Italy Journal – Northern Sardinia

View from our room near Aggius

Along the way to our accommodations in Northern Sardinia, we had lunch at a place called Red’s Bar in the small town of Chiaramonti. Inside the restaurant looked like any other bar/sandwich shop just about anywhere else. The bathroom was another story. One memory that will stick with me is the hole in the floor. Not just a toilet without a seat. It was a hole in the concrete. Even more charming was the small window at neck level (pre-squat), which still puzzles me. Luckily, squatting was not necessary this time around.

At an outside table placing our order, the waiter couldn’t understand my request for something “non carni”, so I got stuck with a proscuttio panini – basically a ham sandwich. Yes, all of the folks who know me as a semi-vegetarian (no red meat, including pork), go ahead and get your laughs out. It was all very entertaining to all of us, at least at first. Between the heat and the travel fatigue, opting out was not really an option because I needed something in my system.

Even before lunch, I was already a bit car sick from the constant left/right curvature of the road bouncing me around. This wasn’t Kristy’s fault, it was just the result of sitting in the back seat a bit too long, and we weren’t exactly driving a Lexus. In Positano the reason for the road’s serpentine construction was a coastline with an immediate drop of hundreds of feet. In Sardinia, even though we were nowhere near the sea at that point, it was the semi-mountainous terrain. It was similar to the most remote parts of Central and Northeast Pennsylvania. Except in Sardinia – unlike PA – I was tossing around in the back seat with a lead pig in my stomach. The after lunch portion of our trip to Aggius was a delicate balance of car sickness, potential food poisoning and the aftermath of the previous night’s wine and grappa.

We found our next stop, Il Muto Di Gallura near the town of Aggius just in time. It was in the middle of nowhere, and I hate to think what would have happened had we missed the barely visible turn into the small parking lot. We were off the GPS grid, so it’s likely we would have driven for another hour or so, in which time I would have surely made the back seat a whole new experience.

Il Muto Di Gallura - Aggius, Sardinia

Il Muto Di Gallura, named after a mute outlaw, is what is usually called an agritourism location where tourists can experience authentic regional cooking and living. It’s a popular way to experience a country, particularly for foodies like us. Everyone is treated like family and you are basically living in the same environment as the locals. If Tarthesh was the most posh, this was the most rustic experience. While there were air conditioners in the rooms (sort of a necessity to keep the really soft tourists happy), everything else about the place was low tech. Extremely small bathrooms; small but efficiently designed bedrooms.

A much needed nap, shower and rest in our cool room put me in a better mood, but it would take me the next 24 hours to truly recover from the drive and the sandwich. I explored the house and grounds lightly, realizing at any moment I may need to go back to the room. Some of the farm dogs took pity on me and acted as my guide through the grape orchard.

Vineyards at Il Muto Di Gallura

That first night we met a couple from Britain – Jay and Vicki, both professors. They were tandem cycling across the vast Sardinian brownishness. They were the only other (native) English speakers. I was encouraged to pull the guitar out, but admittedly did not give my best performance. We also met Paulo, a friend and neighbor to the farm and a cork farmer himself. Yes, cork as in bottles. We had, unknowingly, stumbled into one of the primary locations in the world where cork is farmed. So over the course of the next couple of days we saw the trees and harvesting process, as well as many items made from cork that we hadn’t previously considered. It always seemed to me that cork was one of those substances that just sort of “exists” and I never paid it much mind.

The next few days were extremely relaxing – a highlight of the entire trip. The food was very good, grown or raised on premises. The farm also had their own local mierto and a wonderful mint aperitif. But aside from the foodie stuff, just roaming the farm was a treat. It was a snapshot of a simpler time, easily a location for a film of some sort.

Cork tree

One day we took a short drive into Aggius proper to visit a Sardinian folk crafts museum that Jay and Vicki had mentioned. This was true gem, and shed light on some of the otherworldly artwork and dress that we saw during our trip in the south. It was also the only place I could find some local music – on CD unfortunately, but it would have to do. A second stop at a gallery gave us the opportunity to see the looms in action on the regional rugs and tapestries that we had previously seen at the museum.

The second night back at the farm turned out to be better for me musically, as I was more rested and actually had a chance to warm up during the day. Paulo, the resident cork farmer, took a special interest in hearing me play. He also showed us a film about the local crafts and culture, featuring the same vocal group whose CD I purchased (Coro di Aggius Gallurra).

After dinner entertainment in Sardinia
Rockin' on the Baby Taylor (Photo by Kristy)
One of my biggest fans.
Paulo, Kristy and JD.



Italy Journal – Southern Sardinia

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Audra sold us on the idea of Sardinia as an off-the-beaten path adventure that was somewhat less touristy. In that sense, Sardinia delivered. It was certainly remote. We allowed enough time to see the south and the north, first staying at Hotel Tarthesh (, outside of Cagliari.

Hotel Tarthesh, Sardinia

Tarthesh (one of several spellings I saw) was easily the fanciest hotel of the trip. It was in the middle of nowhere – a destination in itself where spa services and the attached restaurant make it the kind of self contained place you may not want to leave. A small town of Guspin nearby offered a few shops, grocery store, gelateria and restaurants.

As nice as it was, it was foreign in an otherworldly way, not just a European or Italian sense. My immediate reaction was that of a Star Trek episode where the crew beam down to a planet that sort of looks like Earth, but really isn’t. The language, the ancient stylized dress, the color scheme and even the smell of the place were all alien, but not in a super modern sci-fi sense (though the hallways all had light sensors and turned on and off as they anticipated your every move).

Hotel Tarthesh lobby

There were many confusing design elements. The stone construction was at times perplexing. The dark stone of walls and steps and ramps sometimes blended into each other in such a way that you could easily trip because it was hard to see the change in terrain. There were glass panels everywhere and it was very easy to see how people could mistake them for doorways. There was a nice lawn (tended by robot mowers), but you didn’t feel welcome to explore it. There are no paths leading to the grass and you were diverted to stay on the stone. This was frustrating in such an otherwise brown environment.

Our bathroom had a noisy fan. The kind of noise you expect from a Motel 6. The oversized glass shower door ran right into the shower head and the sound properties in the shower were bizarre. The standing sound wave from the fan was so intense that two people could not use the shower and talk and expect to understand each other.

Hotel Tarthesh, Sardinia

I noticed broken or problematic things in the downstairs bathroom too. The paper dispenser was broken, faucets were confusing as hell and there were ants on the floor coming up out of a place in the floor where come caulking was missing. So for all of its poshness, Tarthesh didn’t quite impress on all levels.

We ate dinner at the hotel our first night, mostly because we were completely exhausted from the car/plane/car juggling we had to do to get there (note: gas stations are not open on Sundays.) The meal was wonderful (for the full report see our cuisine section), and we had our first Sardinian wine, probably the best of the trip. My fish was not descaled very well, and was very difficult to eat – leaving a mutilated marine carcass and some appetite left over. To compensate, the waiter brought us some cookies and introduced us to mirto, an herbal aperitif specific to the region made from myrtle. This was enjoyable and reminded me of Unicum, though sweeter.

Hotel garden robots

The next day we took a day trip to Cagliari, where most things were closed and we just roamed around. Then we went to Su Naraxi Baramini, a 4000-year-old Nuraghic ruin. It was a blistering hot, though dry, day so the opportunity to get inside of a 50 degree cave-like structure was appealing. I got my “Cites of the Underworld” fix going through the nooks and crannies of rocks.

Su Naraxi Baramini

Back in Guspin, we visited the local supermarket, LIDL, which to Americans would look much like an Aldi Foods. The main difference was that they also sold alcohol, including a local grappa, which I sampled back at the hotel before dinner while we watched the Italian news. It was then that we learned of George Carlin’s passing, and the much more earth-shaking loss of the latest soccer finals to Brazil. It was then that we knew that the subject of soccer was off limits for the rest of our trip. After a noisy shower we had a satisfying dinner at the Hotel Santa Maria restaurant in Guspin (see cuisine report).

After checkout from Hotel Tarthesh the next morning, we went north for the next part of our Sardinian experience, a farm near Aggius. It was during the next stretch of travel that all doubts were confirmed – the Sardinian landscape has the most shades of brown possible. It is likely that the color brown was invented there, after many attempts to get it just right.


Italy Journal – Music in Positano/Ravello

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Looking back on the pictures and the trip as a whole, the Positano region, including the nearby town of Ravello, was the most musical of the trip.

Watch out, that's the accordion player!

Street band in Positano

Our first night in Positano, we saw a street band perform… quite literally in the street, precariously positioned on a windy corner typical in the town. While we missed a major music festival in Ravello, one highlight was playing for guests at Mama Agata’s after our cooking class.

Playing for Mama Agata and guests
Playing after making dinner with Mama.

Later, I played a few songs on the main square of Ravello, and some other tourists took my picture, perhaps thinking I was one of the locals. Shortly after, a wedding party came out with their own guitarist and mandolin player.

Wedding in Ravello

Later that same night we went to a club to see a tarantella show that we saw adtertised on some flyers around town in Positano. Note to self: Never pay 14 euro to get in to a club. While that cover may include your first drink, you are going to need to drink a lot more to offset the cheesy PC-backed opening group with pre-recorded dance music, and the mediocre gothic dancers. We left after 30 minutes, cutting our losses.

Can we go now?

During our next day in Positano, the only music was a piano player at a restaurant playing instrumental American stuff and jazzy interpretations. Despite the two previous rather disheartening experiences, our third and final night in Positano turned out to be the best. Eugenio Bennato’s performance at the Marina Grande was one of the top shows I’ve seen anywhere, ever. It was the highlight of the trip in terms of live performance.

Finally, some real music Eugenio Bennato’s Taranta Power!

Taranta Power included two female singers, one Arabic rapper (who also played oud), a percussionist using a foot pedal for bass trigger, guitarist, and a bassist. There was a guest female vocalist toward the end, but I was unable to determine her name. From her flamboyance and the crowd’s reaction, I suspect she was at least moderately famous. Guitarists traded mandolins and mandocellos. Some of the music seemed political from my limited understanding of the language. I was one of the 800-1000 people on the beach within arms reach of the band. Incredible.

Though it makes little difference, I still do not know just how popular Eugenio Bennato is in terms of nationally or internationally. For all I know he could be the Italian equivalent of Bob Dylan. Check him out at:


Italy Journal – Capri Photo Op

On arriving in Capri, we heard opera singing coming from an opera festival that was winding down not far from our hotel.

In Capri

Otherwise, aside from some street music and this sign… not much going on musically in Capri.


Italy Journal – Music in Rome

Rome violinist

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

It’s worth reiterating what I said on my review of our travel agent:

“My own personal pet peeve was that Hidden Treasures seemed to be completely oblivious to any specifically musical offerings along our way, and did not go out of their way to make that info available. I realized that they were not a world music travel agency, but I just expected more. Next time I would seriously consider using Songlines Music Travel operated by The Tailor-Made Groups Company, which only recently formed after our plans were made.”

Reading that a year after the trip, I don’t think it was harsh. Every other aspect of the travel agent’s performance was top notch, but I remain disappointed in the lack (or cheesiness) of the musical experiences we found.

In terms of what we’d do differently (and what I plan to do for future trips overseas), we would plan better for more music. I made the conscious decision that our trip was a vacation – not a tour, so I wasn’t interested in performing in any official capacity, though open mikes would have been welcome. I knew going into this that our travel agent did not specialize in musical interests or destinations. I knew we’d have to seek out venues and performers, but I underestimated just how much digging was necessary.

I heard rumors that Italy was a bit off the path for many artists, but it wasn’t the large touring acts that I wanted to see anyway. Jethro Tull was coming through (they are big in Italy), but of course I have seen them several times in the States.

I felt like we missed a lot of the local musical flavor, mostly because we stayed on a rather touristy schedule that did not allow for many late nights (when most clubs actually start up). Aside from the pleasant atmospherics of the occasional accordion player (which I expected), Rome was a disappointment. There was street music of course, but so much of that is for the tourists with rehashed versions of “Volare” and “That’s Amore”. Finding a venue where musicians gather to interact on the main streets or even off the beaten path was difficult, if not impossible. One day we went on a wild goose chase (many blocks) looking for a jazz club that I had read about, but it turned out to be closed. Our coliseum trip yielded a behind the scenes look at how they set up for a concert, but our itinerary did not take that venue into account as a possibility to see a show (I’m not even sure who was performing).

I need a capo! Where's the music store?



Italy Journal – Baby Taylor

On Capri with the Baby Taylor

I purchased a Mahogany Baby Taylor travel guitar for our first trip abroad. I already own a full-size Taylor, so I knew that the quality would be good. Aside from being one of the best values for the money, the reviews also indicated it was fairly easy to get onto flights. Anyone who has traveled with an instrument knows it is largely hit or miss these days. Some carriers are very difficult, and others are more lenient. There are no guarantees, and each trip is different with changing regulations.

I am happy to report that despite all of my anxiety, I ran into absolutely no problems with my Baby Taylor while traveling on US Airways and Meridiana (small carrier to/from Sardinia). I lucked out on the random security checks, but each flight I was able to bring it into the cabin and stow it overhead. I had one humorous encounter with a security person who wondered what my capo was, but that was easily explained (thankfully because I bought it in Rome and it was expensive compared to at home).

It’s probably best to keep tuners and capos in your checked luggage (I did except for that one time). I had extra strings, but kept them in my checked luggage as well for fear that someone would accuse me of carrying a weapon. No guitar tools of course. Also, remember to detune before flights. And pack a copy of “Rise Up Singing” just in case.

Ravello, Italy.



Italy to Knoxville “Glitter & Doom”

The Adventure’s Not Over Yet!  (We have tickets to see Tom Waits!!!) 

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Goin’ Down South – When Mike (the friend who turned me on to Waits in the first place) first emailed me about the Tom Waits “Glitter and Doom” summer 2008 tour (with subject line: Tom on tour… go now!), I knew we’d be in for an experience. The tour is also code named PEHDTSCKJMBA. Tom Waits doesn’t tour that often, and when he does the likelihood of the performances being in our backyard is slim – if we can get tickets at all.

Most of the dates were during our vacation, leaving us three choices – OH on 6/28, which would be awfully close to our return to the US, and could be impossible if our flight was delayed; TN on 6/29, a 12 hour drive, still close to our return, but a little more reasonable; or the following weekend in Florida, which would probably require a flight, but Audra couldn’t go because of rehearsal. I really wanted us to go together.

So we settled on Sunday 6/29. The second that the online box office opened we set our clicker fingers into motion and miraculously got a total of four tickets. We were now committed. It was hardly believable that we’d spend over two weeks abroad, then return to travel nine hours to a concert, but was one of those things we jus had to do. Mike was a long time travel companion (see our Las Vegas journal) and we knew we could handle it.

While we were still in Italy, Mike got rooms at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Knoxville, within walking distance of the venue. Well, originally he got one room, thinking we wouldn’t mind saving a few dollars and being in the same room. We quickly warned him (via an Internet café in Positano) that we were getting road weary and it was better for us to have our own room. After returning from Italy, we agreed to meet Mike in Hazleton and leave at midnight on Saturday to allow enough time to find the venue and check in. Audra was still on Rome time for some reason, so she was able to take some of the driving shift to get us down to TN. It was a straight shot down I-81.

I had transitioned to PA fairly easily, so I spent the trip in a daze trying to sleep in the backseat. Every few hundred miles I would awake to a fuzzy scene of a gas station or truck stop, with Mike telling some story about sideshow performers and Coney Island. Somehow this was all appropriate given who we were going to see.

In Virginia, we tidied up and had breakfast at an IHOP. Once into Tennessee, Knoxville was easy to find (Mike’s GPS helped), and we found the hotel and venue quickly. We couldn’t check in right away, so we explored downtown Knoxville. Knoxville is a bit like Bloom in that it is a college town, with lots of nice little shops. Audra compared it to Stage College, with its youthful, artsy vibe. A highlight was a print-making shop that makes old-time signs. We had a very good lunch at Tomato Head near the town square, recommended by the locals.

Upon check-in we took much-needed showers and attempted to get a nap before the show. Audra needed the sleep more than I did. My body now knew it was daytime and thought I should be awake. Besides, the excitement was a bit too much for me, so I didn’t sleep much.

We had a warm but pleasant walk to the venue. When we arrived I learned that they were not allowing any photos (even without flash), so I had to walk back to the hotel to deposit my camera. By the time I returned I was soaking wet, so it was a good thing they were selling t-shirts – otherwise I wouldn’t have a clean change of clothes the next day.

The shirts were, at best, a perfect example of how famous people can market just about anything and get away with it. The gray, black or white shirts featured oil stains that Tom Waits had photographed himself. Now, I love Tom, but any pre-schooler could have spilled paint or drawn the same thing. Still, we’d fork out our $20 each to have a piece of Tom Waits history. And maybe that is the point that Tom is making. Also on offer was a chapbook of a self-interview (which is posted on the web at

Our seats were – in a word – awesome. The best that we’ve had for any concert ever. The house seats about 1800 people and we were less than 10 yards from the stage. Tom did not go on until 8:30, possibly by design, and possibly because the people buying beer and drinks took so damn long to sit down. That was my only real criticism of the evening.

Even if I had pictures, they really could not convey how great the show was. The sound was nearly perfect, though it took a while for them to mix the bass player properly and the percussion was not quite as adventurous as in past live recordings. What really made the whole night for me was Tom’s persona and how he interacted with the staging and lights. As his stomped his foot, dust came up out of the floor and wafted back into the shadows. Small beams of light hit a mirror-ball hat sending sparkles into the audience that you felt you could grab. The tones of green and red were intense and otherworldly. At one point – possibly my mental residue from flying, or a trick of the eye from the fog and twilight – the stage actually appeared to shift clockwise for a moment.

Musically the group was tight, except for one foible at the beginning of one song that Tom handled well with some humor. The group responded well to each other with dynamics and precision. The stories Tom told were accompanied by the usual ethereal background noise and strange lighting. At one point a single flickering light bulb descended from above while the rest of the stage went black. We learned of the source of the term “graveyard shift” and “dead ringer” and were encouraged to purchase our own individual ladders to combat the Chinese who may be doing the same thing and preparing to create tectonic shifts by jumping off of them. We had our three minutes of fame with a sing-along too with Innocent When You Dream.

Setlist from Eyeball Kid (abbreviations are album titles)

The Part You Throw Away (BMo)
You can Never Hold Back Spring (O2)
Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis (BV)
God’s Away On Business (BMo)
Metropolitan Glide (RG)
9th and Hennepin (RD)
Fannin Street (O2)
On the Nickel (HAV)
Come On Up to the House (MV)
Cold Cold Ground (FWY)
Rain Dogs (RD)
House Where Nobody Lives (MV)
Hang Down Your Head (RD)
Trampled Rose (RG)
Get Behind the Mule (MV)
Eyeball Kid (MV)
Chocolate Jesus (BMa)
Lucky Day (BR)
Black Market Baby (MV)
Jesus Gonna Be Here (BMa)
Innocent When You Dream (FWY)
Falling Down (BT)
Lie To Me (O1)
Make It Rain (RG)
Lucinda / Ain’t going down to the well (O1)
Way Down in the Hole (FWY)

The Band:

Patrick Warren – keyboards
Omar Torrez – guitars
Vincent Henry – horns
Casey Waits – drums and percussion
Seth Ford-Young – bass
Sullivan Waits – congas and clarinet (and selling t-shirts and books after the shows…)

After almost three hours we were starving so we found a sushi place nearby and had a great meal basking in the glow of our first Tom Waits concert. It was totally worth the trouble to get there. Mike commented that there were some percussion instruments left unused, and I too would like to have seen Tom play more percussion, but this is a small quibble. He focused on what he does best – sing and lead a group while at the same time creating a mood. It was without a doubt one of the top seven shows of my life, next to my first concerts of these artists:

Jethro Tull (Tower Theatre, Philly) – First time I saw them in the mid 90s.
Zakir Hussein (Painted Bride, Philly) – Bulu was with me and we met him.
Whirling Dervishes of Rumi (State College)
Tibetan Monks (Whitaker Center, Harrisburg)
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (HAAS Center, Bloomsburg)
Eugenio Bennato (Positano, Italy)

I see a trend there, as the first of anything is bound to be very good, given the excitement.

The next day we had breakfast at Tomato Head donning our Waits t-shirts (along with half of the other people in town) and then left for home. We stopped in Harrisonburg Virginia to have dinner at Clementine, a trendy fusion bar/restaurant and also a music venue.

Returning to Hazleton around 11:30 pm, it was hard to believe we still had another 45 minutes until we could be in our own house, in our own shower, in our own bed. It was so nice to be back. As much as we love traveling, and as much fun as we had, it was now time to be home.

Note: NPR posted the Atlanta, GA concert online.


Italy Postscript – WalMart Culture Shock

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

From the market to WalMart

While in Rome I purchased three extra cards for my digital camera. The one was a 4 GB Sandisk that turned out to be invaluable and got me through the rest of the trip. The others were two Sandisk 1 GB cards. The vendor didn’t have the 2 or 4 GB card I wanted (I preferred to have 2 or 4 GB cards instead of switching out smaller ones). I figured that if I didn’t use the 1 GB cards, I could easily exchange them in the States for a 2 GB card, plus or minus the cost difference (which would probably be a few dollars since I was purchasing them in Euros).

In theory an exchange sounds easy, but it turned out to be its own little quest. First I tried Office Depot. They attempted to help me but the UPC wouldn’t come up in their system, even though they had an identical item on the shelves. Having no luck there, and being in close proximity to Wal-Mart, I thought I would try them since their “no questions asked” return policy is legendary.

The fact that I was willing to even drive near a Wal-Mart could probably be attributed to shaking off the jet lag from our trip. What readers may not know is that we boycotted Wal-Mart in 2004 after the Bloomsburg location (before they moved to Buckhorn) refused to develop promo photos of me and Bulu. They were photos that they had already developed before – photos that I held the rights to and had paid Marlin Wagner to shoot. Prior to that point there were already a list of reasons to stop shopping there, but the insanity of their one-track thinking and poor customer service just settled it. So I had not even entered a Wal-Mart parking lot in four years.

Yet, I figured if I was going to get anyone to do this exchange – without a receipt – it would probably be them. And besides, I wasn’t *buying* anything, so my own personal boycott could remain intact. The lunacy of my plan hit me the moment I walked in and was accosted by the elderly greeter with a UPC scan gun.

“Welcome to Wal-Mart! Do you have a return?” he asked.

“Yes.” I handed him the items and he scanned them. I looked up briefly to see the warehouse ceiling, the endless rows of low priced merchandise, and knew I didn’t belong here.

“Well, it’s not coming up in here, but this gun may not be updated. I’ll give you a sticker and you can go to the service desk,” he said.

With my trusty sticker, I walked to the service desk, the size of the place still overwhelming me. I had seen huge structures only a week before in Rome – structures with permanence, history and meaning, and *this* was freaking me out. I got to the service desk and explained what I was trying to do.

“Sure, leave these here, and go back to Electronics and select the item you want to exchange,” she said.

It was then that I realized I had no real bearing on where the Electronics dept was. My mental Wal-Mart blueprint had been overwritten years ago, and this was the new bigger and scarier Buckhorn store that I had not even seen before. Using instinct and stealth to avoid the smiley faces, I finally found the dept and tried to locate my item. The rack where they should have been was empty, indicating they were probably out of stock. A woman at the electronics desk, seeing my disappointment after coming all this way into the belly of the beast, tried to help. She confirmed that they were indeed out of stock. They had Sony cards, but I knew that an exchange for a different brand was going to be crossing the line – too much for their inventory control to handle.

Dodging soccer moms and summer help, I high-tailed it back to the service desk. Having returned a different way from whence I came, at one moment I became disoriented and trapped in the book section.

“They don’t have any Sandisk 2 GB cards.” I said, disappointed.

“Well, that’s OK, because I tried to scan these and they are not coming up in our inventory. So without a receipt, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.

I grabbed my items, thanked her and made for the parking lot, vowing never to return to Wal-Mart ever again, even to attempt sticking them with a return. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.

A week later, and with similar drama, I exchanged the cards at Staples, where I do most of my office supply shopping. There were identical products on the shelves, but the Italian UPCs must not match the US ones. It took 20 minutes while the cashier rang it up three different ways, finally getting the manager to put it through. I didn’t give them a hard time, but I didn’t see why this had to be so difficult. I ended up with a $15 credit that I’d spend there anyway.

Afterward, I reflected on the culture shock – within my own country – of that trip to Wal-Mart. How foreign and grotesque it seemed. How everything there has a UPC and if the number doesn’t match, you are out of luck. How out of place I felt. How antithetical it was to everything I had witnessed in Italy. Even in Naples I did not feel the same panic. It was a sobering contrast.

Within eight hours I would be on the road to Knoxville, TN to experience another, more pleasant, piece of America. We avoided the Wal-Mart, had locally-grown organic food, saw locally-owned shops, and a great Tom Waits concert. This was the America I was happy to return to.


Italy Journal – “And Away We Go”

Do YOU have a sugardaddy?

(Audra’s intro)

We were shopping in Exton when she brought it up again. The group vacation.

“So, my church choir is looking to take another tour to Europe and…,”

This is usually where I start to tune out. (Sorry, Kristy.) My best friend is far better traveled than I am, at least where traveling abroad is concerned, and I admit to being more than a bit jealous. Teacher salaries being what they are, I don’t see me catching up to her any time soon, so I try to turn down the mental volume a bit when she starts chatting about her Danube cruise, the tours in St. Petersburg, and how lovely the Black Forest is this time of year. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like she talks about these trips incessantly. I am admittedly a crappy friend for not being a better listener and I am happy she’s gotten to see and experience all she has. I’m just terrible at living vicariously.

I thought she was winding up to pitch another trip to Germany and/or Austria. Now, I have nothing against seeing Central Europe. Quite the contrary, I’d love to. I have some German heritage and know enough of the language to tell what the Nazis are saying in Indiana Jones movies without checking out the subtitles. I enjoy Wagner and adore pork and cabbage products. Jeremy, alas, does not. It would be a tough sell. And I couldn’t afford to go anywhere without him.

“…I’m pushing for Italy,” she finished.

Say what? I was back to full attention. Italy! I have a last name that ends with a vowel! Italy has cool ancient ruins that a certain Zahi Hawass fan might enjoy! AND Italy is the birthplace of haute cuisine (French-smench… they would still be cooking like the Brits if the Medici girls hadn’t married into the French royal family!). Also, one could avoid pork products there if one chose to, but I really don’t see why one would want to. (Hello, proscuitto!) I could sell this!

A little over a year later I found myself wrestling our large wheelie suitcases out of the back of Kristy’s mom’s Matrix at the Philadelphia Airport. I had sold the trip successfully some months back, but there were a number of changes to the original plan along the way. First, we were going to be traveling with Kristy’s church choir through Northern Italy. Not singing, just traveling. On the itinerary were Venice, Florence, Milan, Turin, and Cinque Terre. After arriving in Italy, we would be traveling from place to place via charter bus. Accommodations were to include four star resorts and some meals. We were going to see an opera and several museums.

None of this panned out. As the cost of air travel skyrocketed and the value of the dollar began to plummet, many choir members got cold feet. This was exacerbated by the fact that the company that charters the choir trips, American Music Abroad, couldn’t nail down a solid price quote due to the rapidly fluctuating financial situation. The trip was cancelled and we decided to go it alone, sort of.

After doing a bit of research, we discovered that for the time of year we’d be traveling (just before peak season), the southern part of the country would provide a better value. This was the second change to the plan. We needed to make some decisions about where we’d like to go. Rome was a must for its rich history. Jeremy’s family is believed to be from the Naples area and he was eager to explore his roots. Kristy is the consummate beach girl, so Capri and the Amalfi Coast were most appealing. I was the first to “discover” Sardinia. The island where Italians go to vacation had a rich history and an interesting cultural profile. I pushed to have it included. So we knew where we wanted to go, we just needed some guidance when it came to logistics and accommodations.

We decided to enlist the help of Hidden Treasures of Italy. We did a lot of homework here, checking references and consumer sites like the Better Business Bureau. We were determined to have the trip run as smoothly as possible. Even when we were satisfied we had chosen wisely and decided to commit, there were some bumps. Like Naples.

Naples, the largest city in the Campania region, has a… reputation. Guide books, travel writers, and booking agents all advise against staying there due to the high crime rate, horrendous traffic, and it’s ragtag appearance. Our agent didn’t even work with any of the hotels in the city. So our time in Naples would be kept to a minimum, much to Jeremy’s chagrin. We would need to use it as a travel hub, so we hoped to take in some of the sights there before heading to the airport, boarding our ferry or picking up our rental car (the final change… no tour bus). For a not insignificant fee, Mariella, our agent, set up our basic itinerary, accommodations, and flights to and from Sardinia. The rest was up to us.

This brings me back to the suitcases. Once freed from the car, we said our goodbyes and made our way to the ticket counter. Check in was remarkably speedy and even airport security was a breeze. In no time we were waiting comfortably at our boarding gate. I should have known something unspeakably evil was about to happen.

Concerned I wouldn’t have enough reading for the flight and in possession of two hours to be killed, I wandered over to the news stand/ bookseller with Kristy. I had my trade paperback selection in my hand and was headed for the counter when it happened.

This being our first trip abroad, Jeremy and I read a great many tour books packed with suggestions for everything from packing your bags to thwarting savvy thieves. I think it was European travel-guru Rick Steves who convinced me that money belts were a good idea. I bought one for each of us before the trip. I was now frantically rummaging through mine looking for my primary credit card.

I intentionally left my purse back at Kristy’s, determined not to be a victim of a purse snatcher or pickpocket. The money belt was all I had. My passport was there. My debit card … my driver’s license, both there. My Visa was nowhere to be found. Could it have fallen out when I presented my passport at security? Or at the baggage check in? Yikes!

Kristy could see the color draining from my face.

“What’s wrong?” Her face screwed up with concern.

I blurted out my dilemma in hushed tones and we high-tailed it back to the bags where I had to tell Jeremy. We tore through our carry-ons, but I knew it would not be in either of them. Either it had fallen out somewhere in the airport or it was back in my regular wallet on Kristy’s table sandwiched between gas receipts and my voter registration card. I prayed for the latter, but I had to prepare for the worst.

Armed with the credit card info and several quarters, I made my way to the pay phones (we left our cell phones at Kristy’s since they would be useless in Italy without international plans) while Kristy spoke to security and Jeremy looked through the bags one more time. I had two calls to make. The first to Visa to put a hold on my card, and the second to Kristy’s mom to see if she could swing by Kristy’s place and check my purse.

Fortunately, I had to listen to precious little muzac while I waited for card services to help me. The news was good. Well, as good as it could be. My card had not been used and after a few moments it was officially inactive. My second call didn’t go as well. I got the machine and left a message.

“Um, hi. Yeah. This is Audra. It’s now about four o’clock and I was hoping you could do me a big favor? Yeah. I think I may have left my Visa card in my wallet in my purse on Kristy’s table and I was hoping you could swing by and check it out… please. I’m kind of freaked out. I’ll call back in half an hour.”

Nothing turned up at security and Jeremy found nothing in our bags. I waited half an hour and called Kristy’s mom back, getting the machine again. Damn.

“Um, it’s Audra again. I was just calling to see if you got my last message. I’ll try back in twenty minutes.” I rested my head in my hands and tried not to hyperventilate.

Kristy made the third call. By that point I was barely capable of speech. She finally got her mom, who had gone food shopping after she dropped us off, thus the late getting of the message. The card was there, in my wallet, in my purse, but it would do me no good. With only forty minutes to go until boarding, Kristy’s mom could never get through Philly rush hour traffic to get it there in time. At least no one else would be using it.

I returned to Jeremy and the bags to tell him the (good?) news. He was amazingly tender and understanding about the whole thing. I still had my debit card, which would be good for small stuff. I don’t have direct deposit, so what was in my account was all I had until I got home to cash the two paychecks I would have waiting for me. Jeremy had his debit card with a direct deposit coming in mid-trip, and a credit/debit card with a much higher limit than my forgotten card. He would have to “take care” of me financially throughout the trip. Grateful, I gave him a big hug and a kiss while I watched the lines begin to form at the counter near the gate… less than half an hour till takeoff.

So that was how I got my “sugardaddy, ” but only for the trip. But paybacks are a… well, you know. See, when Jeremy screws up and ends up in the doghouse, I get DVD box sets of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This screw up was major and I feared upon our return I’d need to spend a significant amount of time and money in Guitar Center.

Kristy looks at Audra shortly after Audra realized her credit card was not going to Italy with her.




Italy Journal – Things We’d Do Differently

My view for much of the Naples/Positano part of the trip.

Renting a Car – I personally would not rent a car in Europe again. It was interesting once, and a bit like a built in thrill ride, but it is not an experience I’d repeat. Even though I did not take the driver’s seat, I still had to battle car sickness and the occasional “Oh my God, we’re going to die!” moments that don’t make for a relaxing vacation. The logistics (and cost) of getting, fueling, and returning a rental are more trouble than one needs in my opinion. Best to leave the driving to the locals and use public transportation.

More time in fewer places. We covered a lot of ground, and that in itself was an experience. However, as nice as Positano was, it was more of the same that we saw in Capri. Southern Sardinia was a disappointment in some ways, but there were many adventures to be had in the North, so combining those days may have been smarter.

More music – See my music report.

More planning time – As good as my personal experience was, I think it could have been better with more time put in on the front end to make sure we hit major festivals or venues. Perhaps it was good that (again, due to lack of time) I did not learn much Italian music. I was ill prepared for any requests (though I expected that jam sessions would have been fine).

I felt like the trip was moderated a bit too much. There was safety in numbers, so we stuck together for most of the trip (partially because Audra was without a working credit card.) Still, we went. We saw some pretty amazing things, learned a lot, and had a great time. We reflected often on how lucky we were to be on a trip like this. I think we all realized that as gas prices rise and tensions increase throughout the world that it may become almost impossible to travel like this one day. We can only hope that globalism brings people together enough to see their similarities and respect their differences. Trips like this help, even if only on a small scale.