The airport security line today was groaningly long, but it moved with ease and speed and I hardly complained about the grabby strip search. Soon enough, I was on my way to Gate C123, where I’ll be boarding a Boeing something or other to Rome, an eight-hour redeye that will land tomorrow just past the crack of dawn.
My brother, who meets me in Rome on Tuesday, drove me to the airport. I was very appreciative until he tried to fist bump me as I got out, a gesture that isn’t really in my physical vocabulary. I indulged him, with a blush — what am I going to do, reject the fist? Then I exclaimed, Ciao! Grazie!, getting into the spirit of the trip and all. He drove off, perhaps flushed with shame.
Checking in at the United kiosk, no one asked to see my Covid vaccination card, but whatever. That’s one less micro hassle. United on its website cautioned to get to the airport early due to a possible surge in spring break travelers, the worst kind. But it didn’t seem overly crowded, and only once did I hear “bro” uttered.
I wound up overcompensating by getting to the damn airport way too early, as I almost always do. I still, now, have a little more than two hours to kill at the gate. I’ve had an $11 beer and a $13 turkey sandwich wrapped in cellophane — airport haute cuisine. Now what?
I can get some reading done. I brought along novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult classic “The Virgin Suicides,” which I read long ago and have meant to reread. So here I am, and the book holds up better the second time.
If you’ve read it, or seen Sofia Coppola’s gauzy movie, you know it’s a suburban American gothic hinged on the suicides of five teenage sisters over one year. That sounds grim, but the story, suffused with Eugenides’ glinting lyricism and arch humor, moves with a lush, dreamy drift that’s slightly removed from reality, yet remains wise and true and fine.
I’m already about halfway through the novel, which means I’ll probably have to buy another book for the return trip. Ah, the pleasurable perils of world travel …
Almost everyday I take a brisk, modest-sized walk through the hyper-suburban neighborhood, an asphalt idyll of buckled sidewalks, buzzed lawns, old two-story houses, big porches, and the sporadic American flag and Black Lives Matter sign. People walk dogs. New moms push strollers. Birds chirp and squirrels scamper.
God, is it tedious. And it’s all in my head.
The luxuriant boredom I experience on my walks is tenacious and tiresome. My brain won’t shut down, churning as it does with bland thoughts and uprooted memories that flitter like confetti. Everyone says they walk to clear their head. I don’t know what they’re talking about.
Ah, but there are remedies, I am told. And yet this mind is too distracted by mental detritus to concentrate on the airy, erudite gabbery of a podcast. And the sound of music isn’t powerful enough to muffle the noise echoing in my head. A precious cure eludes the mighty AirPods.
Extract yourself from the leafy suburbs, I nudge myself. There’s more stimuli in the city — shops, traffic, people, the vast, raucous urban tapestry — or in nature — trees, paths, brooks, snakes, deer poop. Or find a walking pal with whom to chat.
Yes. Sure. Maybe.
There’s the easily amused and the easily bored. Guess what I am. Sometimes I even glaze over while playing drums to records I love. I’ll zone out, stare at the wall, go through the syncopated motions, finish a tune without quite knowing it. This is rare, but it happens. It’s sort of like sleep walking, with sticks.
I just took a walk and it was fine. I didn’t bore myself silly. Kissed by the breeze, warmed by a soft sun, I actually put my mind to something: this blog. Amid the riot of thought shards, I was able to organize a through line, if only intermittently. The chaos in the cranium still throbbed, but I plucked some ideas from the storm. Nothing major, as you can see, but still.
It’s like rubbing your head while patting your belly: two disparate tasks at once. Walking and talking is easy. So is wandering and wondering. Muzzling the mind is something else entirely. That’s called meditation, which is not easy. I’ve tried many times. I’m terrible at it.
My addled brain whirs like a broken fan. On it goes as I walk, each step taking me further into the storm, and that much more away from peace. I welcome the simplest of detours, one where I can quiet the cacophony and harness a madly reeling mind. A cake walk, maybe?
So, in a week I leave for Italy, and if you think I’m over the moon with excitement you’re sorely mistaken. Not that I’m devoid of excitement, some numb, lobotomized ingrate, but I’m surely not as excited as you would be if you were about to swan off to Europe. Jus’ saying.
Someone asked me the other day if I was pumped about the trip — nine robustly planned days in Rome and Naples — and I said I was experiencing a mixture of excitement and dread. (The person, who happened to be my dentist, replied with a perplexed: “Oh.”)
As I’ve said before, this seasoned traveler doesn’t really feel the thrill of the journey until he’s at his destination and actually taking the plunge, live, present tense. Before that, I’m somewhat flustered with details, logistics and my own innate pessimism, so I don’t have a lot of room for unfiltered excitement quite yet.
Take Covid requirements. For my Portugal trip in January, I had to submit a negative test taken 48 hours before my flight, but I somehow took the test a few hours too early, so it wasn’t valid in the time window. Panic.
Luckily, United hooked me up with a valid 24-hour test in the nick of time and it all worked out. But it was touch and go, and for a while I thought I’d be scrapping Portugal. Aneurysm averted.
The situation’s improved for the Italy trip. As of this month, fully vaccinated Americans no longer have to take a Covid test to enter Italy; a CDC vaccination card is sufficient. That’s a pre-trip stress-reducer. (Though you still need a negative test to return to the U.S., a hassle to book, not to mention the burn of pipe cleaners up the nostrils.) Italy does, however, require incoming travelers to submit a Passenger Locator Form, which takes all of five minutes to complete.
Which means I’m set to go. Or mostly. Despite me being a hardened solo traveler, my brother is joining me for part of the trip, which is excellent, on paper at least. I’m not a shopper. He is. With my blessings, he’s determined to hit a ritzy Italian sneaker shop where what look like glorified New Balance run about $400-plus a pair (hand-made, etc., yawn).
That’s not muting my pre-trip excitement. I might even get a pair of my own, if I tipple enough vino and succumb to the hard sell. I blame my neutered giddiness, my chronic low expectations, on the vague existential malaise and grinding angst that I’m always in the grip of. It’s nothing exotic or very interesting, but real nonetheless.
Yet doesn’t that fog burn off once I make foreign terra firma? Yes, invariably it does. And though I’ve been to Rome before — I’m a Naples virgin — it’s been so long that it should hold a pleasant shock of the new. And I’m in the mood for a shock.
As I dwell on it right now, the more optimistic about the trip I get. I should do this more often. Weird, one week till take off, and I think, at long last, I’m kind of charged. A whole week? Let’s go now.
Recently I went to the dentist for the first time since “The Simpsons” was actually funny and the good doc noted that one of my top front teeth is chipped. She asked why. I could provide no good explanation. I could only theorize, and it went like this: I chew holy hell out of my fingernails, then I file them on the ridges of my front teeth. It’s a foul habit, but it saves me a bundle at the nail salon, where I occasionally get my toes done. (I wish I could nibble those things off, too.)
To my surprise she chuckled and admitted that she also bites her fingernails. Yes, but do you file your nails on your teeth?, I thought but didn’t bother to ask. I doubt she does. She seems prim and proper and she’s a dentist, after all. (Then again, she was wearing a mask, so maybe her mouth is as pugilistic as my battered pie hole.)
Seriously, I never really noticed the chip in the tooth until she mentioned it. I sort of vaguely recalled it when she did, but it seemed simultaneously new and foreign and exciting. I suddenly felt like Mike Tyson, or that kid Jason who face-planted off the monkey bars in third grade.
I examined it when I got home and it was both less and more than I imagined it would be. Sort of “Fight Club”-y and meth-heady and pitifully prosaic at the same time, like I absently bit too hard on a piece of ice in my drink while doing Wordle.
And where did this chip off the old toothy block go? Did I swallow it? Spit it out? Ugh. I’d love to see it. From what I can tell, it would be about the size of a tiny fingernail shard — nothing dramatic, but substantial enough to react to (which in my case would be: “cool”). I can feel the vacated groove with my tongue and I definitely see it now that it’s been highlighted.
For all its aesthetic possibilities — gnarly or character-making? — the chipped tooth doesn’t have much use. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t make me money. It has not upset the space-time continuum. Yet one thing is sure: It files fingernails fantastically.
This isn’t totally new for me. A long while ago, I was eating something hard and a splinter of enamel from a bottom tooth shaved off and landed on my tongue. I spit it into a napkin, its demise anonymous and ignominious, and for that I lament.
As far as I know, that was my first tooth chip. It was novel and neat. It was painless, almost imperceptible. What I kinda perversely like: It certainly won’t be my last.
Teeth are ever-evolving, generally for the worst, be it cavities or wayward wisdoms. The mouth is a monster, filthy, festering, fragrant. And despite it signifying that one’s teeth are slowly disintegrating, a little chip here and there is nothing to spaz about, as even my dentist showed. She simply pointed mine out as if it was a birthmark or a cute little dimple. Yeah, it’s just like that.
In a feat of magnificent self-control, the dental hygienist did not flinch. There she was, peering into my gaping maw, inspecting, poking and scraping teeth and gums, and miraculously she didn’t throw up.
Pro that she is, you wouldn’t think she would. But my mouth hasn’t been examined by anyone with “dental” or “dentist” in their job description since the Obama administration for a plethora of reasons, none of them interesting, credible or justifiable. “Massacre” is the word I figured would spring to her mind as she toiled in my mossy abyss.
I’m a mad brusher and flosser, but I dumbly dropped the ball on getting my choppers checked, and after a while I just let it slide, perhaps the least responsible thing I’ve done since paying good money to see that Spin Doctors tribute band.
Going into the eons-belated dental appointment, I braced for catastrophe. I entertained Dantesque visions of cavities, gingivitis, cracked crowns, mouth cancer, hairy tongue syndrome, or worse. I imagined my teeth encrusted with piles of plaque, towers of tartar. Dentist? Get me an archeologist.
Dentistry isn’t gorgeous. It’s violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Still, dentists don’t scare me much. I’m not one of those characters who whines and quivers over the periodic oral exam. My mouth has been through a lot, including braces, a few crowns, scads of fillings and wisdom teeth extraction (all four).
When I was 14, a dental surgeon propped up a few of my receding gums by slicing strips of skin from the roof of my mouth and using the flesh to support the sliding gums. That happened.
I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed with novocaine needles the length and girth of bratwursts. I’ve seen my own blood smeared on the minty-green dental bib. What else can they do? I’m pretty much ready for anything.
And so I went to the dentist this week, steeled, as I said, for that scene in “Marathon Man.” I pictured drills and pliers, sandblasters and buzzsaws.
Instead, I got teddy bears and lollipops. The hygienist couldn’t have been more pert and welcoming, a living bubble machine. (Not only that, but the ceiling television was set to “The View”!)
She proceeded to do the poke-and-prod routine with hooky metal utensils and rather than recoil at my neglected mouthful, she actually complimented the super job I’ve been doing maintaining my oral health. Clearly, she said, I take my toothsome hygiene seriously. I would have smiled if seven of her fingers weren’t jammed in my mouth.
And so I won Round One in the dentist ordeal. Of course I had more in store, the big stuff: the x-rays and the photos and the exam by the capital-D Dentist. This gig wasn’t over by a long shot, and with my luck I’d be getting some kind of shot with the longest needle available.
I was ushered into a new room, where the official dentist’s chair spread before me, the full-length recliner straight out of Torquemada. Once you lie back in this chair, it’s over. Once you open your mouth, you’re doomed. Rinse, spit, repeat, scream.
As it’s been 135 years since I last saw a dentist, the young doctor who eventually entered, after a pair of technicians took x-rays and photos, was of course new to me. And to my delight, she was just as chirpy, enthusiastic and calming as the angelic hygienist — a human puff of nitrous oxide.
But she was serious, too, and got down to business. The upshot: I am a fastidious cleaner, but I grind my teeth and need a tooth guard for sleep; I have two slightly cracked molars that will eventually require crowns; and I have one “baby” cavity that did not concern the good doc a bit.
In fact, she practically laughed it off. And at long last, relieved, disabused of my festering fears, and with no fingers and pokers clogging my mouth, so did I.
With an air of mock bluster, a studied wink, arms comically akimbo, I often sniff that I walk the earth alone. I mean that this avid globe-trotter travels the world solo, sans companionship, just me and the open road, sky and sea, cultivating fun, adventure and experience without the burden of a fellow traveler who so often becomes one big people-y crimp in my one-man style.
That style is all about space, quietude, being beholden to no one, operating at my own pace and serving my own proclivities. In a word: freedom. It’s traveling with baggage — a carry-on and a small backpack — without baggage. I’ve of course traveled many times with others, from lovers to family to folks I’ve met on the road. Solo is better, and that’s how I’ve been doing it for years, blissfully à la carte.
I don’t get lonely, that’s what everyone wants to know. I have a busy mind, a busy schedule, I make acquaintances, I get lost in the environment, devouring the culture, the cuisine and travel’s crazy curveballs. I wander backstreets and byways just hoping to get sucked into the local labyrinth, to stumble upon the next astonishment.
With my usual meticulous care, I just booked a nine-day trip to Rome and Naples for late March. Solo, of course. Flight set, tours and meals reserved, a full itinerary. I have plans, firm and unflustered.
And they have just been crashed.
My older brother, hands down one of my best friends, approached me the other day, meekly, and suggested, asked, wondered if he might just maybe, perhaps, possibly join me for a few days on my Italy excursion.
Normally on hearing those words, my heart would have sunk to the ground, burned through the Earth’s crust and dropped into Hell itself and turned into molten ash.
But this is my brother, a proven fellow traveler on several journeys. And so I did not flinch. At least not enough that he could see. I have amazing control of my facial muscles.
Really, he’s a fine travel companion. Besides our family trips growing up, he visited me numerous times in Austin, Texas, where we would pal around at a major film festival for several days.
When he had business in London once while I was traveling there, I welcomed him to join me for a few days and, except for one rather farcical Underground mishap, we got along with impressive synchronicity. We also took a week-long road trip through the American South — Monticello to Montgomery — with scant friction and abundant laughs.
So it’s not like he’s some monstrous style-cramping interloper upending my delicate plans in Italy. In fact, I predict he’ll be an asset, great company. For one, he’s a whiz, far smarter than I am, with a cooler temperament, possessing a surgically logical mind.
For all my strategizing, he’ll probably be the one assuming the role of tour guide. He was in Rome a few years ago and he knows, for instance, the lay of the land and where to see the greatest Berninis and Caravaggios. I’d likely figure all that out on my own, but not without the furious crumpling of maps and some spicy language that would turn nettled Roman heads.
And yet I’m not wholly abandoning my need for space. Separate hotel rooms are the rule, costs be damned, and I’m taking at least one tour on my own. Whether I “accidentally” lose my travel mate has yet to be seen. One goal is that I’ll never have to huff the rueful words: “This, brother, is why I travel alone.”
This intractable introvert would be lying if I said I didn’t prefer to voyage solo, untethered, with no one to report to or share every moment with. The claustrophobia of enforced camaraderie is something to be wary of.
Yet there’s much to be said for having a co-pilot in uncharted terrain (neither of us has been to Naples). It creates a handy support system and allows experiences to acquire more weight when shared. (He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, as The Hollies sang. Although I have no intention of trying to lift my brother.)
I just re-read those last lines and wonder if I’m being too optimistic and ingratiating, slathering a shine on things to conceal shuddering apprehensions.
I don’t think so. Travel is too exciting, exhilarating and gratifying to be so easily sullied, especially when one’s unexpected companion will be as pleasant and profitable as my brother. Am I my brother’s keeper? I am not. Vice versa? Maybe.
So this party crasher might be my safety net, an insurance policy. But better yet, he’s a sidekick for the joys of worldly jaunts, and for, we hope, shared ecstasy.
My high school reunion is fast approaching. There is no way in hell I’m going.
The reasons are obvious: the cringing awkwardness, the burning mortification of being reacquainted with people you could barely stand to look at decades ago, the screaming wish to not be there, the horror, the horror.
I’ve skipped all of my high school reunions and have no plans to attend future ones. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed a coterie of close friends in high school, not to mention several satellite buddies and many gal pals. I was popular with all kinds, even though I generally abhorred the conceited, pathetically delusional jocks and cheerleaders.
I had the time of my life with those friends, especially my best friend, Ian. The two of us even went to the same college, where he met his future wife, gleaned new interests (like money), then our paths began to diverge.
We were doomed to lose touch. By late college and beyond he’d become something of a boor, intellectually incurious, cerebrally inert. His cultural immaturity, which manifested itself as an irrational hostility towards the arts, books, fine food and world travel, made him a hopeless philistine, a materialist contented with easy mediocrity and smug conventionalism. (I can only imagine how he’d deem my very different life.) Except for wine, women and song, so to speak, we had zip in common.
It’s a shame. We’ve exchanged occasional emails over the years, but nothing’s clicked. We are different people, only vaguely relatable, and that happens. Still, if there’s one person I’d go to a high school reunion with, it’d be him.
But that won’t happen. From what I’ve gathered, I think he’s also boycotted the reunions, those sad, saggy assemblies of forced jollity and shattered dreams. Now, I know oodles of people genuinely enjoy these things, going so far as to head organizing committees and track down fellow alumni and all that crap.
What a dismal business. High school was mostly rotten, with the exception of my friends and our extramural activities (huh-hum), the rock bands I played in, and my junior year English teacher, who taught me about 80 percent of what I know about art, life and literature. Recently I wrote this about those days:
“My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders — ‘The Breakfast Club’ writ eye-rollingly real. This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game.”
I was an angry teen, see, which is scarcely uncommon. And it sounds like I hold a grudge, which I kind of do. Yet I’m not blaming anyone for my misery. People are who they are, and who they are as teenagers isn’t necessarily who they become.
But all I know are the characters I knew in high school. And yet maybe that bullying jerk is a benevolent, cherub-cheeked pastor now. And maybe that overbearing chirpy cheerleader is an amazing New York sculptor. Could be.
The headline reads “Why Tourists Skip Naples: Debunking Common Misconceptions,” and the story that follows presents a catalog of corrections to perceived biases against the southern Italian city, which suffers, to begin with, a reputation for crime and grime and Mafioso shenanigans. It’s known as the “messy brother” or “crazy uncle” of other Italian cities, two descriptions I totally relate to.
So while many tourists skip Naples, I will not. Even if some travelers expect it to be a “mafia-infested crap hole,” writes one travel blogger with zesty candor, I will embrace its raw, rough edges, tuck into its world-famous pizza, drop by the frozen-in-time tragedy of Pompeii and stroll the lush Amalfi Coast. If I feel like it, I might just hop over to the resort island of Capri. I’m capri-cious like that.
This is all in spitball stages. I haven’t bought a ticket, I haven’t nailed a date. I am digesting the possibilities. And as I do, I discover persuasive tidbits. Like that Rome is a measly one-hour train ride from Naples, instantly making any plans a two-city trip. Now I’m thinking four days in megacity Rome, three or four in Naples. (From the Colosseum to the Vatican, Rome, where I’ve been twice, needs no introduction.)
What’s in Naples? The city sits in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, which legendarily vomited ash and lava over Pompeii, a macabre pilgrimage for those of us who want to see ancient charred bodies in various poses of molten distress. There’s the almost holy National Archaeological Museum; the tomb of the poet Virgil; and Underground Naples, a subterranean slice of preserved ancient Greek and Roman life. Food is of course paramount, as the birthplace of pizza, probably my favorite food. (I’m a lucky guy: pasta is a close second.)
Still, this history-drenched city, once known as the “Paris of the south,” remains Italy’s unruly black sheep. That’s partly due to the Camorra, the regional Campania mafia, which tends to ignore tourists and get its hands dirty in local entanglements. In other words, it’s not a concern. Street-level crime — pickpockets and such — exists, but hardly more than in any big city.
Authenticity is the byword. Naples’ “historical center is one of the most authentic and unique places in Italy, in spite of being quite rough around the edges — maybe because of it,” says one traveler. The city is “unfiltered and uncensored — wholly authentic,” writes another.
I like that; that’s my style. Anything too polished is, to me, antiseptic, a bore. I can do grunge, I can do seedy. I can even do dangerous (ask me about Beirut).
So my next trip might be two Italian cities, Rome and Naples, one gleaming, one with a little slobber on its chin. A writer quotes her Italian nonna saying, “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is the soul of Italy.” Which has me nodding: perfetto.
I about had a stroke scaling the steep medieval alleyways of my ‘hood in Porto, Portugal, last week, fuming at yet another of life’s inconveniences — precipitous hills! The humanity! — while clutching my chest and wiping my brow.
It was the same in Lisbon’s Alfama area, the capital city’s coolest, oldest, most mazy residential neighborhood, cut through with endless perpendicular hills and narrow passages. I am either desperately out of shape or the Portuguese are sadomasochists. (The former, decidedly.)
These are not complaints. These — crippling strokes, premature heart attacks — are symptoms of the kind of euphoria travel so uniquely delivers, and what I experienced during a week split between Portugal’s two largest cities, Porto and Lisbon. Considering strokes and such, you could say the trip was to die for. I was smitten the entire time.
I’ve been to much of the continent and Portugal reverberates with a different European tang that’s refreshingly, truly Old World. The people are amazing. And, except among many hacking, shriveled taxi drivers, English magically appears whenever you need it. It’s a country of nuance and contrast, urbanity and tradition. And with crazy luck, gorgeous January weather of cobalt skies and 60-degree days, everyday.
Both cities exude singular flavors. Sight-wise, there’s much to see but not an excess. That’s why walking tours are outstanding, taking you deep to reveal the nooks, the crannies, the crooks, the grannies (seriously: old women pop their heads out of two-story windows and chirp, “Bon dia!”). These are pleasant places, vibrant and laidback, and, with their fabled trams/trolleys, rolling hills and postcard waterfronts, redolent of classic San Francisco, my old stomping ground.
My brother asked if I missed a museum-centric city, à la Paris, but I did not. I do weary of so many museums in other cities that can, occasionally, feel like obligations. These cities are all street, with street art, graffiti, cathedrals, tavern after tavern (wifi — what’s that?), earthy food, multitudinous alcohol (Port, wine, Ginjinha!), ankle-twisting cobblestone, claustrophobic side streets, vertiginous hills and slopes, all of it intoxicating.
The streets are brilliantly bad for driving — lots of cobblestone in rattletrap cars with Model T shock absorbers. Sometimes I thought we’d been in an accident, but it was just a thump in the road. Rides are a steal: Uber lifts ran me $3 on average, with taxis still a bargain at twice the price.
Four days in Lisbon, then a three-hour train north to Porto, which resides languidly in pastel colors on the picturesque Douro River. My boutique hotel, a little alleyway charmer, was smack near the water, where it’s clotted with touristy action, even in January, but not too much. Like the guy with the explosive man bun juggling for tips. I got, but did not finish, a fish bowl of sangria, on the water, in the sun and breeze, while a hippie juggled in the distance.
In both cities the women are dark and lovely and the old men are raisin-faced, unshaven, bent over, sweater-clad, with baggy pants and newsboy caps — exactly how I hope to turn out. One day I had two female servers who possessed hairier arms than mine. As a man of Portuguese heritage, I almost cried with respect and admiration. They put my Aunt Silvia to shame, never mind my Uncle Johnny.
The Portuguese language is enchanting, musical, soft around the edges, like cookie dough. It has notes of Spanish, Italian and Russian, dappled with flower petals. It’s fragrant, easy on the ears and I know all of four words of it.
I found these twin cities fresh, novel, relaxed, uncrowded, winsome. Really, from the fine hotels to the affable people, authentic atmosphere to gushing hospitality, legendary history to rapturous food, Portugal is in my travel pantheon. It’s real Old World material. Humble but proud, and never pushy or arrogant. And always something beautiful.
Onto the slideshow, continued in the next blog post …