Rimini: Travel in Italy’s off season uncovers an inexpensive, uncrowded gem on the sea

Piazza Cavour is the heartbeat of Rimini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza Cavour is the heartbeat of Rimini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

RIMINI, Italy — Like soccer, truffles and flu, tourism also has an off season in Italy. It’s from November through February. In December, except for the pilgrims pouring into St. Peter’s Square and skiers to the Dolomites over Christmas, Italy doesn’t seem more touristy than Indianapolis. That’s despite hotels dropping their rates and hardly any lines for museums. It’s not only a wonderful time to visit, it’s a fantastic time to live here. Restaurants aren’t full. You can actually breathe on buses. Yankees caps are hard to find.

I’m not a big weather guy. It’s a non factor when I travel except if I go to a beach. Then it had better be sunny or I blame myself and get hostile. But in mild, sunny Italy the weather only drops below sunbathing weather. In Rome, December temperatures range from about 40 to 55. January is the coldest month when it’s about 38-52.

So what? You’ll look good in an Italian scarf.

Some places in Italy are even advisable in the off season. In season? It may scare you off from anything Italian again. And who can live without pasta carbonara, Chianti and opera while cooking?

I’d never been to Rimini, the renowned beach town on the Adriatic. A former Las Vegas newspaper colleague who lived there warned me off it, saying you can’t see a speck of sand on the beach from all the bodies. Add in the long string of bars and clubs and Rimini sounded like Fort Lauderdale with wine instead of Bud.

With my girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, getting a long weekend earlier this month, I rented a car — much cheaper than Italy’s overpriced trains if you don’t include the gas — and drove us the 240 miles through Lazio and Abruzzo and up the coast into Emilia-Romagna. Marina was the perfect guide. Her mother has roots in Romagna and as a child Marina made frequent trips to Rimini to visit her grandmother. She remembers playing on the broad, sandy beach with her cousins and their families eating fried ciambelle (like a sugar-coated Italian donut) and listening to the music in the discos.

This was her first trip in 12 years.

The beach in Rimini in December. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The beach in Rimini in December. Photo by Marina Pascucci

She had never seen it this barren. We crossed the street from our hotel and walked past all the changing cabins onto a narrow wood walkway into the wide expanse of sand. As beaches go, it’s spectacular in its functionality: pleasant brown color with nary a rock under my feet. It’s broad and its nine miles stretch on both sides to the horizon.

But, like all Italian beaches, it doesn’t have the gentle palm trees of the Western Hemisphere or the cliffs of Greece. I could imagine sidestepping the mosaic of lanais chairs on a 90-degree day in July. In fact, each partition of the beach is numbered so you don’t lose your place when coming back with a beer. Postcards make it look like the Jersey Shore in the ‘50s.

Instead, I counted five other people: three joggers, a man walking his dog and a woman going for a lonely walk. We were all wearing pants and heavy coats, not going near the cold, gray water on a day in the mid-40s. Still, Rimini and the Adriatic were magical in a mystical way. We heard no music. We heard no talking. We heard no cars. Just the sound of birds overhead and crushed sand under our feet. Marina pointed to the water, to Dubrovnik sitting on the other side of the Adriatic.

Me on the chilly Adriatic Sea. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on the chilly Adriatic Sea. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rimini in winter would be a good place to write a book.

It’s bigger than I thought. Then again, so was Fort Lauderdale. Rimini has about 150,000 people and that many more tourists could fit in the string of hotels on the three long roads paralleling the beach. Most of the hotels could use a new coat of paint. Also closed were the tourist offices — with signs in Russian to appease the hordes of tourists taking the direct Moscow-Rimini flights in summer.

We stopped at Rimini’s tourist office where they told us only 300-400 of the 1,000 hotels in town were currently open. In fact, the number of tourists in July totaled 342,099 compared to 40,426 in February.

Too bad. What they’re missing are some amazing bargains. Marina found the four-star Hotel Diplomat Palace across the street from the beach for — get this — 65 euros for two nights. In July it’s 75 a night. That’s with a beautiful view of the sea and a full spa, complete with Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna. Oh, yes, did I mention the full breakfast buffet with food tables about 10 meters long?

Me and Marina in the Hotel Diplomat Palace spa.

Me and Marina in the Hotel Diplomat Palace spa.

The hotel wasn’t close to full. In December, we felt as if we had the whole town to ourselves.

We walked through Rimini’s Centro Storico which is “storico (historic)” in name only. Allied forces bombed it into oblivion and the town rebuilt it into the tourist center it has become today. But unlike other bombed cities such as Frankfurt and Naples, Rimini built a charmless business center near Piazza Tre Martiri, named for the three civilians hanged there by retreating Nazis at the end of World War II. In place of centuries-run family trattorias and boutique shops as we find all over Rome are high-end European chains such as Stefanel, Furla and Max Mara. We had a coffee at an ultra modern coffee bar called Caffe Pascucci, which Marina distanced her family from as soon as she saw it had a frappuccino bar.

Two old friends enjoying Rimini's off-season solitude. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Two old friends enjoying Rimini’s off-season solitude. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But Rimini’s Christmas decorations were tastefully done, just enough to give us a feel of holiday spirit without hearing Andrea Bocelli singing “Silent Night.” We walked under a string of wreaths over the narrow, romantic walking mall to Piazza Cavour, Rimini’s main square and truly majestic in its chilled solitude. A 50-foot tree awaited decorations while the usually bustling Caffe Cavour was only half full of people sipping wine next to space heaters at the covered outdoor tables. Bordering the massive piazza were the 16th century Palazzo del Municipio, Rimini’s city hall that was rebuilt after getting pummeled in the war, and the 14th century Palazzo del Podesta, a beautiful Gothic palace. Its three arched entryways and miniature turrets make it look like a small castle.

Rimini has other historic aspects that haven’t turned into an international chain store. From Piazza Cavour we walked across Ponte di Tiberio, built from 14-21 AD by Caesar Augustus and Tiberius whose Roman armies used it as a connector between the Adriatic Coast, the Po River valley in Piacenza and Via Flaminia, the main northern access to Ancient Rome. The 70-meter bridge is still in use and boats float under its five arches down the Marecchia River. The bridge’s black and gray splotches from centuries of exhaust fumes add to its historical allure.

In front of Ponte di Tiberio from 40 A.D.

In front of Ponte di Tiberio from 40 A.D.

The bridge connects Centro Storico with Borgo San Giuliano, Rimini’s old fishing quarters which the city brightened up with fresh coats of orange, yellow, white and beige paint but didn’t sacrifice its homey charm. The borgo (Italian for a neighborhood outside an historical center) is a mishmash of narrow alleys with colorful buildings and quaint bars and restaurants. We saw a colorful poster advertising the showing of “Le Notti di Cabiria,” the 1957 film directed by Rimini’s most famous native son.

Federico Fellini.

Yes, while Italian cinema (with the exception of Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino) has slumped to nearly the depths of its awful TV programming, the inspiration of its heyday began in Rimini. Born in 1920 to a traveling salesman who came from peasantry and a wealthy Roman mother, Fellini went to a Rimini school run by nuns and spent his time drawing and directing puppet shows. He became a teenager during Mussolini’s Italy and joined the Avanguardisti, the compulsory Fascist youth group for boys. He soon began writing and believed in using his Rimini childhood in many of his films. The sea creature at the end of his “La Dolce Vita” was inspired by a giant fish washed ashore Rimini’s beach by a storm in 1934. In 1937 he opened a portrait shop in Rimini and in 1939 moved to Rome to begin law school to appease his parents. He never attended a class.

Frederico Fellini, raised in Rimini, is all over his hometown.

Frederico Fellini, raised in Rimini, is all over his hometown.

The city is working on a Fellini museum in his old home near the train station but it won’t be completed until next year.

Rimini’s one must-see is Tempio Malatestiano. Italy is full of huge churches decked out in amazing frescoes but this is the only one I know dedicated to a man whose effigy was burned in Rome. It was built in the 13th century on the behest of Sigismondo Malatesta, known as the “Wolf of Rimini” for his particularly brutal war style. Pope Pius II wasn’t too crazy about his litany of murder, rape, incest and adultery, not to mention general overall oppression of people. The pope torched his effigy and condemned him to hell then subsequent Papal forces took most of his land in battles in 1468. Ol’ Sigismondo’s sarcophagus is near his mistress’ (see above: adultery) on one side of the church. His tortured soul has yet to be found.

The tomb of Sigismondo Malatesta, "The Wolf of Rimini." Photo by Marina Pascucci

The tomb of Sigismondo Malatesta, “The Wolf of Rimini.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

The beauty of off-season traveling in Italy is it doesn’t matter how many places have closed. You only need one hotel room; you only need one restaurant table.

And Italy’s food has no off season.

Every region that you travel, no matter when you go, a different cuisine awaits you. In Emilia-Romagna you don’t need beaches or nightclubs or museums. Just eat. Behind Sicily it’s my favorite food region in Italy. And its antipasti is No. 1. The Parma ham served so lean and the parmesan cheese you eat like bonbons are absolute musts before every meal. Also from Emilia-Romagna comes ragu, the famous meat sauce flavored with white wine, tomato, oregano and pork belly.

Our first dining stop was Osteria Borgo Marina, a small, simple diner run by an Albanian woman who has lived here for years. Borgo Marina is famous for its mixed antipasti plate and we started with a big serving of pecorino romano cheese, salami, prosciutto and a warm basket of bread. I’d been salivating over ragu since we left Rome. Her tagliatelle ragu didn’t disappoint, a fantastic meaty sauce over those long, wide homemade noodles. Marina had the best breaded calamari of her life, a life spent entirely in Italy.

Rimini specifically is the birthplace of the piadina, a sandwich made of flatbread cut open and filled with anything from meat to fish to vegetables. The best piadini joint in Rimini is Nud e Crud, just over the Ponte di Tiberio in the borgo. We walked in to a jam-packed enclosed outdoor seating area where two harried waiters seated us in the crowded corner. The menu features 32 different piadinas, everything from salsiccia rucole e formaggio fuso (sausage, arugula and cooked cheese) for 6.50 to fillet di cefelo (a local fish) for 10.90. I had the crudo e squacquerone, raw prosciutto with a white, gooey cheese that tasted like a five-star ham and cheese sandwich. We sat next to the only four tourists we saw all weekend: a young couple from Sicily and a middle-aged, well-heeled couple from Venice.

At Ca' Nostra in Cesanatico.

At Ca’ Nostra in Cesanatico.

The second night we went to the back of beyond. We drove to Cesanatico, a former port town turned beach resort 13 miles north of Rimini with 25,000 people and one of the most charming harbors in Italy. We were at one of only two tables occupied at Ca’ Nostra (“Our Home” in the Romagnolo dialect), an elegant harborview restaurant with beautiful purple place settings offsetting the annoying Italian music videos on the TVs. I had great ragu strazzapreti (Italian for “strangle priests” which the little twisty pasta seems capable of doing) with a local Trebbiano wine. With a 20-percent discount from The Fork, the booking agency, our total meal was only 33.20 euros. I’ve had more expensive meals in Mexico.

Afterward, we walked arm in arm, mostly for romance but also to shield against the 39-degree temperature, as we strolled under the Christmas lights hanging over the cobblestone streets. We passed no high-end businesses or chains. Just some warm cafes and wine bars filled with locals waiting for the holidays to begin.

Cesanatico is a port town -- and summer beach resort -- 13 miles north of Rimini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Cesanatico is a port town — and summer beach resort — 13 miles north of Rimini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

And they were enjoying a time without tourists — that is except for the two walking past them who were here for the same reason. We came home without a tan but with lots of extra money and filled with great food and memories.

Italy … where for us, there is no off season.

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, votefromabroad.org. 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.