Monday, November 23, 2015

Not Banks....

Last cappuccino in Rome.... I LOVE the spoon.
“A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
― Coco Chanel
Having just finished a book review for a literary journal, I'm sitting in Starbucks taking a few minutes to relax before I head to another project.  While jazz plays on the shop speaker, I watch a guy at the next table playing with his iPhone and a couple at a different table talk about who knows what. At the table four feet from me, three women are talking about Thanksgiving and the approaching Christmas holidays. They're planning a shopping trip for a day they don't all have their kids.  A Monday or Tuesday would be fine, advises one of the gals. One of the others cannot do Monday or Tuesday because she has to pick up her kids.  Maybe Wednesday, the 9th?  They're starting early, so maybe they can have breakfast and lunch out...and they are NOT going to wear boots.

Va Bene is a coffee shop in LV, but I love the name... It's Good.
I don't like shopping.  I used to enjoy it, but after I opened my store, the magic wore off.  I also am not wild about wearing boots.  I hated wearing them when I was a child.  Remember those things we pulled over our shoes when it snowed?  Augh. I used to say I'd wear flipflops in the snow before I'd wear boots.  I have two pairs of "fashion" boots now. Since they are comfortable, I'll wear them at times , but only if I don't have to stand or walk a lot.  I'm more concerned with comfort than what I'm wearing on my feet....always have been.

I used to try to fit into these molds that people have. Mostly I did it because my parents would have a fit if I didn't.  One of my memoir students (writing about a nun smacking her for misbehaving during class) was shocked at my statement that a nun never hit me.  "Didn't you ever get in trouble?" she asked.  I shook my head.  "Never.  If a teacher would have ever called my house, I would have gotten it twice. I was way too afraid of what God and my father would do to me."

"You must have been an angel," she said.

"More like a saint," I replied.  "Two guys used to call me St. Christine."  It's the truth. They teased me unmercifully in grade school for never getting in trouble.  I preferred having a brown nose to a black-and-blue one.

It took me a long time to get over living in the mold my parents wanted me to live in. My father's death when I was 16 helped me break the shell. It's a long story not worth repeating in a short blog, but suffice to say that I didn't become a doctor.

Cafe con crema....espresso topped with a lot of unsweetened whipped cream.
 I used to think my childhood was horrible, but once I started writing and reading nonfiction, I realized that despite my dictatorial father and detestable paternal grandparents, life was okay. It wasn't great, but it wasn't as bad as the childhoods others withstood.  I made it through with the help of my mother's side of the family, my friends, and mostly with my husband who had a Norman Rockwell-type childhood.  He espouses two theories on life: "Everything happens for a reason," and "Everything will work out."  As much as I want to smack him when he says one of them, I think he's mostly right.

I think, perhaps, that's why listening to negative blabbing (government, politics, etc) bothers me so much. Life is good.

By the way, one of the ladies is now talking about going to a wedding in Cincinnati.  She said she loves marriage and that her mother told her she must because she's been married too many times.  "You're rivaling Elizabeth Taylor," her mom recently said.  "I'd rather be Angelina," the woman told her friends who have turned back to talking about Thanksgiving dinner.  Liz-a-lina is going to make cranberry sauce for her friends.

You know.... We are all so lucky to live in a world such as this. I love it.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Houston, We Have a Problem, Part II


 “There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.”
― Frank Zappa

 When last I left you (Sorry to have been absent a few days, but work called.), the three women from Galveston (which is near Houston which is in Texas, you know) had badgered the waiter in to giving them separate checks but were still questioning the coperto charge on their bill.

While Twyla, Kerri, and Ron defended the coperto charge, the women still insisted it was ridiculous to charge two euro (TWO EURO) for bread and service.

"But how much would you give as a tip?" Ron asked. That —or the fact that they received their separate checks— quieted them for a few seconds.

Vernazza in the rain

 The waiter came by to get payment and saw the three credit cards. He said nothing, but the way he snatched them spoke volumes.  The three women were oblivious.

Brownie, eyed  the few pieces of cheese on her plate.  "I think I'll take this cheese with me in case I get hungry later.  It should keep."  Her friends urged her to take it and the "crappy" bread with her.   I rolled my eyes. "Most restaurants do not give doggy bags,"  I warned her.

The waiter came back and, and Brownie asked him for a bag or box for her two piece of cheese.  "We do not have those, Madam," he replied.

"Why wouldn't they have bags to take home what I paid for? How am I going to take this with me?" Brownie loudly grumbled. "I just do not understand this country." The waiter, cleaning the table next to us, could hear the entire conversation.

Twyla told me my green eyes had turned black, and I can believe that because I was holding onto my chair in an attempt to keep from hopping across the table and strangling the stupid woman.  "You are in Italy," I said to her, "not America. This is their country, and this is what they do."  I kept myself from adding a few choice words.  Brownie, too concerned with how she was going to take her cheese with her, ignored me.

"Wrap it in your napkin," Kerri told her.

 "My napkin is dirty," she said.

Twyla took the napkin from the bread basket and handed it to her. "Use this one."  The waiter, who'd been listening to the entire discourse, grabbed a larger napkin from the cabinet and gave it to her.  She didn't even thank him.
Telling us that they were heading back to wherever they were staying, they got up.  Brownie  threw the napkin-wrapped cheese in her purse, "I'm from New Orleans. I love New Orleans."  Why she said that, I had no idea. I was just happy they were leaving.

"Can you believe that?" Twyla asked us.  We discussed them for a few minutes and figured that the person leading their tour was going to have a grand two weeks.  As the waiter walked by, we asked for our check.


A few minutes later, he delivered the check to the table.  I spoke to him in Italian. "Can you split this into three checks, please? We'll pay with credit cards if you will." He looked at us in horror, and the four of burst into laughter.  Realizing we were joking, he also laughed and walked away.  When he returned to pick up our payment, I addressed him again.  "What is this coperto? Why do we have to pay it?" I picked up the empty bread basket and showed it to the waiter who, once again, looked at us in horror. "We didn't eat your crappy bread."  The gullible waiter again realized we were joking and laughed with us and tried to explain that some people were like those women.

"We're just joking," I told him.  "We're not like them." I handed him the money, and  he thanked us profusely.

The four of us joked about this incident for the rest of the trip, but it really upset me more than it amused me.  I cannot, for the life of me, understand such ignorance.  If one wants things to be the same as they are at home, then he/she should stay there.  We travel to learn new things, don't we?  Apparently not.

At any rate, we returned to the restaurant two more times, and he never waited on us again.  Maybe the jokes didn't translate too well.

Next time: Banks

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Houston, We Have a Problem, Part I

Grilled mixed seafood 

 “When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

(Prologue: Since I don't have photos of the parties involved, I'm using photos of food.  They're more interesting, anyway.)

“Where are y’all from?” a  lady with short brown hair asked us. The four of us were sharing a large table in Taverna del Capitano, a small restaurant in Vernazza, Italy.  We’d just arrived from Bologna, settled in to our rooms (owned as it were by the Taverna owners), and wanted food.  Fast.  Since it was pouring outside, we couldn’t sit there, and the only available seating inside was at the table the lady and two of her friends had.

“Where are y’all from?”  Her syrupy voice irritated me immediately.

“Las Vegas and Idaho,” one of us replied, and I pointed to Twyla, the only non-Nevadan in our quartet.

“What about you?” I asked.

“We’re from Galveston,” she answered. “That’s in Texas.  Near Houston. You know. NASA’s there.”  She pronounced it "Na-Saw."

Said irritation was justified.  Gosh. We  had no idea that Galveston was in Texas. Nor did we know that NASA was there. We all thought we lost Texas in the war with Mexico.

Pork and artichoke
 Throughout lunch, the three women talked about this and that with us. They brought up a particular house-flipping program that features a team from Las Vegas.

“I don’t watch it anymore,” I said.  “{The star} is an idiot.”

“Yep,” agreed Kerri, “he’s an idiot.” Brownie didn’t like that comment.  “But the Property Brothers are very nice,” Kerri continued.

"Jonathon's gay," one of them said. "I read it on the internet."  I rolled my eyes. Oh, that makes it true, I thought.  The nonsense continued for a time, and they were finally ready to leave.

"We have to catch a train at 3:06," Brownie said.

"What town are you staying in?" I asked.

"I don't know. Where are we staying?" she asked the other gals.  Like her, they had no idea.  "I think it begins with an "S," she continued.  There are no towns whose names begin with an "S" in the Cinque Terre.  I just smiled and tried to keep my eyes in my head.

Pasta e fagiolini

The waiter walked by and placed the check on the table.  He delivered something to the table next to us and walked by again.  Brownie grabbed him.  "Can you separate this check for us?" she asked.  Upset, the waiter said, "It is difficult to do that."  Brownie replied, "I asked outside, and the lady said you'd separate the check."

"What lady? Why you didn't ask me when you ordered?" the waiter said as he slinked away.

"Italian restaurants don't usually separate checks," I told her.

"I don't care what they usually do," she snapped at me.  "We want separate checks." 

 The women poured over the check, and the waiter passed by again.  Brownie stopped him.

"What is this 6 euro charge 'coperto?'" Brownie asked.  The waiter explained that it was the cover charge and for bread.  "I'm not paying this," she told him.  Eyes wide, he stared at her for a minute.

"But, madam," he said, "it is on the menu. Everyone pays coperto."

"I did not eat your crappy bread," she insisted.  The waiter gave up and walked away. 

(For the record, the bread was great.)

Twyla told me that she could tell by the look on my face that I had "checked out."  Truthfully, I was afraid to say something because I wasn't sure what would come out of my mouth.   Kerri tried to explain that the coperto covers more than the bread. 

The waiter came by again and dropped the separated checks on the table.  The women were silent at that point, and I thought we were out of the danger zone.

Oh, silly me.

To be continued....

Sunday, November 8, 2015

You Big Poopy Head (Venice Strike #3)

Grand Canal

"On the morning of our second day, we were strolling down the Champs-Elysées when a bird sh*t on his head. ‘Did you know a bird’s sh*t on your head?’ I asked a block or two later..." ~ Bill Bryson

Oh, why should I even beat around the bush? You can probably tell from the title and quote that a pigeon crowned one of us on our second day in Venice.  Let me gently guide you to "the incident."

When last I left you, I was sicker than anything and quite sure I wasn't going to make it to Venice the second day.  We had stopped at the pharmacy in the train station on our way home, and the pharmacist gave me something that really helped.  (I'll tell that story some other time.)

At any rate, I woke up felling a lot better the next morning and headed to Venice. The fact that the sun was shining probably helped, as did the fact that there were no screaming kids on the train.  We arrived unscathed and immediately headed for a gondola ride, something I'd never experienced.  Suffice to say I was not sure I could handle it, but I didn't have to lean over the side, so all was good.  That out of the way, we caught the vaporetto and headed to Murano, a 30-minute boat ride.

The gondola
Our gondolier

Venice, as you probably know, is famous for its glass, and Murano is where the glass factories are.  At the end of the 13th century, Venetian lawmakers ordered the glassmakers to move their foundries to the island, which sits a little less than a mile from the mainland, as they feared the fires would destroy the city.  The glassmakers became well-regarded, and their children were even permitted to marry into the more affluent and powerful families.  The downside was that the glassmakers could not leave the republic or take their glass-blowing secrets with them.  Should anyone do so, the secret police would hunt him down and either chop off his hands or put him to death.

Dozens of factories still exist on the island, but the number of glassmakers has decreased at an alarming rate.  Why?  Believe it or not, 40-50% of Venetian glass now comes from China.  Experts can tell the difference, but the general public usually cannot.  At any rate, Murano is all about glass, and wandering from store-to-store and factory-to-factory is a lot of fun.

After a few hours of glass overload, we headed to Trattoria Di Frati, a canal-side restaurant on the island.  The weather was beautiful, so we opted to sit outside.  Unfortunately, in addition to the guests at the other tables, pigeons were having a convention at the restaurant.
The Blue Comet and clock tower on Murano

"Ugh," Kerri said when one jumped onto the empty table next to us to snatch up a few crumbs left by the previous diners.

"Rats with wings," Twyla said.

"You know," I added, "I can't believe how many people let the stupid things sit on their arms, shoulders, and heads in St. Mark's Square.  Blech."

"That's disgusting," Kerri said.  I stomped my foot to scare one away from me.  We continued to talk about pigeons for a few minutes.

It was, at the very moment that the waitress exited the restaurant with our food, that I heard what sounded like a small fart (Please, please excuse my being blunt), and felt something hit my head and then my arm.

"Holy crap," I exclaimed. "A pigeon got me."  I held my pink-shirt-covered arm straight out and stared at a glob of, well, crap that blemished it.  I didn't dare touch my head.

The infamous restaurant
The waitress arrived, and, presenting crappy arm in her direction, I asked where the rest room was.

"Oh, no!" she said as she put my soup down and pointed to the restaurant.  "Remember, though, when a bird craps on you, it's good luck.

"Yeh. Yeh.  Great luck, "I snarked. "Please cover my soup and make sure his friends don't deliver more good tidings." 

As my luck would have it, there was a line to get into the women's rest room. The older woman in front of me smiled and looked at my stiff arm as I walked up.

"A bird got me," I explained showing her my defiled arm.

"That wasn't very friendly now, was it?" she snorted in her British accent.

"Not quite." I wasn't amused.  The woman who was occupying the women's rest room finally came out, and British Bertha went in.  She'd been in there about three minutes when another lady walked up.  "Is this the line for the WC?" she asked in broken English.  I nodded.

Bertha must have been taking a shower because she was taking her good old time in the rest room.  Thoughts of disgusting germs infesting my head and the threads of my pink t-shirt swirled around my mind, and I finally caved.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," I huffed and walked into the men's room.  I locked the door and started the clean-up process.  Luckily the room had soap and paper towels, so I was able to scrub the sleeve of my shirt.  Someone pulled at the door.  "I'm in here," i hissed.  I turned my attention to my hair and the little greenish-grey worm that sat on top.  "Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Gag. Gag."

I tried to pick it off with a paper towel, but it just smeared.  I heaved.  I wet a paper towel and tried to clean my hair with that.  I just made it worse.  I double heaved.  Someone pulled at the door again.  "Occupata!" I kicked the door.  "Scusami," some poor dude said.  I put soap on a paper towel and tried to wash my hair a bit but the crap just smeared around.  I repeated the step a few times but never got the stuff completely out of my hair.
Green marks the spot where the pigeon got me.  I had tried to clean my hair, but you can see some crappy remnants.

Defeated, I went back to the table.  I looked up at the railing above my head before I sat down. I didn't want another rogue pigeon anywhere near me.

"The waitress scared them off after you left," Twyla told me.  Great, I thought.

Somehow we got through lunch unscathed again and headed to a glass factory.  Along the way, pigeons lined the sidewalk laughing at me.

"Get away, you stupid thing," i said.  "Stay away from me!"  I waved my arms and stomped my feet. I'm sure the people walking by thought I was nuts for threatening pigeons.

Pigeons laughed at me the rest of the trip.

For the rest of the day, I swear that I felt my head burning in the spot where the pigeon left its mark.  Germophobe that I am, I wouldn't touch my head at all.  As soon as I got back to the apartment, I shampooed my hair five times.  FIVE TIMES.  The next morning, I washed it another three times. I wasn't taking any chances.

All of my Bolognese friends told me it was good luck that the stupid pigeon got me.  I wasn't having any of it, but maybe I should go play the slots today. I don't want to tempt luck.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Venice: Strike One (& Two)

St. Mark's Square

 “Venice was a hallucinatory incubus, the most artificial environment in the world: Disneyland for grown-ups."    ~ Jonathon Galassi

Venice, as I repeat ad nauseam, is not my favorite city.  That said, as I've come to find out, I do like the place.  The problem with which I have a problem is the same one that the natives suffer: tourists.  Yes. Yes.  One could say, technically, that I'm a tourist, but I prefer to think that I'm not.  We won't get into that, but suffice to say that i do not push, pull, or stomp on people, nor do I swing stupid selfie sticks all over the place.

That said, I really do like Venice and would love to have been there before the crowds of pushing, pulling, stomping, swinging people invaded it.  I would love the opportunity to walk it without fighting to move five feet forward without fighting some human obstacle.  (I like to dream.)

I took the group to Venice on two days this trip.  On the first day, Sunday, I was starting to feel sick, so I was hoping the day would end well. The train ride over was an experience as it seems that everyone and his brother was heading east from Bologna that morning.  Crowded, the train cars echoed with the noise of loud people and louder kids.  Two boys sitting a few rows behind us were particularly loud, and they kept throwing toys around.  I was not the only adult throwing the stink eye back at the father, but he was oblivious to them.

"My, GOD," I exclaimed, my head about to burst.  "SHUT UP."  Nothing.  "I'm walking back there."  I got up and walked to the carriage door.  The two kids were on the floor next to the door, and they continued throwing their metal cars and trucks at the train window, door, and each other.  Arms crossed, I leaned against the door frame and glared at them.  One of the boys looked at me.  I stink-eyed..  He smiled.  I stink-eyed.  He smiled.  I gave up and plopped back into my seat.  "Help."  I stuck my fingers in my ears and slumped over.  My head thumped. Thumped. Thumped.

Venetian traffic jam
 Luckily for all of us, the train stopped in Padova (Padua), and a good number of people got off there.  Since Padova is a huge destination for Catholics (St. Anthony of Padua), they were probably heading there for Sunday services.  No matter the reason, when the masses departed the train, the loud kids were among them, and our car quickly quieted down.

We arrived in Venice and caught the vaporetto to St. Mark's Square.  Vaporetti are the water buses in Venice. Used mostly by tourists, they transport people from one location to another easily.  They are not the fastest mode of transportation as they're medium-sized boats that can hold 150+ people, many of whom stand.  On tourist-heavy days, the vaporetti are packed.  Packed.  We arrived on a tourist-heavy day.  The 30-minute ride is a blur of people continually pushing onto the vaporetto.

As we passed St. Mark's to get to the vaporetto stop, I noticed that the square was roped off and that it seems as though more people than normal were milling around.  We got off and walked toward the first bridge, half of which was roped off, too.

"I have no idea what's going on," I said.  "Let's go the back way."  I lead the group away from the crowds and through the back streets of Venice.  I won't bore you with all we did, but after lunch, I took them back towards St. Mark's as they had tickets for the Doges Palace.  Because the square was roped off, we could barely fight our way through the crowd.  I looked over and noticed people running within the roped area.  "Holy crap," I sighed.  "There's a marathon or something going on.

Venice Marathon
 "A marathon?" one of the group asked.  "In Venice? What do they do? Run in circles?"

Well, as I found out, Venice does have an annual marathon, and we happened to be there for its 30th year.  The race, which starts in Stra (a small town west of Venice), had 10,000 runners who ran through the countryside and into the city center, passing over 14 bridges before ending just past St. Mark's at Riva Seiti Martiri.

Venice Marathon
After the group entered the Doges Palace, I tried to walk through St. Mark's in search of a place to sit down.  I alternated between shivering and burning, and I just wanted a quiet place.  There are a lot of cafes around St. Mark's, and I thought I might find a place to sit and have a pot of tea while I waited for the group.  That was not the best idea, for a few reasons.  First, the cafes had seating outside.  I figured it was best that I didn't sit outside, but I was getting desperate and just wanted to sit.  I went from cafe to cafe and looked at the menus.  The menus held the second reason it wasn't a good idea to have tea there.

In case you don't know, the cafes around St. Mark's charge an exorbitant amount of money for everything, especially if the orchestras are playing.  For example, a cappuccino can cost 9 euro, and that's before they add a 6 euro cover charge. The few places I looked had tea, and that cost was even worse — 20-to-22 euro for a pot of tea plus cover charge.  I retraced my steps to the backstreets of Venice and started looking for a place where I could have tea away from the crowds. 

Venice Marathon

It took quite some time, but I eventually found a little cafe with indoor seating somewhere along the back streets.  I stumbled in and, without looking at the menu, ordered a pot of black tea.  The waiter brought it and a small sweet quickly.  I got hot.  I took my jacket off. I  got cold.  I put my jacket on. I got hot. Off.  On.  Off. On. I'm sure the waiter thought I was nuts.  More than an hour later, I was ready to meet the group, so I asked for the check.  12 euro.  It was worth it.

By the time we were able to fight our way onto a vaporetto back to the train station, Venice was dark.  We had to stand in a stairwell for most of the 40 minutes, but we made it back with about 10 minutes to get tickets for the next train back to Bologna.  Unfortunately, there were about 100 people crowded around five ticket machines.  I left everyone in line and went to a customer service rep.

"Can you get me four tickets on the next train to Bologna?" I probably seemed a bit frantic. 

"It's 2 euro more," she told me.

"I don't care.  Get me home."  I was frantic.

"Don't forget to validate them...." she was saying as I grabbed them and ran.

We made it on with a few minutes to spare, and we were on our way.  I spent most of it with my head in my hands.

"I hope you don't mind," I said to the group, "but I can't walk back to the apartment tonight.  Let's please take a taxi."  Everyone was on board with that. . . Everyone but the taxi drivers.

Church from the vaporetto
When we arrived back in Bologna, we stopped quickly in the station pharmacy so Kerri and I could pick up a few things.  We headed out to the taxi stand and found about 20 people in line with two taxis available.

"I can't wait," I almost cried.  We started walking back.  They decided to stop at a restaurant on the way, and I went on.  "I can't.  I need to get back." 

I probably walked that 1.5 miles faster that night than any other time in my life in Bologna.  I stumbled through the door of my apartment, took one of the pills the pharmacist gave me, called Michael, and fell asleep.

I was sure there was no way I could go to Venice again the next morning.


Friday, November 6, 2015

Better Late Than Never

Riley Facetiming me while I was in Bologna

All this modern technology just makes people try to do everything at once.  ~ Bill Watterson

My latest victims group and I are back from Italy, as you may know.  You may not know that since it's been some time since I was able to write the blog due, mostly, to the fact that we had internet problems from the time we left Bologna on October 28.

When Mike and I headed to Europe the first few times in the 90s and 2000s, we took neither cell phones or computers because they wouldn't work there. Internet was too new, slow, and costly. I remember signing up for 30-minute access to internet on a cruise ship in 2007. The cost was $50 for about 30 minutes, and I spent most of the 30 minutes waiting for one or two emails to Jason to send.  Even in 2010, we took my iPad to Italy hoping to have internet access and found very little.

What a difference a year made.   In 2011, I had a scholarship to Charles University in Prague, and we hit a few places in Italy before that.  Every apartment had internet access. I could use the iPad easily no matter where we were.  Unfortunately, our phones still did not work in Europe. You may remember that someone broke into our Prague apartment in the middle of the night, and we had no way to contact the police except for me to walk to the police station at 3:00 am.  (Story here and here)  I swore after that experience that I would not leave home without a phone that worked everywhere. And, I haven't.

Vernazza during the rain
Remember the America Express commercials that urged, "Don't leave home without it!"  These days, I—and probably most of you, too—don't leave home without at least one piece of digital equipment, the cell phone.  Most days, the iPad accompanies me, too, since I use it for work.  And, should I go out of town, I'm loaded for bear: iPhone, iPod, iPad, MacBook Air, and every stupid cable that I need to charge them up.  I'm addicted, I tell you.  How did  I survive before I had these umbilical cords?

At any rate, the group and I had all of our "stuff," and while we were in Bologna, the internet worked great. That was a good thing since BLVDS was in proof mode, and I was able to edit while I was there.  We left Bologna on 28 October, the day the final proofs were coming through.  Our apartments in Vernazza were to have internet, so I wasn't worried. First mistake.


"Can you sign on?" Kerri asked me not too long after we had lugged ourselves and our suitcases up 50+ STEEP steps to our Vernazza rooms.  She was waiting for a few important emails from work.

"It shows I'm connected," I yelled back, "but I can't get anything to open."  She couldn't, either.  At the time, we blamed it on the horrendous downpour going on outside.  We were, after all, in the Cinque Terre, an area on the rocky eastern coast of Italy.  I asked the owner about the internet, and he told me that they were having problems in the rooms and that we could use the internet in the restaurant.  While everyone ate, I edited BLVDS at our table, as did Kerri.  After I complained again, the owner gave me a portable hot spot, which Kerri and I shared since it worked in only one room at a time.  And, while it worked, it was slowslowslow because we were, after all, in a small town on the coast.

Rome would be better.

What I needed after dealing with internet problems
HA! Our Rome apartment was in the Prati district — a quiet, business/residential area of the city close to the Vatican and Piazza del Popolo.  Paolo, the owner, got the internet working for us and showed me what to do if we had problems.... which we did.  I won't bore you with all of the details, but suffice to say a lot of the conversation over our three days in Rome went something like this:

"Are you able to sign on?"

"No.  Are you?"


OR, "I'm online, are you?"

"Yes... No.... Yes.... Wait...."

OR, "I give up."

"I gave up last Wednesday."

Paolo, the owner, wrote me yesterday and apologized. He told me that he's planning to get a new service provider and hopes that that will take care of the problem.

So, we're home, and the internet is working.  Yay!

Excuse me.... I have a meeting in an hour, so I need to pack up everything and get ready.

See you back in Venice tomorrow.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Life and Other Adventures

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” ~ GK Chesterton

I've been a little under the weather for the past few days–well, almost a week.  In addition, BLVDS has been in proof stage, and I've been working on that when I could keep my head clear enough to think.  (No comments from anyone about that, please.)  So, I did want you to know that the spirit was there, but the energy was not.  

That said, I've been accruing stories.... Believe me.  I have been accruing stories.  True stories. When you travel with me, you have adventures, and there has been no shortage on this trip. Please allow me to give you just a taste until I can get to the real blog in the next few days.

INTERNET is always a problem when we travel, and this trip has not been any different.  While Bologna was pretty steady in that department, Vernazza is not, and we are suffering without a good connection. Luckily, I bought an Italian sim card for my iPad, and I can get at least a little internet at times.

VENICE, as you may remember, is not one of my favorite cities for a number of reasons.  Well, we can add at least three more to that list, and I'll explain those in detail soon.  Let's just say it all comes down to the fact that I'm not wild about crowds of idiots, pidgeons, and cold.

Speaking of cold, we are currently in the Cinque Terre area.  Our  TRIP & ARRIVAL yesterday in the middle of a cold rain that soon turned to a complete downpour left us soggy and quite a bit put out. It
And, speaking of being put out, should I tell you about the BANK incident?  Or about how we keep LOSING WAITERS?

And, there are the THREE WOMEN from Galveston (that's in Texas, you know). If there is a reason Americans have a bad reputation around the world, those three women would be at the top of the list.

Things always do work out. And if they didn't, I'm not so sure I'd like the adventure.

See you in Venice soon....

PHOTOS:  Top-Vernazza an hour after our arrival  Bottom- Monterosso al Mare today

Saturday, October 24, 2015


Facade of Milan Cathedral

 “The world is my church."
― Steve Maraboli

The last few days in  Florence and Milan have been so busy that I've been too tired to write anything.  My apologies.  I do, however, want to touch on something briefly tonight before I head to bed: religion.

Italy, as you probably know, is full of Catholic churches.  Turn a corner, see a church.  My grandmother's village (600+ residents) has five that I know of.  Castrovalva, a tiny town of about 20 permanent residents, has three or four.  Don't even ask me about a city like Bologna or Milan or Rome.  As I said, turn a corner, see a church.
Side altar
 One of the things that gets me most is the fact that the churches are so huge and so ornate, and you know darn well that the people who built them were the poor people.  There was no way a Medici family member was going to get his hands dirty placing marble to make columns.

But, here's the question that really bothers me: Do we really need the huge basilicas and cathedrals to worship properly?  OF COURSE NOT.  It's actually pretty disgusting, if you think of it, of how much time and money have gone into these places from their inception to today.  Let's look, for example, at the duomo in Milan.

Built in the Lombard Gothic style, the duomo took 582 years to complete.  It is the fifth largest church in the world, second largest church in Italy, and second largest Gothic-style cathedral in the world.  It actually sits on the site of older churches that date back to 350 AD.

Side of Milan Cathedral
On the outside, there are 135 spires, and on the inside, there are 52 columns (Each is 24.5 meters high.). Also inside are 3400 statues that date from medieval to modern times.  Numerous bishops of the diocese are buried there, and St. Charles Borromeo, former archbishop of Milan and an instrumental figure in getting work on the cathedral completed during his term, sleeps in a crypt under the main altar.  There are five (FIVE) wide naves in the cathedral, and I didn't count how many altars. There are a lot, and I assume you know that people of wealth could donate money to have their own altar in churches.  Of course, the cathedral has many religious artifacts, and it's said that one of the nails from the crucifixion is in a vault in the ceiling behind the altar.

What strikes me most about all of this is the waste of money.  Let me be fair and say that it's not only the Catholic Church, either.  I've been in plenty of large, ornate Protestant and Jewish houses of worship, so I bring this up only because I've been in the Florence and Milan duomos this week.

Where are our priorities?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Peas, Please

“Peas baffled me. I could not understand why grown-ups would take things that tasted so good raw, and then put them in tins, and make them revolting.”
― Neil Gaiman

When I was a kid, my Aunt Vera (one of my mom's sisters) used to make spaghetti every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.  Many weeks, she also made it on Saturday.  On many days that  she didnt' serve pasta, she served peas in tomato sauce.  I'm sure a lot of you who never had it gagged at the thought, but I have to tell you I loved those peas and sauce.

The interesting thing was that, of all my mom's sisters, Aunt Vera was the only one who made peas in sauce.  I never gave it any thought until tonight when le group and I headed to dinner at La Fontana, a Bolognese restaurant close to the apartments.  Smack dab in the entree section of the menu was polpette in sugo con piselli—meatballs in sauce with peas. 

As I was thinking about Aunt Vera and this dish, something hit me. Aunt Vera was married to Joe Villani, and I think I've figured out that Uncle Joe's family originated in the Emilia-Romagna region.  First, the Villani name is an old one in the area. Several pastas and other dishes Aunt Vera cooked that her sisters and sisters-in-law did not cook are from this area...including the piselli in sugo. 

So, I ordered it.  I didn't ask, but I'm guessing that everyone thought I was a little crazy, but it was so good.  So good. Of course, I think most things covered with tomato sauce are good.... except maybe donuts. 

Definitely not donuts.....

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

All You Can Do Is Laugh

The Italian stand-off
 “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.”
― David Milch

 If I have one purpose in coming to Italy, I think it's to make God laugh.  I make plans for my groups to do something, and we usually have the opportunity to experience some grand hiccup in a few of the plans.  I figure God is having slow days and needs something to brighten them up.

Now that Group #3 has been here a few days, we decided to take a short train ride to Faenza, home of the International Museum of Ceramic Art. Before you laugh at that, let me tell you that it is a phenomenal museum and worth the trip to see it. First, however, we had to get there, and to get there we needed to take the bus to the train station and head out on the 10:35 east to Ancona (with stops all over the place).

We got to the bus stop around 9:50 about two minutes after the #11 passed by.  Since #11 buses stop every seven minutes, I wasn't concerned. The next bus was due to come by in five minutes, so, we were safe.  The #19 stopped, as did the #14.  Even a #23 came by.  The seven minutes grew to ten, then twelve.

Suddenly, we noticed a stand-off blocking traffic down the street from us (Photo above). A woman wanted to park in a space, and a man was guarding it for a car or truck that was not in sight.  The woman honked, and the man turned his head.  The woman inched forward, and the man just stood there.  She honked; he glared.  They yelled at each other.  She shook her fist. He turned his head. The cars she was blocking honked at her, and she inched forward again. He didn't move.

Piazza del Popolo where they hold the weekly market on Tuesdays....until 1:30

I was concerned because it was, at this point, 10:07, and that was the last bus we could catch that would get us to the train station in time for the 10:35 train.  Cars started going around the woman, snarling traffic now in both directions for a few minutes.  Still no bus #11. Two #19s came by within a minute of each other, as did a #14.  A woman who had been standing there when we walked up asked me where the bus was. I had no idea, of course.  When a second #14 pulled up, she asked the driver, and he shrugged his shoulders and shut the bus door.

Meanwhile, the lady driver and the man were still caught in a stand-off over the parking space although the woman finally backed across the street and double-parked. She opened her window and yelled something at the guy who ignored her yet again. Finally a small truck approached, put its blinker on, and the man moved out of the way.  The truck started to move to back into the space, and the lady started to pull her car across the street again. The truck won that race handily, and the lady backed up again and roared off as she shook her fist.

 We had, at this point, been standing there more than 30 minutes when a #11 bus finally got through.  Unfortunately, it was packed to the rafters with people, and the only way we were going to get on was to ride on the outside of the bus.  We decided to walk to the train station to catch the 11:35 train.

Snagglepuss  snarled at me while I took his photo.

Fast-forward about 10 minutes and six blocks, and we saw a bus #11 heading in our direction.  The next bus stop was two blocks in front of us, but the bus was stuck in yet another traffic jam of some sort.  We started to power-walk toward the stop.  Two perfectly timed red lights and heavy traffic slowed #11 down enough that we actually made it and hopped on the bus.  Unfortunately, the bus was quite full, so we were squished in there with two thousand other people, one of whom resembled Anthony Hopkins's character in "Silence of the Lambs."  I looked to make sure he didn't have fava beans and chianti on his lap.

 When we reached the stop where we had to get off to walk to the train station, two bus officials decided to start checking everyone's bus tickets.  Of course, they stood right in the aisle and blocked the exit. (On Italian buses, one enters either in the front or back and leaves from the middle.)  I had to push my way off.  Twyla jumped out of the back door, and Ron and Kerri got swallowed up in a mix of young kids, mothers, the ticket checkers, and old ladies who refused to move. I ran to the back door, but people had climbed on, so Ron and Kerri could go neither forward nor backward.

The exit doors closed as the bus prepared to take off WITH Ron and Kerri still in limbo. Far be it from me to get hysterical (NO LAUGHING!), but I pounded on the doors. The driver didn't open them. Somehow, Kerri made one last push, and the two of them were able to get past the ticket guys and two little old ladies who didn't want to move.

"I was ready to push that lady over," Ron said.

"You looked panicked," Kerri said to me.

"I'm done with buses," Ron added.

"It was pretty funny," Twyla laughed.

I started breathing again.

A busy street in Faenza
 We made the 11:35 train and got to Faenza by 12:15.  The museum is a short walk up the main street, so we were there rather quickly.  Being as the morning had traumatized us, we decided to stop for lunch at a small place across from the museum before we hit it.  The food was good, and we headed back across the street at 1:25 or so.

 I walked to the ticket counter and asked how much tickets cost.

"We just closed," the woman rudely told me.

"Excuse me?"

"We closed at 1:30 today," she snapped again.

"The website said you're open all day," I pleaded trying not to beat my head on the counter.

"We closed at 1:30."  She turned to talk to someone else.

Twyla reading a great magazine in Piazza del Popolo
I won't bore you with specifics, but we left and walked around town, which was quite pretty.  It was also quite deserted as everything—even the little corner bottega—closes at 1:00 or so for afternoon rest. We found one open ceramic shop, and the owner insisted that the museum was, indeed, open all day.

"No, we went there. They told me it closed at 1:30 today," I advised her.

"Who told you?  It's open all day." She showed me the pamphlet for the museum with hours clearly stating it is open 10:00-17:00.

"I know what it says," I told her, "but the rude woman at the desk told me they closed at 1:30 today."

She called the museum and talked to someone for a few minutes.  "You're right.  They closed at 1:30 today because there was a problem."  Of course I was right. The brutish woman basically threw us out.  "You must come back tomorrow," the ceramist continued.  "The museum is wonderful."

Fat chance of that happening. Tomorrow we head to Florence.  Besides, Faenza is now on my blacklist.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Little Bit of Cozze On My Plate.... A Little Bit of Rice and Chicken, Too.

 “If more of us valued food and cheer and 
song above hoarded gold, it would be a 
merrier world." ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

 Cox Cable has been running the most annoying commercial to advertise their fast internet speed; taken from the Broadway musical, Oliver!, the song is "Food, Glorious Food," and what the heck it and 3-D printed food has to do with anything Cox-related is beyond me. I'm just grateful that for the next two weeks, I won't have to listen to the stupid thing as I want to throw my computer through the television every time I hear it starting to play. (And, because I brought it up, I'm going to be singing that stupid song in my head all night.)

At any rate, as much as I despise that commercial, I love food. And as much as I love food, I'm a pretty picky eater in some ways. Unlike my father (who never met anything edible that he didn't like), there are certain things that I just can't swallow—literally. As such, I do tend to miss out on a few things that I just might enjoy eating.
 If you know me or have read this blog for some time, you might know that I won't eat fish. I do eat shellfish (as long as said shellfish is not staring back from the plate), but I usually eat only the shellfish I know—shrimp, crab, lobster (NO FACE), clams (only in soup or sauce), and scallops.  As such, I have not had oysters, crayfish, marlin, salmon, tuna, mussels, or the like.

Actually, that all changed the other day. My good friends, Cesar and Lilli, took me to Gardenia, a Sicilian restaurant, for dinner.  Cesar ordered cozze and arrancini (top two photos in respective order), two things that I had never eaten.  I was a bit nervous when the waitress brought out two bowls of cozze because, quite frankly, I was afraid I'd lose my nerve (or lunch) when I ate one. (Cozze are Mediterranean mussels.)

"Do you like cozze?" Cesar asked me as he opened one and ate it.  I hesitated.

"I've never eaten one," I probably mumbled. Both he and Lilli were shocked.

"You never ate one?" he exclaimed.  I shook my head; they both showed me how to open the shell and slurp it down.  I took one, opened it, counted to three in my head, and slurped it down.  I not only survived, I liked the cozze and ate a few more.

The arrancini, or rice ball, was absolutely phenomenal.  Named for the orange (arrancia) because of their size, shape, and color, arrancini are more of a southern Italian dish. They apparently surfaced in Sicily in the 10th century, but lately, they have become a fast food fad all over Italy.  If you don't know, arrancini are stuffed rice balls that are coated with breadcrumbs and fried. The filling can contain meat sauce, ground meat, fresh mozzarella, peas, or any combination of them. The one we had was ground beef and peas.

Pollo a la brace with salad
 The chicken was absolutely delicious, too. 

 "Do you think you'll have mussels again?" Mike asked me when I told him I'd enjoyed the ones we had the other night.

"I might," I informed him, " because they're just big clams, I think.  I can tell you, though, that  I won't turn down any arrancini that find their way to my plate."

And I hope some find their way to my plate again pretty soon.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


 "A kod komse uvek pun frizider svega, Mortadela i Nutela..."
 (And in Komsi, I always have a refrigerator full of Mortadella and Nutella..."
~ Cigo, the Croation One-man Band

i mentioned yesterday that there was a wonderful gathering in Piazza Maggiore raising money to plant fields of grain to help ease hunger in Tanzania, but that right around the corner, there was something that was completely different (Not that there's anything wrong with that).

 You 've probably guessed by the photos that I stumbled upon a festival honoring the humble, pink sausage otherwise known as mortadella.

Perhaps it is just me, but I found it hilarious that one group was trying to raise money to plant grain for starving African children, while another was handing out pounds and pounds of the precursor to Bolgona (or baloney) just around the corner.  Guess which group had more visitors.

 Mortadella originated over 500 years ago in Bologna.  Made of finely ground pork, the sausage is heat-cured. In addition, no less than 15% of the meat must be pork fat for it to be mortadella (Note those huge white chunks in the photo above.)  It can include peppercorns, pistachios, or myrtle berries (Roman mortadella contains myrtle berries.).

 As a side note, mortadella is the ancestor to American bologna (named as such because of the city where mortadella got its start).  The taste of American bologna, while similar to mortadella, is a lot more salty and stronger.  Mortadella is much more delicate in flavor, and as such, should not sit in the refrigerator too long after you cut it. It should not be too thick. Most Italians cut it paper-thin.

 I'm not a big fan, and I freely admit that I had never tried it until a few months ago. The thought of ingesting globs of fat was somehow unappetizing to me.  Someone offered me some while I was a guest of theirs, and I tried it.  It tastes, as I mentioned, similar to bologna although it has a very delicate flavor.  I cannot, however, get the idea of the fat out of my head, so I still won't eat it unless I'm being nice.  Believe me when I say it takes everything in me to swallow the white blobs.

 The other thing that I found absolutely hilarious and more than a little bizarre, was the fact that they offered wine pairings with mortadella (above). I can only imagine the wine descriptions:

"This chardonnay has a butter flavor and cream-like texture which is reminiscent of a spoonful of mayonnaise." OR... "The massive and opulent taste of this merlot pairs nicely with a sausage of the same, large proportions."  OR!! "The unctuous (oily) taste of this famous red is reminiscent of the blobs of fat in the mortadella."

If you want to hear Cigo Man sing about mortadella and Nutella in the refrigerator, click here.  He's actually very entertaining....and he likes Nutella. I won't hold the mortadella thing against him.

Domani:  I try cozze and arrancini for the first time.....

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Fields of Grain

" there anywhere in the world as full of beauty as Italy?”
― Natalia Sanmartín Fenollera

If you follow or know me at all, you know that there are very few places that I'd rather be than Italy. I love it to a fault, and that will never change, I'm afraid.  It makes me so happy to be here and to be able to share its beauty and wonder with others.

After I arrived the other day, I said hello to Lilli at the bar, walked to the mercato to grab a few items, and lay down to rest a few minutes. I woke up about four hours later (7:30 pm), took my medicine, and went back to bed. Somewhere around 11:30 yesterday morning, I finally got out of bed. After I got ready, I had my cappucino with Lilli and then walked around town for a few hours. I was thrilled to see the Due Torre were still in the same place, but I figured since they've been there for hundreds of years, that wasn't going to change any time soon.

This morning, I couldn't sleep, so I got up very early and went back to Piazza Maggiore, the main piazza in town.  I noticed that people were lining hundreds of ceramic plates on the piazza (above and below). I watched for some time and then headed to the Saturday mercato in another piazza close by. It's pretty chilly here (66-degree high today), so I needed to buy a few pairs of socks so I don't freeze over the next two weeks.

I walked back through the piazza and noticed that all of the plates were laid out and upside down (below). The whole thing intrigued me, and I figured it had something to do with hunger since I saw people wearing jackets that had sayings about fighting hunger.

As I rounded the top of the piazza, I noticed boxes (below) that asked, "Where will you be October 17? World Day of Power.... Fight Hunger in Kilolo with Us."  The sign goes on to urge people to choose a plate and plant a field of grain fighting against hunger in Africa.

Kilolo, as I found out once I got home and googled it, is a town in Tanzania. From what I could tell, it is a dichotomy—a resort for the rich and famous, yet a neglected area for those in need. Hunger is rampant among its natives. 

I walked back later in the afternoon and noticed that many of the plates were now right-side up, and balloons held down by seed packets adorned them. As I watched, more and more people (and their children) turned over a plate and put balloons and seed packets on them. (Plant a field of grain....Get it?) At the same time, a guy with a mic kept thanking everyone for fighting hunger in Africa.

By the last time I passed through the piazza (around 5), there were dancing balloons all over the place (below).

You are, perhaps, wondering why I'm making any kind of deal about this since there are drives like this in the US all the time. I know it's nothing unusual, but the thing I found interesting was what was going on just around the corner at the exact same time. (If you look at the fourth photo, I'm talking about what is just behind me about 50 yards away.)  I'll tell you about it tomorrow, but suffice to say that it is the kind of crazy thing that happens here that makes me so comfortable.

By the way, the word for hunger in Italian is "fame" (fah-may).  It's Latin root is the same as famished in English.  (I'm geeking out on you here...)

A domani.....