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

It’s the Ingredients, Stupid

Italians are not patriotic about much…except their food. They tell me French cuisine is the art of making a fine sauce to cover the taste of mediocre ingredients. In Italy, they say, “La miglior cucina comincia dal mercato” — “the best cuisine starts from the market.”

It’s the ingredients, stupid. And that’s the topic of conversation (which can become an animated debate) when a chef comes out to chat with his diners. “Arugula is not yet in season. But oh, Sra. Maria has more sun in her backyard…and her chickens give her a marvelous fertilizer.”

It occurred to me that high cuisine has evolved like flowers. The most attractive get all the attention, and over time get even better. I’m in hog heaven with my Amarone wine, cheese plate, and honey. When the fancy wine glasses come out, you know it’s a particularly complex wine. At my last fine dinner, the glasses seemed designed to function like a gas mask…or drug paraphernalia, if the truth be told.

Then Corinna, who ran the enoteca I was enjoying, takes things up a notch proposing “a dish of walnuts for acidity and texture…to give things a kick. And the walnuts rake your palate.”

To go gourmet and not go broke, I like a small, classy enoteca (wine bars are trendy in Italy these days) owned and operated by hands-on food evangelists. A great wine costs €8 (about $10) a glass. Rather than bog down on an expensive entrée (or secondi), I order top-end on the antipasti and primi piatti list. That’s appetizers — the best meats and cheeses possible, and the chef’s favorite pasta dish of the day. Again…it’s the ingredients.

Strangely for me, even in the finest places, Italian waiters and waitresses don’t think coughing into their hands is a problem. (There’s been no rain here for a month. People keep telling me that’s giving everyone colds.) When I complain about this to people who run restaurants…they look at me like I’m from Mars. I guess that’s the downside of a hands-on food evangelist.

Bewitched by Europe

Nearly each day in my travels, I meet a charming local guide. It’s like cheating socially — I’m the only student for three hours with someone who loves their town, loves people, and loves to teach. And they are paid to answer my questions.

These local friends have a passion for speaking English and are so generous with their information, I like to gift them with little insights into the fun of our language. Checking out a great little hotel, I explained “this one’s a slam-dunk.” Working out the directions from the bus stop, I had to explain “dogleg left.” My guides lap it up.

Europe grows up with American culture, but occasionally things shift in transit. If I hum the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme, they know the program… as “My Beloved Witch.” They’ll enjoy a lifetime of movies by a great American star — artfully dubbed by the best voices in Italy. Then, when they finally hear a TV interview with George Clooney or Elizabeth Taylor actually talking, they are hugely disappointed by the weak voices.

In Bolzano, my guide, Nancy, met me under a statue. The day’s first factoid: This statue is made of Lasa marble — the same marble the USA chose after WWII for 80,000 crosses and stars of David destined for places like Normandy. She said it was hard, white, and weather-resistant. (I almost responded, “Like me.”) Nancy was young, sprightly — seemed like a ski bum who guided in the summer — and wore a costume-jeweled American flag on her lapel (the kind my grandmother wore). I told her, “I’ve never met an Italian wearing an American flag in Italy, and I’ve never met a Nancy in Italy.” She said, “Maybe I’m eunuch in Italy. My grand grand father moved to New York. I want to live there some day.” Letting “grand grand father” go, I explained to her the difference between eunuch and unique.

As I walked with Nancy through Bolzano, she lamented we had only “a pair of hours.” We passed Romina, the receptionist from my hotel. Romina is the kind of person who giddily spends an entire lifetime working for a family-run business with no hope for any advancement — as family members hold the few good spots — but is still thrilled to be there. (I see this a lot in Europe.) Romina was a human shield, standing firmly on an available parking spot wonderfully close to the hotel, waiting for travelers to show up. She said, “A family is coming who has your book. So here I am. This is a true piece of life.”

All over Italy I’ve been using two easy statements: “Complimenti,” meaning “my compliments to you,” and “Buon lavoro,” meaning “best wishes in your work.” Here in Südtirol, where 68 percent of the Italians speak German first, I asked my guide for the equivalent of “buon lavoro” in German. She said, “Gute Arbeit.” That just didn’t sound right. I shouted to Romina, “Buon lavoro!”


Kraut in Italy’s Alps

I’m in Kastelruth, in the Italian Tirol. My chalet–sturdy as a bomb shelter, yet warm and woody–comes with a generous fluffy down comforter and serious German plumbing: Ka-chunk…ahhhh.

High in the Dolomites, tourism is huge. But April is the limbo time between the skiers and the hikers. The lifts are still. Most hotels are closed. It’s a lousy time to be researching. I survey the town from my two-chair balcony. There are no tourists…just busy-as-a-beaver locals getting things ready for the coming rush. A man in blue overalls swings a pickax. Children run free in the guest house lounges and gardens — learning to rollerblade, playing rollicking games of foosball.

As I sat down to lunch today with four representatives from the tourist board, they asked me, “Do Americans know this region as Südtirol or the Dolomites?” I answered, “the Dolomites,” and complimented their town as the only one that didn’t feel like a ski resort in the summer. We were presented with plates of shaved cabbage sprinkled with bits of bacon. Ignoring the meat, Günter, the man across the table, said, sadly, “Kraut.”

I’ve been on the road nearly a month. I’ve had just two hours of rain. I’ve enjoyed meeting countless Americans. All seemed to be having a great time (except a woman who shut the car door on her coat and needed a cleaner, a man whose wife was forcing him to tour the Siena Pinacoteca, and a kid from Michigan State who just couldn’t accept the fact that “pepperoni” was green peppers and not spicy sausage).

And during this month I’ve had absolutely no news. When at home, I consume news as entertainment — probably an hour a day. And for 30 days now I have not seen a TV or newspaper. I read a brilliant rant from Lee Iacocca (Lee Iacocca Excerpt). And I heard about the massacre at Virginia Tech…but only because so many Europeans wonder why we let anyone — even nutcases — own a gun, yet do things like legally requiring bikers to wear helmets. My news-fast will continue. It feels somehow healthy.

Enjoying this little eddy in the whirlpool of Italy, I’m savoring a quiet evening in my room. Freshly showered and in bare feet, I “cook” dinner: my tiny post-9/11-sized Swiss Army knife, a champagne flute from my minibar, and a paper bag ripped open as my tableware. The menu tonight: rough, bakery-fresh German bread, salami, carrots, a tub of yogurt, and Apfelsaft (apple juice). Everything’s in two languages here: I believe there’s a dot of yogurt on the bridge of my nose — it’s both frutti di bosco and Waldfruchte… that’s “berries of the forest.” The fact that my feast cost less than €5 makes it taste even better.

I dig out my iPod. Music takes me home — dancing with memories of family, friends, things non-European. Then, I turn off the iPod and return to Europe. With a happy soundtrack of German-speaking Italian children playing just out of sight, I watch a slow show as darkness settles on the Dolomites. Slowly those rugged limestone peaks and gaily painted chalets become two-tone, then gone.

Stars Not Crossed in Today’s Verona

Last night I was in Verona, strolling after dinner through a multigenerational sea of people on a wide sidewalk promenade. It was made so wide by the town’s Venetian overloads in the 17th century, so the town’s beautiful people could see and be seen. This morning at breakfast, a tourist asked, “What on earth was going on last night?” I said, “It was just a Thursday night in Verona. The passeggiata is a much-loved sport here. It could have been just about anywhere in the Mediterranean world.”

Here in Verona, Romeo and Juliet seem to be on every tourist’s mind. The “Balcony of Juliet” is a crass and throbbing mob scene, as every tour group in this part of Italy converges on it all day long. As they take snapshots of each other rubbing the statue’s polished breast to get “luck in love,” their guides tell stories about the completely bogus balcony.

But simply out and about, there are little love stories everywhere. I enjoy the simple moments when a snapshot of love flutters in and out of my world like a butterfly: A guy on a bike, with his girlfriend sitting on the handlebars embracing him as somehow he pedals gracefully by. A happily frenzied couple in their 25th year of running a restaurant together with a perfect rhythm of serving great food. He says their goal is to “stir emotions with their cooking.” She says, “Like a cherry under alcohol, he never ages.”

Today Verona is overrun with families: it’s a kids’ fair. Grade-schoolers in tiny numbered jerseys run a kiddie marathon…dads jogging at their sides carrying their water bottles, and countless proud little faces smiling through the exhaustion. Five-year-olds in chef hats learn to make pasta from patient teenagers. Moms give little ones coins to activate the human statues on the pedestrian mall–as kids look with wonder at the statues suddenly coming to life.

When I visited a hotel I recommend, Rosella insisted I see her wing of new rooms. Like all the others, each room had an erotic collage on the wall above a double bed with red heart-shaped pillows. I commented on the passion the rooms evoke. Rosella said her hotel is all about the union of man and woman. She makes all the art while running the hotel. While her husband steamed me an espresso, I commented on her energy. She pointed to her husband, saying, “Amato gives me energy…he’s my mezza mela–half an apple.” Apparently, when soulmates find each other in Italy, it makes the apple whole.

Here in the “land of a thousand bell towers,” people have a great love for their towns as well. As my guide walked me through the cloister of the church, she showed me the tombs of the great early scientists–local boys who made good and whose names live on in their greatest discoveries: Fallopian tubes and Eustachian tubes. Occasionally I scribble in my notebook, feigning interest so as not to disappoint my proud local guide.

Verona, so famous for love, gets countless letters addressed simply to “Juliet, Verona, Italy.” The Juliet Club (www.julietclub.com) has 10 volunteers who actually respond to these mostly lovesick people. My hunch is they live in lands where people are not so connected.

Answers to Readers’ Questions, Part Three

And here’s my final set of answers to questions posted to this blog. Thanks for everyone’s interest!

Question: What brand/model laptop do you carry, and how do you typically use it to get online?
Answer: I use whatever laptop Brooke Burdick, the Communications Manager at my office, gives me for a trip. I had three or four Toshibas — each smaller and faster and equally dear to me. Then a Compaq. And now an HP. To get online, I generally take the phone wire out of the back of the phone and plug it into the gadget that lets me plug it safely into my laptop and dial up. More and more, hotels are offering Wi-Fi (wireless Internet), which I appreciate.

Question: I’d like to know how you like your new camera, and whether you think there’s enough of a difference in image quality/photo opportunities to justify carrying all the extra gear that comes with an SLR.
Answer: My new Nikon D-40 has been great so far. I really appreciate having an SLR. There’s no extra gear needed. I have one 18-55 mm lens (which came with it), a 2-gigabyte memory card, and essentially the same battery charger that comes with any pocket-sized camera. I noticed today how it seems more people are reverting back to the bigger SLR cameras like I have. The main drawback is that it’s a pain to carry. Today I left the hotel without it and, as usual, I missed two fun shots: a massive Holland America cruise ship gliding by the Venice harborfront looking like it would destroy the Doge’s Palace, and a bunch of white-bonneted chefs gathered outside an ancient building during a fire alarm.

Question: Do you have a specific camera bag, or do you keep you camera in your day bag?
Answer: I don’t believe in protective bags for my laptop or my camera. I treat them as gently as tender parts of my body and they do fine without protection.

Question: After reading Andy’s blog, I think it would be helpful if Andy had a section in your guidebooks for the college age person.
Answer: I’ll propose that to my son. He’ll be assisting on our tours this summer for six weeks and traveling on his own for 14 days (visiting a cousin in Sevilla and a girlfriend in Toulouse). I’m in Padua today with memories of how, about five years ago, 15-year-old Andy took his first solo European adventure: riding the train from here to Venice for the day to just explore on his own. His mom and I were nervous…and we all enjoyed a celebratory gelato upon his safe return. Now, Europe is Andy’s playground.

Someone responded thoughtfully to my concern about having a passport with no pages left to stamp:
If you’re out of pages for passport stamps, just go to the American citizen services desk at a US embassy or consulate. Fill out a short form, and in about 30 minutes you’ll have additional pages added to your passport. (I did this in January in Vienna, in less than 30 minutes. I suppose it could take longer in heavier travel periods.) Your passport doesn’t need to be completely filled; just down to only a page or two of space for stamping.