Sunday, July 26, 2015

My Return to Rome! Il mio ritorno a Roma!

 ROME DIARY II Sunday July 26, 2015
Low Clouds, then Sunny 85°F/29°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
   Not yet! But, soon! (4 Agosto)

Il Colosseo!
For me, the logistics of a trip like this are like planning for the D-Day invasion. I love to travel, but
  I’m not sure which part of traveling that I dislike more – getting ready to go, or the long flight to get to my destination. And, even with all the experience I’ve had with traveling over the years, I still feel the same anxieties of my very first trip overseas. My days as a newsman with a “go bag” by the foot of the bed are long past. But, at least I have the experience of four previous trips to Rome, one of them when I lived there for a while. Then too, there is the not-inconsequential bonus of having son who’s lived in Rome for the last 15 years and whose wife was born there.
MikeBo's -Junior and Senior
   This trip, I’m catching an Alitalia flight, LA non-stop to Rome. I think I’ve voiced my unhappinessLufthansa when I read that Pope Francis flies Alitalia. I read that and recalled the super efficiency and service of the Vatican Post office. I mailed a handful of postcards at the gift shop in Piazza San Pietro, and they beat me back to the states by a month, not the other way around, as is normal. So, I thought to myself that if the same angels that carry air mail from Rome are handling Alitalia flights with The Holy Father across the Atlantic, I will be in very good hands. Of course, I remembered only after Laura booked my ticket and we paid for it, that Fiumicino Airport had been strike-bound when I landed in Rome the last time. I had to walk more than a mile from the terminal to meet Mike and Laura because the roads in and out of the airport were blocked by a picket line. No worries, though. The Rome newspapers always publish the local union strike schedules, and, Italians being Italians manage to coordinate their labor actions so that the public is not too terribly inconvenienced.   
at US carriers in other posts so I won’t dwell on the subject. But the European air carriers are still the symbols of a nation’s pride, not just a cash cow for corporate types. I was swayed away from my usual choice of
  Italy is a very popular destination for Americans, who already have strong family ties to “the old country.” Not only that, but Italians have a great way of making a visitor feel welcome. Granted, their innate hospitality is stretched a bit these days by all those folks fleeing death and devastation in North Africa and the Middle East. But, I’ve always felt right at home – in Rome. Just like I feel at home in San Francisco or New York City.  They are big towns with great neighborhoods.
Metro Madonna - Bella Alba They offer tours in just about every city in Europe. Their prices are competitive and you can avoid the long lines at the most popular attractions. As for getting around the city, when I’m not catching a ride with Mike or Laura, I head for the nearest bus stop or Metro station. Imagine my surprise when a friend sent me a picture from one of the subway stations, and Alba’s face was on one of the ad posters. She manages the gift shop at the Basilica San Clemente and the Capuchin ‘Bone Chapel’. I met her during one of Mike’s tours in Rome last time, and we’ve been sending messages back and forth on Facebook ever since. I’ll talk more about Alba in future postings of Rome Diary II.
My handy travel hints include a phone call to your bank. There are a couple of reasons for that. For
Don't Leave Home
 Without It! 
one you should let the bank know where you are going, so they don’t start picking up your charges in faraway places and cancel your ATM and credit cards. Another good thing is to order local currency to put in your wallet before you leave the U.S. That’ll save you the time and expense of converting US dollars into Euros as you travel. I’ll take along a few travelers’ checks, as a backup. But these days, in an era of interstellar on-line banking, you can simply trot over to a nearby ATM and get Euros the same way that the Italians do. For sightseeing, I suggest the company that Mike works for, City Wonders (
  Right next to your passport, on the table where you are putting things to take on your trip, you will need two small books. The first is Rick Steves’ pocket Italian phrase book and dictionary. The other is Beppe Severgnini’s La Bella Figura – A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. You should study both of them before you head for the airport.
  Buon Viaggio­, Italian for Travelers. If you live in the Sacramento area, you should check it out. At the very least you should have a phrase book. I happen to be a fan of Rick Steves’, the guy on PBS. (No payola involved). Laura bought me La Bella Figura while I was living in Rome last year. It’s funny before you leave for Italy, and, after you’re there for a while – it’s flat-out hysterical. Italians, especially Romans, definitely have a unique approach to life.
Read it on the Plane!
Wherever you go in this world, you should learn at least a few words of your destination’s language. Long before my first visit to Rome, I took Patrizia’s class at the Italian Cultural Center in Sacramento -.
  Severgnini’s primer on the Italian mind covers a wide range of topics. But because Mike is now driving like a native Roman and not a Californian, I paid particular attention to Beppe’s thoughts on Italians behind the wheel. Mike and Laura had already explained that Italian drivers have their own interpretation of the rules of the road. A red light does not necessarily mean STOP. Rather, it means you should take your foot off the gas while you make up your mind whether or not to proceed through the intersection. A stop sign in Italy is like a YIELD sign in America, and a YIELD sign means GO, if there’s no one in your path! Then too, there is Roman highway design to consider. The city thoroughfares were laid out almost 2,000 years before traffic lights were invented, so just about every intersection is controlled by a round-about or traffic circle rather than a light. This leads to some very interesting merging techniques. And, as Severgnini points out in his epilogue – pedestrian crossings are there for decoration only. In a restaurant, you can have a glass of wine with lunch and no one will think you are an alcoholic. Oh yes, and this is important! It’s not in the book. It’s my own observation: the family dog is just that – a member of the family. People in Rome bring their dogs out to dinner with them. Americans go ballistic if they see someone else’s pooch off its leash, and bringing your poodle into a restaurant, “Fuggedahbouddit!” Finally, on this subject, Beppe observes that In Italy, motorists, small children, priests and good-looking women do whatever they want to! I’m certainly down with that.
©Mike Botula 2015

Friday, July 17, 2015

Buon Viaggio, MikeBo!

ROME DIARY 2 Friday July 17, 2015
Partly Cloudy 86°F/30°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
   My travel plans are beginning to look….well….ORGANIZED. Even though I haven’t made this trip in a year and a half, it’s been on my mind ever since I got back from my last trip to Rome, and as
Rome - The Forum by Night
my old pal Giotto di Bondone, the Italian painter and architect said about 700 years ago…
"Roma è la città di echi, la città delle illusioni e la città di desiderio".
 “Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of desire.”  
   But, then an Italian painter and architect would have said that back around 1337. And, whaddayahknow? If he were here today, he’d look around, smile knowingly and say that it’s still true. I’m the type of traveler who starts thinking about the trip for weeks before I get on the plane. Now, that I’m at two weeks before lift-off, I’m starting to pull things together. I’m not packing yet, but I have the single suitcase that I’m checking through out of the closet and I’m gathering the ingredients for it on my dining room table. Since August is Rome’s hottest month, my wardrobe will feature cotton short-sleeve shirts comfy khaki slacks and shorts. August! What was I thinking? Well, I wanted to get back as soon as I could swing it, and that happens to be August. Maybe I can stake out a nice cool catacomb.
  One thing I have NOT done is put together an Italian travel itinerary that locks me in to a set schedule for the whole time I’m there. I just don’t roll that way. On my last trip to Rome, I had planned on a standard two week holiday. But, that two week vacation turned into an almost three month adventure. After imposing on my son and daughter-in-law for three weeks, they helped me get a place of my own for the rest of my stay. That’s when I became a true expatriate, albeit for just a little over a month. To tell the truth, I was even thinking how nice it would be to send for my dog and make a career out of being Italian. But, the harsh realities of long term visas and the fact that my HMO doesn’t operate out of California brought me right back to reality. So, the best I can hope for is a situation where I can make these extended visits.
  Based on my experiences with international travel, I usually recommend a structured tour for first time travelers. A typical Italian vacation can start in Rome and proceed from the heel up to the Swiss border and beyond: Rome, Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Cinque Terre, and Bologna, Milano and Venice and a wide assortment of other destinations. That’s the most expensive way. For other trips, I suggest a more flexible, independent plan where you book your tours or hire a guide as you go. I’ll be writing more about those “how-to’s” as I travel around Italy on this trip. For now, I just wanted warn everyone in my path that I’m coming back. Oh! Did I mention I'm flying Alitalia? That's what the Pope flies. Non-stop from LA to Roma on angels' wings.
   And what a huge difference in my attitude this time. Two years ago, I was. really feeling very incapacitated by some serious health issues, but thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of my new doctors along with my own determination to get well, I’m literally back on my feet. The biggest contributor in the upsurge in my once youthful vigor was the right shoulder joint replacement that Dr. Sodl did on me back in March. As we looked at the X-rays together during my last checkup, he whistled and chirped, “This is the best one of these that I’ve ever done.” I was pretty tickled myself, and I was quick to share my feelings with him. “Doctor, I’m thrilled to hear you say how happy YOU are with the outcome. I’m very pleased! No more pain. Lots of gain.  I’d much rather hear you say that, than OOPS!”
Laura, MikeBo, Michael
Mike and Laura are already talking to me about things do when I return. Laura has already added a visit to Venice to the travel plan. We can take the high-speed train from Rome and be there in just a few hours. Then there’s Paestum, an ancient city in the far south which boasts some spectacular Greek temple ruins. Of course, a traveller could spend a life time just in Rome and never see the same historical attraction twice, but I will want to visit the Galleria Borghese again. And, I want to see Michelangelo’s David. The masterpiece was on tour the last time I was there. And, since Michael is playing in a new band called No Funny Stuff, I can get out on the town and go listen to them play.  Oh, and one nice thing about having an expatriate son who is not only a musician but a professional tour guide, is that I can tag along with him at work, and take any one of an assortment of tours of Rome. Mike works for a company called City Wonders, (Subtle Plug!) which is a good name for any traveler to Europe to keep in mind. I have no set schedule. We Botula’s tend to do a lot of ad-libbing when we travel.
  I’m also thinking about a couple of European side trips. One of my old girl friends from my teen years now lives in Amsterdam. Not having seen Joan in about 50 years, and never having been in Amsterdam, I’m keen to make that trip. And, somewhere along the way…and this is a biggie! My
More Botulas: Jiri, Jeffrey, Jiri Sr.
cousin Bernie’s grandson, Jeff has just returned from the Czech Republic where he met some distant relatives; a father and son also named Botula. I’ve always wanted to visit Czechoslovakia where my grandfather came from. And this may be my chance.
  Each time I visit, I seem to want to stay longer. Maybe I could become a full time expatriate like my son, Michael. Junior grew up in Southern California, but when he went to London after high school in 1999 to work as a musician and sound engineer he met a pretty girl in Rome, and now, Laura is his wife. This trip will also help take my mind off the move my daughter and her family has just made. Her whole kit and caboodle has up and moved to TEXAS. Thank goodness for Skype, but I’d rather go back to Italy. Why Rome? Well let me share a short quote from Mary Platt Parmele’s 1908 book A Short History of Rome and Northern Italy:  “Rome did not lay the cornerstone of modern civilization. She IS its cornerstone.”
See you on the road! I’ll be blogging and posting on Facebook et al.
So, more Rome Diary 2's coming up soon!

©Mike Botula 2015

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What were you doing on July 8, 1944?

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Wednesday July 8, 2015
Partly Cloudy 75°F/24°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
  Now that I am firmly ensconced in the researching and writing for my personal history project, my brain - today at least - is firmly nestled in the war year of July 8, 1944. Then, it was a Saturday.
LST 920 - First Time at Sea 1944
The main reason for this is my chronicle about my father’s adventures in World War II. I’ve been tracking him from the day he got his Navy commission in 1943 right up until his return from the war in December, 1945. The reasons I’m doing this are varied and numerous. But, as an old newsman, I think I know a good story when I see one. And, I see a good story here. The fact that it involves my own father is a huge bonus. My kids, grand-kids and our cousins are hanging on every word I write. Charlie Botula was part of their family history, too. But, Charlie’s story is also the story of a lot of other families who had sons and daughters, husbands and wives, aunts and uncles and cousins and friends who went off to make the world safe for democracy in World War II. Sounds noble, perhaps, but I’m mostly curious.
   On July 8th, 1944, my dad’s ship, LST 920 had just been commissioned. I actually remember that, because I was there at Hingham, Massachusetts three weeks before with my mother for the top-deck
Commissioning-June 17, 1944
ceremony. By July 8th, LST 920 was cruising around Chesapeake Bay on its “shakedown” cruise, practicing beach landings at Cornfield Harbor, Maryland. It was part of the education for the crew of ex-landlubbers in the fine art of invading enemy shores. And it wouldn’t be too long before they would be doing the real thing.
   But, as I did my morning reading of the old ship’s log, I got to wondering what else was going on that day. Interesting stuff popped onto my screen, when I Googled July 8, 1944:
   The Chicago Tribune was reporting that President Roosevelt had sketched a gloomy picture of the war in China, but did tell reporters that the Japanese have stretched their supply lines dangerously thin elsewhere.
  The White House Visitor’s Log noted a busy day for President Roosevelt. He wheeled into the Oval Office at 11:15 a.m. for his first meeting, with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Fifteen minutes later, he ushered General Charles de Gaulle into his office for a meeting that lasted almost two hours. (I was thinking how I would have loved being a “fly on the wall” for that meeting). FDR and Charles de Gaulle were giants in that era. At 12:55 p.m. FDR welcomed Medal of Honor Recipient Sergeant Charles E. Kelly and two others into the Oval Office for a chat. Kelly, who was from my own father’s home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the legendary “Commando Kelly” of World War 2 fame. He earned the Medal of Honor saving his unit in vicious combat in Italy, killing 40 of the enemy in the process.
Eleanor, Anna Roosevelt and John Jr.
A short time later after saying goodbye to Sergeant Kelly, FDR left the office and met his daughter Anna for a picnic on the White House lawn under a nearby magnolia tree. The White House log doesn’t say whether or not Anna brought FDR’s young grandson, John Boettiger, Jr. with her, but I’d wager that she did. FDR was above all, a family man.
Ann Frank
  While my dad was practicing invasion landings on that Maryland beach, the war in France was moving more and more inland from the English Channel. The British, under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the hero of El Alamein, had launched Operation Charnwood, a new offensive centering on Caen. A full month after D-Day and fighting in Normandy was heavy.
  And, in the Netherlands, a young girl named Ann Frank wrote in her diary that on that very afternoon, a member of their family had received a "call-up" from the SS. The “call up” meant imminent deportation to a Nazi death camp. Ann details her family’s activities as they got ready to go into hiding.
  This all turned into an interesting digression for this writer. I had originally planned on spending this day focusing just on what my dad was doing 71 years ago today. But, then, curiosity got the better of me.  

©Mike Botula 2015

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Birthday, Uncle Sam! You’re 239 Years Young

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Saturday July 4, 2015
Cloudy 63°F/17°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
"Thar she goes" Thomas Hart Benton
   This year, my Fourth of July celebration will be in the tranquil zone. Retirement communities tend toward the quiet side anyway. Plus, Dana, Jason and the kids – Jacob, Jessica, Jordan and Jaydan are now firmly planted in Texas, a place that I prefer just to fly over. No, I’ll probably join some of my neighbors by the pool and chatter on about the “Good Old Days,” with some good folks who are even older than me. I also plan on digging back in to my long term project. No, I’m not just reading a book.  I’m writing one. And, as I got to thinking about this Independence Day, I began to think about another July 4th some 70 years ago. With that, I said a quiet prayer of thanks that Don Reed suggested that I get a copy of the log book from my father’s ship from the National Archives. That’s what brings me the material for today’s blog: the July 4th my father observed back in 1944. No mere fireworks that day. They were using real ordnance back then.

Ensign Don Reed 1944
I’ve been referring to the LST 920’s ships log frequently ever since the FedEx guy dropped all six pounds of it on my doorstep ten years ago. “You’ll get a kick out of it,” Reed said. “It’s mostly course headings and navigation coordinates, but, as Executive Officer, your dad had to sign every page to make sure the other officers were doing their job, before the Captain reviewed it. Don was right. I had ordered only the period between June 17, 1944 and January 1, 1945 because I was focusing on the U boat attack on his convoy in August 1944. First thing I had to do was get the document copied and re-sized so it would fit in a regular 3-ring binder. Have you ever tried to get the guy at Kinko’s to Xerox 350 pages of anything where each page is stamped “U.S. NAVY: SECRET” and “CONFIDENTIAL: U.S. NAVY DOCUMENT” in big blog letters on every page? Fun stuff! But, I did it.
               So, this year as I while away the holiday at the Old Folks home, I let my mind wander back 0000 hours 4 July 1944. Ensign Harold H. Willcox, USNR who is about to by relieved by Ensign John Waters, USNR, notes in the LST 920's ship’s log:
Anchored in Cornfield Harbor, MD in berth Able 4.  Twenty fathoms of chain on deck. Anchor tending up and down, slight strain. Bearings checked every half hour and recorded in Bearing Book, hourly. All secure about the ship and bearings checked every half hour.
At 0400 Willcox is relieved by Waters as Officer of the Deck, and the beat goes on. I think to myself
Ensign John Waters
that having read every single page of this logbook, I’m beginning to feel like a member of the crew. (But, I know better than to think I’d be an officer. That’s my dad’s job. [“Sailor! Don’t ever forget!  You SALUTE when you see an officer! EVERY TIME, DAMMIT!” And, I would quickly snap to attention and muster up the snappiest salute in my life. “YES SIR, DAD, SIR!”]
Lieutenant "Dad"
  Cornfield Harbor is along a peninsula in Maryland that juts into Chesapeake Bay at the confluence of the Potomac River, not far from Washington, D.C., just north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. During the war it was used by the Navy to practice amphibious landings. FDR could almost follow the action from his window at the White House. It was pretty isolated then. The bridge wasn’t built until the 1950s. So, dad and the crew spent the day trying to imitate a beached whale, along with LST 1001 and a few others, playing war games. I would imagine that, if the Germans had ever gotten lucky enough to invade that part of the east coast, the local Maryland and Virginia residents would have yawned and written the whole deal off as the US Navy, practicing again.
  On the chance that you don’t know how an LST works, here’s the deal: The Landing Ship Tank is really pretty much like 328 feet of vehicle tunnel with bow doors and a ramp at the bow with a big anchor attached to a thousand feet of chain at the stern. My dad and his crew of landlubbers from the coal country of Pennsylvania and West Virginia were spending this Fourth of July learning the tricks of the trade that they would need at Utah Beach.  So, as the ship approached the beach, she’d drop anchor just off shore and continue on to the beach, reeling out chain as she went. When the ship hit the beach, engines would stop, the bow doors would open, the ramp would be lowered, and the trucks, tanks and troops on board would “hit the beach.” Once that was done, the LST 920 would power up and winch itself back off the beach and head back to port for another load. Landing exercises, fire drills, equipment repairs and adjustments-the crew of the LST 920 had a busy day. No mention of picnics or cold beer or fireworks at this beach party.

Family Portrait
              In fact, this would pretty much be the ship’s routine for the next several weeks, getting ready to join the war. There would be more “shaking down” for the ship and its crew before picking up a secret cargo to be divided between the 920 and its sister ship the LST 921. These would be busy days before joining their convoy off Nova Scotia and making the long, monotonous journey across the North Atlantic. (Day after day, log entries note the presence of LST 702 being dead ahead in the convoy formation).  For the men aboard ship it would be a long year and many new adventures ahead before they returned to their families. And for some, there would be no homecoming. That’s why, on national holidays like this, while everyone around me is partying, I always take a moment to remind myself and the people around me that the reason that we can enjoy the holiday and the freedom of America today is because a lot of other Americans spent their Fourth of July fighting to defend it.
©Mike Botula 2015