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Friday, September 20, 2013


You reach a point when your moleskin's been cut to ribbons, you're nearly out of aspirin and your underwear's been washed a bunch of times in the hotel bidet.
You see yellow train timetables when your eyes are closed and say "Me scusi" to the American tourists in the station when you accidentally wheel your bags over their toes.
When you start losing track of who you are, where you are and why you are, it's time for a vacation from the vacation. No monuments, no agenda, no guidebooks.

There's no better place to do that than the countryside of central Italy. We're currently ensconced in a stone cottage overlooking rolling valleys of olives and vinyards. Cicadas are scratching away in the umbrella pines and the sun is sliding behind the spires of distant hill towns. Up in the main house the cook is making pasta and roasting pork in pomegranate sauce, while the padrone is pouring Scotch for a pre-dinner drink with my father and my husband. My mother's in the bedroom going over her notes on meals and small churches for her next blog post.
There's nothing big here. You can jump in the car and drive on roads that twist and bound over the hills to Orvieto or Tuscania or Civita de Bagnoregio.

Or not.

Under my feet the the soil is undoubtedly full of Rennaissance coins and Roman columns and smiling Etruscan tombs. I'm content just knowing they're there.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wherefore Art Thou, Verona?

It seemed like a simple enough idea: Take the fast train along the toes of the Alps from Milan to Verona while my parents are off having lunch with old friends. It's only a little over an hour, and the little town's a sweet Renaissance fairyland with a Roman amphitheater and settings at which tourists like to imagine the events of "Romeo and Juliet" actually happened.

But after oversleeping due to an over large and over late dinner, we arrived at Milan's looming Central Station with about twenty minutes to catch the Freccia Bianca, the "White Arrow" fast train (not the "Really Fast" train, but the "Fairly Fast" one.) We skittered across the marble floors to the bank of ticket machines and bravely thrust in the credit card. Lights flashed, then went blank. A synthetic female voice, generically Mediterranean like Sophia Loren as HAL from "2001," purred "Please-a remove-a your card-a." Steve repeated this operation enough times that I began to suspect he was rather enjoying "Sophia's" dulcet tones, but no tickets were forthcoming. I finally had the bright idea to use cash. Sophia kindly informed us that all seats on the Fairly Fast train were now sold out.

We went for the next train, which was not fast at all.

Squeezing ourselves into window seats, we were quickly joined by two teenaged Italian girls. As the train slid out of the station, the talking started. It was not to let up for a moment of the journey.

Despite many visits to the Italy, the lack of opportunities to practice Italian in Seattle means I release whatever tenuous grasp I have on the language the minute the doors shut on the plane for the flight home.

So for two hours Steve and I were mere boulders lodged in the middle of a rushing whitewater of teenaged Italian babble.

The astute reader will have noticed I wrote "two hours" rather than "one." The Not Fast at All train stopped.

A lot.


Outer Milan.

Way Outer Milan, With Slightly Less Grafitti and Fig Trees Sprouting in Cracks in the Platform.

Unknown Industrial Town With Cement Factory.

Unknown Industrial Town With Scrap Metal Recycling Plant.


Lake Garda.

Subdivision on the Other Side of Lake Garda.

Through it all the torrent of words kept coming. If one girl stopped to draw breath or take a swig from her bottle of aqua minerale the other leapt in with a handoff worthy of an Olympic relay team. Sometimes they talked on their telefoninos, sometimes to the boys sitting in the seats across the aisle. But never did it end.

At last the train arrived in Verona. We bolted for the ticket machines and purchased evening seats on the Fairly Fast Train back to Milan.

With a truncated day in Verona I can't say we really saw much of the town. We ate pizza and drank German beer near a corner of the Roman arena, but didn't have time to cross the stone bridge over the Adige river to see the perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater where plays are still performed.

We joined the river of tourists flowing past the luxury clothing and antique shops, breaking off into little tributaries down side streets. We saw a wedding outside the cathedral.

I took the usual pictures of doors and shop windows.

Then we trudged back to the station.

As the Fairly Fast Train skimmed through the fields and factories and the sky turned from pink to violet to black, I reflected that Shakespeare, who never visited Italy, certainly got the "never running smooth" part right.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Milan plays Chicago to Rome's Washington, DC. Like America's capital, Rome is a pile of white marble buildings full of squabbling politicians. Milan is all muscular skyscrapers and business. Its colder, grayer climate is better suited to knocking back a quick espresso than a three-hour limoncello-marinated lunch.

Italy's second city is a double-shot of activity, racing in spike heels and Gucci loafers toward the next big thing. No time to glance up from the cellphone at the Art Deco buildings or the shimmering modern skyscrapers.

Milan does in fact have an ancient history, having been settled by Celtic tribes before the foundation of the Roman Empire. But the city's penchant for the "do-over" blossomed early. In the 4th Century AD the emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to "Mediolanum" to be closer to the ever-more-restive frontier. After the empire's fall, Milan changed hands repeatedly between the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Spanish, and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Much of the city was bombed to rubble by the Allies during World War II, and immigrants from the less-prosperous south flooded in after the fighting ended. Milan grew prosperous as an industrial power and world center of clothing and furniture design, and the population never looked back.

To visit the city in the days leading up to Fashion Week is to see the Milanese at their best. Always impeccably dressed, the locals whirl past storklike models posing for pictures in front of the Duomo, the city's mountainous cathedral. The high-fashion shops on the nearby streets are a frenzy of nervous activity as retailers race to outdo each other with ever-more-outrageous window displays.

Dress made of fashion design sketches:

A Formula One racecar:

Chocolate shoes:

But when it all gets to be too much, the best thing to do is escape up 250 steps (or by elevator if your high-heeled boots aren't meant for stair-climbing) to Duomo's roof where you can wander among the stonework filligree and serene statues and gaze beyond the skyscraper to the distant Alps.


Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Last Tangle With Italy

Sometimes there is no story.

Sure, the experts will tell you you're nothing without a cracking good yarn; that travel writing is all about the hairsbreadth escape from the rampaging elephant in Tanzania, or the little old lady in Krakow whose heartrending act of kindness changed your worldview forever. No doubt that's true, and I've had a few hairsbreadth escapes from rampaging little old ladies in my day. But I've also had memorable moments just sitting in a piazza drinking beer and breathing in air filled with diesel exhaust and the dust of centuries.
This trip to Italy is likely to be heavier on beer and piazzas than National Geographic moments. But it's my blog, so sue me.

My parents, now they're the ones with the stories. They lived in Rome for eleven eventful years in the 1980s and '90s. They sailed on a boat that nearly sank off Anzio and watched opera in the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. They were interrogated (and released) by the carabinieri under posted organization chart showing the Pope on top. My mother once slipped on a subway platform and nearly had her legs severed by a graffiti-crusted train car before being pulled to safety by strangers. My dad killed vipers on the golf course and saved his friend's life with CPR when he collapsed with a heart attack on the fairway.

My parents explored every nook and cranny of Italy and most of Europe, read mountains of books and made a small army of friends from all over the world.
I did none of those things. I flew to their apartment every year at summer or Christmas from law school or this job or that job. I slept off jet lag in the guest bedroom. I unpacked bags of aspirin and Life cereal or anything else that was expensive or in short supply in Rome. I sat on the terrace drinking espresso and feeding crumbs to the lizards and blackbirds and listened to the latest stories. While my mother was at work my dad and I would drive the Alfa out to the Alban Hills to drink white wine in a nameless hill town and solve all the world's problems.

Then I'd fly back home with a suitcase full of my favorite candy and flea-market cashmere sweaters and resume life under Seattle's comforter of clouds.

My parents retired to Edmonds, Washington, which is nice but not at all like Rome. So the went back regularly to revisit old haunts and friends. I tagged along when I could, sitting at the trattoria table pushing strands of spaghetti pomodoro around with my fork, engrossed in tumbling rapids of tales recounted by my mother, father and friends.

By my count this is my eighteenth trip to Italy. By my parents' account it's going to be their last. I've been beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to share their adventure, and I'm delighted to accompany them on their last lap around the Italian peninsula. Sure, I have my own stories to tell, but this time I'm just happy to be a part of theirs.