Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Tips for travel to Italy.

Here are my tips for travel to Italy. Some are specific some are general. I reserve the right to add as I think of more.

Choose Wisely when scheduling your trip. Italy in the summer can be a crowded, hot experience depending of course on where you are headed. We like the "shoulder seasons" of Sept/Oct or especially May. Not everyone can go in May, of course, but it is good tip to keep in mind.

Plan Ahead. "Choose wisely" goes hand in hand with plan ahead. If you simply show up at the Vatican Museum be prepared to stand in line. A long line. Same with the Colosseum.

If you are not on a rigid guided tour and making your own way then get on the Internet and check ahead even before you leave the US. Once we found they had just opened tours to new, previously unopened areas of the Colosseum and bought advance tickets while we were still home. This allowed us to bypass the line and go right in. Also schedule visits like Borghese Gallery at the frond end of your visit if possible rather than the back end. Because anything can happen, like a strike for instance.

Beware of the sciopero. Strikes in Italy are more common place than churches and are just as prolific. They can be anywhere and anytime. There may be 10 cabs waiting outside St Peters with the drivers standing by and smoking cigarettes but they ain't goin' anywhere if there is a strike. It's just part of Italian life. A good example is the Colosseum ticket above. On the scheduled date we arrived at the Colosseo only to find locked gates. Later at our apartment (because I did not have an Italian Phone on that trip) we found there was a strike and contacted the company that sold us the tickets and we rescheduled.

Bring an "unlocked" GSM cell phone and charger. It's a little complicated but worth not getting a Cell Phone bill that needs to be expressed in scientific notation (3.4 x 10 to the 4th power)  or comes in a large box when you get home. This can easily happen if you leave data roaming on (which is uncommon BTW). An unlocked phone is one not limited to use on a single carrier. If you have an unlocked GSM phone you can purchase a SIM card it Italy, perhaps right in the Airport like I did in Roma last year at the TIM kiosk . If you purchased your phone through a US provider like AT&T, chances are that it is locked and forced to operate only on AT&T's network even if the phone fully belongs to you. AT&T has a web page where you can unlock up to 5 phones per year.  Your phone also needs to be compatible with Italian phone networks. Again, this a little complicated  but suffice it to say your old Verizon phone won't work since it is CDMA Here is a handy list of CDMA vs GSM carriers in the US if you have a phone on the CDMA carrier it won't work in Italy.  Why would you need an Italian phone? If you are outside of WiFi range and want to post the beautiful picture you just captured of the Trevi Fountain with no one but you in the frame (pictures of unicorns are more likely BTW) the only way to do it is to use a cell data plan. You can just stick to Free WiFi which is everywhere in Italy these days, but if you are addicted like I am to posting 24/7 waiting for WiFi just won't cut it.Also, we found some free Wifi hot spots (Alba Adriatica) expected that you register with an Italian sms-text. Admittedly this is rare but was well worth it.

Check your papers. Make sure ALL your documents are up to date. This may sound silly, but last year my NJ Drivers license was expired and it nearly wrecked our trip. Have separate credit cards from your spouse - otherwise if you cancel one, you cancel the other if you share a number. Make copies of your passport and credit cards - front and back and keep them. I usually scan mine to cloud storage like Dropbox.

Dress conservatively: Italy is still a largely Catholic country. Do bring trousers even if the forecast is Sunny and 39 C (trust me, that's hot and you'll figure it out). If you want to get in Churches, then most likely you will need conservative dress. Don't wear tank-tops and other shoulder bare-ing type dress if visiting the Vatican and such places. I found this as a nice guide. oh and yes, you will stick out. There is no way you are going to look like an Italian in your Yes Concert shirt (3 August - Camden!) and cargo shorts.

Besides, your eyeglasses are going to stick out like a stripper pole in Mecca since the Italians are very particular about their eye-wear.

Do visit the churches.We found  San Celemente in Rome  was an interesting diversion one afternoon. Just go find some churches and visit even it it's to cool off in the dark.

Parlare. Learn at least a little of the language even if the sole purpose is to entertain the Italians. They thought it was a hoot when I would say "grazie mille"  (thousand thanks like "Thanks a Million" but without the inflation).

Don't be afraid of taking public transportation.  Go in any tobacco store and buy a bus ticket or biglietto. Take the Metro in Rome. Don't be afraid of that 60 Minutes episode you saw on the 64 bus in Rome. Oh, be prepared (no wallets, fanny packs etc.) and watch your surroundings but go and explore - especially with the trains.

* Wander.

* Fear not  VRBO. Rent a house or apartment rather than get a hotel room. We had the best time living in an Italian neighborhood in Prati in Rome in 2011. Get to know the butcher, the pasta shop and local bar. Take the bus. Sure people will stare at you in your Yes Concert shirt. The bar by the way is not like a dark and depressing US bar at all but more like a pastry shop/coffee and convenience store and they are everywhere.Think microscopic Wawa. Also, don't settle for the first thing that pops up on vrbo. We found this place last year after searching weeks.

Coffee Up. Speaking of bars, go in and stand at the bar and order an espresso everywhere you go. It's usually cheap and very Italian. Get the glass of water too. 

Eat. It is not possible to get a bad meal in Italy. I've tried. Popo is octopus BTW. Try some Lonza

Walk This Way. Be prepared to walk. and walk. and walk some more. Oh when you are not walking it's because you are climbing many, many stairs.

Climb. Go to every rooftop or dome-top you can. It's worth the climb.

Speaking of luggage, be prepared to have some lost. The best picture I ever took visiting Italy was the one of our luggage at the airport before leaving. It wasn't much composition wise but it was lot easier to say "like this" when they ask "what did your luggage look like?" (BTW they are all black). Also have a change of clothes in your carry-on. This will avoid the unpleasant experience of finding out Zara has nothing - and I mean nothing - in your size (Oldest son took us there when I need a set of emergency trousers. He politely asked if they had any in my size and the clerk said "No" - not maybe, not let me look, just no).

Also, my baggage carousel experience at Rome's Fiumicino has not been good over the years. I've spent more time than I'd care remember  jet-lagged and bleary-eyed  and waiting for our luggage to show on the carousel only to be bitterly disappointed. If possible, have some Euro coins in your pocket for when you arrive and need a cart for the luggage in the Airport.

Visit a Mercato and wander around looking at the squid.

Rome 2011 Pictures
Italy (Furore on the Amalfi Coast, Alba Adriatica on the Adriatic  and Taormina Sicily) 2014  Pictures

An unexpected 4th of July.

It was a chilly, cloudy fourth of July this year and the Chancellor and I had no specific plans for the day. There had been things kicked around of course: Buy paint for the common bath, take a ride to Levittown to her Cousin's place, maybe fireworks later.

After trading texts with the Cousin we decided on a ride.

Her Uncle had passed away last November leaving a house full of furniture to her cousins. They offered much of it to family and we had picked up a few things for the boys but had left small parts back at the Uncle's.

Today's empty calendar made the perfect time for the 30 minute trip to Bucks county.

It was strange to see the Uncle's house like this; empty. lifeless. We had spent a lot of time here over the years as The Chancellor's mom was close with her sisters, one which who had married the Uncle and moved to what was the end of the earth in those days: Bristol PA.

The Chancellor had lived here for a time while we were dating and she took a job in Oxford Valley and I would visit on weekends.

We grew closer to the Uncle and his family when we later married and moved to Bucks county ourselves because it was the center of the remote points of the compass that ruled those days: New York, Monmouth County NJ and of course our parental homes in PA.

There were holiday visits to that house to meet with the Chancellors cousins that were dispersed in that general direction in the days  in the days reserved for extended family after Christmas Day and Thanksgiving.

And now it was a musty shell, walls and old carpet, piles of old record albums, a cupboard with a plate or two, the chair no one wanted.

The Cousin, The Chancellor and I sat on the floor rummaging through an old suitcase that the Uncle had "organized" pictures into and by organize I mean "put in one place". We examined each picture: Zio's wedding, a holy communion, the sisters at the mothers home on a sunny summer afternoon long past.

It was sad to see all those events that had been so important tossed aside and now soon to be forgotten. Oh there would be good intentions of organizing the photos but there is never the time for such activities.

We tossed a few things into the van: stacks of old record albums for oldest son to pick through, a giant framed poster of the Vino of Italy, the missing furniture bits and headed to the Cousin's for a visit. It seemed a waste to have driven the giant empty minivan for these things.

The Cousin's home is unique. It's located within a typical Bucks County development with 1/2 acre lots and tract mansions but he chose his lot with a particular purpose in mind: A vineyard. That's right on the southern side of the house he has planted 8 rows of grape vines, enough for 50 or so gallons of wine every year.

All Italian Americans have a built-it sense of Mediterranean cultivation where they feel genetically compelled to grow things. . It might be expressed in a tomato plant in a pot on an apartment terrace or a fig tree that is so foreign to the region it's growing in that great efforts are spent protecting it from the harsh realities of not having it's roots buried in Italian soil but like a salmon returning to spawn we all want to grow things.

And it's never things like potatoes. It's the familiar things of our heritage: olives, lemons, the aforementioned figs and tomatoes.

The Cousin has taken this to a level that until he imagined it - no one though it possible. A Vineyard withing a tract development. All the convenience of modern suburban living: local supermarkets and dry cleaning with the ability to grow grapes. Genius really.

And of course such obsessions, no matter how culturally inbred, can't end in just wine grapes. There are lemon trees in pots for the sole purpose of making homemade limoncello, chestnut trees producing nuts for roasting in the fall and if you've gone that far how can you not have olives.

In Italian American-ism, he wins. He's an Italian-American Eagle Scout and has earned all the required badges that such an honor demands.

Well he was winning until we met the Canadian cugini that has a fig tree in a sun room with a removable  roof but that's another story for another day.

After a nice visit with the Cousin and his wife it was time to head. home.

As we pulled up one of youngest son's friends pulled up with a couple of London Broils. Now in their fifth college summer, the boys were planning a get together with with local friends but now it looked like only the two of them were down for the party.

The four of us decided to have a fourth on our own and grill one of the steaks but then 4 turned into 7 when texts started flying about and some friends of ours decided to join us.

We had a nice dinner together, surprised by how the boys had really grown up and now were joining us for boring adult things. The Adults had dessert while young men retreated to the garage for some Intellivision and the older folks made plans for fireworks.

We all agreed that driving to the next town over and being locked into a high school parking lot for two hours while traffic slowly drained away like last year was NOT what we wanted to do. The fireworks at the riverfront sounded as equally grid-locked and so we decided on Collingswood.

Collingswood is a just barely outside Camden community known for both it's proximity to Philly and it's liberal lifestyle. They hold fireworks every year and the last time I recall going, The Chancellor's best-friend who is among us this evening was pregnant with her now-sophomore-in-college daughter.  
A plan of attack was formed. We would come in behind the enemy from the Philly side were the access roads were wide, park remotely and walk towards the High School carrying our beach chairs. The post fireworks plan was to to walk outside the grid-lock zone to the car in the lot, drive and turn onto wide access road and hightail it out of there.

We sat in a large field full of locals and discovered that we had awkwardly chosen four chairs, all somehow of different heights. One low to the ground, One half way and two full height. We sat and all put our faces into out phones. Four heights, four faces glowing from the reflected LED light.

Why did we drive all this way, hike with equipment 4 blocks  and then just do what we could have done at home, I have no idea but the objective now was to get enough internet bandwidth to tell others what a great time we were having and post pictures proving it.

The fireworks started on time and lasted a full half hour but all decided that we missed having the usual soundtrack of "Little Pink Houses", "Born in the USA" and "Philadelphia Freedom" blaring from loud speakers.

We took pictures that were immediately uploaded to the "cloud".  These are the pictures that our children would need to rummage through and decide what was worth keeping and what to throw out after we were dead and gone like the Uncle.

The exit plan worked perfectly with the added advantage of a traffic light to our left putting the pick on on-coming traffic so we could slip right on out.

Saturday, July 04, 2015


Chris Squire's passing last week marks the end of an era with the progressive rock band Yes who I've followed since I was 14. They were my first concert in June of 1975.

With that here are my favorite Yes tunes.

  1. Starship Trooper - The Yes Album - First glimmers of what Yes could be with Steve Howe on Guitar. My Best Memory Driving of the song around Center City Philadelphia in Mark MacCleary's 1972 Ford Station Wagon that had the 100W car stereo with attached  Home Stereo speakers. The Guitar call and response at the end came just as we hit City Hall. This might have something to do with today's tinnitus 
  2. Close to the Edge - Close to the Edge - I recall taking the album out of the sleeve for the first time and seeing no song breaks. Whoa - The song takes the whole side but somehow has as many movements as a traditional LP recording. 
  3. America - Yesterdays - Another early one with Wakeman but not released until 72 on an Atlantic Sampler called the The New Age of Atlantic but I never heard it until I bought Yesterdays in 1976. 
  4. South Side of the Sky - Fragile - Classic lineup of Anderson Howe Bruford Squire and Wakeman. One can almost picture Wakeman-in-a-cape jumping to a lower set of keyboards on stage. 
  5. Heart of the Sunrise - Fragile - The beginnings of the epic length Yes song 
  6. Going for the One - Going for the One - A fun romp proving they are back. Wakeman is back too. After a break of three years with no real new material GFTO came out while I was stationed at Memphis TN in the USN.
  7. The Gates of Delirium - Relayer - or as Steve Howe says it re-LAY-er. Clearly one that grew on me since I wasn't a big fan at first but then for a few months had it on loop in my 1972 walkman/VM Bug with 40 W of Stereo in a small space. Again tinnitus
  8. Wonderous Stories - Going for the One - The only Anderson song that tactfully makes some sort of sense. 
  9. Awaken - Going for the One - A brief  return to the Epic length at 10 Min. 
  10. Perpetual Change - The Yes Album - A Jon Anderson/Chris Squire special. I once dreamed I could sing like Anderson until I realized he was 4 foot 6 leprechaun.