Monday, August 1, 2011

Through The Looking Glass

It is said the Fabulous Florida Keys are Paradise, and it may be so in some way that extends beyond the simplistic notion of the Keys as vacation paradise.

In a world that seems to be bound for economic shrinkage, whether we little people want it or not, the fabulous Florida Keys seem to somehow escape the fate meted out to lesser peoples. How do I know? Because I read the newspaper.

If we read the Key West Citizen we find out that the city of Key West is awarding it's elected commissioners real wages around twenty thousand dollars a year up from the current measly $8500. That sends an odd message in a time of austerity but consider this: all of us who earn less than a hundred grand a year in the city are to get a two percent raise. I find that news astonishing as we read of bankruptcy, failure and endless unemployment Up North. Then consider Monroe County which after years of chaotic maladministration is running sufficiently well that five percent raises are proposed all round. County commissioners lack the nerve to approve the raises for their employees but nevertheless the good news remains good.
Let's not forget the little town of Layton, not far from the Snake Creek Bridge pictured above. Their budget of almost two hundred thousand is facing a shortfall of about ten percent and those fine upstanding city leaders can't bring themselves to balance their minuscule budget by raising taxes so instead they -gasp!- dipped into their reserves. However that's not as dire as it sounds as they have well over a year's worth of operating funds in their reserves, about $290,000 before the dipping began.

All this sunny economic well being stands in stark contrast to the reports we hear of financial Armageddon being visited on cities Up North and in Europe. Unemployment in the Keys is lower than average but that's not because we have lots of jobs. It's just that when people lose their jobs down here they bugger off back up to their families on the mainland so our stats look good by comparison. Not great at around 6%, but still not bad all things considered.

Life is different in the Keys not just because we still attract tourists, people who perhaps would be going further afield in good economic times come o theKeys no matter what when the going gets tough. The newspaper also says property values in Key West are going up and thus property taxes upon which we depend are apparently increasing. That and strong tourism means this is the land of milk and honey as our national economy shrinks.

I never ceased to be amazed by my good fortune living in the Keys.

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According to Rick Steves, Lucca is one of the prettier Tuscan towns and it is supposedly unknown to most tourists.

Lucca is circled by huge brick walls that have been incorporated most brilliantly into the fabric of the city as a walking trail and wooded park..

St Peter's Gate is still in daily use, pedestrians and bicycles to the side and vehicles, one way at a time through the main arch.

Inside the massive walls the city consists of a number of grid patterned streets in the usual way, because this town is set on the Tuscan coastal plain, thus near the sea and it's overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Pisa.

But geography and Chianti-shire around famous Siena, have both thrust Lucca, a sweet provincial town out of the limelight and left it a sleepy backwater.

But this is Italy so Lucca doesn't lack the kind of architecture and sleeping spires that inspire photographers.

It seems Sunday is market day in the streets of Lucca, and we landed in the middle of it. I am not a shopper by any means but I wondered how my wife might enjoy the experience. She didn't think the stalls filled with bric-a-brac offered anything for her.

Lucca's greatest claim to fame is an operatic composer whose connection to the city of his birth was cause for summer celebrations this year. Even though the 150th anniversary of his birth had slipped by a few years. No harm in having a redo I'm sure.

I wondered momentarily if the ATM was a package deal with the mirror and the painting. That might have tempted me.

It was a lovely day for a walk but we came to a conclusion this Sunday. Holidays are crappy days to explore new cities. Most businesses are closed and the place does not show itself as it really is.

Lucca did not appeal to my wife but she wants to return and see it as it really is on a weekday.

I saw this plaque explaining a street name dedicated to a citizen of Lucca less august than Giacomo Puccini, and I thought to myself, what a great job, to be Prefect of the Secret Vatican Archive. Not so secret any longer it seems.

We took one last look at the boulevards of Lucca...

...the city's great wall and got back into the car to look for adventure elsewhere, trekking the coastal vineyards further north. But that was another story, already told.

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Mini Lob

The season for the culling of miniature lobster in the Florida Keys came and went with perhaps fewer human deaths than usual, and lovely windy weather may have put paid to a few hunters' ambitions thus preserving the lives for at least a while of South Florida's miniature lobster. Fish and Wildlife reported almost a thousand boat stops and very few had reached their limits, so the take was less than usual. On the other hand they made no arrests but two people died, one while snorkeling and the other reportedly found some cocaine floating near Fiesta Key, opened the package and stuffed the found powder up his nose with predictable results. Two dead is bad enough but it was fewer than usual for this lobster madness.

It is known to some as "mini Lob" the two day orgy of hunting lobster before they fall prey to the "regular" season, that is the depredations of commercial hunters through the winter months. And the amateur hunters come in droves.

By dawn's early light they crowd the launch ramps, grocery stores and gas stations filling their pockets, and by extension ours, with all the vital equipment needed for the chasing and catching of miniature lobster.

They stop where they can, even on the shoulder of the highway I was astonished to note,

and launch themselves in desperate pursuit of lobster.

The rules are a bit obscure to me but each amateur human is allowed six kills each day of the two day hunt and no spears are allowed. It is limited to two days, thus the term "mini lobster," and the body excluding the head of each killed creature must be at least three whole inches long.

The forces of law and order arrayed against this army of hunters is naturally totally inadequate but they do what they can. One year my wife and I had found a quiet corner to anchor our skiff and take a swim not far from our house, when for the first time in living memory a green striped Marine Patrol vessel pulled alongside and the armed occupant started a friendly chat with we swimmers. I noticed the officer peering into our boat which was when I twigged what he was looking for, as we were the only people he spoke to that day who were not actively chasing lobster.

It is said lobster is delicious and it is if eaten in moderation. My taste for it rather dried up when I discovered lobster will live 120 years if not interfered with. For most though the pursuit of lobster for two days in July is the vacation long awaited, an opportunity for good fellowship and shared adventure.

For me it is a valuable source of money for the Keys,

For lobster it is the beginning of the killing season.

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Back In The Keys

Away for three weeks and back again, quick as a flash, all done and two thousand pictures, taken, selected and stored. All done indeed.

And yet the memories linger on, as I planned that they should, memories that will carry me through the next months, replayed in my mind like movies, the rides, the meals, the conversations, the encounters, all stored in my head and in my pictures.

While I've been gone a big name in the Keys has been arrested, Paul Toppino took a gun they say and a thug armed with a bat to evict a tenant. The tenant fought back until police arrived and arrested the armed thugs. An ordinary mortal gets ten years in prison, no appeals, for a violent felony while carrying a gun. We shall see. Meanwhile renting from the Toppinos might not be a prudent move especially if you ever face the possibility of falling on hard times. Which more and more among us seem to be tumbling upon. Not the City of Key West though, may it's attraction to visitors never grow less, for the city sees a solid budget in it's future in defiance of bankruptcies reported across the country.

Cheyenne spent her time at Camp Sugarloaf while I was gone and she was shocked to see me back. We have been inseparable ever since and quickly resumed our routine of walking together and though our conversations have a habit of being one way we have resumed our talks and all appears well with my girl.

All appears well with my world as well. The Bonneville started promptly, the house was in perfect order after Skinny cleaned it for us, my plants are alive and it turns out I have a trainee at work much to my surprise. I have work and strangely enough it is as fun as ever it was. Vacations are important but there is no place like home.
With thanks to GarytheTourist for his monthlong series of pictures.

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Random Italy

One sees the posters on walls across Italy. They are death notices, a leftover from centuries past when news was routinely affixed to public walls.

Modern ones have taken to being illustrated with pictures of the dead, a practice I found quite startling at first, but we must move with the times. Change is the theme.Giovanni's wife Rossana, herself a doctor, puts up with me stealing away her husband every year for fun and motorcycle riding. She is more reluctant to let me play with Theo the wonder dog.

I was unfaithful to Cheyenne, I confess. Mea Culpa.It came as a horrible shock when we visited Bagnoregio and I saw a historic car show. That wasn't shocking, it was that an example of the second car that I ever owned, a Citroen Dyane, was among those on display. I sniffed and ignored the ageist mistake. This bubble car was identical to my sister's first set of wheels, in all respects except theirs was red. The twins are ten years older than I so the fact their first car was historic was entirely suitable, I thought.

Here it is, the irresistible Italian three wheeler of all time, the Ape.

On leaving our favorite pizza parlor in Terni, the weirdly named Ronnie Scott's, I spotted this do-it-yourself breath tester.

Take a fresh straw, stick it in the hole and blow after depositing your Euro. On the subject of food these potato chips were everywhere. I loved the slogan on the junk food...

"...they either go CRIK or they go CROK" when you crunch them. Advertising makes me crazy.Living in the Keys one tends to forget the perils of living in an economy based on agriculture.

In case you were wondering, combine harvesters go very, very slowly on public highways. Sunflowers, my wife's favorite plants, don't move at all but they do twist to follow the sun.

They were in full flower when we were in Italy.

Hunger comes and hunger goes. Appetizer dishes are a common item on the menu these days and this sort of modest plate is designed to kick off a meal for hungry people. Meat, cheese, onion ring (!) rice salad and a spelt salad, a new fad, and bruschetta with tomatoes and one with olives.

In the US, land of the obese they tell us, this would be a meal, but in Italy it's only a start. Then a plate of pasta, spinach Umbricelli in this case, with mushrooms and truffles:

Then a meat course and a pudding to end. It used to be one would get a bowl of fruit to end a meal but these days proper puddings are offered everywhere. This is panna cotta, a custard I never used to see on the table in mychildhood.

Life has changed in Italy over the years as it has everywhere, a fact I try to point out to people stuck in the Keys and who like to complain all the time about how their neighborhood has changed beyond recognition. Everywhere has changed and not always for the worse. And when inevitable change has worn you down it's time to remember that some things never change.
The sunset over Lake Bolsena for one. It's not Mallory Square but it will do.

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