I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

The High Price of Wax Paper and Other Thoughts on Rome

The big sightseeing news in Rome: A new elevator zips people to the very top of the Victor Emanuel monument (€7, best view in town); the Forum is no longer free (entrance is now included with the Colosseum ticket); and the Vatican Museum finally has consistently long opening hours. (I wish I could credit my earlier blog entry, where I wondered if it was “un-Christ-like” for the pope to keep all those religious and art pilgrims waiting in interminable lines by limiting the Vatican Museum hours. But the wonderful new policies are thanks to the arrival of Antonio Paolucci, the new Vatican Museum director who earned hero status after sorting out the chaos of museum policies in Florence.)

Again I learn that for years, I’ve been screwing up my Italian. When sleepy, I’ve been saying, “Io sono stanco,” which means “I’m physically tired.” To be sleepy tired — as in, ready for bed — I need to say, “Io ho sonno.”

A new wine-appreciation trick: Order tap water rather than bottled water at restaurants, and invest the savings in a better glass of wine. These days, while wines of Tuscany and the north (Brunello, Barolo, Amarone, and so on) are more famous and expensive, the wines of the south are rivaling them in quality and a much better value (look for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and wines from Pulia, such as Pier delle Vigne).

Another change for the intermediate eater: osteria used to mean a humble, rustic, good-value eatery. Now an osteria is likely to be trendy and pricey. The new word to look for to find good value: enoteca.These wine bars serve great yet reasonably priced wine by the glass and pride themselves on simple menus featuring quality local and seasonal ingredients, well-cooked and economical.

Picnic-shopping, I bought 100 grams of prosciutto.At the cashier, after a generous triple wrapping of wax paper, it weighed 130 grams — you buy paper for the price of meat.

Always interested in new ways to connect with locals, I enjoyed a tip from an American woman I met in Rome: “When I see anyone with a dog, I make eye contact and put my hand out as if to pet an animal. This earns me a fun encounter and conversation with a local each time…along with a chance to pet a local dog.”

Inside a Japanese Camera

Flying between London and Rome last week, I made friends with a couple of Japanese girls also flying home after a trip to London, Paris, and Rome.

They seemed as lost culturally in Europe as I was in Japan — clueless about the history, architecture, and cultural traditions, barely able to get past one-word communication (yummy, cold, expensive, beautiful, difficult are the Japanese words I remember, and the English words I hear from them)…but having a great adventure nevertheless.

I’ve always observed with a special wonder Japanese travelers snapping photos as if snaring memories of their trip. The clichéd image of Japanese tourists is taking photos — generally of each other — at famous places in Europe. On the flight I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I asked them to let me see all the photographs on their camera.

Along with all the “I was there” photos, I found some fun cultural memories: In Rome — cats (a cliché they’d heard of), no interiors (perhaps they didn’t want to pay or didn’t need to see), and focaccia (a favorite food). In Paris — chocolate (I remember Almond Roca was the most exciting thing an American could bring a friend in Tokyo), the Eiffel Tower bursting with lights (I called it “Tokyo Tower” to get an easy stretch of giggles), and McDonalds (pronounced mah-koo doh-nal-doze in Japanese…would you like a “big-oo mahk-oo”?). The London shots included a series of theatre marquees (they loved the plays) and making peace signs in front of Big Ben. (I wonder why young, female Japanese tourists always make a peace sign when they pose.)

The final shot in their collection was the crazy, curious American tourist they made friends with on the plane ride home who wanted to see all their photos. I knew they would want to take my photo.

Remembering how hungry I was for understanding and connecting with a local person in my Japanese travels, I can empathize with Japanese travelers treasuring making contact with a “local” like me (regardless of how fleeting or seemingly insignificant that contact might be). Now I, too, am a memory in a camera, somewhere in Japan.

Landing a Prizewinning Tuna…in Rome

I just spent a great week in Rome. Our son, Andy, is there for a semester abroad, and Anne, Jackie, and I dropped in for a peek at his experience. Andy and his schoolmates — most in their third year at Notre Dame — are becoming citizens of the world. As twenty-year-olds would, they have a different focus than older travelers. But even so, their lives are being enriched.

With Andy and his mates, I enjoyed seeing Rome through a different lens. I learned Italian clubs welcome the American kids with hip-hop. Then, well into the wee hours, when they’re ready for the tourists to head home, they switch over to techno. Several of the students came for a semester and (apparently undeterred by the techno) decided to spend the rest of their school days here. Rather than spring break in Fort Lauderdale, they head for Sharm El Sheikh — I never imagined all that MTV hormone activity on the Red Sea in Egypt!

The kids muscle three days of travel fun out of each weekend, hopping a plane (Andy just landed a $30 round-trip ticket to Sofia, Bulgaria) or sleeping on a train for someplace new.

It’s fun for me to see the budget traveler and tour organizer showing itself in my son. Last month, he led a gang of six friends to Gimmelwald, borrowing ski gear from our friend Olle and sleeping on his floor (and working to keep the one higher-maintenance kid happy). As soon as school’s out, Andy and his gang have their sights set on hiring a small boat with a captain for a low-budget Aegean cruise. He explained to me how eight kids sharing the rental cost is no more expensive than settling into a cheap hotel in Athens.

These are mostly Midwestern kids whose worlds — because they’ve traveled — are suddenly broader. They are insisting on fresh garlic for their bruschetta, marveling at how Italians are cynical and fatalistic about their politics (bringing back Berlusconi), and drinking tap water to afford a better wine. The boys celebrate, as if winning the lottery (at first I wrote “landing a prizewinning tuna,” but that seems a little crass), when they come home with the phone number of an Italian girl.

Andy says the rigor of the class load here is light. But as a dad — paying the tuition — I’m thrilled with the education he’s getting (and a bit envious that I never had a study-abroad experience in my college days).

America: "Chili Soup"…but No Piazza

My friend Claudia (a favorite local Roman guide among our tour groups) is spending a month in Seattle. She’s enjoying an extensive — and romantic — private tour with one of our ace American guides. They came over to our house for dinner, and I enjoyed quizzing her on culture shock an Italian might experience in the USA.

Claudia’s thoughts reminded me that a good guide is a keen observer of cultures. While she enjoys America immensely, she does have a few challenges here. Here’s a review of Claudia’s comments (the best I can recall them) as she settled into American cultural soil this month:

“In America, the cityscape leaves me feeling isolated. Buildings of steel and cement have no stories to tell. When alone in a city with a long history (such as Rome), your imagination keeps you company.”

“We Italians relate to urban space. American cities seem to be grid after grid…without public squares. Piazzas are fundamental to Italian life. At the piazza, you can imagine life in the past. Yes, with piazzas filled with people, I feel connected…not lonely. Sure, you have lots of people — but they are always going someplace.” (Her boyfriend replied, “Yes, in America, people work.”)

Claudia is loving the food here. Her favorites include the BLT sandwich and “chili soup.” While we lack people-filled piazzas, Claudia is charmed by our breakfast culture and that we “meet for breakfast.” You would never see families “going out for breakfast” in Italy. And she had never encountered a waffle.

After eating Italian in Seattle, it seems clear to Claudia that the typical American notion of “Italian food” is heavily influenced by peasant village Sicilian food (tomato sauce, big meatballs, and spumoni ice cream). It was the poor people who left Italy in droves for America, and they took with them not Italy’s high cuisine, but their peasant cuisine.

After plenty of eating out in Seattle, Claudia and her boyfriend developed a game. She claims that the average number of ingredients in an American restaurant salad or pasta is 8 or 10, while in Italy the average salad or pasta has only 4 or 5 ingredients. And she can’t understand our heavily flavored dressings. “If your lettuce and tomato are good, why cover it up with a heavy dressing? We use only oil and vinegar.” When I tried to defend the fancy dishes as complex, she said, “Perhaps ‘jumbled’ is a better word.”

Claudia’s favorite souvenir so far: a five-pound block of cheddar cheese from Costco. A favorite experience: going to a bingo parlor and learning to use a dauber. A big surprise: Going to an American football game and finding that they stop play to make time for TV commercials. “That would be unthinkable in Europe.” Politically these days, Italy is cynical and fatalistic. (They are preparing to see Silvio Berlusconi — an openly corrupt right-winger who makes GWB seem meek and mild — return to power.) Just waiting in line to get into an Obama rally, Claudia felt America was a country awakening. Seeing families together at a political rally astounded her, as she’d never see that in Italy. Claudia’s father cannot understand the appeal of a guy he calls “Alabama” — a man with charisma and vision, but little experience.

To Claudia, her father is emblematic of Italy’s political doldrums: “In Italy, there’s no renewal. We have the same old faces, over and over again. So it doesn’t surprise me that Berlusconi is back.”

TV Scripts and Secretory Glands

A few quick answers to questions and comments on my last posting (the Copenhagen script):

Yes, I find Danes to be extremely happy. I think part of it is their commitment to social security. While people don’t get too far ahead, no one seems stressed out about covering their basic needs. And, for the Danes, small really is beautiful.

We need to be careful not to show too much skin, but PBS is not the only shy network. While cable stations don’t use “public airwaves,” the big commercial networks and PBS do. Since their use is granted by the government, the current Christian Right-driven prudishness has resulted in an FCC that is deaf to any reason. Therefore, TV producers like me need to deal with a law that makes any station that shows a “secretory gland” liable for a $225,000 fine. In plain terms, according to the current law, because a nipple, penis, anus, and vagina all secrete things, they are dirty. I can say those words, but I cannot show those things. (Forgive my testiness here, but I have a real problem with fig leafs in the 21st century. Porn is porn and tastelessness has no place on the public airwaves. But there’s nothing pornographic about great art or Danes enjoying the sun.)

Do I write out what my local guides will say? No. But I have a sense of the points I’d like them to cover (assuming they agree with them) and I rough those ideas out in the script. My challenge is to get them to be concise (necessary for TV) without stilting their generally wonderful delivery. My producer gets upset with me when I coach them. But I need them to address certain key points. That’s the challenge. Bottom line: A local voice gives the show a wonderful extra element, and many things are better said by locals than by me.

How long did it take to write the first two sentences? That boring kick-off for the show is just a placeholder for what we call the “tease.” I need to introduce myself and the show, but work really hard to find something really goofy and surprising in the open (like in a mud bath, tossing a caber, marching with a military band, or riding in a horse cart with a dozen Turkish kids). That makes a good tease.

The other day, I was autographing my guidebooks at a store (my first time doing this at a “big box” store). As usual, customers lined up with the guidebook and a post-it note saying who they want the autograph personalized to. It was a great crowd–lots of enthusiasm. Right off the bat, two customers threw me for a loop: One had a sticky note that said, “to Doreen and Jane.” I signed the book “to Doreen and Jane,” and she showed me a second book and said, “That book was for only Doreen. This one’s for Jane.” The next customer handed me a book with a sticky note that said, “To Dad and Jerry.” I wrote on the book, “Happy travels! To Dad and Jerry. Rick Steves.” The lady looked at the book and said, “No. Dad’s name is Thomas.” After that, communication improved.