What Happens at the Uffizi Stays at the Uffizi

Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

When I went to Italy in the eighties, I was part of a tour group of twenty people. We spent a full day visiting the Uffizi Museum in Florence, one of the most famous museums in the world. It has a large collection of unique works of art and masterpieces, mostly from the Renaissance Period, although it contains works from the twelfth century to the present. My favorite pieces were works by Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, and Raphael.

Upon leaving the museum, I saw Maxine and Gwen, two elderly sisters, staring down at a grate in the sidewalk under the portico next to the building. Both had knitted brows and worried looks. I had just come out of the museum, and they didn’t see me yet. I told myself I should hurry on my way before they caught sight of me. Unfortunately, I just can’t pass by when someone needs help.

I went over and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I was changing the film in my camera,” Maxine said, “and the canister popped out and dropped into the grate.”

“Why don’t you just buy another roll?” I asked.

“I had all 36 pictures from the beginning of the trip until now. I really want them back.”

Together, we peered down into the grate.

A man walking by stopped and asked, “Is this another exhibit?”

“No,” we said.

He shrugged and walked away.

Actually, we could see statues and paintings beneath the grate, so we knew this must be part of the Uffizi.

“What can we do?” Maxine asked.

“Follow me.” I walked over to the entrance to the gift shop, which is the room everyone must go through before they can leave the museum. The operators hope, of course, that people will linger and buy souvenirs after seeing the artwork. A uniformed officer stands guard at the opening from the museum to the shop so people won’t sneak into the museum without paying.

I went up to her and asked, “Do you speak English?”

No. No Inglese.”

I tried to explain the situation in Italian, but she just kept shaking her head, so I motioned that we just wanted to go back in the museum. She grew more and more frustrated.

Fortunately, I knew the word for office in Italian, so I said, “Ufficio, per favore.”

She pointed behind us and said, “Exit.” She didn’t say, “Uscita,” since she could already tell we were Americans.

I stood my ground. “Ufficio, per favore.”

Once again, she pointed her finger said, “Exit.”

Ufficio, per favore.” I could keep this up all day if I had to. We would not leave without Maxine’s film.

Eventually, the officer sighed dramatically and pointed through the doorway she was guarding. She made climbing motions with her fingers and waved toward some stairs at the back of the museum. The two sisters struggled up the flight of stairs, out of breath by the time we found a receptionist behind a desk.

I went up to the woman and asked, “Do you speak English?”

No. No Inglese.”

Once again, my rudimentary Italian made it impossible for her to understand the situation, so she picked up her phone and spoke into the handset. When she hung up, she pointed to another set of stairs going upward, and we went up another flight, with the sisters stopping to catch their breath a couple of times.

An elegant woman stood in the office doorway at the top of the stairs. She spoke perfect English with a beautiful Italian accent. I explained the problem to her. She went over to her phone, spoke into it in Italian, and then said, “Follow me.”

We went down both flights of stairs and one more before we reached the basement. A handsome young custodian met us at the bottom. He was tall and broad-shouldered, looking quite fit in his blue uniform. A lock of black hair curled on his forehead like Superman.

The woman explained the situation to him in Italian. He smiled, nodded, and started looking around.

We all searched among the dusty statues and paintings for at least thirty minutes before Maxine examined her camera and said, “Oh, wait. It wasn’t the film that’s missing. It’s the battery.”

I said, “Oh, I saw a battery stuck in the sill of the grate while we were on the sidewalk.”

Maxine gave herself a face palm.

Gwen said, “Don’t feel bad.”

“We all make mistakes,” I said.

Her red face told us our words were little consolation.

The three of us thanked the woman and the man for their assistance. I told the woman we wanted to send a thank-you note to their superiors praising them for their willingness to help. She would not give me her name, saying she did not need to be thanked.

I turned to the man and asked, “Come ti chiami?”

“Fabio.”

I raised my eyebrows, opened my eyes wide, and asked in as sultry a voice as I could muster, “Fabio?”

He grinned and said, “Si, Fabio,” then raised both fists in the classic bodybuilder’s pose. I certainly would remember that name long enough to write a letter to his supervisor.

After we climbed back up the stairs and exited through the gift shop, Maxine and Gwen wanted to buy me lunch for being so helpful, but I declined. I realized that if I had not tried to “fix everything,” they would have found out a lot sooner that only the battery was lost.

But then I wouldn’t have met Fabio.

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THE LEGEND OF THE STRAWBERRY

strawberry shortcke

The Cherokee explain how strawberries came to exist on Earth. Many variations of the legend exist, since the story comes from oral history, but I will tell you the version I like.

In the beginning the Creator, ga lv la di e hi, created First Man and First Woman. For a time they were the only people on Earth. They lived together in contentment for quite some time, but eventually they began to fight. First Woman said to First Man that she was leaving him, and he said he didn’t care. She started walking away, swift and determined in her anger.

After a bit, First Man decided he wanted First Woman back, so he started after her. She, however, was walking so swiftly that there did not seem to be any possibility that he would catch her.

The Creator put blueberry plants in her path, but she walked on. Then He put luscious blackberries in her path, but she walked on. Finally, He put strawberry plants in her path. She looked at the bright green leaves, the white flowers, and the luscious red fruit. Bending down to taste one, she was astounded at how good they were, so she stopped and ate as many as she could. Then she decided that she really did not want to be apart from First Man, so she filled her basket with as many strawberries as she could and headed back toward their home.

First Man caught up with her, and they walked back home arm in arm.

Today, a Cherokee tradition states that a home should always have strawberry jam or jelly, if not fresh strawberries.

My favorite strawberry shortcake recipe is a Sara Lee Pound Cake, thawed, a big tub of Cool Whip, and a bag of frozen strawberries. I cut the cake into cubes, stir in the thawed strawberries, and mix in the Cool Whip. I’m off to the grocery store now.

The easy way to core a fresh strawberry is to push a straw through it, from the pointy end to the green top.

Update: One of my friends asked, “Where did the whipped cream come from?” Another friend replied, “From the First Cow, of course.”

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Strawberry Plant

If I Survived Thirty Tears of Teaching, So Can You

This is an excerpt from my memoir IF I SURVIVED THIRTY YEARS OF TEACHING, SO CAN YOU. It will be published as an audio book before the end of 2014.

One year in New Braunfels, Texas, I was teaching sophomore, junior, and senior English, and I was going crazy with planning lessons and grading papers for all three levels, in addition to rereading all the novels I assigned the students so I would remember any little detail they mentioned.

One day to give myself a breather, I ordered a film from the Texas Education Service Center to show to my juniors. It was an American short story, and they were studying American literature. Perfect choice, right? Wrong.

This was back in the days of reel-to-reel movie projectors. For those who are too young to remember them, I will explain exactly what that entailed.

We would put the spool of film on the post at the top of the machine, thread the film through slots in front of the lightbulb inside the projector, and then thread the film on the sprockets of the bottom, take-up reel. Then we had to adjust the length of film on top and on bottom over and over to get rid of the flutter if the film was not exactly placed.

I started the film, and everything was fine for a while, except that there was almost no dialogue, which I thought was odd.

Then the camera started at a woman’s hand, traveled up her wrist to her elbow, then up to her shoulder and started across her front.

I thought, “Surely she has on clothes.”

Oh, no. Suddenly all that was on the screen was two huge breasts. They filled the movie projector screen.

I said, “Ack!” and jumped in front of the projector.

Then a student said, “Now they’re showing on your back.”

He was the son of the president of the school board.

After class, I begged him not to tell his mother. He said he would not, bless his heart.

When I was putting the film back in the canister, I was muttering about those stupid people at the Education Service Center who would send something out to teachers that had nudity in it. You would think they could have at least marked it or something.

Then I realized that the container had a big red label warning teachers to preview the film before showing it in class. I learned a good lesson that day. I also asked the center to remove the film from their catalog. I certainly hope they did. I can only guess why they kept it on the shelf. Removing it from inventory would require someone to admit they had made a mistake.

Years later I played bridge with his mother, and I asked her if he ever told her. He never did. Enough time had passed that we both had a good laugh.

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A “South Park” Squirrel, Not a “Disney” Squirrel

It was a dark and stormy night. My daughter Katherine called and said she had been bitten by a squirrel.

It all started when her son Cameron, age 6 at the time, came into the house and said, “There’s a big black rat in the back yard!”

When Katherine went out back, she saw that it was actually a squirrel covered in mud.

Because of what we call the “Disney effect,” she decided to help it out by washing it off and sending it happily on its way, but when she reached down to pick the squirrel up, its teeth latched onto the tip of her left forefinger and would not let go. She pried it off and screamed for Brandon, her husband.

Brandon came out and saw that the squirrel was not running away, as any normal animal would, so he assumed it had fallen out of a tree and had broken some bones in the process. He killed the poor creature to put it out of its misery. A quick, merciful end was better than a slow, painful death for the little critter. It could have been days before it starved to death.

Katherine called me, and I told her I would meet her at the hospital. Brandon could stay with the children so they would not be traumatized.

“Take the squirrel with you for a rabies test,” I said.

When I got to the emergency room at McKenna in New Braunfels, Katherine was already there. She had checked in and was waiting for the doctor. Beside her on the floor was a small trash can. In it was a plastic bag with the dead squirrel inside.

A short time later a young man in scrubs came out and (very reluctantly) opened the sack to swab the squirrel’s mouth for a rabies test. He either drew the short straw or was the low man on the totem pole, poor thing.

The rest of the people in the ER, who had heard the whole story when she checked in, either grinned or grimaced.

In the treatment room, the doctor said that he knew how much it hurt because his rabbits would often bite him. Then he asked her when her last tetanus shot was. She said, “I don’t know,” so he said, “Then it’s today.”

He also told us that he had checked with the city and state agencies, and since there had never been a report of a rabid squirrel, he would not need to give her the series of rabies shots. She was fine with that.

“We don’t stitch up animal bites,” he said, “so I’m going to put a bandage on it and give you a prescription for antibiotics. Come back if the wound becomes inflamed. And don’t forget to take the squirrel with you.”

We felt sorry for the young man who had swabbed the squirrel’s mouth since they were not going to test it after all.

After taking the squirrel with us, we laid it to rest.

I think from now on, Katherine will think “South Park” squirrel rather than “Disney” squirrel.

P.S. I was recently told by a zookeeper friend that (a) there have been three rabid squirrels in Oklahoma and (b) the cheek swab would have been useless for rabies testing. They would need to send the brain somewhere. Be safe, my friends.

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