Booted out of Rome

The guy dressed as an ancient Roman soldier at the Trevi Fountain took a drag on his cigarette and put a cellphone to his ear, perhaps calling his agent to see about getting a better gig. We jostled our way through the throng of tourists and made our wishes. Mine was that we could get out of Rome quickly and onto the next leg of our journey- the Amalfi Coast.

Don’t get me wrong, the sites in Rome are worth seeing, and the history is palpable, but so is the sweat and stench and sense of being taken advantage of.

We had parked our car about a mile and a half away, in front of the Colosseum. There was a paybox with complicated-looking instructions, all in Italian. There was a slot for credit cards and a slot for cash. I tried both and neither worked. I looked around at the other cars and not one had a sticker or other sign that showed that they had paid. Then I noticed the hours listed and it looked like we were in the middle of a free section of time, like Sundays on meters in the U.S.

Well, when we finally got back to the lot there was a team of Italian workers surrounding our car. They were just about to put a boot on it when I ran up to intervene. “Whoah, whoah, whoah, partner” I said to a guy in uniform, not sure why I was channeling John Wayne. “I tried to pay and it wouldn’t take my money.”

The Italian ticket-master just looked at me with a shrug. Apparently he didn’t speak English, or he did but didn’t like being called “partner.” The boot-team was about to lock the metal piece onto my tire, and I could just imagine navigating the bureaucracy to get that removed after they had left.

I grabbed my wallet and flashed some cash. Now I was speaking the ticket-master’s language. We settled on everything I had, which was thankfully only about $50. The guy nodded to the boot-team and they quickly removed the boot and went on to their next victim.

We pulled out past the Colosseum and saw another fake Roman soldier wandering around amongst the tourists on his cellphone, perhaps calling the other guy to see if he could bum a smoke.

We pointed our car south toward the Amalfi Coast and got the hell out of Rome.

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Into the Mouth of the Wolf

After zigzagging back and forth in our rental car in the rain and asking directions from a local who was no help whatsoever, we found our “hotel” in Rome. I say “hotel” because it was basically a youth hostel without the communal sleeping quarters. No wonder the price was right. College-age-looking kids lounged around the lobby doing homework or playing games.

Fortunately we were on the top floor, unfortunately there were no elevators. We lugged our luggage up, up, up and finally came to what we thought was the top floor… only we couldn’t find our room number.

Alex pointed to a metal spiral staircase on the outside rooftop. “Maybe it’s there,” she said. I ran out under the raindrops and climbed the tight staircase to find our door. “Penthouse suite,” I joked to Alex when I came back to grab the bags.

I sent her up ahead of me with the keys and barely blurted out “careful, it’s a tight fit,” when she bonked her head on a stair above her. Meanwhile, I was realizing that our bigger bag might not even fit up this staircase. We were tired, it was getting late, it was raining, my wife was half-concussed and I was about to empty a suitcase in the rain to get it up to our room.

Frustrated, I just decided to use brute force instead. I put the suitcase in front of me and pushed it up the spiral staircase: huffing, puffing, pinching, and pushing. When I finally got it up to the room, I was too exhausted to even notice the sparse accommodations. This made Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles look like the Ritz. He’d cut off both ears if he was stuck in here.

I laid back on the bed to catch my breath, when Alex said, “the car!”

I had forgotten that I had double-parked on the tight street outside the hotel’s front door. I ran down through the lobby and outside to find the car still there. Whew, now where to park? I asked myself as I looked around at a pileup of parked cars and mopeds in every direction.

I asked the front desk guy and he said the hotel had an arrangement with a lot about 15 minutes return by foot, or there was a city bus back, but not at this hour. “How about the street?” “Buona fortuna,” the guy said, then he looked up at me and paused. He must have recognized the look of “what else could go wrong” emanating from my entire body. “You can park against the tea shop next door. Let me show you,” he offered kindly.

We went outside and he directed me to park literally against the tea shop. I was blocking the front door with my car. “You sure this is okay?” I asked. “Si, this man rarely comes in before noon, and sometimes not at all.” He noticed my lingering concern and said “I will call your room if he comes in so you can move your car.”

Alex was already asleep when I got back to the room. I laid down and was out faster than you could say “arrivederci.”

The next morning we awoke to deep church bells and a sliver of sunlight coming through the blinds. Alex got up and pushed back the blinds to a breathtaking view of Rome: a giant domed church; distant hillsides; laundry blowing in the sunny breeze outside of ancient window frames; and of course the ubiquitous satellite dishes of the world.

“I guess we did get the penthouse suite,” Alex said. “How was the car-parking situation?”

I shot out of bed and ran back down to the lobby. The same guy from last night just smiled and nodded at me as I ran past. Once out on the street, I turned and found our car surprisingly still there, and the tea shop not yet open for business.

I later learned that bouna fortuna means good luck, but more like “good luck, you’re going to need it.” To really say good luck and mean it you’d say “in bucca al lupo” which translates to “into the mouth of the wolf.” And the reply is, “may the wolf die!”

We left that day for our Roman adventures by car. The front desk guy told us “buona fortuna”… and he was right.

Rome, Italy; A narrowed overview of rooftops with the St. Peter's Basilica Cupola on the horizon

When In Rome

It was raining and we had no umbrellas as we walked to our car parked outside the walled city of Sienna. After mistakenly driving through the pedestrian square in Florence a few days earlier, I didn’t want to end up doing laps of shame around Sienna’s famous Piazza del Campo too, so I took the first parking space I found instead of the closest.

Despite the long walk in the rain, we were in good spirits after a few nights in a thick-walled winery hotel that surprisingly featured comfortable California king beds. Beds in Italy can be, well… unique. Sometimes you’ll walk into your just paid-for room and see what looks like a summer-camp cot. Other times you’ll find yourself looking at an ornate wood-framed structure that could have been built for a king- a really short king.

With wet clothes and shoes, we got in the car for our 3 hour drive down to Rome. About an hour in Alex said she had to pee but didn’t want to stop. When she wants to get somewhere, she wants to get there, so I didn’t argue. But we lost our way trying to find the city and it was dark by the time we got back on track on the outskirts of Rome.

“My mom used to make us go in an old peanut butter jar when we were on long road trips as kids,” I offered up. “Not helping,” said Alex, “I’ll be okay.” And then we hit the traffic.

We could see the silhouettes and lights of the city over the next hill, but we were now crawling along and there were no exits in sight. “Just pull over” Alex said. “There’s nowhere to…” “Just pull over, now!” she exclaimed. So I pulled over on the side of the Roman road, and she opened her door and squatted by our car in the dark.

“You know the Roman’s invented public bathrooms,” I said stupidly as she climbed back in the car. “I’ll remember that next time I’m on Jeopardy,” she answered as we merged back into the flow of traffic and toward the city center to try to find our next bed for the night.

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Positano Romantico

It was getting dark in Tuscany as we pulled off the main road and onto a small dirt path. “Are you sure this is it?” I asked. I couldn’t see anything in the near distance. “These are the directions they gave me,” said Alex trying to hold her tired frustration. This trip was definitely testing our limits. It felt like we hadn’t stopped since a quick 2-day see-everything tour of Venice and a haphazard drive-by of Florence.

I continued cautiously down the gently rolling path for another mile or so before finally seeing the silhouette of grape vines. A couple of stone buildings appeared and we assumed we’d arrived at our small winery hotel.

We parked next to the only other car and looked for some kind of sign. We got out, still not sure we were in the right place, when a dapper Italian man named Massimo greeted us with a smile. “We’ve been expecting you,” he said, “follow me.” He wore a purple cashmere sweater with designer jeans and what we’d call Italian loafers, but Massimo would probably just call loafers.

He showed us to our room in the building across the driveway and asked if we wanted to eat at the hotel that night or go out? We weren’t yet sure, but after some discussion, we figured out that the cook was sticking around just for us, just in case, so we felt obliged to dine there.

We sat blurry-eyed in the empty dining room, and wondered if we were seeing the prices clearly on the menu. “Uh, honey, we didn’t budget for this kind of meal,” I said under my breath as an old lady approached the table. It turned out she was the hostess/waitress/bus-person/cook, and from the resemblance possibly Massimo’s mother.

Her English was not great but her passion was infectious. We were talked into a bottle of the estate wine, bruschetta, and two pasta dishes. She explained that the tomatoes and basil on the bruschetta were from their garden. I tried a bite and went to heaven for a brief second. Alex doesn’t normally do raw tomatoes, but after seeing my reaction she tried a bite and saw a glimpse of the pearly gates herself.

The old lady noticed that we were two young lovers and asked us about our trip. We told her we came down from Venice, through Florence, headed to Rome… all the usual touristy spots she’d probably heard 1,000 guests rattle off. But when we told her our last stop was a week in Positano, her eyes lit up. She looked us both over with a sparkle in her eyes, probably noticing the lack of wedding rings, then winked at me and practically sang out “Positano romantico!”

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The Griswald’s Take Florence

We drove south from Venice, direction Florence. I thought I was a pretty aggressive driver until I hit these roads. My first clue was the flashing lights from a mile back, in the middle of the day. I was going about 80mph in the fast lane but I pulled to the slow side and brought it down to 60 or so. I thought it might be an emergency vehicle, the way it was barreling down on us. A few seconds later an old Fiat sedan passed by going about 110mph. I got back into the fast lane and picked up my speed, but from another mile or so back, I saw more flashing lights. “What are they late to a funeral?” I joked with Alex as the car whizzed by in a blur. “There must be a setting on Italian cars for this- I’d get carpel tunnel if I had to flash my lights so much.”

This was just before smartphones with Google Maps, so Alex was my trusted co-pilot and navigator. She’s the most organized person I know and had preprinted directions for most everywhere we needed to go. But even with all the planning, we got turned around more than spaghetti on a spoon.

We’d approach a turn going with the regular flow of 1,000mph traffic and there’d be a signpost with about 12 different names and arrows pointing in all directions. Then there were the mopeds, like giant mosquitos constantly swarming the car.

So when we finally arrived in downtown Florence it was later than we had planned. We did a quick walk on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, and had a coffee while trying to download pictures off Alex’s camera to free up camera memory space and put them in her laptop so she could post to a website she had designed just for our trip. “Insta” was not yet in the lexicon of the day.

We only had a few minutes of parking meter time- if I had deciphered it correctly- so we got back in the car and looked for the Duomo. As organized as Alex was, she hadn’t mapped out the Duomo. I guess, like me, she figured we’d just see it. After-all this was the world’s largest brick and mortar church dome. But from the tight maze of Florence streets, the dome was not as easy to get to as it would seem.

A few “this is a one way street!” cries later, we found ourselves driving by the front of the cathedral…. and right into a pedestrian square. I had trailed what was probably a service vehicle into an unauthorized area. The service vehicle disappeared and I suddenly noticed we were the only car amongst hundreds of people. We may as well have been the Griswald’s in “European Vacation.”

We did get a drive-by picture, however, and a hefty ticket in the mail the following month postmarked from Florence.

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The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It was mid-April and I was doing some spring cleaning. Winter had waned, taxes were taxed, flowers were flowering.

I was at the helm of my Dyson DC14, extension-wand saddled like a pistol in an old west holster. Only I wasn’t killing outlaws, I was killing dust and cat hair and fuzz and… glitter?

“Damn you glitter!” I exclaimed to myself as I tried to capture the outlaw sparkles that I  thought I’d already corralled not long after Christmas. If I were sheriff, I would ban the stuff.

This year I was determined to keep it locked up. While shopping I refused to put items on conveyor belts that were caked with the shiny specks and I opened cards in the house slowly, just in case (if it were up to me, I’d have probably opened all Christmas cards outdoors, but then I’d probably be opening all Christmas cards outdoors, alone). I even got Alex to agree not to buy the glittery garlands that she found on sale.

Things were going pretty well until we had a Christmas party and a gift was handed to me at the door. I glanced at its fun wrapping paper that seemed to be alive with light and movement, and I suddenly realized that we’d been exposed! I set down the ticking glitter-bomb on a counter hoping I could handle it later without shaking too many of the specks loose, ‘cause once loose, those suckers multiply like tumbleweeds in an Arizona dust storm.

Cut to the party almost over and somehow, without consulting me, we’re now going to open each other’s gifts right then and there. I grab the glitter bomb reluctantly as we proceed to explode it right in the middle of our living room. It’s a nice gift, but I can only think about the shiny mini shrapnel everywhere.

People track it on their feet as they say their goodbyes, and I just want to saddle up the Dyson. But the angel on the tree is when our cat decides to roll around in all that glitter just before the vacuum is turned on. Hearing the monster that is our vacuum he runs for it, carrying enough contraband to last a lifetime of cleanings into unseen corners of our house.

As Alex said the next day, glitter is the gift that keeps on giving.

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Never Break Up a Set

Before I knew my wife, “set” was a term I used on a tennis court. I’ve since learned that it’s an important term in home décor. Apparently, you don’t ever want to break up a set.

Sets are so important that you will strategically go to every Target in a 30-mile radius just to complete one. Sometimes that radius gets extended to 60-miles, depending.

Some sets are obvious, others not so much. Who knew that couch pillows, for example, should be bought in sets of three. They aren’t presented that way in the store generally- they’re just all stacked up- but you need three of the same color and design to fully realize your couch dream.

There are a few exceptions to the set rule: two matching couch pillows, for example, will work if the middle pillow is so special that it doesn’t need to be part of a set. Surprisingly, even salt and pepper shakers aren’t always necessarily in sets- lest we forget the stand-alone pepper grinder.

I know, this all sounds confusing, like taking the SAT and sweating through the connecting sets segment. Well, just look at it like spelling rules, they don’t always make sense, you just have to follow them. Paraphrasing the great comic Brian Regan, if the plural of goose is geese, then the plural of moose must be meece… But it isn’t.

I’m still learning the rules of sets myself. Thankfully, I have a great mentor in my wife. Game, set, match.

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Can I Get A Hallelujah!

It was Sunday and we were in Church. Well, Costco actually, but it is a large open space where people congregate. The shelves reach to the sky, and you tithe with annual dues. Oh, and their private-label brand is Kirkland, which means Churchland in Scotland.

We grabbed a program from the parishioner at the front and made our way past people preaching about the saving graces of DirectTV over cable, how heavenly it was breaking bread with Cutco knives, and how devilishly the Ninja blender sliced and diced.

Alex examined her program carefully since it contained clues to the sites we had to make a pilgrimage to that day. Basically, all the stuff we’d waited to buy until it went on sale. This was going to be a long service. Good thing we had on comfortable shoes.

We took communion from many a minister of samples as we walked around a maze of humanity toward a warm glow emanating from the back center of the sanctuary. This was the Mecca where you could get a sublime roast chicken for just $4.99.

On the way out there was a flash like a sign from God. I turned and came upon something that could possibly change my life: Glide floss, multipack, on sale. The angels sang as I picked up the package and put it into our giant cart. Okay, it was me who sang, but still.

That night was a religious experience flossing with the silky smooth string. No more hard string floss for me, hallelujah!… as long as it’s on sale anyway, that stuff’s expensive.

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Light the Fire

Her flame burned bright not long ago
A shining light for wayward souls
Seems we’ve all been bought or sold
And this old place is turning cold
Yeah, this old place is turning cold

But we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of liberty

She’s taken hits, she’s taken blows
She’s eaten cake, she’s eaten crow
Her torch is out on payday loan
But there’s still a spark way down below
There’s still a spark way down below

And we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

Our truths are self evident
Our rights are our own
Our gift is our giving
To those that need more

Yes we can still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still burn the flame
For those in need
Still light the fire
For all that’s free
Still guard the flame of  liberty

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Italian Ice

Alex looked out the window of our early morning Alitalia flight from Naples back to the U.S. and sighed: “Well, that airport security guy is gonna’ have a nice dinner tonight with our leg of prosciutto.” I was just glad we hadn’t been arrested.

Between the cop pulling us over on our way to the airport, and the taxi driver at the rental return lot demanding 30 Euros I didn’t have, and wasn’t about to pay, for his shady maneuver getting us into a taxi to go 100 yards down the road, and numerous other misdeeds like, oh… hitting a pedestrian with our car (which sounds worse than it was). Well, I’d say we were kinda’ lucky to be getting out of there at all.

“Arrivederci Italy,” I said thankfully as the plane left the ground.

The trip started three weeks earlier in Venice from another plane window at dusk. The view below looked like two twinkling fish in either a yin and yang embrace or dual to the death.

Duality, we discovered, was to be a constant companion on this journey.

When we were planning the trip, there wasn’t a single person that could say a single negative thing about Italy. “Oh, the food!” they’d gush. “The wine!” “The views!” And on and on and on. They were right about all of it, but they left out some important facts.

I lugged our suitcases onto the water bus that would take us to our hotel in Venice. We cut through the Grand Canal past elegant buildings with glass chandeliers whose bottom floors doubled as seawalls. The glimmering water below lapped against them as a constant reminder of who was here first.

Our first item of business was to find some food. It was not the high tourist season, so places were closing early. We browsed a menu outside of a quaint, romantic-looking place. Dark wood booths inside, tables for two with candles and flowers outside. Perfect. Except for the prices. We decided we’d split something so as not to break the bank on our first night.

Now we love Italian food, but before this trip we would almost exclusively enjoy it out of the comfort of our own kitchen. Alex makes homemade pumpkin ravioli in the fall, pesto and pine nut pasta in the spring, or homemade pizza anytime.

That first meal out in Venice was good, but we got the check and thought they’d given us the wrong bill. Either that, or they had charged us a whole lot for a split plate. Turns out it was a coperto, or cover-charge, but not for a band or a show, just for the pleasure of taking a seat. As we paid, I asked the waitress where the band was and she looked at me like I was an annoying tourist.

We left the restaurant shaking our heads, but found a peaceful piazza to take our minds off the coperto. A church tower loomed over one end, lit by the light of the Mediterranean moon. A fountain bubbled. A big boat full of fresh vegetables was anchored on the adjoining canal. And a colorful gelato stand pulled us in for a late-night nibble.

That night we enjoyed our first real Italian gelato and felt for a minute like all was right in the world.

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