We’re all familiar with jokes that begin, “You can tell you’re getting old when…” The punch lines usually aren’t very funny, but, as you get older, you start seeing in them gnawing elements of truth. The most rattling observation I’ve made as time plods on is that I’m beginning to like cruises. It’s something that sneaks up on you – like age spots, sore joints, and a sudden, worrisome attentiveness to television commercials where naked couples sit outdoors in side-by-side bathtubs.
I should acknowledge up front that “these little signs” about aging are more about me than my wife Carol, who retains a youthful exuberance about taking on the world, especially if it means seeing the world. And so it was with no hesitation that we signed up last fall for what could be called a “World Leaders in Trouble” Mediterranean cruise, originating, rather fittingly I would think, in Italy.
Italy’s an amazing place. Romans once ruled the world, conquering everyone, largely because they were much better at raising armies than crops. (“Caesar, darling, the carpets are looking a bit thin, can you invade Persia?”) It has developed great artists like Bernini (“When the special occasion calls for a nude statue”); produced dreamy actresses like Elisabetta Canalis (my goodness, what was George Clooney thinking in dumping her!); and even inspired Wall Street role models, like Luca Brasi.
You gotta love Silvio Berlusconi. As a mater of fact, if you were an attractive Italian woman, it was a state requirement. He was Italy’s longest serving post-war Prime Minister despite “alleged” misdeeds ranging from mafia collusion, to tax fraud, to bribing police officers and judges, the latter explaining why he lasted so long.
Silvio was still in power while we were there, and we chanced upon a small group gathered to decry his rather indelicate indifference to his country’s constitution. The protest featured a little band, some marchers with drums and tambourines, a few sympathizers, a scattering of onlookers – mainly young couples in full steamy embrace – and a wild-eyed woman, clearly a quart short on spaghetti sauce, kissing strangers and dancing in the street.
That’s the way it is in Italy. You gather at the slightest impulse, demonstrably denounce whatever it is that’s bothering you, then go home, have a little wine, throw together some antipasto, and settle in for the evening with a Monica Belluci movie. They do it right.
For working Italians the preferred method of protest is a national strike. We were in Assisi, trying to get to Rome, when word spread that the country’s rail workers had gone on strike. Some fellow tourists with early morning flights out of Rome started to panic, hiring taxis for the price of a papal marriage annulment. We decided to queue up behind other stranded travelers when the ticket office opened (goodness knows why) at 1:00 pm.
Ned: “Excuse me, but is there any more word on when the trains might be running?”
Agent: (Feverishly making baseball’s “safe” signal) “No trains-a; all on-a strike-a.”
Ned: “I understand, but when will you know something?”
Agent: “You not-a lees-en. No trains-a. (Points to her watch) “Cinque!..Cinque!”
Ned: “So you think you’ll know more at five o’clock?”
For a moment I thought she was going to burst through the window separating us, like a runaway car smashing into a storefront in one of those insurance commercials. Carol saved me from some unhappy fate by gripping my belt and tugging me away.
We double-dared Carol’s brother Larry, a presence at 6’ 4”, to approach the Doberman’s cage at 4:50 pm, but he’d have nothing to do with it. It goes without saying that if Italy had more people like her on the front lines its war record wouldn’t be so bad.
It’s hard feeling sorry for Hosni Mubarek. He was a lot like Berlusconi with his wealth and sexual appetites, but, sadly for him, his constituents weren’t quite as forgiving. Maybe that’s because unlike Berlusconi who kept his office so long through seduction and bribery, Hosni just ordered his opposition shot dead on the spot.
Cairo is fascinating, but it has to rank as one of the world’s filthiest cities. Our guide, noticeably embarrassed by the smoking garbage lining the canal banks, brightly noted that her trash is picked up weekly. I’m sure it is. Then, of course, the government workers drive the truck to the nearest canal and unload. It’s a wonder Hosni didn’t end up there.
The King Tut galleries at the Cairo Museum featured the famous mask, golden effigies, thrones, chariots, model boats, baseball gloves, etc. – all the stuff he’d need in the afterlife. These were somewhat dimly displayed (the place could use a good sprucing up) but nicely spread out. That didn’t matter much as there was hardly anyone around, which is what a few globally broadcast major riots will do for your tourist business.
Isn’t it ironic that the human beings buried with the most incredibly zealous effort to ensure that their bodies would never be found are now permanently on display in glass cases for everyone to gawk at? And these aren’t wax figures make to look like Lenin or Chairman Mao to lure the morbidly inclined like Carol and me. These are them!
You’d think the pointy-headed types at the museum would do a better job profiling their royalty. The short write-up on Ramses II duly noted that he was “Great” and ruled for 67 years. Then it went on to point out that he suffered from arthritis and dental abscesses. They noted that Ramses V ruled for less than five years, died in his early 30s, then felt compelled to add that he likely contracted smallpox and definitely had an enlarged scrotum. (“Well lookie there! Now that will help us round out his bio!”)
Imagine the outcry if we wrote epitaphs like that – true but tasteless – for our past leaders. Picture mom and dad on summer tour in Washington D.C. reading to their kids an inscription etched in stone on the Jefferson Memorial: “Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd President of the United States. Tom suffered from dysentery, depression, rheumatism, constipation, boils and an enlarged prostate. And, truth be told, he also had a wandering eye if you get our drift, the rascal!”