Not a Francesca Sort of Girl

It is June of this year and my seventeen year-old daughter Spank and I are in Rome for some major museum crashing. Fresh off the subway with a crappy, zoomed out map, our suitcases rumble on the cobblestones as we search for a tiny B and B. This is the first time it’s just the two of us so far away from home. It’s a little dirtier and hotter than Paris and London and the cars aren’t as fancy, but the colors are more saturated and everything moves in slo-mo.

As there are no signs advertising the place, we pass it up, come back, and stand at the address feeling like suckers with our pre-paid internet booking.

One of the building tenants lets us through the gigantic wooden doors as she goes through. We stand in the courtyard, still dumbfounded. The tennant has never heard of the place. Finally, I spot an intercom near a glass door and see the name of the place in a tiny slot in 10 point courier. Here we are from half-way around the world and this is my mark, a tiny piece of paper less than half a square inch in a courtyard behind colossal wooden doors. And I fucking find it.

After the buzzer, a deep voice says, “Fifth floor” then buzzes us into the foyer. Like every place in Rome, it has a marble corkscrew staircase, and this one, an add on cage-type elevator in the middle.

But it is broken. We carry our suitcases up five flights of stairs and finally get to the office, which is actually an apartment. We are slicked over with sweat from all the walking and stair climbing in this crushing heat wave. A little embarrassed. A six-foot brunette with impossibly long legs opens the door, looks us over from head to toe, then gestures for us to come in. She is the only person I have ever actually seen sashay. As we follow her into the apartment/office, she doesn’t bother to throw on any lights, but I notice her hair is teased up so high I can see through it. Her clingy, belted t-shirt dress barely covers her ass.

In the middle of her apartment, she welcomes us to sit across from her at a desk. Her accent is thick Italian, rhythmic, and spoken like the last waves of high tide. She manages to give us details about the city, where to go for breakfast, how to get tickets to skip the line at museums. I ask if there are places to avoid, especially at night, since Spank and I are two women, alone.

Her eyeballs are heavy, as if the pupils are made of lead while she struggles to keep her eyes level with mine, but she does. She flicks her wrist, flays her fingers, “Rome-uh… is safe-uh.”

She slides a piece of paper across the desk, “Call me-uh, when you-uh, wake up-uh, they need-uh, to fix-uh, air condition-uh.”

There is only a number on the paper, no name. I look back up at her and ask what I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to know, “What’s your name?”

Between that question mark and before she spoke, in my head, my own voice begs, please don’t say Paola, please don’t say Paola, because I’m going to develop a tic right here and give off the tiniest hint of a smile.

And as if she read my mind, the name slowly rolls off her tongue, like that eight ball you call in the right corner pocket, dropping in there with its last bit of momentum, “Paola.”

I don’t tic out on her, or look at Spank, I just write her name, concentrating hard because she’s watching. I had to make damn sure not to write “Paolo.”

Francesco-Francesca doesn’t cross my mind as she isn’t a Francesca sort of girl. No, she’s too angular, her chin too strongly chiseled, cheekbones a bit too sharp.

Then she takes us to the marble staircase with the elevator shaft in the middle. Asks us to wait up there with our luggage so she can “reset” the elevator. Roman staircases have the acoustics that make every footstep sound as if you are right next to it. So we hear her stilettos “tic-toc, toc-tik, toc-toc” like a broken clock, all the way down until they stop. Then the elevator cage closes, CLANG!

That’s when Spank and I look at each other and call it at the same time, “Thatsadude.”

And we are totally cool with that. If Rome is safe for her, it is safe for us.


I like searching for wireless network names while traveling, struck gold here, look down to the fourth one.

Speaking of fourth, don’t you love it when an artist breaks the fourth wall? Gives me chills. (this is part of Raphael’s School of Athens).


They Grow Lemons in Portugal

One of the best and worst trips we’ve ever taken was the one over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday of 2000-2001.

It was one of those things where we were sitting around wondering where we could go real cheap at the last minute. I found some flights to Portugal leaving on Christmas Eve, arriving on Christmas Day.

Flying on Christmas sounds awful, but it was  great actually. We had the plane to ourselves and stretched out across all the seats and slept all the way there. It was supposed to be a seven hour flight, but since air traffic was so light, we made it there in five hours.


I’d wanted to go there ever since a relative of ours (a travel agent) mentioned, “Portugal is such a beautiful country, I don’t know why no one ever goes there.”

Portugal is also the bargain basement of Western Europe. Everything from hotels to transportation and goods is inexpensive. 


The people are friendly, helpful, and it didn’t matter that we didn’t know how to say more than about three words in Portuguese.


And there were so many lovely things to see.

Problem was, it rained almost the entire week we were there. And it was unseasonably cold. I had promised everyone sunshine. They grow lemons there, weather’s gotta be good, right?

Look at those mad kids!

We brought jackets, but they didn’t seem to keep us warm enough. Especially that night we got stuck at that castle.

We’d gone all the way up the mountain by bus to get to there. Mostly what I remember about the ride was looking out the window and seeing the tires right at the edge of the road, and then nothing. As in, steep drop that seemed to have no bottom. 

After touring the castle and grounds, we stood out and waited for the bus, the last one of the day. The scary part was there were way too many other people waiting in line. 

So we kept waiting for what would certainly be a fight to get on that bus. We waited, and waited, and waited. It got dark, it got cold, and this creepy fog rolled in along with some drizzle.

An hour and a half goes by, and no bus. 

All this time, no one in the crowd could (or would) speak a word of English. There were no phones and the castle and grounds were locked up at that point. 

When the bus finally did come, people were shoving to get in, but you know what? It was already full when it rolled up. Maybe two people got on, and the bus didn’t even make a complete stop when it did get there. I just remember the driver saying something to the stranded and panicked crowd as he drove off. 

What he said, I don’t know. 

One girl, a lone backpacker who looked as if she hadn’t bathed in a year stuck her thumb out to hitchhike. It seemed hopeless as there weren’t many cars coming this way. It was the top of the mountain, why would anyone come here?

But someone did drive by and she got out of there.

So we had some choices. Walk five or so miles back down the mountain, stay with these people and hope another bus was coming but risk death from exposure, or hitchhike.

We stuck our thumbs out and the next car that came along (tiny, tiny, tiny) stopped. We piled in there, all five of us, and left the rest of those tourists up there.

The driver was a skinny college-age kid, someone we could take down in a minute if he tried anything crazy.

He turned out to be a really cool guy who spoke great English and was a drummer in a local rock band.

The last day or so there, the weather had cleared up a bit and there was this amazing fireworks competition over the river. Three countries competed with back to back shows and it was all choreographed to classical music. I’d never seen anything like that in my life before or since.

Why was it one of the best trips?

Because of all the rain, we spent a lot of time in the hotel room watching cable news that was in English. Over and over they kept reporting that the American economy was “going down the drain.”

At that time, we had our savings in the stock market. All of it, and I was day trading with it like a gambler spinning a roulette wheel.

Get back home and what was our news reporting?

The exact opposite. We took everything out the market and by the end of that month, the market crashed with the dot com bust.

That trip saved these angry childrens’ college funds.

I just noticed Spanky’s giving me a thumbs down!

I wish I had a photo of the lemon trees. They are everywhere and this time of year, they are full of gigantic lemons.

My Whacked Travel Tales All in One Place

I made a page with links to most of my travel posts and put it in the sidebar.

Check it out if you have time.

I’m going through my photo albums and have a lot more stories to write (The US, Belize, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Wales, World Cup France, Tour de France…)