Posted by: 4initalia | June 1, 2022

Exciting News! 4initalia is Now a Book!

Ciao, Friends!

My 4initialia blog is now a book: “My Modena: A Year of Fear, Laughter, and Exhilaration in Italy.”

My Modena updates and enhance the funniest stories from the blog – check out these reviews, from New York Times best-selling writers, and from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop:

“My Modena is a scrumptious literary tiramisu, layered with history, art, food, fashion, culture (and culture shock), all topped with generous dollops of hilarity.” – Dianne Hales, New York Times bestselling author of La Bella Lingua, Mona Lisa and La Passione

“I loved this book!” – Susan Pohlman, author of Halfway to Each Other: How a Year in Italy Brought our Family Home and A Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife

“My Modena is an utterly hilarious memoir of expat life in Modena, Italy.” – Christina Lynch, New York Times bestselling author of The Italian Party

“Andrea Gelfuso captures humorist Erma Bombeck’s spirit of self-deprecation through a romp of a memoir that offers a window into her own soul.” – Teri Rizvi, founder and director, Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop

My Modena is available from, in hardcover, softcover, and as an ebook:

And from Barnes &

It’s also available in Italy on

Coming soon: My Modena, the audiobook!

For more information, and more photos from the book, here’s my author page:

Thanks for reading 4initalia! And I hope to see you in Modena!


Posted by: 4initalia | December 28, 2017

What We Are Fighting About in Italy

Here is what we are fighting about in Italy:

1. Whether the original Nativity scene included a camel.

Certain people (that would be Andy) claim that since a historic Nativity scene used in Cleveland Ohio in the 1950s did not include a camel, that is irrefutable proof that camels were not present at the birth of Baby Jesus. I countered with irrefutable proof that camels were indeed part of keeping the Christ in the first Christmas, based on a cracked camel in a Nativity scene in continuous use in Cranston Rhode Island since that same ancient epoch.

Not to beat a dead dromedary, but in a Bologna museum, (most of Bologna is a museum, so that’s redundant) I gleefully pointed out that a 15th century painting, by pseudo-Jacopo de Bologna,  included a camel. Would a guy named Pseudo lie about that? Further, camels were the SUVs of the desert; any wise man toting gold, frankincense and/or myrrh to Bethlehem through Christmas traffic would just say say neigh to making that trip on a donkey.

Andy replied: “Most of the paintings in this museum don’t have camels. They have oxen, and donkeys, and sheep. No camels. Just like Cleveland.” I countered: “According to this guidebook, pseudo Jacopo was one of the only painters of that time capable of painting a camel.” Also, camels come standard with extra-large cup holders; wise men would love that.

I totally won that round.

2. Whether we should open the window to check the weather.

We’re staying in a second-floor apartment that requires travelling a considerable distance to check the weather. Certain people (Andy again) insisted that instead of opening the window, which is 20 feet tall, we should check the weather forecast.

I pointed out that the weather forecast is continuously, perilously wrong. For example, on a day declared that Bologna skies would be 57 and sunny, those same skies pelted pea-sized hail. Often, when the forecast predicted temperatures in the 50s, my hands froze to my gloves. On a day forecast to be mild, the air was so biting it actually chewed through my clothing, until 7 p.m., when a freakishly warm wind hiked the temperature within minutes – to 60 degrees. Andy cheerfully observed that the sudden rise in temperature could be the result of a change in pressure from a nuclear blast, so then we fought about whether the blast itself, or the change in pressure, would trigger the balmy winds.

While we resolve that new issue, I am opening the window to check the weather, so I consider that another win.

 3. Whether that guy at the Christmas concert looked exactly like Josh Groban.

At a Christmas concert in a 14th century Basilica, which could well have included a camel, I noticed a guy who looked Exactly Like Josh Groban. Which I announced in the following manner: “That guy looks Exactly Like Josh Groban.” My spouse, who was preoccupied with singers who sounded like Exactly Like Angels, disagreed.

“No he doesn’t,” he replied convincingly.

“Yes, he does!”

“Josh Groban doesn’t wear glasses.”

“He does too.”

“Josh Groban is much fatter than that guy.”

“He was chunky when he played Pierre in ‘The Great Comet’ because he was wearing a fat suit.”

[This fight was interrupted when we were distracted by fabulous musicians playing their hearts out, because, obviously, they thought they were playing for Josh Groban.]

That guy looks EXACTLY like Josh Groban.

Given that the concert was so excellent on account of the musicians thinking they were playing for Josh Groban, I totally won that round.

4. Whether certain people bought too much at multiple street markets.

There are troubling developments on the packing front, which will require the purchase of an additional suitcase. Certain people (Andy again) have accused certain other people (that would most likely be me) of buying too much at the street markets. As if that could be a thing.

Andy brought more coats to Italy than Coco Chanel. At 6′ 4″,  Andy’s clothing and shoes  weigh a zillion times more than the clothing and shoes of a certain other person, who is barely 5’1” when not hunched over from carrying multiple items home from the street market. Also, by spending exhausting hours at the street market in search of fabulous Italian shoes, that smaller person quite possibly lost weight, which should count in our favor with the airline’s Weight Police.

Nevertheless, we’re going to need to buy another suitcase. Who is to blame for this?

Clearly, that is Italy’s fault.

Therefore, I think this one may be a draw. 

But I’m super glad I bought a camel at the street market.





Posted by: 4initalia | December 10, 2017

One Lump or Two? Or, Andy Tries to Kill Us

On Sunday, warm and comfy in our University of Bologna (UniBo) apartment, I fired up the washing machine. It made a droning hum and all was well, until Andy decided to try to kill us by making tea, which sucked up the three volts of electricity allocated to our apartment building and left us exposed to the Italian elements: icy darkness and dark iciness.

The washer went quiet, and we had no power, no lights, not even internet access. I eyed my huge new fluffy scarf: maybe I could survive this.

However Andy, who packed 900 coats, (but somehow managed to use only one suitcase; how is that possible?) was on his own: he’s the one who made the killer tea.

The apartment has only one window, but fortunately, it’s about 20 feet tall, so we used the waning sunlight to read the UniBo instructions about what to do in case of electrical problems: “If the electricity goes out, call this number. But not on Sunday.”

Hoping that the University wouldn’t want the cleaners to find us frozen to the mattress on Wednesday, I called UniBo’s number for general assistance.

I reached an answering machine, and a very polite recording indicated that we were going to die of cold and darkness waaay before anyone checked the machine. But with Andy counting on me to use my Italian language skills to save us, I left a message anyway – a garbled mix of English, Italian and non-denominational gibberish.

I tried to tell them what the problem was, but instead of saying we had no electricity, I said we were American. Then I tried to say which apartment we’re in, but Andy corrected me and I lost my place, so I stammered out a heap o’words not indicative of our location. In desperation, I tried to give them Andy’s phone number, but I got it wrong and had to start over  – and then I realized I should use numbers in Italian, and then the answering machine’s patience gave out,  and my last words were “%%$@(#$**!!!.”

I called back, but all of the ways I had made a fool of myself made me giggle – and I couldn’t think of how to start over, and that made me fold over and laugh harder, so the machine recorded only peals of laughter, from somewhere near the floor.

Andy berated me for botching our rescue: “It’s getting dark, and we’re going to freeze, and you’re laughing??!”

Rage, rage against the dying of the light?

Time for Plan D:  we tried to call our friend at the University,  Maria – but without access to the internet, we couldn’t find her phone number. When Andy tried to call Maria, he got our friend Elena instead. Because he was too proud to tell Elena we were going to die of cold and embarrassment in our otherwise adorable apartment, he told Elena only he had called her by mistake, and hung up.

At least he didn’t start to laugh – that would have really been wrong.

Now the only light was directly in front of the window. There’s a single candle here – but no matches. I thought of turning on the electric stove to light the candle, but it’s dark in the kitchen, so I’d have to turn on the light, first.

Even the Little Match Girl had matches, people.

Andy found another number – for “outside of normal hours” emergencies. I steeled myself for further communication, and fortunately, a calm male voice answered. But he didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak electrician. He asked me to look at the fuse box next to the door, and I did, and it looked like a fuse box, alrighty. There were buttons, and switches, and everything looked dandy to me, except that I couldn’t see it, in the dark.

Mr. Calm tried to get me to fix the fuse box, by using words appropriate to a person fixing a fuse box, but we weren’t using the same dictionary, never mind on the same page. He gave up, and said he’d either be here within the hour, or we were going to freeze to death.

I wrapped myself in my comfy scarf, and waited for our demise.

For the next hour, Andy and I reviewed the issues in our marriage, like his vicious tea-making, and my inability to get through a crisis without laughing uncontrollably. But just as the last beam of light fell with a thud against the window, the bell rang. The kindly man had arrived!

He didn’t come upstairs; Andy met him in the lobby.

The lights came on – we’re saved!! And then they went off.

But then they came on – yaaaaaayyyy!!


And on.


Apparently, I was supposed to look at the fuse box downstairs – next to the outside door, and flip that fuse switch, to prevent us from suffering a long cold slide into death. Like, yah, I totally knew that.

The lights are back on, the washer is mumbling again, and I put my new scarf on the hook with Andy’s millions of coats.

But I’m watching him closely, for signs he wants to kill us, by making tea.



I just came back from Italy, which means I’m smiling.  One of my favorite things to do in Italy is to shop street markets. Because, hello, it’s Italy. And they sell beautifully made clothes, shoes, and linens for a fraction of the retail price.

If you’d like to buy fabulous Italian fashion at bargain prices, wherever you go in Italy, ask for the day and location of the local street market. Many Italian towns and cities hold street markets once a week, with hundreds of vendors, and just maybe, the shoes of your dreams.

Here’s how to make the most of your market adventure:

1. Always go early, by 9 .am.. Why? A dazzling array of merchandise is heaped on tables, but sizes and styles are mixed, so you have to sort through piles of junk to find treasure. As the market gets more crowded, it’s harder to get a spot at the prime tables to find the good stuff. Also,some of the best vendors pack up early. And a crowded market increases your risk of being pick pocketed. (See #6.)

2. Always bring at least one big, deep bag, with a shoulder strap or comfortable handles. Most vendors will give you thin plastic bags. They’re hard to carry, and it’s easy to leave them behind when you’re sorting through heaps of stuff.

3. Discreetly follow the nonne, Italian grandmas. They’ve been shopping in the same market for decades and know where to find the best stuff for the best prices.

4. Bring cash. Vendors don’t take credit cards. And bring change; some vendors won’t take big bills.

5. Very important: every time you make a purchase, check your bag to ensure you bought what you paid for.  And check your receipt before you leave. The market is busy;  there’s an often frenetic exchange of money and merchandise. Vendors make mistakes, and if you want to take something back, you need the receipt. I recently bought my son three pairs of shorts in the wrong size, but the vendor gave me a receipt for only one pair. I asked for my money back, but because I didn’t have a real receipt, I could only exchange, not return, the shorts. The vendor exchanged them only because he sold only that brand of shorts, and if he refused, the next step would have been calling the police; neither of us wanted that. But to avoid unnecessary hassle, check your receipts every time.

Street markets do not provide a Neiman Marcus level of customer service; buyer be paranoid.

6. Watch for pick pockets. When a friend returned from a street market, she found that her purse had been slit with a razor. She never felt a thing, but that could have ended badly. And in a recent trip, my daughter witnessed a pick pocket dip his hand into a woman’s purse; he was well-dressed, charming, and was working with at least one other man.

While you’re shopping the market, professionals are shopping your wallet.

7. Avoid the stalls with the lowest prices. Shoes for 7 euros? Clothes for 1 euro?  That stuff is junk. But in a place with well made goods, (look for “Italian Made,” or Pella Vera – real leather, or just follow around the Italian grandmas) there are wonderful bargains. I bought a $50 euro pair of shoes for $20 and I love them.

8. If you don’t see what you want, ask. I searched all over the market for black shoes with low heels, but all the shoe sellers showed platform shoes and 6-inch stilettos. When I asked, a vendor found exactly what I wanted,  in his van. That was a moment of wholesale euphoria: I heard angels singing.


9. European sizes are different than American ones. Italian styles accommodate bounteous breasts and wasp waists. Before you buy, try it on. (But see #10.)

10. It’s really hard to try things on. Some stalls have little changing booths, sometimes, they let you try things on in a van. Shoe stalls usually have a chair in the back so you can sit down when you try on shoes. Ask for a mirror, (un specchio) so you can see if it fits before you buy it.

A trip to an Italian street market is fun, exciting, and exhausting.  When you need a break,veer off to the farmers’ market section and fortify yourself with a snack of  fruit, cheese, meat – the possibilities are endless. You’ll always find something fresh and refreshing to get you back into the fray.  And if you don’t find everything on your wish list, there’s always next week….

For a funny story about shopping the street market, see “Agoraphobia Is Another Word For I Miss TJ Maxx,” on

Posted by: 4initalia | January 12, 2013

Well Played, Sir

Now that his relationship is “Facebook Official” I asked the young swain to introduce us to his first girlfriend.

Okay, actually I said: “You’re dating, and you’re sixteen years old. It’s time for your parents to clap their eyes on the young lass. And for her father to scare the bejeebers out of you, just so no one gets any ideas.”

He made a sound like a badger being executed.

I continued parenting:

“You two text constantly. You have communicated with her more in the past three weeks than with anyone else in your entire sixteen years. Combined.”

He snorted, but his phone buzzed to report a new text. I saw an eyelash rise in recognition, then flicker in panic.

“How do I know what you two are talking about? You could be plotting to kill us in our sleep, or to hitchhike to Alaska to work in a salmon cannery.” (Not that anyone would do that.)

“Mom, you’re weird.”

“Exactly. It’s genetic. She should know what horrors lurk in your DNA.”

Wait for it….

“Mom, you’re creepy.”

“Actually, this is called ‘parenting.’  I’m not picking out bridesmaid dresses for your wedding, we just have to meet her. Your parents need to know who your friends are.”

Since then I’ve asked several times for a Meet the Parents update. She’s even more appalled than he is. She’s either really shy, or doesn’t want us to know that they are planning to kill us in our sleep.

But we are making progress; weeks ago we were forbidden to so much as speak her name. Kind of like Voldemort, but with cuter outfits.

This morning, as I was standing knee-deep in Christmas tree needles, with post-holiday wreckage in every nook and cranny, he ventured: “Maybe today would be a good day for her to come to our house?”

Today would be great, except that today the house looks as festive as Santa’s Workshop, if Santa was a hoarder, and the toy production line was hit by a tsunami. Next weekend is also out; we’ll be away.

He just bought himself two weeks.

Well played, Sir.

Posted by: 4initalia | September 30, 2012

If These Walls Could Talk

In Europe, I read the walls.  Historians stack facts, organize events, and bind them into books, but the history of ordinary people is hanging on plaques all over Europe. As I walk in Italy, I search the walls for their memories of what happened here, where I stand.

Plaques – in iron, in marble, in stone – mark the homes of politicians, poets and painters, but also the places where lives were lost, so every generation will forever remember the people who lived and died for Italy. But the people who died were  also the people who once read the walls. So these walls not only stand for remembrance, they span history, and unite generations.

Strolling through the small Italian town of Ferrara, history murmurs from every facade. On a street that has been a neighborhood since the Renaissance there is a simple villa of grayed stone.  An elaborate marble plaque nestles next to a small square window that holds the entrails of a long-dead potted plant. According to the plaque, the poet who lived here quite literally captured the imagination of Italy.  But I didn’t write down his name, and an internet search tells me only that in 1602, Ferrara bustled with wandering poets. Imagine a town of poets, wondering at walls.

On another street, another tribute hangs in silent sunlight:

A devoto ricordo

di tutti coloro che sotto

questa mura cercando

refugio persero la vita

per bombardiemento aero.

28 gennaio 1944

Here is the translation:

“Devoted to the memory

of those who under this wall

lost their lives seeking refuge

from aerial bombardment”

January 28,1944″


People died, here. They crouched against this wall while bombs fell. Ten years later, in 1954, their grieving families etched those lives into history.

A third plaque hangs on the wall of the Ferrara train station. This one buckles my knees.

“Oh, $(#*!” I blurt, and my son is shocked. But this is what it says:

In questa stazione

il 19 Ottobre 1943

Sosto il treno della Shoah

con 1023 Ebrei di Roma

Diportate dei Nazi

verso lo stermino di Auschwitz

In this station, on October 19, 1943,  the Shoah Train stopped, carrying 1023 Roman Jews who were deported by the Nazis and taken to extermination in Auschwitz.


These walls have shadowed poets, strolling lovers, lagging children. Sometimes they offered refuge, from sun, from rain, from bombs.  The Ferrara train station has always been crowded with families. But sometimes Roman neighbors – parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – were fighting for breath in a cattle car, rolling toward death.

If these walls could talk? They do. You just have to know what they say.

Posted by: 4initalia | July 8, 2012

Cryin’ Air: How To Make Enemies Without Even Trying

My favorite view on an airplane.

We’re settled into our seats on Ryan Air, a low-cost European airline. We’ve boarded the plane in our usual way, which involves making our fellow passengers homicidal.

The boarding process at Ryan Air is a cross between a stampede and a Bingo game; not even the pilot gets an assigned seat.

While the kids and I take our places in the clump of humanity that constitutes an Italian line, my husband Andy makes his way to the front of the pack. He calls this “boarding the plane” but I call this “trying to get us killed at the airport.” He always reaches the gate attendant several minutes before we do, and because Andy holds the tickets and passports for all four of us, the attendant is forced to retrieve us from the back of the line.

Unlike Andy, I am the same size as an Italian. So on our way to the front,  I look directly into the outraged eyes of the many people we pass; maybe that’s why they call them “passengers.”

Once in my seat I try to recover from the trauma of our trip through security. No matter how many flights my kids have taken, or how many hours we wait in a security line, when we at the checkpoint, my offspring are shocked to learn that they must empty their pockets and put their carry-on bags onto the belt so the bags can be x-rayed. Shocked, I say.

With four thousand frazzled travelers behind us, Annalise insists on removing random items of clothing and body parts in compliance with security regulations of her own making, while Alex devotes his entire attention to a detailed explanation of an obscure computer game.

In a desperate attempt to keep the line moving, I grab an empty basket and slam it down in front of my son, hoping to interrupt his soliloquy on the philosophical underpinnings of ”Half Life 2.” Before I can stop him, he takes up his usual position at the furthest point along the conveyor belt, just before the entrance to the baggage x-ray machine, where he pauses to contemplate an unspecified spot in space.

After a frantic bark from his irrationally harried mother, he reaches into the seven hundred pockets of his cargo shorts, and slooowwwly extricates five hundred and twenty seven bits of effluvia, which he arranges, alphabetically, in the plastic container. He is carrying enough metal to stock a foundry – where does he get all this stuff? And why does he carry it around?

Wait, there’s more…..

Meanwhile, Andy is busy disassembling his computer and creating his own Metalhenge, which leaves me plenty of time to notice that we’re backing up the security line for several hundred miles. All four of our carry-ons litter the floor behind him, so I frantically pile our bags onto the belt. But I can’t move the bags forward because Alex is blocking the entrance to the x-ray machine, and he’s still got three hundred pockets to empty. So our luggage, Annalise’s unnecessary offerings, and Alex’s overflowing container take up the entire belt.

In spite of my explanatory pantomime, no one seems to grasp that all of those things could, with just a little effort, slide forward so that other people could put their stuff onto the belt.

Once I am finally able to clear the family logjam at the x-ray machine, we repeat the same process in reverse on the other side, which takes even longer, and causes my blood pressure to triple. On a positive note, hyperventilation ensures that in case of a loss of cabin pressure, I won’t need oxygen.

There should be an option to board early for people with a dangerous medical conditions, like traveling with my family.

Now that we’ve walked to our seats and adjusted our seat belts, we’ve enjoyed all of the amenities available on this flight. Free beverage service? A small bottle of water costs 6 euros – about $8.50, and if this airline could find a way, it would charge you for your own spit.

To keep prices low, Ryan Air imposes incomprehensible weight restrictions.  Each checked bag must weigh less than 15 kilos, or the square root of 27.3 hectares. Even carry-ons are limited to ten kilos, or 14 degrees Celsius. Because the airline can charge $70 extra for a bag that is an ounce over the weight limit, Ryan Air baggage inspectors lie in wait in every nook and cranny of the airport, including in the stalls of the rest rooms, in the hopes that humidity or the purchase of a pack of gum increased the weight of the bag enough to trigger the fee.

When we flew to Bari, we were close to the weight limit on all our bags, which meant we couldn’t shop without fear of baggage fees on the return flight. So I couldn’t buy anything in Bari, except for a small jar of broccoli in olive oil. And a ceramic plate. Okay, and also a large bottle of limoncello, but no one has ever sipped limoncello and thought: “Baggage restriction.” True, yes, there was also a set of framed photographs of the trulli in Alberobello, but photographs are a lot lighter than ceramics, and where were the baggage inspectors when I was buying the plate?

I suspect that I have a passive aggressive response to the Ryan Air weight restrictions, but don’t tell Andy, because he thinks I’m just crazy.

Although weight restrictions on low-cost airlines mean that passengers are not allowed to bring aboard nonessentials like insulin and heart medication, even Ryan Air flights include a duty-free cart, which sells alcohol and perfume. Duty free carts on airplanes have always puzzled me – why does the fear of dying in a plane crash make buying overpriced Scotch and a liter of Chanel No. 5 seem like a reasonable thing to do? And why do airlines sell just those items? Why not offer something useful, like craft supplies?

Welcome aboard! As a service to our passengers, our flight attendants are now coming through the aisles with all the supplies you’ll need to construct your own combination neck pillow/passport holder/airsickness bag.

On Ryan Air, you never have to remove the emergency information card from the pocket of the seat back in front of you, because there is no pocket on the seat back in front of you. The safety information is printed directly on the seat back, which is conveniently located just beyond your eyelashes.  I study the safety information sticker.  A series of cartoons provide helpful information, such as what I’m not allowed to take with me if the plane crashes any harder than it does on a regular landing.

According to the drawings, if the plane crashes I should leave behind my glasses. If I take off my glasses, I won’t know whether the plane has actually crashed, so that should help prevent panic. And without my glasses I would be so blind I wouldn’t be able to leave my seat; that should also cut down on crowding in the aisles that would delay the safe evacuation of the rest of the passengers.

Another cartoon indicates that I must leave behind my high-heeled shoes, but since I’m going to die in my seat that shouldn’t be an issue.

A third drawing is puzzling. If the plane crashes, I can’t exit the plane with what appears to be an angry clam and some oddly shaped linguine. Perhaps Ryan Air is trying to prevent a safety crisis caused by passengers fleeing with spaghetti in spicy clam sauce.

There’s also a series of drawings about how to use my life jacket in the event of a water landing. Water landings require no restrictions on pasta with clam sauce, so I’d prefer to crash into water, if anyone wants to know.

Now that I know all about the plane I can relax and enjoy the rest of the flight to Pisa. At least until we get off the plane, and have to get on an escalator. If I get on the escalator first, I can exit as safely as a Ryan Air passenger without glasses, or shoes, or Pasta Vongele Arrabiata.

But if I’m behind Andy or the kids, I know that when they get off the escalator, they will put down all of their luggage and stand.just.beyond. the. last. moving. step. When the escalator spits me off, I will be propelled, flailing, into the wall o’  luggage that protects my family members, who will wait till the last possible nanosecond to move out of the way. My desperate attempts to avoid a collision amuse all of the passengers we have antagonized while boarding and in the security line, so we live to take another flight.

Travel is so relaxing. I wonder if they sell barbells in Pisa?

The opening line of Anna Karenina, (“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) also applies to hotels. Traveling to fifty cities in eight European countries, I can’t remember a single “nice” hotel. But the truly wretched ones are etched into my memory like roach trails on wet soap.

Hotel Kyook in Amsterdam was the most spectacularly awful place I’ve ever tried to sleep.  The walls audibly teemed with biota; I heard chants of “E-bo-la!” “Syph-ill-is!!” as strains of bacteria competed to colonize my toothbrush.  The Kyook had the allure of shabbily upholstered pus.

We stayed in other bad hotels, but the most charmingly horrid one was in London.  The hotel was named for an Eastern European ascetic who demonstrated his piety through self-mortification: for the forty days of Lent, he neither ate nor drank. In later years he upped the guilt ante by doing the whole thing standing up. When he tired of the luxe life of a monk, he built an unshaded 50 foot pillar, climbed to the top, and stayed there for 36 years.

Mortification and deprivation: Saint Simeon would have raised two shaky thumbs up to the London hotel that bears his name.

We went to London so Andy could give a speech at a veddy prestigious academic conference.  As usual we traveled by train, and rolled our luggage through roiling traffic that menaced from every direction.

The Saint Simeon was run by a Serbian family held together by unshakeable bonds of mutual resentment and simmering hatred. This created an ambiance much like an Eastern European version of Wuthering Heights.

The owner was engaging and warm, with the charm if a swaying cobra, and a grizzly-esque geniality. When we checked in, Serbio explained that of course we’d have to pay in advance for all four nights. Like Mowgli mesmerized by Kaa, the snake in the Jungle Book, we nodded in unison.

Of Course We’ll Pay In Advance For All Four Nights

Of course we’d pay in advance, once we learned that the policy was the unfortunate result of irresponsible Italians who, on visits to London, spend all their cash on clothing and food, so they had no money for their hotel bill.

Wait, you might say. “He told you that Italians, Italians would blow all their money on British food, and British  fashion? And because of that, he demanded that you pay in advance?”

“RUN, Goetzes, RUUUUN!!” you are shouting.  “He’s lying! Never pay a hotel up front!!”

Ah, such innocence. We were the babysitter in a slasher flick cluelessly opening the cellar door. Sure, we got that call asking us to check on the children, and we were puzzled by the caller’s jagged breath. Yes, we heard ominous sounds coming from the basement, and, saay, wasn’t that a bloody footprint on the mat when we first came in?  But we did not run away, and what happened next was our own dang fault.

Andy turned over our credit card, and one swipe later, we were czeched into the Saint Simeon Hotel.

The kids and I used the stairs, while Andy was trapped with the owner  in an asthmatic elevator the size of Saint Simeon’s perch. Serbio brought us to Room 14, or maybe he was offering a postage stamp. The room’s three beds and four towels all overlapped, and an armoire had the dimensions and heft of an upended Kleenex box. Eaves like obese stalactites jutted from the ceiling; at 6’4″, Andy would knock himself unconscious turning over in bed.  We weren’t convinced that room 14 was going to work, so Serbio graciously offered a larger room.

Room 18 actually had a ceiling, so we had already upgraded. The bathroom was clean and neatly tiled, and we were too tired to notice the lack of soap. Or that if there had been soap, there wouldn’t be enough room to close the door.  But there was a huge window overlooking the rooftops of London, the beds looked comfortable, and this was London, where a hotel room costs as much as a room in a London hotel.  Besides, we had already paid!!

The next morning we learned why the hotel was named for a martyr. The shower head didn’t attach to the wall. So getting clean required juggling water and shampoo while trying to fend off the shower curtain, which clung to my eyelids and flung every drop onto the bathroom floor.

Andy availed himself of the hotel’s only amenity, an electric plug. He plugged in his electric razor, it let out a puff of smoke, and to the kids’ delight, it exploded. Fortunately no one was hit by flying shrapnel, and Andy’s half-grizzled, half-shaved face gave him the rakish appeal sought after by London academics.

The day had a rough start, but Serbio had promised us a breakfast featuring the best of British and Serbian cuisine. When I got downstairs, Andy and the kids were already seated at a wooden table heaped with food. Well, it wasn’t exactly food, but there were a million little plates with odd looking items smothered under Saran Wrap. My arrival triggered a new volley of plate delivery, although in a week, the four of us couldn’t have eaten what was already on the table.

A single dish held three kinds of bread that looked and tasted like several grades of sandpaper. Splayed under plastic were slices of fruit from which all color and texture had been drained. Other dishes entombed antique donuts, prehistoric rolls, and slivers of gummy cheese that tasted more like medical tubing than milk.

A pale young woman brought fluids reminiscent of coffee, tea and hot chocolate, but they were diluted to tastelessness, and cold. I felt guilty for the food we tasted but couldn’t eat, and for her carpal tunnel syndrome from all that wrapping.

On the way upstairs, I was grilled about breakfast and agreed with Serbio that it was a bounteous repast. Andy attempted small talk, but the conversation quickly went north: “Who was your favorite American president in the last fifty years?” demanded Serbio. “Besides Kennedy. Everyone says Kennedy” Serbio growled. Andy answered: “Clinton.” “Clinton bombed my country” noted Serbio darkly. When we told him we had seen the Diana and Dodi memorial at Harrod’s, Serbio muttered “The Queen killed them both. It’s printed in the British papers, so it must be true.”

With no usable electricity or water, the Saint Simeon was a drain on our budget and our mood. His presentation over, and on the verge of his 50th birthday, Andy plotted our escape during our second plastic breakfast.

On his laptop, Andy found a mystical land just outside of London, where hotels had amenities, like soap. Two rooms for two nights at a boring corporate hotel, with tickets to Legoland Windsor thrown in, cost less than one room at the Motel Martyr.

But we had already paid for all four nights.

Andy approached Serbio warily. He asked for a refund for the two nights we wouldn’t be there, and Serbio explained that their cancellation policy required 48 hour notice. Andy pointed out that it was 48 hours from the 4th night, so he could refund one night. “No. You stay for four nights. This is good hotel, and you will stay with us.”

The next morning Andy went to pick up a getaway car while I wrestled with the shower. The kids had granola bars, but by 11 I was desperate for caffeine. To get to the dining room I’d have to pass the registration desk. At 11:45 Andy hadn’t returned. Should I tell them we’re checking out, and risk having our bags dumped onto the sidewalk? What if Andy didn’t get back for hours?

So I went downstairs, said that we were leaving, and asked what the hotel would prefer – should we remove our luggage so they could clean the room? “No.” Serbio Junior replied. “You’re here until Friday.” “Yes, but our plans have changed – my husband has rented a car and we’re going to Windsor. We won’t need the room.” “No, you don’t need a car. Windsor is 20 minutes by train. You stay here and take the train to Legoland. You have already paid.”

Trapped in Hotel Hell with no hope of rescue, I smiled demurely at the foolishness of my American husband.

“Could I have some tea?” I asked, as if a cup of tea would bring my husband to his senses; I knew it would work wonders for mine. “Of course, would you like breakfast?” “No, tea is fine.”

On my way back upstairs, Serbio stopped me. “Did you have breakfast?” “No, thank you, tea is fine.” “Take it up on the lift.” I walked onto the tiny elevator, and he stepped inside.

“Have breakfast!!”he demanded.

“No, really, tea is fine.”

“Should I wake you for breakfast tomorrow morning?”

“No, thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

“No, really….”

Finally the doors wheezed shut and I sucked down the tea before the lift got to the second floor.

Andy got back around noon. When we brought down our luggage and asked for our money back, Serbio’s son demanded to know why we were leaving. Glaring at Serbio, he shouted: “Is there anything wrong? Tell me anything that is wrong with this hotel, why you do not want to stay here.”

Not wanting to star in an Iron Curtain episode of Family Feud, Andy demurred that we’d like to stay, but our plans had changed.

“See!! I told you!!” shouted Serbio. “This man speaks the truth!! He doesn’t bullshit!! He doesn’t say that this is broken, or that the hotel is dirty!! This man speaks the truth!!”

We escaped with one night refunded and a voucher for a free night at the Saint Simeon. Because I like you, and I know you like breakfast, that is our gift to you.

Apparently Simeon achieved sainthood for staying all four nights.

Posted by: 4initalia | September 4, 2011

Let’s Do It

How do you decide to blow off a secure job, leave your home and possessions, and live for a year in another country?  It helped that I worked for a boss who was so soul-crushing that every morning of our monthly staff meeting, I sobbed so hard I couldn’t lift my torso off the bathroom counter.  Which is pretty much what inspired Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, although her sobbing took place on the bathroom floor, (I suspect her floor was cleaner than mine) and her expenses were covered by a book advance.


My husband Andy is a professor, and every seven years, he can take a sabbatical. A sabbatical gives a tenured professor time to dedicate to research and a reason for people with normal jobs to say “They pay you to live in cool places?  What is up with that?”  Andy could have taken off from ten weeks to a full year, but the longer he was away, the less he would be paid.  As an attorney for the Feds, I could leave for no more than three weeks, and I’d be back on the bathroom counter just in time for the next staff meeting. So I was ready to pull the plug. This was also a good time to take our trip of a lifetime: our kids were thirteen and seven, and when the next sabbatical rolled around, Alex would be in college. If we were going to live in another country as a family, we’d have to do it now.

So Andy and I sat at the kitchen table, and decided where to go and how long to stay away. “I want to live in Italy,” I said.  For how long? asked Andy.  “&*@ it,” I said. “A year.” And then we took a slow-moving leap off a very steep cliff.

What’s amazing is that Andy so willingly jumped with me.

Once the decision was made, making the arrangements was complicated. If we were gone for a year, we wouldn’t have my salary, and we’d have only half of Andy’s. But Andy planned to teach a course for American college students at the University of Bologna.  That would give us some additional income, and the University would pay for our housing for the months Andy was teaching.  And we knew that if we were gone for a year, we’d get a refund of all the Federal taxes from of Andy’s salary, which would cushion our re-entry.

There were so many questions. Where would we live?  Andy would have an office in Bologna, and would teach there.  Our kids spoke no Italian, so we didn’t want to throw them into Italian schools. There was an international school in Bologna, but Alex was too old.  If we were all going to return to the United States together, home schooling was not an option. Luckily we found an excellent school that would take both kids, the International School of Modena. We wouldn’t have a car, but the school, located in an obscure suburb, provided bus service.  Classes were taught in English,  the kids would get four and a half hours of instruction in Italian per week, and the students came from all over the world. What an opportunity for our kids to learn about the world by being in it.

And then we found our apartment.  Actually, Enrica, Andy’s assistant in Bologna, found it. From the pictures she sent us, it was small (90 square feet) but clean and conveniently located next to a tiny train station that looked like a set from Thomas the Train.  We were charmed, and agreed to sign a lease.

Once we had an apartment, and a school,  we needed travel documents. For visits to Italy of more than three months, the Italian government requires passports and a visa. So we got our passports, and started the lengthy visa process, which required a personal visit to the Italian Consulate.  Oh, but not in Denver. To get a visa, we needed to visit the Italian Consulate in Chicago. With a few weeks before the application deadline, we booked tickets to Chicago, and landed just after Obama’s historic acceptance speech in Grant Park.

The Consulate required an epic list of documents: Visa applications. Proof of insurance that would cover us internationally.  Passports.  And photos that had to be signed on the back. We inexplicably needed three copies of some of the documents, fifteen copies of  some, and forty copies of others.

Andy and I were each alloted 15 minutes to see the consulate official. If we missed our alloted time, we’d have to reapply for a new appointment. We hit traffic, a car in the parking garage, and had to run to the office. Looking down, I was horrified to learn that I was wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe.  I thought that was the kind of thing that would get you denied a visa, at least for Italy.

When we got to the Consulate office, the Italian officials were seated behind floor to ceiling bullet-proof  glass with a tiny slot at the bottom to slide in papers and perhaps a gun. We had no idea what to do, so we sought guidance from the consulate receptionist, but she had her hands full with signing a UPS delivery receipt and dealing with her own personality.

We sat down and waited to be called while people fearfully approached and retreated from the windows. As time ticked away, I noticed that I had a 360′ view of the eyeballs of all of the people in the waiting area, because wherever they were in the processing process, they all knew that they were fifteen minutes away from annihilating their travel plans, were nowhere close to completing their paperwork, and jammed open their eyelids in fearful disbelief.

Finally, a growling Italian called our name, grabbed our stack of papers, and slid them under the glass.  He ignored some of the very documents that required the most duplication, scoffed at some, and demanded more copies of others. And then he barked that he couldn’t process our visas because we had failed to attach our photos to the applications.  We totally understood that, because of course we would sign the photo and then seal it to the application.  ?

With only minutes remaining, we tore downstairs to a copy center, made copies, and found glue for our pictures. Yikes. We made it back in time, and were ready to celebrate our success. And then Signore Cranky demanded to see the lease for our apartment. We didn’t have a lease, but we did have landlords, and an email confirming that we’d sign the papers in Italy. “NO!” he blasted. “You must have a signed lease orNO VISA!!” With that he stomped a hand stamp over our documents, and we were dismissed.

Several weeks later, our passports arrived in the mail, with a year-long visa attached. We were going to Italy. For a whoooollle year.

I tacked a postcard of a Vespa parked on an Italian street to the wall above my office computer.  I told clients I was leaving, but not my heinous boss. I saved that for my last staff meeting.  The boss, a tiny but vicious man who was later reassigned to prevent contact with humans, ended the meeting with his usual “Does anyone have anything else to add?”

“I do.” I announced. “This is my last staff meeting. I’m leaving to spend a year in Italy.”  The boss’s head snapped back on his head hard enough to chip a few vertebrae. “You’re what?!”

“I’m leaving. I’m going to spend a year in Italy.”  His face began to pale and puff, exactly like a marshmallow cooking in a microwave.  “”You’re…leaving?” It was all I could do not  to reply: “Oh, so that means you weren’t bugging my office?”

“Where will you live in Italy?” he sputtered.

“In Modena. In the north, near Bologna. It’s where they make Ferraris and balsalmic vinegar.” And where the boss had spent idyllic summers taking tennis lessons while he was in college.  I chatted brightly about my coming adventures teaching and traveling, and thanked everyone for being such wonderful colleagues. It was the most satisfying quitting scene in history, and I enjoyed every second.

L’ho fatto! I did it!  I took the train from Modena to Milan, was rescued by a gorgeous Italian, and have learned the secret of the fall of the Roman Empire. But I still have to get back to Modena. Or will I end up on an ice floe?

I do not take travel lightly. I am logistically challenged and have no sense of direction. Although I am afraid of many things, including sandwich-stealing emus, my biggest travel-related fear involves Italian trains, specifically taking the train from Modena to Milan and back. I usually travel with my husband Andy, who believes that train schedules and departure boards can be used to control one’s destiny, or at least one’s destination. He has tried to explain how it all works….

La la la la….

But this trip I’m flying solo and will have to figure it out for myself; in order to visit my friend Melanie, who lives in Milan, I’ll have to laugh in the face of my fear. Or at least smirk at it as I tremble uncontrollably.

My Train-to-Milan fear has many sub-parts. I am afraid to buy the ticket, either from a ticket seller, or from a machine. I’m afraid of getting on the wrong train. And I’m terrified of the Milan train station.

I am as terrified of the Milan train station as I am of emus.

Emus are as big as ostriches, only uglier. I once had lunch in a wildlife park in Australia where emus roamed freely. While tourists lunched at a picnic area, emus stalked the tables. Their fist-sized heads darted between the diners, seizing food off the plates in their vise-like beaks. Emu noggins are hideously joined by a long muscular neck to linebacker-sized bodies, which attach to leathery legs, which end in rapier-sharp claws. Emus are extremely stupid and may not draw a distinction between a picnicker and her entree’.  So if an emu wants a sandwich, it’s best to fork it over.

Although emus frighten me, I can generally avoid them.  But I couldn’t go all the way to Italy without visiting my fashionista friend Mel, so I had to steel myself for a trip into the very aorta of my neuroses: Milano Centrale.

Milan’s central station is a menacing mini-metropolis of heroin addicts, scammers, and non-denominational pickpockets.  Like emus at a picnic, they feast on the naivete’ of tourists who don’t realize they’re on the menu.

There are three ways to buy an Italian train ticket: online, from a ticket machine, or from a Trenitalia clerk. The fastest way to buy an Italian train ticket is from a ticket machine. It is theoretically possible to push the right buttons, put in money, and end up with a ticket to the destination of your choosing.

Except that while you’re trying to figure out how to work the machine, a crook in a long skirt is reaching past your face and pressing random buttons. Scammers expect to be paid for this assistance, which may or may not result in a ticket you can use, but the distraction often leads to the loss of your wallet to her pickpocket companion who is standing right behind you.  Other scammers perform the same ticket-confusion service, but louder and more erratically.  If you refuse their assistance, they get enraged.

The first time Andy and I visited the Milan station, I was so disgusted by the Oliver-esque main terminal that I retreated with the kids to the relatively calm international ticket area. There was no place to sit, but as we leaned against the wall next to a bank of ticket machines, I watched well-heeled travelers attempt to use them. They wore the same perplexed expressions as the people in the main terminal, but better shoes.

The international terminal was crowded, the ticket lines were barely moving. A well-dressed and  harried passenger, obviously a businesswoman who didn’t want to miss her train, attempted to speed up the machine ticket line by assisting the woman in front of her. How civilized. Until I noticed that a man behind the grateful tourist was helping himself to her wallet. AIIIIEEE!!!!

Train ticket machines are the platter on which tourists are served to petty thieves.

There is another option; stand in a Trenitalia ticket line and attempt to wrest a ticket from a train clerk. My fear of Trenitalia clerks is almost rational. When we first moved to Italy, I used my elementary Italian to ask a ticket agent for a round-trip ticket. He sneered at my accent and sold me a one-way ticket at three times the normal price.

Trenitalia clerks are tied in malevolence with Italian postal employees: when Satan needs evil minions for a big job, he calls the train station.

It’s not just the train station inhabitants, I find the Milan station frightening in itself. The Milan train station is connected to the Milan Metro. If I get on a Metro train by mistake, I could be hopelessly lost in a city where the local population is as well-dressed and friendly as Heidi Klum.

Milano Centrale is also connected to a million trains. If I get on the wrong train, I could not only end up in the wrong city in Italy, I could end up in the wrong country.

Europe includes many odd nations with indecipherable languages, and is small enough that I could get hopelessly off-track. My fear-based-worst-case scenario is that I could somehow end up on a train platform in Iceland.  I hate to be cold and am wearing only ballerina flats, so besides the language barrier, Iceland would present daunting logistical issues.

I’m proud to announce that I got myself from Modena to Milan on the train, with only a few emotional scars and a fabulous rescue anecdote:

In Modena, I bought a ticket to Milan, from a machine. When I checked the Departures board, I learned that the ticket I had purchased was for a train that had been cancelled – cancellato. So I stood in line, and actually convinced a Trenitalia clerk to change my ticket to one I could use. Yesss!!!!  I just had to call Melanie from the train to tell her my new arrival time.

Once on the train, I turned on my cell phone. Of course it was dead.  (I think they call them cell phones because I always end up talking to myself.)

Time to panic: It would be crazy to wander around the Milan train station, asking for directions to the pay phone. (The Thriller video is instructive here.) I would have to ask for help before I got to Milan.

Snoozing across from me, slumped and rumpled, was a man of uncertain age.  While we rode to Milan he made a few calls on his cell phone in a voice made up of grunts, growls and random consonants. How could I ask this man for help? But as the train neared Milano Centrale, my desperation gave me courage to ask him about phones. I spoke in Italian, “My phone is dead.  Are there public phones in the train station?”

He sat up, removed his sunglasses, and I was looking directly into the heart-melting eyes of a young, very Italian version of George Clooney.  Heavens. And I mean that; I saw stars.  He spoke English, and said he’d help me. He carried my luggage off the train, showed me the pay phones, and explained how to use them.  He was so kind, and I was so relieved, I called him my angel.

As we walked, we talked about his girlfriend and his perspective on relationships. He was devastatingly charming, adorably handsome, and irresistibly charismatic.  What an opportunity to examine the heart of a gorgeous Italian male; but let’s just say that fidelity is not in his harbor, never mind his wheelhouse. It’s working for him, but I told him my angel had gray wings. He laughed like mahogany melting.

We found Melanie, who gave me a local’s view of Fashion Week in Milan: drinks at Armani’s Nobu bar, photo shoots in the streets, couture models like stick figures in stilettos. After three days, I had to remind Mel that real people occasionally stop to eat food.

Now it’s a week later, I lost four pounds, and I need to get back to Modena.

In order to avoid ending up in Iceland, I have to buy the appropriate train ticket in the dreaded Milan station; I opt for the ticket machine/scammer/pickpocket/challenge, and hope to avoid the enraged-addict option.

I choose a bank of machines in a well-lit area with no lines, and no helpful hustlers. The machine asks a series of questions, which you answer until a swindler comes up and starts pushing random buttons and steals all your stuff.

Okey dokey, let’s get started. For the language I would like to be confused in, I choose English. Where do I want to go? Modena isn’t on the destination list, so I chose “Other Destinations,” use the on-screen keyboard to spell out “Modena,” ….Va bene….

A list of trains to Modena appears. I want the 9:50 a.m. train, arriving at 11:36. Before I left for the train station, I checked the online train schedule, which said I should take train #2275. I seared this information into my memory along with my Italian shoe size. But now that I’m in the station they’ve switched trains on me, to train #615. What happened to #2275? I picture God picking up #2275, placing it neatly on an unused track, and substituting #615 in its place. If that is God’s will, I will take the other train.

Let’s pretend that I handled the rest of the transaction like a pro. Let’s pretend that the machine didn’t repeatedly insist that my credit card was inserted incorrectly, so that a frustrated Italian man didn’t have to tell me to leave my card in the machine long enough for my order to process. Let’s pretend that I didn’t get so flustered even the heroin addicts were embarrassed for me.

The machine wanted my card to stay in the slot long enough to ensure I had time to rescue the Aussie couple at the next machine from helpful scam artists. In gratitude, the Aussies offered to help me find my train. Sadly, there wasn’t time to discuss my fear of emus.

Eventually, the ticket machine spat out a ticket, I found my new train number on the departures board, and  my new train, that God personally placed on Track Number 9, was waiting for me.

I board the train, pull out my notebook, and….

Good Lord…

I have discovered the secret to the collapse of the Roman Empire. While I write, an Italian man passes in the corridor.  My gaze locks onto his crisp cotton shirt in an inescapable shade of cobalt. Why look away? His cheekbones and jawline are so chiseled, I taste metal. Aviator sunglasses framed in gold glint against his perfectly tanned skin, echoing highlights in his carelessly flawless hair. I have to look at all of him, and discover all of the ways he is magnificent.

So instead of thinking and writing about my travels, my brain has veered off track and is running its lips over a perfect, and I mean that, stranger’s cheekbones.

This is why Italy doesn’t care whether anything ever gets done here:  Because it is impossible to think strategically, or even rationally, when your thoughts are continuously interrupted by piercingly perfect beauty. Italian beauty is so distracting that your brain has to stop what it’s doing to process the details: tendrils of lace linger over cleavage that rivals the Grand Canyon, a flash of crystals sparkle like snowflakes with every flutter of tapered fingers.  A bronze silk miniskirt dazzles, men’s shirts caress contours and dare you to hug them back, men’s suits seduce; how does well-cut wool make one wobbly?? These people are utterly, charmingly, disarmingly gorgeous.

Why did Rome Fall? Gibbon, Schmibbon, the decline of the Roman Empire began when Italians  exchanged ill-fitting togas for curve-hugging togs. Romans abandoned world conquest once they discovered the new worlds of fashion, food, and flirting and founded an inimitable sense of style.  Geopolitically and economically, this may have been a bad career move for Italy. But on a personal level, the transition from Roman to romantic has made all the difference.  Just ask my Angel With Gray Wings.

I have just boarded this train, and yet I have already arrived. I am thrilled to be here in a carriage with five lovely Italians. As in all Italian journeys, getting onboard is key.  Italy’s timeless legacy lies in Latin beauty, Italian charisma and in learning to appreciate the possibilities in every moment.

Having faced my fears, I am smiling even more maniacally than usual.

I’m sure we’ll all have a great time in Iceland.


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