Thursday, June 30, 2005

June 30, 1971: A day that will live in infamy.

As some of you know, today is my 34th birthday. So, you ask, how do I plan on celebrating? Well, I'll be splurging on a very expensive bottle of either Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo (depending on which offers the better vintage) and we'll be having a nice steak dinner upstairs with Giampietro and Agnese. Nothing fancy, just a nice dinner with the neighbors. And very expensive bottle of wine. I'll try to get some photos and post them tomorrow...


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

In Vino Veritas

One of the many things Italy is famous for is its wines. And rightly so – perhaps no other country in the world can boast the sheer quality and variety of styles of Italy’s wines. While certainly not an expert in any sense of the word, I’ve become quite a fan of Italian wine over the past few years. My wine journey started rather auspiciously. While stationed in Germany, I’d immediately noticed how important wine was to the locals. So I dabbled in some of the German wines which I liked right away. In Germany, white wine is king. I lived in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, which has a storied wine culture. Eventually I discovered the wines from the Rhine River area, which are some of the best Germany has to offer.

When I got to Italy it actually took me a while to discover the wine. The first wine here that captured my interest was Moscato, which is a light, sweet, white ‘frizzante’ (sparkling) wine. Around the same time I was also introduced to Marzemino, which became my first favorite wine. Marzemino is a dessert wine. It’s red, fruity, and frizzante. It’s best served cold, and goes down as smooth as grape juice which means you could easily kill a bottle quickly if you’re not careful.

After a year or so I had become pretty friendly with my upstairs neighbor Giampietro, who I have since discovered to be quite a wine connoisseur. Occasionally he would stop by and bring me a bottle of win or two, always with instructions on how to serve it and what foods to eat with it. However, the one thing that put my interest in wine on the fast track was a place called Vo. Vo is a town in the Euganei Hills, about 45 minutes away from Vicenza. It’s in the heart of the local wine producing Euganei region and features several good wineries. It quickly became a tradition to go there for a couple hours, tasting different wines and ordering various table foods such as meats and cheeses, fresh vegetables, and bread and enjoy some of the wine with friends. And then on the way out, we would stock up on good wine at about 3 euro a bottle. I would always buy a few bottles of Marzemino, but I also starting discovering the more serious dry reds such as Cabernets. Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon became my new staples and remain so to this day.

The next wine that I discovered was Valpolicella. This is not considered a “fine wine”, but certainly is one of the better everyday drinking wines. In fact, if you’re in Venice and you order the house or table wine, you’re probably drinking Valpolicella. Eventually I graduated to the higher quality Valpolicella Classico Superiore (more about that later). There are two main people in Italy who are responsible for fanning the flames of my interest in good Italian wine and helping to expand my knowledge and appreciation of wine in general. The first was my neighbor Giampietro. The second is a gentleman named Will Nason. Will is a retired soldier who has been in Italy for many years. His wife is Italian, he speaks the language fluently and he even used to make his own wine. I’ve discovered many good wines thanks to Will’s recommendations and have learned a great deal about production and winemaking in general from him. The first great wines that Will introduced me to were Amarone and Recioto, both from the Valpolicella region just outside Verona. While Recioto is a sweet red wine, Amarone has an entirely different character. It’s rich and full bodied, usually clocking in at around 15% or higher. It’s a great sipping wine and is a perfect compliment to red meats and some cheeses. I mention these two wines because they are two that stand out in the Veneto region where I live.

The next – and logical - step in my wine journey were the dynamic reds produced in the Tuscany region. The ones worth mentioning are the big three – Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano. Chianti is probably the most famous and is extremely varied. Montepulciano is similar to Chianti. There are two main types – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano. While still high quality, the lesser grapes are used in the Rosso, which makes a more approachable, less expensive version that can be enjoyed in less time than the Vino Nobile. Montalcino is one of my two favorite Italian wines. As with the Montepulciano, there are tow versions – Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso do Montalcino. Brunello is the higher quality and is considered by many Italians to be Italy’s –if not the world’s – finest red wine. As such it is expensive, even when purchased locally.

Lastly but certainly not least, I discovered the great red wines of the Piedmont region, southwest of Milan. From this region comes Barolo, which is currently my favorite wine. Barolo is a serious full-bodied red wine which usually peaks after 5 years of aging. Like the Montalcino, it can be expensive. There is another wine similar to Barolo called Barbaresco. I’m told that at its peak, a Barbaresco can be just as full bodied and impressive as Barolo but I haven’t been able to discover this myself as I’ve only tried it once. Two other good reds from Piedmont are Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti.

There are of course many many other very good wines that I’ve discovered in Italy. The ones I’ve mentioned are just some of the highlights of my wine journey in Italy so far.

When buying Italian, there are few things that are helpful to know. The first is the rating on the bottle. Here are the main classifications:

Vino da Tavola – Literally, “table wine”. Considered the bottom of the chart quality wise, but don’t be put off. The table wine in Italy is very good. It’s what the average Italian drinks with their meals.

IGT – “Indicazione Geografica Tipica”. Wines considered a cut above the ordinary table wines.

DOC – “Denominazione di Origine Controllata”. The foundation of Italy’s quality wines. These wines have been produced with certain restrictions imposed by the Italian government such as maximum yields (smaller the yield, better the quality) and minimum alcohol content.

DOCG – “Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”. The cream of the crop, literally. This is the highest classification of Italian wine. There are few wines in this category and those that are have had their quality verified by tasting commissions.

In addition to the above, there are also a few other words on the label you might see. Knowing what they refer to could mean the difference between buying a good wine and a great wine. Here are some important ones:

Classico – Wines with Classico on the title have been made with grapes from the very heart of the respective region, meaning slightly higher quality.

Riserva – Usually means that the wine has been aged longer.

Superiore – Alcohol content is a little higher. On a red wine, it could also mean that the wine has been aged a bit longer.

You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy a good wine. As I mentioned, I’m far from an expert. But when you’re so close to so many great wines, you can’t help but gain an appreciation for them. Just one more reason why I love living in Bella Italia…

Monday, June 27, 2005

Bella Italia: A Lighter Look

Translation: "Please excuse me but I only have 5 points remaining on my license, I must obey the speed limit"

Don't give up without a fight!


Decisions, decisions...

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Best and Worst of Italy

Before we go any further with our "Bella Italia" series, let's pause and take a look at some of my favorite - and not so favorite - things about Italy...

Favorite City - It's a tie between Venice and Rome. Venice because it's so unique and it's so close that I love going there just to walk around and relax. And Rome because it's so big and historic.

Least Favorite City - Verona. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying I dislike Verona. I just don't think it's as great a city as many guidebooks. The Arena is really cool, but for what it has to offer, the city is expensive. Still worth a day trip though.

Best City to Eat in - Bologna, without question. Many Italians will even tell you this. It's nickname is "Bologna la Grassa", or "Bologna the Fat". Rome is also good - outside the train station, there's a plethora of Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants. By the way, Bologna is also home to the best gelato in Italy, found at Gianni's Gelateria.

Worst City to Eat in - Venice, again without question. Most people go expecting to get good Italian food, but it's not known in Italy for its cuisine. It's so overrun with tourists that most restaurants thrive on offering the ubiquitous "tourist menu", which is a generic three or four course meal ordered more for the cheap price than the food quality. You can get a good meal there but you will pay and pay handsomely for it. If you go to Venice, avoid any restaurant that has a menu in more than 2 languages.

Best Food - This is an extremely tough call. I've eaten so well here over the past 5 years that it's difficult to pick one food over the rest. But two things stand out in my mind. One is fresh tortellini made with balsamic vinegar that I had in Bologna. And the other is the scaloppini in curry sauce from a restaurant not too far away from our house.

Worst Food - The sports bar in my town serves a lunch everyday and the owner, Danielle is a great cook. One day he had me try something and I couldn't understand what he was saying. So I tried it and as it turned out, it was tripe al parmesan - cow stomach in a parmesan sauce. I almost puked, it was disgusting. But to locals, it's a delicacy.

Best Wine - Italy is a veritable wine lover's paradise. And the best wine I've had in all of Italy is Barolo from the Piedmont region, south of Milan. It's known as the "King of Wines and the Wine of Kings". And it's pricey, so I don't drink much of it. An average bottle will run you at least 20 bucks, and a good one will run you over 30.

Best Restaurant - In all of Italy, my favorite restaurant is Il Castello in Vernazza, Cinque Terra, but the view is what puts it over the top. If you go, be sure to reserve a table very early so you can get a table with a view. Locally, our favorite restaurant is called Al Mulino. Some of the best seafood we've had and not too expensive.

Best Vacation Spot - Cinque Terra. Unfortunately it's been discovered and covered by several travel guides so it's always overcrowded. But it's still gorgeous.

Worst Vacation Spot - San Remo. San Remo is the capital of the Italian Riviera, just over the border from the French Riviera. We found the city dirty, the restaurants overpriced, the beach subpar, and the water was murky and cloudy rather than the azure blue of the rest of the Riviera. Plus someone smashed my car window and stole the wife's handbag.

Worst Thing About Living in Italy - The driving. Driving home every day after work is literally like driving an obstacle course. Italy has the worst and most dangerous drivers I've ever encountered. And I'm starting to drive like them, which is scary.

Best Tourist Attraction - Il Vaticano - The Vatican. You could spend a couple days just touring this place, which is the smallest country in the world. St Peter's and the Vatican Museum (which houses the Sistine Chapel) are the highlights.

Worst Tourist Attraction - The Gondola rides in Venice. I'm sure you've heard me rant about them before so we'll leave it at that.

Best Souvenir - The Popener. It's a bottle opener with a picture of the Pope on it - hence the name. It's like having the Pope himself open your beer. And if you've been following my blog for the past few months, you know how the Popener saved me from a potential ass-raping in Rome.

Best Pub - Yet another tough call. I would say that if I had to pick only pub in Italy to drink at, it would be the Fiddler's Elbow in Venice. They have Guinness and Kilkenny Cream Ale on tap, they have outdoor seating, they have a big screen TV and several smaller ones that show soccer and rugby matches constantly, and best of all, there is a kebab shop right next door. What else do you need?

Best Church/Cathedral - The best interior is St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, but for the best exterior, I'd call it a tie between the Dom in Florence and the Duomo in Milan. Both are fantastic.

Most Emotional Moment - Seeing DaVinci's "Last Supper" in Milan. I know it sounds strange, but here's how it happened; only a select number of tickets are sold each day for viewing it. I was lucky enough to get one. The whole place is pressure locked and you go through a series of doors to get into the hall where it's displayed. Only a few people are allowed in at a time. So I go in, walk up to it, and I just sat there staring at it, taking it all in. I can't explain it, I guess I was taken in by the moment, but I was just struck thinking that this was one of the most famous and beautiful paintings in history and at that moment, there were only a few people in the entire world looking at it. And I was one of them. Leonardo DaVinci's "The Last Supper". The original. You would have been emotional too. OK Eric, I'm waiting for your smart ass comment, don't disappoint me...


Thursday, June 23, 2005

Living in Italy vs. "Living in Italy"

Living in Italy as a member of the military or a civilian working for the military is like living in two different worlds. For those who are intimidated by living in a foreign country, they need not worry. It is possible to live in Italy and not worry about ever having to deal with anything or anybody Italian. This is because you work on a military base that is run by Americans. It’s sort of like a little slice of America right in the middle of another country. On base, you can buy American goods at American prices at an American department store (called the PX). You also have the shoppette, which is sort of like a 7-11. Inside our shoppette, you’ll also find a video rental section and a small bookstore. For your potent potables, there is the Class VI store, also in the shoppette. In the Class VI, you can buy several different types of liquor and all those watered down American beers, as well as a decent selection of local (and European) wine and beer. There is a well stocked library that includes free video rental and public internet access. There is a movie theater that shows movies about a month or two after they come out in the US. There are a couple different physical fitness centers (free of charge) that rival many stateside gyms and fitness clubs. For your dining needs, we have Burger King, Popeye’s, Taco Bell, Baskin Robbins, Charlie’s Subs, and Anthony’s Pizza (and you wonder why Americans are so fat?!). As you read this, consider that our base is one of the smaller ones in Europe. Many of the larger bases have twice as many facilities as we do.

So, as you can see, you can do a tour in Italy without ever having to give up many of the comforts and frivolities that you enjoy back home in the US. Sadly, many Americans that come here do just that.

Not me.

When I arrived in Italy, I wanted to get as far away from the American stuff as possible. I wanted to feel like I was actually living in a foreign country. I wanted to get out, meet the people, learn some of the local language, and see what life in Italy is actually like. So I requested to live “on the economy”. The term “on the economy” is one you hear quite a bit overseas. It basically means outside the base. For example, if you go down to the local mall, you’re shopping “on the economy” instead of on base. If you eat at a local restaurant downtown, you’re eating “on the economy” instead of on base. If you rent a house or apartment from an Italian, you’re living “on the economy” instead of on base. This is exactly what I had in mind when I came to Italy. The beauty of living on the economy is that you are able to experience more of the local culture. And the safety net provided by the government is still in place. The government pays you a living allowance that pays for your rent and your utilities (this does not cover phone and some other bills). The amount of the allowance is based on your rank and how many dependents you have (the government is not in the business of paying you to live in splendor).

Then you have COLA. COLA stands for Cost of Living Allowance and is a great thing. The way it works is that there is a certain cost of living in each area. The cost of living in your area is determined quarterly and is compared to the cost of living in the US. If it is determined to be higher, then you receive a monthly cost of living allowance to offset the difference. Right now, the Euro rate is extremely favorable to the US dollar, so anyone stationed in Europe is receiving unbelievably favorable COLA. Often I talk to people stationed here who rave about how much extra money they’re making in COLA each month. I always respond by telling them that when you factor in the extra you’re paying on the economy, you’re not really making out too much. And I’m always disappointed to hear them come back with “Well, we just don’t ever do anything on the economy – we do all our eating and shopping on base, and we don’t really do any traveling so we’re pocketing the whole thing!” Fine. Great. But why the hell are you even here? Why not just stay in the US if you have interest in seeing and experiencing the beauty of Italy? People like that really make me sad. They’ll leave Italy after their tour never having seen anything. And then complain about how much Europe sucked.

Giampietro, Agnese, some vino buono, and some damn good cheese; The benefits of living on the economy.

As for me, I prefer a life that combines the best of both worlds. I live on the economy. After work, I often go down to the local bar to have an espresso or a glass of wine. Sometimes we have dinner at our upstairs neighbors, Giampietro and Agnese. They have thoroughly embraced me because from the day I moved in; I embraced the local culture and customs of Italy. I made an effort to learn a bit of the language. I was respectful of people who lived around me (In contrast, as I would later discover, to other Americans who had lived there before me. One previous tenant drove a Harley Davidson and would wake up the whole neighborhood with it every morning at 5 am. Another used to crank his stereo up all the way at all hours of the night). Eventually, Giampietro started bring me bottles of wine with recommendations of how to serve it and which foods to accompany it with. Often I would have my morning espresso with them and talk with them about a variety of topics, from religion to politics, to history. Much of my love and knowledge of Italy has been acquired from Giampietro and Agnese. If I had chosen to live on base and never venture out on the economy, I would have missed out on so much. In fact, I probably would have left after one two year tour.

And the point of all this is that I still have access to everything that the base provides so I didn’t have to give up any convenience by choosing to live on the economy. I still use the gym on base everyday after work. I buy all my magazines, books, and CDs on base. I buy some clothes on base and some from stores on the economy. I buy all of my shoes on the economy. Italy has very fashionable shoes so I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks for them. We do almost all of our grocery shopping at the grocery store on base, but we do prefer to buy some groceries on the economy such as fruits and vegetables, pasta, and fresh seafood. One thing I NEVER do is eat at the fast food restaurants on base. I avoid them like the plague. But we have several restaurants around town that we frequent and are always trying new ones. I understand the convenience of eating on base, but whenever possible, I’ll take a fresh Italian meal over some processed, pre-packaged fast food any day.

There’s so much more to living on the economy versus living on base. But hopefully this will give you a pretty good idea of some of the differences between living in Italy and “living in Italy”.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Bella Italia - Gas Costs HOW Much?!

You may recall that I mentioned in yesterday’s entry how gas in Italy costs upwards of around $5 a gallon. Let’s expound upon that a bit today. In Italy, as with the rest of Europe, you buy gas not by the gallon, but by the liter. There are about 3.785 liters in a gallon and the price of a liter of gas averages a little over a euro. So, factoring in the exchange rate, it works out to around $4.50 - $5.00 a gallon. The main reason why it costs so much more than in the US is that there are extremely high taxes levied on fuel in Italy (as with the rest of Europe).

Now, before you start to feel sorry for us poor Americans who are forced to pay such exorbitant prices for gas…we don’t. For members of the US military (or civilians working for the military) stationed in Europe, they have what we call “gas coupons”. The way these coupons work is that the American exchange service takes an average of what gas in the US costs per gallon, and this is what we are supposed to pay for coupons. The coupons come in books of 100 – 200 liters, and each book is divided into coupons in the amount of 5, 10, or 20 liters. The gas coupons are a rationed item as well. The normal allotment is 300 liters per month. However, if you have a vehicle with an engine over a certain size then you’re allowed 400. For one vehicle, 300 liters is usually more than enough, but it’s a problem for some families who have two cars. Even if both the husband and wife drive their own car, you still only receive 300 liters a month. When you register a car on base, they give you a gas card that you bring to the PX (base department store) to keep on file. When you want to buy coupons, you go to the PX, give them your ID card and they pull your gas card to tell you how many liters you have available that month. If you don’t use the full 300 liters each month, you lose them. In other words, they don’t carry over to the next month and accumulate. On the first of every month, you have 300 available and that’s it. However, you have a year to use them, so even if you don’t need them, you can buy the full 300 liters each month and hold on to them. At the end of the year, you are allowed to sell back whatever coupons you didn’t use for a full refund. It’s a good program.

Getting back to the price, it fluctuates throughout the year. I’m not exactly sure, but I believe they survey the US average quarterly and adjust the price of the coupons accordingly. So the cost may go up or down, depending on how the prices in the US are doing. To give you an example, earlier this year, 100 liters of unleaded coupons cost $71.00. Then, on June 1st, the cost of 100 liters went down to $66.00. They usually announce a price change a few weeks ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. For instance, if they say 100 liters is going up to $70.00, then most people will go buy as much as they can now at $66.00.

Where can you use the gas coupons? Not every gas station accepts them. To the best of my knowledge, the only gas stations in Italy that accept them are Esso and Agip. The ones that accept them have worked out a deal with the US agency that controls them, and must accept them everywhere. So if Agip has agreed, then every Agip in Italy must accept them. The only thing is, you can only use them in Italy. So if you’re driving through Switzerland or Austria, you’d better fill up right before you hit the border. Germany, England, the Netherlands, and Spain all have coupons too, but they’re each only accepted in the respective countries. In other words, you can’t use German coupons in Italy and vice versa.

italflag.jpg (3695 bytes)italflag.jpg (3695 bytes)

Two welcome sights to American drivers in Italy

To use them, you pull up to the gas station, pump your gas, and fill out the coupons in whatever amount you used. You have to write the date, your license plate number, and signature on them. This is used to track them in case there is a suspicion of fraud.

Gas coupons, as you can imagine, are a hot commodity here since gas is so expensive. Italy has a major problem with vehicle break-ins and petty theft, and one of the main causes is gas coupons. I can almost guarantee you that if you park your car and have gas coupons in plain sight, your car will get broken into. I keep mine locked up in the glove compartment. It’s common sense – although only 60-70 bucks for Americans, a book of 100 liters is worth over 100 euros (about $130) to an Italian. Many Italians ask me if they can buy some coupons from me, but this is strictly forbidden. If you got caught doing this, it’s considered black marketing and you face severe consequences.

Some of the bigger bases in Europe have gas stations right on them and there is no need for coupons. On our base, there is no gas station, so we rely on them. Many people constantly complain that despite the cheaper cost of the coupons, we’re still getting screwed because we’re paying slightly more than the US average. But as for me, I don’t mind. It’s still better than paying Italian prices, and besides, it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in Bella Italia…


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Bella Italia, Take one...

italflag.jpg (3695 bytes)

Today is the first installment on Italy. Or, more specifically, what it’s like to be an American living in Italy.

Let’s begin with a little background. As you may know, I originally came to Italy in May of 2000. I was in the Army at that time and had just completed a two year tour in Germany. During my first year in Germany I had an opportunity to visit a friend from back home who was stationed in Naples, Italy. I spent a week and a half between Naples and Rome and was just absolutely floored by how beautiful it was. So when I got back, I immediately filled out a 4187 request form for a transfer to Italy when my tour in Germany was up. I forgot all about it until several months later while on duty in Kosovo when I found out that I had been approved for Italy. I had to add on an extra year to my enlistment in order to have the requisite two years remaining for a full tour but, although I didn’t like the Army, I did so without reservation. It was, after all, Italy. Bella Italia. And the main reason I had joined the Army in the first place was to explore Europe. I came to Italy full of excitement and expectations of what lay in store for me. And for once, my lofty expectations were not only met, but exceeded. I loved Italy so much that I reenlisted twice just to be able to stay here. It hasn’t always been paradise (September 11, 2001 and its aftermath was a particularly difficult time), but I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I finally separated from the Army this past December but was lucky enough to land a job here as a civilian. Unfortunately, my contract is year to year, so I may have to leave anytime. And so I must do everything I can to enjoy this beautiful land and all it has to offer while I can. Even if I had to leave tomorrow, I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten more than my share out of this place.

Let’s start with where I am. The name of the city I’m located in is Vicenza. It’s pronounced “Vee-chenza” (Please don’t call it “Vin-chenza”, as there is no extra “N” in there. This is sort of a pet peeve of mine, one which my brother delights in exploiting as he knows it drives me up a wall. God bless him). Vicenza is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Venice and is smack dab in the middle between Verona and Padova. To see where we are on the map, click here . Milan is about a 2 hour drive west of us. Florence is about 3-4 hours south of us, and Rome is about 4-5 hours south.

Vicenza is somewhat of a wealthy city. When I got here, I was told that the Veneto region is the richest region in Italy and that Vicenza is the richest city in the Veneto region. But it’s not flashy wealth. You wouldn’t know it by driving around. Unlike most places I’ve been in Europe, there are quite a few people here who drive SUV’s. SUV’s are not a good idea here for two reasons – 1) Gas is roughly 5 bucks a gallon and 2) The streets in downtown were made hundreds of years ago. Even the smallest of cars have trouble negotiating them. But nonetheless, there are a lot of them around here.

One thing I’ve learned in my time here is to forget about the stereotypical notions you probably have of Italy. Italy is a lot like the US in that every region is different and extremely varied. So whatever stereotypes you have mostly come from one particular region or city and are usually not the norm all over. Italy can almost be considered two countries – North and South, separated right around Rome. The north, in general, is where the majority of the industry and wealth are. The south, in some parts, could almost be compared to a third world country (sorry Adele!). Unemployment is very high in the south. In fact, many people in the north believe that Italy actually should be split in two. They complain that they’re paying all the taxes to basically subsidize the south, who they see as living off government handouts.

The dialects of the Italian language are as varied as its inhabitants as well. In fact, often people from different regions have difficulty understanding each other. When I first arrived in Italy, I was dating a girl that worked in the nearby sports bar. One day she came over and we watched a movie called “Il Postino” which is a fantastically beautiful film that takes place in the south, close to Naples (Napoli). The film is in Italian with English subtitles, but the Neapolitan dialect was so strong that she was having tremendous difficulty understanding it. Such is the Italian language.

You could spend years exploring Italy and still never even scratch the surface. Just when you think you've got things figured out, Italy throws you a curve. I like to describe the country as "organized chaos". It never seems to make any sense, but you just go with the flow and somehow things always work out.

Now that you've got a little background, we'll jump right into what it's like to live here as an American in the next installment of "Bella Italia"...


Monday, June 20, 2005

The Verdict Is In

I received plenty of feedback regarding my last post. Although there were plenty of good ideas and suggestions made in the comments and emails I received, I would say that the most common theme was to write about some aspect of Italy.

To that end, I've decided to do just that. In the coming days and weeks, I will try to write about Bella Italia as much as I can, exploring different aspects and topics.

Of course, there will still be other non-Italy topics interspersed in there as well, but a wise man once said that you have to give the people what they want. So starting tomorrow, I'll try to do just that.


Thursday, June 16, 2005


I'm in a blogging rut. It seems I had so much to write about while the wife and kid were away because I was gallivanting around Europe on parole. But now that things are back to normal, I'm having trouble finding things to write about.


Let's try a little experiment. If you're reading this, post a comment and recommend something for me to write about. Anything at all. If I get enough decent suggestions in the next day or two then I'll try to pick the best one and blog about it.

Fire away!


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

My Kingdom for a Good Movie

What's happening to the film industry lately? It used to be that when I went to the video section of the shoppette here on base, I could always find at least one movie that I deemed worthy of renting. However, for the past several weeks, everytime I go in, there's just nothing.

Now, in the interest of fairness, we don't have a huge selection of movies to choose from. The video rental section is definitely not Blockbuster. But geez, you'd think there'd be at least one freakin' movie worth renting. Sadly, no.

I would even go so far as to say that in the last 6 months, I've only rented one movie that I absolutely loved - "Sideways". And I loved that one mostly because it was about wine. It seems like every movie that I rent just disappoints me. I even consider turning most of them off halfway through. For example, I had seen the previews for "Are We There Yet?" and it seemed hilarious. So I rented it. It sucked. Every funny part was in the previews. Sometimes I try to find a good independent film that I've never heard of. So I tried out a movie called "Bad Trip". It sucked. I started reading a magazine halfway through. Another big budget one that I couldn't wait for was "Anchorman" with Will Ferrell. I absolutely love Will Ferrell so I thought there's no way I could be disappointed. I was. The only one that has come out in the past couple weeks that I was anxious to see was "Be Cool", the follow up to "Get Shorty". I liked the original and I like Elmore Leonard movies, so I thought it'd be good. It didn't suck, but it wasn't great.

And it's getting worse. In the past couple weeks, there has not been a single movie that made me think "Oh yeah, I've been wanting to see that one". There hasn't even been one that made me think "Well, it looks sort of interesting".


I guess I'll have to stick to renting DVD's of television series that I've missed because I'm overseas. I've hearing good things about "24"...


Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Introducing the newest section of the website - BEER!

To check it out, click the link below:

Click here for BEER!


Monday, June 13, 2005

I'm a Dumbass

I just realized that I posted an incorrect link on the previous post from a few days ago regarding the new pictures of the X Man being posted. I have fixed it and the link is now correct.

My apologies for any confusion that my stupidity may have caused...


(PS,, you still suck.)



I have been blogging with you for some time now. A friend recommended Blogger as a good choice to blog with and I took her advice.

After a month or so, I began to have problems with Often I would author an entry and when I clicked on "Publish Post", it would take a while, then lose connection, and I would lose my entire post. This was unbelievably maddening, as I had spent a fair amount of time and cranial energy crafting my words in such a way so as to keep my audience entertained enough to want to visit regularly. Even more maddening were the times when I would try to "Save as Draft" to avoid this problem and it would occur in the middle of saving, costing me yet another entry. After suffering from this injustice a second time, I got smart (I'm a slow learner you see) and starting authoring my entries on Microsoft Word, then pasting them into my blog. This ensured that my literary efforts were never in vain, as I always had a saved copy on my computer desktop to refer to as a backup in the event that I continue to encounter problems with Blogger.

I was relieved to see that Blogger eventually added a "Recover Post" option, thinking that in the event that I lost my post, I could simply click the "Recover Post" button and my post would be magically, well, recovered.

For some strange reason when writing my entry this morning, I eschewed my normal modus operandi and authored my post directly into my Blogger account. I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy writing, previewing, and rewriting said entry. At the risk of sounding immodest, I hasten to point out that it was one of my better entries, filled with witty anecdotes, clever word plays, and more than a few thoughtful insights. I could not contain my glee as I contentedly clicked the "Publish Post" button, eager to share this post with my adoring public. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what happened next, as you can no doubt deduce from the tone and previous content of this message what happened to the latest edition of my blogging efforts. Alas, it went the way of the Dodo. It is now in cyber-purgatory, never to be heard from again. I even tried the "Recover Post" button, but to no avail. Nothing.

It would be impossible to recreate such a masterpiece of blogging literature from what little resides in my brain. And so, rather than make a feeble attempt at such, I decided that I would instead conjure up whatever creativity remains in the recesses of my mind for the purposes of telling you the following:

You Suck.

Warmest Regards,

Rik Thibodeau

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The People in my Neighborhood

This is Antonio. Antonio and his family own and operate Il Ristorante d'Antonio, which is the closest restaurant to our house in Caldogno. Antonio's features good pizza and specializes in seafood. They don't have an extensive pasta menu but what they have is also very good. We eat here often as it's very convenient and the food is good. Antonio's place is on the next street over from us so we can walk there and not have to worry about driving home if I have a little too much wine (yes, it does happen on occasion. I know you're shocked.).

I've been going there for years now and Antonio and I have gotten to be pretty good friends by now. We always end up chatting about calcio (soccer) while I sip my wine and wait for our food to be ready. Like most businesses in Caldogno, Antonio has a picture of he and Roberto Baggio hanging up on his wall. One time I ordered some food for dinner and when I pulled out my credit card to pay, Antonio told me that they don't take credit cards, only cash. I had no cash, so he said "It's no problem, just pay next time you come". Now I ask you, how many restaurants in the US would tell you that?

Should any of you ever come to visit us here, rest assured you will probably be taken to meet Antonio so you can experience his delectable cuisine for yourself (except you, Eric).


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Stupid Things People Say

Yesterday I was out running errands in the morning. Upon returning, I drove up into the small parking lot outside my building and got out of the car. There was a guy standing outside smoking a cigarette watching me pull up. I got out of the car and started walking towards the door and he asked "Hey, is Butch in there?".

Gee, I don't know dumbass, let me use my X-ray vision to tell you since you just saw me drive up.

It's just another of those "Stupid Things People Say"...


Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Monday, June 06, 2005


Can anyone explain this one to me?!


Thursday, June 02, 2005

Pictures from Virginia and the X Man's Trip Home...

Just got the pictures from the wife and kid's trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines. I've got them divided into 3 pages:

Xavier's First Trip to the Philippines (Pangasinan)

Xavier's First Trip to Hong Kong

More Pictures From Hong Kong


Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Rome: The Final Recap

Yes my friends, it's finally over. My parole is up, the wife and kid are home safe and sound, and things are finally back to normal. More about that tomorrow. For now, I know you have all been waiting for the final Rome recap, so here it is...

When we last left our hero (me), he had had a less than thrilling experience in Bella Roma. So it was that I decided to go back for my last weekend of freedom, which just happened to be a 3 day weekend due to the Memorial Day holiday. I couldn’t leave things that way I did with Rome. I had to make things right. Things got off to a rocky start however. I arrived in Rome to a beautiful sunny day and found my hotel but my room wasn’t ready yet. So instead of freshening up, changing, checking the map and formulating my plan of attack, I had to leave my bag and head out with no discernable plan. When you have no plan, the first thing you do is find the nearest pub. Unfortunately, it was not yet lunch time so none were open. We were starting off on the wrong foot already. I lost my patience. We argued. We fought. I said some things I didn’t mean, Rome said some things she didn’t mean. Things got very tense. Finally I told her, “Let’s just sit down and work this out before one of us says or does something we’ll regret.” She agreed. So we sat and talked calmly and eventually we worked things out. I’m happy to say that Rome and I are fine now. In fact, we’re better than ever.

Roma and I, back together again

Eventually the first pub opened up – the Marconi. I had a pint while I checked the map and worked out every possible combination of how to get the most out of the weekend without killing myself. I decided to eschew the Vatican altogether as it would be too crowded. The main thing for Saturday was to watch the US-England friendly in one of Rome’s pubs so everything else was just to kill time until the match. I wandered around most of the afternoon and just enjoyed my renewed relationship with the Eternal City. Around dinnertime I decided to just relax and save some energy so I grabbed a quick kebab and hit the Druid’s Den. There were only a couple other people in there so I ended up just downing pints and chatting with the bartender, an Irish girl with a really cool name; I don’t know how to spell it, but it’s pronounced “Neev”. Eventually the match came on so I grabbed a seat and watched the US play like a bunch of journeymen. At the start of the second half, some guy came in and changed the channel right as the match was being played. I asked him what the hell he was doing and he ignored me, so I paid my tab and left for the Fiddler’s Elbow a couple streets over. This was inexplicably packed with a bunch of Americans. I chatted with a few of them and eventually the US actually pulled back a goal. They ended up losing 2-1, miraculous considering how bad they played. By the time the match ended, the place was crawling with American tourists, many of them college students. I even met a girl from South Boston named Alex – not Alice! Alex. We traded some Boston stories and eventually I took off. I decided to end the first night early and got back to the hotel around 2AM. The next day was rife with sightseeing. I decided to explore the Trastevere area of Rome, something I’d always wanted to do. The Trastevere area is sort of like Rome’s “Bohemian” area. It was quiet, tranquil, and even a bit quaint. On the way I did a detour to the Campidoglio, which offers the best view of the ruins of what used to be the Forum.

The Forum Ruins

You can even walk right down into them if you so choose. The Campidoglio itself is gorgeous, something you shouldn’t miss if you go to Rome (Interesting side note for Europeans – the Campidoglio is represented on Italy’s 50 cent Euro piece). Upon leaving Trastavere, I added Mad Jack’s to my list of Rome Pubs.

The afternoon was spent having lunch right in front of the Pantheon, which is probably my favorite of the Ancient Roman monuments. The view and the cuisine combined to make it the perfect Rome experience:

The view I enjoyed while eating lunch. A classic Rome moment.

After the Pantheon, I’d decided I’d done enough sightseeing and hit the Bulldog Pub, formerly the John Bull Pub. I was distressed to find that the only beers on tap were Slalom Strong (Yuck), Foster’s (Double Yuck), and Beamish (Better). I tried the Beamish and was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as good as a Guinness, but it was better than a Murphy’s, so I decided to stay. I ended up spending the rest of the night there, drinking pints of Beamish, writing out postcards, poring over the map, chatting with the Swedish bartender, and meeting people from all over Europe. English, Irish, Australians, Belgians, it was a veritable melting pot of international culture. At one point, I even got behind the tap.

A new career on my hands?

The final night in Rome ended around 3 AM as I stumbled back to the hotel. I left for home early the next day to prepare for the imminent arrival of my wife and kid. Had to give the house a quick once over and make it look somewhat presentable.

And just like that, my 6 week parole was over. It was a fitting weekend to end on. There were some crazy things that happened, but decorum prevents me from giving details. You’ll just have to use your imagination. I had a good run: 2 Venice Pub Crawls, Bologna, Amsterdam, Geneva, Lausanne, and Rome twice. But alas, the run is over.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.

If you’d like to check out the pics from this trip to Rome, Click Here.