Tuesday, March 20, 2007

One Night in Paradise

One of the things I like best about pledge drives is they provide opportunities to get to know people from other parts of the station. People you might not work with any other time of the year, or people who you seldom get to see. It’s like we all come together in the trenches of pledge warfare for a couple of weeks, then quickly disband afterwards, but we carry with us the camaraderie of intense time spent together making one of the last bastions of live television production happen. So in between the talent pitching and volunteer trainings and on-air breaks, we find ourselves in all sorts of different conversations about some of the most obscure topics.

On Sunday, a group of us somehow got on the topic of hotels and their cleanliness. One guy in the conversation has a real aversion to hotel rooms because he’s convinced they are all big petri dishes of germs and bed bugs and other life threatening maladies. He travels quite a bit for business and he was making all of us laugh talking about how he basically sleeps fully clothed and showers almost fully clothed, as well. Serious neurosis, but humorous none the less.

This made me think about my travels and various hotel stays, and how there have been many times my overnight accommodations would have made poor Jim’s skin crawl. The one that will always come to mind first was in Florence, Italy.

It was late one night. I had finished my classes at L’Universite de Savoi in Chambery, France earlier that day and I was footloose and fancy free. My plan was to travel around as long as my money would hold out so I was excited to be heading south to see Italy.

First stop, Florence. To save money, I took all sorts of “off schedule” trains, which meant I arrived in town very late, and it was just after midnight on this particular day. I had originally thought I would stay at the youth hostel, but because it was so late, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable trying to figure out where that was. So I got in a cab and asked the driver in my broken, pigeon Italian to take me to the nearest pensione. A pensione is one usually one step up from a hostel. Not yet a hotel, by any means, but you usually have your own room and share a bathroom.

You could just tell that this cab driver was a cross between Casanova and the Devil, and he assured me he knew JUST the pensione for me. And off we went.

Now let me just say right now that I KNOW one of my biggest problems in life is my lack of common sense. Unfortunately, I just don’t have enough good, grounding FEAR to guide me. I tend to like an adventure! It’s not that I intentionally put myself in harm’s way, but it’s more that I tend to throw caution to the wind every now and then and trust that everything will be okay. And, yes, I am most certain that this character flaw will eventually be my total undoing.

So I dubbed him Raphael, and off we went. He was talking a mile a minute in broken English, none of which I understood. I had told him I wanted to stay near the train station, so it didn’t take long to get to where we were going. We stopped in front of L’Hotel Paradisio. The Paradise Hotel.

It was a darling, old building, nestled in between buildings that comprised a darling, old street. I found out later these buildings dated from the 1500’s. That’s 500 years old and I couldn’t have been more pleased as I paid Raphael and watched him drive away.

Almost giddy with excitement, I walked through the huge, heavy wooden front door into the tiniest lobby I had ever seen. There was a very large, heavily made up woman smoking a cigarette behind the little counter and there were three other women with big hair and bright make up sitting on the tiny couch and drinking wine. When I walked in they fell totally silent and just stared at me. All of them. I mean stared hard with looks of utter amazement. As if they were witnessing me sprout a second head. I was carrying a small suitcase, my backpack and my trusty “Let’s Go Europe” book. Tourist with a capital T.

I managed to muster up my voice and I looked at the big woman and asked her if she had a room available. Again, she looked at me as if I was from another planet. I thought maybe it was a language barrier, so I used my bad Italian and asked for a room. She FINALLY responded very slowly and suspiciously, asking if I was American. “Si”, I responded. She asked to see my “passporte”, which I showed her. She kept looking from my passport up to my face back and forth, all the time smoking that long cigarette.

I proceeded bravely onward, in English, saying that my train had arrived late and this was the pensione the cab driver had taken me to because I needed a room for the night.

Finally the big woman kind of shrugged and looked at the three on the couch, who immediately began to giggle. As she shrugged her shoulders, she said, “Okay, Bella Americana, I give you room for night.”. And then she started laughing so hard her big bosoms were heaving and her cigarette ashes fell off the end of her cigarette. I had no idea what was so funny, but she had seemed to accept me so I was relieved I wasn’t going to be kicked out on the street at that time of night.

A couple of men came through the door, gave me an odd look and squeezed around me and started talking to the women sitting on the couch. It was as if we were all sardines packed tightly in a little can.

I gave the lady my $10 and my passport and she gave me a key and told me my room was on the third floor and the bathroom was at the end of that hallway. She then reached under the table where she was sitting me and with a big smile handed me a bottle of red wine and clucked me forward with a motion of her hand as I protested. Well, I guess it beats a chocolate on your pillow.

So I lugged my big self, my suitcase, my backpack, my Let’s Go Europe book and my bottle of wine past the men and women on the couch, into the tiniest elevator ever created. European elevators are notorious for their small size, but this one was crazy cramped and I was freaked out it wasn’t going to make it as it creaked upwards. I could hear the big woman laughing as I rode up.

When I stumbled out of the elevator, I almost ran over a man and a woman who were waiting to get on. I’ll never forget how stunningly good looking that man was, but the woman gave me such a glare as I lurched toward my door with my stuff in tow.

My door opened with one of those big, brass keys that fit inside the brass lock that you see in the movies. The room itself was spare, to say the least. Very tiny, a small bed, a small table and a small chair. A bit grim with old, faded wall paper and a slight dank smell. But it had the most stunningly beautiful balcony overlooking the old medieval neighborhood below me. Big French doors opened up onto the patio balcony that was filled with flowering vines and old statues. It was an amazing view and being only three stories up, I could easily see all the comings and goings below me. That’s the point I remember thinking for the first time, “Why is there so much going on down there? It’s late!”.

So I got my bottle of wine and found my cork screw and a glass and I sat outside and enjoyed the beauty of that warm, spring Italian night. And things began to get interesting on the street below me.

Those men who had entered the lobby when I was signing in? I saw them leaving. They were laughing loud and slapping each other on the backs. I saw more men come in. Some were alone. Some were in small groups. I noticed they would all come back out within 20-30 minutes. Women with short skirts and high heels and overly made up faces were going in and out of the building as well. I saw a red headed woman walk with a man into the building. Not 20 minutes later, they walked back outside and down the street. And just 15 minutes later I saw here come back in to the hotel with a different man on her arm, who also left about 20 minutes later, this time without her. I saw car loads of young boys drive slowly by and look at the door, then drive away, like they lost their nerve. I saw the three women who had been on the couch when I arrived come outside with young men on their arms – boys in military uniforms who were 18 if they were a day – and give them big, sloppy kisses as they shooed them into a car parked on the street. There was constant activity going in and out of the lobby.

It certainly didn’t take a genius to figure things out. As I sat on the veranda on that gorgeous, star-filled May night, drinking red wine in Florence, Italy, I laughed out loud knowing that I was staying at L’Hotel Paradisio…. THE BEST LITTLE BROTHEL THIS SIDE OF THE TRAIN STATION!

Oh, wouldn’t my mom and dad be proud? A genuine Italian whore house!

The reactions of the women when I was checking in now made total sense. Can you imagine their disbelief when this goofy, excited American girl waltzed through their door with her backpack, Let’s Go Europe Book, and overly animated happy voice looking for a room for the night? I cursed Raphael the cab driver who probably thought he was pretty darned funny taking me to this place found in the “Let’s Get It On Europe Book” I had failed to purchase before leaving the states. I secretly hoped his manhood would shrivel up and fall off. But even then, I managed to find the whole thing pretty funny, because who else would be dumb enough to find themselves in such a predicament?

There was no slowing down in the action taking place all around me, but I was getting really sleepy. And now that I knew where I was, there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to lay down on that bed, so, like my friend Jim at pledge, I stayed fully clothes for the entire night and dozed while sitting in the chair. I got up early and went downstairs to check out.

The same woman – who I now knew was THE MADAM – was still sitting there smoking her cigarette. She gave me such a big laugh when I got off the elevator. I gave her a look that let her know I knew EXACTLY what was going on, and she just kept laughing and came around the counter and gave me a big hug. She said, “SIT, SIT, BELLA AMERICANA, SIT!”, so I sat there and drank hot tea and ate scones with her. Just me and the Madame. Not understanding a word the other was saying. There were no more girls or men around – I guess they went away when the sun came up – but just the two of us. A very surreal moment, indeed.

When I left she sent me off with another bottle of wine and a batch of warm pastries. I guess she figured if I was stupid enough to spend the night in an Italian den of iniquity, I was probably too stupid to figure out how to buy food.

And she was probably right.

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