The surely epic bucket list item I won’t get the chance to check off today has finally lost enough pain for me to talk about it. Tonight I would have stood on hallowed concert ground in Morrison, CO with all four of our sons and Michael’s wife, Janice Rice Venable, one of my dearest childhood friends, Craig Hospital Occupational Therapist Perry Ann Williams, and her husband retired landscape architect, Keith Gartin; Principal Architect and Senior Partner Sam Andras, of 2WR Architects, his spouse, educator Victoria Andras, and a host of their friends, band mates, lighting and sound professionals and advisors.
Today we all would have watched our son, Adam Venable/Obeah, perform with Daily Bread as they open for Pretty Lights on the Red Rocks stage. If you know about Red Rocks, you can likely conjure my deep loss for having to miss it tonight. If you don’t know Red Rocks, think Carnegie Hall and and I’ll conjure my deep loss for having to miss this tonight. I’ve had to unwind a 12-day walkabout while in the midst of enduring 2 surgeries, a CT scan, an MRI, some sweet Jesus pain and chronic nausea and vomiting. Thanks to my medical team, everything on that list has been fixed or alleviated. But without time on my side and the sensibility of putting the importance of my health first, tonight, my best hope is to be able to live stream the show, if they can figure how to send it.
Adam, I hope you leave a raw, bloody piece of your soul on that important stage tonight. That it comes from a place so deep that it shocks people to know you kept things like that in there. You have worked hard for this and you deserve your hard work and dedication to make an audience swoon. I will be joined with your spirit in the Colorado breeze. I could not possibly be prouder of you, son, and your brothers and that sold out show will watch the virtual walls come down in the foothills tonight. Now go out there and kill!
I’ve never taken a two-week vacation. I wasn’t even sure if I would like being away for that long. Away from my extended family and friends. Away from my car, my bed, my home, my tractor, my pets. As the eighth day dawned on our 15-day Italy trip, we were in Manciano, a tiny hill town in southern Tuscany, and there and then I became profoundly convinced that vacations of longer than a week in duration were not only going to be well-received, but would be something I would seek for the rest of my life.
We had high expectations for Italy. All I had heard from friends who had traveled there, things I have seen and heard on television, in books, and online had me hungry for ochre buildings, narrow cobblestoned alleyways, interesting doors and windows, art, food, flora and fauna.
I approached this vacation, however, with a concern: During a trip a few years ago to Montreal, Canada, the Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal (http://www.basiliquenddm.org/en/) taught me that I have a physical and emotional response to grand architecture. I was overcome with reverence for the beauty displayed for me to see in that grand basilica. I didn’t know this about myself until I got weak in the knees at the sight of that holy place. The gold leafed, blue-hued interior of Notre Dame took my breath. I remember the smell of burning candles, their small lights dancing fresh with hope for answered prayers offered up by believers who took the time to pray for the people and situations for which they prayed. Here and now, almost 15 years later, I still carry the memory of the soaring arches above us and the feeling that I was looking at the face of God.
Knowing places like that would be everywhere I looked in Italy gave me pause. I didn’t want to be a blubbering tub of goo during this vacation and have to check my man card, just because of my deep love of grand architecture.
“Allora” is a conversational habit among the Italians, which basically means “so, then, well.” I heard it so many times during every day that I couldn’t have counted them, even if I had tried. So — allora — we began with a long, transatlantic flight, my first, and found out firsthand how grueling a flight like that can be. Once it became painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to sleep back there in the Alitalia Airbus A300 flying cattle car it was too late for Ambien. I didn’t want to start my first day in Italy groggy from still-active sleeping medication. So (allora) I soldiered on through the flight. Even the cute, green cappelli and the deep, red lipstick on the ample Roman lips of a couple of exotic Italian flight attendants couldn’t shake me from a miserable night on a plane.
We got to Rome-Fiumicino airport, hailed a taxi and headed toward one of the many firsts I experienced on this trip. Our flat, rented online on Airbnb.com, was perfect. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a quaint little kitchen and lounge, a clothes washer, nicely sized showers and a world of restaurants and cool things to see awaited us just outside the door. The Airbnb process is fun, inexpensive compared to hotels, and gives you a glimpse of the life the people live who own the space you rented.
Right off the bat we dived into pitchers of house wine, heavenly, simply adorned pizzas (which are generally delivered to your table unsliced) and the charming Italians. Language barrier aside, we communicated well, in spite of the fact that everyone you encounter will say “yes” to anything you ask them. I pondered that for few days after we were sure that our driver, Gabrielle, knew exactly what we were talking about when we proffered the Aflac duck as a universally-known centerpiece of the place we came from. Turns out, he didn’t know from the Aflac duck. He didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, but we couldn’t tell from his nodding affirmation, his head bobbing as if we were talking about his sister, whom he has known from birth.
Although this familiarity is charming, it tends to throw you off when you’re trying hard to communicate. Allora, many times during the trip, I had to circle back and carefully watch him and others we talked to, to make sure we were really on the same page and that each side of the conversation was “on the same sheet of music.”
We started our trip in Rome and I got a surprise as we walked up the steps to the entrance to The Vatican, which is ground zero for grandness. There is likely no place on earth that houses more significant art, grand spaces and grand architecture. Surprisingly I was rock solid. As I took it in and was bathed in the glow of the bright sun on an otherwise bitterly cold day in December, I appreciated the sights of priceless works of art and was moved by the antiquities we were able to see, but I didn’t get the emotional twinges I expected to come.
The emotion didn’t come from buildings and art, maybe because Cancer had gotten between the me of today and the me I was 14 years ago when we walked into Montreal’s Notre Dame. This trip wasn’t, for me, about what I saw while we were there. When I looked at the face of the person I most love in the world through the golden filter of a setting Tuscan sun, I knew it wasn’t going to be about buildings and art. Instead, the most cherished thing I’ve taken from Italy is how Italy made me feel. How I felt in my own skin while we were there, is something I’ll remember for as long as I have a memory.
I recently encouraged one of our sons to collect experiences, because an experience collector is someone who is always interesting to be around. There are always stories to tell about places you’ve been where you felt complete. I felt whole in Italy. Fed. Loved. Wrapped in beauty and only a few steps away from wine, cheese or coffee, all of which the Italians do better than almost everyone.
Here’s list of all the cities and towns we visited during our 15 days: Rome, Manciano, Orbetello, Porto Ercole, Porto San Stefano, Orvieto, Siena, Saturnia, Scansano, Grosseto, Murlo, Montalcino and Florence. Each of these mostly small towns had something great to offer us. The one thing they all had was impossibly great food. Even when you spent a little too much time in front of that fresco or sculpture before making your move toward the restaurant you chose for lunch and when you arrived there was a line out the door up the cobblestones — you knew that lunch at that place wasn’t going to happen — but the alternate you chose, sometimes by simply closing your eyes and pointing, turned out to be your new favorite place.
From 30,000 feet, here’s what I got from Italy: The proposed high-speed rail connecting Atlanta to Columbus has to happen. The possibility of making the Columbus Metropolitan Airport, Atlanta’s sixth runway and all the collateral travel that could happen by train, opening up adventures in both cities is not a good, but a great idea.
And, there is simply no excuse to ever serve another pasta dish made from store-bought dried pasta. My pasta machine arrives tomorrow and I don’t ever intend to serve another piece of dried, packaged pasta from my kitchen.
The most important thing Italy has taught me is how to be present in the now. Here’s how I got that lesson: Seven days into our Italy vacation, we came in very late from dinner and turned on the TV in our villa. After languid days surrounded by incredible scenery, drinking wine and eating otherworldly food, our eyes bathed with scenes of sheepherders, stunning architecture and ancient cobblestones, the small television screen delivered the obscenity that our country has become like a slap in the face.
While we were worried about the slight possibility of rain and what new version of a white boar (cinghiale) dish we might order at the next Tuscan restaurant, Americans were spewing questions and comments about Mariah Carey’s lip syncing disaster on a Times Square stage. While we were swooning over pastoral fields and olive groves, our country’s new leader was in some kind of toxic Twitter fight with some country or another.
I couldn’t watch it.
That an entire nation, maybe still the greatest nation in the world, could be so lathered up over such completely stupid, insignificant shit was an embarrassment to me in the presence of our charming, bodybuilder Italian driver, Gabrielle.
How much better is was to walk away from all of that noise and just be interested in a conversation over lunch, or at a gallery or over some sight, sound or smell that we encountered right then. Just being there in the moment, not sure what day it was, or even where we were, was something that I will hold close for the whole of my life. I will try to do a better job of being present as we shake off the jet lag, unpack our belongings and reintroduce ourselves to life in the United States of the Deep South.
Here is a list of some of the things we learned about Italy. Some are funny, some are puzzling and others are just damned interesting.
I tried mightily to use as much Italian as I could. Several weeks with an online Rosetta Stone language class didn’t do much to prepare me, mainly because of the velocity of speech in Italy. By the time I thought I had recognized a word or a phrase, things had moved on so far down the road that got lost before I got started. Except for New Year’s Eve, where I boldly greeted everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, with a hearty wish for a good year. “I said, “Buon Ano (I pronounced it Buon AnYo).” I peppered everyone I saw with my Italian Good Year wish. Only, I found out that I had saying something close to “Good Asshole.” The correct way to say it is, “Buon Anno (sounding more like banana).” That was the first time I got that “stupid Americano” look.
The second time came when we visited our first grocery store. The sight of what looked like fresh-off-the-tree citrus fruits, some of which I couldn’t recognize, caused me to grab a big juicy looking fruit — which still had its stem and leaves attached — and hold it up while encouraging the rest of our group to come and see it to see if they knew what it was. One should NEVER touch fruit or vegetables in an Italian grocery store. There are plastic gloves there for you to put on when you intend to touch those things. Who knew?
Another interesting find: Italy’s gift to the world is painting, sculpture, pasta and antiquities beyond belief. America’s gift to Italy is music. American music is loved and the Italians surround themselves with it. Coming from every genre, music in public places, restaurants, and shops comes almost exclusively from the United States. I asked Gabrielle about that and he said, “We think American music is beautiful!” He was able hum along with almost all the music, even though he had trouble with the lyrics because of the language divide.
In Italy, everything moves at a slow pace. Everything except for cars in traffic. Italians are aggressive drivers. If you go slow on small or large roads, you’ll soon have a gesturing, angry driver right on your tail, shouting, to us, incomprehensible R-rolling curses and almost clipping your bumper as they pass, while the American passengers grip the arms of their seats at 120 kilometers per hour. Allora (So), if you’re going on an extended Italian vacation, hiring a professional driver is a must. They will assure that you do everything on your Italy to-do list, make sure you pick great restaurants, accompany you there and make sure you’re viewed as a special guest and then get your drunk ass back home at the end of the night.
Italy is all about experiences. And experiences are what make a life. I think this trip has changed me forever. Cancer is what caused my first “New Normal,” and our Italian adventure has caused me to shift into my second “New Normal” gear.
In Italy, shops close and open in ways that Americans, at first, don’t get.
In these stunning hill towns, shop owners promptly close their doors at 1 p.m. so patrons can scatter off toward their chosen lunch places to fight crowds for small, tight tables. Long lines form at restaurant and toilettes, and you have to deal with lots of stairs, loud staccato conversations and cigarette smoke as lunch gives way to jugs of local wine, your next favorite dish and two hours of conversation.
After copping a wine buzz and looking forward to another limone gelato, maybe your sixth of the week, then you’re standing in line again to pay and heading back out into a sea of beautiful people, so many of them smoking cigarettes, shrouded in black against the cold but sunny Tuscan winter day.
The language is so beautiful. It is spoken with emotion and with gestures. The Italians get the whole of their being into the discussion. Body language, hand gestures, shoulder shrugs and generous sprinklings of grazie and prego. It is music to my ears and although my few weeks of Rosetta Stone online language work didn’t even come close to giving me even a traveler’s command of simple conversation, I slowly became more able to pick out a few words from the high velocity conversations going on around me as I watched old men reading newspapers at a gas station pubs and drinking beer and caffe at ten o’clock in the morning.
I’m going to try to step away from the jangling 24-hour news cycle. To not let myself slide back into the things that make America ugly. I’m going to walk more, probably drink more, have longer lunches and dinners and continue to try not to sweat small things. My pasta machine arrives today and I intend to learn how to make great homemade pasta.
High gasoline prices ($7.50 per gallon), small cars, tight roads, cold spaces, short showers, no clothes dryers, businesses that close at odd times during the day, throngs of shoppers and people in the streets, museums, street performers, cozy restaurants, incredible wine, pasta and bread, aggressive drivers, my least favorite lasagna was light years better than any I’ve had before. The limone gelato is so fresh there are sometimes lemon seeds in it.
I mourn the end of this trip, with Italy forever tattooed on my brain and I plan to dream and plan my way back there again.
Here is a slab of pictures from our trip. I guess you’ll notice, like all my traveling partners did, including my incredible wife, that I didn’t take many pictures of us. I know what we look like. I want the memory of the things I saw to stay with me, so my pictures generally are of things I saw, not of the people with whom I traveled.
I’ve been sitting on this post for a few weeks until I could speak to Michael Holbrook, the owner of Columbus Travel Agency. I wanted to make sure that the things I was planning to say in this post about people who travel on cruise ships wasn’t going to cause him any grief. I finally got to talk to Michael at Rotary last week and he laughed at some of these stories, so I’m in the clear.
If you’ve read my Facebook page, you know that Jill and I have just returned from 8 glorious days on Water Island, USVI. Water Island has lots of homes, but no hotels, no bars, no restaurants and no grocery stores. In fact, no stores at all. Probably like St. John was 4o years ago. Water Island is a short 10 minute ferry ride from St. Thomas, its much bigger big sister island to the north.
What Water Island does have, though, is beautiful beaches. Our beach, Honeymoon Beach, was a three-minute ride in a golf cart from Casa Blanca, the home where we stayed. Honeymoon Beach is one of the pretties places I have ever seen. We would get down to the beach on most mornings and stake our claim of one of the thatched tiki huts. The hut would provide some relief from the sun and a great vantage point to watch the daily arrival and departure of the beach excursions from a couple of cruise ships.
Turns out Carnival Cruise Lines is a good name, because most of the people who arrived on our beach, usually from about 3 to 5 p.m. for dinner and play looked like carnival workers. I nicknamed them the Carnies. Most of the ones we talked to were from Canada, the upper midwest or some other very cold place. They were either copier paper white or lobster red. Almost all of them had ridiculous tattoos and many of them sported some type of spacer, stud or bar stuck in various places on their skin.
One afternoon we were in our place on our beach and the Kon Tiki, which looked like a floating mobile home, blasting AC/DC “Give it Up,” and covered with these Carnie freaks floated in and tied up. One member of the steaming pile of humanity that limped off the boat and gathered just to the east and south of us was one of the most unusual people I have ever seen.
It had short hair, sported a women’s swimsuit that was cut obscenely down to below its navel. There were no breasts to speak of, and on further inspection as my eyes made their way down (I really was trying to determine the sex of this creature) I was shocked to find an enormous package right where the package usually goes. I looked a little closer and honestly, I couldn’t tell if these were man-parts or a stuff sack full of stomach that had no other place to go. We watched it for about an hour and a half and as it lumbered back onto the floating trailer, we still couldn’t tell if its name should be Bubba or Barbara.
Another afternoon, a group of six flopped down with their food at a picnic table less than 10 feet from our little tiki paradise. I hadn’t looked at them yet, when we were serenaded by an apparent belching contest. As I snap hooked my head in their direction, I discovered it was the three women who were having a burp-off on Honeymoon Beach. I know their mothers would have been proud of them!
The only good thing about giving up the tranquility of our beach each day for an short time was that we got to know the guy who was in charge of the Carnies. Every day when they left, he gave us all the beer that they didn’t drink. It literally rained Coors Light as they were pulling out. That was pretty cool.
Just to further explain just how great Honeymoon Beach is, one afternoon a sexy go-fast boat beached just to the south of where we were encamped. A camera crew and a dozen or so heavily tattooed, pierced, but much better looking people hit the beach. They were filming MTV’s Real World, which, this season is coming to you hot off the beaches of the USVI. One of the kids had some quarter-sized glass spacers in his earlobes. Don’t you know those ears are going to be looking mighty good when he hits 60 — if he doesn’t die of some sexually transmitted disease before that.
What are these people thinking? My God, they are disgusting! I thought several times during the week, what must be going through their minds as they looked into the mirror in their cramped ($600, including airfare) room aboard the cruise ship du jour and said to themselves, “Man/woman/it, you are fine! I think I’ll wear this to the beach today.” This floating freak show was the source of so many laughs during the week. The only tears I shed during the week were tears of laughter. It sure felt good.
Thank you cruise ship freaks!
In my conversation with Michael Holbrook, I determined that there are some extremely high end, classy cruise vacations that can be had for a pretty penny. None of those ships came to our island.