So, for the most part, I am stuck here. I wasn't always such a stick in the mold, though. I have been to the Gulf Coast, for example, to Biloxi and the Redneck Riviera, back in the days when Katrina was not a name you would actually bestow on a little girl who’d never done anything to you—I was there for a brother’s wedding, which was a disaster in and of itself, but that’s another story entirely—and I was in New Jersey once, and I have been to Italy. That's right, Italy, land of sunshine, classical antiquity, modern iniquity, and Machiavelli to explain it all for you, and I must say that landing at Rome's international airport was a tremendous thrill for me. There's just something about coming to a place that is different from the place you have known all your life that makes the trip all the more memorable. And when the place is Italy, a place you've read about and seen in pictures, television, and the movies your entire life, the thrill is all the more intense. Then things started to go wrong.
It was not my brother's fault, of course; he lived in Sicily at the time and I stayed with him, an arrangement that eliminated my excuse that I'd have no place to stay and couldn't afford a hotel. The trouble really started on the plane over. I was wedged into a window seat in coach, which was small enough to begin with, and forcibly kept there by the two very elderly Italian gentlemen sitting next to me who spent the entire trip showing each other photographs of their grandchildren in Cleveland, Ohio, and by the immense man in the seat in front of me (if you're reading this, fatso, yeah, I mean you). And I do mean immense; if Italy ever decides to compete in the world sumo championships, they should look this guy up—he's a champion in the making. He had me pinned for eight hours by the simple expedient of moving his seat back and forcing my kneecaps towards the back of my legs.
And there I sat for eight hours, crushed between time and matter (I did mention this guy was huge, right? I mean absolutely humongous; if the plane went down in the ocean he'd pop to the surface like a bar of Ivory Soap, he had so much fat on him), and then, to make matters even better, which is me being ironical, but I think you knew that already, someone in first class had a case of the sniffles. So by the time I arrived in Italy to see the land where Caesar ruled, Raphael painted, and Alfredo fettucinied, I had lost most of the feeling in the lower half of my body and had an incipient case of the flu. I was fine for the first part of my first day there; my first dinner of veal and pasta and some Italian vegetable, the name of which escapes me at the moment, was very nice, I thought, although the veal was just a little bit on the dry side along the edges; and then disaster, as it is wont to do, struck. I am not sure what the cause of this particular strike was; I don’t speak the language, after all, but there were lots of hammers and sickles on display and I suppose I could have saved a fortune on hardware and farming implements if I had any interest in hardware and farming implements. But I didn’t and I don’t, so I spent the rest of my first week in a foreign land flat on my back with a high fever and jet lag to boot.
The problem with being flat on your back in a foreign land with a highly communicable disease is that there is nothing for you to do all day except be sick and watch satellite television, which was a very odd experience since almost none of the channels were in English, except, of course, for the BBC, and after a while even that grated on the nerves; the sports guys on the BBC don’t cover major league baseball, which left me in a cognitively dissonant state: I knew it was baseball season, but I could find nothing about baseball anywhere on the television. This, I think, only exacerbated my already weakened condition and led to a maddened continuous rush through the channels as I tried to find something, anything on the television showing a picture of New York. At length I had to settle for a financial news channel showing the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but when you are sicker than ten sick horses and in a foreign land to boot, you do not look a sick gift horse in the mouth, which is a fairly disgusting thing to do even if you and the horse aren’t sick. I could have made a lot of money if I’d bothered to invest in the market that week; I’m pretty sure I knew more about what was going on in Wall Street that most of the brokers.
So there I lay, burning with fever, drinking Nyquil by the quart, and if there is anything that shows the ultimate benevolence of America in our fallen world, it is Nyquil, flipping through the innumerable channels available to the European satellite viewer. After watching a French panel discussion about comedy; at least, I think it was about comedy; no one laughed at all, although one guy managed to crack a smirk worthy of President Bush, so the show may have been about nuclear proliferation instead, I flipped to a interview with a Portuguese bullfighter trying to explain how the bull managed to pop a horn into his backside and then to MTV Germany; you have to wonder if giving MTV to Germans was really such a good idea; and then to three channels of the same guy wearing the same robe reading the same news from Dubai. From there it was off to RAI, the Italian TV stations, for Vivaldi concertos and game shows with a lot of pretty girls in showgirl costumes standing around doing nothing except being pretty girls standing around in showgirl costumes, which is nice work if you can get it, and hence to the local programming from there in Catania, and it doesn’t make any difference what language you speak, Sabina Rossi on Ev’viva la Citta looks good in all of them. And in the middle of the night, when the fever was at its height, there are always the soft-core porn ads from Brazil and from there to Polish television. Here I stopped, utterly aghast, and began to scream.
I am usually a fairly calm person, all in all; the vicissitudes of life don’t usually get me down unless the Yankees’ center and left fielders run into each other at the wall and so allow the go-ahead run to score for the Angels in a game the Yankees should have won, but let’s not be bitter about what can’t be changed now, and so I turned to Polish television, doing so in all innocence, because it was the next channel after Brazilian soap operas and Swiss yodeling contests. I was violently ill, remember, and so I could not deal with the phenomenon before me with my usual aplomb and general acceptance of the usually silly human condition. I looked at the screen and began to scream because I knew I was dying, I was as sure of that as I am that the sky is blue, or would be if this damn cold front over us now would just move out into the Atlantic where it belongs, and I knew that I had arrived unshriven at the hour of my death because I was, in the middle of a foreign land where no one on television spoke English, hallucinating that there was a Polish reggae band manned by Polish Rastafarians in Polish dreadlocks and smoking Polish ganja playing Bob Marley tunes in Polish on my TV screen. Convinced of my immediate demise, I screamed for a priest to hear my confession, terrified that I was going to meet the Almighty with mortal sin on my soul. Then I passed out; whether it was fear of damnation or the quart of Nyquil that caused the slump into unconsciousness is still a point of debate between my brother and me.
I woke up late the next day feeling much better than a man who has just had a near death experience has a right to feel. The fever had broken in the night and while I was still sick, I was now officially on the road to full recovery. I tried to tell my brother about the Polish reggae band, but he told me that I was dreaming things, and frankly, I believed him. The next couple of days went well, and we went off to see the sights of Palermo on the other side of Sicily. I especially enjoyed the Capuchin catacombs, where the 18th and 19th century Palermitano elite are hanging on the walls, most of them looking as good as I felt during my first few days in Italy. On the day before I left, though, while I was just flipping through the channels waiting for my brother to get out of the bathroom, I saw them again. There really are Polish reggae bands, as odd as that may seem; it makes you wonder how something like this ever happened. It can hardly be some form of cultural reciprocity; I don’t have the facts and figures on this at my fingertips, but I would venture to say that polka bands are probably few and far between in Jamaica. I was able to put my mind at ease about one thing; I’m pretty sure those things near their mouths were not reefers; they may have been smoked kielbasa, for all I know, or simply very large microphones, but they weren’t reefers. It’s always nice to know that you’re not crazy, after all. It makes the whole day seem that much better.