at our hotel, where we drank Ouzo and smoked cigars. Vito found a young Italian couple and talked with them, and I studied my phrasebook. The problem with phrasebooks is that you will speak to someone in their language.... So they answer you in their language, and you don't know what they've said. So you smile and nod and say the most valuable phrase to memorize in any language, "Do you speak any English?" If the answer is no, you keep smiling and hand them your pocket translation dictionary, and hope they are patient people.
Meeting the Mercers made me understand why people we've met have been a little stand-offish and suspicious at first, when they hear my American accent. They're used to people with the jingoistic attitude of the Mercers, arrogant assholes who don't get that they are visitors, and it's up to them to adapt. It makes me even gladder I ran away to California, reason 3,745 why I'm glad I did. I think I said in another letter that everyone seems to think of California as a different country, not really part of the US at all. I say four magical words --- "I am from California" --- and people brighten way up. What they think California is like probably has no basis in reality, it's like some magical place where everyone spends all day surfing, cruising on the freeway in fast cars, and partying on the beach. And I don't help to dispel the fantasy, because that actually is kind of how I live.
When I was talking to the record store clerk in Reims, and he found out I was a Californian, he brightened right up. He said life in California is a party. The next question, which I always get, was "Do you surf?" I always just smile and say yes, I don't tell them I've only been doing it for about four months and am not very good at it yet. I also don't tell them that I'm a relatively recent transplant, I'm actually from Florida. And I tell them about my car, and where I live, and what my days are like, and the weather, and what I do for fun, and realize I'm totally propagating the collective fantasy. I guess it's not a really bad thing, it seems to make people very happy. They feel like they've met someone who is visiting from a whole different plane of existence, not just some American tourist. I tell myself the rest of their day will be much brighter, they will have pleasant thoughts about a magical land, California, in their heads.
Okay, I've been writing forever. Vito has gone to bed and my hand is starting to really hurt. More soon.