The Rick Steves Contradiction

I’ll admit it. I have strange habits. I know I should be serious and maybe even care about POTUS’ SOTUS, or whatever the acronyms are. But no. I shoot videos of sheep circling the pool and marvel at how the fog seems to hang out midair. This luxury won’t last long. I’m being bad right now, writing this instead of a travel piece. I like to think of this as practice for that article, though. Yeah, practice. Y’all are my test subjects.

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So, expert procrastinator that I am, I looked at Rick Steves’ website. If you don’t know Steves, he’s the hugely popular host of travel shows on PBS. The guy is unthreatening; a Salon writer called him the Mr. Rodgers of travel. He schleps a backpack around Europe and urges people to have genuine experiences instead of the if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium kind of snapshot-dominated travel. He seems to have friends everywhere, so he gets to have dinner, or take a hike with charming locals that he’s known for years.

I read an interview with him some time ago. Behind the nonthreatening facade is a guy with an agenda, one that I pretty much agree with. He’s actually deeply subversive, at least these days of Trumpian triumphalism and over the top “patriotism.” He wants Americans to realize that they’re just ordinary people, part of the 7 billion or so souls on the planet. His shows emphasize personal connections. As part of that, he takes a lot of public transport (Republicans like George Will consider trains to be socialist), stays in B&Bs and eats in popular locals places rather than temples to haut cuisine.

Here’s the thing that fascinates me, though. He’s made what seems to be a thriving business from it. And that’s great, at least for him and his employees. But in seeming contradiction to his advocacy of self-reliance and independent discovery, his company runs guided tours. I’m still wrapping my mind around this—anyone else have a problem with it? I get the rest of it, the blogs of advice, the guidebooks, podcasts, whatever helps get you from Barcelona to Berlin. But the tours make my head explode, as does the almost religious adherence that his followers seem to have to the routes he pushes in his guidebooks.

And the forums. People ask others about the tours, or run itineraries around for inspection. You see over and over again that a lot of people don’t stray from the cities and towns Steves goes to. And most of the shared itineraries are exhausting. I’d kill myself before I’d visit six cities in seven days. Then again, I’m rediscovering my true, incredibly lazy self. It’s not that I’m opposed to learning about a place—for specific sites, or meals, it’s sometimes good to have a guide. I’m lucky that here we’ve had a community that’s embraced us and helped us get settled.

Maybe I’m just jealous. I truly respect the guy and what he’s accomplished. I wouldn’t mind having a thriving business. And if he’s helped someone get over his or her fear about mixing it up with the locals, that’s great. But he also seems to be enabling that kind of fear of the other by running these tours. And, judging by the forum posts, he gets repeat customers, to the different tours. So you have to wonder if they’re even picking up on Steves’ message. Maybe at some point, he should say, two tours and you’re done with the training wheels, go off on your own.

Big City Boy in a Small Town

I have to say that I had my doubts about this whole thing. Buying and maintaining a house in the country is a big deal. I’m not exactly handy—let’s just say that on Staten Island, when it came down to either buying a lawnmower or hiring a lawn service, I outsourced my homeowner duty.

Plus, again, true confessions here, I had my doubts about a small town. Sure, we’re high above the comune (municipality) of Valfabbrica, but eventually you have to go into town to buy groceries, pay taxes, get a coffee at the bar, get cash from the ATM and, invariably, you run into your fellow townspeople. What would they be like? I remember when I was a kid riding through small Sicilian towns, with the old ladies in black crocheting, backs to the road, while their menfolk eyed us suspiciously. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s an impression that’s stuck with me ever since.

We’ve had sensei here, though. Our real estate agent and her pal have helped us navigate some, and they’ve introduced us to a cast of characters. We’ve also had another guide, and his name is Joonas. He’s the son of one of the brothers we bought the house from, and he also happens to be on the town council. Fun fact: He’s about three weeks older than our younger kid, which means he’s all of 25 years old,

Joonas hangs out with us every now and then. He probably thinks New Yorkers are exotic. In any event, it’s mutual: He’s half Italian and half Finnish, which explains his first name. Last summer, we tried out a new place in town, a bright and clean snack kind of place that features local cheeses and salumi, artisan beers, and you can go there with empty bottles and fill ’em up with local bulk wines. What’s not to like?


Joonas indulges a couple of old people with a selfie.

The day after that, we joined a few hundred other Valfabbricanesi to watch a pageant that turned the main drag in town into a medieval fantasy. It features readings, chanting, singing, mysterious looking hooded people, a very ribald song, and vigorous drumming by the town’s young guys. I’ve put a sample below. It was pretty sophisticated, and at times reminding me a lot of Montréal’s Cirque du Soleil. That’s probably not so strange, since both come from the same Commedia dell’Arte tradition.



By Johann Jaritz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at,


Again, this weekend, we participated in a town event. Joonas had seen from a Facebook post that we’d arrived and PMed a circular about the patron saint festivities over the weekend. The saint, by the way, is Sebastiano, probably best know for inspiring hundreds of homoerotic images of the martyr being shot through with arrows.


One of the events was a pranzo sociale, or social lunch, at a local restaurant. We figured it would be a good way to check out the neighbors and participate in the weekend events. It was. We found the place, and the owner immediately recognized us as the people who reserved places via the restaurant’s Facebook page. (I’m also about 99 percent sure that we were the only people he’d never seen before.) The local priest soon zoomed in on us and introduced himself. Poor guy—he’s not going to see us at his establishment…

Then, the usual Italian dinner bash ritual. People standing around, lots of talking, friends seeing each other, smokers ducking out. I could’t figure out immediately how I’d pay, but then saw a couple of people at the bar. I went over, asked the owner, who told me, get this, €20 a head. It was a long, terrific lunch of antipasti, two pastas, a main course and dessert, wine, etc., all included. We figured it would be about $75 in New York.

But the best part was being around the neighbors. As chance would have it, one of our table mates is a local teacher. (I’m convinced that teachers have this built-in tracking device for their own. Yes, The Spartan Woman is a retired teacher. But they never really stop being teachers.) They knew the family we bought the house from, told us that Joonas got the most votes in the city government vote (that boy will go far) and told us about others in town. I may have been a little apprehensive at first, but the warm welcome and easygoing nature of the lunch went a long way to make us feel at home.


Pranzo at VillaVerde, Valfabbrica

That night, we stood on our balcony with our houseguests watching fireworks in the town below. It was a beautiful ending to a sweet day.

What Would Nuccio Think?

Years ago when I was a 14-year-old teenage boy, I learned that my father had another name. In the United States, he’s known as Tony, and all my cousins—I have lots of cousins—call him Uncle Tony. But when we went to Palermo as a family, all my cousins there called him “Zio Nuccio.” (He’s the guy on the right at the top; the other man is his brother Ignazio.)

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Gotta love the feathers: Nuccio in full bersaglieri regalia.

Nuccio a/k/a Tony’s real first name is Antonino, and Nuccio is a diminutive. He lived in Italy until he was 25, in the mid-fifties. It was a very different Italy. Think neorealism films. Think in black and white. The postwar economic miracle hadn’t yet taken hold. Nuccio had been in the army, first in school, then as part of the Bersaglieri, an elite brigade. They wore funny hats with big feathers. Dad kept the feathers in this sort of fez-looking container and when I was a little kid, he’d show them to me every now and then.

He returned from the military to a city still suffering from the war. Allied bombers took out a lot of the historic center, and the ruins still stood as constant reminders. (In fact, they stuck around quite a bit longer, and Palermo’s core is still in recovery mode after a mass exodus to the outskirts in the 1960s and ’70s.) If you look at photos of the time, you’ll see the major streets leading out of the core empty and desolate, with a stray dog, maybe a car and a few people walking. It looked forlorn, a far cry from the vibrant and often chaotic Palermo of today, with its luxury shops and metro construction.

I’m writing about this because every time I drive around here in Umbria, I think of my dad. I FaceTimed him last night, and told him we’d done some shopping in Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, about an hour and a half from home. “I was there,” he told me. “For a few weeks. We shot canons into the sea, pretending that we were bombing Yugoslavians who were invading our country.” For him, mainland Italy was an assortment of places he’d gone for training, or drills, or just  to carouse like any young guy.

Nuccio didn’t go back to Italy for 16 years after he’d emigrated. And he returned a few times, the last with me about 14 years ago. It was a changed country, but he, in the embrace of a loving family, didn’t really interact with modern Italy except for the drink or meal outside or an occasional ride somewhere. So these days when I drive around, I wonder what he’d think of this strange life his elder son was living.,

I know that he approves. He gave me his U.S. immigration papers so that I could obtain an Italian passport—I had to show the consulate in New York that I was born before my father became an American citizen. My former colleague Alexander Stille wrote a book about his parents, writing at length about his father, a Russian Jew who ended up in Italy pre-World War II and eventually became the New York correspondent of the Milan-based paper Corriere della Sera. Alex wrote that not having grown up speaking Italian, he learned it and immersed himself in Italian culture as a way of understanding and getting closer to his dad.

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Meet just a tiny part of the Paonita clan circa 1964. I’m the shirtless kid on the left with my nonno Ignazio, with whom I walked almost every day after school. Nuccio is top, center, and my mom is with my glum-looking sister up in front.

I think I had the some of the same motivation, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Being able to speak Italian to my father when I need to make something clear makes communication easier. Plus, it’s fun. I was always jealous of some of my Paonita cousins in New York who grew up bilingual. I’d heard Sicilian dialect and Italian through most of my childhood and understand a fair amount (and pretended not too, the better to eavesdrop), but I hadn’t learned the language formally until I was in college. But once I picked up the language, it was fun to talk to my father in his native tongue, and of course he had to correct me when I slipped up. It was good for both of us.

So now I do my errands, visit friends, and do the occasional interview for an article in Milan or on the phone, and I just wonder what Nuccio would make of it. I’m in a different part of Italy, and a lot of people would joke that Sicily isn’t part of the same country. (That’s for another post, or maybe never,) He’s reluctant to travel; he uses oxygen and worries that his portable machine would quit mid-flight. He’s a nervous traveler anyway; on our last flight together to Rome, I slept while he sat bolt upright and awake, arms folded. So much has changed since he last lived in this country, and, to be honest, a lot has changed in the past decade.

For better or worse, Italy seems to be the Italian-language province of Eurolandia. Multinational store outlets dot the suburbs, even here in Perugia. The same names familiar to most Americans fill the local centro commerciale (a mall, in other words): Zara, Benetton, McDonalds. Our local big supermarket has a big sushi bar right next to the deli counter. In fact, sushi’s a thing here; a new restaurant in central Perugia specializes in sushi and French oysters. It used to be that you went to a trattoria and had a first course of pasta, rice, or soup, then a meat or fish course. If you didn’t, you’d get looks and attitude from the waiter. Now, it’s pretty much do what you want, anddo you need gluten-free pasta? The youth here have their iPhones and use the same apps their counterparts in Billyburg use, and they lo9d1b4530659caed076d3a47367b4f42a--mens-blazers-scarf-menok pretty much the same, too.

The only way to tell Italians and their hipster American friends apart? When it goes below about 20 degrees C, or 68 degrees F, the scarves come out here, while a lot of American guys will go out in the snow wearing flip flops and shorts. Some things will probably never change, and for good reason.

The Year of Living Differently

“THE YEAR OF LIVING DIFFERENTLY” HEADLINE CAME TO ME as I was swimming laps in the local Y pool. Thinking of a phrase there wasn’t odd by itself—I always came up with decent headlines and story ideas while walking, running, or swimming. But I was swimming late morning, right in the middle of the workday.

Other people’s workdays.

For almost a year, I haven’t had a day job. For some 33 years I did, but right after New Year’s Day, I and a bunch of my colleagues were reorganized into other endeavors.

My first reaction? Relief. I was tired of the routine, even though I had work that I enjoyed most of the time. But I’m not going to go on about this. I guess if I want to be pompous, I can say that my not being beholden to a regular job is the leitmotif of this post. But like the other media I used to sneer at, I’d like to look back semi-fondly at an incredibly weird year. Not as a political or reported article, but a personal look.

For one thing, our family lost a couple of souls this year that were precious to us. First off was our pal, no, our brother by a different mother Mick, lost to ALS. Mick was a romantic, a sweetheart, a truly funny guy with (and I say this with love and admiration) a twisted and original sense of humor. In his later years, he suppressed that side of him in favor of genuineness—I guess arch humor loses its appeal after awhile. But here’s a sample of his work for The Multiethnic Foundation, a guerrilla art group that he and er, I and The Spartan Woman had back in prehistory (ok, the early 1980s).

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Happy Fascism!We actually put together a ‘zine once. Riffing off of an idea in Borges’ Ficciones, we put together a magazine of magazine covers. They’re the best part, aren’t they? Here are a few samples that Mick lovingly put together in a calendar for us a few years ago. (Keep in mind that he did this stuff with an X-acto knife and press-on type, cutting and pasting the rest.) Looking at some of this stuff, it was oddly prescient.

Sigh. We’ll miss him.



Henry Aldridge Scozzare, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, 2005

We also lost a couple of members of the Villa Sconita family, sweet Pete the cat, and  Henry the Lab. Everyone thinks his or her pet is special, but Henry was something else. He was so keyed into our moods. He understood every language we could throw at him. So for the first time in years, we had a mostly animal-free house in New York.

You know that feeling that you’re standing on the precipice of something? That change is inevitable, so get used to it? 2017 has been that year. The lack of a day job freed me up from having to physically be in the U.S. We’d recently bought a country house in Italy, and we actually got to spend some time there. In the spring, we went for just a couple of weeks,  We scheduled the trip before my life was reorg’d.


It isn’t every day that you do a panel discussion in a palazzo.

But it was good, anyway. For one thing, I got to do a panel discussion at the International Journalism Festival with my friend and former colleague, Fabio Bertoni. We talked about the dangers of the EU ruling on the right to be forgotten online. (And The Spartan Woman and I bought kitchens and ordered furniture. To be honest, the whole two weeks is a blur.)

Even better, we spent two months in Umbria over the summer.  (Our neighbors, the sheep of Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, are wandering around in the photo up top.) I hadn’t spent that much time abroad since I was a teenager. And that was with my extended Paonita family and just a tad less free. I didn’t have to beg for the time off, or work around others’ schedules, or get the disapproving looks of certain execs about daring to take more than a week off at a time. (Honestly, Americans are idiots when it comes to such things. Flame me if you want, but it’s true.)

I wondered before flying out how it would be, whether two months away would leave me yearning for, I don’t know, American TV or the language. And no, we passed the test. First of all, The Spartan Woman and I speak English to one another; every now and then we’ll say a phrase or two in Italian, but it’s not how we communicate most of the time. So we didn’t feel alienated. At the same time, interacting every day with shopkeepers and waiters and workmen did wonders for my Italian fluency.

Lest you get the wrong idea, we didn’t spend our days Looking at Art and aping the British Grand Tour. We were more like general contractors, overseeing a few platoons of plumbers, electricians, stonemasons and others getting the house in order. And I worked through a good chunk of it, sitting at the only table we had at the time, in the kitchen, looking wistfully out the door at the garden. Freelancing does has its benefits (but don’t ask me to praise the art of nagging for payment).

Ever notice how things go at once? Besides the pets, we said goodbye to a car, a washing machine, an iPhone, a MacBook Air…it goes on. I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, but a guy can feel pretty paranoid about these coincidences.

Enough musing. It’s time to charge head first into 2018. Happy New Year/Buon Anno/Bonne Année everyone. My resolution: To keep on connecting with you, and to battle the darkness out there. Or on my Facebook feed—hint, let’s try not to let them drive us crazy.