DENVER — How long does it take to wipe out 23 years of memories? It turns out, about a week. That’s how long it took me to clean out my Public Storage space in my old stomping grounds in Denver.
Out went my collection of about 150 college sweatshirts and an equal number of T-shirts from around the world. For some reason, I could not get a single offer on my Cleveland State sweatshirt or KGB T-shirt I bought in that public market in St. Petersburg. I tossed blown-up, framed photos of native dancers in Yap and the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. Also out went the comfy, leather office chair where I penned the vast majority of my stories and blogs over the past two decades. Along with it went my bed which …
… wait a minute. I don’t have many memories from that bed.
That’s just one of the reasons why this past week in Denver confirmed the feeling in my heart, soul and brain that Rome is home. I missed Rome from the moment I left and missed it more with every overpriced glass of wine I bought and every minute stuck in a growing traffic problem that reminded me of Beijing at rush hour.
The purpose of the trip was to downsize. Since moving to Rome in January 2014, Public Storage twice jacked up my rent from $100 a month to the larcenous price of $158. Emptying it will save me nearly $2,000 a year. Hell, that’s almost as much as I spend on wine. Besides, I will not pay $158 a month for furniture I’ll never sit on again and clothes I’ll never wear again. What good are college sweatshirts in Rome? I look so American I could have hopped off a Chevrolet commercial. If I walk around in a USC sweatshirt, I’ll look like I hopped off an American Express bus.
Home Again Furniture, a terrifically friendly and professional used furniture store, paid me $50 to take most of my old furniture off my hands and haul it away. I’m a guy. I didn’t get sentimental when I saw my old chest of drawers in the back of their van. Patio furniture? Good riddance. You were often covered in snow.
It was my first time back in Denver in two years. Unlike the first trip, this time I felt as if I’d been away overseas. I forgot how to find my local Goodwill store. I got lost in my neighborhood looking for a street I once drove by nearly every day. I forgot the number of the local bus I took. I found myself addressing people in Italian. “Scusa,” I would say to people I bumped into on the street. The grocery clerk looked perplexed when I accidentally told her, “Grazie mille.” However, I became more polite by reacting to a $50 parking ticket near a crowded park with “CAZZO!” instead of my old refrain, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I drew only curious looks rather than mothers covering their children’s ears.
So much of my week in Denver made me chant my now steady mantra: Rome is home. On my first night shortly after checking into the guest room in my old condo building, I watched my first baseball game in three years. It was just a few innings of the Colorado Rockies game on TV and it hit me. I’d picked up where I left off three years ago. I was doing the same thing as when I lived in Denver. As I frantically drove around town, I listened to the same sports radio talk shows I heard before. I got so bored with Broncos talk I nearly drove off the road, my reaction usually reserved to when I accidentally hear a few chords of “Hotel California.” How long can two radio guys analyze the pass rushing ability of the weak-side linebacker?
The thought of continuing these mind-numbing activities as a retired journalist made me shudder. I realized that my love for Italy is something I can’t get in Denver. The No. 1 reason I love Italy, besides having the prettiest girlfriend in Europe, is the lifestyle. It’s impossible to duplicate it in Denver. Denver has no piazzas. Its coffee culture consists of ordering a triple venti soy no foam latte at Starbucks and walking around drinking out of a disgusting plastic cup. I tried for 11 years to cook Italian in Denver. It can’t be done. The tomatoes aren’t sweet enough. The Parmesan doesn’t have enough bite. It’s impossible to buy fresh pasta. Soccer remains a third-tier sport in the U.S. The local Colorado Rockies play in Commerce City, an industrial suburb that in parts reminds me of Gary, Ind. People don’t meet in restaurants in Denver; they meet on the Internet. I don’t want to sit at my coffee table late at night, half buzzed, reading some woman’s profile about enjoying walks on the beach. Why would I want to compete with 1,500 other lonely men hoping for a thumbs up emoji?
Another area where I found comfort in Rome is Denver has gotten outrageously expensive. Rome is cheaper, not only for food and wine but housing as well. One of my many friends with no benefits helped me go through my condo with my rental agent and offered suggestions for a future renovation. As payback I took her to a new restaurant nearby. Colorado has three types of typical food: One, Rocky Mountain oysters. It’s an exotic name for what really are steer testicles. But that’s better than what they called them in the Old West: swingin’ steaks; two, buffalo. It tastes like rich hamburger but has less fat than chicken; three, garden-to-plate restaurants where all the ingredients are natural and locally grown. It’s healthy but often over-the-top au naturale where it takes longer to read the listed ingredients than it does to eat them.
Atticus fits in the third category. I ordered seafood paella. Neither seafood or paella is native to Colorado but the menu is, as its brochure states, “designed around Colorado’s small producers.” The menu listed paella including scallops, chorizo sausage, clams and shrimp. And it’s true. It did. It had one scallop, one slice of chorizo beef, about four shrimp and six clams. I’ve been to Spain. Paella is usually served in a dish the size of a pizza pan. Paella can feed a rugby team. At Atticus it’s served in what looked like a soup bowl. Price: $24. I didn’t find a glass of wine less than $9. I walked out paying $80. I also walked out hungry.
Then again, at least Atticus isn’t guilty of contributing to American obesity. Speaking of which, I guiltily admit I ate breakfast twice at one of America’s cholesterol castles: Denny’s. All fall I purposely avoided buying Bisquick pancake mix at Castroni, Rome’s international food store, so I could eat pancakes at Denny’s, which built its annual $500 million industry around them, among other deliciously fattening American breakfast standards. Denny’s is to American obesity what Donald Trump is to racism. Just looking at the menu can add five pounds. On the inside of their glossy four-page plastic menu is an item that sounded designed by an 8-year-old with marijuana munchies.
Peanut Butter Cup Pancakes.
It’s chocolate and white chocolate chips inside two pancakes topped with fudge and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Along with two eggs, hash browns and sausage or bacon, it’s $7.89. It looks like the winner of a giant cookie contest. I wanted to ask the waitress if the order comes with a gurney.
But I also had some fantastic American food that you can’t find anywhere in Italy. I did have the bison burger. They serve one of the best at Cherry Cricket, a dive bar in the hoity-toity Cherry Creek neighborhood where divorcees cruise the streets in convertibles hoping to find a man rich enough to buy her a new model. I had the legendary sugar steak at Bastien’s, a 1950s style steakhouse with red velour carpeting and a continuous loop of Frank Sinatra songs. You’re eating Caesar salad and you think the Rat Pack is going to walk in. At Devil’s Food, on the rollicking South Gaylord Strip, I had another great American breakfast standby: the breakfast burrito. It’s scrambled eggs, potatoes, green onions and bacon stuffed in a tortilla and covered in salsa and melted cheese. Someone mentioned that I looked as if I’d lost weight. I didn’t take it as a compliment.
Obviously, I did something about it.
Food isn’t the biggest thing I miss about America. No. 1 remains college football. It has been my passion since my father took me to me my first Oregon game in 1962. It’s the sport I covered at The Denver Post for 16 years. I returned to Boulder where I watched Colorado play Oregon Straight, the team I grew up loathing like disease and Republicans. In the three years I’ve been away, Colorado has gone from one of the worst teams in the country to Top 25. They blew out the Rodents, er, Beavers, 47-6. The Buffaloes are fast, disciplined and skilled. Leaving in 2013 and returning this month was like going to sleep in Barstow and waking up in Barcelona. That’s one of the lines I used in a column I wrote for WoodyPaige.com, the fledgling website started by my old boss at The Post.
However, as the game droned on to its conclusion, something hit me. Yes, it was fun to return to the old press box, see ex-colleagues and gasp at the Buffs’ improvement. But the thought of having to write another story for Monday and another for Tuesday and Wednesday and … made me realize that retirement was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Coupling it with retiring to Rome, I am living a dream none of Colorado’s marijuana edibles could produce.
I lived in Colorado for 23 years. I lived in Oregon for 22. But even jogging around my old gorgeous Washington Park, I came to inescapable conclusion. I wanted to go home.
I wanted to go home to Rome.