The Best Birthday In A Strange Place!

 It was my birthday on Friday (June 1st) and I had no intention of writing about it. I’m not saying it is a morbid day for me, more aptly, I’m indifferent at the best of times. I do love to celebrate the anniversaries of other people’s births  (any excuse for a dinner party!), but unless I have planned to do something special, the day is usually quiet. This day however had enough irony in it to merit a comment on my part.

The beautiful city of Florence

The first thing I discovered that made me smile was I shared my birthday with the famous Florentine man Italians’ refer to as il Poeta: Dante, the poet responsible for standardizing the Italian language, and penning the epic poem The Divine Comedy, considered to be one of the greatest works of literature of all time. I was grateful to have one thing in common with this genius, and it did give me a glimmer of literary hope for the future.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in three parts (canticas), and his epic poem popped into my head on more than one occasion this past Friday evening. The idea that I could be in Purgatory colored my imagination as I found myself assigning the sins of lust, greed, and envy to the various situations I encountered. I will say that this was something I did for my own amusement, as I am of a mind that Purgatory is probably much more fun.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri

The second thing (also the reason for this post) that happened was the day before, my good friend very spur-of-the-moment asked if she could whisk me away for my birthday? She apologized that this would mean not spending the day with my family, but Friday was the only day that would work for her (she is a maniacally busy all of the time). I hadn’t spent any decent time with her in ages and decided that my birthday gave me the right to be a little selfish, and so accepted the lovely invitation.

File:Dante Alighieri01.jpg
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in the midst of wretchedness” Dante

She wanted to take me to dinner, and for us to spend the night at a hotel. There was not much time to plan something elaborate but she happened upon a hotel that was attached to a relatively new casino. The casino had six restaurants, and the hotel had a night club: that took care of accommodation, food and entertainment simultaneously. I had no idea what to expect (nor did she) and decided to try very hard to embrace the idea of doing something that was not overly appealing to me. I had only been in a casino about two times before (and that was only because I was with other people), and hadn’t seen the inside of a night club in a decade or more.

Dante Alighieri by Luca Signorelli

In the late afternoon I packed my bag, and set of with my friend for our grand adventure. We both laughed at the fact that there was an air of Thelma and Louise surrounding the occasion; two women escaping their mundane lives in search of adventure; in our case, a casino, a night club, and a night sans our family.

View from our hotel window

The building the casino housed was built in the early 1980’s and the hotel connected to it through a series of long corridors (reminiscent of the eerie Overlook Hotel) appeared to have been from that period also. There is nothing more dismal than long winding hallways decorated in awful shades of green, golds and browns, which lead to depressing empty conference rooms and even more hallways.  The entire place seemed drab, dingy, and in dire need of an update.

“Redrum! Redrum!”

When we checked in, we were given a coupon for $10 to spend in the casino and so, decided to find it and waste it away in one of their 600 slot machines. When we finally navigated our way to the casino, we were taken through the process of redeeming our coupon, which involved becoming a “member” of the club. We were now officially ready to gamble! As I stood on the casino floor with my friend I felt like an alien. I had no clue what to do, and began to imagine that everyone around me knew that too. I shrugged off my discomfort and sat in front of a wonderfully gaudy one-arm-bandit, and then nothing: I didn’t know how to get the thing to work!

Perplexing slot-machines

I stuck my “member card” into a slot and pressed every button, but no wheels turned the cherries, golden bells or lucky 7’s behind the glass? My friend was having about as much luck as I. We laughed at our complete inability to figure the game out. For what most people (maybe all people) would find un-taxing in any way, we were grossly inept in every way possible. Finally, after a crash course from a very helpful employee, we lost our $ 10 in about 10 seconds! 

more and more slot machines

I looked at this machine, and then around the rest of the gaming floor thinking about the fact that it was my birthday, and if I really wanted to spend it putting money in a slot machine with the hope of winning a fortune that would untimely solve all of my problems. Is that what these people were doing here, looking for answers to their problems? I did not presume the room was full of desperate people, I’m sure some of them just loved the atmosphere, the bright lights, the ringing bells when someone won a jackpot, the pure fun of it. Honestly though, some of them did look desperate and sad. I decided to forfeit the chance to get rich quick and we headed to the bar, where I was absolutely sure if I gave the bartender money I would get a drink!

Candy Floss birthday cake

After a little more meandering through derelict hallways, we found the Italian restaurant where we had our dinner reservation. The place was dark and a little chilly, but what it lacked in ambiance, and frankly mediocre food, our two waiters made up for most of it in charm and civility. There was no birthday cake (the bottle of prosecco was the better choice) but, I was presented with a single gossamer pink cotton candy for dessert. I said “thank you for the candy floss” to which my friend responded with peals of laughter. She had never heard of candy floss and made such fun of me. Well, that’s what we call it in Ireland, and frankly I would be embarrassed to call it anything else!

More hallways

Upon leaving, we were told we had to “check out” the night club 7 downstairs in our hotel, and were giving “V.I.P” passes to get in. We got lost trying to find it and ended up in a giant basement full of booths for some kind of religious organization. I felt like Alice in Wonderland and became a little apprehensive every time we reached another staircase leading to another long corridor. We made it to the Club 7 and after a 10 year hiatus from such establishments I was a little disappointed. The dance floor was completely empty, and I counted about 5 people in the place. It was Friday night and we found ourselves in possibly the saddest place in the world.

Empty dance floor

Oh well, we decided that this was apropos in light of how the rest of the evening went, and settled in determined to close the place. We stayed until the wee hours drinking extremely bad wine while listening to music we half recognized. My friend wanted to dance and I didn’t, but she danced anyway (the beauty of getting older is that you care less and less about what people might think). I have to admit I had a great evening watching her, laughing, and being free to completely zone out.

Meeting Room

The next morning I woke early but made the luxurious decision to close my eyes and go back to sleep. We dragged ourselves out of bed right before check-out, and when I inquired of my friend if she wanted to take a shower (or wash her face even!), she threw me a defiant no, and said she was going to put on her big dark sunglasses and “leave like Jackie Onassis”!

“All hope abandon, ye who enter here” Dante

That was it, that was how my birthday played out.  Long lonely corridors, a brightly lit, oxygenated casino, and a completely empty dance club might not seem like the most ideal place to spend one’s birthday, but I have to admit to being highly entertained for nine straight hours. Sharing this surreal evening with my good friend made it a birthday I will always remember, and at this moment I am hard-pressed to think of how I can do the same for her next year!

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