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By:Thomas Fleming | February 10, 2014
When we arrived back in the States, it was Zero degrees in Chicago and Rockford. The welcome was even chillier at O'Hare's passport control, which now has machines to which the lines of cattle--I mean travelers--are directed, in our case, by a Subcontinental who could barely speak English.
 
After 17 hours of travel--from the Hotel Atlantic Palace in Florence to the airport, from Florence airport to Zurich, Zurich to Chicago--the machines plus the foreigners herding the cattle were an unpleasant reminder that we were returning not to the land of the free or home of the brave but to "the first universal nation," where anyone who gets off the boat with 100 words of English can expect to go on the dole as a Federal employee empowered to push the natives around.
 
The rudeness, incompetence, and stupidity of nearly everyone working at O'Hare--except for the Russian and Serbian baggage-handlers at the carousels--was an unpleasant contrast with the pleasant and efficient Italian and Swiss people working in Florence and Zurich. It took us about 20 minutes to check in, get our bags checked, and reach the gate in Florence and no more time to arrive in Zurich, switch terminals, go through passport control, and reach our gate.
 
Yes, I am getting older and grumpier: Many of the airline employees at O"Hare are perfectly polite and accommodating, though the TSA goons seem to be getting worse.
 
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and ran into the very nice young barman from last year. He remembered us well and took our bags down and put them in the taxi. He is a fine young man, with good manners, a developing education, and sensible political views. It was too bad he had been on vacation until the day we left. I had enjoyed our conversations.
 
We were disappointed that Le Fonticine, across the street from our hotel was closed for winter break, but we managed to eat well enough in Florence. We were not particularly happy with our meal at La Falterona. The service was good and the menu inventive, but neither the duck with ancient mustard nor the lamb with crushed pistachio nuts were a great success.
 
The night before we left we went back to Pallottino, a popular trattoria we had visited in previous years, when we had taken an apartment overlooking Piazza Santa Croce. I was not very hungry and ordered badly--rigatoni with a nice meat sauce followed by a local take on Saltimbocca with a very rustic and salty prosciutto that tasted good, though it did tend to overwhelm the veal. My wife did rather better on the pasta--paccheri with salsiccia--and her polpette were tender and exquisitely flavored. No, they were not served with spaghetti, because sometimes the meatball (like Stanley Tucci's spaghetti) wants to be alone.
 
At a nearby table, it was hard not to overhear a conversation between an American man and woman, both just a few years older than we are. The man had spent a good deal of time in Rome over the years and had grudgingly allowed himself to be talked into visiting Florence, which he enjoyed. It must have been the grappa di chianti, but I broke one of my cardinal rules--the don't talk to strangers in public places rule--and I gave them some suggestions on what to see and where to eat in their remaining days in Florence. Without knowing anything about Tuscany and not much about Italy, they were nonetheless intelligent and educated people, not too old or hard-bitten to enjoy new places or take a youthful delight in finding things out. It made us feel a bit better about our native sod, always to be distinguished from the native sods of our country who paved the way for the hordes of Chinese tour-groups that are making travel so much less pleasant these days.
 
We did not do much in Florence. With our Amici degli Uffizi pass we went back to the Uffizi and spent most of the time looking at late Medieval and early Renaissance painting, though I could not help admiring, once again, the brilliant portraits done by Bronzino, Titan, and Moroni down in the new section on the ground floor.

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