Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rome Diary 2: Riflessioni su un viaggio fantastico!

Diario di Roma II (Rome Diary 2)
Wednesday September 23, 2015
Cloudy 75°F/24°C  in Roma
Sunny 84°F/29°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Thanks, Lord Byron!
Translated, the title reads Reflections on a Fantastic Journey! It’s true. This six week sojourn in Europe has been one of the most incredible trips I’ve ever taken. It was much more than a vacation for me. Much, much more. And, it’s a challenge for me to reduce what amounts to a spiritual journey to mere words. So, I’d like you to consider this blog my summation. I will be sharing other articles in the coming weeks. It was quite a trip – Rome, of course, my new second home; a return to Pompeii; Sabina, where ancient Roman swains went hunting for girls; a 280 kilometer per hour (168 mph) high speed train trip to one of the most incredible cities in the world – Venice; and then a side trip to Amsterdam for a romantic tour of the city’s canals with a one time teenage sweetheart.  Also on the travel plan were short trips to some historic and colorful places like the medieval villages of Tolfa, Bagnoregio and Civita, Rocchetine, and the oldest part of Selci, in Sabina.

    After a few weeks “in-country,” (as my kid brother used to say back in the days when he was flying for the Air Force to help make Vietnam safe for democracy), the pace picked up considerably and I found that I wasn’t able to find the time to write as many blogs as I had wanted to. I also had to deal with some technical challenges as far as staying connected to the internet. So, I resorted to pictures and short blurbs created on my I-phone uploaded to my Facebook time line. (God bless Jobs and Wozniak for that). That worked just fine, and I want to thank everybody who took the time to comment or click the “Like” button. It wasn’t just a vacation for me. It was much, much more…
   My primary guides on the venture were my son, Michael and his lovely wife Laura. The more time
Laura and Michael In Venice
I spend with them on my visits, the more I understand why my boy went to Europe on a vacation  about 14 years ago and never returned to California. Laura is a treasure, and so are her folks, Sergio and Anna Maria, and her sister Chiara.

  Speaking of guides, I can’t advise any traveler with Italy in their sights too strongly about having the foresight to book some guided tours to enhance the experience. Since Michael works for City Wonders Tours (, I must admit to being a bit prejudiced. During my stay, Michael invited me to go along every day he worked. First up was Crypts and Catacombs. It’s a tour of Roma’s underground. The catacombs just over the Aurelian wall is an ancient burial place dating back to Pagan times. The crypts are near the center  of the city, where the bones of the Capuchin monks who worked there are displayed in five crypts well under the ground floor of the church. If you take the tour of the crypts, please give my regards to Alba, the museum gift shop’s manager. The monks themselves do not handle money. It’s part of their vows. So, the lovely Alba supervises the business end of the museum gift shop. Next was a half hour train trip to the ancient port city of Ostia Antica, which boasts some of the best preserved ruins dating back to Etruscan times in pre-Romulus and Remus Roma. I recommend the Ostia Antica visit as an alternative to Pompeii for visitors who may be pressed for time. Pompeii is a highlight of any visit to Italy, but it involves a day-long bus trip to and from Rome. That may be too much for tourists on a tight schedule, but Ostia Antica is right down the street.
Farfa Abbey, Sabina
Out of the month-and-a-half that I spent there, Michael and Laura took me out to the folks “country home” in Selci, where we spent a full week on one trip….and five days on another. That gave us the base camp for visits to nearby Medieval Villages like ancient Selci, Bagnoregio and Civita, and the town and castles at Rochettine. Some of these walled towns have had people living in them for a thousand years or more. One of my very favorite places to visit is the 6th century Farfa Abbey, which was upgraded in the 12th century and is even now undergoing a restoration. On my first visit to Farfa, I had just taken a seat in one of the pews to rest and take in the beauty when I heard the tinkle of bells announcing the beginning of mass. As the procession led  by a line of altar boys escorting the priest into the sanctuary, I couldn’t help but ponder that the Benedictine monks of this abbey have been doing this for the last thousand years. What a sense of order and continuity! I felt very much at peace as I took this all in. A brief stop at the abbey’s herb and gift shop later gave me the opportunity to purchase four jars of what the abbey’s gardens are famous for – the honey gathered  by the monks who tend the abbey’s fields.

  Now, I think I’ve mentioned that I will be writing longer blog pieces over the next few months about my trip, focusing more on specific places and events. But, even this summary would fall short if I didn’t offer a little more detail about the trip that really turned out to be a highlight of my whole adventure. That would be our three days in Venice. Talk about a city where you need to book a tour. There’s no way around it, unless you want to spend  your time in Venice feeding the pigeons in Piazza San Marcos. And, here, I want to tip my hat to three outstanding lady guides Agy, Cristina
Agy Talking About Casanova-Venice
and Luanna.

  Our first tour took us to St. Mark’s Square and a behind the scenes look at the Doge’s palace, and a chilling glimpse of the justice system in the world’s oldest and longest surviving republic, 1200 years. Agy regaled us with the truth behind Casanova’s jailbreak (tall tale), Lord Byron “skinny-dipping” in the Grand Canal and his naming of The Bridge of Sighs. It seems his Lordship paid to spend a night in the cell that once held the legendary libertine, Casanova so he could write about him. From his cell, Lord Byron could hear the moaning and wailing of the convicts as they were taken across the bridge to their cells in the new prison. Hence, The Bridge of Sighs. The next night, Luanna led us on an evening walk through the city streets. The tour ended with a thirty minute ride in a gondola. Hot dawg! I got to ride in a gondola. (Accent on the first syllable. It’s not a Gon-DO-La! The driver is a Gondolieri­, which rhymes with Carabinieri.) On our
Cristina with MikeBo in Burano
third day we met Cristina, our guide for the Venice island tour of Murano and Burano. Murano is world famous for its hand-blown glass. Burano is famous for the complex lacework done by the ladies on the island. Burano is also well known for the colorful look of its buildings. Cristina explained that the local fishermen were in the habit of stopping by their favorite dockside pubs on their way from their daily fishing forays, and quite often got so inebriated they wandered into the wrong house on their way home, resulting in the sailors hooking up with the wrong spouse. (Catch my drift?). So to maintain domestic tranquility, the people of Burano each came up with a unique, bright color for their homes, so the sailor coming home from the sea at the end of a busy day of fishing would go to the right house. I don’t think I would ever heard that story, if Cristina, who is a native of Venice and knows the city’s history well, hadn’t been the guide on our tour.

  Well, there’s more but I’ll save details for future posts, so I’ll just wrap up this reflection with a word or two about our train trip from Roma to Venezia and back. Our high speed train got us there in about four hours. At the front of our coach was a lighted screen that kept us apprised of our stops, whether  or not we were on schedule, and a constant read-out of our speed. On our way back, we had been advised that our train was running a bit behind schedule. After we left Firenze (Florence to you gringos), I sensed that the engineer was beginning to seriously put his pedal to the metal. Our speed climbed from 200 km/hr (120 mph) up to 260 km/hr (156 mph) then coasting
Look Ashamed Amtrak!
up through 270 km/hr…280….290… and finally settling down at an even 300 km/hr. That’s 180 miles an hour on any pocket calculator. Through the window, I could see us zipping past the cars on the adjacent autostrade like they were standing still. I couldn’t help but think about rush hour back in California on the San Diego Freeway, or the four hour and 20 minute Amtrak ride from LA to San Diego, less than a hundred miles. When we finally pulled in to Rome’s Termini station, we were actually ahead of schedule. This in a country where Mussolini no longer has a say in the trains running on time.

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© By Mike Botula 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Nightmare at 40,000 Feet, or The Gremlin in 29G!

Diario di Roma II (Rome Diary 2)
Sunday September 20, 2015
Sunny 79°F/ 31°C in Roma
Cloudy, showers 88°F/31°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
   Remember that old Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner and that Gremlin outside his window on the airliner? Well I had my own Gremlin to deal with on my Alitalia flight back from
Shatner's Gremlin at 20,000 feet
Rome. But my Gremlin wasn’t outside on the wing staring me down through the window. No, this guy was sitting right next to me for the whole 12 hour and 15 minute flight from Fiumicino to LAX. He was an Economy class passenger’s worst nightmare.
   I had dutifully gone on line 24 hours in advance to check in and get my boarding pass, but while Alitalia has my aisle seat preference in my traveler’s profile, the only aisle seat open was in the very last row, row 29. I tried to change it later in the day hoping for a cancellation, to no avail. I even asked at the check-in counter when I dropped off my suitcase. No more aisle seats. So, I had no choice but to be resigned to sitting for twelve hours in a seat that did not recline, right next to the lavatories. It got worse, quickly. I am really beginning to think that the airlines…and this happens with every one of them…have constructed my travel profile so that I automatically get an aisle seat in the very back of the plane, every time. I have to change seats every time I fly, and I’m not always successful.  
   Oh well! On this flight as I boarded the plane and approached my seat, I could see this rather corpulent gentleman in the adjacent seat.  His right arm was resting on my vacant seat, and his arm took up all of the arm rest. A goodly part of his ample belly was flowing over the arm rest. A child would not have fit in my seat – 29H.  Buongiorno! Scusa! Con Permesso! I said in Italian, getting an angry glare in return. I gave him a moment to withdraw from my space so I could sit down, and then slid into the seat and buckled my seat belt. While he no longer flowed over the arm rest, his arm was clamped in a death grip so I couldn’t even share it. As we took off and climbed to cruising altitude, he kept pressing into my space, first with his right knee and then with his right arm. Each time, I responded with a  Scusa! (Excuse me). All I got in return was a death stare. You know, the kind of look that Michael Corleone gave Fredo.  Now, I will pause to explain that I don’t normally waste time in my blogs with horror stories. I had too many good experiences on my six weeks in Italy, but, a guy like this can really ruin your whole trip.  This is also not a kvetch at Alitalia either. I was happy to get a non-stop flight both ways on this trip. No, this has nothing to do with business, this is personal!
My Gremlin at 40,000 feet

   The guy was a real, to use an old Yiddish term, a noodge! His knee and his arm were in constant encroachment mode. He would squirm and then settle down for a moment and then start squirming again, trying to secure more room for himself in his narrow Economy class seat (at my expense, of course). I resisted his moves at every turn. Finally, just when I thought he realized that I had set my boundaries, he settled down. After a moment, he cocked his arm and gave me a hard, deliberate, stiff elbow in my ribs. No, accident here. It was premeditated! Mr. Docile here responded with his own elbow thrust in return. And as I unloaded some of the language I picked up from my new Sicilian friends, cocked my new titanium right arm and waved a fist at him. It was Katie bar the door, when Grasso’s wife interceded and persuaded him to behave himself. I thanked her and returned to my Kindle while visions of an emergency landing in Mϋnchen and the Polizei dragging us both off the plane receded from my mind. So, my final comment on this subject…if you ever get on a plane and some Grasso is pouring over your armrest, run for the jetway before they shut the door. I’m posting his picture as a public service. Study the “selfie” I took of us, and if you ever see him on your flight, head for the exit. I feel better now that I’ve vented! Besides, in the vengeance department, for a journalist, the pen is mightier than an elbow.
  Once we landed and cleared customs, things got a lot better. I had booked an airport car service to get me to and from LAX. Traffic was light and after a relaxing two hour drive to my home, things were looking much better. I fervently hope that the guy with the roaming elbow next to me on the flight has a perfectly rotten visit in California.

© By Mike Botula 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Counting Down to Wheels Up 2!

Diario di Roma II: Rome Diary 2
Sunday September 6, 2015
Sunny 80°F/28°C in Roma
  As we shared our morning coffee and a few father and son talking points, Michael and I suddenly
Joan and MikeBo in Amsterdam 
realized that my sojourn in Italy, like my entire life, is closer to its end than its beginning. Damn! It’s been a great trip. And there’s a lot more to go before I head back to California and Lola my poodle’s wagging tail.  Tuesday, Michael, Laura and I board a train for fabled Venice and a three day visit to the northern part of Italy. We’ll return to Rome by the weekend, and I’ll start to wrap things up for the long flight back. But, I’m sure that in the short time remaining, there will be a new adventure or two, and more pleasant surprises.
  Now, you may have noticed that my Rome Diary II (2 in Italian is pronounced – dué, or doo-way). Diario di Roma Dué. It is not intended to be a Rick Steves knock-off. I’m not auditioning to be the next stellar travel writer. It’s just what its title implies, a journal kept by a solo wanderer. Random notes on a long journey. (LAX to Roma is 6400 miles). I’ll share more of my reflections after I get back, but for the present let me catch you up on the last ten days or so. This trip I brought my own laptop and my new I-phone, so I could keep things on the home front running smoothly in my absence. But, I have been hampered somewhat by difficult internet connections and a temperamental computer. (Gawd! I can’t wait to upload Windows 10). That’s why the Diary digressed into a series of Facebook posts uploaded from my trusty I-phone. I captured the return to Selci and the adventure we had strolling through the Farfa Abbey and Rocchettine. Now, picture this- in 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Indians were trying to figure out the menu for the first Thanksgiving dinner, the Orsini family was remodeling their mountain top fortress village. The village has had people living in it for over a thousand years. Can you imagine the benefits if they had rent controlled apartments in 1175 A.D.?
  Since I left California back in August I’ve renewed old friendships and made new ones. Let me 
Grandpa Botula
digress at this point to share a family adventure. My grandfather, Karel Botula came to the states from what is now the Czech Republic in 1903. He and my grandmother, Johana raised nine children and the Botulas “begat and begat” as the Bible says, into a very large family whose younger members are looking back to their roots and re-establishing connections. (Nothing like two world wars to disrupt family togetherness). So, after talking to my older cousin Bernie Botula’s own grandson, Jeffrey, who has actually visited two prominent members of the Botula clan at their home in the old country, I set out to make my own connection. Michael and I were hoping to be able to fly to Prague for a reunion. (“Gee, dad! Prague is only a two hour flight from Rome.”) Alas, that was not to be, but Jeffrey did put me in touch with Alice Bolfova, a family friend who helped arranged his meeting with Jiri Botula Sr. and Jiri Botula, Jr. Alas, we were daunted by travel logistics and language barriers. The Czech Botulas don’t know English and I don’t speak Cestina! As it is, I need to spend a lot more time on my Italian. So, the new family reunion will have to wait until my next trip back. Alice has very graciously agreed to stay in touch and help me to communicate with the family in the Czech Republic. So, we are now solid Facebook friends. The new friendship will enable her to practice her English and allow me to become better acquainted with my grandfather’s native tongue, Czech. This will help me become inept in a total of five languages – Spanish, French, German, Italian and now Czech.
New Friend - Valentina
   Speaking of new Facebook Friends, remember the lovely lady that I met on Michael’s Ostia Antica tour? Valentina? It turned out that this pretty and intrepid photographer is one of Mike’s English students. I had her figured as a professional travel photographer, what with the big Nikon and all. But, she’s really a human resources manager for a major auto leasing company here…and also committed, according to junior. Drat! Such a pretty smile, and, those big brown eyes! But, on Facebook at least, I have a new friend! I’ve also reconnected with a groups of expatriates that I first met on my visit here almost two years ago. The other Americans that I met during that trip tended to be from either New York, where I grew up, or from California where I’ve spent the bulk of my life. Add in the Brits, a sprinkling of French, Irish and other nationalities and it all added up to a group of good friends from places other than Italy. The common denominator was that we all spoke English. Having lived in New York and San Francisco and a couple of other international cities, I have felt right at home with these folks from the get-go. It all goes to show you that you never know where you will meet your next new friend.
Guess Who at 19
  My other sojourn…to Amsterdam…concerned a friendship of a totally different sort than the Facebook variety. Joan and I had been teenaged sweethearts back in our home town high school days, so many years ago that I tremble at the sheer number of passing years, and think, most people
Joan at 18
don’t live as long as the time since Joan and I were
dating! Our romance came to an end several months after she graduated from high school and headed to the big city, on a full scholarship to N.Y.U. (Oh, did I happen to mention that she was not only drop dead gorgeous, but brilliant, too!) At seventeen she spoke French well enough to interpret the menu at Paul’s Rendezvous, our local French restaurant. She loved not only classical music but, more importantly where I was concerned – Jazz. In fact when I caught up with her on the Veerstraat, she showed me the Frank Sinatra album I gave her on her 18th birthday. Yes, there was a lot of water under the bridge since the last time we saw each other. In fact, as we chatted on the canal boat tour of Amsterdam, we figured that we had last actually seen each other in 1964, a mere 51 years! In its day, it had been, as Sinatra had crooned, A Fine Romance, but now, as we both discovered, long after our parting, there remained a great and enduring friendship. Just before I got into the airport cab, we hugged and I said, Look at it this way, my dear, we are the only two still standing!  We were together back then, and now after all this time, we are still here! Go figure!

©Mike Botula 2015