Friday, August 28, 2015

You Meet the Nicest People On a City Wonders Tour!

Fast Train to Ostia Antica
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Sunny and Pleasant 86°F/30°C in Roma
The OTHER Mike Botula!
   As our tour group was forming up in front of the Metro station at Piramidé, I found myself musing Gee, Mikey! You’ve been here almost a month, now. Beginning to feel almost a native are you? And, just as that “thought balloon” was forming, the nice lady from Atlanta turned to me and said, Pahdon me, suh! But, do y’all speak English? Now, I could have been a total wise-ass, and replied, Non parlo l’Inglese! And I have done that in Spanish, French, German and Italian. But, this lady was well mannered, and had inquired in that warm Southern drawl that had Georgia peach written all over it. Yes, ma’am. I do speak English. Can I help you? I had remembered, too, that my son, Michael, was our guide for this trip to the ancient Roman seaport of Ostia Antica. So, even by association, I also represented City Wonders Tours. My word! You not only speak English, but you speak it beautifully! Ah can’t detect a smidgen of any accent. Wheah are y’all from? The lady from Atlanta had just made my day. She had mistaken me for an Italian. California, ma’am! Southern California to be exact.

40 Minutes from The Coliseum!
  I’ll get to today’s ancient ruins in just a moment. But, first, I want to take note of the fact that Ancient Roma, founded on April 21st 753 BC by Romulus and Remus, is one of the world’s top attractions for American tourists. Chances are, when you come to Rome, you will run into someone who lives right down the street from you. Or is from the same home town. Or knows someone you used to work with. So, if you really want to get away from home and those pesky relatives or neighbors, book a flight to Baluchistan!
  Now, back to today’s ancient ruins, as we visit the ancient lost city of Ostia Antica, which is a quick light rail excursion from the center of Rome to a point near il Fiume Tevere, the Tiber River, and the Mediterranean. Not long after April 21st 753 AD, as Rome began to expand, it began trading with folks up and down the length of the Italian peninsula and with the coastal cities the length and breadth of Mare Nostrum. Ostia Antica, or ancient Ostia became Rome’s major seaport, until Rome fell, the Tiber changed course, the shoreline moved away and the place became a ghost town. Then the city was covered up by the mud and silt from the Tiber over the ensuing centuries. Eventually, it was Benito Mussolini, attempting to recapture the grandeur of ancient Rome, who focused a massive public works project to restore the ancient port city. Today, Ostia Antica is a spectacular example of the glory of the Roman Empire. And, instead of a full day bus trip to Pompeii, the spectacle is but a half hour train trip from the heart of Rome.
Ostia's "Forest Lawn"
  A short walk from the Ostia Antica train stop brings you to the ancient city’s necropolis, just outside the main gate. Here is where some Californian no doubt got the bright idea for Forest Lawn. It is Ostia Antica’s City of the Dead, the cemetery, which by Roman law is located outside the city so the living can avoid the odors, and the smoke from funeral pyres, and also avoid the shadow people or ghosts that haunt every cemetery. Michael has loaned all of us a small wireless receiver and headset, so we can better hear his commentary and still wander away from our intrepid guide to better explore the city. It is a fascinating place, and my son has told me a number of times that it’s one of his favorite tours. Now, it’s also become one of mine, too.
  In a total role reversal, these tours of the Italian countryside, have become for Michael and I, a sort of Take Your Father to Work Day!  When he was little, I’d wait until the news director was out of town, and as a special treat take him or his sister Dana with me as I combed Los Angeles for top stories as a field reporter for KTLA. That way Mike and Dana could rush home at the end of my shift and call their friends so they could tell them first what stories would be on Hal Fishman’s Ten O’clock News. Now, that my little boy is all growed up and working in one of the most fascinating cities in the world, I’m more than content to tag along and go to work with him. As his dad, it’s a treat for me to watch him in action. And, I have no compunctions about plugging his company, City Wonders!
  So, with a gentle lurch as our train pulled out and Mike’s standard comment that it had left on time, thanks to Benito Mussolini, we head out of Rome bound for the ancient port of Ostia Antica. On the way Michael regaled his audience with his own spiel about the history of the city we would soon be walking through. The wireless headsets give his comments the sound and feel of a personal conversation in a “back home” American accent– one to one – with your personal tour guide.
Lasagna Topping - Jupiter's Temple

   In Rome, one is surrounded by history. And, in these parts, history runs deep. Michael likes to tell his audiences that Rome is a historical lasagna- layer upon layer of history. Where modern day Americans simply replace every building more than twenty years old. (Or so it seems). The ancients simply built on top of whatever was there. It’s not uncommon in these parts to find buildings that have been continuously occupied for a thousand years or more. A walk along just about any street in Rome will put you twenty or thirty feet above the street level in Julius Caesar’s time. In Ostia Antica, for example, a walk along the main street is like a trip nowadays to the Mall of America. There are restaurants, and markets, granaries and bakeries with goods brought in from the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, all flowing through the bustling port city we are visiting today. For entertainment, there are amphitheaters whose acoustics are still so excellent that a song or dramatic line done on stage in a whisper can be heard far away in the nosebleed seats. At one end of the forum, the Temple of Jupiter reaches into the sky behind a massive altar. Jupiter is the Roman name for the Greek God Zeus. The ancient Romans, it seems, were not above a little repackaging on a lot of fronts. 
MikeBo Meets a Native! Valentina
  As we began our walk through the Necropolis, the city’s cemetery, I noticed an attractive young woman with a professional grade Nikon camera taking more than tourist caliber snapshots. I had spent too long as a newsman, and later as a press secretary, not to recognize another pro in the field. This gal was good. Her focus was on our guide, and the smiling tourists who were obviously enjoying themselves in these ancient surroundings. (Oh! And, did I mention that she was gorgeous?) A little while later, as we walked to the next point of interest, I asked Michael if he had a company photographer along for some publicity shots or if he had a travel writer in his group, ghost writing for Rick Steves. Nothing like that, Pop! Her name is Valentina. She’s one of my students! She’s not a travel writer. She just likes to take pictures.  I was incredulous. And, what, pray tell can a fellow like you, teach someone like her? He smiled. English, Dad! Remember what I told you about my other job – teaching English to Italian business people at multinational corporations? Well, Valentina works for one of my clients. With that, Michael introduced us. Fortunately for me, Michael has done a better job of teaching Valentina English than I have done learning Italian. She had come along on the tour to practice her photography and to see how Michael handles a multilingual tour group which helps fulfill her language credit. And, in my conversation with the two of them, a plan began to form in my feeble mind – I will find a way to move to Rome, and get better acquainted with my new surroundings and start a new career at the same time by exchanging English lessons for Italian lessons.
Rick Steves.
   PS: Since you are kind enough to follow my exploits on Facebook or my blog – – it’s only fair to tell you that my Rome Diary is also featured on my personal website –! As we say in Roma Antica, A più tardi! See you later!

©Mike Botula 2015

Monday, August 24, 2015

When the "Big One" Hit Pompeii!

My Happy Journey to Montecassino, Pompeii and Vesuvius!
Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Cooler- Partly Cloudy 84°F/29°C in Roma
Pompeii Victim
To me, that white plaster figure of the boy praying is the perfect metaphor of the tragedy of Pompeii! The statue is an actual casting of the the young man who was vaporized in the heat and deadly gases released by Monte Vesuvio in 79 A.D. To an old newsman like me who has seen his fair share of death and destruction first hand, even a 2,000 year old tragedy still gets to me. Pompeii is not a place to visit if you are a person suffering with PTSD. Especially if you are an animal lover like me.
Poor Fido!
Funny thing about tourists!  They’ll travel the world over in their never-ending
search for interesting ways to be entertained. My own travel horizons have broadened considerably since my mom and dad piled my kid brother Packy and I into the family’s pre-World War 2 Plymouth and chugged merrily along from New York to Pittsburgh along the Pennsy Turnpike. Dang! I loved those stops at Howard Johnsons’- 28 flavors of ice cream and those heavenly fried clams!
   Now, a lot of vacationers travel to places to see where disaster struck on a grand scale – like the great battlefields, or the sites of major natural disasters. And so it was on this, my fourth visit to Italy that I returned to Pompeii last Friday, along with about 25,000 new friends from all over the world. If your tourist delights are motivated even slightly by tragedy and disaster, Pompeii is a dandy spot to add to your bucket list! Just imagine an 8,500 hundred foot mountain blowing it’s top and totally snuffing out two bustling cities under tons of volcanic ash, and killing thousands of their inhabitants, and then making those cities disappear for 1,500 years. That’s what happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Pompeii Courtyard
  According to the accounts by Pliny the Younger, in A.D. 79 there was a devastating volcanic eruption by the formerly 8,500 foot high Monte Vesuvio, which completely covered the bustling port city of Pompeii along with its sister city Herculaneum. Even today mere words fail to describe the explosive force of the eruption. Superlatives like Plinian and pyroclastic are used along with 100,000 times the force of the Hiroshima Atom Bomb. Today, Vesuvius is but a shell of its former self, at 3,500 feet high. But, if it were to explode again, more than three million people would be threatened: the entire city of Naples and its environs, not just the estimated 16,000 who died in ancient times. Buried under volcanic ash for centuries, the city is a prehistoric insect in amber, caught in in a time capsule made of volcanic ash and lava. The victims, for the most part died quickly, asphyxiated by the volcano’s noxious fumes and encased in super-heated ash, which left an empty space that archaeologists wisely filled with plaster to recreate the human forms within.
   In its time, Pompeii was a bustling port city, and for the sailors who visited, it enjoyed a reputation as a world class Liberty Port, with numerous public baths, wine purveyors, restaurants, and of course bordellos. Our local guide, Giorgio, explained to us that the bordellos are among the most popular
Giorgio at Work
attractions in the city. One reason for that is the erotic art that is displayed in Pompeii’s red light district.  As Giorgio explained to us liberty port neophytes, the sailors who visited here centuries ago hailed from many countries, and as he said with tongue planted firmly in cheek, they couldn’t always read the establishment’s “menu of delights.” So, just like a modern fast food joint, the menus were mainly pictures. I wasn’t
One From Column "B"
thinking so much about the menu as I was wondering what a romantic encounter on a masonry bed was like. Yikes! Did Roman bordellos have chiropractors on staff for the girls and their clients? Or was a hot soak at the baths next door enough to get rid of the kinks? Much of Pompeii’s erotica has been moved to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. In fact, if it’s prurient interest that’s prompted your visit, you always have the option of passing on the tour and just going straight to the museum.
Oh, My Aching Back!
    My Michael the Younger, had me set my alarm for 5 a.m., so we could catch the City Wonders Pompeii tour bus by 7:30 a.m. at Il Piazza del Popolo. Mike was herding a group of 15 of us. Our other guide, Amanda, had another group of 15 or on our tour bus. Now, I’ve already described how Italians behave behind the wheel of their cars. But, an Italian at the wheel of a 65-passenger autobus is a true craftsman of the sublime art of driving, and our Antonio was a true Michelangelo behind the wheel. Off we sailed along the Via Salaria, headed south toward Naples and Pompeii, with a coffee break at the foot of the Abbey of Montecassino. The mountain top Benedictine abbey was the scene of the notorious Allied bombing in 1944, which completely destroyed the 12th century original. Fortunately, the German forces who occupied the surrounding territory had moved the abbeys priceless art and antiquities to the Vatican for safekeeping. The abbey itself was rebuilt stone by stone after the war, and its priceless artifacts returned to the abbey. More than 100,000 casualties from both sides resulted from the Battle of Montecassino.
  At Pompeii, our City Wonders tour leaders, Michael and Amanda turned us over to Giorgio, a third generation Pompeiian for the honor of showing us around his home town. That’s the way things work around Pompeii. Guiding tourists is a family business in these parts. But, Giorgio spoke excellent English and he was obviously enthused about showing people around his home town. After the tour – lunch before heading up Vesuvius and a chance to hike to the top to check out the mountain’s huge crater and speculate on future eruptions. After a morning of hobbling along Pompeii’s cobblestone streets and clambering up and down endless stairs, I opted for a cool drink and a chair overlooking the Bay of Naples. On the bus ride back, we made another stop at Montecassino where Mike and Amanda promised us more time for souvenir shopping. Then, back on the bus with our final destination, the Piazza del Popolo, where we had started out 13 hours before. Later this week, another ancient city trapped in a time warp, Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient seaport. More on that and other adventures in a few days.

©Mike Botula 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Week in Sabina!

Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Sunny 81°F/27°C in Roma
I realized after the first few days, when I was dealing with my jet lag, that I would quickly lose track of what day it happened to be. On my current sojourn in Italy, I will be lucky if Mike or
Forum at Night
Laura think to remind me what day my return flight to California is leaving Rome. Laura’s parents’ country home In Selci has but one DSL internet connection in the study upstairs. So, I’m not spending a whole lot of time on the internet on this trip. Maybe when I get back to Rome, and Michael and Laura’s wi-fi, I’ll get caught up on my email and peruse my Facebook page. As far as news from back home, Michael and Laura’s other houseguest, Rocky, did bring a two-day old copy of the International Edition of the New York Times with him. I must say that from this distance, reading about the American Presidential election campaign, especially the GOP primary race, reminds me of watching a re-run of the old “Gong Show.” Now that Berlusconi is no longer the star of Italian politics, the best political entertainment value for the folks around here seems to be the Donald Trump Presidential epic. I find I’m really enjoying the time out.
Laura and Michael invited me along while they are house-sitting for her folks, who have gone on their holiday to Calabria. So, for the past week, we have been ensconced in Sergio and Annamaria’s home in Selci, about an hour north of Rome in Sabina.The area was first settled by the ancient Etruscans some 2,000 years ago. The Etruscans were soon displaced by the upstart Romans and quickly disappeared. The adjacent state of Tuscany takes its name from the former inhabitants. That’s another reason, I find it distracting to make the effort to remember today’s date – there is so much history here in Italy, that it’s much easier to think in terms of past millennia than to remember what happened last Tuesday. Here’s an example of that.
Yesterday, we went on a drive north to Umbria and a visit to the ancient walled city of Bagnoregio, which is connected to an even more ancient fortified town called Civita, which is perched high atop a peak of volcanic tufa. The two towns are connected only by a long land bridge. Civita sits in splendid isolation in the valley like some land-locked version of Mont St. Michel, off the coast of France. Now, Civita has only 25 or so permanent residents.
MikeBo at Civita
The city was first built more than a thousand years ago. Gradually the land around it eroded, leaving the city stranded high atop the remnants of the long-dead volcanic peak, and its political prominence eclipsed by its neighbor, Bagnoregio.
Considering the relaxed pace my life has taken this week, it would seem to be a simple task to remember which day I did what. But, that is the infectious aspect of life in the Sabina countryside. No one seems to be in a hurry about anything. Last Friday, we drove to Tolfa for the music and art festa. Michael’s new band, No Funny Stuff, was on the stage in a piazza near the highest point in the ancient walled village. The next evening, when we first arrived in Selci for our weeklong Sabina holiday, the Caccia Festa awaited us. Laura’s mom and dad had invited us to the big community barbecue at the Selci fairgrounds. There must have been a thousand people dining under the stars and long picnic tables set up in front of the dance pavilion and bandstand.
Another day, the highlight was a long hike along the Tiber River. Sabina is way upstream from Rome, and on the summer morning that we took our stroll, il Tevere was meandering along on 
Meandering Tiber
its way to Rome and the Mediterranean beyond. It was a beautiful warm, sun-drenched summer morning. A beautiful time for a long walk beside the river. Still another day, we lounged around home for most of the day and then hopped in the car for a short drive into the old part of Selci. After a stroll through the old part of town, which involved narrow cobblestone streets and narrow twisting stairways, we emerged in a piazza at the very top of the town to find an inviting bar. It was our reward for the hard work of walking around the town. A welcome respite following a rather challenging walk. As we sipped our aperitivos, we watched the sun set over the hills across the valley. And, still another night, we piled in the car after dinner and headed off to another ancient town, and in the piazza in front of a 12th century church, enjoyed an ice cream while listening to a live band playing on the front steps of the church. People from the surrounding town all congregated in the piazza to sip coffee or enjoy an ice cream or just socialize with their friends and neighbors in the town square.
By American suburban standards Selci Antica would be pre-historic. Imagine, if you can, the idea of renting an apartment in a building that has been continuously occupied for 1,200 years! If that idea appeals to you, I’d be happy to introduce you to Luciana, who lives next door here in Selci. Luciana and her husband own an adjacent resort. She refers to it as a Bed and Breakfast. I would describe it as a palazzo, or at the very least, a resort. It boasts a mansion and a cluster of other buildings, mostly cottages for those folks who want more privacy.   Oh, yes. And, a stable whose primary occupant is a quite vocal mule. (Sorry, I didn’t catch his name, but he looks every inch a
Selci Antica
The balmy summer evenings lend themselves well to outdoor barbecuing. I think that next to his music, Michael’s favorite pastime is barbecuing. Their new home in Rome has a backyard and outdoor patio where a barbecue grill permanently resides. And here in Selci there is a grill right alongside the outbuilding that houses a country cucina, or kitchen entirely separate from the kitchen in the main house. It even has a full wood-fired pizza oven. An outside table under a grape arbor with a full crop of uvas provides the perfect setting for dining al fresco. For dessert, fresh fruit plucked right from Sergio’s many vines and fruit trees.
This has turned into a very different kind of visit than what I had originally though it would be. This first full week is a classic Italian style holiday for me, an alien concept for most Americans, who’ve seen their hard earned annual vacations eroded into oblivion over the past few decades. Italians and other Europeans are still able to savor their annual summer holidays to refresh family ties, and recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries. The holiday is definitely a key element of the European concept of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And, I’m all for it, even if it means interrupting my retirement and flying in steerage for 6,000 miles to enjoy it for myself! More on this a domani!

©Mike Botula 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015

August 14, 1944: An Anniversary Story!

Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Summer! 91°F/37°C in Selci, Sabina
LST 920 at Normandy
U 667
One of the services that passes as in-flight entertainment on long, international flights these days is the animated map displaying your journey on the forward TV screens in  Alitalia’s steerage-oops! I mean ECONOMY class. The captive audience gets to watch the tiny airplane move from the departure city to its destination while the globe revolves below. I’ve made this trip before, but, this time, something about our route rang a bell, right around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Of course! Pittsburgh was where my dad grew up. Then, Jamestown, NY. That’s where mom and I lived while dad was overseas. My kid brother, Packy was born in Jamestown.  And, as we approached New York City and I saw the next leg of our flight, I realized that my Alitalia flight to Rome in 2015 would be following nearly the same route as the route taken by my father’s ship, the LST 920, during the summer of 1944. Suddenly in my mind, I was no longer in my cramped Economy-class seat hurtling eastward at  nearly the speed of sound, I was on the bridge of the LST 920 as it moped along in its thousand ship convoy at a sedate 10 knots headed toward England through a gauntlet of German U boat Wolf Packs! I felt myself tremble at the realization. The date, Friday August 14, 2015 is the 71st anniversary of the most important day in my father’s life: not his wedding day; not even the dates that his children were born. August 14th was the day that he came face to face with an enemy submarine in the North Atlantic.
 LST 920 Ship’s Log 14 August 1944
1654 hours: First hit on LST 921 directly astern of us; presumably by torpedo
1654 hours: General Quarters sounded
1656 hours: LCI #99 (British) hit by torpedo presumably
1657 hours: All stations manned and ready; approximate position of scene of action –
50°54’ North Latitude, 4° 45’ West Longitude
1657 hours: Relieved on conn by Captain Schultz and went to G.Q. station
Ensign John J. Waters, Officer Of the Deck
LST 920 Motor Machinist’s Mate Joe LaRock saw it happen: I was coming up from the main engine room. As I came up out of the hatch on the upper deck, I looked astern at the very moment the LST 921 took a torpedo!
The two ships-LST 920 and LST 921 were sisters. Built in the same Massachusetts shipyard and commissioned within ten days of each other. They were siblings in the true sense of the word. Old salts will understand what it means to lose a sister. What’s more, most of the two crews hailed from the same part of the U.S., western Pennsylvania and West Virginia mainly. Twin brothers – the Hendrixsons, had joined the Navy together. Now, there was one brother on each of the LSTs.
That submarine must have fired one of those new acoustically aimed torpedoes, because it hit
Ensign Don Joost
the stern right about the location of the engine room!
Ensign Don Joost was the Engineering Officer aboard LST 921.  It must have homed in on the sound of our screw propellers, because that’s where it hit! Joost was later rescued by a British escort ship. The torpedo had broken the spine of the LST 921. The men who were able to, scrambled quickly to the top deck of the sinking aft section. Ensign Joost and Motor Machinists Mate John Abrams worked feverishly to move the men up to the forward section, which stayed afloat.
The bridge crew of the 920 immediately sounded General Quarters, sending all hands to their battle stations. But, the LSTs were lightly armed-only a handful of 40 millimeter guns, primarily for use against attacking Messerschmitts and Zeroes. My father watched a torpedo trail coming directly amidships of his LST. All I could do was watch as it came straight at us. We would have taken it dead amidships if the British escort ship hadn’t come up just at that moment! The ill-fated British escort ship LCI(L)99, with its full load of fuel and ammunition went up like a sky rocket. When the smoke cleared there was only debris floating on the water. U 667 had just killed two ships – the USS LST 921 and HMS LCI(L)99. The Brit was also a sister to the two American LSTs. She had been built in the same shipyard at Hingham, Massachusetts as the two LSTs she was defending.
DO NOT BREAK CONVOY! REPEAT: DO NOT BREAK CONVOY! It was the inviolable law of the convoy. No ship in a convoy under escort was to fall out of formation for any reason. Not even for a man overboard. If any ship in the convoy were to become disabled, it was to be left behind to the tender mercies of the Kriegsmarine. And, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz had already given the strictest orders to his U boat commanders, Do not rescue survivors! LST 920 could not come to the aid of her stricken sister. In the first few minutes after the 921 and the British LCI were hit, topside crewmen on the LST 920 could only toss life rings to the survivors near them, and pray for their shipmates. LST 920 had strict orders, DO NOT BREAK CONVOY! Radioman Fred Benck was on
Radioman Benck
duty when Captain Harry Schultz came up to the bridge.
The first thing I was to do was to send these words, “HELP GAUSE.” This was to let the Royal Air force know that we were being attacked. Captain Schultz quickly ordered Benck to send another message to the Commander of the convoy, "WHO IS PICKING UP SURVIVORS?” While they awaited a response, Schultz ordered his deck hands to toss life rings over the side into the water to help nearby survivors as best as they could. The message that was returned from command was a terse "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY." The captain was so informed. Benck continued, In about two minutes Captain Schultz came back into the Radio Room and said, “Benck send that message again.” This time he waited for the answer which was the same words "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY." Schultz responded, “TO HELL WITH HIM!”  We pulled out of convoy to turn back and pick up survivors!  A message came from the Commander of the convoy to get back in the convoy. This message was never answered!
Captain Schultz quickly ordered two of the LCVPs that his ship was carrying into the water.
Captain Harry Schultz
Ensign Harold Willcox and four members of the crew were assigned to boat #2, and Ensign John Waters and five other crew members went in boat #1. Apart from the help of several other British ships, the crew of the LST 920 were on their own. The sailors from the 920 rescued 48 survivors from the chilly waters of the Dover Channel. Others, including Ensign Joost were picked up by the British. One of the lucky survivors was Seaman Jerry Hendrixson, twin brother of LST 920 Seaman Harry Hendrixson. In Jerry Hendrixson’s case, he was twice lucky that day. Once, while still aboard the sinking aft section of his own ship, when John Abrams gave him his life jacket, and again when Ensign Harold Willcox pulled him aboard the rescue boat from his twin brother’s ship.
Lt. Charles Botula
In the aftermath of the attack, U 667 stalked its prey throughout the night, keeping its distance for fear that the sole LST in its periscope sights was carrying a new three inch gun on its fantail. Finally, the U boat commander, Käpitanleutnant Karl-Heinze Lange broke away from its attack on Convoy EBC 72 and sailed away to its home base at LaPallice, France, and what he and his crew thought would be a hero’s welcome. The U boat crew had no way of knowing that while their U boat was prowling, the Canadians had sown their return path through Minefield Cinnamon with dozens of new mines. The U 667 struck one of them and sank with the entire crew of 45 Kriegsmariners. Our Alitalia flight had made landfall, south of the former U boat base at La Pallice, France, and my daydream was over. Rome lay a few hours ahead, and, for me the beginning of a new adventure.

©Mike Botula 2015 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Week in the Country - Sabina!

Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2 – Settimana dué-Week #2!  
Summer! 83°F/28°C in Roma
This morning we went for a walk along il fiume Tevere – the Tiber River as it runs through
Etruscan Valley
the Etruscan Valley on its way into Rome, where it becomes encased in stone and cement Los Angeles River-style, a long ago captive of an ancient flood control project. But here, out in the countryside, the Tiber flows serenely along as it meanders toward its ultimate destination – the Mediterranean. 
 Remember that Diane Lane movie Under the Tuscan Sun? Well, that’s the story of my life this week, only I’m in Sabina. Selci to be exact. Michael, Laura and I are “house-sitting” for her parents, Sergio and Annamaria Tomei, while Laura’s folks are – as they say in these parts – on holiday. The house sits near the top of a mountain overlooking a lush, green valley. The sunshine on the patio behind it is filtered through the top branches of the olive trees that dot the property. Once a year, Sergio gathers friends, family members and neighbors to help harvest the olives from his 80-some olive trees and trundles them into Selci to have them pressed into the most delectable olio olivo to ever cross my discerning palate.
Fiume Tevere - The Tiber
It was my brother Packy, who introduced me to the Onion Theory of Stress Reduction many long years ago. Get far away from whatever is causing you stress and relax. The stress will fall away from you like layers from an onion that’s being peeled. Selci is the kind of place that does that for me. On our first night, Sergio invited us to the  Caccia Festa. T’is the Festa season here in Italy. It’s summer time or estate. So there’s lots to celebrate. The Caccia Festa celebrates the hunt. It’s a giant barbecue at the local fairgrounds, complete with a band, dancing and long rows of tables to dine at. The grills are fired up early in the afternoon for all the roasting that has to be done. There’s wild boar, venison, grilled pork and goat, and of course, lamb. Pastas, salads and varieties of other vegetables, and plenty of fine local wines to wash it down with. It’s a giant picnic under summertime Sabina skies. The weather, which threatened at first to rain out the Festa passed by and left the crowd to enjoy the evening under partly cloudy but otherwise balmy skies. A perfect ending to a great first weekend for me in Italy. My “onion” was definitely getting peeled.
Caccia Festa
Sabina secured its place in history back in Rome’s early days, when the future center of civilization more closely resembled San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849. Remember your Gold Rush history? That’s when ambitious males from all over the world swarmed into California’s gold country to seek their fortune. Most of them found little treasure and almost zilch in the way of feminine companionship. So it was in Roma Antica. Now, depending on which account of The Rape of the Sabine Women that you’re familiar with - the accounts tend to vary. I prefer the Man Who Came to Dinner version, where a throng of young Roman males were invited to a Festa in Sabina, ate and drank their hosts out of house and home and then added insult to injury by carting off all the women in the province to become Roman brides. The Romans had indeed struck gold in this adventure, for to this day, Sabina boasts the loveliest damsels in all of Italy.
Michael, Laura, MikeBo
Now, I should mention the health plan that Mike and Laura have laid out for me on this trip.  Italy has never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, although some of the big tourist hotels that cater to older Americans like me do have lots of ramps and extra elevators and blue curbs out front. But Sabina has medieval towns with lots of steep grades and hills and stairs and steps everywhere else. So, a casual afternoon stroll for me, is the equivalent of what my grandson Joshua faced every day at Marine boot camp when he ran the Grinder. For me in Italy, Josh’s full battle pack is the extra 25 pounds I know I’m going to lose on this trip, trying to keep up with Michael and Laura on their daily walks. Walk or die! must be a slogan in the Italian lifestyle manual. There are no obvious alternatives for hypochondriacs like me. Monday, Michael and Laura took me on a walking tour of Old Selci. Along steep, narrow streets and up and down steeper and narrower stairways we made our way through the old city. When I stopped to catch my breath from time to time, I could practically hear the slap of sandals from the Roman legionnaires marching behind us. And, I certainly felt grateful as I looked up from the narrow streets we were walking, knowing that the residents no longer threw their garbage and the household night soil down on the street below to be flushed away by the first rainfall. Finally, when I thought I could not take one more step, we found ourselves in a piazza at the top of the hill where we stopped at a beckoning bar for a well-earned aperativo. More on my Italian adventure- domani!
©Mike Botula 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

Rome Diary 2: Fifth Day - Festa! Festa! Festa!

Diario di Roma II – Rome Diary 2!
Selci: On my Fifth Day - Festa! Festa! Festa!
Partly cloudy with Thundershowers, 93°F/34°C – Definitely August, already!
As my Alitalia 777 completed its first leg on my flight from LAX to Rome, it turned in a 
Mike and Michael
northeasterly direction over New York, and the animated map on the cabin’s front screen laid out my course across the North Atlantic: north to Nova Scotia, turning almost due east off Halifax and flying through the darkness at 550 mph until landfall over England at Land’s End just at sunrise. The map and the route looked very familiar to me. It was because it was the almost identical route taken by my father at this same time of year back in 1944! There was a difference, however. Our big Boeing jet was flying at nearly the speed of sound almost eight miles high over the North Atlantic. When Charlie Botula made the same crossing in August of 1944, his LST, the 920 was plodding along at about 9 or 10 miles an hour in Allied Convoy HXM 301 along with a thousand other ships. While my own singular discomfort was the Economy class seat I was trying to get comfortable in, my dad’s big worry on his trip was the prospect of sudden death by U boat from the German Wolf Packs that dogged his route across. His fears were not unfounded. In four days, I’ll be posting my annual memorial story about the torpedoing of his sister ship, the LST 921. So, more on that around the fourteenth.
When I departed Rancho Lost Musket, it was Tuesday morning. When our Alitalia 777 finally
Tolfa-Dining al Fresco!
touched down at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, it was Wednesday afternoon. Michael, Laura and Sofia were right there outside of Customs waiting for me and ten minutes later we were at their new house. After getting me settled in Laura headed off to work and Michael and I chatted for a while before heading out to a location that every visitor to Rome should visit first, the Supermarket! My host was thinking that dinner might be nice, hence the quick trip to the market. I fell in love with the produce section! Not one genetically modified veggie in the lot. No pesticides! Everything sustainably grown. Vons and buying tomatoes that feel and look and taste like the ones you might grow in your home garden. You get to pick out your produce and then once it’s in the bag, you check the ID code on the price label…enter that number as you weigh it….and voilá! No harried checker fumbling with your produce at check-out time.
No Funny Stuff!
I always work a couple of days of down-time on a trip like this. So we really didn’t click into No Funny Stuff! for a sound check, even though they weren’t scheduled to play until midnight. Laura drove us out to meet the band for dinner before they went on. After a sumptuous repast in the balmy Tuscan evening, we hiked upward along narrow, winding cobblestone streets to the Piazza Bartoli, just in time to see a trio of female singers take the stage, and struggle through their first few numbers while the sound system squealed and crackled. I felt anxious for them, but fearful for No Funny Stuff! The ladies were quite good, and I counted at least four languages among the songs they sang. Looking at the time, I asked Michael if this happened a lot. He nodded, “an awful lot, but the audience will still be there,” he assured me. There was one more group before No Funny Stuff, Michael’s group, took the stage. By then it was almost two in the morning. Sure enough, the piazza was still packed. It was almost 3:30 in the morning before we headed down the hill toward our car. Wow! I thought to myself, “this old senior citizen is still partying, and it’s almost sunup. Gee! Back home they lock the front door after Bingo starts at 6! 
tourist mode until Friday. Michael was playing a gig at the Busker Festa in Tolfa, a medieval town
Sidewalk Art in Tolfa
northeast of Rome. Music and art is everywhere in Italy. Some of the most talented musicians and artists work right out in public on street corners or in the ubiquitous piazzale which can be found at frequent intervals in every town large and small. At the Busker Festa in Tolfa, there is a sound stage in every piazza in the town, and strolling musicians everywhere.  We even saw two gals dancing on the side of a building up the street where we were dining.  They had rigged mountain climbing gear so they could dance on the wall three stories above the street. Sidewalk artists and street vendors rounded out the scene. Food stands everywhere and every restaurant in town had tables outside. Mike left early with some of the musicians from his band,
Back to Rome for a good night’s sleep and then it’s up and get ready for our holiday in Sabina. Sunday, it’s off to Laura’s folks’ country house an hour north of Rome. Higher elevation, a little cooler and off to another Festa!  Laura’s dad, Sergio Tomei is an avid hunter and his hunt club is putting on the annual Festa di Caccia! The hunter’s festival at the local fairgrounds. A team of avid cooks working on open bit barbecues are preparing the meats – cingale or wild boar, which is big in these parts, venison, goat, sheep and a few others that I’m sure got lost in translation. Pasta, greens, my choice is the mutton all served at long tables in front of the dance floor near the bandstand. What can I say? Not a night to start a diet, for sure. A fun time amidst a thousand of my new Italian friends. And the adventure is just getting under way!
A domani!
© Mike Botula-2015

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Diario di Roma II: Primo Giorno!

Diario di Roma II – Rome Diary 2!
First Day in Town!
Sunny and 93°F/34°C – It’s August here, already!
Roma a notte!
I think I mentioned in one of these postings that Italian drivers have their own interpretation of the “rules of the road.” My literary idol    Beppe Severgnini has frequently written about them. To recap: A red light or stop sign doesn’t necessarily mean “Halt.” No, no! To Italian drivers, a red light is merely advice to  the driver to lift the foot from the pedal and look both ways while making a decision on whether or not to keep moving forward. Yellow means put your foot in it and go like hell before it turns red. Yield  is a No Slowing Zone, and green means proceed at speed, do not slow! The first example of that was our tram driver, who was driving all of us Alitalia passengers from plane-side yesterday to the main terminal and a very long line at Passport Control. The driver started turning too near a truck parked next to another airplane. Ignoring the chorus of passengers who cried out their loudest warnings in at least six different languages, our driver kept going until his bus made glancing contact with the parked truck. Pausing only long enough to finally look in his side mirror while making his decision; our driver then proceeded forward, sideswiping his own bus with the corner of the parked truck from the middle of the left side  all the way to the rear bumper. As he did this, the passengers, including the members of the Iranian Special Olympics team who were on our plane, cheered him on in their six languages, and they were joined by all the folks standing around outside on the tarmac. I can only imagine that not even the Caesars ever heard cheering like that during their triumphal returns in the old days.
               The Iranian kids, by the way, were on their way home from Los Angeles where they took part in this year’s Special Olympics. L.A. had just hosted 6,500 Special Olympics athletes from 165 nations in 25 Olympic-type sporting events. The kids and their coaches and chaperones would be catching a connecting flight at Rome bound for Tehran and home. There’s nothing like an airline passenger cabin, especially on an international carrier like Alitalia to bring a group of diverse nationalities under one roof in a peaceful setting. After all, when you learn to line up at the door of an airliner’s lavatory and no fights break out, you can do the same thing at the U.N. Our world leaders should take note..
                Today is a decompression day for me. Weeks of getting ready. Long flight. A full day lost – I left LAX on Tuesday, but didn’t get to Rome until Wednesday. Nine hour time difference. All the little Gremlins that go with a long trip. But it timed out OK. By the time we had dinner and I got to bed, it was around midnight. So when I woke up this morning after nine hours of “Z,” my body clock had been completely fooled into thinking that I was acting normally. Jet lag on some of my past trips have left me loopy for days.
Mike and Michael
                If you are wise enough not to overbook your vacation schedule on your trip, take a day or two just to relax and get acclimated to your new surroundings. I plugged in my laptop and established a good Wi-Fi connection, then I picked up my I-phone to call Liliana and check on my pooch, Lola. The message told me, “NO SERVICE!” Ever try to call your wireless carrier when your phone is out of order? I finally called ATT using Skype from my laptop to their international number. It turned out that the genius in the “Customer Care” unit failed to restore my international cell phone services when I upgraded my phone last month. The problem was quickly fixed, but if I had just picked up and gone on with my touring, I might have missed that and wound up in real trouble.
Sofia! The other Wonder Dog
This morning Laura headed off to work, and Mike and I chatted over coffee on his patio. They’re living in a new home this time. Their building backs up to an urban nature preserve near Fiumicino Airport and, not too far from where I had my apartment last time and in the same general area where they used to live. After lunch he headed off to lead a group of tourists on one of his famous “Crypts and Catacombs” tours. I’ll start tagging along with him in a day or so. That’s an interesting tour to remember, if you’re planning a Roman Holiday. Another favorite of mine is "Angels and Demons," based on the Tom Hanks movie and the book by Dan Brown. Later in the week, it’s the day trip to Pompeii – always worth seeing a second time. Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport of the Roman Empire is right down the road from here. In fact, I could catch a bus there from the front of the building. But, in keeping with my “do nothing the first day of the trip” policy I am staying home with Sofia, il Cane famiglia! Sofia came to the airport with Mike and Laura to welcome me back to Rome. So far, so good. More a domani!

©Mike Botula 2015

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Thomas Wolfe to Mike Botula, “I Told You So!”

 “LOST MUSKET DIARY” Sunday August 2, 2015
Cloudy then Sunny 86°F/30°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Thomas Wolfe in Action
 The sad news came in an email from Sara Levine:
The Old John Elliot Aldrich House
“Mike, this was a wonderful article. I enjoyed reading about your life growing up at the Aldrich house. My fiancé and I adored that home and had this crazy, but hopeful dream that one day; we could acquire it and restore it to its original glory. Unfortunately, it would have cost a staggering amount of money. We drove up there last Sunday to attend church at Old Steeple and I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the home was demolished on Saturday, the 19th.” Sara, who lives in my old home town, had read my March blog about the house and dropped a line to let me know the outcome.  The Old Aldrich House was a familiar sight along the Main Road in Aquebogue, the little Long Island hamlet where I lived when I started grade school. My parents rented it for a few months back in 1947 right after the war, when veterans coming home from World War 2 were finding it difficult to find a place to live. It was still occupied for a number of years after we moved into Riverhead. But, for a dozen years it had just sat on the side of the road, slowly decaying, like one of a number of other abandoned 19th century houses on Long Island’s North Fork.

Mike at the Aldrich House 1947
The local legend was that it had been built by a Long Island sea captain for his young wife, so she could live in comfort during his long absences at sea. In reality, it was built in 1873 by master builder, John Elliot Aldrich, who crafted homes for the rich and famous, and was about to start construction on a summer home for railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, when he died in 1906.  So, it may be that Aldrich, the builder, crafted the mansion for a prosperous sea captain. No matter how it’s told, it’s a good story.
His legacy, then, lasted 142 years. Aldrich also built the nearby landmark Old Steeple Church and crafted many of the famous mansions that dotted 19th and early 20th century Long Island. The property that the house sat on was purchased back in the 1950s by a neighboring family, the Corwins, who ultimately decided that it would be far too expensive to restore. Now a younger member of that family plans to build his new home on the site. What are left for me are a few old family photographs, some fading memories, and a quote from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,
   “Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.”
   The nice lady from my home town, Sara Levine, happened upon my blog back in March, when I first wrote about the old Aldrich place. She and her fiancé, Stefan Temkey, passed by the location quite frequently, and, like so many of us from that area, imagined not a decaying relic from the past, but a restored, revitalized mansion put to a more contemporary use. Now, that vision will never be realized, and I can finally put closure to that part of my life. 
   Let me share some of what I wrote back in March of this year as I described my last drive along
Mike and Packy Botula 1947
Main Road in Aquebogue:
  “It’s this stretch of highway that Thomas Wolfe had in mind when he said what he did, because the Old Aldrich House, the eleven room mansion that we lived in when my folks first came back to Riverhead after World War 2 is now a derelict leftover from better times, abandoned lo, these many years and left to crumble. We pass this splendid ruin on our way down the road to the Modern Snack Bar. I am shocked by the sight of it, and a wave of sadness overwhelms me.  This is where we lived when
Packy Botula's First Steps 1947
my little brother took his first steps. I started in the first grade at Aquebogue Elementary School, just a short walk past Downs General Store and Post Office. It was built in 1873 when sailing ships still outnumbered the steam-powered craft in the waters around Long Island. The legend had it that  Captain Aldrich designed the home to provide a high vantage point for his wife to be able look out on the bay nearby and catch a glimpse of her husband’s sail.
   My folks faced some tough times during that period. Post-war housing was extremely scarce. America was being challenged finding jobs and homes for all those returning veterans and their new families. Dad would often tell how the family moved five times in eleven months right after the war. During 1946 and 1947 the only places for rent were summer vacation bungalows that weren’t designed for year round living. No insulation. No central heating or air conditioning. But somehow we did it. Mattituck, Jamesport, Aquebogue. In Jamesport we didn’t even have a fridge. The ice man would deliver ice for the icebox twice a week and Packy and I would get our baths in an old Wheeling galvanized wash tub with water heated on the stove. We stayed in each place for a few months at a time. Then, fortune smiled and the house on East Main Street became our home until our parents died in the 1960s.  When we moved from Aquebogue right after the war the old Aldrich House was already well showing its age.
   The last time I was back in Riverhead, in 2013, the old house was looking positively deplorable.
The Magic of Thomas Wolfe - Aug. 19th
It’s one of more than a dozen historic homes that have fallen into disrepair and sit, abandoned and forlorn across the landscape of Long Island’s North Fork. A recent grass roots effort to declare this stretch of the highway a designated historic area foundered in a deluge of bickering among the affected property owners.”
  Sara’s note saddened me. It was like hearing the news, long after the fact, of the passing of a childhood friend or classmate. Our family had flourished in that old house, and the distant memories from that time in our lives are happy ones. I would hope that the new family who builds their new home on that parcel of land also flourishes and I wish them happy memories as well. For me, Thomas Wolf is right, after all. You can’t go home again!
©Mike Botula 2015