My neighborhood ASD Trastevere chases soccer glory in ancestral land of Tony Soprano

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.

First-place ASD Trastevere celebrates a score during its 4-1 rout of second-place US Avellino.

AVELLINO, Italy — My long-awaited transition from sportswriter to sports fan has had its drawbacks. It’s kind of like leaving a long-time marriage then stumbling through the dating world again, getting in touch with heartbreak you haven’t experienced since high school.

My love for AS Roma has transformed my stylish penthouse apartment in Rome into a not-so-trendy red-and-yellow theme. I have AS Roma pennants, AS Roma flags, AS Roma couch pillows. I have AS Roma pot holders, for God’s sake. I even have two AS Roma boxes in my windowed cabinet just because, well, they say “AS Roma.” They’re even empty. I could wear AS Roma gear every day for a month and never wear the same thing twice.

My entire apartment looks like the bedroom of a teenage boy.

Every year I give Roma’s schedule to my girlfriend so she knows she’s free during that three-hour time period every week. I long ago free kicked my professional objectivity. When I watch my team gag like rabid dogs I want to execute the entire roster.

Now into my sixth soccer season in Rome, I’m experiencing something new, one few American sports fans ever feel.

Split loyalties.

Can a true sports fan give his heart to two teams in the same sport? I am. I find myself drifting up my hill to a small soccer field with a grandstand on only one side. Here I have become one of the growing number of fans following ASD Trastevere, a team in the bowels of the Italian soccer’s long hierarchy.

It’s in Serie D. That’s fourth division. That’s not even professional. It’s semi-pro. It’s like being a Yankees fan yet having season tickets to the Class A Brooklyn Cyclones.

I first wrote about Trastevere when I discovered it three seasons ago but now the love affair has advanced from a cheap fling to genuine feelings. Part of it is in April I moved to Monteverde, the neighborhood where Trastevere Stadium sits just a 15-minute walk away. I’m a one-stop tram ride down the hill to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood where the team was founded in 1925.

Also, ASD Trastevere is on pace to make history.

Me posing in front of Avellino's wolf mascot inside the stadium.

Me posing in front of Avellino’s wolf mascot inside the stadium.

It’s in first place. If it finishes first, it will advance to Serie C for the first time since 1947-48. That’s Serie C as in third division, as in TV coverage, salaries, league money, legitimacy.

Then consider this: As recently as six years ago, ASD Trastevere did not exist. In seven seasons it has gone from Terza Categoria, the sixth division of the amateur ranks, to the brink of Italian pro soccer. While A.S. Roma has vacillated between Champions League fame and the coach hopping on and off the hot seat, I’ve watched ASD Trastevere slowly rise in my backyard.

On Sunday I went along for part of the ride.

I joined the team’s braintrust, president Pier Luigi Betturri and vice-president Bruno D’Alessio, along with friend and ANSA sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, on a 155-mile road trip against second-place US Avellino. Avellino, about 40 miles northeast of Naples, has two claims to fame: One, it hosted the greats of Italian soccer as a Serie A member from 1978-88; two, it served as the ancestral home of Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos.” The show is dead but the Camorra crime syndicate remains alive in the Campania region.

Betturri owns Carlo Menta, the wildly popular Trastevere restaurant where photos of Sylvester Stallone and Frank Sinatra share wall space with ASD Trastevere strikers. I could tell business was good when we met at the restaurant and hopped in his silver 2016 Maserati Ghibli.

“It has a Ferrari engine,” Betturri told me.

That explains why we tore down the autostrade at about 155 kilometers (95 miles) an hour. I’ve gone on a Trastevere road trip before but this was the first time with the president. Betturri, trim, always sharply dressed and looking much younger than his 65 years, was raised in Trastevere, back before it became Rome’s party central. Once slave quarters and a Jewish neighborhood, it evolved into a fish market and a close-knit home to many true Romans. It was considered the Brooklyn of Rome.

“It was populated by the neighborhood people,” Betturri said as I tied my seat belt into a double knot. “Then in the ‘70s came the artists, the painters, the actors, the journalists, the communists.

“It’s changed a lot. But its soul still remains.”

Financial problems sidelined Trastevere soccer from 2002-12 but since he took over in 2012 the club has expanded its footprint past the ‘hood’s birrerias, trattorias and pizzerias and gone across the bordering Tiber River. Two weeks ago Corriere dello Sport, the Rome-based national sports daily, did a double-page spread on the club’s success. I’m seeing more people around Rome wearing red Trastevere gear, much of it sold from the Trastevere Store that opened two years ago near his restaurant.

But while nirvana may be on the horizon, demons await. Moving to Serie C would require a different stadium. Trastevere Stadium is as picturesque as an Italian model with the greenery of Doria Pamphilj, Rome’s largest park, forming the backdrop behind the team benches. But it seats only 800 and has only one entrance. It can not be expanded.

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo

Trastevere Stadium. ASD Trastevere photo

Betturri told Corriere dello Sport that one alternative could’ve been 30,000-seat Stadio Flaminio, built in 1959 and the site of Michael Jackson concerts, Italy’s national rugby team and the 1989-90 season for AS Roma and Lazio, its inner-city rival, while Olympic Stadium was being renovated. But the rugby team left for Olympic Stadium in 2011 and Flaminio is in full-fledged post-apocalyptic decay, an empty shell overtaken by weeds and civic neglect. It would be easier to renovate the Colosseum.

He told me two viable options are Stadio Casal del Marmo, a 2,250-seat facility in northern Rome which has been home to other Serie D clubs, and 9,980-seat Stadio Raul Guidobaldi, home to Serie C FC Rieti. But it’s in Rieti, 80 kilometers north of Rome. Trastevere’s one “in” is D’Alessio is friends with the Rieti mayor.

Also, Betturri’s expenses would explode. Serie D is semi-pro, meaning some players don’t get paid; others get some. Few get enough to live on. Serie C payrolls are about 500,000 euros. He’ll need to sell a lot of pasta carbonara.

However, the Serie C federation gives each club from 400,000-1 million euros, depending on the team, compared to the 20,000-30,000 Serie D receives. Betturri admitted a far-flung idea that maybe Serie C will let Trastevere compete as a semi-pro team and remain at Trastevere Stadium.

Of course, this is all so much wine talk until they actually win their Girone G, one of nine Serie D groups, the winners of which get promoted to Serie C. Betturri remembers two seasons ago when Trastevere had a comfortable lead going into the last month of May and lost the title by one point.

“I guess we weren’t ready to move onto the professionals,” he said.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.

Despite a drop from Serie B, US Avellino still has some fans.

Maybe in Avellino, the biggest game of the season, they’d be more professional.

The town of Avellino has 56,000 people right smack dab in the middle of Campania. You won’t see Avellino in any guidebooks or in the pages of Architectural Digest. It has that drab uniform feel of a quick rebuild. It’s the result of an Allied Forces bombing raid that cut off a German Panzer division in 1943 and compounded by earthquakes in 1980 and ’81.

The stadium, Stadio Partenio Lombardi, was built in 1971 but looks like it got bombed in ‘43, too, and never rebuilt. Its green, yellow and white paint is peeling. About half the double-deck stadium is closed off, leaving most of the grounds holding 26,000 looking empty and cold.

But during those Serie A glory years of the ‘80s, Avellino packed in more than 40,000 for games. Then began a slow slide into irrelevance, dropping to Serie B then C then bankruptcy in 2009. After resurfacing and climbing back to Serie B, the federation booted it last spring due to incomplete paperwork concerning a bank guarantee. The penalty?

Serie D.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.

Trastevere president Pier Luigi Betturri, second from left, meets with Avellino fans before the game.

As we arrived at the stadium well early of game time, we sat in a circle with some disgruntled Avellino fans, including Pasqualino Vuolo, Avellino’s accountant last season. He left the team after the controversy, through no fault of his own, making him the perfect source for an objective opinion. I asked him what he thought of those responsible, mainly Cosimo Sibilia, the federation vice-president who’s from Avellino and didn’t lift a finger for the club.

Vuolo gave me the two-fingered “cornuto” sign, the Italian hand gesture meaning, roughly, someone is fucking your wife. In other words, I curse you.

“I don’t like people who don’t help the team,” Vuolo said. “They’ll come today but they didn’t help us when we needed them.”

Luigi Fossacreta has been an Avellino fan for 50 years. He’s seen it all, from visits by Juventus and Inter Milan to now: a visit from a Rome neighborhood team. I asked him what’s the difference in play between Serie D and B. He turned me around and pointed at Betturri’s Maserati.

“The same difference with a Maserati and a Fiat 500,” he said.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.

About 7,000 fans made it into Stadio Partendio Lombardi.

The game started and about 7,000 fans crowded two sides of the stadium. The green and black flags, one with a skull and crossbones, and roaring songs gave this a Serie A feel in passion if not in play. Avellino isn’t a shadow of its former self. Players, unchallenged, kicked the ball out of bounds. They lost simple passes off their foot. They looked slow and uninspired.

Trastevere seemed jacked up by maybe the biggest crowd they’ll see all season and making a giant leap toward history. Stefano Tajarol, arguably the face of the club at 37 years old, scored in only the seventh minute when a free kick inexplicable scooted through the goal box.

Seven minutes later, Daniel Sannipoli, one of Trastevere’s teenage prospects at 18, headed in another free kick to make it 2-0.

Avellino never threatened. Sannipoli scored again off a deflected free kick and Davide Lorusso made it 4-0 on a penalty kick, causing Partenio Lombardi to erupt in vicious whistles, the European boo. Fans chanted “TIRATE FUORI LE PALLE!” (TEAR OUT THEIR BALLS!)

Flags stopped waving and fans screamed, “DOVE SONO I GIOCATORI? MERITIAMO DI PIU! (WHERE ARE THE PLAYERS? WE DESERVE MORE!) Two fans below us started screaming at each other in the indecipherable local Irpinian dialect, obviously in agreement about the team’s suddenly embattled manager. Maybe they said something about cement and the Bay of Naples. I couldn’t tell.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.

Avellino goalkeeper Ettore Corrado Lagomarsini tries to stop a Trastevere shot.

This is what I missed in 40 years as a sportswriter? I wonder when I will reach that level of bitterness, where I react to defeat with threats of bodily dismemberment.

After the game, a 4-1 Trastevere rout, Avellino’s players walked to the stands and acknowledged their ultras as is tradition. The whistles became so loud, nary a player raised their hand in thanks. They merely trudged back to a depressing, dank locker room.

Darkness had descended on Campania but a bright glow appeared around Betturri as he landed the Maserati back on the autostrade.

“They were great!” he said. “They were fantastic against Avellino, against a team that’s second.”

The season is only at the halfway point but Trastevere is 10-2-2 for 32 points, two ahead of second-place — and oddly named — Latte Dolce (Sweet Milk), a club named for a neighborhood in Sassari, Sardinia. (As I said, the Premiership this is not.) I asked Betturri how optimistic he is about promotion.

“In soccer,” he said, “you should never be optimistic.”

He does see one area he can count on more than the great collapse of 2017. This team is older. Sunday’s starting lineup averaged 24 years of age, a year older than two years ago. It has only six teenagers instead of seven.

They have a rising young star in Lorusso, 22. Parma, in Serie A, wanted to buy him near the end of last season but a foul up in red tape botched the deal. That sent him into a funk that extended to the start of this season. But he’s broken out of it, leading the team with six goals.

The leader remains Tajarol, a scruffy-bearded striker who has toiled for 15 seasons in soccer’s lower echelons, including Trastevere two seasons ago during the collapse. Along the way he’s been a truck driver and a factory worker to make ends meet. However, he tasted Serie C with Lupa Roma from 2014-16 and appears set on sticking around until he does it at Trastevere, too.

“That would be the ultimate,” said Tajarol he said. “I was 33 and if I go back it would be a dream. I’d be really happy above all for the younger guys. For me it’s important but for the younger guys more.”

And for me, too. I’m 62. I likely won’t live long enough to see AS Roma bring home a title to my adopted city. However, I may only wait a few months to see ASD Trastevere bring one to my adopted neighborhood.


Monteverde: My new Rome neighborhood on a hill is shedding its fascist past

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

In Mercato Gianicolense, one of the oldest public markets in Rome, they still sell table wine in bulk. Photo by Marina Pascucci

When I first saw it, I had to take a step back, as if a ghost had gut punched me. Did I see what I thought I saw? It was April 30 and I had just moved into my new apartment. It’s a dream home for a retiree. Bigger. Brighter. Big balcony. It’s the same price as my previous flat and I am away from my evil ex-landlady.

But I heard stories, haunting stories, about my Monteverde, the Rome neighborhood on the hill. It’s the neighborhood Benito Mussolini made famous. The 1930s was ancient history. Wasn’t it? Yet there I stood in the elevator, looking slack-jawed at the inside of the door as it reached the bottom floor. There I saw it. Someone had knife carved it in the old wood.

A swastika.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

The swastika on the inside of my elevator door.

I’m living among Nazis? I’d lived in Rome more than four years and had yet to meet a racist. I haven’t heard a racist comment. This is from the local welcome wagon? In America you get an apple pie. In Monteverde I get a swastika? I’m not even Jewish and I was insulted.

Well, next week will mark seven months in my apartment and, thankfully, I haven’t seen mobs jackbooting their way down my street. No one is carrying Nazi flags or shouting anti-Semitic slogans. This isn’t Charlottesville. It’s Rome. My neighborhood is as friendly as every other Rome neighborhood I’ve lived in and visited.

Yet Monteverde is still the neighborhood that fascism built.

Moving from Testaccio, Rome’s old working-class neighborhood that served as the city’s goods port, to Monteverde didn’t take long. I moved less than a mile and a half, just across the Tiber River and up the hill. But the differences are as big as the hill my No. 8 tram chugs up every day. Monteverde is the biggest neighborhood in Rome. The people are a mix of upper middle-class old-money Romans and middle to lower middle-class working stiffs.

Monteverde encompasses the city’s biggest landscaped park, lovely 455-acre Doria Pamphilj with its jogging paths and lakes and pigeons seducing lovers for bread crumbs. Every time I hear English when I walk by the outdoor cafes and coffee shops near the American University of Rome I think of my days touring campuses as a college football writer back in the U.S.

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazzale Dunant. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Monteverde is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome where you need public transportation to get around. Yet from my apartment, so much is so close. I have three cafes on my nearest corners. A wonderful local pizzeria, C’era Una Volta (There Was a Time), is also around the corner next to the Egyptian florist who sells me flowers for my Marina. I have two big supermarkets, non existent in Testaccio, within 100 meters. My dry cleaners is across the street. An excellent Lebanese restaurant and one of Rome’s few ethnic eateries, Meze Bistrot, is up the street one block. My local beer bar, Stappo, is on the next street over. My gym is 400 meters away.

I could live the rest of my life very happily and never travel more than the length of a high school track.

“Two people who don’t know each other, they meet in Monteverde and are soon friends,” said Davide Desideri, my barista at Romagnani Caffe across the street where I have become dangerously addicted to their chocolate cornettos and cappuccino. “It’s like a small town, Monteverde.”

By Rome standards, it’s a modern town. Back when Rome was the most powerful civilization that man may ever know, Monteverde was a barren hill made up of scrub brush and bushes. Even Trastevere down the hill at least served as slave quarters.

However, this area had two marvelous green spaces on the hill. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra used to flirt in what is now Villa Sciarra. Just to the west in the other bigger park, the powerful Pamphili family bought a villa in 1630 back when the Rome below was a malaria-infested wasteland. When Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili became Pope Innocent X in 1644 the villa was rebuilt into the lavish palace it is today.

Villa Doria Pamphilj

Villa Doria Pamphilj

While hundreds of lovers, walkers and dreamers frequented what is now Villa Doria Pamphilj, the rest of Monteverde was a swamp. Then came 1922. Mussolini took power. In a destructive attempt to return Rome to its ancient glory, he started a campaign to steamroll old dilapidated neighborhoods like Borgo Pio near the Vatican, Flaminia near Piazza del Popolo and Piazza Bologna near the train station. In 1938 he built a seven-story public housing tower in Monteverde to house 300 families, including many displaced from the leveled neighborhoods. Il Duce even came by for the dedication.

It remains today. Still called Casa Popolare, it’s on my 20-minute walk from my apartment to Doria Pamphilj and looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Neither has the paint. It’s typical fascist architecture: tall, broad, with big strong columns. The courtyard is run down and scruffy. It’s still home to working-class Romans. The only difference is now they’ve turned into low-end condos.

Casa Popolare

Casa Popolare

Up the street about 200 yards is the apartment of one Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the great cinematic minds of the 20th century. He put the “X” in eccentric. He had as much a penchant for young men as he did for exploring the soft underbelly of Rome’s otherwise glossy landscape. The lower middle-class kids playing in the projects around Casa Popolare fascinated him and he lived up the street with his cousin from 1955-59. It was during this time he wrote for Federico Fellini’s famous film “Le Notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria)” and wrote his second novel, “Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life)” which was embraced by Rome’s thriving communist community.

The other day I waited outside the locked front door until a pretty tenant walked in. As I snuck in behind her, she looked at me without suspicion. She’s probably used to fans wanting to look. Inside the spacious, clean lobby is a plaque dedicated to Pasolini who was murdered under extraordinarily controversial circumstances in the beach neighborhood of Ostia in 1975. Some say he was murdered for his communist leanings. Some say it was a Mafia revenge killing. The 2014 movie “Pasolini” starring Rome-resident William Dafoe showed him getting beaten to death by two homophobic thugs.

Pasolini’s Monteverde is divided between Monteverde Vecchio (Old) and Monteverde Nuovo (New). Pasolini’s old apartment is in Monteverde Vecchio, which Mussolini and his friends helped build in the 1930s. While he built public housing and dragged Jews from the ghetto to their deaths, Mussolini’s fascist friends were moving to Rome and building big villas by the park. Not that they were rich, but some shipped palm trees from Africa to adorn their grounds. Wander around the stodgy residential areas near Doria Pamphilj and you’ll see some homes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Hollywood Hills.

My building is not one of them.

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

No. 8 tram. Marina Pascucci photo

I live in Monteverde Nuovo, built in the last half of the 20th century. I live on the top floor of a relatively modern five-story building with great views of, well, other five-story buildings. But my street, Via di Monte Verde (City planners get an F for two different spellings of the place name), is lined with big trees leading to busy Piazzale Dunant, a giant square lined with high-end clothes shops where well-dressed men stand in their doorways, my tiny one-table enoteca called Sensi di Vini and my artisan gelateria, Il Gusto. Piazzale Dunant runs into Via Donna Olimpia, which serves as the dividing line between Monteverde Vecchio and Nuovo. It’s named for Pope Innocent X’s powerful, notably bitchy sister-in-law who rampaged through Rome on a horse-drawn carriage, leaving beggars and thieves in her wake.

The main drag of Monteverde Vecchio is Via Carini, noted for cozy enotecas and restaurants, all with, ironically, modern twists. Take Litro (Liter), an appropriately named wine bar just off Carini. It has 28 pages of available wines all in a book of — get this — bondage stories. Emblazoned with a naked nurse tied up and gagged, the grotesquely illustrated book is entitled “The Bondage Clinic and the Fetishistic Gang,” perfect when looking for the proper wine pairing with lesbian S&M.

Litro is where Marina and I met three of my fellow Monteverde friends. Fabio Salmoni, 40, and Carlo Passamonti, 45, are also fellow romanisti. We are huge fans of AS Roma, the local soccer club that we watch on Stappo’s big screen every week.

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Fabio Salmoni. Marina Pascucci photo

Salmoni is Jewish. Born and raised in Monteverde, he hung out in Doria Pamphilj where his mom would take him to play with his friends and, later, “Where I’d kiss the girls.” He recalls his childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s when Monteverde had two schools: Medici Vascello and Morgani.

“Medici Vascello,” Salmoni said, “was fascist.”

Rome had a strong communist-fascist presence in the ‘80s, something Salmoni experienced first hand in Monteverde.

“Nazi fascism was born here,” he said. “When I was a student, Monteverde was conservative, right wing. I went to the Medici of Vascello school as Jewish and a lot of times we saw on the wall and on our desks Nazi symbols.”

He never heard anything to his face. In his day, Salmoni was a pretty good kickboxer. But Monteverde’s image has softened in the 21st century. Passamonti, a native of Sardinia, moved to Monteverde three years ago with his American wife, Tanaz.

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Davide Desideri at my Romagnani Caffe. Marina Pascucci photo

Like myself, he sees Monteverde as a big neighborhood but also a very small town.

“I love L.A. for lots of reasons for what L.A. is famous,” he said. “But here in Rome, in Monteverde you can enjoy the distance between your place and your local pub. In 10 minutes you can be with your friends and come back home. I feel you can’t in L.A. where you live your life in your little area but the distance is crazy. From the city center in L.A. to another place is two or three hours driving in that crazy traffic.

“Now in this moment of my life — I’m 45 — from Stappo I’m back home in five minutes.”

Stappo (Italian for “uncork”) is my Monteverde nerve center. I show up an hour before gametime in the back TV room with the beer kegs serving as tables. Over some excellent Italian craft beer and Stappo’s signature American-quality cheeseburgers, I’d get the rundown on the lives of all the young professionals and their girlfriends and wives. It’s our Cheers, made even more neighborly by the owner, another Monteverde native.

Owner Carlo Pascucci has lived here all of his 40 years. He was born in the ‘70s when Monteverde had a reputation as the home of misfits, back when drugs were prevalent and so were the stories emanating out of the psych ward in San Camillo Hospital, the massive medical fortress two blocks from me.

That has changed. I smell marijuana smoke drifting from some bars and there’s the preeminent two homeless sleeping under the covering of Upim department store on the piazzale. But Monteverde, despite its size, has become as personal as tiny Testaccio to me.

“There are places where people don’t live on the streets,” Pascucci said. “In Monteverde you can live on the streets because it’s full of shops. There’s a big, big park which is beloved from the people living here. This is a big impression in the neighborhood. It’s a free space for everybody and where everybody can feel at home.”

Besides Stappo, my other regular pilgrimage is to Mercato Gianicolense. Every Rome neighborhood has an open-air public market. It’s what separates Rome from the rest of the Western world. It’s where you buy the freshest produce, meats, breads and cheeses with no preservatives and at affordable prices. It’s where you can buy homemade pasta for pennies. You want to know why Romans look so healthy? Look in the public markets.

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Mercato Gianicolense has been unchanged since it opened in the early 1960s. Marina Pascucci photo

Gianicolense is the most Roman of them all. My Mercato Testaccio moved from Piazza Testaccio, where it stood for 100 years, to a sparkling white shelter in 2013. My old market in Prati, near the Vatican, upgraded into what looks like a downtown parking garage. But Gianicolense has preserved the same gritty image it had when it first opened in the early ‘60s. Its narrow paths between stalls are dark. The preferred language is Romanaccio, the dialect within the Roman dialect devoted exclusively to profanity. Locals bring giant plastic jugs to fill up with table wine poured from giant tanks on a wall. By the fruit stands alone you could film a dozen Mafia scenes.

It’s also one of the few places in Rome where you can buy affordable fish. In the middle of a line of fish stands, is Massimo “Max” Barba. He’s been selling fish here since 1983, but unlike 90 percent of the labor force here, he can count to three in English. In fact, he’s fluent, thanks to five years living in Australia and a year in Los Angeles where he worked as a classical dancer.

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Massimo Barba at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

He lives 200 meters down the hill from his stand and frets about Monteverde’s expensive housing. I pay 1,000 euros for 600 square feet, much less than I charge in rent for my similar sized condo in Denver.

“That’s not cheap,” he said. “The apartments here are really not cheap at all. They’re really expensive. It’s why the young people don’t buy anything here, including my son.”

He and his wife bought his son a place in l’EUR, Mussolini’s ill-fated fascist neighborhood where the construction stopped when Il Duce found himself hanging by his toes in ‘45. But Barba is right. Monteverde is “chic” but not young and chic. The amount of elderly hanging on to the arms of their children, themselves in their 50s and 60s, makes me feel Ospedale San Camillo’s waiting room extends to the streets of Monteverde.

Barba is typical of many Italians, highly critical of a long string of governments that have left Italy with the worst recession since World War II. The local government remains ripe with corruption. Unemployment for youth in Italy is 31 percent.

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

Fresh pasta stall at Mercato Gianicolense. Marina Pascucci photo

He’s not a fascist but even I will admit Mussolini did some good. He led the way to get San Camillo built in 1934, he renovated many neighborhoods, cleared a swath in front of St. Peters and built Via della Conciliazione, the long, wide boulevard providing a beautiful view of St. Peter’s. That doesn’t include turning southern Lazio, Rome’s region, from fetid swamp into prime beach towns. And, yes, he did get the trains to run on time.

However, befriending Adolf Hitler doesn’t look good on his resume.

“There’s a saying old people here say: We used to be better when we used to be worse,” Barba said.

Still, it’s pretty good now. I love Monteverde. After four years in Testaccio, having a new neighborhood is like having a new lover. It’s a whole new body to explore. My girlfriend and I recently cruised Via Carini, home to one of our favorite restaurants, Osteria Tuttoqua (Everythinghere), a romantic spot with covered outdoor seating and gourmet dishes such as orecchiette con gamberi, zafferano, fiori di zucca e bottarga di tonno (ear-shaped pasta with shrimp, saffron, zucchini flowers and dried tuna roe).

We started at Al Grammelot, a tiny enoteca with 12 tables and an eclectic antipasti serving of fusaja (Roman beans), porchetta (sizzling roast pork), caciotta (cheese from Tuscany), salami, green olives and bread. Featuring 1,500 bottles of wine, it became a wine bar 13 years ago after Teodore Capone transformed it from a fruit, vegetable and wine shop run by his father, Alfonso. Yes, Al Capone. No, not THAT Al Capone.

I asked Teodore about business in Monteverde.

“They said people come here for sleeping not for living,” he said. “But after 13 years we’re still here.”



We walked down one block to a cozy, brightly lit affordable seafood restaurant called Cefalu’. Named for the charming port town on Sicily’s northern coast, Cefalu’ features big old photos of Sicilian fishermen and tables brightly decorated with octopus, squid and other sea creatures. My orecchiette in scampi sauce was rich and fresh and Marina’s big pile of grilled seafood tasted as if we were outside on a Sicilian beach instead of an urban street in Rome.

We returned to Carini and had a nightcap at Nanana, a “con-fusion bistrot” with an Asian-slanted menu and a quiet bar next to a sunken dining room. The bartender had spent years in London and was a rare find, a Roman fluent in English. We talked about London’s rent, his native Puglia’s beaches. We also talked about Monteverde’s tranquility. We could hear wine glasses clinking in the dining room, the soft music playing in the bar.

Monteverde Vecchio didn’t seem so old. It’s still new to me. The swastika may remain on my elevator door for a while. But I’ll be here longer.

Democrats Abroad did its part in victorious U.S. elections

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night's potluck.

Neal Huddon-Cossar, chairman of the Democrats Abroad Rome chapter, gives a presentation at Friday night’s potluck.

About 2,000 years ago, Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood served as a storage area for all the grain, wine and olive oil that came in on the Tiber River. They all arrived in large terracotta vases which, when disgorged, were broken up into little pieces and discarded onto a big pile. The mound, which stands more than 150 feet high, still exists today and is dubbed Monte Testaccio.

Friday night, on Via di Monte Testaccio, the Democrats Abroad’s Rome chapter held a potluck, celebrating the Democratic Party’s take over of the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the Republican Party’s stronghold into little pieces.

The irony was not lost on me.

Being an American expat can be lonely at times. Here in Rome, most of my friends are Italian. I have few to vent with about the U.S. circling the drain into the bowels of fascist and racist hell. My rants are mostly limited to unbridled torrents on Facebook, sitting in bed, pissed off at 2 in the morning.

I’d go out with my Roman girlfriend after our Pres. Rancid Velveeta would call an entire ethnic group worthless protoplasm or something earlier that day. She’d see me visibly agitated. I’d fidget. I’d frown. I wouldn’t have to say a thing and Marina would say, “You’re thinking about Trump, aren’t you?”

She knows me all too well.

Democrats Abroad gives me an escape. It’s the one place in Rome where I can meet like-minded, pissed-off people and unleash pent-up anger in an arena where everyone understands and everyone has all their teeth. Friday night wasn’t just a receptacle for hate. It was a victory bash. The Democratic Party took over the House. We have put a blockade on the Republicans’ charge toward a fascist state for the next two years.

We expats made a difference. I made a difference, however small.

According to Julia Bryan, international chairperson of Democrats Abroad, voting among expats around the world increased — get this — 800 percent since the last midterms in 2014. She said she won’t know the total numbers until all the votes are counted but she said we helped flip seats in Florida and New Mexico and may end up helping flip another in Arizona.

“The Florida agricultural commissioner won by a little under 600 votes,” Bryan said from her home in Prague. “We definitely sent more than 600 votes to Florida.”

Democrats Abroad is a feisty, underrated organization that has 150,000 members in 190 countries. There are Dems Abroad committees in 45 nations. Italy has nearly 3,000 members.

We all came to Rome for different reasons. Job. Heritage. Love. Or, in my case, retirement. But we have one thing in common: We hate Putin’s Papaya-Flavored Pawn. Trump has united us. Misery loves company. Despite being 4,500 miles from Washington, despite being that far away from the nearest Trumpeteer, we think of our country’s direction and are miserable.

“I like the word ‘indignant,’” said Neal Huddon-Cossar, the chairman of the Dems Abroad’s Rome chapter. “We’re extremely concerned about the direction the country’s going. People are indignant. That’s why I personally have seen so many people in my social circle who are Americans become more active in political organizing and activism.”

The potluck was a celebration of last week's Democratic victories.

The potluck was a celebration of last week’s Democratic victories.

Take Huddon-Cossar. The day after the Halfwit Tweet Twit won the election in 2016, Huddon-Cossar, started a Facebook group. Using the hashtag #notmypresident, he invited all his friends then learned about Rome’s own involvement in protests such as the Women’s March and Indivisible Movement. More local chapters formed in Italy, and he got in touch with those people.

In two years, this 30-year-old grad student in global energy and climate policy became chairman of Rome’s Dems Abroad chapter. Talking to other Yanks, he learned we were as appalled at what was happening across the Atlantic as the people in the trenches.

“Americans abroad are shocked at what the politics are in the U.S. at the moment,” he said. “It was all driven by the election of Trump. Just the Trumpian direction of the Republican Party has taken over the past few years. A lot of people were complacent under (Pres.) Obama and didn’t think it was necessary to vote or stay engaged.

“But this (2016) election was a real reality check.”

So Huddon-Cossar went out and set up about a dozen get-out-the-vote events, mostly at Rome’s various universities specializing in American abroad students. He set up sign-up desks in expat events such as Expats Living in Rome of which I’m a member and set up a website, He established a ballot drop off at a local school, hosted by a cultural center and supported by the U.S. Embassy. That three-hour event alone signed up 90 people.

It’s not easy voting from abroad. Rules are confusing. They vary from state to state. I vote in Colorado, where I worked from 1990-2014, and twice had to call Denver to make sure they’d send me an email ballot. I voted in October. Filling it out was easier than a to-do list.

I voted Democrat all the way down the line. I didn’t look at a single name. I didn’t do one second of research. If I saw a “D” next to the name I voted for it. I’m furious. I want change. Democrats Abroad provided me that avenue. As it turns out, Democrats in Colorado, a battleground state, won four of seven House seats, nine of 17 Senate seats, 37 of 60 State House seats, the attorney general’s race and the governor’s race. I learned the Democrat who won the Colorado governor’s race, Jared Polis, is gay.

I had no idea, nor did I care.

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo

New Colorado governor Jared Polis. Twitter photo

I wasn’t alone.

“We are the bluest state,” Bryan said. “We’re the only Democratic state that had a growth in the primaries in 2016. We had 50 percent growth over 2008. That’s huge.”

How blue? Bryan said two years ago 69 percent of Dems Abroad members voted for Bernie Sanders. (“We are very progressive,” she said.) I didn’t. Bernie was a liberal’s wet dream: He had all the right ideas but no convincing path to achieve them. I voted for Hillary Clinton. If more Democrats had done that, I’d be writing about AS Roma today.

Sometimes I wish I retired to Rome in the ‘90s. That was before Internet, before social media. Our only American political news would come from whatever the old International Herald-Tribune would print. Today with cable TV and every American newspaper and wire service available on your cell phone, I could just as well be in Washington’s Dupont Circle as my leafy neighborhood in Rome. The U.S. government is a train wreck. You don’t want to watch but once you start you can’t pull away.

Italians are up on it, too. When they meet an American, they all have one question.

“They want me to explain how the hell this could happen,” said Jim Sawitzke, a Dems Abroad member at the potluck. “They used to have so much respect for the U.S. What’s happened to us? Like, I’m an American, I have the answers.”

Sawitzke, 55, is an interesting expat story. Raised in Helena, Montana, he went up through the educational and professional ranks as a scientist when three years ago he moved to Rome to work for the European Molecular Biology Laboratories. Like all Dems Abroad members, he and I bonded — and not just because he got his doctorate at the University of Oregon, my alma mater in the knee-jerk liberal town where I was raised. Sawitzke spent 21 years in suburban Frederick, Maryland, where he lived near the apex of American politics.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.

The Associazione Rigatteria cultural association is held in a stone-like cave that once stored food and wine.

Like me, Dems Abroad has become a safe haven of vent. The potluck was just one example. It was held in the Associazione Rigatteria, a cultural center built in a stone cave that once also served as a storage area for food and wine. Glass squares on the floor illuminate dark tunnels that snake through the area.

A table was filled with finger food, from salami to breads to the one thing you’ll never find at a Trump rally: hummus. We clinked wine glasses toasting the victory. We talked about who we want running against Dingbat Donald in 2020. Huddon-Cossar gave a presentation summarizing all the Democratic victories.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Sawitzki said. “It’s nice to talk freely with like-minded people. I felt comfortable. It reminded me of people I’d speak with in similar events in the U.S.”

Dems Abroad isn’t stopping. Bryan and Huddon-Cossar have reached out to expats for stories about their health care overseas. We all have our frustrations living over here. Rome is the filthiest capital in Europe. The government is rife with corruption. But Italy’s health care system, like many in Europe, is fabulous.

Bryan will soon take to Congress her stories, including my story of going blind in my right eye in the summer of 2017. The total cost of my treatment, including tests, counseling, medicine, an MRI and laser surgery was only 525 euros. In the U.S. it would’ve been nearly $7,000.

The Rome chapter did the same.

“The idea was to share our stories as American citizens living in these countries and what it’s like to live in a country that guarantees health care,” Huddon-Cossar said. “We had a huge, huge response.”

He received more than 300 stories, including his own. Last year he had to get an endoscopic gastrostomy exam after a series of stomach problems. He went to the ASL, Italy’s state health service, and they gave him an appointment in Frosinone, a town 55 miles southeast of Rome. Instead, he went to the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli, a private care hospital, on Rome’s Tiberina Island. They had him in the following week. His total cost?

One hundred fifty euros.

Besides health care, the other advantage all expats agree on is the streets in Europe are safe. Rome, a city of 2.8 million people, averages only 30 murders a year, hardly any by guns. Last fall gun nuts barbecued me online after I reacted to the slaughter in Las Vegas by pointing out that Italy’s tougher gun laws were reasons for the low murder rate. The critics pointed out the Czech Republic, which has the most open gun laws in the world behind the U.S., is proof that more guns mean safer streets.

Bryan, who grew up in a liberal family in Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Prague 20 years ago to head up a design section of a startup and now has a software company. She said guns nuts are missing the point.

“The thing to understand is the Czechs don’t have open gun laws,” she said. “They have really intelligent gun laws. They’re really strict about who can have a gun. If you have any mental problems you’re not allowed to have a gun.

“The Czechs take away guns. You can lose your reliability status if you are deemed to have excessive use of alcohol, if you commit a crime, if you commit misdemeanors. The health clearance is an important part of the license process.”

I left the potluck early and went to Marina’s. I had a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. She didn’t ask me a thing about the Decomposing Jack-o-Lantern.

Ten lessons I learned from traveling — or why Democrats must vote in U.S. midterm elections Tuesday and WIN!

Me in Laos. When you travel alone it's never crowded.

Me in Laos. When you travel alone it’s never crowded.

The United States has probably the most important mid-term elections in its history Tuesday. They’re so important, I even voted in them for the first time. My country is a dumpster fire. It’s divided like no other time in my life. It’s the Korean peninsula with better baseball. America during the Vietnam War was tea at Buckingham Palace compared to now. Today the U.S. is rife with racism, the likes of which I have never seen — and I was socially aware in the ‘60s. I owe it all to without question the worst human being ever to serve in the White House.

I get asked around the world how this Cheeto-faced cumsickle ever got elected. The quick answer is America has too many racist, uneducated, morally bankrupt, hypocritical morons. But here’s the answer behind that answer.

Americans don’t travel enough.

According to Forbes, only 42 percent of Americans have passports. That’s a massive increase from 4 percent in 1990 and 15 percent in 1997. Why the jump? It’s not due to increased global awareness. In 2007, Canada and Mexico required American citizens to carry passports. Now Americans need it if they want that all-inclusive Mexican beach resort where they never leave the compound and, you know, actually meet Mexicans.

Also, the 42 percent pales in comparison to Canada’s 66 percent and the 76 percent for England and Wales. Australia, home of the most well-traveled, open-minded people on the planet, boasts a percentage of up to 70 percent.

In Slovakia's High Tatras.

In Slovakia’s High Tatras.

It gets worse. According to the market researcher OnePoll, 40 percent of Americans have never left the country. An incredible 11 percent have never left their home state, according to CheapOair, a travel website.

You can cite all the reasons you want: costs, fewer vacation days in the U.S., America’s size. But the biggest reason is a total lack of curiosity about anything or anyone different.

Traveling is more than just collecting souvenirs and getting a tan. It’s about broadening your view of the world, about accepting new ideas and ways of life, about getting out of your comfort zone. When people close themselves off from what they don’t know, you get functionally illiterate rednecks berating immigrants for speaking their native tongue and people more concerned with a wave of desperate Latin Americans trying to reach the U.S. than a white extremist shooting up a synagogue.

I always said that if every American had traveled overseas for six months we never would’ve invaded Iraq 15 years ago. But no one listens to me.

However, maybe someone will read me. This is my 40th year of international travel and through 100 countries I’ve learned a few things. Here’s a list of my most poignant lessons, some personal, some whimsical and some every American should learn:

A tea leaf picker in Sri Lanka.

A tea leaf picker in Sri Lanka.

1. Just because someone is different doesn’t make them better or worse. They’re just different.

In 1994 I was in the mountains of Albania where I visited a member of a hill tribe, the ones who for generations kissed the muzzle of a gun and settled blood feuds with real blood. It was a year after Albania’s communist government fell and the reign of vicious dictator Enver Hoxha had officially ended. Through an interpreter the tribesman and I sat in his small stone home and talked about life in the U.S. as opposed to life in Albania, about poverty in his country and violence in mine. We ate borek, Albania’s delicious filo-dough pastry, and drank raki, Albania’s vicious moonshine. We told stories. We laughed. Two people from different worlds with mutual respect for each other’s way of life. Who was I to tell him my country was better? Which brings me to …

In Liechtenstein. You don't have to be big to be great.

In Liechtenstein. You don’t have to be big to be great.

2. America is NOT the greatest country in the world.

Well, it may be for you. It may be for your corner bartender or your accountant. But it may not be for a shepherd in France, a Buddhist monk in Thailand or an accountant in Australia. It certainly isn’t for me. If you love life in America, live there. It’s the greatest country in the world … for you. But nothing chafes me more than Americans saying, “We’re No. 1,” especially if they’re part of that 40 percent who think a pound is only a unit of measure. When an American says we’re the greatest country in the world, they are shoving their value system down other people’s throats. Sorry, Yanks. Not every human wants to live in a country that doesn’t take care of its sick, where 33,000 people die from guns every year and where the average American gets only 15 vacation days a year.

Me and the monk in Laos.

Me and the monk in Laos.

3. People don’t hold your government against you — except Americans.

I’ve traveled under seven U.S. presidents. None were more unpopular overseas than George W. Bush and Hair Hitler. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, locals from Brazil to Beijing shook my hand telling me how much they liked them. I’ve never met ONE person overseas who thought Bush and Doofus Von Fuckstick were anything more than cartoon characters holding a bomb. In Laos last year I asked two young Buddhist monks what they thought of Agent Orange. They started giggling. Buddhist monks, who take vows in humility and compassion and kindness, laughed at our president. However, after they gathered themselves, after Italians asked me “CHE CAZZO! (WHAT THE FUCK!),” they all accepted me for who I was and not who I represented. Meanwhile, Americans boycotted French products when French president Jacques Chirac denounced the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And do you see how many Americans back the Muslim ban by our Mango Mussolini?

With new friends in Iceland.

With new friends in Iceland.

4. The best way to respect a culture is through language.

I’ve written about this before but I can’t emphasize it enough. In every country I travel I learn a few words in the local language. I don’t care if it’s Northern Europe where nearly everyone speaks English I try to learn something. Before I arrive I learn things like “Where is …” “How much?” “I would like …” and, when in Sweden, “I want to father your child.” With those few phrases you can get along anywhere in the world — some places, of course, better than others. Seriously, English speakers are an entitled lot. We have an arrogance about our international language. We think the world should speak it, even when we’re the only ones in the room who can speak it. Locals may giggle at your fractured syntax or accent but they all appreciate the effort. Yes, even the French. Who’d a thunk it?

In Panama's San Blas Islands.

In Panama’s San Blas Islands.

5. I’m my own best company.

I’m a loner. I admit it. I like being alone. I like traveling alone. The only people I’ve ever traveled with are girlfriends. I traveled with one platonic female friend and that was a disaster. Never would I travel with a guy. Why? “OK, there’s the sunset. Let’s go get a beer.” Forget it. Those who are insecure, who get lonely too easily and hate themselves for it, should get a passport and hit the road. In college, I couldn’t go to a 7-Eleven by myself. I had the independence of a new-born chicken. But upon graduation I bought a ticket for London. I was terrified as I stepped on that plane. However, I learned the hardest step you ever take is the first one alone heading to a strange land. Turns out, I enjoyed the challenge of finding hotels, managing money, handling border crossings, making friends and finding adventure. A year later, I’d traveled around the world alone for a year. And it changed my life forever.

My new friend in Mongolia. Photo by Bertrand Linet

My new friend in Mongolia. Photo by Bertrand Linet

6. Patience is the key to handling any conflict.

My father was the most impatient man who ever lived. When I was a child he berated so many waitresses during family vacations I often spent lunch waiting in the car. Ever since, I’ve been the nicest guy in restaurants. Also, that patience pays off overseas where every transaction seems confusing. If it’s not a language barrier, it’s a cultural barrier or legalese you don’t understand. Train stations in India are horribly confusing, with the range of tickets wider than tickets to a sports event. It took me 15 minutes talking to a ticket agent in Agra to get on the right train. I learned a sure-fire trick to ease the conflict: I smile. I was once in a restaurant in Nairobi and saw a raging argument between two friends near my table. The younger man totally disarmed his friend by smiling while making his point. It wasn’t a condescending smile. It was like, Look, this isn’t that big a deal. I’m not mad. I respect you. Living in Italy, a First World country with Third World public services, I smile a lot.

Eating insects in Cambodia.

Eating insects in Cambodia.

7. Be an adventurous eater.

I never liked yogurt before I went to Sweden. I never liked vegetables until I traveled through Southeast Asia. I never liked snails until I went to Paris. In fact, I never liked water until I moved to Rome. It’s amazing how you stop being a picky eater when you’re living on $15 a day. Backpacking for a year I lived hand to mouth. I counted every penny, pence and lire. I ate anything that was put in front of me. I once got picked up hitchhiking in Yugoslavia and at the driver’s home I ate a dish that looked like something that bucked up from his kitchen sink. I don’t know what it was but it was terrific. This has broadened my palate to all corners of the globe where I will try anything once. I may not try it twice but I will try it once. (Some things I will no longer try. I am the only person in Rome who hates carciofi (artichokes) and melanzane (eggplant). I blame my mom, the worst vegetable cook in the history of the human race. She scarred me for life.)

On Italy's Amalfi Coast

On Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

8. How to manage money.

In 1978-79 I traveled around the world for a year on a little more than $4,000. Yes, you could do that then. I ate out of grocery stores in Northern Europe. I hitchhiked when my Eurail pass expired. I spent more time in North Africa and Southeast Asia, where lodging and food are priced for the local poor. In turn that taught me that the more you spend on accommodations the more you get away from the local culture. If you stay in Marriotts everywhere you go, you can travel around the world without ever leaving America. Managing money overseas bore fruit later in life. In one year I saved enough money for a 16-month sabbatical in Rome from 2001-03. From 2010-14 I saved enough to retire here. How? I cut down on my drinking. Cooked more. Invested well. Of course, having no wife, no ex-wife, no kids and a real smart broker helped. But the biggest step is keeping track of your spending. Even today I keep daily, monthly and yearly ledgers. Meanwhile, I read 20 percent of Americans have more credit card debt than savings. You don’t need a new car, pal! Women won’t like you any more.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.

9. I can handle hardship.

When you travel on a shoestring, particularly in the Third World, the world often bites back. My travel tales from hell could fill a book — or at least a future blog: I contracted typhoid in Thailand and lost 20 pounds in eight days. I got stuck in an underwater cave in Australia. I had a machete pulled on me in Morocco. I got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats. I got in a fistfight in Haiti. I found a snake in my sleeping bag in Malaysia. I thought I got kidnapped hitchhiking in Hungary. I had to spend one night in Bakersfield. I’ve seen it all. I also handled it all. And when I tell people stories from my travels, they don’t want to know about the beaches in Bora Bora or the animals in Tanzania. They want to know about the typhoid in Thailand.

Cooking school in Malaysia

Cooking school in Malaysia

10. Muslims are not evil.

When I met the anti-Islamic racists who surfaced from deep in their tar pits during the Bush Administration, I always asked them one question: Have you ever met a Muslim? They either said no or, “Why would I want to?” I have. I’ve met a lot. I enjoy Islamic countries: Egypt. Tunisia. Morocco. Turkey. Malaysia. Indonesia. Brunei. It’s scary and shocking how so many Americans equate Muslims to terrorism. Tell that to the plethora of Tunisians who came up to me in October 2002 to say how sorry they were about 9-11. The average Muslim hates terrorism more than we do. Why? Three reasons: One, terrorists are just plain assholes; two, it ruins Palestine’s ability to get its own land; three, it ruins tourism. Tourism in Tunisia dropped 25 percent the year after 9-11. Thousands were out of work. Yet we have a president who passed a bill restricting people from five Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

So here’s a bonus lesson: Vote, you Democrats. On Tuesday, start ending the fascism.

Under the Lazio Sun: Finding a home in the Italian countryside isn’t easy but here are some tips how

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.

Gretchen and Peter Bloom went into this 800-square-meter farmhouse 10 years ago.

BAGNOREGIO, Italy — It didn’t all start with Frances Mayes.

Yes, her 1996 blockbuster “Under the Tuscan Sun” made owning a house in the Italian countryside seem like Nirvana with better food. But mankind has sought Italy’s rolling green hills, vast meadows and sunny skies ever since the Ancient Roman aristocracy built villas in the Alban Hills outside Rome. Hadrian, the famous Roman emperor from the 2nd century, had a villa in Tivoli east of the city. Mussolini? When he wasn’t stomping human rights he was sipping wine near his summer home near Rimini on the Adriatic Coast.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.

Bagnoregio is in the farther northwest corner near the Umbrian border.

So the idea of rural Italy has passed through the minds of anyone who is overworked, under loved and out of breath. For those blessed to visit the gorgeous nation of Italy, love for this country sometimes turns dreams into plans.

For Gretchen, 75, and Peter Bloom, 79, for Beth Blosser, 59, and Stefano Carta, 58, their dreams have become reality. I know. I’m standing in the middle of that dream. I’m in the spacious living room — I think. Wait, maybe it’s the sun room. The guest apartment? I can’t really tell. Their renovated home in the Italian countryside is an 800-square-meter (8,600-square-foot), 29-room palace with seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms. It has more balconies than St. Peter’s.

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo

Festina Lente when it was first purchased in 2008. Stefano Carta photo

It has four kitchens, two spiral staircases, a conference room, an office, four fireplaces and three floors — not counting a loft that can sleep 10. It has separate structures to make wine and pizza, for God’s sake. All that’s missing is a swimming pool.

That’s next.

Technically speaking, it’s called a casale. That’s Italian for farmhouse. Built in the mid-1800s, this place is to farming what the Pentagon is to a gun case. Christened Festina Lente (Make haste slowly), it was used for farming livestock until the 1950s.

Today, it is the stone, mortar and tile love child of two couples who lived for years in the same building in Rome near the Colosseum. If your daily monotony has been invaded by thoughts of sipping Chianti on your own sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow, listen to their story.

It’s a tale that has taken 10 years of broken promises, laughable cost estimates, falling walls and hemorrhaging money. They’ve experienced tears, screams, sweat and endless sleepless nights. But today, 10 years later?

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom

From left, Peter Bloom, Beth Blosser, builder Filippo Patacchini, Stefano Carta, Gretchen Bloom

They’re sipping Chianti on their sunny patio looking at grazing sheep in a quiet green meadow.

Their goals and barriers are similar to those of all dreamers. Just keep in mind this project is a gross exaggeration of the average house in the Italian countryside. The foursome bought the house in 2008 for 400,000 euros. How much have they put into it?

At least 1 million euros.

“If you want to ask if this was rational? Absolutely not,” Peter Bloom says. “No way. I don’t think we had an idea how big this was. There were times three or four years in when I didn’t know what floor I was on or what room I was in.”

The view from the front door.

The view from the front door.

I’ve known Peter since I moved to Rome the first time in 2001. He helped organize Rome’s chapter of an international running club called the Hash House Harriers (“A Drinking Club with a Running Problem”). We spent many a day drinking wine and talking sports, American politics and Italian culture while sitting on their spacious rooftop balcony. He spent most of his career with USAID, traveling to 123 countries and some of the most backwoods hell holes on earth. Gretchen worked for World Food Program, traveling to 100 countries and places ranging from Haiti to Afghanistan helping the needy. We went through many a bottle of wine swapping travel tales from hell although, in comparison, my stories were more like from heck.

When I decided to retire to Rome in 2014, he became my advisor, telling me how to navigate Italy’s bureaucratic blackberry bush. When I arrived that January and butted heads with Rome’s Third World banking system, he loaned me enough cash to help pay my first month’s rent, security deposit and rental agent fee. He and Gretchen are the most generous people I’ve ever known.

This is why they’ve had an open invitation for me to visit their casale ever since I retired here. Last week I took them up on it. I took the train from Rome an hour and 15 minutes to the lovely town of Orvieto, a walled city high atop a volcanic rock and home every winter to one of the best jazz festivals in Europe.

The Blooms and their other guest, Alessandra Narciso, picked me up in their rental car and whisked us into the countryside of rural Lazio. The countryside of Rome’s region is one of the most underrated destinations in Italy. It features two of the prettiest lakes in a country full of them: Bracciano and Bolsena. The Apennine Mountains cross into Lazio which, of course, is also peppered with endless green vineyards and majestic walled villages.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.

The population of Civita di Bagnoregio ranges from 7 to 100.

On the way to the casale we stopped for a bruschetta lunch at Civita di Bagnoregio, a walled village eroded away by landslides and now home to only seven residents in the winter (though it swells to 100 in summer). Its peculiar perch, more peculiar residents and a bridge UNESCO built to stop sure death has made it the subject of travel stories from New York to New Zealand.

Festina Lente is located between the separate town of Bagnoregio and the pretty medieval lakeside town of Bolsena near the lightly troddened Lazio-Umbria border. Just 90 minutes from Rome, it seems like 90 years from Rome’s problems.

“All they wanted was a little house in the country,” Bloom says. “The origin of this is just a classic Italian couple. Everybody wants just a little place in the country. I mean little.”

How this happened is a combination of one couple’s dream and another’s generosity. It all started more than 10 years ago when Beth and Stefano had a 150-square-meter country house sold out from under them. Seeing their friends devastated, the Blooms offered to go in with them on another search.

They found a 200-square-meter place near Todi, across the border in Umbria, but the Blooms didn’t like the long dirt road in or the 67 acres of fields and woods on the property. In the meantime, Beth’s and Stefano’s 10-year-old daughter, Emma, was surfing the Internet. She came across this big stone house on seven acres of land in northern Lazio.

Perfect. The deal was signed. Now all they had to do was renovate.

Ahem, this is when dream becomes reality, the wrong kind of reality, when nightmares don’t only come when you’re sleeping. They received some horribly bad advice. A Rome architect told them the roofs were fine and sturdy. They weren’t. They had to be replaced.

The kitchen

The kitchen

All four roofs cost $40,000 each.

The roofs also needed chimneys. They had to drill a well 130 meters into the ground to get water. That was 8,000 euros. The original stone structure may have looked classic but it was faulty. It had to be plastered over and painted. The ground floor was rubble. There was no staircase connecting it to the first floor. Rusting, old farm equipment was strewn around the lawn like left over from a fire. Only the top floor was livable.

“You can’t imagine what wasn’t here,” Bloom says.

And in the winter, at 600 meters (1,970 feet), it is freezing. Stefano found out the hard way how heat is exasperated in huge stone houses. He stayed 10 days one winter and the heating bill came out to 500 euros.

It got worse. In 2008 the U.S. banking crisis also hit. The Blooms had all their money in the stock market and at one time were tempted to leave Rome for the U.S. But instead of bailing, Peter took out loans and the foursome continued hammering away. Stefano made countless trips north to monitor the progress.

All the time, the Blooms rejected sanity. They weren’t scared of investing in an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse in the midst of a financial crisis that nearly crippled their country.

The living room

The living room

“Eh!” Gretchen says. “We were concerned. We might have to leave Italy, but we were already committed.”

The Blooms split half of every year in their condos in Newport, Rhode Island, and on DuPont Circle in Washington. While the Blooms were in the States, Stefano and Beth kept rolling with the major renovations while traveling around putting their own personal touches on the place.

They found bathroom tiles from Morocco and kitchen tiles from Sicily. They found a parquet floor from Croatia. They worked with an Umbrian artist to design a mosaic floor tile of clouds and a snail. They found a blacksmith in Caserta in Southern Italy who made the towel racks with a Tuscan design. They ordered another standing towel rack from the United Kingdom. They had the new chimneys made in the same ancient style as seen around the region. Beth, who does garden tours of Rome’s Villa Borghese park, planted 60 ancient fruit trees on the grounds.

I ask Beth, a Kent, Ohio, native who has lived in Rome since 1987 and is a graduate of John Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, if it was worth it.

The master bedroom.

The master bedroom.

“If you asked me a year ago, I might not have been so much,” she says. “Now that we see the light at the end of the tunnel? Absolutely.”

Peter gives me a tour of the place. It is a long tour. The kitchen has a fireplace — for cooking. The dining table is solid marble. “Four people couldn’t lift that table,” Bloom says. The kitchen cabinets are antique with wrought-iron handles, found on eBay, to hang pots and pans. An antique clock hangs on the wall.

The living room is made up of the Blooms’ old furniture which came amongst the 84 boxes they sent up from Rome. A rocking chair sits on the yellow brick floor.

The hallway has Stefano and Beth’s bedroom which looks like a honeymoon suite at a Four Seasons. A king-size bed opposite a fireplace with a big balcony that looks out at the farmland beyond. While the whole place looks pulled from a 19th century romance novel, the bathrooms are all modern with bathtubs and walk-in showers.

Every room I enter, even my modest guest room with two twin beds and romantic reading lamp, has great views.

“Every view is beautiful,” Bloom says, “and every view sees nothing.”

We walk down into a long airy room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. We look at the vast farmland beyond. We don’t see another structure. The sun on a day in the high 60s is shining. This is their sun room, perfect for sipping wine, brandy or a good book in winter. The windows can fold open in summer.

“This was an old crummy garage full of nothing,” he says. “We were here in April 2017 and it was a little cool. The sun was coming in and you could’ve been in your underwear.”

The apartment

The apartment

We go down to the ground floor which has an entire apartment, complete with couch, love seat, dining room and coffee kitchen — which all can serve the adjacent massive conference room through a window in the wall. A bigger kitchen is planned.

We walk outside where he shows me the wine press and the small hut where they hope to make pizzas some day. There’s a fountain “for no good reason,” he says. He stops talking. We listen. We can’t hear a thing. The only sound is an odd rhythmic whacking of what may be a piece of farm equipment far away.

“This is in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I’ve stayed in a number of agroturismos in Italy and other places and I’ve never been anywhere where you can’t hear something. Some road, somewhere. Or some factory, somewhere. Here …?

We walk up to the second floor where the Blooms were sequestered for 8 ½ years of visits while the rest of the house caught up. It’s another entire apartment with a cast-iron fireplace, decorative couch, a dining room table and rustic wooden floor. Upstairs is an open loft, perfect to flop a dozen mattresses for all the grandkids.

The upstairs

The upstairs

That was much of the Blooms’ motivation in this project. They will leave it to their children, who have already had longish stays, at least long enough to know one floor from another, something I couldn’t accomplish in two days.

“My hope is them and their grandkids will come here and spend summers,” Bloom says. “Will they? I may never know. My hope is, as this went on, wouldn’t our kids rather have this lovely place in the countryside of Italy rather than just being left some money?”

OK, so who can relate to an 8,600-square-foot farmhouse? It doesn’t matter. This foursome can relate to you. Anyone who searches for their dream home in Italy has the same guidelines, regardless of need. So if you haven’t lost hope, here are their five best pieces of advice in finding a country home in Italy.

1. “Don’t do it without an Italian partner,” Bloom says. “Don’t even think about it. You’ll get ripped off six different ways and you won’t know what you’re doing and, unless your Italian is perfect and you know building and land and you’ve done this somewhere else, you’ll get screwed.” Stefano filled the bill here.

2. Ask yourself serious questions. Says Bloom: “Why do you want it? How often will you use it? Is it for you or your family? How often would you come? Is it really worth it to you? They need to know why they’re doing it.”

3. Make sure you can renovate it. The Italian bureaucracy is beyond confusing. It’s easier to build a stadium in the U.S. than a newsstand in Italy. The building restrictions are mind numbing. Also, different regions have different restrictions. Lazio’s are more lax. If this casale was a pizza toss away across the border in Umbria, half the renovations could not have happened.

4. You’d better be able to afford it. As the Blooms learned, prices can be four times more than you expected. In the U.S., Bloom says, builders “are realistic.”

5. When you get an estimate, get it from a local. Their first architect who came up from Rome gave them costs that were ridiculously low. No, the roofs were not fine. “No question, had we gotten an estimate from the local builder we now have, we would not have bought it,” Bloom says.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.

The view of Montefiascone from the front door.

However, they’re glad they did. The commitment took 10 years but now they have many years to enjoy it. And they have plans. Beth already has a group of 24 guests lined up sometime next year for their trial rental run. Bloom said if they take four couples, each with their own room, “You could easily rent that floor for 5,000 euros a week. That’s cheap. That’s just a thought.” That comes out to less than 90 euros per person per night, much less than your average agroturismo.

But the biggest event is already planned. In June 2020 the casale will host the Blooms’ 50th wedding anniversary. They are inviting half of Washington and half of Rome. I’ll be among the mob.

I think they’ll have room.