Apr 30, 2006

MOUNT MEDVEDNICA, Croatia – We float through green and gray: across a fogbound mountain 23-km from the country's capital, Zagreb.

I'd jostled the rental through the city's one-way system, pulling all my girl-racer, fake-o Formula-One tricks garnered in three years on the Continent. For ten months, I even muscled a moped around Rome, which forever reduced all other traffic to "tame" status...

Edward, son of Alaska's rugged roads, navigates Mount Medvednica's rain-slicked switchbacks. He dusts the other tourists. Locals too, probably. He's that good.

But we still get lost. Or seem to be lost, as space stretches and snarls under the low clouds. The shadows of trees loom through a landscape silvered like a fish belly.

I've been here before.

Bloody deja vu.

Sometimes I stumble through this Chinese-watercolor landscape in my nightmares. It's the sea cliff of Samish Island, my childhood home on Puget Sound. It's the Big Sur painting in my parent's living room: a charcoal madrona shading to existential gray.

It's the cotton-wool color of fear – ambiguity never was my strong suit – so I'm very glad Edward has the wheel.


An evening that begins in bad dreams ends in farce. The Hotel Puntar is hosting a christening in Gornja Stubica. At first, the Russian fighter jet memorial and oompa accordion tunes add atmosphere. Around 2 or 3am, however, the folk music buzz is dwindling.

Edward groans. "No, it can't be."

But yes, it is: the Croatian rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic on fiddle, tambourine and squeezebox.

"Glory! glory!" the musicians shout, amid incomprehensible Balkan lyrics.

Car horns pulse and pulse through the otherwise silent night.

"Definitively time to go home," my friend announces.


Apr 29, 2006

HVAR, Croatia – This island bundles everyone's undies. Edward and I arrive and recoil.

Maybe because it's off-season. Maybe because it's a hustling, down-market version of just about any Italian city-by-the-sea. Maybe because it's an identikit UNESCO site.

"Renaissance cathedral?"


"Twee village of indigenous stone?"


"Citadel? Convent? Palaces?

Got 'em, gov'nor.

"Overpriced risotto?"

Absolutely. Can we declare this a World Heritage Site already?

Apr 28, 2006

TROGIR, Croatia – The windshield wipers skreek, sliming water across the car window. Edward says, “I think you drove off the island.”

Hmmmm, I did cross a second bridge.

A good friend, he interprets my grimace. “Europe is the size of a supermarket parking lot,” he reminds me.

Then why would a medieval fortified city be larger than a standard Twister mat?


Brie-colored buildings pack one square mile, a marble pedestal wedged into a narrow channel. Sailboats bob in the kingfisher-blue water. Around every corner, a new spire or turret springs up, like a clown car unpacking on an Adriatic sandbar.

Not that it's all champagne cocktails and frilly Corinthian columns; the micropolis has some edge too. The dark, smoke-stained Cathedral of St Lovro flattens visitors with its sheer weight of woes. Even the most exuberant visitors collapse into pews, muted. What atrocities have these stones seen?

Aside from the oldest nude in Dalmatia, that is...


This anecdote isn't leading to a bad beach punchline, I promise. The weather nixed that. Rain blanched the spring landscape grey, a hue somewhere between battleship and institutional gruel. Storms churned across all of Eastern Europe. Thousands evacuated as the Danube overflowed. No one was stripping to scanties on the strand.

Dalmatia most naked and famous denizen is Eve, a 1240 Romanesque masterpiece by Radovan, carved into the cathedral facade. Scaffolding conceals her glory at the moment, though.

Maybe it's time to head home, really, when even the statues are swaddled...

Apr 26, 2006

PLITVICKA JEZERA, Croatia – Edward points: "Look how crowded the parking lot is ... must be good. Pull over."

The truck stop is a classic of its kind. Sausages roast over an open fire. The wormwood wine flows. And we lose count of the pin-ups airbrushed on mirrors.

A vegetarian crisis is inevitable. Yup. Saw that coming a few countries back...

Mmmmmmm, cabbage-beet-pickle salad.

Apr 25, 2006

PLITVICKA JEZERA, Croatia – "Veliki Slap," the sign reads: Big Waterfall.

The jokes are inevitable, especially after lunch in Bihac, Bosnia...

The slap is nice, as slaps go. The 70-meter cascade lies inside the Plitvicka Jezera National Park, a chain of 16 peacock-colored lakes.

Though occupied by Serb forces from 1991-1995, the park's landscape remains fairly unspoilt. Boardwalks snake across the water, teeming with trout. Heron skim among the travertine cliffs. We hike a few miles, then catch the last pontoon boat down the dusky lake.

Pure magic. As it should be. I make some quick calculations: income lost by rejecting the guidebook gig + savings about to be spent.

We've just enjoyed a $4,000 day in the Balkans.

PLITVICKA JEZERA, Croatia – Finally, I repay some of the karmic debt owed to Edward, who flew 5,000 miles to save my sorry ass.

I beg Bosnian passport stamps from the steely border guard. Grumbling, he spits on the inkpad and resets the date.

Yes, yes, we should be above stamp-collecting. But I'm on the road with the inventor of strip passport, a yet unproven game of travel one-upmanship.

"We'll get Marie with Bosnia," he chortles.

"She circumnavigated the world by surface transport", I point out. "We might win this battle, but we'd lose the war."

He reflects. "I'm a pacifist, really."

"Me too," I agree. I like that strip passport* exists. The concept will really liven up hostels, not that most need more frisson.

But my blue booklet ain't anteing any time soon.

*patent pending

BIHAC, Bosnia – I quit the job. To celebrate, we go for lunch in Bosnia. Mainly because the town's name tickles our fancy: after all, "playing hooky in Byotch" does have a certain ring...

Just past the grim border – pockmarked with craters – a mosque rises over bombed-in terracotta roofs. Turkish rugs air on wrought-iron balconies. Ornamental statues stand guard: birds and lions and unicorns. We clearly are in another country, an alien culture, despite traveling just 20km.

A muezzin drones over loudspeakers in Bihac. The noon salah – call to prayer – competes with cafes blaring Let the Sun Shine In, a pop remake of the hit from Hair, the "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" of 1967.

My uncle, John Savage, starred in the movie version. So I grew up singing along to a scratchy tape of the soundtrack. And now my childhood's echoing down the street in this Balkan country, so recently torn apart by Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Some days, you travel halfway around the world and swallow your own tail like an ouroboros.


The sun's especially shiny today, in fact. We cower under a cafe umbrella, watching the Bihacians stroll and sip coffee (the top two pastimes in the Balkans, best we can tell).

Two friends pass. One girl teeters in white go-go boots and a pleated micro-mini. The other wears an orange crocheted poncho and a scarf-swathed bun, very "Islam-meets-1970s-Cosmo".

The brazen babe chats up a teenage boy. Her more religious buddy edges to the outermost orbit of the conversation, then waits politely. Yet they leave together, arms linked.

Yes, the sun's shining in Bosnia. Shining right on in.

KARLOVAC, Croatia – I stare at the pea-green gas station. How exactly is this a distinctive property? What do I review: hose length? Chip selection in the mini-mart? The chi of the soapy water bucket?

My assignment is to examine elite accommodations, short-listed by savvy locals, throughout rural Croatia. Except these scouts had clearly never ventured outside the capital's ringroad.

"That's, what, our eighth dud?" Edward announces. "Gonna be a long week."

No, I decide. Time to throw in the towel. And the expense account ... ouch.

Apr 23, 2006

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – The train rattles toward the Croatian border. "I want to see cows," Edward announces into the companionable silence.

"For a genius, you sound remarkably stupid with non-sequiturs like that," I point out. As a good friend, I'm always there with the constructive snark.

"Stop being a smartass imaginary little sister," he says. "Think about it: supposedly Slovenia is an agricultural economy. Where are the livestock?'

Hmmmm. True. In five days, I haven't seen a single sheep or goat or pig. Just some ornamental goldfish and banana barns...

I have a lot of bad theories, mainly derived from the Weekly World News, the Elvis-spotting tabloid that gave us Bat Boy. In fact, I even recall some headline about cow-napping aliens...

About 20 minutes later, our investigative instincts are rewarded. I probably bruise Ed's forearm, flailing in my excitement. "Look, look, look!"

An ostrich flock stampedes alongside the train, black saucer eyes agoggle.

"Now I can leave Slovenia happy," he says.

And so we do.

Apr 22, 2006

BLED, Slovenia – A Baroque church preens on a tiny island. Gondolas ply the mountain lake, which shades from sapphire to turquoise. The castle looms 100m above on a crag. Even the weather is playing at postcards today: sunshine gilds the Julian Alps in the distance.

Ed and I take one look at this idyllic panorama and utter the same word: mini golf!

The Buddhist sort, he carefully blows ants off the red-cement course before putting. I hack away, missing the ball as often as I manage to concentrate and pot it perfectly. We're both howling with laughter. And quite probably scaring the natives, who play with MittelEuropa gravitas.

On the train home, Edward's daydreaming. "Let's move to Globoko," he suggests. "Wouldn't that be a great return address: Globoko, Slovenia?"

I examine the hamlet, maybe 20 houses arrayed around the tracks. And I voice my usual rural lament: "I don't see a Thai restaurant. Forget it."

No amount of mini-golf proximity – or Globokian street cred – makes that palatable.

RADOVLJICA, Slovenia – My phone trills, breaking the Bee Museum's hush. Despite a buzzing tape-loop, the exhibit halls echo silence and desolation. I race for the lobby, scratching down my editor's instructions.

As Edward says: What a weird way to make a living.

I return to find him contemplating a figural beehive, a life-sized wooden sculpture of a Janissary (a celibate Christian soldier in the Ottoman Empire). Insects entered through a bellybutton aperture. Honey oozed from a spout in the groin.

And our job's strange? Imagine the poor keeper who harvested that hive...

The museum also boasts a huge collection of folk art (the painted front boards of bee-boxes). A quick survey reveals that the Slovenian mind works in strange ways:

1. A bear in a rooster-drawn chariot

2. Rabbits carrying a funeral bier

3. Giant snails treeing a tailor

4. A fox shaving a hunter

Apparently this last cartoon illustrated the local proverb "to shave (i.e. pull) someone's leg".

We leave no wiser about the Balkans, but much amused.

Apr 21, 2006

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – Gasping, I race into the hostel's foyer. Edward's train beat mine to the station by 20 minutes. Our deal was "wait 15, then head to the Celica". Sod's law.

I am such a bad person. I don't deserve to breathe.

By sheer chance, he's strolling down the corridor. Even more amazingly, he's amused, not enraged.

"I am a highly trained travel professional," he points out.

True, true. But I am the worst friend in the world...


Our cell is pretty barren: a flimsy Ikea-esque table and sleeping loft. Bars still adorn the inner door. Here lies the charm of the Celica, a prison-turned-hostel.

Make that "art-hostel," because this is to the YHA what Eames is to a milking stool. Different designers styled each cell. Be the first kid in Ljubljana to collect all 20!

However elite, it remains a hostel, though. Communal bathrooms. Not enough hot water. Overconfident, overloud backpackers suckling water pipes.

"I am too old for this shit," Edward announces.

"Me too. But it's keeping us humble; it's a counterbalance to all those five-star resorts we review. Plus, as travel writers, we should check out the latest in hip hostels."

He shakes his head, incredulous. "I come from Alaska to Eastern Europe to save your sorry ass, you're not at the train station and you make me sleep in a cell?"

See? The worst friend. I was right.

Apr 20, 2006

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia – "Flew halfway around the world to save your sorry ass, and you're not even at the train station," – Edward wrote in my notebook.

Clever child. He knows I can't tear the page out and lose research. And I'll cringe forever after, seeing that sentence.

Which I deserve.

And how.

CELJE, Slovenia – The train pauses outside my favorite house again. Oh, it's nothing special, really: just a bland, beige wanna-be-McMansion. But the landscaping undoes me entirely.

A dozen evergreens flank the new lawn. Each is a foot high.

In America, anyone with taste that atrocious would buy a prefab forest. Illegal immigrants would deliver and erect the mature trees. And everything would be oh-so-pretty until the cheeseburgermeister flipped the property or accepted a post in outer-Omaha, where he could afford a six-car garage.

His Slovenian counterpart apparently planted pine cones. He's in it for the long haul.

PODCETRTEK, Slovenia – Tibetan gong massage. In Eastern Europe. That's how the day begins, bizarrely.

I sprawl on a mat, clad – refreshingly – in my yoga gear. The therapist, without any irony, places bronze-colored cauldrons around my body, then whangs them with a padded mallet.

Apparently the "singing bowls" are harmonically aligning my aura. Eventually, she vibrates pressure points directly.

I'm torn. "Some tart's banging pots on me," the Monty Pythonesque part of my brain trills. On the other hand, the process is quite soothing. My ever-tense shoulders shiver and relax. I even doze a bit, which delights her.

"Your energy really flowed there," she says.

No. I just binged on wifi last night and only managed four hours of sleep, I think.

But I'm as discrete and serene as the Dalai Lama. Smiling, I sip my mint tea.

East and West. Who said the twain shan't meet?

Apr 19, 2006

OLIME, Slovenia – "Money has a great influence on health," Pater Earnest declares, as we examine frescoes in the Minoritski Samostan, Europe's third oldest religious pharmacy.

"Too little and you can't pay the bills, so you worry and get sick. Too much and you go crazy," he twinkles.

"Women should always carry money in their handbags, men in a wallet behind their bodies. But no one should ever carry money over their heart – or it will beat too much and have an attack."

The pater has a point, I muse, laughing: not so much about pockets, as about perspective.

PODCETRTEK, Slovenia – Sometimes my job takes strange turns. Like today, which consisted of:

1. Hot-oil massage

2. Tippling with a Father Ernest, a Jesuit monk during an interview (ahem: sampling medicinal liqueur, that is)

3. A chocolate wrap

I smell like a donut.The things I suffer for art...


Earlier, I'd interviewed the spa director. “You must take all your clothes off when you visit the Terme Olimia,” Sabina warned, probably anticipating some Puritanical fit.

“No problem, travel writers get used to that,” I replied. “You know, show up for work, get nude...”

“How lucky you are!” she exclaimed.

I hadn't seen it as that much of a perk, but why not?


Naked – but for the de rigeur paper g-string – smeared in chocolate and encased in a waterbed, I am just so Trumpkin ab-fab that I fall asleep.

Really, I blame the 32-hour train journey. A personal jet would solve all these problems, I know.

Maybe after tax-refunds...

My Hong Kong article merited a mention in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, right after one of the world's arch-plutocrats:

Amanda J. Miller - Staff
Sunday, April 16, 2006
The rich really do live differently, a short interview with Donald Trump in the March/April issue of travelgirl ($4.99) reveals.

Asked a simple question: "When you travel, what do you never leave home without?" he gives an oh-so-Donald answer: "My private jet and my golf clubs." And here's his personal tip for traveling: "It's a big help having your own jet and helicopter." Well.

The rest of the magazine is a little more helpful to the hoi polloi, with a lively, beautifully illustrated article on Hong Kong by Amanda Castleman, who dons a scarlet wig and pink aviator glasses for a night of dancing before settling down to explore the city.


Check it out, as I strike a blow for the proletariat: Wigs for all my friends! Man the barricades!

Apr 18, 2006

PODCETRTEK, Slovenia – Daylight come and I wan' go home. Or at least to hide my dizzy head.

My Terme Olimia host – beautiful, brilliant Mojca – remained composed as I inquired about the bananas (how could I not?).

Then – bless her – she diplomatically suggested: "could those be corn cobs?"

I roared with laughter. Smiling, she changed the subject: class.

But a few minutes later, human nature won out. "Would you mind if I told the banana story? It's a bit funny," she admitted.

Anytime, m' dear.

PODCETRTEK, Slovenia – After 30-plus hours on public transport, my head has an independent weather system: fog on little cat feet. Intellectually numb, I count banana barns from the train window.

Oh, I know they're not bananas, all right. But these yellow cylinders have me stumped.

Hmmmm. Temperate climate, fertile rolling farmland, rustic wood-hewn drying racks in eastern Europe ... bananas, of course!

My brain's caught in a horrible loop: sort of Groundhog Day meets Harry Belafonte.

Day-ay-ay-o. Stack banana till thee morning come!

Italian-Slovenian border – I don't wake well. Especially under a flimsy sheet, strapped onto a top train bunk.

We've arrived safely, despite the conductor's fears. Ever the pesky reporter, I catch him in the corridor-of-doom.

"So what was the threat exactly?"

He's sly. "You speak Italian, how fantastic!"

Si, certo. And I'm trying to get an answer. But, as often happens, the marvel of a fair-haired foreign woman overrides proper conversation, especially with a Ferrovie dello Stato employee who, perhaps, said too much last night.

My gumshoe-hack routine – the whole Raymond Chandler fantasy – dies in the dawn light of Monfalcone. I slip on my sunglasses and join the commuters, all huddled around the marble bar counter.

Soon I'll be in Slovenia. After five transfers, I'll arrive at Podcetrtek, near the Croatian border. Although the spa resort I'm reviewing is 100m from a station, the hip, young marketing team has no knowledge of this archaic mode of transport.

Moments like this, I have a little safety check, the usual internal dialogue:

A1: "This is bloody crazy."

A2: "Better than death by cubicle."

A1: "What? You're eating potato chips for breakfast and drying hand-washed socks on your suitcase! Alone. No clue where you're going. Crap catastrophic health insurance. Don't speak the language..."

I clutch my notebook, where I transcribed the schedule, gleaned online in Seattle weeks back. No, a lifetime ago. The solo leap into eastern Europe seemed impossibly scary then. Now it's a gradation, a small shading from the staid to the new.

Yawning, I search for my place in Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, a gift from Louisa before I left Ischia.

Night trains, new countries, pig-ignorance: weirdly, it's just another day in the office.

NAPLES, Italy – "You MUST lock the door. Even when someone goes to the toilet. Lock the door. The corridor is dangerous? Do you understand? LOCK THE DOOR!"

At first we scoff, bold travelers in the women-only carriage of the Napoli-Monfalcone night train. But the atmosphere grows steadily seedier as the train limps north.

"Lock the door," the conductor repeats again and again. My eyes – now lemur large and alarmed – reflect in the darkened window, as Apennine stations slide past.

And so we endure the night: an environmental-journalism student, the Asian-Venetian girl flaunting front and back cleavage, the peroxided mother who gabs on her telefonino and feeds her four-year-old a chocolate egg at midnight.

Sugar-injected, the tot ricochets around the sleeping car, but he won't escape.

Because one thing's certain on the northbound Naples night train: that door is locked, locked, locked.

Apr 17, 2006

ISCHIA PORTO, Italy – A minor riot's juddering the pontoon-platform. The ferries are overbooked, the hydrofoils are hours late. People bellow for tickets, but no tickets can be had.

The credit card machine's broken, which should be expected on a national holiday, really... Nevertheless, angry Mastercard patrons are shouting and gesticulating and otherwise hampering customers, like me, with cash in hand.

My suitcase is not making the crowd maneuverable. Short of abandoning it – a bad idea in proximity of Naples – I have no option but to wrangle the beast through the press.

Finally I surrender and kvetch in my best helpless-blonde Italian: "how am I supposed to get on the hydrofoil? I have an international train to catch soon."

And the gentleman targeted – whom we'll call Foxy Grandpa (with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut) – makes it all better. Soon we have tickets. We somehow skirt the angry mob and wait in the calm pocket around the crew. And when the 1.15pm aliscafo bellies up to the dock at 3.40pm, we are among the first to shove onboard.


The fog dissolves the line between the sea and sky. Foxy Grandpa reveals he was on the rival company's hydrofoil that sank a few years back. Two old women pitched into the drink and died. After 30 months, he received a small compensation check for his ruined suit.

In the litigious US, he'd be a made man, I observe.

"Ah, America," he sighs, then brightens. "Can you name all the states that Route 66 runs through?"


"I worked in the Antarctic, cooking for a base station," he explains. "The only decoration was a map of America. Eventually I memorized it. Now when the ambassador comes to my restaurant in Naples, not even he knows these facts, like all the states whose capitals contain their names!"

The Geography Pop Quiz makes the trip rather a long one. Then again, I would not be here without Foxy: I would be roadkill, a mere stain on the Ischia Porto dock.

I sidetrack him with the election: this week Prodi the Cat and his center-left coalition defeated the media-mogul prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Even politics are preferable to a foreign-language interrogation about Bismarck, North Dakota.

Naples heaves into view. "Let me buy you a coffee," he announces. We down espresso. He hands me a bus ticket. And I'm braced for the sleaze...

Which never comes.

Foxy Grandpa tucks me onto a train-station-bound bus. I thank him effusively and peck both cheeks. And then I'm left staring out the window, sad that anxiety ruins so many moments.

SANT' ANGELO, Ischia, Italy – Just when Anglo-Germanic relations are at their most fraught, Lou and Albi unveil their very un-PC road games, prompting great hilarity.

I am so tremendously grateful not to be alone on this holiday, one celebrated en famille in Italy. The festive crowds would have carved a hole in a lonely heart.

Instead, I've enjoyed three days of nonstop mullet-spotting. What more could anyone ask?

Apr 16, 2006


SANT'ANGELO, Ischia, Italy – My grandmother always bulked out my Easter basket with underpants ... but I'm not sure pre-fab Ferrero Rocher bling is any better...

SANT' ANGELO, Ischia, Italy – So I fell in this volcano. No, really. Fair maiden jokes aside, it scalded. A lot.

Properly speaking, it wasn't much of a volcano, more a geothermal vent. The fumarole – steam plume – heats Ischia's Maronti Beach. On a previous visit, Italians hard-boiled eggs in the coarse sand, singing Renato Carosone classics.

This 1950s giant mixed Neapolitan traditions with American hot jazz and a dash of Africa. His lyrics often are sly, as in Tu Vuò Fa L'Americano (most famous now as Matt Damon's star turn in The Talented Mr Ripley).

Tu abballe 'o roccorol
tu giochi al basebal '
ma 'e solde pe' Camel
chi te li dà? ...
La borsetta di mammà!

Tu vuò fa l' americano
mmericano! mmericano!
ma si nato in Italy!

You dance to rock and roll
You play at baseball
But money for Camel (cigarettes)
Who gives it to you?
The purse of mammà!

Do you want to be an American?
American? American?
But you were born in Italy!

I, on the other hand, seem to have the opposite problem...


Nevertheless, I'm faking my way through Easter on an island in the Gulf of Naples. I've donned silly big sunglasses. My friends – Louisa the British-Cypriot opera student and her fiancé Alberto, a Milanese lawyer – brought a blanket, radio and a foil-wrapped show-egg, complete with a bling surprise. We've basked in the spa park, cocktailed by the harbor, savored an overpriced holiday lunch: all the usuals.

And it's all going swimmingly until I flounder into the volcano.

I did not know beach paddle ball was an extreme sport. Or that one's foot could be hard-boiled like an egg.

But going native never was easy.

Apr 15, 2006

LACCO AMENO, Ischia, Italy – I hoard books. This fatal flaw simply can't be helped. Once I've read a good one, especially in an evocative place, I simply must drag it back to my den and mount its head on the wall.

My poor suitcase strains along, scraping the sidewalks. Something has to give ...

Like my sanity in the post office.

The Poste Italiane clerk agrees that shipping several kilos of literature to America is "un avventura" (an adventure). He's not sure it's possible, but ci proviamo. We'll try. Why not? What can we lose?

What indeed? Besides handfuls of euros, some treasured volumes, important research materials and 90 minutes of my life, filling in octuplet forms without carbon copies?

Apr 14, 2006

LACCO AMENO, Ischia, Italy – My sartorial smugness nearly takes a fall at the Mezzatorre Resort. The general manager and I are touring the property. I'm conversing in Italian, writing notes in English and climbing irregular stairs in high heels.

Who said spa reviewing was a soft gig?

LACCO AMENO, Ischia – Italy: I descend a cliffside in three-inch heels. This stunt draws a few whistles, but not one person scolds me – as Americans are wont – "you can't walk in those."

In fatti, I can. And do. Sometimes a bit more slowly, granted, but with style. Bella figura.

The concept begins with grooming, but runs far deeper; it's about living graciously ... dressing well, savoring food and sipping fine wine in a gorgeous setting. Luxury plays a role, but not always lucre.

That's where America's McMansions and Humvees fail. Ostentation is an ugly word in any language. As Allie Fox, the mad genius in Paul Theroux's novel Mosquito Coast, insisted: "it's all cheeseburgers, Charlie."

Of course, Italians aren't immune to crib-pimping, bling-flashing ghetto-fabulousness. Many sport the Eurotrash version, all giant sunglasses, Gucci knockoffs and yacht trips to the Greek isles. But even such indulgence seems slightly tongue-in-cheek.

For every Michelangelo, this nation has produced a Mussolini. Dichotomies no longer ruffle its feathers.

Which is a good thing: glammed for an interview, I hop a bus that promptly breaks down. In any other country, I'd feel like a moron – or a streetwalker – bumbling about the verge in a little black dress.

But not here, no. It's just another day in bell' Italia.

Apr 13, 2006

SANT'ANGELO, Ischia, Italy – Atop the hill, a man is crouched under a meager tile overhang, tapping on his Powerbook.

I pause in the rain. Hmmm. Has he found an open network? Could I bootleg the signal too?

No, no: mustn't be tacky. Anyway, my pirate comrades will sneak me online, hopefully. I begin picking down the worn, wet marble staircase to the harbor.

The technocrat passes. I can't help myself: "did you have wifi?" I blurt, just another media junkie jonesing for a fix. I'm on deadline, both editing and teaching, and really don't want to take the bus to Panza.

Italian doesn't work. I try English. Then halting German.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" he asks, acorn-brown eyes alight.

Not really, anymore. Scheisse.

Through Germanglish, we ascertain a few facts. He was on satellite linkup, not wifi. Johannes is a photographer, hunting poor Angela Merkel. She's on holiday here, as always. But now that she's chancellor, the tabloid lackeys are swarming.

I, of course, find it immensely amusing to talk shop with paparazzi: how often does a journo traveling solo encounter any sort of colleagues? Sant' Angelo, the end-of-the-road village, suddenly is lousy with 'em. I disapprove of their modus operandi – their entire ethos, really – but still savor the shop talk, even if it's in Germanglish.

As paparazzi do, however, they create an international scandal. Spiegel Online reports: "Monday's edition of Britain's best-selling tabloid The Sun published a photo showing the partly exposed buttocks of the German leader under the headline 'I'm Big in Bumdestag', in a play on words referring to Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag.

"The paper's German equivalent, Bild Zeitung, vented its outrage on Tuesday in an article headlined 'Brits Lampoon Our Chancellor' and asked: 'Where does this hatred come from'?"

Without fail, every Limey I've posed this question to says either "do they really want an answer to that?" or – quoting the 1970s John Cleese sitcom Fawlty Towers – "don't mention the war!"

Apr 11, 2006

SANT'ANGELO, Ischia, Italy – I've never rearranged blazing logs with an iBook on my lap before. The satisfaction of this experience leads me to believe I could live in Europe again. Or in a yurt perhaps.

But I'd have to stop shaving. Nope. Scratch that. My hairy mountain-guide days are done, I think.

Today dawned cold and rainy on Ischia, Capri's sister-island in the Gulf of Naples. Sant' Angelo – a pedestrian-only village at the road's southern terminus – has no Internet access for visitors. I was flummoxed.

"Just take the bus to Panza," my host Eugenio explained.

"Signore," I longed to shout, "I'm from Seattle, where the metro buses have wifi. When my office connection failed, I discovered seven open networks in a residential neighborhood. The Internet is like air – inescapable and free."

Of course, I say nothing. Toto, we are a long, long way from the Emerald City. And courtesy is key.

Courtesy is, in fact, what solves my dilemma. On arrival yesterday, I found the pensione empty. I ditched my luggage and retired to Bar Pirata for a drink, as is customary on arrival in Sant' Angelo.

I spotted a titanium Powerbook at the register. "Lei ha anche un Mac. Complimenti," I told the swashbuckling Pirate Captain Carlo. (You also have an Apple. My compliments.)

Suddenly I was plugged into – seemingly – the only high-speed link for miles.

Complimenti, indeed.

Apr 10, 2006

NAPLES, Italy – The pastel jigsaw of the city fades onto the horizon, as the hydrofoil rears above the water on rooster plumes of spray. Rain pinpricks the deck. I swaddle a scarf over my hair and remain outside, alone.

I've ridden the Mergellina-Ischia route half a dozen times now. Without fail, it inspires a fierce joy. The aliscafo heaves and smacks on the rough slug-grey sea. Nothing touches my elation, not sea sickness, not hunger, not my phone chirping with messages: come back to Rome.

Not today, amici. Today belongs to the Tyrrhenian.


German tourists crowd the CS1 bus. They frown at my laughter: so unseemly. "What's with the funny stuff?" their stares challenge.

Birkenstocks and mullets and my ex absconding with a Teutonic backpacker, of course. But I'm much too polite for blatant nationalistic jeering (plus that's a war no American could win). Nope. It's the public service announcements that are trashing my pseudo-Continental cool.

The video screen illustrates the route, the long 45-minute trundle around three-quarters of the island. Between stop declarations, it displays Italian-language advice for children: don't purchase stolen goods, don't jump queues and one inscrutable loop about the glories of shopping.

My favorite advert cycles through every seven minutes or so. Rowdy boys abuse some playground equipment. Suddenly an 11-year-old vixen appears, olive-eyes aflutter, finger crooked: come hither! A young thug starts forward eagerly.

But wait: she's put glue on the slide. His trousers rip off. As Bad Boy covers his boxers in abject shame, the moral slides on-screen: "Vandals wind up in their underpants."


My study of the Italian psyche can stop right here. What more could possibly be needed?

ROME, Italy – We're sipping wine as shadows soften the Pantheon's facade. The night is my last in Rome. I'm braced for separation anxiety that doesn't arrive.

The Eternal City earns its name: its distractions, its enticements are untouchable, outside time's stream. I muse over the last weeks: the long, lazy meals, cocktails in Trastevere, walks and talks and writing on the balcony that overlooks Monte Testaccio, a hill anchored by the shards of ancient amphorae. New friends and old mixed – reshuffling into a new tarot, as Rome creates yet another fortune for me.

"You're so comfortable here. You need to stay connected," my friend stresses. The Once and Future Toyboy is a Kiwi entrepreneur, a colleague of sorts. Since he prefers women two decades my senior, we don't suffer the usual grisly tension of two singletons. Tonight we're scheming about business.

"Notice where you're sitting," OFT suddenly declares.

"Um, in a chair?" I'm talented that way. An expert, almost.

He shakes his head: stubborn beast.

I try again: "In the Piazza della Rotonda?"

"The spot with the best view," he explains. "Your eyes are always darting over my shoulder, watching everything. So I try to give you the good seat."

Busted. Drat.

Gawking is, of course, an occupational hazard. Guess I'll have to work on the subtle, sidelong glance...

OFT persists: "Don't feel bad. Really, my point is use all that information you gather – and not for some exploitative publisher."

This argument is the culmination of a week-long campaign ... and, worst of all, he's right. My roving eye and snarky writing skills could be enlisted for the powers of good, rather than mere filthy lucre.

And I do mean "mere". As Hack Guru Tom Brosnahan stresses: "In the 1950s, professional magazine writers could earn US$1 a word for their work – and a house could be bought for $5000. In the 1990s, writers were still looking at $1 a word as the standard, but the same house cost $250,000."

Yet, golly, this here interweb expands the paradigms daily. And maybe this Brave New World will bring Rome back into easy reach. Si, certo!

Zealous as any new convert, I'm sketching an html page design in my notebook, when OFT brings it all back down to earth.

"If you're going to hog the prime seat, Miss Amanda, couldn't you at least watch the crowd and tell me when a 50-something tart walks past?"

Apr 9, 2006

ROME, Italy – I pass the Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II, that gaudy, glaring-white marble heap on the Piazza Venezia. The Wedding Cake, they call it. The Typewriter.

"Look, honey," a New Jersey tourist once declared on the 44 bus, "it's Caesar's Palace!"

Italy is a country committed to beauty. How ironic that its Altar of the Homeland should be so grotesque: the cliffs of Dover grafted onto a medieval borgo.

Yet the monster always makes me smile. Because I remember Anna on the Capitoline Museum Cafè terrace five years ago. Twilight slowly stained the apricot sunset. Swifts soared in the Vittoriano's spotlights, playing chicken with the goddesses atop the monument.

"There," she announced. "That's what I want life to be like."

She meant glamor and grandeur and fearless, freewheeling celebrations of speed. But all she said – all she needed to say – was this: "Uplit ... with birds."

Amen, sister.

Apr 8, 2006

ROME, Italy – "What you need is a man to give you lots of babies. Just breed and you get an EU passport!"

Every lady should have at least one date in Rome, if only for the memorable one-liners.

Apr 5, 2006

ROME, Italy – "Pre-arrival jitters plague any Roman holiday. Will ghosts guide this trip? Will I gaze at the Campo dei Fiori and see only the Temple of Venus, where my ex-husband and I courted a dozen years ago? Will our fights and fears echo in this abandoned shell, the home where love's slow unraveling began?

No, no and no again, it seems.

The Eternal City is much too alive to kindly stop for me. My bête noires dissolve in the Tiber's thuggish current. I smile, buoyed by the horns, the kaleidoscope ruins, the pastel gelato puddling in the siesta heat.

In this place, I am somehow more than a sum of petty parts.

I brace against Rome's onslaught, solidifying down to the center. And then I crack that mold, cast away the fragments – cherry blossoms eddying in the breeze – and just exist, here, now, in the sun.

No, this city isn't haunted for me. Nor, on the other hand, is it entirely easy.

As old Eleanor said: "The ordinary traveller runs off in relief to Florence, to the single statement, the single moment of time, the charming unity of somewhat prisonlike architecture, and is aware later of having retained from his whizz tour of Rome some stirring around the heart, those images, huge, often grotesque, were what he had been looking for, only it would have take so long..."

Apr 2, 2006

ROME, Italy – The Eternal City is all a glorious jumble, a sensory glut. Yet the chaos somehow charms, where, say, Athens' bruises. I suspect the underlying whimsy here softens the blow.

For example, Ailish – my visiting student – and I were trapped in Volpetti (a renowned deli), being force-fed cheese and amateur philosophy: "Women, what would the world be like without women and good pecorino?"

Nearly an hour of our lives eclipsed, as Claudio waxed rhapsodic about drunken caciocavallo (the bulbous cheese that resembles a summer squash). But I wouldn't trade that for any amount of efficiency. Not today, anyway.

Though only quarter-Italian, I realize my pace is theirs: lounging –  preferably done in bella figura (good style) –  followed by brief bursts of industry and innovation. Unless bullied by power, poverty or conscience, I would probably drowse on a sun-soaked balcony, fine-tuning the odd sentence, until the fat pony sings.

Because the statue crowning Rome's core, the Campidoglio, will warble, according to Eleanor Clark in the superb and shiftless 1950s travelogue Rome and a Villa.

The crag – overlaid with chic Michelangelo architecture – revolves around “Marcus Aurelius on his famous plump-bellied bronze horse, whose forelock was going to sing to announce the end of the world and may still."

I live in hope. As do we all.