Milan > Bologna > Rome, Italy 2019

in front of the word's smallest bar. what you see behind us is the whole of it (though there is one table for 4 on the sidewalk)


Friday June 14

“Good morning. Thinking of you as you say goodbye to Aunt Mina today. You are in our hearts.” This was the text received from the Rome contingent of El’s family on the drive to the train station this morning. Suffice it to say, this has been a bit of a difficult few months since Mina’s passing in January, and today is a significant date, she would have turned 80. As the days pass, I see what used to be coping with the unbearable morphing into quiet resignation of loss. Though days like this seem to bring us two steps back from the progress that has come with time. Last night, El unsealed the tin of cremains for the first time and transferred a few portions to specific containers before calling it a night. I wanted to give her some space to work alone and went to bed. She knew I was there for her, but sometimes, being absent is more important.

I have had conflicting feelings over the last couple of weeks when I would speak about our upcoming trip. It would come up that we were packing our bags for Italy and invariably I would blurt out that we were going on “vacation”. Which, for the most part is true. But, as far as I am concerned the first and last days (today June 14 and next Saturday June 23) will be the most significant of the next 10 days. There is bound to be a lot of fun in between and I expect we will not let the somberness of the bookends taint what promises to be a great vacation- which has the potential to include a long overdue reunion and a wedding! Before Mina passed, El and she had many frank conversations regarding the end of life. She not only put wishes down in writing, but discussed some details at length. There was never a question that El would ultimately be responsible for executing those wishes, but also making decisions to questions that arose once Mina could no longer advocate for herself. El was named as sole executrix for the estate and with all of the discussions that they did have, found herself making a lot of difficult decisions to those unforeseen questions. There were a few things that Mina was adamant about. She wanted to be cremated. She did not want to return to Italy, but chose to remain in her adopted home country. And she wanted her ashes spread on the east side of Manhattan. Technically, I think she wanted to be spread in the East River. However, even during her life, as she saw the decline of the East River’s water quality, a park on the east side, overlooking the East River was a suitable compromise. So, this morning, with a significant portion of ashes in tow, we are on the train, heading to Penn Station on our way to a park they used to go to, overlooking the East River to spread the cremains on this June14, her birthday. There are a couple of more stops we will have to make before heading to JFK Airport this afternoon for our 5:30pm flight. We make our way to Carl Schurz Park at 86th and East End Ave. An area I am largely unfamiliar with, but that El and Mina had spent considerable time in over the years. Even though there is no rain forecast today, the skies appear a bit gloomy. As we make our way to the park, the wind begins to pick up. We take a deep breath as we cross East End Ave. into the park. We know why we are here. As we enter, I am looking around for places to spread the ashes. We have no contingency plan for wind, so my expectation is that she will be able to find a secluded bush/tree to kneel down, say a few silent words, and spread the ashes before moving on. We go up to the riverside and overlook the skyline of Astoria. Some boats are passing, but nothing too close. El considers her options and decides to scatter handfuls at a time over the railing and into the water below. I was concerned about the sudden gusts of wind and had heard of nightmare scenarios where families find themselves standing in a cloud of ash as a breeze passes by just as the ashes fall from the bag. Even the funeral home had suggested transferring to a paper bag if they were to be scattered into a body of water. Well, we didn’t have a paper bag with us, only plastic that would not have been appropriate to deposit into the water. That said, I was nervous. El hears what I am saying, but decides to move forward with her plan. She starts with a small handful that, while it does not actually come directly back at us, it is clear to me that a larger handful, let alone the whole bag, could leave us not so lucky. I make the decision to take our luggage and retreat to a nearby bench to let El proceed how she feels fit. I will take some photos from an unobtrusive spot and cross my fingers that nearby benchsitters are spared the cremains’ shrapnel. Knowing I was nearby to give comfort by the time she had done as much as she was comfortable with, we sat on the park bench for a few minutes reflecting silently on Mina’s ultimate resting place. There was still a significant amount of ash in the bag, so El spotted a colorful purple bush in a flowerbed that was easily accessible from the walkway, but surrounded by a fence that would prevent dogs from pissing on it, or people from trampling through it. But low enough that no wind gust would spray it on unsuspecting passersby. Overlooking the river, and given her wishes, I am not sure that a more suitable place could have been chosen. We took a few moments afterward to clean up and compose ourselves before heading off to the airport. On the way out, El tells me that her suitcase is lighter, but her heart heavier. I concur.

this is the view of Carl Schurz Park looking from the promenade level down into the park

We subway back to Penn Station to get the LIRR > airtrain combo. We have some time before we need to be at the airport, so we will try to go to the new TWA Hotel at JFK. Really, kind of a neat concept, they have recently opened the newly renovated, long closed TWA terminal at JFK. Walking in is like walking into a time capsule complete with red velvet walls and a flipping tick board straight out of the 1970’s. They also have a hotel here, but it is the food court that’s attracting us today. We head to Jean-Georges’ Paris Café for a lunch. Certainly the only Jean-Georges restaurant I could get into wearing shorts! I start with a martini and we split a roasted cauliflower with mustard sauce and a cheeseburger. Sublime, each. A good decompression after such a heavy morning. At 3:30 we head to our check in. I checked in online last night, but need to print our boarding passes. We are not checking any bags, so without needing to drop bags and giving them our TSA Precheck numbers, we are actually through security in the matter of about five minutes, which I think is the quickest for a US airport I have ever seen. Anyway, we are through and at our gate an hour before boarding. I journal while El makes some last minute phone calls. She also makes sure all of our electronics are charged to the max before boarding, especially the phone we will use upon arrival. On the train today, El got the Whatsapp request for my friend Alessia. More on that later. Our plane leaves at 5:30pm. With today’s weightiness in the rearview, we can start to focus forward on our fun vacation that is ahead of us. Next stop, Milan. Our flight leaves on time and besides having the shittiest seats on the entire plane (two center seats of four across 18 rows back) our flight is rather uneventful. El is in good spirits and we toast the beginning of our vacation.

Saturday June 15

Our flight lands 30 minutes early and takes us about an hour to get through passport control. I expect it is a poor agent to passenger ratio that is causing the delay since they don’t even seem to be asking entry questions like you get sometimes when entering a country- usually in the nature of what are your plans while here, where are you staying, how long will you be staying here. Nope, this guy just looked at me, silently snatched our passports, did his document scans, stamped the passports and let us on our way. Painful during the wait. Painless once you get beyond the checkpoint. We have no checked luggage and do not need to claim bags. El connects to wifi to let Alessia know we have arrived. We follow signs for the train station which is connected to the airport and buy our tickets to Varese, the town where we will meet Alessia. The tickets are €13 each and the next train is in 30 minutes. We take a bathroom break and grab an espresso from a vending machine to refresh us enough to make it through the day- or at least contribute to making it through. The train takes about 40 minutes and Alessia is waiting for us at the station. I see her for the first time in 23 years and we reconnect like no time has elapsed. For lack of parking spaces around the station, Her mom is driving around waiting for us to emerge. We jump in and head direct for a café they know in town. In need of as much caffeine as we can get, I get a latte and a small sandwich to hold me over until lunch. This gives us the first real chance to talk, El and Alessia getting acquainted and us reconnecting after such a long time. I have been in email contact with Alessia once in a while over the past years, but this was the first opportunity to connect the timeline dots since we last saw each other. And meeting her mom was a wonderful bonus. Fun conversation and terrific expat insights. After the coffee, we head to Ann’s house, about a half hour north. This allows us a chance to get freshened up with a shower and change of clothes. We chit chat in the living room, reminiscing of our past and speaking of mutual friends. But, no matter the content, it just feels surreal that here I am, sitting in the living room, in Italy, of one of my friends who was part of one of the most special times in both of our lives. In short, in college, some know, I spent two summers at an archaeological field school in Jamaica. Six weeks living and working outside Ocho Rios in St. Ann’s Bay, Alessia and I were part of a group of 22 students who had an organic connection that we agreed could never be recreated. An amazing moment in time when lightning was caught in a bottle and duplication proved impossible. Our relationship here today speaks to that moment for both of us. While we are freshening up and reminiscing, Ann (Alessia’s mom) makes lunch reservations for us at a local spot. Keeping an eye on ours and Alessia’s afternoon plans, we head out to lunch on Lake Maggiore. A wonderfully scenic drive through the lake country ending in the town called Laveno-Monbello at a the restaurant called Il Chiostro di Cerro, with lakeside patio seating, listening to cresting wave ripples as they slap gently feet away from our table. A more perfect welcome to Italy I could not imagine. We continue our conversations, moving easily from updating 23 years of absence to telling tales of our history to those who weren’t there. We each order a lunch, I get a caprese salad and a dish called penne pasta with speck and saffron cream. A glass of house white wine reminds me that Italy is not known for bad wine. Even the house wine is crisp, refreshing, and perfect.

a reunion 23 years in the making. alessia and i on lake maggiore

We spend our time casually before heading back to Ann’s to grab our bags, have Alessia grab her things and then get dropped back at the train station. Alessia rides a few stops before getting off and saying our goodbyes. I am not sure if/when I will see her again, but this was just a wonderful day.
As we make our way to Grand Coconut Hostel near the central rail station in Milan. The metro is not over crowded, but all seats are taken and we stand, though not having a choice, to go our five stops. On the metro, El spies a couple of young people trying to pickpocket passengers and she thinks I was an active target. I routinely keep my valuables in a place that makes them less likely, though not impossible, to be lifted. We exit the train and do a belongings check and we are both spared issues at this point. We walk on to the hostel and get checked in. We take a two hour nap and plan to head out closer to 9pm, once the nightlife starts to get active. We won’t spend too much time out tonight as we are still beat from the flight, but don’t want to call it a night just yet at 6pm. After the nap, we head to the train station to find the local mobile phone store and get set up with a data plan that will allow us to travel easier. The process takes minutes and while El is doing her thing, I am able to use the train ticket kiosk to figure out our plan for heading to Bologna tomorrow night. We are both successful. We jump on the subway and head towards Corso Magenta, which sounds like a spot for nightlife nearby. The way I understand it is that Corso Magenta is a street and there are several notable bars and cafés in the area (not necessarily on the street) that are frequented by the local university population, among others. We follow directions to Bar Magenta which is a locally famous spot known for its aperitivo happy hour. Now, I thought I understood “aperitivo” to be a before dinner drink, but here it is more than that. An “aperitivo” is more like a tapas/small plates kind of thing. It is close to 9:30 on Saturday night and even though there are many people sitting outside at sidewalk tables, we sit in the quiet inside tables to review our guidebooks and journal. Our recommenders have remarked on the “excellent” sangria sold here, so we order two. But, the look on our server's face as El orders, tells me that he is not aware of their “excellent” selection. He whisks away and returns to let us know that the bartender tells him that they are out of sangria tonight. Maybe he is new?? We drink our alternate orders, wine and beer, and a basket of complimentary potato chips. We decide to skip another round and head to a café down the street known for their selection of fine Italian and international wines. We start down the street and remark that we are noticing flashes of light in the sky. As we continue, it starts to sprinkle and we have to laugh that the skies earlier gave no indication of rain, so neither thought to bring the rain gear. Hey, it is only sprinkling, and we can’t be going too far, right? As we walk we remark that for the “hopping university area” at 10:00pm on a Saturday night in a major metropolitan city center, there is almost nothing open. Very few on the sidewalks. Streets almost void of drivers. Even the apartment buildings show no signs of occupancy in the way of lights shining through windows. After about ten minutes we arrive at our address to find the café closed! We stand under the awning while El Yelps bars in the area. The process only takes moments, but in just that time, the sprinkles turn to outright downpour! Again, we have no rain gear on us, and decide to press on to the closest place in the area for our next stop. Walking to hug the building in an effort to take advantage of awning shades we find ourselves completely turned around. Soaking more and more as we walk briskly, we find our next address only to determine they have either closed or just changed name and is not exactly the kind of place we are looking for. The rain begins to lighten up and we duck into the only acceptable looking place on the block regardless of the offerings. We are seated immediately and given menus. Interestingly, it is a Japanese/Mexican cuisine menu with a partial array of sushi, tacos, and empanadas. We choose our order and sit. Waiting as the servers pass by, back and forth to the waitstation. We wait. And wait. I journal while we wait. And eventually, as I near a breaking point, I tell El that I am going to give this team about one more minute to stop by and at least acknowledge our patron status before we will take our business elsewhere. A generous two minutes later, we pack our things and head for the door. We accidentally turn into an enclosed patio from where there is no access to the sidewalk. Before we can even make it fully out the door, the hostess who seated us, no less, tells El that this is not an exit and that the exit is across the room! Way to turn down our business folks! Good luck with that business model. The rain has stopped as we leave and it is close to 11:15 now. We decide to head back to the hostel area for our end to the evening. The hostel is near the main train station and has several places that cater to the travelers passing through the station on their way to destinations afield. We spy a 24 hour pizza/wine bar called Minera D’oro. We order a pizza to split and two glasses of house white wine. People watching as we enjoy our order and watching Americans and other foreigners come through to grab something while they wait for their train schedule over the night. The pizza sauce is very nice – though the Tabasco Sauce delivered to our table is a little odd. I opt for the “hot chili oil” to kick my pizza up and it hits the spot. We order one more glass of wine each and wind down before calling it a night.

Sunday June 16

The hostel room, while private, was not the most comfortable sleep we have had, though being exhausted helped us get back to sleep every time we were awakened by sounds from the street below. Not a lot of people, but the ones we heard were the drunken singers and yellers and also as the tram rounded the corner below, the screech of metal on metal/wheels on rail was enough to jar you out of a sleep only to allow quick pass out once the street went silent as the tram continued out of earshot. We set the alarm for 8am. We will check out of the room his morning and leave our bags at the hostel while we do our tourist stuff today and then pick them up later when we will head to the train station and go to Bologna this evening. The hostel offers “breakfast” which amounts to not much more than prepackaged croissants and snack cakes, cold cereal and milk, coffee, and pineapple juice. We hand in the key, drop the bags, and grab a little bit of food. I just need enough to hold me over until a more proper breakfast stop. Back to the metro station, we head to The Last Supper. Our only appointment today. The tickets for this sell out weeks or months in advance and having learned our lesson by being aced out of the Anne Frank House last year, we did our best to secure our spot. I went on the internet and failed miserably. I may have gotten as far as a standby slot for one ticket, but I could not get two for the same timeslot. El, though, does me a few steps better and actually calls the ticket office. Then, speaking as an Italian, rather than a tourist, she secures two tickets for us. The entrance is by limited group only and capped at 15 minutes. We get one ticket for 10:30 and one for 10:45. Arriving well before our appointed timeslot, once in the area, we go to find some real coffee down the street. We are so close to the Colonia Café where we tried to go to last night, but it was closed when we arrived. Well, this morning it is still closed! The operating hours posted on the door are at odds with our experiences, but we don’t feel any need to linger, just moving on to another place close by. We do find a place called Biffi and they serve coffee and pastries. We can sit or stand (a relatively weird concept for those who have not experienced it). The way it works is that you go to the cashier first and place your order. She charges you and gives you your receipt that you take to the counter where two baristas are working in a fashion similar to a bar, where you try to get their attention to fill your order before they fill the order of the guy standing next to you. They don’t really have the concept of “to go” where you would get a paper cup to walk away with, so their version of “to go” is that you get your order, in my case a macchiato. It is served in regular cups with saucers and a spoon. You drink it standing at the counter/bar while others who are waiting to get their order filled worm their way past you trying to get the attention of the barista. When the coffee is done, you leave everything on the counter and exit. We head back to the church and figure out what we need to do with our bags while we see the painting. We split up and El goes in first. She takes the big camera in hopes of getting some good shots. I don’t hold out much hope for my cell phone pics. Just before 10:45 we are herded into different holding spots as our group comes together. The holding rooms have historical photos and detailed explanations about the war damage suffered by the church and restoration efforts over the years. Then, as we stand, the doors open and we are ushered into a large room and find ourselves gazing upon one of the most famous paintings in the world. It was larger than I expected and I can’t imagine what it would look like if restorations had not been done. There is a painting across the room from the Last Supper. With everyone engaged at the masterpiece, I move back to give a solo audience to that mural. After my time there, people are starting to file back allowing me to move up to the front of the Last Supper easily.

one of the many shots of the last supper

I take my photos and await getting ushered out as our fifteen minutes expires. Of all of the famous paintings I have seen, this one does seem to hold up to the grandeur that I had imagined- unlike that other famous DaVinci work in the Louvre. After we are both done here and collect our bags, we walk to the Duomo. The weather is gorgeous and we understand it is forecast to go to 86 degrees today. So, many of the tourists are out doing their touristy things before the heat really kicks in.

the facade of the duomo

the crossroads of the galleria. basically a covered high end mall (note the prada and lous vuitton shops on either side)

The Duomo of Milan is the third largest in the world behind Rome and Seville, Spain. It is an impressive structure, but once you have seen the Segrada Familia and the Cathedrals in Rome and Vienna, I don’t feel the need to fight through crowds to get a glimpse of more of the same sort of thing. El, on the other hand, does want to brave the crowd to get an inside look. I journal and watch bags while she does just that. The process takes a lot longer than either of us expect, at about an hour it gives me time to sit with maps and find a couple of things to check out before heading up to the hostel later today. First stop is next to the Piazza Duomo, called the Galleria. It is a glass covered mall of mostly high end retail outlets (Prada, Verace, Armani etc) and restaurants to cater to the throngs of people like us clogging these walkways. Most people make their way to the crossroads inside that creates a four corners with frescos and sculpture, and mosaic work under a giant rotunda. Everyone jockeying for position. Next, we head to an Ossuary at Saint Bernardino I read about. I always like seeing the bones on display. It is only a few blocks from the Duomo, but these roads are not built upon any grid system which makes getting from point A to B tricky sometimes. It does not take us long to get there and we walk in quietly and respectfully. The noise coming from inside is much louder than I would expect for a church service. As we round the corner, we realize there is a wedding going on and the ceremony has just wrapped and now people are in pre-celebration mood. We poke around casually looking for the ossuary and find a locked door. With no one to ask, eventually we give up and leave- on the way out seeing the sign “ossuary closed Sundays.” As we leave we find ourselves in the middle of some sort of street food fair. Not with food trucks or professional setups, but more like a collection of people offering homemade food to anyone walking by. Most of the vendors are either Asian or South American, so most of the food reflects that. I spy a tamale spot, but upon investigation, they only offer sweet, dessert style tamales and not chicken or pork. We find an Asian man selling grilled meats and the woman next to him offering homemade steamed dumplings. We order some grilled meat and an order of dumplings to split.

a plate of homemade dumplings...a little spicy garlic sauce on the side

She has no seat and just squats next to her basket of dumplings, but she does have an array of condiments in a try set up on a makeshift table propped up by a milk crate. She explains the toppings and offers an opinion about the heat level of each. We sprinkle some spicy garlic paste and soy sauce on the dumplings and put some hot sauce on the plate to dip into. They are really, really good. As we stand there eating the dumplings, sharing a single toothpick to do so, we ask the woman what kind of food fair this is. She tells us that this is her church and every Sunday afternoon the parishioners come together to sell their ethnic foods to anyone who wants to buy them. What a nice snack! Even though the ossuary was a bust, the food more than made up for it. Our next stop…the L.O.V.E. statue which stands for Libertà, Odio, Vendetta, Eternità (Freedom, Hate, Vengeance, Eternity) was erected as a temporary installation, but the city decided to keep it on a long term basis. That said, basically the statue is a single hand, middle finger extended, facing the central bank building.

telling the bankers what he really thinks

Wall Street has a charging bull. Milan, a giant "fuck you" to the bankers and CEOs that represent a lot of corruption and cultural decline to many people…including the artist. Being Sunday, there aren’t many people around (except the other tourists that want pictures with the bird). We consult the map for the next stop and El remembers that she did want to try to see La Scala, if possible, that is back near the Duomo. We are technically still in the area, and if we are going to do it, we need to do it now. My next stop is much further away from the Duomo. So, we make it back and find La Scala. I understand this is an important building for lovers of opera, but for me, it looks like a regular theater from the outside. I costs €9 to go in for a self guided tour. Hey, I have seen the opera house in Palermo and even seen an opera at the opera house in Odessa, I was content to save the money and journal in the park while El went in to photograph it.

inside la scala

jesus and mary...avec horns

She is not long and I have mapped out our next stop. We walk down to Basilica di Sant'Eustorgio, that is said to have among its artwork, a painting that includes Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, but both of them are depicted with horns on their head- and that’s not something you see everyday! This is a €6 entrance fee. There is not much else of interest to me in this church’s artwork collection. We are done in 15 minutes. When we leave the church, I recognize a street name that I had dismissed as too far, but since we were here, we detoured to the “world’s smallest bar”. It is called Backdoor43 and is located on the canal. We stroll along the water,and find the bar. Sadly, it too is closed until 7:30 tonight, so we cannot actually say that we drank at the “world’s smallest bar”, but we can say that we found it and checked a canalside stroll off our list of things to do. It is now after 4pm and the hostel is now open, so we can get our bags and head to the train station to get to Bologna on the next train out. It all works, and with the research I did last night in trying to figure out the time table, I actually knew how to navigate the ticket machine and its options.This is the second time though, that the ticket kiosks have declined my credit card, forcing me to use cash. We know the card works since I used it at the hostel just yesterday. Frustrating. As we are buying the tickets, the kiosk tells us that the train is leaving in 5 minutes and unfortunately, we don’t know where the platforms are…yet. The tickets print and we frantically look for anything that looks like a train platform. Following signs, we run upstairs towards the station’s interior. Platform is on another level. You see, we keep spotting entrances, but as we rush to them, we are presented with a closed set of doors. We can see the platforms through the glass, but just can’t seem to get to them. We keep going as fast as we can in the direction of platform 17. As we get around to the doors near platform 20 there is a station agent checking our documentation. She waved us in knowing that the train was literally seconds from departure. El and I backtrack to the platform and see a cabin crewman outside, so at least we know the train will not pull away without the crew on board! We confirm that were on the correct platform, but the conductor tells us to mind the announcements as we search for our cabin, ten cars down the track. At about car #5, I see a signalwoman motion to the conductor to pull out! This gives us about ten seconds before the doors shut and the train begins to move. We have to jump into the nearest car and walk through each car until we get to cabin #10. A small price to pay for not missing the train! The ride is only a little over an hour and we arrive within 60 seconds of the scheduled time. Bologna Central Station is as scummy as the other central stations we have been in. As we walk through the station to the exit, I realize that I don’t actually have directions to the hotel from the station. I buy a map at a shop in the station, but it is awful clarity and all streets are impossible to read. El calls the hotel for directions and he suggests using Google Maps! This is not going well. Sitting down outside to consult our maps and such, we hear a thud. Not loud enough to pull us from our map, but loud enough that when we look over and see a woman laying face first on the pavement, bystanders rushing to her aid, with a rolling bag dormant at her feet, we both realize that (rolling suitcase slapping the pavement) was the thud we just heard. Enough people are tending to her that we stay away and quickly exit the area. As we walk away from the station the ambulance arrives and we are able to point them in the correct direction (since all of the activity is hidden by the line of parked cars). Hey, if I got the EMTs to the scene one second faster, I will consider that a win. We follow Google Maps directions and realize that the desk staff was not kidding! Him explaining this path to us would have been a challenge of epic proportions. That said, it takes us about 15 minutes through alleyways and side streets to arrive at our hotel. We check in, freshen up, and set off to explore the neighborhood. Bologna is known as “The Fat City”, evidently for good reason. I will digress here. You see, in 1999 I took my first trip to Italy. I had heard all of my life, up to that point about how great the food is there. And, honestly, while completely acceptable, the food in Rome specifically did not measure up to the level that I had built up in my mind. That was just my experience. Did I go to the wrong places? Maybe. Did people who recommended Italian food eat at better places? Possibly. El and I eat on vacation. Sometimes it is weird stuff (as described by others). Sometimes it is wonderfully sublime (as described by me). We are as at home eating a dumpling on the street as we are in a three star establishment…and I am Ok with that. I am here in the city of food to give Italy a second chance at a first impression, since I think it deserves that chance. Or rather, I deserve that chance to not miss out on a life affirming experience because of a bad luck streak elsewhere in the country. We know that we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow. So, instead of napping and going out on the town tonight, I suggest, let’s find local food, and get to sleep early to be refreshed in the morning. We know we are near the main square and figure we should head in that direction to get acquainted with our surroundings. From the main square we Yelp places close by. One is called the Bottega Portella, but it appears to be a new concept for us, where all food is ordered through a touch screen kiosk and picked up at the counter to be taken upstairs to eat or to go. Intrigued by the idea, and encouraged by the Yelp ratings, still we decide to keep moving, opting for more of a sit down place. We end up a few doors down at Ca’pelletti, a restaurant that makes their own pasta and is supposed to have some wonderful sauces. El orders a pasta with zucchini, while I go for the city’s specialty…tagliatelle with ragu. They don’t make spaghetti, they make tagliatelle (which is like a wide fettuccine) and what we generally know as “meat sauce” (as in, “spaghetti with meat sauce”), here is known as “ragu”- the rest of the world also calls it Bolognese sauce.

tagliatelle with “ragu”- though the rest of the world also calls it Bolognese sauce

We split a salad and share in the pasta dishes. The bottle of house white wine we share is better than almost any house white we get at home. What a wonderful culinary welcome to the Fat City. For dessert we split a piece of apple cake and get a couple of coffees. We are comfortably full and walk back to the room afterwards to sit and digest before calling it a night.

Monday June 17

We don’t need to set an alarm, but we do anyway, if for no other reason than to not let the morning get away from us. The hotel offers breakfast included so we head there first. Basic pastries and finger sandwiches. The coffee is the best part. We don’t spend long and before long we are out. We want to find the tourist information center at the main square (Piazza Maggiore), so with a lot of time until we have to meet the tour group at 10am, we take the long way around just to see a different direction than we took last night when we went to dinner. It is close to 9am now and there are so few people on the streets that it is a little strange. Is there a holiday today? It is just a little weird. We stop at the tourist info office and pick up some maps and ask some questions about directions for addresses we have. On the way out of the square I see a blue bus. Looks more like a small school bus than the city buses I have seen around town. As we pass, I see a group of about ten police officers. I say to El, as we look around and see almost no one even in the main square, “geez, what are they expecting a riot?” We amble down the street to the meeting spot and wait. Just about 10:00 we meet the guide, Scott, an expat from Long Island who strikes me immediately like he stole his personality directly out of Jeff Spicoli’s playbook. God, all he was missing was the hair, surfboard, and zinc oxide on his nose. While possibly fun if I met him in a bar, this did not sit well for my attention at a walking tour. Within five minutes he had already offended any potential hardcore Catholics I believe he called them "knuckleheads". Then, I do believe he referred to the Bolognese people as “idiot knuckleheads” when describing their lack of use of air conditioners during the summer. I understood where he was going with that, but, I was a little put off by his remarks. After all, this is the city that allows him to live here! I was not the only one who felt this, evidently, since before the first stop no less than six people had dropped off the tour! We did stick with it and for a free tour, we did see and cover a lot of ground. Scott turned out to be a mediocre guide and I only appreciated the highlights. Some guides are great at anecdotal tourist stuff, but this guy did seem to credit most of his knowledge to people who have taken his tour in the past and either told him something he later confirmed, or asked him a question he did not know, so he went and got the answer and has been able to incorporate the fun fact into his tours since. We were able to see the remains of the Bologna canal system, including a window that had been installed at some point for the sole purpose to see the canal waters flowing near apartment buildings before disappearing under the city again.

a window into the city's canal past

I will admit that despite the guides demeanor and lack of couth, we did wind up seeing and learning several things about the city that were helpful. Sometimes it was being shown spots we had read about, but didn’t know where they were, and other times seeing something that we had no idea was there…the things that some tour guides love to do…showing off their insider knowledge of the area. One example of this was when we passed the two towers. The city once had a couple hundred towers, today a handful survive, and two remain near the city center. One stands erect, while the other leans due to unsettled foundation issues centuries ago. I had read, and Scott confirmed that it actually leans to a higher degree than the more famous tower in Pisa. But, while standing at the foot of the towers, Scott mentions that you can pay to walk up the 498 steps to the top, but when you get there, you can take pictures of everything, except the tower…because you are in it! He tells us that he will show us a secret place where you can climb up, and get a picture of the towers…and it is free. He makes good on that claim, a little later in the tour, he points us to the Isolini Palace where there is an unassuming doorway situated in a courtyard. He says that you can just walk through the door like you own the place and no one will bother you. There is a special stairway inside that you can climb up and when you get to the top you will be able to take a photo of the two towers above the roofline. We make a decision to come back to check that out. As we walk around the market, Scott points us to some potentially interesting bars for aperitivos and wine should we come back. We make notes. We finish our tour in the Piazza Maggiore and again I see the police bus with several police inside. This time there are more people in the square, but still, the same cops in the same place? I ask Scott, if the police expecting a riot? To which he respond, “yes, sort of”! Intrigued, I lean in as he tells us that the Basilica on the piazza has a painting inside that depicts the Prophet Mohammed being tortured in hell by Satan.

the entire painting depicting dante's inferno

As you can imagine the mere existence of such a painting basically pissed off close to a billion people on the planet, some of whom have threatened to stop at no end to see it destroyed. So, yeah, you could say that the police may be expecting some sort of shit to go down without further warning. Not generally one for churches, I knew that I had to see that baby (before I read about it getting destroyed by someone who values ideology over life). We also see and get the story, even if not all true, a good story nonetheless about the city symbol, Statue of Neptune in the piazza. Story goes, the sculptor created the statue of Neptune with a godlike physique, including proportional endowment. However, sitting so close to the church, it was decided that the penis was too big and needed to be revised. Sort of comical that the penis size was an issue, but not the fact that four naked mermaids are squirting water from their nipples at his feet. Nevertheless, it was revised, but so was Neptune’s hand. When you look at the statue from the front, he looks like a well built man, with a proportionally minuscule unit. However, if you look at the statue from behind at the right angle, even though you are actually seeing his thumb, he appears to have an erection of epic proportions pointing directly at the church!

"sticking it" to the church

After the tour breaks up we go to one of his aperitivo recommendations called La Ferri. It is only about 12:30, but this bar has aperitivo all day- one of their gimmicks. Aperitivo, as I learned, is food offered at a bar to go along with the drink you buy and evidently, Bologna is the king of the aperitivo culture. You know how you sometimes go to a bar and they give you a bowl of peanuts or pretzels? Well imagine if it was a spread of mini pizza slices, crostini topped with different grilled veggies, an assortment of pickles and olives that you could just take whatever you want to snack on while you drink. It goes to follow that some places do this better than others, but seemingly everyone does it. Anyway, like our “happy hour”, places will have “aperitivo hour”, but, some places put food offerings out all day and this place did. At noon the sandwiches have presumably been sitting there since opening time, and as I bite into the first finger sandwich, I can only assume that the bread was stale long before I got here! Dry crumbs eject from my mouth and into my beard as I try to work out what my wine order will be. Between El and the bartender they decide I should try Lambrusco. I get a glass and try to use the first sips to reset my mouth from the desiccant I had just eaten. The Lambrusco is not at all what I assumed it would be. It was much drier than I thought and a little bit fizzy. I really liked it. There is one other gentleman already standing in the cramped bar who knows a few words of English and wants to practice them with us. This is usually a harmless exercise, so I am happy to indulge when I can. This was no exception. He was superfriendly and wanted to ask us things like where we are from and the like. When I tell him I like the wine he points to a salami sandwich on the counter and tells me that I should try it, but before I do he will ask the bartender to add to it. Before I know it he has motioned for the bartender to come to us and take this sandwich and put something on it. The sandwich leaves with the bartender and El is able to understand that he is expected to add some sliced artichokes to the bread and meat. When it comes back, I eat it. The oil on the artichokes certainly helped the sandwich’s edibility factor. We only stay as long as one glass of wine and pay on our way out. We head back to Isolani Palace were Scott had told us about the spiral staircase.

spiral staircase leading up to the secret view of the towers

el being goofy

We do as he suggested and “walk in like you own the place” and no one will bother you. And, sure enough, that’s exactly how it went. We walked up and got a rooftop-level view of the surroundings, including the towers. It was just the two of us- until we had a run in with two different people, each with an unleashed dog! Well, that didn’t go down well…at all. I see dogs and I slide to the side to not get myself involved in any way and to let the owner know that I am not interested. Owners, for the most part, are respectful. Well, I slide to the wall and before any of us know it the two dogs are fighting furiously while their respective owners try to break it up, get them to stop, apologize to us and the other dog’s owner, to no avail. In fact, as fast as they break them up, remember, they have no leashes, the dogs go at it again. The fight is broken up quickly and everyone goes their own way, including us…down and out. After we come down, we head to the Church of Saint Stephen which is on the same square. The complex is actually four churches connected, and even though it was recommended by our tour guide and also in my research, I am not sure what the hype is. I found it to be a bit dark and unremarkable. While there, El recommends going to find Corpus Domini that is said to have the mummified remains of St. Catherine sitting in a gilded throne, now THAT has potential for us! We walk to the church and the sign on the door says that it is closed until 3pm. We head to a nearby restaurant for a bottle of Lambrusco while we wait. El gets zucchini flowers and an artichoke salad. I get a plate of fresh pineapple as I don’t want to spoil my appetite for later. While we are in the restaurant, we pull out the guidebooks and learn that regardless of the church availability, the chapel is not open today! One of the tour tips we found though said if you can’t get into the chapel, you can see the remains through a small window just to the right of the altar. And since we came all this way, so we have to try. We get back to the church on time, but they open 15 minutes late. Luckily, she does not hang around to catch us gawking at the remains through the window behind the altar. As always we like creepy and weird tourist attractions, and getting photos can sometimes be a challenge. Because, let’s face it, in some cases it really is “pictures, or it didn’t happen.” Though for us, more like “pictures, or my description won’t do it justice.” We do get our photos, but the distance and lighting prevent us from getting good and detailed ones.

the best view we could get of the mummified st. catherine

It wouldn’t be until later in the trip that we would see way more realistic looking deceased persons (or wax models of such). Next, we want to make our way back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. On the way I tell El that I want to stop near the hotel to the Basilica of San Petronio that has the painting that depicts an artists rendering of “hell” from Dante’s Divine Comedy. We go inside and I am surprised, a little, by the lack of bag check given this world we live in today. The only reason we are stopped is because El’s shoulders are bare and must be covered before entry. Luckily, she has me carry a shirt in my bag for just such an occasion. We make our way inside and pay the €2 fee for photo privileges. El has the big, professional camera, while I only have a cell phone, so let her take the wristband. We walk around the church looking for the Inferno painting, but on the way, see the other attraction of this basilica…the sundial. Well, not sundial per se (though that is how it is described in the guide book…it is an actual meridian line that goes right through the church. There are all sorts of numbers, symbols, and dates written along the line and somehow as the sun shines through the windows of the church and casts it light onto the ground along the line, it is possible to tell the time, date, and current sign of the zodiac based on where it lands. There are a few spots with paintings and some visually spectacular stained glass. El takes photos of what she can (some spots are off limits to those who are not there to pray). But, what I really want to see is the Inferno painting. After about 15 minutes I find it. It is tricky because the part I saw online is a very small portion of the entire piece that you may not notice unless you are up close. However, this room, some are closed to no-prayers, this one is closed to non-payers! They have a cash register set up with velvet ropes to create a segregated area for those who have plunked down the additional €3. El has the photo band so I send her is alone to get the photos while I stand outside the side chapel. Then it dawns on me after a few minutes, I am the one who wanted to see the painting, so I pay the €3 and meet El in the room. We are the only two there, confronted by a sign, the only one in the entire basilica that reads “no photos”. Being the only two there, we both whip out our cameras and get as many shots as we can before we get shut down by the guards…an act which never comes. We take our photos and head back into the main aisle where I realize, knowing what I wanted to get the shot of, I could get from outside the velvet ropes, where photos are allowed, and with a telescoping lens, I could get some better angles for the shot. El starts shooting the pictures and I look over her shoulder at the viewscreen. I am concerned because she appears to be focusing on a different part of the painting. Since we are possibly risking getting shut down if someone sees us shooting this painting. I tell her I think we should just take the torture scene and call it a day as I manually recenter her frame in the screen…at which point it dawns on her that she thought a different part of the painting was the torture scene (to be fair, there was a lot of torture going on this painting, just not a lot to potentially result in a suicide bombing). We get what we need, photowise, and move on…unhurt.

the section of the painting that is cause for a riot police presence

Though I would not be surprised to read in the future that someone had different plans and takes matters into their own destructive hands. Back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. This is our maiden voyage on the bus. The city is too small to have a subway, since the city center is actually pretty small and easily walkable. But, our dinner reservations are for a place a little out of the center. We could walk it in a pinch, but the heat makes me fear that I will sweat through my good clothes if I have to walk further than the distance to the bus stop. We take the bus out to a stop called Cignani and find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. We have no idea what direction to go and no one to ask. But, thank god for google maps. It takes us a lot less time to get here than either of us thought and we are more than an hour early, so we Yelp a local bar. We follow the directions, but just as it starts to feel like we are walking a lot farther for a before dinner beer than I wanted to, I spot an aperitivo bar, so we go in. I journal while we wait. At 7:25 we get back to La Porta and are seated. We are served a complimentary glass of sparkling wine, recalling an experience we had when we were served champagne upon arrival, only to find out when the bill arrived that they were €50 each!! Fortunately, this was not one of the same situations! After carefully considering our choices this evening, we opt for the “Old Traditions” tasting menu that is offered only for an entire table. And since we are in agreement, start that ball rolling. Though being in Italy, I decide that we will augment the set menu with an additional order of risotto of the day: an artichoke rice with dotted with black garlic, served with a drizzle of olive oil. The pre-first course arrives. Four amuse-bouches compliments of the chef. I cannot say I recall what the components of each bite were, but the fresh, unsalted, whipped butter with a small dollop of caviar spread upon a warmed slice of baguette was just wonderful. I am not generally a fan of caviar, but this had only enough taste to add an almost smoky component to the bite and the saltiness brought out the creaminess of the butter. El orders a bottle of Pinot Grigio for us to drink during the meal. First up is our antipasto course. On the English menu it is titled “beated beef”. Not sure what that is, but when it arrives, it is obvious. A perfectly formed raw beef patty with a raw quail egg sitting atop the center. On the plate rim there are four garnishes meant to be eaten with each forkful. Roasted red peppers. A sardine filet. Shaved fennel. And shaved Parmesan cheese. Truth be told, this was my foray into beef tartare and honestly not my favorite. I could get over the raw beef, but the texture of the raw egg yolk, and in trying to experience the dish as the chef intended, the sardine filet, were both a little stomach turning for me- not off to a good start. But, I soldiered through and hoped for better to come…which it did in spades! Next out was the only item we were able to order separately on the menu was the pasta course of tortellini. I get mine with a pourover of chicken broth, while El opts for the Parmesan cream sauce on hers. We each try each others and even though I think hers is good, it is way too heavy for my taste. Like an alfredo sauce on meat filled pasta. I was really good with the lighter consistency of my soup. Next out they wedge the risotto in. The consistency is excellent and the dots of black garlic really add a nice component to the flavor, however, I truly believe this is one time that what I get at home is better than this…and this is really good. And I tell El so. They are pacing the courses well and the next course of veal served with bitter herbs arrives. It is a veal cutlet, breaded and deep fried, topped with a thin slice of prosciutto and covered with a paper thin slice of Parmesan cheese- like a veal cordon bleu- only saltier. I don't particularly care for bitter herbs, but the saltiness of this recipe needed some component to cut the stinging of my taste buds. It was still enjoyable, but I knew later in the night I was going to need a bottle water- I was already parching. Our last course, dessert, is a crescent of meringue, topped with dollops of cherry cream, chocolate cream, vanilla cream, and sour cherries in syrup. A little busy, flavorwise, but a fine, fine ending to a wonderful dining experience. We are presented an array of sweet bites when the bill is delivered and we marvel at how cheap the entire dinner was as we pop bites of chocolate with blueberry cream, pastry shell with vanilla cream, and brownie. Both full, but not uncomfortably so. La Porta, you treated us well. We wanted to head to a local bar for a nightcap on our way back, but as we walk to catch the bus, we decide to call it a night. We have to be up early (5:45) tomorrow morning and it is getting on 10:45 as we get back to the city center. Couple that with the fact that most businesses are closed for the night and finding a spot could take work, we agree it just isn’t worth it. We are back at the room and sleeping before midnight.

“beated beef”

tortellini with a pourover of chicken broth

very good risotto that takes a back seat to el's

Tuesday June 18

Today is the big food day for us. Oh boy, was it a big food day. One of the popular things to do in this region is to take a day trip to the area of Modena and tour a Parmesan-Reggiano factory, then go to a balsamic vinegar producer, and finally to where they make “Prosciutto di Modena” (not “di Parma” since we are not in Parma, though the process is the same). The tricky part is that the tour of the cheese factory starts every morning at 7:30. Since there is no train from Bologna to Modena that arrives before 7:30, you have only three options, spend the night in Modena and arrive to the factory before 7:30, rent a car and drive to Modena to arrive before 7:30, or do what we the extra money to get picked up by van at your hotel in Bologna, drive to Modena before 7:30, meet the guide, take the tours and get fed a lot of food over the course of the day, and get dropped off at your hotel at the end of the day. And I will tell you that our company (Italian Days) and our tour guide (Arianna) made this a remarkable day for the both of us. We meet Arianna a 7:30 as the 12 of us (the tour group) arrive at the cheese factory. She welcomes us with a cup of coffee as she explains the parts of the cheese making process that goes on outside of the factory. I don’t want to say I don’t like her, but let’s just say that her perkiness puts me off at this hour. One thing that grates on me, is at the beginning of a tour, any tour, they ask you to introduce yourself, say where you are from, and then something like how you found out about this tour, or why you are taking this tour etc. I just find that I don’t care why a couple from Australia decided to come to a cheese factory today- let's just get on with it. Usually I can get El to make our intros together so this is a shade more comfortable for me. Anyway, if Arianna’s perkiness doesn’t subside a little, I am going to be miserable all day. She continues to tell us that It takes 550 liters of cows milk to make one 100 lb. wheel of Parmesan cheese. But with no cows on the property, she explains where the milk comes from and how the cows are cared for in an effort to be certified as official Parmesan-Reggiano cheese.The factory makes 72 wheels of cheese every single day and we are going to get a first hand look at the process- though a bit out of order. There are several steps to the process and only a couple of them require a staff of people doing manual labor- so in order for us to see those steps, Arianna has to confer with the cheese master of the factory to be able to show us the steps without interrupting the flow of business. In order to do this, we start with the less manual steps of the process, like when the warm cheese is put into molds and weighted down to extract moisture. So, even though we don’t see the soft cheese being wrapped in molds, we do see the tool components as well as yesterday’s cheese already in molds. Then we move into the salting room where the dried and pressed wheels are soaked in a salt water solution for 18 days, before being sent to the aging warehouse. This room is the jewel of the factory where 72, 50kg wheels each day are added to shelves for aging, stacked floor to ceiling. It is a lot of cheese and it has to be aged a minimum of 12 month before it can be certified as Parmesan-Reggiano. After we see the care and processing in the warehouse, Arianna takes us to the beginning of the process where the workers are working today’s production. To make 72 wheels a day, they use 36 copper cauldrons where they start with station number one.

starting the day with clean cauldrons

el and i in our coveralls standing with fresh molded parmesan wheels

wheels in the aging room for a minimum of 12 months

Add 1100 litres of milk and rennet. Bring it up to temperature so the rennet can coagulate the milk. While the first station is getting up to temperature, they move on to the second station and add the milk and rennet. And so on until the first station is at temperature and coagulated to the consistency of a very runny soft boiled egg (think very loose yogurt). Then the cheese master takes over and does his part to make the cheese curds that will sink to the bottom of the tank. It sits in the hot water and forms a blob in the bottom and when it is ready the next workers use giant paddles to scoop the blob and raise it to the top of the liquid, working together to wrap it in large sheets of cheese cloth, cutting each blob into halves creating 72 for the day. At this point the salt has not yet been added and Arianna lets us taste it. What will become Parmesan cheese, now, is essentially milk bubble gum. Flavorless, with elastic consistency. Having seen the process backwards, we know the blobs in the cheesecloth will go to the molds, then to the salting tanks, then to the aging warehouse. And tomorrow the entire process will start all over again. We jump back in the van and head to a balsamic vinegar producer to learn and taste more than we have ever known about balsamic vinegar. By now, I am beginning to warm to our guide’s personality. Her over-the-top perkiness, has tempered to an infectious enthusiasm that is going over well with the group. Arianna starts by asking us how many have ever had true Balsamic Vinegar di Modena before. Most of the group raise our hands, including us. We would learn that almost no one in the group has had it, including us! At least knowingly. It is possible that we had a spot in some dish at a restaurant and not known it was the real thing, but once we got the eye opening truth about how and where balsamic vinegar is made, Arianna’s description calling what we have had of “falsamic”, seemed largely apropos. To spare you the details, let’s just say, true 5-7 year aged balsamic runs about €35 for a 8oz. bottle, whereas the stuff you buy for $4 in the supermarket is made in New Jersey and aged for 60 days! I may never eat that stuff again! This stop was our first servings of food…the first of much. We sampled Parmesan-Reggiano aged 12 months and 36 months to taste the difference between the two. I prefer the 36, but others preferred the 12. Then we tried salami (which was just a dried pork and not necessarily what we think of as salami). A bowl of fresh sour cherries and homemade flourless chocolate cake hold us over for a while. After food, we take a tour of the vinegar aging rooms where you see the series of aging barrels that have been in this producers family for years…and I mean years. As with most product we see today there is a strict certification process (D.O.P.) that has to be adhered to in order to be able to call your product what it is and get the D.O.P. stamp. This family owns the oldest certified vinegar casks that have been aging vinegar since 1860! Yes, that is 160 year old vinegar and is not for sale as it is consumed by his family.

a battery of 160 year old vinegar

paulo looks on as arianna gives the hard sell

In the certification process, the oldest certifiable bottle is 25 years- meaning that it is 25 years minimum and only the producer can tell you exactly how old it is. The bottle can only tell you it is at least 25 years. A 3oz. bottle of minimum 25 year aged is €550- and that, is the “friend price”! A far cry from the stuff you get at the supermarket! As a group we are given a sample of the real deal vinegars ranging from 5 to 30 years. I have to be honest, while I did taste a significant difference between the samples, my preference lied squarely in the 5-7 year old stuff and not in the rarer, older offerings. As we get ready to move on, Paulo (the vinegar producer) brings one more item, a small cup of fresh ricotta cheese topped with a drizzle of vinegar. It is a great combination and the cheese has the taste and consistency of cream cheese. Most people make some purchases, but I am not shelling out that kind of money for something I don’t love. Our next stop is a prosciutto producer. We pull up to an unassuming deli on the side of the road and are greeted by the owner, Pino. We are then escorted by Arianna downstairs to the monstrous operation…she challenges us to guess how many items are being cured in the warehouse as we tour the rooms. She explains the steps from salting, resting, salting again, bathing to get salt off, to resting in temperature controlled warehousing. The racks of meat went on forever and ever. Just a phenomenal amount of meat resting for 14 months. At some point Arianna asks us to guess at how many items were curing in the warehouse. Everyone throws out numbers that are wildly under. Eventually, 250,000 is revealed as the approximate number of pig legs being cured in this place. Now, that is a lot of meat! Upstairs we are able to sample several of Pino’s offerings after he shows us how the inspectors actually test his product for quality using a horse’s tibia bone. We get to smell the bone after it is used to pierce the meat at specific points to determine its quality. Then we eat. Prosciutto, mortadella, different kinds of cured pork, and a shaved porkbutt cooked with black truffles that was my favorite bite so far. It is all washed down with Lambrusco, which I am becoming very fond of. Will be interested to see if I can recreate my enthusiasm for it once I get home.

with 40 of the 250,000 aging meats

arianna uses the horse tibia to point to different parts of the ham before piercing it and passing it around for us to smell

Our next, and last stop is lunch…a full sit down lunch. I had a feeling it was going to be a sizable meal, I didn’t realize it was going to be a seven course lunch! We are seated in an agritourism farm with a restaurant called Café Salena. We are seated at a table for the 12 of us and Arianna announces the dishes moments before they are brought out. Luckily, family style so that we can choose how much we want. First up, pasta number one called gramigna alla salsiccia (pork sausage). Then pasta number two, casarecce with sauteed tomato and onion. Then pasta number three, tagliatelle alla ragu (Bolognese/meat sauce). I am getting full again just writing about it. Each were good. May favorite was the number one and I could have eaten that all day. The ragu, while very good, was just not as good as El’s…and I told her so. Arianna does not eat with us, which we understand (she has to give this tour every day). So, she just walks around the table talking to the group, but also just speaking to us individually. She is also the wine server and keeps my Lambrusco flowing continuously. Next are the meat dishes. Chicken cacciatore, meatballs with peas, and a veal scallopini in a balsamic vinegar sauce.

gramigna alla salsiccia

The meatballs were my favorite, but I can’t eat any more than my initial portion. It would just be overkill. Lastly, as the desert is served, I order a latte macchiato. This seems to be quite the item of contention around here. You see, Italians believe that milk in coffee is a morning drink and ordering it after 11am is basically a social faux pas. I dig in and say this is what I want. “Yes, I am the crazy American who drinks coffee with milk after 11am”…however, getting someone to agree to make it is another story…seriously! Arainna spends a few minutes explaining the offerings to the table and none of them include hot milk (you may order espresso, but no cappuccino). You can get coffee with a drop of milk, but not steamed milk. Again, I tell her, this is what I want. (ask yourself this question…you hate anchovies, find them inedible. You go to a pizza shop and order a pizza with your favorite toppings and they tell you they will add anchovies. You tell them you do not want anchovies, but they insist. At some point do you get the anchovies or say, “no, I do not want anchovies. I don’t care if that is how you do it here, I do not want anchovies!”?- because, that is what I would do) After a few minutes, Arianna returns to tell me, jokingly, that she could lose her job for going to bat for me…but she managed to convince the people here to make the latte macchiato for me! I had a good laugh. The dessert was a flan and a very decent end to a wonderful day. At the very end, she offers us a glass of grappa, limoncello, or some cherry version that no one seems to know the name of. We all choose the cherry liqueur. It is served and everyone agrees it tastes like Robitussin…we should have quit after the flan. At the end we all say our goodbyes and get into our vans back to the city center- about 40 minutes drive. Once back at the room, we take about an hour nap- both falling asleep during the process of discussing what we want to do for the rest of the evening. After an hour we get going so we don’t have to be out too late. We want to hit a street called Pratello that we hear has a lot of bars and restaurants. We walk down the street and as we pass by, I hear a rock music beat. It is faint enough that I can’t tell if it is coming from the bar or the apartment above it. We walk in to examine and sure enough, they have an aperitivo selection and beer advertisements. The music is generic…for now. We decide to stay for one glass of wine while I journal and El knits and creates some posts about our day. Our waitress brings us the wine, but also makes a plate of aperitivo for us. Still full from lunch, we tell her we don’t need food, but she leaves it anyway. Well, we got here around 8:00 and it is now 11:00 and we have no intention of leaving soon. The music turns great. So much so, that I speak with the owner about how I am hearing so much stuff I do not believe I ever hear in bars. We bond over interest in several bands. We keep the house white wine flowing while picking up a game of Scrabble we started last night. At about midnight, we look to call it an evening.

Wednesday June 19

We don’t have any appointment plans today, so we set the alarm for much later than we have been getting up…about 8:30. This gives us the chance to catch up on sleep and we should be good to go all day. One thing I wouldn’t mind doing is the Museum of Wax Anomalies. It is part of the local medical school and is a collection of wax models of not only different body parts, but also of different pathologies. The models are amazingly lifelike and remind me a bit of the Bodies exhibit that used actual humans, where this was most likely an artistic rendering of the body parts- with incredible detail. For example, there was a wax brain that was probably five times normal size. Obviously not a lifesize model, but the arms and legs under the glass cases could not have been more lifelike.

one of the display cases with lifelike wax models

The visit was free and we did not spend that much time- maybe 30 minutes before stepping into the hallway to discuss our next stop. Just before we leave, El pulls some hijinx with a realistic looking corpse. There was no sign that said “no photo”! We look up our next stop, the Bologna cemetery. It is a little outside of town, but from where we are right now, we have a couple of bus options to get there. We buy our tickets (bus tickets are cheaper if you buy them at a tobacco shop than they are if you buy them on the bus). We walk down to the stop and check the schedules for each route. At this hour buses are coming rather frequently and we don’t wait more than 10 minutes. We take the bus out of town and get off near the stadium. From here we walk into the cemetery. It doesn’t look like much, as we descend the stairs onto plot level. There are a couple of large plots in the ground level, but the grounds are surrounded by a wall that upon closer inspection are burial crypts- sort of like coffin lockers. We walk around the plots and we see a handful of recent burials (within the past year). The amount of overgrowth is remarkable, considering that current family members are surely visiting their loved ones, no? Most graves are well grown over with grass. We also spot a plot of short graves that are all marked with the same cross, no names- only a consecutive code (U-187, U-188, U-189 etc.), and a date of death. We guess that these are newborn kids who pass away before they are assigned names? Otherwise, seems odd that a family would let a named child be buried without a name. We head towards the crypts to see if there is more to this cemetery than we are seeing. El looks this place up online and finds that CEO’s of Lamborghini, Maserati, and Ducati are interred on the grounds. (I just assume these guys would have visually beautiful sites) That said, we take off to find at least one of them. There do not appear to be any indication of where they are interred, so we find ourselves wandering for a while, all the time realizing that there is more to this place than we previously thought- and much closer to “huge” than the minimal part we walked into. It just kept going and going. We finally see that there are many different sections, like the people that are buried alone, those buried in family tombs, cremains of relatives placed next to each other for eternity, families with money that had mausoleums constructed, and those oddly unnamed deceased infants. A monument to war dead and those who died at sea.

a wall of crypts at the cemetery

Thousands and thousands of the eternally interred. Eventually we hit a tourist information office…in the cemetery. It is closed now, but we grab a map to see what we can make of it. We just plain cannot find Lamborghini. Ducati’s tomb, according to the map is located in the middle of the crematorium, we make a last ditch attempt to locate the Tomb of the Maseratti family, to no avail. It was still a sizable walk through a place that only some fear to visit (in a tourist capacity). We are getting a little hungry and I want to try Osteria Del Sole which is a bring your own food, drinking establishment. Signs on the door include “those who did not come here to drink, be damned” and “you can bring your own food, but you need to order drinks.” Considering it is located inside the market we figure that we will find some food in the area and go in and abide by the signs. On the bus ride back to the city center, we recall a food place from our first night when we were looking for a sit down place and found a take out/fast food kind of place. I thought, this could be a good opportunity to try the food we missed out on then. You order your food at one of several kiosks throughout the place. You either pay with a card at the kiosk or take your receipt to pay cash at the counter. Then wait for your food. We order a dish of orzo with lemon cream and Parmesan, an order of cheese filled tortelloni with tomato sauce, and a salad. The food does not take long and we are on our way. El makes a pit stop wanting some fresh Parmesan-Reggiano with the meal. We walk into the bar and go to order our wine, only to recognize one patron from yesterday (he is the one who ordered me a sandwich with artichokes). We say our hellos, but I don’t know how long he has been drinking today and don’t want to share my lunch table with a drunk patron who I cannot communicate with. He does not sit with us, so all is well after the pleasantries. We stay a while journaling and playing Scrabble, eating, and of course, drinking the house wine. El’s tomato sauce is better than the tortelloni sauce and I don’t particularly care for the cheese stuffing in the pasta. However, the orzo with lemon cream and Parmesan more than made up for it. Eventually, we decide to leave and head to a gelato place that has been recommended by two people. It is called La Vecchio Stallo (the cow stable) and their specialty is buffalo milk gelato. You can get it plain or with some add ins. I go for the dark cherry in heavy syrup, where they put the cherries in the cup and then top it with the creamy plain buffalo milk concoction. My cup came with a second flavor and I chose coffee, but the star was the cherry. We don’t need more food now and we don’t have any more stops planned for our day today, so we opt to head back to the room to nap for a couple of hours before going out tonight. We will probably start with the same bar from last night and see if we should move on when we get hungry or if the aperitivo will hold us over for the night. We get up around 7:30 and get to the bar in the middle of aperitivo hour. The owner is here again and I am loving the music again. Today more 70’s glam than 80’s metal, but I like it all. The bay doors are open and there is a nice breeze from the street. Our dinner stop tonight is Restaurant Della Due Porta on Portallo Street. We were told that his street, mostly vehicle free, is a non-stop party every night. Restaurants have sidewalk tables, fronts with bay doors open to the street and music playing to pull you in to any part of the establishment. We review the menu, and choose a trio of pastas, that has to be ordered for a minimum of two people. Tagliatelle with ragu, spinach tortelloni with sage butter, and penne with speck and Parmesan cream. The penne was wonderful, tagliatelle not as good as El’s, but the tortelloni, stuffed with a dry ricotta and sauteed in sage butter was not really my thing. Just about the only thing I left on my plate the entire week! One of the things that I am learning so much more on this trip than previous ones is about the sheer number of kinds of pasta, sauces, preparations, etc. I do not believe in four days I have seen one offering of spaghetti. We have heard several times about how if you ordered “spaghetti with ragu” you would be refused flat out, because everyone knows you can only order ragu sauce with tagliatelle, fettuccine, or penne. That is it. I don’t generally mind, since the flavors are good and I prefer many of the standard combinations, except one…I want latte macchiato regardless of the time of day! After dinner we agree that we would rather get back and get a head start on packing than hit another bar on the way back- that was a good call.

Thursday June 20

There seem to be a lot of attractions around here that are only open on some days of the week, and not in a “we are open Wednesday through Sunday” kind of way, more like the “we are open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays, but only in the months of June and July…and we may extend our hours in an unannounced way at some times of the winter…” kind of way. Oh, and by the way, “on days we are open, our hours may start at 9:00 or 10:00 and we do close for an extended break from 12:00 to 3:00, reopening at 3:00 until 5:45, unless it is one of the days of extended hours, in which we will close at 6:15”. So, obviously it can take some planning. Our last museum in town had just this schedule. Since we had our full day food tour on Tuesday and we are leaving on Thursday, but the museum is close to the train station, we plan to check it out on Thursday morning, go to the museum at 9:00 (when I believe they open today), view the exhibit, return to the train station and be on our way to Rome. And it all went down almost like that. Having packed last night, we don’t have much to do in that capacity this morning. We grab some breakfast before checking out. They try to bill us for a bottle of water from the minibar, but removed the charge from the bill once we objected (we buy all of our bottled water at tobacco shops and then refill the bottles whenever we can. No way I am paying for it from the minibar!) We walk down the block to grab the bus. It is the same bus and stop we used to get to the restaurant the other night, so we actually know where to get off. Once we get off, El is able to ask a passerby where the museum is and he points us in the right direction. We have to go through a little park which does seem to confuse the GPS, so sometimes, the human interaction is worth more than all of the technology you can fit in your pocket. We approach the glass door with a sign that reads (in Italian) Museum for the Memory of Ustica. Not knowing more than the basics of why this place exists, we are not all that sure what we will find on the other side of the door. We are greeted by a staff member who tells us that entrance is free and we can leave our bags if we would like. We are given a brochure in English that tells the story of what you are about to witness. We walk in to the great room and there it stands in front of us, a full sized airplane pieced together as a literal jigsaw puzzle. In a nutshell, in 1980 an airplane took off from Bologna airport destined for Palermo, Sicily and crashed into the Ustica Sea on the way. The circumstances around the crash were very sketchy and seemed like a cover up by the military. Four years after the crash the pieces of the wreck were recovered from the seafloor and transported to Bologna where they were examined and reassembled. The crash was determined to have been accidentally shot down during the course of military exercises. The remains of the plane are enshrined in the museum so the memory of those lost does not fade. A French artist was commissioned to curate an exhibit around the plane centerpiece. El and I were the only two in the museum during our time here and in the absence of other tourist voices made our experience even more sobering and haunting. At some point around the room, there is a video room that runs a loop documenting the efforts of the victims families to bring the wreckage here and the thought/reasoning behind the artists concept. For as large of an exhibit it is, there are only a few components to the installation. The plane, of course, sitting under 81 hanging incandescent light bulbs that fade from off to on representing the 81 victims’ heartbeats. Several crates draped in black sit near the plane- housing the recovered personal effects of the victims. Everything from shoes and diving gear, to the airline issued life preservers that never had an opportunity to be used. Around the room's walls are 81 black mirrors that allow you to stare “into the abyss”. Then, in the most haunting part of the exhibit, each mirror is equipped with a hidden speaker that plays the whispered words of sentence fragments representing the thoughts of daily life of the lives cut short. Of course they were all in Italian, and they were all whispered. So as you stand, staring into a black mirror, you hear a voice whisper “I wonder if I forgot to lock the back door to the house” or “Is San Giorgio Restaurant going to be open after 10 o’clock” or a child’s voice whispering “I don’t like school, the teacher is a jerk.” It does not take us long to get through the exhibit, but I was moved in much the same way I was at the 9/11 Memorial. Thinking about it now, it was easily one of the most powerful things I have seen in a long time.

a plane sized jigsaw puzzle

some of the 81 black mirrors each with a whispered phrase

After our exit, we head back to the bus and take it to the train station. I have been having an issue with my credit card in that machines are rejecting it, but places like restaurants and hotels are not having an issue. That is how I know it is not turned off, but I do know that I should try to buy my tickets at the counter instead of through a machine. We walk into the station and stand in line for a cashier. While waiting, a worker comes up and asks if I need help. I explain my card problem and tell her that is why I am in line here. She knows of the problem and says it is because only American Express cards work in the machines (for foreigners). Besides that and cash, all other methods need to be used at the counter. She escorts us to a cashier to help us with the tickets. Unfortunately, he says he only has one seat on the next train to Rome and the next train with two sets does not leave for another hour. Our only other option is to try the other train company that services this station to see if they have two tickets on the next train. We head out to a kiosk to check availability. We can get two seats together, but the train leaves in five minutes, so now we have to decide, since it is a kiosk, if we will pay cash or try the American Express card. Trying to conserve our cash, we go with the AmEx and in a matter of seconds we are running to find our train platform. Remember, we only have five minutes that is surely four by now. And if there is one thing you can count on in Italy, it is the train schedule! With our full bags in tow we find ourselves running as we realize that our train is on the platform #18 (out of 19). We are dodging travelers heading in the same direction, but not necessarily to our train, as they don’t need to run for their trains. Running down escalators. And asking other passengers for confirmation we are in the right place. We make it onto the train and within 30 seconds we are pulling out of the station. Wow, another close one! The train from Bologna to Rome is only 2h10m with a stop in Florence on the way. We are heading to Tiburtina Station to meet Roberta and we will spend the afternoon with her. Actually, we have to transfer from the train to the subway to meet Roberta, to jump in her car to drop our gear at her house, then head to Aunt Rina’s so that El and Roberta can have some personal time with her before the craziness of the wedding tomorrow- I journal on the porch while they are meeting. Then, Roberta drives us to the subway and the three of us head into Rome to see a spot recommended by a friend, actually the last time we were in Rome. Last year I had put out a call for recommendations of things to do in Rome and just as we were about to leave, a friend suggested a Leonardo DaVinci Museum that sounded interesting, but came just a little too late for us to use. I have been interested since, so when I knew we were coming back I looked up Leonardo museums in Rome only to find out there is more than one. I messaged her to get pointed to the correct one and she responded with a link. I gave Roberta the address and she got us there by subway and bus. It is a pretty small museum, but I was interested enough to read every exhibit card in the place. You see, what they have done is taken DaVinci’s invention sketches and constructed them using only materials available to him at the time. Absolutely fascinating! I had known that DaVinci had designed the modern day helicopter, on paper, but never built one. It wasn’t until centuries later that it would be built and his design would be proven effective. But, all of the stuff this guy did made for one of the most impressive collections of a man so far ahead of his time it was scary. Some of the things that stick out to me, underwater breathing suits, submarines, machine gun, an armored tank, catapult. In addition to painting, he built musical instruments, designed ladders to be used in battle, ball bearings, a sort of lathe that is not much different from the design of the ones used today, he even designed theater spotlights that could be lit off of candlelight. He also improved a lot of things that he did not invent. Stuff that the Egyptians or ancient Greeks were doing, DaVinci designed bigger, better, faster, stronger improvements. I mean this guy was in his prime in the first years of the 1500’s. Thank you Carolyn for the great suggestion!

an underwater breathing suit designed by DaVinci (the blue shows the air flow through the suit)

After the museum, and we understand this is in a tourist neighborhood and the prices will reflect that, but El is able to find one nearby that gets very good food quality reviews. We head to dinner at Osteria De Fortuna. They are busy, but seat us immediately anyway. They make all of their pasta in house, and in fact, have an old woman whose job it is to hand roll pasta of different shapes and sizes while standing in the front window for those walking by on the street- of course the people on the inside just get a view of her back all night! We each order a different pasta with different sauce (though I am pretty sure that El and I are served the same pasta). I order arrabbiata sauce, El goes with the Roman classic carbonara, and Roberta gets an oxtail, tomato and celery sauce over gnocchi. A bottle of house white wine rounds out the meal. While decent, I did enjoy the wine in Bologna better than this one. It was not as crisp as I prefer. Nonetheless, as I have said many times, I would be hard pressed to find any pasta carbonara better than Mina’s and this was no exception. Very good, but not better than I can get at home. My arrabbiata sauce was good and spicy, but not too much so. My favorite of the three. The celery and oxtail sauce was good, but I am never a fan of gnocchi. It is just a texture I do not like and will never order it on purpose. It is nice to spend an evening out with Roberta, and we take some time people watching the American tourists that the place is overrun with. The four 20-somethings who have had a little too much of he house white, flirting with the 30-something waiter. The table of two young women who are flirting with the same waiter. Their method is more quietly stated, but no less obvious. He delivered their coffee and moved on. They don’t drink any of it…yet. Preferring to wait for him to walk by again and grab him for a photo op. Asking him to again put the coffee on a try and re-deliver it, slowly so she can get a photo of him bringing the coffee. For some reason that is not enough and minutes later the same girls are flagging the same waiter again to “re-deliver” the same coffee again. Comical really. Speaking of which he man who walks in wearing a Superman t-shirt a few sizes too small, and a fanny pack on the outside (nothing like advertising where your valuables are!!) with his vegetarian wife trying to navigate an Italian menu with the help of the waiter. Back to the 20-something girls who are obviously enamored with their young waiter asking questions about his age and generally acting giggly. It was no surprise that one announces they are all between 24 and 26. The one girls speaks Spanish, and even though the waiter converses fluently in English, decides that she will speak to him in Spanish, since it is “closer to Italian”. Luckily, he tells them he speaks Spanish as well. On the way out, as they happen to be walking past our table, the waiter comes running up to catch them to tell them to follow him on Instagram, which I am pretty sure could lead to whatever the girls are willing to do later in the evening. Afterwards, we head back to Roberta's. We don’t need to spend too much time down here. Two of the closest metro stations are closed for repairs, so we get back on the bus and take it to the metro station on the line where we parked the car. Then we still have another 20 minute drive back to Roberta’s apartment. El and I stay only long enough to grab a set of keys before heading out to a pub down the street. Roberta lives in a pretty disconnected neighborhood. It is quiet, for sure, but there are also limited services within walking distance. After 8pm most of them are closed, but as I recall from our last time here there is a bar/pastry shop/light bites kind of place that will at least offer us a place to sit and drink a beer while journaling and talking about our day. Around 11:30, we are both fading fast and call it a night.

Friday June 21

A mostly great night sleep. The street is quiet and the climate comfortable. We sleep longer than I expected and with no plan today until closer to 3pm, we are just going to take it easy. Roberta has gone out before we awake, but has left all of our breakfast stuff set up on the table. El and I come out and eat, checking emails and basically wasting our day lazily before the big event tonight. Roberta comes home and we are able to do a load of laundry that will help us out before getting home Sunday. El gets a gift of some knitting wool that she wants to mail home instead of cramming into the carry-ons. They leave to do that, returning only to report that there seem to be as many unreasonable rules for Italian mail as there are in the Ukrainian postal system. They give up and Roberta will just mail it for El on Monday. We spend much of the early afternoon talking, sharing pictures, and making fun of Itailan television. It has been a busy vacation for us and the slow down is welcomed today. Again, we are not sure what tonight is going to be like. El and Roberta are cousins of the bride’s father and El and Mina (and by extension, me) were invited to the wedding. Even though she spoke often of wanting to attend and went so far as to proclaim this would be her last trip to her homeland, by the end of her life, reality was setting in that she was not going to be able to make it. The physical toll this trip takes on El and I, let alone a septuagenarian in a weakened physical shape would just have been more than her or the people around her could handle, and she knew in the back of her mind that sending El and I would allow her to be there in spirit. This will be my first foreign wedding (I have been to traditional ceremonies of other cultures in America, but never to a wedding out of the country). We are looking forward to being there, though I have no idea what to expect in terms of who I will be able to communicate with. I will be optimistic. We plan to leave around 3pm.

One of my disadvantages to not speaking the language is that I both miss discussions of future plans and also the opportunity to insert my opinion to planning sessions. The invitation says the wedding is at 4:30, and no one is quite sure exactly where the church or reception are. We will leave Roberta’s between 3-3:30 to go to Rina’s, pick her up, get to the church around 4:30. “Isn’t that cutting it a little close? Maybe if we shoot to leave at 3:00, that could work, but 3-3:30 is a big window when considering the pick-up stop and drive to unknown destination.” The answer I am given…”hey, the invitation says 4:30, but that doesn’t mean the bride will be there at 4:30!” We leave closer to 3:30 and I am resigned to passive passenger since there is absolutely nothing I can change in this scenario. As we arrive at Rina’s, Roberta shouts to Rina who is waiting on her balcony for her ride. She makes her way down and we four (Rina, Roberta, El and I) find ourselves just standing on the sidewalk. This is where I learn that Rina is not actually riding in our car! She is waiting for her son with his family to arrive as she will ride with them and we are just waiting here so we can follow him! He is running late and it is now close to 4:00 and we still don’t know where exactly the church is. Even Rina is getting agitated that she is standing on the street without her ride. Sandro eventually shows and he has the address of the church in his GPS. We arrive to the church around 4:30, so technically, on time, only to find that they have not even opened the gates to the courtyard yet (where the parking is). This is my first time seeing many of these people, and those I have seen (besides Rina and Roberta) for the most part, I have not seen since I met them 20 years ago. Everyone in good spirits wanting to say hello and see if I remembered them. Luckily, El stood by my side reintroducing me to all as we wait to go into the church for the ceremony. We do make it inside and El and I grab a spot in the back. They don’t seem to do the family side seating here, so everyone just sits where they are most comfortable. El brought her big camera and photographs much of the ceremony and festivities afterwards. The ceremony lasts about an hour. The setting is a beautiful Byzantine church, that I was later told was over 1000 years old. It is very well decorated and there are about 80 people in attendance.

fabio and miranda ready to get the party started

After the ceremony, the couple takes a bunch of pictures with the photographer, while everyone mills about chit chatting. It isn’t until after the photos are done that the people got in their car and moved on to the reception which was held a couple of miles away at a banquet house set in a sort of castle. Really, very nice. We get hors d'oeuvres from different stations around the property and the open bar has a wide variety. After snacks, they usher us inside where we have a multi-course dinner. The first offering is black ravioli with baccala- so we pass on this as it comes around. The second course if fettuccine with cocoa- not enough to make it chocolatey, but enough to turn it dark in color. The warm pasta is served with a topping of oil/butter and pecorino cheese. The last main to arrive is grilled steak with a side of roasted potatoes and a carrot/spinach flan. The food was very good and there is not much in the way of wedding festivity during the meal. At some point we are asked to exit to the courtyard to get a balloon and participate in a toast to the couple. I did not grab a balloon as I knew where this was headed. Clear balloons propped up by helium, each with a small multicolored light inside. Once the toast is over as if on cue, the balloons are released and the clear black sky is momentarily dotted with a hundred blinking balloon innards as they float into the abyss. Visually stunning for a moment, but will sadly end as litter when the helium escapes from each sphere. We are then directed as a group to the outdoor patio for the dessert and after dinner drink phase of the evening…and now the festivities begin. As they call for the first dance, El and I look at our watches and it is just after 11pm, and they are just calling for the first dance?? This could be a long night. After the first dances, like we would see in local weddings, they move into the making fun of the couple with good spirited skits that highlight their good nature and ability to laugh at themselves. One is a bedsheet where they put their heads through, and a friend puts their arms through the sheet giving the appearance of an upper body, but when the emcee tells the “story” of their first date and the arms have to perform tasks such as teeth brushing and face washing on the heads, hilarity ensues. Next is something we didn’t quite understand, where each of them were blindfolded and presented with ten things to eat and try to recognize. They are things like nutmeg, ketchup, and paprika…I would like to say hilarity ensued, but it was just watching two people taste different spices and condiments. Then, comes the challenge of trying to guess your partner by blindfoldedly feeling seven people’s feet. But what the audience knows that the bride and groom don’t, is that for her, a couple of the options she had to choose from were women. And when it was his turn, his mother and aunt slipped into the fold…and hilarity again ensued. At midnight, the party shuts down. Plenty of dance music, but not much of an opportunity to let loose on the floor. Just more of a chance to spend time with family that you may not see until the next family wedding. We are home around 1:00am and fall asleep easily. All our best to Fabio and Miranda. Thank you for letting us share in your big day.

Saturday June 22

We wake without an alarm and have breakfast with Roberta. Tonight we will attend one of the primary reasons of our trip…the memorial celebration to Mina, hosted by El. That is more of a dinner plan, so we actually have all day to do something. El suggests going to the Anticatholic Cemetery in the center of the city. It is a cemetery located just behind the Pyramid and is basically where Rome residents who were not catholic are buried. The most famous residents are the poets: John Keates and Pearcy Shelley. There is a map available at the office that point out monuments of interest. Not only based on who is there but also tombs that have significant artistic value. The thing is that once you get beyond Keats and Shelley, the bar seems to lower precipitously. To examples like Goerthe’s son and Edvard Munch’s uncle. That said, we make our way around the path and find Keats, though a small tour group is getting their info and we make our way around and past them- there are only about eight of them with a guide. We zip by and find Shelley. But Shelley is right near a rather beautiful sculpture of a winged angel. El goes down one level to get a closeup look as I grab a photo of Shelley and come to join her. We take a bunch of pics from several angles.

one shot of the weeping angel. moments before the guided group arrives and disaster ensues

As we stand there with our cameras, the tour group catches up to us and their next stop is in front of the angel sculpture. Before I know it, they are all making their way down to the level we are on and now there are 11 people trying to stand in a tight space. El takes an opportunity to go up the steps to allow another to come down and I step forward to follow her up, but as I go to make my first step, I head a collective gasp from the group and as I turn around to see what they are seeing, I see the last moments of an upright headstone! It seems that the guide had lost his footing and to steady himself must have grabbed a nearby headstone that slipped from its pedestal and landed with an earthshaking thud. Time stood still for a split second while everyone processed the moment. I did not hear any scream or any other noise of pain from the man on the ground. Blocked from view, I cannot tell what exactly the situation is and did not want to waste any time. As the people in his tour group tend to the scene, I run as fast as I can to the office where we came in and tell them to call an ambulance because a headstone just fell over and has possibly pinned someone underneath. I said it may be nothing, but if there is a crush situation going on, the ambulance needs to get here fast. With the authorities alerted and the tour group still tending to him, I am pretty sure there is nothing more for me to do, I meet up with El and we continue around the path we were on before the commotion. We spend another 45 minutes or so wandering through and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. On our way out, we see the staff who knew I was the one who wanted the ambulance called- and they told us that the stone had missed the guide and he was able to walk away- though with the weight of those things it was certainly better to be wrong! After the cemetery, El reminds me that this was the neighborhood we stayed in when we came in 1999 and that a restaurant nearby could be a good choice for lunch. It takes us about 20 minutes to walk there and the sign on the door says “Romeow: Cat Bistro”!! This is definitely NOT the place it was when we were here 20 years ago. A “cat bistro”?! What on Earth?? We turn around and head to another place in this neighborhood that we both remember, Pizzeria Luiggi. As we pass back past Romeow, the window notes it is a vegan restaurant and there are cats just wandering around the restaurant. At that moment I could not think of a more disgusting concept for a restaurant. Anyway, Pizzeria Luiggi is a little more palatable. They have sheets of square focaccia with toppings that you order by telling them where to cut, they take your single cut piece and add mozzarella, then they weigh it (you pay by the gram) and when your order is complete, give you a receipt and put your order in the oven. When your order is ready, they call you up and ask you how many slices you want your single slice cut into. You take it away to the tables in the back to eat.

After lunch we head towards the Altieri Chapel in the Church of San Francesco a Ripa which opens at 3pm. It was recommended by my friend Mauro last year, but when we arrived, they were already closed for the day. Inside the church is Bernini’s sculpture called Blessed Ludovica Albertoni.

Bernini’s sculpture

Walking, we get there at 2:30. While waiting, we grab a latte macchiato at Cafe Tintori. I know we must be in a tourist area, because she didn’t even bat an eye when I ordered the latte macchiato!

We wait for 3:00 when we can get in and then we will get out and head back to Roberta’s to freshen up and get ready to leave for tonight. Usually not one for sculpture, this particular piece is quite amazing in its detail and I am glad we made it back here this year. Besides that first night in Milan, today was the first rain we have seen and it was extremely minimal. As any threat of rain diminishes, the sun comes on full blast and we find ourselves in oppressive humidity and scorching heat. The air is thick.

We get back to Roberta’s and spend only a few minutes to get ready to jump back in the car to head to the town of Campagnano, for the memorial dinner. The drive is about an hour and is a town that is very important to this family. Several members grew up in this town, several still live here, and also because of one more thing…the reason we are almost late…the cemetery. When I came with El and Mina to Rome for the first time in 1999, we did come to Campagnano, but we did not visit the cemetery. This time, Roberta was driving and decided that we would make a pit stop. It made sense, since Campagnano is not all that close to Rome, so if you are driving through town, it would not be out of line to stop for a few minutes to pay respects to the family members who passed before now. Not sure if El had ever been here, probably, but Roberta takes us around the grounds and points out immediate family members and other significant relatives. These are mostly people I have heard about and never met. I was a little surprised to see how recent some of the dates of death were- as I did not recall those instances like I would if they were my own family.

We spend a few minutes visiting the sites of El’s aunts and uncles before heading to the lower section of the cemetery to see Roberta’s father (who passed in 2004) and who occupies half of a two-person crypt waiting to be joined for eternity by his wife, Rina. We stay only long enough to reflect for a moment and spruce up the flowers with some fresh water. Before I know it we are on the road to the last leg of the journey- a short drive and a long search for a parking spot. Typical of most of the places we go in the car. I don’t know how Roberta’s patience holds up at train stations, Rina’s apartment, subway stations, and now a family gathering. After a couple of times circling around town, she finds one and we walked to the center of the town to meet with anyone who heeded the invitation though we don’t know how many that will be. The plan is to meet between 6:00 and 6:30 in the town square, giving everyone a chance to exchange pleasantries and then we would all walk together to the restaurant. Well, with our pit stop at the cemetery and parking woes, we arrive at 6:45- and cannot find anyone else! Even the family we expect would be here, are nowhere to be found! Nor the only ones who know where the restaurant is! I am OK standing back and not interfering since it is obvious here is absolutely nothing I can do but keep an eye out for people I recognize from last night. After a couple of phone calls, I start recognizing family who arrive two by two. Here we stand, waiting, meeting people who were not at the wedding last night, speaking with those who were in a less formal setting, and doing my job…taking pictures and trying to remember people’s names. El and her cousin Alex (who lives in London) keeping me updated whenever they learn something. Turns out, several people are already at the restaurant a few blocks down the main street of town. Once everyone here does not know of additional people we are waiting on, we walk en masse, to the restaurant to meet the other half of the family who are already there with those who were early and know where we are eating, and those with mobility issues that needed to get as close to the place to limit such challenges. I continue with the photos and Rina starts telling me a story. It is almost like she forgets that I can't speak any Italian. So she frequently starts speaking and gets frustrated by my blank stare when I try to recognize even one word to get even a gist of what she is talking about.

me, rina, and el learning about an epic motorcycle accident many years ago

After she was done with her anecdote and when Alex walked by he was able to relay the story about the time, when this 85 year old, once a young teen growing up around the corner from here, being the oldest of her group of friends, stole a motorcycle, and after getting as many kids piled onto the bike as they could, started down the street. They didn’t get too far before they crashed into a wall, and instead of damaging the bike or the kids, the wall fell apart, crumbling of weakened mortar. Pointing to a spot across the street where said wall once stood. She even goes on to tell of the time that Mussolini came and addressed the people of the town from a balcony about 200 feet from where we stand. Everyone continues to mingle outside while the restaurant was informed we were ready when they are. One of the things that it does not take long to figure out is that in this one moment, you can see how Mina’s efforts in life went so far to bind this family in her death. El would talk about all of the times that they would come to Italy over the years and Mina would always want to go visit family no matter how far out of the city they lived. She saw her nieces and nephews every couple of years, whereas, family who live in Rome, didn’t always make the same efforts. But, those who she remained close with, made the effort to come and spend some moments in her memory. About 7:30, we headed in and take our seats. About 30 people settle in and just before the food and drink begin to flow, El stands and gives a heartfelt thank you to all for coming to share in the memory of her mom who specifically wanted a party to be given in her honor after she was gone. Evidently, there are some family relationships that had been strained over the years, and there was an underlying concern before everyone arrived, wondering if we would be reminded of some of those rifts this evening. It didn’t take too long to see, mostly cousins, getting on very well. I did not understand most of what was said, but no person in that room could possibly have been nicer, more welcoming, making me feel like part of the family. Their collective love and respect for El and Mina had been extended to me in every way. I used my task of taking pictures as a way to bumble from person to person in the room- drinking and making several toasts along the way. The party wound down around 11:00 and we were back at Roberta’s around midnight. We have to get up a little early in the morning to finish packing and get to the train station to get to the airport.

Sunday June 23

Before we are up, Roberta has already gone out and gotten us an Italian pastry for breakfast with a latte from the shop. We sit and enjoy our last morning in town. It does not take long to finish our packing. Our train from town to the airport leaves at 9:31am. Recalling an issue we had last year when El and I got onto the wrong train and had to backtrack in order to right ourselves, Roberta does some research and decides that not only is she going to drive us to the train station, but she will also walk us to the track platform so there is no possible way we can misnavigate this year! We leave the house at 8:45 and already start to have issues. You see, Roberta has a car space below her building and the gate is controlled by a garage door opener that lifts the metal security gates on your way in and out. No biggie, push button, drive through, it closes automatically. Except today. As we approach the gate to leave, another car is already there. Roberta gets out to find out what the issue is, only to find out that the woman’s clicker is not working. No problem, we think, Roberta can use hers and let us both out. Except that does not work either. No problem, there is an emergency, key activated lock that performs the same function. Except, that does not work either! So, here we are, in the basement, two cars both clicking their openers frantically and trying the backup key, all to no avail. Immediately, alternatives race through our mind. Can we take a bus? Call a taxi? Do we know someone else in the area that can drive us? And like a sign from above, one of the clickers works and we all jump into our cars and get out before the gates close again. We get to the train station. El has purchased our train ticket online during the drive and we are ready. Roberta makes good on her promise to get us to the right platform and we make it with 15 minutes to spare, which is one of the biggest margins we have had in this country this trip! We say our goodbyes and talk of future plans that may or may never pan out. Roberta is so good to the both of us- but El especially. An awesome connection to have in this country and friend to have anywhere. Just a great soul. Until…an announcement comes on at 9:29 telling us that our 9:31 train is delayed by 20 minutes. No problem, it gives us 20 more minutes to chat with our host. Oops...another 15 minute delay due to a “medical emergency” on the train. When you plan to go to the airport, you can factor in some extra time, but 35 minutes is just about taxing all of our slop. The train does eventually arrive and the station staff are making statements that the next train (the one scheduled after ours to the airport) is coming soon and it is also an express train, so technically, it should get us to the airport faster than our original train will. We decide to stay with the original, possibly arriving later, train. About half way into the trip, we see two young ladies walking through the train car. At first it is a little odd, since most people going to the airport have baggage. They don’t. Maybe they are going to meet someone? The thing is that when the train is full and everyone is going to the airport, it is not uncommon for baggage to be left in the aisle- though people will have to wiggle around it, if it is big. Everyone is quiet, for the most part. The ladies get up to where we are sitting and the woman across the aisle has a roller bag so large that some people are having trouble bypassing it. Well, this situation turns into more of a scuffle than it should with the walkers yelling, in Italian, and creating a chaotic scene. Everyone sits and remains calm, but El notices while one is yelling about the bag and causing a scene, the other is trying to lift the passenger’s wallet! This turns into a shouting match that the ladies want to get away from, so they drop the chaos and move on to another car. Besides that excitement, we get to the airport with plenty of time to spare and have an uneventful ride home.

In conclusion

There are many good reasons to go to Italy and very few bad ones. Luckily, we had way more of the former and way less of the latter, this week. The sadness that came with our first and last days, while understandable and needed, were easily eclipsed by the fun we had the rest of the week. While Rome itself does not seem to grab me like it does the rest of the world, the Bologna experience gave me a renewed interest in seeing other cities in this country. El loves this country so much, and for good reason, I was always a little bit disappointed that I don’t seem to share her enthusiasm to even a considerable fraction. That said, the way that I have been treated by this family the last two times we have come is starting to make my interest level grow to the point of reconsideration. Because, when it comes down to it, food and culture are good, but when you have family, you have everything. So, until the next time...and there will surely be a next time.