Italy 2.0

I just lived this trip to Italy.

I just lived this trip to Italy.

By Mimi Johnson

This time the trip was all mine. I didn’t think about blogging. I didn’t think about writing. I didn’t journal. I didn’t even scribble any notes. One day after the next I just took it in, each moment my own.

Our first trip to Italy was just a year ago. On that visit I hit the ground running. I wanted as much as I could get, as fast as I could get it. Florence, Siena, Rome, Assisi and Perugia, I jammed as much as I could into each of them, greedy for every sight. I wanted big, huge bites of a country I’d waited a lifetime to see. And I wanted to get it all down, blogging all about those special moments – seeing The David, the Coliseum, the Vatican, the tomb of St. Francis and the address by the new Pope Francis. I logged every bite of every delicious meal, each swallow of deep, red wine, each spoonful of gelato. I wanted clutch it all, hang onto each experience in my sweaty little hands. And if I wrote down the words then I had a record. Then I could believe it actually did happen. And when we left Italy a year ago, it was with the hope that the conference my companion had attended would invite him back again this year.

They did.

But the intervening year has been, well, strange. I’ve lived long enough to resist calling it difficult. I’ve lived through, and watched others survive, more disrupting times than anything we encountered this year. But there were some bumps in the road. I spent a long winter hobbled by orthopedic surgery. And my companion’s capricious news industry continues to be quicksand under our feet. In April, we found out he’ll be out of a job on July 1st.

So this year’s spring Italy trip came at an opportune time. The arrangements had already been made, tickets and accommodations already paid for, so there was no serious consideration of canceling in spite of the impending loss of income. Travel is always a gift, but this time it was also a respite. Job-hunting, the removal of surgical screws, it was all going to have to wait for just a little while. For ten days we suspended ourselves.

Writing and blogging was suspended for me as well. This time I was going to just live the trip. What follows are the memories, the impressions, the bits and pieces that gave me exactly what I needed.

  • A caprese salad with a chilly glass of crisp white wine, served in a sidewalk café in Venice is perhaps the most perfect people-watching lunch possible. We just sat back and dined, watching the parade go by; speed boats, vaporettos and water taxis on the Grand Canal disgorged Asian tour groups chasing a leader’s tiny yellow flag, school kids in uniform herded by parental chaperones and young couples sharing gelato ice cream cones. Babies in strollers, nuns in habits and fashionistas in heels six inches high – I’m convinced if we’d sat there long enough we would have seen every expression of humanity under the sun.
  • Indulging in an evening gondola ride invites the observation of fellow tourists. It doesn’t matter. We kissed under the Bridge of Sighs unmindful of the stares.
  • You haven’t really experienced Venice until high tide floods the streets and palazzos. Clomping over the wooden risers placed over the lowest lying areas, and wandering a circuitous route to find a dry path to the hotel had the narrow streets echoing our laughter. It was a fun way to end the evening.
  • There is something deeply peaceful in watching an early morning thunderstorm from an open, casement window. The sound of rain on ancient cobblestones is one I’ll always remember.
  • In a world short on charm, Italian men have cornered the market. Not only do the vast majority dress well, they generally seem to have a resonance of voice that immediately raises goose bumps. One artfully murmured, “Buonasera, signora,” can nearly make me giddy.
  • Everyone should experience a meal with new friends gathered around a huge restaurant table that does not begin until 9 p.m. at the earliest and lasts at least until 1 a.m. Many bottles of wine should be consumed to wash down vast quantities of pasta, and walking the narrow streets home should include lots of laughter.
  • I enjoyed the view of this church just below our hotel.

    I enjoyed the view of this church just below our hotel.

    It is a touching moment when the staff in the little café where you’ve been hooking up with WiFi not only greets you, but starts your coffee when you walk in the door. Earning a sense of belonging in a foreign country is a beautiful thing.

  • It is a civilized thing that European cafes allow dogs on leashes to accompany their owners inside. Civilized.
  • Waking up to the sound of street vendors pushing their carts down the cobblestones outside your window and calling to each other as they go is a much more pleasant way to start the day than an alarm going off.
  • Americans stand in queues better than Italians. Their lines are straighter and more clear. But they sadly lack Italian serendipity.

When we returned home it wasn’t with a sense of dread. Yes, there are still things that must be dealt with, and now my companion and I are ready to dig into them. This trip was a gentle interlude, helping us both to renew our spirit of happiness.

There is a wonderful line in the old movie The Electric Horseman. On the eve of setting a thoroughbred race horse loose with a herd of wild mustangs, horse thief Sonny Steele tells a reporter (who he also happens to be sleeping with,) “Do me a favor. Tomorrow, don’t take notes.”

I did myself a favor this trip. I didn’t take notes. I just let it happen. And I didn’t miss a thing.

A foggy morning in the valley, but gorgeous from our hilltop hotel room.

A foggy morning in the valley, but gorgeous from our hilltop hotel room.

Retiring an old passport with a lot of fun travel memories

The pen ran out of ink as I was signing, but I never got a question about the signature in dozens of trips on this passport.

The pen ran out of ink as I was signing, but I never got a question about the signature in dozens of trips on this passport.

Cover 1I’m traveling on a new passport in this trip to Italy.

Getting a new passport is no big deal, as long as it arrives before you need to travel. But the return of the old passport, with a couple holes punched through the cover, brings back a decade of travel memories.

mugFor one thing, that old mug shot that looked so bad 10 years ago (does anyone ever like their passport photo?) at least looks 10 years younger now. The sideburns were all white then, but the goatee part of my beard was still more pepper than salt. Sometime in the past decade, that beard turned all white, then I shaved it for vanity.

But the real story of an old passport isn’t the photo, it’s the stamps inside.

Oddly, I can’t find a stamp for my first trip on the passport, a 2004 visit to Tofino, B.C., for our 30th wedding anniversary. I see two other 2004 trips to Canada stamped, but not that August trip. I don’t know whether they didn’t stamp the passport that trip, or had the wrong date on their stamp, or perhaps the stamp was covered by one of the two visas that were pasted down over a full page (I always presumed they picked a clean page for those).

Other than the anniversary trip, all travel on the passport was related to work. Of course, we piggybacked a lot of personal travel onto the trips for employers, clients and conferences.

This trip, for instance, is for the International Journalism Festival, where I am a speaker on four panels. But we came a few days early for a visit to Venice.

I have two visas in the 2004 passport, from Saudi Arabia for a 2008 trip and Russia for a 2009 visit to Siberia. They were two of the more memorable trips I’ve ever taken.

SaudiThe trip to Saudi Arabia was one of the few where Mimi did not accompany me. Carol Ann Riordan and I represented the American Press Institute at the inauguration of the Prince Ahmed Institute of Applied Media Studies in Riyadh. API was negotiating with the Saudi institute to provide some training for Saudi journalists.

The gender discrimination in Saudi was clear from our greeting at the airport, where our hosts provided Carol Ann an abaya to wear. In the media offices, women journalists worked on a different floor from the men, though I was able to visit them with Carol Ann. They were hungry for training and Carol Ann insisted that any contract for training would include programs for Saudi women journalists.

Though Carol Ann was a vice president of API and I was just a director, the Saudis asked me to sign an agreement with the prince to pursue the negotiations, because I was a man. The agreement was just an agreement to continue negotiating, though, and API never got a contract to do training in Saudi.

RussiaI chronicled the trip to Siberia in a series of posts in 2009, when I visited for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the independent press in Siberia. I treasure the memories of friendly hosts and of journalists who were proud of their independent media. As I read of the growing power of the Putin regime, I hope my friends and colleagues there are able to maintain their independence.

The trip to Siberia included a wonderful walking tour in the December chill of Barnaul, the city where the conference was held. And after the conference, Mimi and I visited St. Petersburg and Moscow.

JapanFrankfurtI got a paper stamp in my passport from a 2007 visit to Japan to do some workshops for Stars and Stripes, the newspaper serving American military troops who live abroad. That trip also included a stop in Germany for some training for Stars and Stripes staff there. The 2007 Frankfurt stamp is the only one on its pair of pages, while other facing pages are crowded with up to nine stamps.

The Stars and Stripes visits were sandwiched between two stateside events, so we were limited to two days of sightseeing in Germany and one in Japan (though Mimi had more time both places while I was doing my workshops). Both visits were memorable, though. We caught Mt. Fuji on a rare clear day, and it was spectacular. In Germany, we visited Heidelberg one day and Mainz the other. Our visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz provided a closing for many Newspaper Next presentations and other speeches at journalism events.

Ecuador straightEcuador smushedI got two stamps for our 2008 visit to Ecuador (the month after the Saudi trip). Unlike most countries, they stamped it coming and going (I recall a fee to leave the country). One stamp was clean, but he other was kind of skewed and hard to read.

The Ecuador trip, for a Newspaper Next workshop for El Comercio, included a side trip to the equator, and walking tour of Quito in the rain and to the Otovalo market in the mountains outside Quito.

MexicoThe Mexico stamp from a 2006 trip to introduce Newspaper Next to Latin American publishers and editors barely made it onto the edge of Page 24 of the passport. That trip included a visit to ancient pyramids as well as the Guadalupe Shrine.

Pages 8 9You don’t get a stamp every time you enter a country. A stamp at the Frankfurt airport is the only evidence of our 2013 trip that included visits to France (a conference about Russian media partnerships with my friends from Siberia),  Switzerland and Italy (last year’s International Journalism Festival, plus visits to Rome, Florence and Siena).

My trips to Canada resulted in at least 14 stamps entering that country in various locations (some of the stamps mention the city; some don’t). And I don’t think I got stamped every time I entered Canada (unless some are under those visas). I can’t recall exactly which of my Canadian trips were before or after the June 2004 issue of the old passport, but I count at least two dozen trips to Canada since getting the passport.

Mimi and I enjoyed some wonderful visits to Tofino, Cape Breton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and other Canadian locations on the old passport.

Stops at airports in Amsterdam and Zurich didn’t even merit passport stamps. I had to wait for those at my destinations.

I’m breaking in a new passport on this trip to Italy, but it doesn’t have a stamp yet. Italian authorities waved us through the “passport control” station without a look at the new passport. But I’m expecting a lot of stamps before I have to replace this one in 2024.

Update: I did get an Italy stamp at the Rome airport today. I just rechecked the old passport and I don’t have one there. Not sure why I got one this year but not last year.

Italy stamp