Discover Life Beyond The Room

Some of our faithful blog readers have wondered about the group that put together our great trip to Rome and Sicily earlier this year. The group is called Life Beyond The Room (“LBR” for short), and it has prepared a short video about our trip by way of illustrating what it can offer to potentially interested travelers. Since I thought LBR did a fantastic job with our trip, I wanted to share the video with those of you who might be interested in a similar trip. You can click on the video below to see some of the snippets from our trip.

Those of you who know me will see that I pop up twice in the video. All I can say is that while the frontal view is no treat, it’s a thousand times better than being videotaped from behind while doing “gentle stretching” (also known as yoga). Fortunately, I’ve convinced myself that the rear shot must have involved some kind of wide-angle lens or other form of photographic distortion.

In Praise Of Curated Travel

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few weeks, you know that our trip to Italy and Sicily was a wonderful experience. It introduced me not only to Sicily, which I had never visited before, but also to the concept of “curated travel”–a phrase used by Life Beyond The Room, a business that offers the chance to experience “sensorial travel.”

Life Beyond The Room planned our trip from beginning to end, selected where to stay in Rome and Sicily and the outings we had the opportunity to experience, and made all of the hotel, travel, and outing arrangements. Everything went off without a hitch, which allowed our little band of travelers to focus on enjoying ourselves, without worrying about details. What really distinguishes LBR, however, is the hands-on, personal element that it offers. Karen Hattaway, one of the founders of LBR, had been to every place we stayed, and she applies exacting standards. In addition, Karen, who is a native Italian speaker, and her husband Jett accompanied us on the trip, and for part of the journey we also were joined by the gregarious Jonathan Urbani, a photographer who also speaks Italian as his native language. They handled all of the on-the-ground details as we moved around the island, fit in seamlessly with our group of seven travelers, and added enormously to the general atmosphere of fun, laughs, and relaxation that prevailed during the entire trip. If not for them, I would have missed learning about briscola (which I never quite got the hang of, but enjoyed anyway) and would never have seen some hilarious, ad hoc karaoke.

The concept of curated travel also came through in how LBR responded to various issues that cropped up before and during our trip. As we approached the departure date, the COVID-related requirements seemed to change on a daily basis, but Karen doggedly followed every development and explained all of them and what it meant for us; she also registered all of us for the COVID test that was required to return to the U.S.

And having a native Italian speaker on the trip proved to be invaluable in dealing with the issues that can crop up during travel. For example, one member of our group was stung by a bee and had an allergic reaction that made his index finger swell up like a discolored sausage; Karen personally drove him to the pharmacist and then a local doctor and secured the medication that allowed his finger to be back to normal by the time of our departure. Even though many Sicilians speak some English, and three people in our group are studying Italian, could we have described what happened and obtained the same happy result without Karen along to interpret and provide guidance on how things worked? Similarly, when another member of the group needed eye drops, Karen accompanied her to the pharmacy to assist in reading the labels and finding the right product. And I doubt that we would have successfully located the grave of a grandfather if Karen had not been there to explain what we were looking for to the cemetery attendant in Mazara del Vallo, who spoke no English at all.

These are the kind of personal touches that can tip the balance and move a trip into the “exceptional” category. And I should add that LBR provided some great swag, some of which is shown in the photo above, including passport holders, a fine map of Sicily, an excellent (and frequently used) water bottle, beach towels, and a nifty straw purse with a bell on it that allowed me to keep track of Kish as she shopped.

Thank you, Karen, Jett, Jonathan, and LBR, for a great vacation!

Briscola

Yesterday I (sort of) learned how to play Briscola, an Italian card game. It’s a fun game with rules that are very different from those of an American card game, like euchre or gin rummy. In fact, Briscola suggests that the spectrum of games you could play with a deck of cards is as wide as the human imagination.

And speaking of the deck, forget hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades. The suits in a Sicilian deck are coins, swords, cups, and sticks. The card characters also are different, with a horseman instead of a Jack and a young woman rather than a queen. The size of the cards is a bit smaller than the standard American playing card.

The Briscola rules also are strange because the three is a very significant card, second in value only to the ace. That takes some getting used to. Each player is dealt three cards and then the card that establishes the trump suit is turned over. Each player then plays a card, with the card that is led by the first player setting the suit for the hand unless someone trumps in. You don’t need to follow suit, either. The highest card of the suit that was led, or the highest trump card played, takes the hand and wins any points assigned to the card played. And here’s a key point: many cards are assigned no points, whereas aces are worth 11 points and threes are worth 10 points. Why is a three worth 10 points? Only the creator of Briscola knows for sure.

I’m not doing a good job of explaining the rules, and in any event a wooden explanation of the rules doesn’t do justice to the game. It’s a fun, fast moving game that is best learned on a sun-dappled patio overlooking the sea coast.

New Fruit

The Barone di Villagrande vineyard offers excellent accommodations and a first-rate kitchen that prepares exquisite food. In the morning you check boxes on a little menu to indicate what you want for breakfast. If you check the fresh fruit box, you’ll likely be served a plate that looks something like this.

The peaches, apricots, melon, strawberries, and kiwi are all ridiculously fresh and intensely flavorful. If you’re like me, though, you might not have seen the yellow stemmed item in the middle of the plate. It’s a fruit called the medlar that is grown all over Sicily and Italy. if you grab it by the stem and bite into it, you’ll be treated to a delicate taste that is like a cross between an apple and a pear. Unlike those fruits, however, the medlar has large, Chiclet-sized seeds, so you’ll want to nibble around them.

Imagine! A new fruit! And a tasty one at that. If one of our Columbus grocery stores stocked medlar, I’d buy it.

On The Black Sand Beaches Of Ladispoli

Last night we drove from Rome to Ladispoli, a seaside town on the western coast of Italy, on the Tyrrhenian Sea that separates Italy from Sardinia and Corsica, There we had an excellent seafood dinner with lots of clams, oysters, octopus, and shrimp, an Aperol spritz to kick off the festivities, and some terrific wines with our meal.

Our restaurant was right on the Ladispoli beach, which has very dark, almost black sand. It was an overcast evening, and the beach attendants had already neatly folded and stashed the lounge chairs and closed the umbrellas when we arrived. The waters were calm, and the sky and the sea looked like an unbroken curtain of silver behind the black sands and the orange chairs.

15 Years Of Goldbricking

According to the BBC, an Italian civil servant is being investigated for collecting his salary, but not working . . . for 15 years. If the suspected facts turn out to be true, the public employee at issue has taken goldbricking–the ability to shirk meaningful work on the job while still getting paid–to entirely new, heretofore unexplored levels.

According to the BBC story, the individual “worked” at a hospital in the Italian town of Catanzaro. He stopped showing up in 2005, and nevertheless received full pay for the next 15 years and was reportedly paid more than 500,000 Euros during that period. His case came to light as part of a police investigation into rampant absenteeism and payroll fraud in the Italian public sector. Six managers at the hospital also are subjects of the investigation.

So, how did this happen, exactly? It’s not entirely clear, but the BBC article indicates that the employee was going to be the subject of a disciplinary charge by his manager when he threatened the manager. She didn’t file the report and then retired, and her successor, and the hospital’s HR staff, never noticed the employee’s absence. In the meantime, he kept getting his paychecks.

This impressive goldbricking feat sounds like an episode from Seinfeld or The Sopranos, or the plot for Office Space II. One thing the BBC story doesn’t disclose is what, exactly, the employee’s job was supposed to be. The reader is left to wonder: what paying position could be deemed necessary to create in the first place, but could be so inconsequential that no one would notice it wasn’t being done?

One Of These Days . . . .

We’ve heard some really good things about Sicily. Richard went there a few years ago and raved about it — including Palermo, shown above. It looks scenic and interesting, doesn’t it? So we planned a trip there last May, with friends who have some family history and relatives in the area, to see Sicily for ourselves.

Alas, COVID hit, and our trip was postponed to the fall. Things weren’t better then, so the trip got postponed again, to this coming May. Then we got a call from the airline a few days ago, telling us that the flights on our journey to Italy were designated some kind of special “COVID flights.” We would need to bring evidence that we had taken a particular kind of test (that we would pay for ourselves, incidentally) within 72 hours of the flight and received negative results before we could board the first leg of the flight. And we would have to get tested again at airports as we made our way to Rome, and apparently need to follow a similar process before coming home after our tour of southern Italy and Sicily ended. The implication, of course, was that if any positive test results showed up along the way we’d be stuck where we were, unable to board a flight. And the idea of arranging for COVID testing in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language didn’t seem like much fun.

The process was obviously prudent, safe, and certainly understandable for the airline. And we’ve paid attention to State Department warnings and gotten shots to prevent various local diseases before traveling to other overseas locations in the past. Still, this process seemed different, because we would constantly be reminded of the brooding, ever-present threat of infection and the consequences if it happened to us. It’s not exactly the best way to enjoy a carefree trip to an exotic destination.

Then the other shoe dropped, and our trip was formally cancelled and deferred again — this time for a full year. Everyone hopes that, by 2022, the vaccine will have been fully distributed, the lurking COVID threat will have been resolved, and people will be able to travel again without all of the rigamarole of constant testing and ever-present masks and worry about potential exposure. I’m sure the people of Italy, where tourism is such an important part of the economy, are more eager for that than anyone.

We’re not alone in this; COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with spring travel plans for people throughout the world. I’m not complaining, really — it is what it is, we’ve had to cancel trips before for various reasons, and a masked, tested tour is not how you would ideally want to see a place like Sicily, anyway. But I do think about the recent retirees who made travel abroad an important part of their retirement plans. They’re sitting at home, watching the clock tick, wondering when they will actually be able to take the trips that they envisioned, and hoping that those trips will actually happen . . . one of these days.

Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

Forking Good Pizza

The citizens of New York City are a passionate, opinionated bunch. So, it is not a surprise that they reacted with outrage and ridicule when their new mayor, Bill de Blasio, was shown on TV eating pizza with a knife and fork.

That’s right — a knife and fork. De Blasio went to a well-known Staten Island pizzeria for a sit-down meal, started strong by ordering a sausage and smoked mozzarella pie, and then botched it by carving up his slice with a knife and spearing each piece with a fork. New Yorkers went bonkers, and the media wondered aloud whether de Blasio had lost some of his street cred as a result. For a guy who has presented himself as a two-fisted fighter for the little guy, eating pizza with a knife and fork seems awfully . . . prissy. It’s the sort of thing your great-aunt Gertrude might do with a look of stern disapproval on her face.

De Blasio defended his blunder by saying that in his “ancestral homeland” — his mother is Italian — people eat pizza with a knife and fork. Please! Everyone knows that pizza in its modern form is an American invention, and the American way of eating it is to grab a slice by hand and gobble it down. You end up with fingers that are covered in a greasy orange glaze, a mound of wadded napkins also stained orange, and a contented look on your face for having enjoyed the complete pizza experience. Eating pizza with a knife and fork is not only vaguely insulting, it also misses out on half the fun.

Good Lord! Does de Blasio use a knife and fork to eat a New York dirty water hot dog, or a doughnut? Imagine a Chicago pol using utensils to eat a dripping Italian beef sandwich, or the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love using a fork to finish off a Philly cheesesteak, or Memphis’ mayor using a knife and fork to eat a mound of ribs. It’s unthinkable!

We’ve already established that politicians should never be photographed eating a corn dog. De Blasio’s experience shows that they need to apply similar thoughtfulness when they sit down to enjoy a meal of classic American comfort food.

Spoon Envy

IMG_1445On our way over to our weekly Dinin’ Hall visit, I remarked to Kish — and special guest Russell — that I had a serious hankering for a brothy noodle meal with, perhaps, some pork thrown in for good measure.

Oh, did the food gods ever answer my hungry prayer!  When we arrived the Mashita Noodles cart was there, and cooking.  Their homemade Ramen noodles were exactly what I was craving.  And what intriguing options, too!  I went for the spicy noodles, the Mashita bacon broth, and the Kool-Aid pulled pork.  That’s right — Kool-Aid pulled pork.  Like every Mashita bowl, it came with a soft-boiled egg and some thin cucumber slices on top.  I had to check it out, and I was willing to run the risk that a large, sweaty, anthropomorphic beverage pitcher would come crashing through the wall while I was enjoying my meal

It was an inspired combination and stuffed to the gills with moist, fall-apart, infused-with-broth pulled pork — so good that I found myself thinking strange thoughts as I used chopsticks, and then a plastic soup spoon, to pound it down.  Thoughts like:  why can’t Dinin’ Hall provide larger plastic spoons so I can eat this even faster?  And:  why do they have to make these plastic bowls with the annoying little ridge ringing the bottom, which makes it difficult to get at every last, savory drop?

As I write this, I recognize that I’ve raved about virtually every food item I’ve consumed at Dinin’ Hall.  So be it.  Their food truck vetting process must be flawless.  I’m beginning to suspect that Dinin’ Hall is like Italy — you just can’t get a bad meal there.

Science Behind Bars

In Italy, failing to accurately predict an earthquake apparently is a crime.

Six scientists and a government official were convicted in an Italian court of multiple counts of manslaughter for giving a falsely reassuring statement about a possible earthquake and were sentenced to six years in prison.  The scientists were consulted after tremors were felt in L’Aquila.  At a meeting, they told officials that a major earthquake was not impossible, but it was not likely.  Unfortunately for the scientists, a few days later a massive earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people and leaving the area in ruins.  Prosecutors alleged that many of the casualties stayed in their homes due to the scientists’ advice and died when the buildings collapsed, whereas people who stayed outside survived the upheaval.

The astonishing verdict and sentence have been greeted with richly deserved outrage.  It also is an embarrassment for Italy, the home of the Renaissance and scientific pioneers like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s hard to imagine any modern, enlightened country concluding that scientists can be criminally punished for expressing their scientific opinion — particularly when it involves predicting something as obviously unpredictable as earthquakes.  What’s next for Italian prosecutors?  Criminal charges for inaccurate weather forecasters?

Hitler Wine In A Weird World

Although we sometimes might think so, America doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on nuts and their weird activities.  You can find evidence of the loony element in humanity across the globe.

Consider the fact that, in northern Italy, a winery makes and sells vintages with labels featuring Hitler on the label.  A couple from America found the wine being sold in a grocery store in Garda, Italy and reported it to the authorities.  Local prosecutors reacting to the report have opened an inquiry, but one prosecutor noted that the only possible crime that could have been committed through the sale of “Fuhrerwein” was the crime of “apologizing for fascism” — because Italy made “apologizing for fascism” a crime in 1952.

So, a winery bottles and distributes what is undoubtedly their worst vintage in bottles with Hitler’s pictures, no doubt hoping that they can sell the swill to fascist sympathizers or tourists who will buy the bottles and take them home to show friends as odd curiosities.  The grocery store owner, for his part, says he views the wine as some kind of historical artifact and stocks it, even though he doesn’t sell much, so that people will remember the bad things that Hitler did.  Sure!  The wine probably is stored in the “dictators and genocidal maniacs” aisle of the store, near the Mao Zedong popcorn and the Josef Stalin laundry detergent.

And, perhaps strangest of all, we learn that Italy made apologizing for fascism a crime in 1952.  Perhaps if it weren’t illegal to remember the horrors that were produced by fascist ideology, and express regret and ask forgiveness for them, Italians would have a better understanding of the idiocy and offensiveness of peddling consumer products with Hitler’s image in the first place.

Saving The Trevi Fountain

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain.  It is a magnificent attraction, with its depiction of Neptune and sea horses and other sea creatures atop craggy rocks.  When we visited Rome during a very hot summer some years ago, the Trevi Fountain was a delightful place to sit, enjoy the spray of the cool water, and appreciate the beauty while taking a break from sightseeing.

Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain is badly in need of repair.  Earlier this year, some pieces of the 250-year-old fountain — commissioned by one of those civic-minded Popes, Clement XII — broke off.  Fortunately, an Italian mineral water company, Acqua Claudia, has agreed to foot the $250,000 cost of the immediately needed restorations.  Whether funding will be located for the more long-term repair work on the fountain that is desperately needed is another question.

The condition of the Trevi Fountain is  symptomatic of a larger problem in countries with significant cultural sites.  Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name just a few, are terribly cash-strapped.  It’s hard to believe that such countries, which reap huge economic benefits from tourism, would neglect the sites that attract those tourists in the first place, but paying to maintain crumbling monuments, old buildings, fountains, and churches, is pushing budgets to the limit.

I hope that other companies step up, as Acqua Claudia has, to help the Italian government maintain Italy’s many irreplaceable architectural and artistic landmarks.  Generations to come should have the chance to see the Trevi Fountain in all its glory, rather than a heap of dust and rubble.

Adverse To Austerity

Elections have occurred in Greece, France, and Italy in the past few days, and voters have cast their ballots against the austerity measures that were imposed to try to put a brake on the European debt crisis and, in Greece and France, have thrown out the governments that agreed to those measures.

In France, the flamboyant Nikolas Sarkozy was replaced by a Socialist, Francois Hollande, who says he seeks an alternative to austerity and vows to increase taxes and spending.  In Greece, voters deserted the parties that had dominated the political landscape for decades and splintered their support among a broad range of parties, including the disturbingly neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”.  The same trends were seen in local elections in Italy.

No one should be surprised by these results.  Austerity is hard; Europeans are soft.  They’ve become accustomed to rich benefits, lots of vacation time, a short work week, and generous pensions that allow them to retire at an early age.  The problem is that their lifestyle has been financed by debt, and now people are only willing to lend them more if they agree to actions that will bring their fiscal house in order.  The fact that Greek voters and French voters don’t like the austerity doesn’t change that result.  Why would you want to lend money to someone who hasn’t shown the responsibility or willpower necessary to pay you back?

This likely means that the Eurozone concept will fail.  Appeals for continental unity only go so far, and hardworking and thrifty German and Dutch voters aren’t going to support the unrestrained spending of the Greek and Italian and Portuguese governments forever.  The Euro will end as a unified currency, the responsible northern European countries will return to their highly valued local currencies, and the southern European countries will slink back to their devalued and debased drachmas and lire, look around for new saps to loan them money with no hope of being repaid, and find there are no takers.  At that point, the current days of “austerity” might begin to look pretty good, in retrospect.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for America.