Searching for Catullus in Paradise

I’m not gonna lie, Verona was a little disappointing. The town is lovely and especially the Palazzo Vecchio (I really loved the art collection there), but the hordes tourists and the 90-degree heat just made the place unbearable.

After escaping the chaos at the Casa di Giulietta, I went to the main square to sit for a bit and have an iced coffee. Flipping through my little Verona guidebook, I found a mention that Catullus was born there. But looking further, I could find NO evidence of his commemoration in Verona – not a statue, a street, a piazza, a museum. Nothing. How like the tourist industry, to make millions off of a made-up Shakespearean site, and barely acknowledge the fact that Verona is the hometown of one of the best-known and widely-read Latin poets. Don’t people care about Latin poetry?!?!?! Stupid question, maybe.

But anyway, this connection with Catullus confirmed my disgust with the gimmicky Juliet’s House and made me determined to track down something associated with him. Anything.

I miraculously discovered some free wifi, and wikipedia informed me that Verona apparently does not have a single thing associated with Catullus. Bummer. BUT, Sirmione, where Catullus had a summer villa and which he mentions in several poems, is only an hour or so away. There is an archaeological site at the villa, and a beautiful bust of the poet to take a picture of!

According to Google-maps, this is what Sirmione looks like:

A teeny-tiny spit of land sticking out into the lake. There’s not even a train station. I figured it would be a tiny little village, where I would be the only person, and the only feature of note would be this Catullus site. Instead, I found a massive and crowded vacation spot. It’s like, the Myrtle Beach of norther Italy, apparently:

Actually the place was gorgeous and I would have loved to spend a while there just walking around, lying on the beach, looking at the picturesque castle. But I had to be in Venice that night, and if I didn’t catch the 6:30 bus, I’d be stranded without my backpack (which I’d left in Verona). That gave me… one hour to find Catullus. Shouldn’t be a problem, this place is pretty small, right? Wrong. Looks small on the map, but huge when you’re lost and walking in the heat. I probably asked 20 people where to find the Grotto of Catullus (what the site is called) and they just kept gesturing, like “Keep going that way” “Keep going” “Farther yet…” and I just kept walking and walking to the end of the island. But at some point, I passed the half-hour mark, and I had to turn back or I would miss my bus.

So in summary: I spent an hour powerwalking through a beautiful beautiful town looking for something I never found. Alas, Catullus. My efforts were in vain!

However, I did find lemons as big as my head.

But I found Catullus 31 entirely fitting to this little jewel of a town stuck out in the middle of a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains:

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This Is the 0.01% – Dinner with a Billionaire’s Assistant

Last night, I glimpsed a world everyone suspects exists, but few have actually seen.

It was our family friend Mark who picked the restaurant, not I. I assumed we’d go to an upper-end hole in the wall, or maybe a street cafe – you can’t spit without hitting a restaurant in Rome. But when Mark suggested the famous garden restaurant of the Hotel de Russie on the Piazza del Popolo… Well let’s just say I knew it would be the most expensive meal I’d ever eaten.

Les Jardins at the Hotel de Russie

I first met Mark when I was six years old – he was in Atlanta working the Olympics. Now that’s a pretty good place to be in the world, Director of Protocol for the Olympic Games, but Mark has risen even further in the past 15 years.

After a successful stint in Atlanta, and after turning down the Nagano games, Mark was made an offer he couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to be the Major Domo (yes, that’s actually the word he used) to Bernard Arnault, the owner of Louis Vuitton, current owner of Christian Dior, and the richest man in Europe (fourth in the world). In Mark’s own words, “You start to see things you never knew existed.”

For example, scullery maids are still a thing. Even in 2012, if you are rich enough, you are supposed to hire a person to do literally nothing but scrub your pots and pans (and empty your chamberpots? Question mark?). Bernard Arnault has a scullery maid, as does Mark’s current boss – and this is where things get really interesting.

In Mark’s own words, the man he now works for is “an Italian billionaire, from a Sicilian family, who works in waste management… and enjoys watching The Sopranos.” I am 100% not joking. And just to confirm the stereotype, this Italian billionaire who is Mark’s boss is currently under house arrest in Rome because of… “trouble with the law.”

This Italian billionaire (who will obviously remain nameless) is an interesting character. Having inherited the family business, there’s never been a time when he wasn’t unimaginably wealthy. Can you imagine what that does to a person? From Mark’s descriptions of him, he has the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old. If he has to wait more than 30 seconds for his chauffeur at the airport, he throws a tantrum and starts threatening to fire people (usually Mark, who works as his personal assistant and general factotum).

Because he’s under indefinite house arrest, Mark has had his boss’s 100-foot yacht and private jet taken to Turkey, where the crews and pilots have been put up in a luxury hotel and are being pad to do absolutely nothing but lie on the beach and twiddle their thumbs.

Also because he’s under indefinite house arrest, the billionaire is going crazy with boredom. He tells Mark one day that he needs a new personal gym so he can exercise. Mark provides and has a wing of the penthouse converted. Two days later the billionaire comes to Mark and says that he needs TV to watch while he exercises, can Mark get new machines, each with a built-in TV so he can watch it from every angle? Mark provides, and repurchases every single exercise machine. Now it’s a month later, and Mark tells me his boss has used the new gym exactly twice.

Mark is fluent in French, German, Italian, English, and just about every other European language, yet when he accompanied his boss to Dubai, and explained to him that he couldn’t speak Arabic, the billionaire just looked confused and said, “Why not?”

Mark doesn’t think he’s going to last much longer working for him.

Mark himself is definitely a normal guy. Down-to-earth, intelligent, easy to talk with. But even though Mark is no billionaire himself, working in that echelon of society definitely gives him a different social context than anything I’m familiar with. He confided in me that eating at the Hotel de Russie was nothing special for him, he does it about once a week. They greeted him by name and seated us at his customary table. I followed his lead on what to order (you know, appetizer or not, dessert or not, drinks or not – since he was obviously treating me), and he took me through four courses, including steak tartar and a rack of lamb, a hundred dollar bottle of wine, and two flutes of James Bond’s favorite champagne – Boulanger. He ordered in fluent Italian, discussed the grape of the wine in detail with the sommelier (fancy-talk for “professional wine chooser”) to make sure the bottle would serve, and shook hands with the maitre d’ like they were old friends. And the whole evening I was “la signorina” and “La Princessa Stefania.”

A girl could definitely get used to this.

But at the end of the evening, the clock struck midnight and Cinderella was dropped in front of her hostel, where her dress and heels turned into PJ pants and a tank top, her fancy clutch purse turned into a 40-pound frame backpack, and she went to sleep in a creaky top bunk in a dormitory filled with snoring strangers.