Nephew’s visit to Roma-Juventus adds perspective to U.S. soccer woes

Me and my nephew, Spencer Treffry, the Oregon High School Soccer Player of the Year in 2008, at Sunday’s Roma-Juventus match in Olympic Stadium.


My nephew from California and his girlfriend are staying at my place in Rome for a week, mixing in some wine, pasta and art with his passion for soccer. His first European soccer match was Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals May 1 and then the couple joined Marina and me for Roma’s 2-0 win over evil Juventus Sunday night. He has nearly worn out his cell video of Lionel Messi’s epic free kick goal. I think he may have slept Sunday night wearing his new AS Roma scarf.

We both quasi represent the world’s two biggest soccer disappointments. Neither the United States nor Italy qualified for last year’s World Cup, ending a string of 21 combined straight appearances. However, Italy has won four World Cups. Last year’s pratfall is considered a blip on its historical radar.

But the U.S. remains a sport-wide mystery. Despite 325 million people, a rich federation, a successful pro league and a sport that has exploded at the youth level since the 1970s, the U.S. has only gone as far as the World Cup quarterfinals once. Last year, it didn’t even qualify despite playing in CONCACAF, world soccer’s equivalent to a sunset stroll.

My nephew, Spencer Treffry, has qualified insight into the problem. At 28, he was a product of the U.S.’ elite Olympic Development Program and saw first hand the problems the U.S. has had and why it hasn’t caught up with Europe’s elite. He started playing in kindergarten, made traveling teams when he became old enough and developed into the Oregon State Player of the Year in 2008, leading Eugene’s Churchill High to the state title. Deemed too thin (he was a wispy 5-foot-10, 120 pounds) for a college scholarship, he continued playing club ball at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and continues playing city league soccer today around their home in Pismo Beach, California.

As he grew up, I tweaked his interest in world soccer by sending him jerseys during my various travels, from the Brazil national team to Zenit of St. Petersburg, Russia. He even has one from Togo, bought in Munich when I covered the 2006 World Cup. His Palermo jersey was always one of his most popular, due to its pink color and his security in his own manhood.

The U.S.’ biggest problem, he says, isn’t at the national level where it is on its fourth coach in three years. It’s at the youth level where he saw first hand the differences between the American and European approaches.

“I was lucky to have some good coaches growing up, but most people don’t,” he said. “Most youth coaches in the U.S. are just dads. They played baseball, football, basketball and their second grader needs a soccer coach. So they’re out there running kids around and making sure everyone’s having fun, but they have no idea how to play the game.”

Growing up in Eugene, his first club coaches were English, he had another from Germany and one American who played professionally in Costa Rica. They knew what they were doing and did more than just roll out the balls. The American introduced them to futsal, soccer played on a miniature field, forcing you to develop skills in tighter spaces. It’s very popular in South America.

“He brought little goals out on the tennis court, brought speakers out and played samba music,” he said. “Bounce to the rhythm and go have fun. You see it in the way Barcelona plays, the way they ping the ball. It’s very natural, very flowy.”

I don’t agree that the problem is too much competition from other sports. The U.S. has the population. When I worked in suburban Seattle I wrote a story about how youth soccer numbers had passed baseball’s in the state of Washington. I quoted officials saying it shows the U.S. would someday be the world’s greatest soccer power.

I wrote that story in 1979.

Even today, 2.5 million boys play youth soccer in the U.S., almost as many as the 3 million who play youth baseball. Croatia made last year’s World Cup finals and its entire population is only 4.1 million. The problem is just because American youths like to play soccer, they don’t necessarily like to watch it.

Spencer didn’t start watching soccer until he reached college.

“I started watching it and my game immediately elevated, absolutely,” he said. “When we were in Florence we were talking to the guy who owned our B&B who’s an artist. He was talking about you immerse yourself in this art community that is Florence and go look at and watch what the masters did and then you go back and try to apply that in your apartment. I always draw these metaphors back to soccer. It’s the same thing. You watch somebody do something and get a spark of an idea and then you go back and apply it.”

The situation in the U.S. is changing. The MLS’ average attendance last year of 21,876 is nearly on a par with Serie A’s 24,767. It has expanded to 24 teams and each club must now have its own youth academy. Even the national team has gone 3 wins, 1 tie and no losses in friendlies under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

NBC has the English Premier League contract but even in Spencer’s soccer-crazed area of California’s Central Coast, he couldn’t find the Real Madrid-Barcelona game on TV at noon California time.

Unfortunately, he did find last year’s United States-Trinidad & Tobago match in which the U.S. only had to tie in a half-empty Caribbean stadium where a good portion of the fans were American. They lost, 2-1, and combined with Honduras’ win over Mexico, the U.S. was sent home as well as coach Bruce Arena.

“Totally uninspired, uncreative soccer,” Spencer said. “I am optimistic now that we’ve basically had a change of guard. This last World Cup with that result basically said bye-bye to the players entrenched for the last 10 years. We’re not going to see (Michael) Bradley in the starting lineup anymore. (Jozy) Altidore is probably out the door. (Tim) Howard. (Clint) Dempsey, all these guys who were good players when they were young.

“The U.S. wasn’t terrible on the world stage. They just didn’t turn over any new talent for 10 years. It’s always hard for me to watch the U.S. men’s soccer team and believe those are the 11 best players in the country.

Spencer is a growing romanista in California.


***

He was about to see the best player in the world and arguably in history. After seeing Messi light up Liverpool (before, of course, Barcelona folded like a lawn chair in the second leg), Spencer was going to see Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Every country in the world has sports bars debating whether Messi or Ronaldo deserve the crown and then they throw in Pele and Maradona in the GOAT argument.

Marina is a third-generation Roman who has plied me with AS Roma gifts for four years. She is a romanista but too much of a fashionista to wear anything with a logo depicting a nursing she-wolf. I bought her a generic AS Roma ballcap for the game.

“John,” she said as she reluctantly put it on for the walk to the stadium, “this is love.”

The game had plenty of drama. With three games left, sixth-place Roma stood four points behind Inter Milan, which won Saturday, for next season’s fourth and final Champions League spot and three behind AC Milan. After Sunday, two games remain in the season although Milan has three.

Considering the mess Roma has been in, it’s a remarkable achievement. It fired its coach after getting bounced from this season’s Champions League and the current one is caretaker and Rome’s native son Claudio Ranieri. The sporting director quit in protest of the firing, and the goalie got benched. The best player the last month has probably been new goalkeeper Antonio Mirante who’s about my age.

Olympic Stadium was packed with 50,000 people to watch Roma try and save its season against a Juventus team that clinched its unprecedented eighth straight Serie A title by about Easter. I was hoping Juventus showed up wearing little pointy party hats or Ronaldo hung over. Nope. He doesn’t drink.

Juventus played its top lineup and previewed its next season’s uniform, a sharp black-and-white checked number that Juve fans have destroyed on social media. Juve played loose and free and was gunning from all angles. Mirante made a brilliant save in the sixth minute on a one-on-one encounter and then stopped Ronaldo 10 minutes later.

I’ve watched enough soccer to know the biggest gap between the U.S. and the soccer powers is the creativity in shot making. U.S. players don’t play on the streets or beaches. You don’t see the shots you see in Europe, or even the first 16 minutes Sunday night.

Spencer agreed.

Before the game, from left, Marina Pascucci, me, Kelsey Weber, Spencer.


“It’s the touch before the shot,” he said. “Give yourself an opportunity to take a controlled shot, to curl a ball into the far post or put it inside the near post. You’re not reaching for it. You’re not stretching or off balance.

“(These guys) land on their feet after they take a shot. You watch a lot of American players and they’re just swinging for a ball and they fall over afterwards because they’re off balance.”

It’s 0-0 at halftime and the second half the Roma ultras in Curva Sud are in full throttle as they greet an injured Juventus player with, “DEVI MORIRE! DEVI MORIRE!” (YOU MUST DIE! YOU MUST DIE!).

Ronaldo piqued Spencer’s dream as he scored on a beautiful one on one breakaway but was called offsides. Both teams were pretty sloppy until Alessandro Florenzi, the Roma captain who grew up in the heart of Centro Storico, looped a ball over ex-Roma goalie Wojciech Szczesny for a 1-0 lead in the 80th minute. Edin Dzeko, Roma’s up-and-down star striker, scored on a 3-on-1 in stoppage time for a desperately needed 2-0 win.

Marina screamed like a season ticket holder. We all high fived. We stuck around to listen to the 50,000 fans sway together singing “Grazie, Roma.” After a long walk to the subway and post-game beer, I asked Spencer what he, an American soccer fanatic who knows the game, thought of the atmosphere in Europe.

“It’s awesome for me to get to watch professional soccer at this level,” he said. “To have a fan section that really knows the game, watching. Even the people in front of us: father, son, younger son, all leaning forward watching the game.

“We need that kind of passion and education.”

Life as a film extra in Italy: From a cardinal to a Carabinieri, my new part-time gig is not all “ACTION!”

I play a Carabinieri in “Blood & Treasure,” NBC’s new series premiering May 21.


What was your fantasy job?

We all had one. I certainly did. When I was younger, like any red-blooded American boy into sports, I wanted to be a famous pro athlete. When I realized my athletic ability would barely get me into my high school baseball team’s dugout, I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. As I traveled the world, I dreamed of ending a war or starvation or something that would put me on the cover of Time.

But of all the dreams I had, of all the fantasies that crossed my mind during long flights and nights of insomnia, I never dreamed of one famous profession.

Acting.

Never have I thought about an Oscar or Emmy, of dating starlets, of getting standing ovations from a packed theater. I didn’t even want to work in the film or TV industry. I wanted to watch movies and TV, not work in them. Give me popcorn, not parts.

So here I am, at 63 years old, after 45 years as a journalist, reinventing myself. Here in Rome I have found a new part-time gig, one that’s given me a new outlook on myself, not to mention some decent wine money.

I’m a film extra.

Keep in mind this is not acting. Calling me an actor is like calling Sherwin-Williams painters. I am part of that background of humanity you see in every film and show. I am human furniture.

And anyone can do it. You, dear reader, can do it. Any member of your family can do it. Look outside. Everyone you see can do it. You are paid to stand there. Sometimes they make you walk. Occasionally they’ll have you express emotion. Many times you’ll mime conversations. And rarely, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a line or two.

You don’t even have to be attractive. In fact, it helps if you aren’t. Films want ordinary people filling scenes. They don’t want anyone so beautiful they become a distraction from the beautiful people making the big bucks.

I guess, that’s where I step in.

This past winter, I appeared in four shows that will be aired this year: I play an Italian cop in a CBS series called “Blood & Treasure,” a German banker in a Sky TV series called “Devils” starring Patrick Dempsey, an American cardinal in the HBO sequel series “The New Pope” starring John Malkovich and an American admiral in an indy Italian film entitled “In Buona Compagnia” (“In Good Company”).

As the productions approach their premieres — most don’t have a date — I’ll blog my experiences with them. What I’ve taken away is a completely different way of looking at film and myself. In the theater or on TV, you may concentrate on the stars. I’m now looking over their shoulders. I’m scanning the crowd, seeing who is really an insurance agent or a mechanic or an English teacher. Who’s overacting? Who’s walking as if on eggshells?

The extras, while having arguably the easiest job in world society, are an underrated component in filmmaking. It’s easy to be good; it’s also easy to be bad. Take the 1959 production of “Ben Hur.” It won 11 Oscars that year. Yet if you look in the background of the chariot race, an extra who blew the trumpet also blew the scene.

“Ben Hur” is a story from the 1st Century A.D., and the extra forgot to take off his watch.

Extras are important enough to have their own PC label. We are now called “supporting artists.” It sounds great, but here in Italy it sounds like some guy fetching Caravaggio’s paints. Here I am known as a comparsa. My girlfriend, Marina, scolded me when I told people I was a freelance writer and a comparsa. Apparently on the Italian occupation scale, it’s what immigrants do to get by.

Well, that’s exactly what I am.

No wonder immigrants apply for these roles. As I said, anyone can do it, it’s easy and knowledge of Italian is helpful but not necessary. And the money isn’t bad. Depending on the studio, I received 85-105 euros a day. More if I have some lines which I had — even some in Latin.

Along the way I’ve learned three easy rules to follow as a comparsa:

1. Do NOT, ever, look at the camera. Have you ever seen an actor look at one? Think about it. Yet it’s harder than you think. In one solo scene I had in “The New Pope,” where we vote for the next pope, I had to walk toward a camera in a makeshift Sistine Chapel, then around it and drop a ballot in a box. Trying to not peek at the camera is like trying not to think of the word, well, “camera.”

2. Do not take photos. In this age of selfies and social media, where you can make yourself news with the click of a button, extras off the street are tempted to shoot everything from themselves in cardinal robes to John Malkovich adjusting his. It’s not just that the production companies don’t want to disturb the actors. They don’t want any sneak previews of the shows on social media. The studios are cracking down. Shortly after beginning production for the current season of “Game of Thrones,” a group was fired for taking photos of the set. Some people, who were mostly studio assistants, had been with the blockbuster series since the first season and were marched right off the grounds.

3. Don’t write about the plots on social media. Some of the contracts I’ve signed include confidentiality agreements. This is why I am not blogging until shortly before the shows appear and pre-airing buzz begins. It’s also why none of the directors, assistant directors or actors who’ve read the script share any details with us selfie-addicting drones. I was in four films and I barely have any earthly idea what any of them are about.

Take the first one. “Blood & Treasure,” which premiers May 21, is an action-adventure series about a terrorist who finances his terrorism by stealing art. An art historian and art dealer chase him around the world trying to stop him. That’s all I know. How do I even know this?

I read the description when I Googled the show title.

How I stumbled into this sidelight isn’t nearly as sexy as a starlet in a tight sweater getting discovered in a malt shop. I played an American cardinal in the 2016 production of “The Young Pope” with Jude Law and Diane Keaton. I wrote a number of blogs about the experience and how I landed the part. I’m 6-foot-3 and always said being tall only helps in parades.

Well, it also helps in film.

Because Jude Law played the first American pope, Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino wanted American cardinals. One of his assistants at Wildside, a Rome-based production company, went to the International Meetup group, Internations, and asked if they had any tall Americans as members. They recommended me.

I appeared in Episode 1 Scene 1 when Jude Law walks past his cardinals on his way to addressing the masses for the first time — and I was never seen again. However, I stayed in Wildside’s extras pool and when roles become available and they need a tall, aging — ah, hell, old — American guy, they call me.

So on a cool October morning I’m told to be at Hotel Delle Nazioni near Trevi Fountain just before dawn to start shooting the Rome scenes for “Blood & Treasure.” (Teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxWOhuBSYIk) The Nazioni is a tony four-star, 200-euro-a-night hotel with glass-blown chandeliers in the lobby. I’m greeted with cornettos and coffee outside and taken into wardrobe, the start of every day for an extra or actor.

My initial role as a tourist is as simple as it sounds. Dress like you would walking around Rome. In other words, be myself. They see my blue jeans, casual sweater and Merrell shoes and send me straight to makeup. I see a row of women in front of mirrors with more lights than Wembley Stadium getting their hair and makeup done by a string of professionals. I meet two American expats from Texas and a Swedish fitness instructor, all of whom are veteran extras. They all worked together in “Come un Gatto sul Tangenziale” (“Like a Cat on a Ring Road”), a 2017 comedy about a father-daughter and mother-son from different social classes dating each other. I ask Amy, a part-time English teacher, what she likes most about being an extra.

“I like the part that extras being from all over the world,” she says. “You get to share your experiences and how long you’ve lived here. Because generally the extras are people who are not typical Italian.”

It’s before 7 a.m. and a group of about 20 of us walk the one block to Trevi Fountain. I’ve lived in Rome more than five years and have a new travel tip: When you go see this Baroque masterpiece from 1732, go before sunup, before the tourists arrive. The massive, foaming, 20-meter-wide, 26-meter-high fountain is remarkably peaceful. It’s backlit, making it look more like a giant statue than a mere fountain. And without the hordes pushing in around it, all you can hear is the splashing water. I was mesmerized in my own city. That happens a lot in Rome.

But as the sun came up, so did the tourists. Soon Trevi Fountain was surrounded by people three or four deep. Loud chatter in half a dozen languages drowned out the cascading water. It was time to shoot.

We are all paired up in couples. Attached to my arm is Cristina, a local lawyer and gym junkie. Our job: Walk toward the fountain, wave our arms in amazement and talk about the fountain.

Not exactly pretending to hang off a skyscraper in Dubai. Tom Cruise’s job is safe.

So Cristina and I spend the morning walking 10 steps to the fountain. Each time we point to Oceanus’ chariot, the giant seahorses. I say the word “Unbelievable” about 100 times, to where it has the same meaning as, say, “elephant.” We do 12 takes for a one-minute scene.

We have the easy part. Behind us, the two stars are actually working. Matt Barr, 35, is a Texas actor who appeared in “One Tree Hill” and with Kevin Costner in “Commander in Chief.” His co-star, Sofia Pernas, 29, is a Moroccan-Spanish actress raised in Orange County, California, who was in the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and NBC’s short-lived “The Brave.”

Both are beautiful and beautifully dressed and interact beautifully with the mob around them. They pose for selfies. They chat with tourists. They smile and laugh. Assistants shoo away the tourists as they shoot the scene which has them walking by the fountain, Pernas turning and looking perturbed at Barr, her hair flying as if filming a shampoo commercial. He’s wearing a designer suit sans tie; she’s wearing skin-tight white pants and boots, both looking like they hopped off one of the fashion ads from the display windows near Trevi.

Meanwhile, I think the camera gets a great shot of my ass.

We later return to the hotel where an assistant tells me I have a new role. Go to wardrobe and get your new outfit.

Do I look like an Italian cop?


I’m a Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri are the national military police, and many Carabinieri are Sicilian. Unfortunately, I look about as much Sicilian as I do Hmong.

But who am I to complain that I’ve been horribly miscast?

Here is where a trip to wardrobe is fabulous. The Carabinieri are famous for having arguably the most beautiful police uniform in the world. Valentino designed it. It’s a dark blue turtleneck, blue jacket and blue pants with the trademark red stripe down the side. They give me the big pointy hat with the eagle on the front. I feel pretty elegant until I remember watching “On My Skin” the 2018 Italian film about the Roman youth whom the Carabinieri beat to death.

About a dozen of us go into a van and are taken to a Carabinieri station nearby. As we’re standing around outside the door, we’re told to take off our hats. Only actual Carabinieri allowed to wear them.

I am paired with a short, older Neapolitan man and we must walk down a small set of stairs, around the corner and continue past two supporting actors. We have to make conversation. About what? Anything. Just make sure it’s in Italian in case the camera catches our lips moving.

I ask him in Italian if he likes soccer. Yes. AS Roma fan? Yes. Good. Let’s talk about their win last night.

On the first take, we walk around the corner and I say, softly, “Hai visto la partita ieri sera?” (Did you see the game last night?)

“Si. Bella partita.” (Yes. Great game.)

As he says that, I nearly deck the two actors we walk by. The two assistants talk in some heated terms and they tell us to start our walk a couple steps higher. An actor asks me which side I’m walking on.

“Sinistra” (Left), I say, flattered a real actor is acknowledging my existence.

“Buono,” he replies.

We do the scene without a hitch and I walk outside to a throng of tourists who start snapping my picture. They think I’m real. Sorry, folks. I’m not a real Carabinieri. I’m not a real actor.

I’m just a comparsa.

***

Day 2 starts with total chaos. Rome’s Metro subway breaks down near the Colosseum and I have to take a bus to another station, then another subway to the Termini train station and race the three blocks to the cheap Hotel Fenicia where we all meet. I’m 20 minutes late. As an extra, this isn’t a problem. One line best represents our lives, similar to my past life as a sportswriter seeking interviews.

Hurry up and wait.

As an extra, I probably averaged about three hours between the time I arrived and shot a scene. But this day is different. I’m getting attacked on all sides. A pretty assistant hands me a form and I ask what “capacita” means. Her mouth is agape.

“You did this yesterday,” she says in Italian.

“Um, no I didn’t. I just signed some sheets.” Apparently, I should’ve filled out the form yesterday. She looks toward the sky in exasperation, a permanent look for many overworked, frantic production assistants.

I go upstairs to costume and the wardrobe lady picks up where the assistant left off. She’s appalled. She’s shocked. She’s borderline furious. I made the cardinal sin of wearing the same dark green windbreaker I wore the day before.

“You’re supposed to bring a complete change of clothes!” she says.

“I did.” I open my little backpack to show two different shirts, both the apropos dark colors.

“No!” she says. “You wore that same jacket yesterday!”

“Antonio (assistant who communicated instructions to the extras) didn’t say anything about changing my jacket,” I say, unaware that tourists bring different jackets to Rome. “He sent the same message he sent the day before.”

The woman shakes her head and mutters something I fortunately don’t understand and tells me she must give me a different jacket.

“You’ll need it tonight,” she says.

“I never get cold,” I say.

Days like today are when filmmaking becomes as glamorous as reading a zip code directory. We’re herded onto a nearby street where we stand for four hours as a couple get out of a car and race toward the huge Termini Roma sign on the station wall. We’re being made available in case the director needs us. We’re like animals in a pen.

In the meantime, I start conversations with everyone around me. As Amy says, it’s like an Internations Meetup social. I meet a Nigerian student. A Brazilian raised in American schools with no Brazilian accent tells me he was an extra in “Everest” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin. He can now put on his resume that he walked out of a threadbare mountain outhouse holding some toilet paper. A veteran extra, he says some people in Rome make a living doing this. Some even have agents. They go to movies not for the plot or the stars. They go to see who hired their competition. That’s like going to a sports event and only watching the crowd.

After four hours, we get a lunch break. We extras often judge studios by how we’re fed. This one receives a unanimous thumbs up with a spread of mini pizzas, sandwiches, cut up cold vegetables, fudge brownies and big liter bottles of cold Coca-Cola.

It’s 4:30 p.m. and we haven’t done a thing. The two Texans, the Swede and I discuss everything from relationships in Rome (bad) to Donald Trump (worse) to restaurants in Rome (best). Soon it’s time to eat again: box lunches of rigatoni ragu and baked chicken with potatoes. I could get used to this: getting paid to stand around and then eat.

One of about 200 pretend photos I took of my pretend partner at the Trevi Fountain.


Finally, at 6 p.m., 10 hours after we arrived, we’re herded onto buses and head to Trevi Fountain. Now Trevi is cheek to jowl. The 20 of us can barely get to the fountain. A small area is cordoned off inside to fit a small gelato stand where Barr and Pernas do their scene. We do nothing for an hour as the directors try to organize among the chaos of snap-happy tourists getting in the way.

It’s like herding hungry cats.

At last we are lined up as if on a diving board and sent one by one, or two by two, walking in the background of their gelato scene. I later get paired with a Polish woman near the fountain and we spend about 10 takes taking selfies and photos of us, of us and the fountain, of the fountain. I now have 200 garbage photos in my cell waiting to get deleted. Meanwhile, Barr has eaten so much gelato I think he’s going to blow.

Life of an extra: Hurry up and wait. My fellow extras, from left, Holly Grabow, Jenna Volmerson and Amy Marie Coggins.


We finish at 9 p.m. and are told to wait. The director may need us again. Four of us go around the corner and find a closed souvenir stand to lean against and chat. We’re not needed. At 11 p.m. we’re told to leave.

We spent 13 ½ hours shooting three 60-second scenes. This life is not worth fantasizing about. It’s not even insight into one’s true self. However, it gets better.

Stay tuned.

Four-year anniversary in San Gimignano represents a towering achievement in Italian relationships

Marina and I celebrated our four-year “dating” anniversary in San Gimignano, one of the most weirdly romantic towns in Italy.


SAN GIMIGNANO, Italy — Relationships in Rome are as hard as the language. You can’t have one without the other. That’s why life in Rome often bounces between passionate kisses near back-lit fountains and sitting alone in a dive bar drinking bottled Peroni. Many women don’t trust the men; many men don’t respect the women. It’s a war of the sexes I’ve chronicled this phenomenon that has been going on since Romeo hit on Juliet on that balcony.

So a relationship lasting four years is worth celebrating. In Rome, it’s almost as rare as fluency for an old American. I’m not fluent yet but Marina and I did pass the four-year mark Monday. As we do every year around April 29, we took a trip, very symbolic since our relationship is built on mutual respect, a love of wildlife and travel.

We took a long weekend to San Gimignano, a quirky little town in Tuscany about 40 miles southwest of Florence. It’s the town of only 7,000 people where 15 stone towers remain from the Medieval Times. That’s back when this part of Tuscany was awash in wealth and locals showed off theirs by building the biggest towers they could. I couldn’t confirm this from the locals, who were quite taken aback by the question, but I believe this is where Americans get the term “penis envy.”

San Gimignano has 15 towers from five to 10 stories high left over from Medieval Times. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Which brings me back to my original point about the difficult language. How baffling is Italian? Each noun is either feminine or masculine. How do you remember which is which when a word ends in the neutral “e”? You memorize or choose a word association. The Italian word for “tower” is “torre.” It’s feminine, not masculine. Look at the photo of San Gimignano’s skyline and tell me why “torre” isn’t masculine.

Think about it.

I’d been to San Gimignano before. I came five years ago shortly after I first moved to Rome when each new town I discovered was more interesting than the last. San Gimignano’s towers drew me in like a curious cat. The towers stand between five and 10 stories high and can be seen from down in the valley on the connecting bus ride from Siena. As I wrote before, it looks like a giant kid’s Erector set that didn’t quite get completed. These 15 stone sticks stand atop a hill of a tiny town that once was an Etruscan village. Now it looks like a Medieval Manhattan, an itty-bitty Dubai, Shanghai with better wine.

Marina, a third-generation Roman, had never been here before. Since I had, we took a different tact. San Gimignano is not easy to reach. It has no train station. You must take a train or bus 2 hours and 45 minutes to Siena or Florence and get a public bus for a 65-minute ride up the hill. Some buses require a change in Poggibonsi. From Rome to our AirBnB it took eight hours.

Us in front of Siena’s Piazza del Campo.


However, that didn’t include the one change in my itinerary. We took a long lunch in Siena, Tuscany’s “second city” behind Florence and is the Gothic gem to Florence’s Renaissance. Siena is a city of wildly curving, hilly alleys seemingly all leading to Piazza del Campo, the massive piazza 333 meters in circumference that’s left barren for the hordes of tour groups and locals alike to congregate on warm sunny days.

We came for the lunch recommendation of my good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a Roman totally miscast as a sportswriter instead of an Italian food consultant. In five years, he hasn’t whiffed once and hit a home run out of Tuscany with his nod to La Taverna di San Giuseppe.

Located on a quiet, narrow, cobblestone road, it had a line formed before it opened at noon. The cave-lake restaurant with the vaulted brick ceiling and ham hooks hanging from the ceiling was packed by 12:30. I thought the restaurant, started in 1998, might be a tourist trap when I saw a fat American pass me with a T-shirt reading “WEAKNESSES ARE OVERRATED.”

Taverna di San Giuseppe in Siena. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It wasn’t a tourist trap. I had the short, twisty pasta called trofie, with bits of broccoli and covered in smoked scamorza cheese. It was simply one of the best pastas I’ve had in Italy.

Tuscany has plenty of places to get away from the tourists, but San Gimignano is not one of them. However, we scored a major coup with our AirBnB. Paolo Rubechini’s apartment is located above Piazza Sant’Agostino on the quiet north end of town and around the corner from one of the bus stops. Piazza Sant’Agostino is the quiet respite from the hordes congregating in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Cisterna in the center of town. Anchored by Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, which depicts the revered saint’s life in 17 frescoes, the piazza is a sprawling space covered in brick.

Me walking through Piazza Sant’Agostino. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Our AirBnB, on the upstairs floor of a building adjacent to the piazza, was a 100-square-meter (1,100-square-foot) palace with a big kitchen, long dining room table, two-flat screen TVs (with an English movie channel) and a modern bathroom. It even had a 100-year-old wine press in the living room overlooking the piazza. We stocked the kitchen with fruit, coffee, milk and biscuits from the local supermarket and every morning went to the corner bar or bakery around the corner for fresh cornettos.

No, this was not CouchSurfing in the Third World.

While San Gimignano jars the intrepid traveler’s heightened senses with its choc-a-block souvenir stores, nothing can spoil its incredible views. We walked along the walls past the piazzas and stared out at the Tuscan countryside which is as beautiful as the libraries of literature depict. Rolling green hills, parceled farmland, little villages with brown and red-tiled roofs and small, family vineyards. This is the Tuscany you daydream about sitting at your humming computer.

At Torre Guelfa on Piazza della Cisterna, what passes for my office these days.


I even like the view from the crowded piazzas. No place else in Italy — not Rome, not Milan, certainly not Florence — can you sit in a piazza and look at towers. In Piazza della Cisterna, which features a well from 1287, we took seats at Torre Guelfa, one of the many outdoor cafes ringing the piazza. With a glass of San Gimignano’s signature Vernaccia white wine, we sat back and looked past the piazza to one of the towers, sticking up like a giant periscope. Dusk had settled in and most of the tourists and gone back to their rooms in Siena and Florence. A chilly breeze swept through. We were in total peace, the harmony of four years and 19 countries together.

He’s been making pottery in the same shop for 30 years. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But of all the places we’ve been — from Beirut to Vancouver — what a weird place to live this San Gimignano. The best real estate are 600-year-old towers with maintenance costs that nearly match the rent. Tourists are everywhere year round. You’re living inside a giant wall. I talked to the young waiter, who grew up here and knew as much about my beloved AS Roma as I did. We discussed the goings on of Serie A soccer before turning to life in Tuscany’s novelty of a town.

He said the winters are harsh. San Gimignano sits at 1,000 feet. Opportunities aren’t available for youths and during some winter lulls in tourism, making ends meet is difficult.

There’s usually a place in in the sun in San Gimignano. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The biggest problem with the influx of many tourists becomes parking and roads,” Paolo wrote me in a message. “Now it seems they are trying to solve this problem with more parking and a ring road.”

Paolo also lives in Florence but was raised in San Gimignano and hasn’t gotten chased out by the tourists as so many Venetians have in Venice.

“My experience of living in the tourist city is very positive,” he wrote. “In addition to increasing the local economy, it also allows a great cultural exchange. The tranquility and safety of the place are the best things as well as the beauty of the places.”

Locanda di Sant’Agostino


He left out food. San Gimignano has as many good restaurant as any Italian town with 7,000 people. On the piazza is Locanda di Sant’Agostino, run by Paolo’s friend, Genziana, a hip, friendly woman with a packed place nearly every night. Her small restaurant with spacious outdoor seating is kitschy at its best. The walls are covered with framed photos of flowers with tufts of straw and red chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Soft music fills the air.

I ordered a glass of chilled Vernaccia and a duck leg in orange sauce where the meat fell off the bone. For lunch I took Marina to a favorite haunt, Dal Bertelli, a small, simple sandwich shop where Brunello Bertelli’s family, in San Gimignano since 1779, has been cutting thick slabs of local pecorino cheese and salami on bread for years. The place is filled with old farm equipment on the walls, such as giant pinchers to cut grapes in vineyards.

Two problems with Tuscan cuisine: The bread, without question, is the worst in the world. In 1540 Tuscany began taxing salt, and bakers stopped putting salt into bread. Who knew salt kept bread from having a hint of flavor which is what bread tastes like in every restaurant in Tuscany.

The simple salami and pecorino cheese panino at Dal Bertelli. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, some restaurants get full of themselves. I wanted to take Marina back to Cum Quibus, which was wonderful five years ago. In fact, it was so wonderful it earned a Michelin star. Thus, ravioli I paid 9.50 euros for in 2014 has been replaced with pasta dishes ranging from 32-38 euros. We ditched our reservations and went to Bar Piazzetta on the corner where a bunch of locals gathered for a casual evening. No Michelin stars could be seen but my plate of tagliatelle with Tuscan ragu (wild boar sauce) for 9 euros earned one from me.

In San Gimignano I always develop a small dependency on Vernaccia wine. It has been around since the Renaissance and has been credited to bringing Tuscan wine to the forefront. People practically pour it on their Corn Flakes here. The area in and around the town has 63 wineries and each vineyard has its own distinct Vernaccia taste, ranging from tea to oleander to passion fruit and lychee. (At least, that’s what I read. I sure as hell can’t tell.)

But I did learn some when we spent our getaway day at La Rocca, a winery atop a hill on the edge of town featuring a tasting room with wines on tap and a veranda looking out over the gorgeous countryside. We sat drinking wine and watching Asian tourists shoot photos of the countryside without every looking away from their camera lens.

Giovanni Terreni spieling Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Photo by Marina Pascucci


Suddenly we heard a rhythmic chanting from below. We walked over and a man in a medieval maroon and white costume was loudly reciting poetry to the passersby. Giovanni Terreni is a major fan of Dante Alighieri, Tuscany’s prize poet whose prose from his “Divine Comedy” Terreni blared out for all to hear.

One quote particularly caught our interest. It perfectly captures our lives, our travels, our time in this town of towers.

“Tonight we fly over the chimney tops, skylights and slates, looking into all your lives and wondering why happiness is so hard to find.”

Beirut: A birthday celebration in a war zone turned peaceful destination for the intrepid traveler

Me walking along the Corniche, Beirut’s 5-kilometer long boardwalk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


BEIRUT — The bar manager in the white suit hovered over our table by the sea. In between making Marina and I feel welcome, he directed his minions carrying buckets of white-hot coals for the hookah pipes at each table. With a 60-meter lighthouse hovering over us, we looked out through the glass-enclosed outdoor bar toward the cobalt-blue Mediterranean. Surrounding us was a smartly dressed international crowd sipping French wine, cold beer and frosty cocktails. The setting could only have been more ideal if it was under a summer sun and not spring clouds.

Then the manager blew the mood.

“I remember two Apache helicopters out there shooting at the lighthouse,” he said, pointing to the air above the sea. “Everyone dove under tables.”

Welcome to Beirut.

This is a city that has shed a violent past for a peaceful present. Nearly 30 years after a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives and displaced 76,000 others and 13 years after a one-month war with Israel, Beirut is showing signs of its heyday from the middle of the 20th century. That’s when “The Paris of the Middle East” attracted a jet set crowd who swam in a warm sea, ate great meals with views and danced until dawn.

In Beirut, it’s back to the future.

Beirut has enjoyed 13 years of peace but problems remain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina shocked me once during our many discussions about future travel. She always wanted to visit Beirut. It was always on my bucket list and went higher every time I met a friendly Lebanese who raved about the new peace. A liberated, street-smart, third-generation Roman, Marina surprisingly didn’t bristle at Islam’s oft-misrepresented attitudes toward women. I knew better. I’d been to about 10 Muslim countries. Not all of them stone rape victims.

So for my recent birthday she took me to Beirut, a much more romantic destination than many Islamophobe Americans can imagine. Smoking green-apple flavored nargile (the Lebanese hookah) on a bar high atop a seaside cliff. Eating marinated chicken taouk in a 19th-century Ottoman house. Walking hand in hand along the Corniche, Beirut’s five-kilometer-long waterfront.

Our long weekend was lifted right out of “Arabian Nights,” where romantic tales are littered through stories from the Islamic Golden Age. But with every story dripping with romance, “Arabian Nights” has chapters of violence and tragedy.

So does Beirut.

Beirut is filled with construction sites building new apartment houses. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As we walked back long the Corniche from that Manara Palace Cafe on the sea, we saw across the street the new Beirut. It’s a string of high-rise, modern apartment buildings all built since the end of the civil war in 1990. All had big balconies with million-dollar views of the sea to match their price tags.

But peeking out from behind the skyscrapers was the old Beirut. These buildings were gray and black monoliths, skeletal remains of the shelling that lasted from 1975-90. Collapsed balconies. Crumbling concrete. Blown-out windows. These are the memories of a war that never seems too long ago.

Beirut’s waterfront looks like Miami Beach with Aleppo as a backdrop.

One of Beirut’s many blown-out buildings. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We stayed right smack dab in the middle of the contradiction. Our Warwick Palm Beach Hotel is a four-star, seven-story hotel at the start of the Corniche. It boasts one of the best Indian restaurants in Beirut and a high-end cocktail lounge that was booked for private parties every night we were there.

But directly across the street occupying a narrow corner stood the remains of a triangular hotel. The vertical letters P-E-R-L-A were smoke blackened and alternated with blown-out windows. Below, its badly scarred brick wall stood next to a glitzy ad for a Moroccan massage.

We walked by this every day during our romantic walks along the Corniche. We’d both been to Havana and Miami Beach and agreed Beirut’s boardwalk — clean, scenic and diverse — topped them all. The tile walkway shined in the setting sun. Lovers walked hand in hand next to Muslim women in burqas taking selfies. Beautiful joggers in short shorts ran by. The Corniche has no sandy beach. The huge rocks below provide adequate seating and diving platforms during the steaming summer months.

Scenes from the Corniche. Photos by Marina Pascucci


Even with steady traffic, we could hear the gentle waves lapping up against the rocks.

One day we took a taxi to the end of the Corniche and around the corner. Up a long hill were a string of cliffside restaurants, all offering incredible views of the sea. We walked into Al Falamanki Raouche, run by one of Beirut’s major bon vivants during its Golden Age. It’s filled with overstuffed couches and big chairs. We sat down by the wall and ordered apple and grapefruit nargiles. I’ve never smoked a cigarette but the nargile is slightly addicting. It’s a big brass stand about four-feet high with a container at the top holding the coals. You suck on the pipe like it’s a straw and let the “flavored water” seep into your lungs.

It’s quite tasty and after about 10 minutes of hits I admit to a touch of lightheadedness if not the wild desire to eat two kilos of hummus you get from pot. I asked the waiter if it’s unhealthy.

“It’s better than cigarettes,” he said.

Marina and I with the nargiles at Al Falamanki Raoucheh.

Beirut’s Piigeon’s Rock neighborhood. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It wasn’t just sea vistas and new smoking habits that brought us to Beirut. We wanted to see the history, however ugly. We didn’t want to wander through Beirut with blinders. Surprisingly, it has no war memorial museum. There is no place to read a chronological history in photos of what happened. The Barakat building, a yellow edifice that was bombed past recognition, has been targeted as a future museum — since 2003 — but it is years from completion. No one in Beirut seems in a terrible hurry to see it happen, either. Thirty years after the war ended, it’s still not taught in Beirut schools. Talking to young Beirutis, they don’t seem to know much more than I do. They all spoke perfect English. The schools get an A for foreign languages and an F for history.

The general feeling is neither the Christian or Muslim side can decide what the correct history is. Thus, neither side is revealed, to its citizens or outsiders. It is called “state-sponsored amnesia.”

As I began my international travels in the 1970s, I followed the war from a distance. Before the war, this 5,000-year-old city stood at peace, despite a Sunni and Christian majority along the sea and a Shia minority in the south and east. In the mountains to the north lived the Druze ethnic minority.

A lone fisherman off the Corniche.


The Christians ruled and in the mid-70s the Muslims began bristling under the pro-Western government. During the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 100,000 Palestinians emigrated to Lebanon. The Soviet Union aligned itself with Arab countries and Lebanon’s Muslim minority. You could see some sparks starting to fly.

When the Christians and Palestinian Liberation Organization fought in ‘75, the powder keg exploded. Arab nations sided with the Muslims. Israel sided with the Christians. The war was set.

In 1989 the Tarif Agreement began the end of the fighting and in March 1991 the Lebanese Parliament pardoned all political crimes. But before then, Lebanon — a country just slightly bigger than Maryland — was the biggest war zone in the world.

Just up from the hill from our hotel stands the Holiday Inn, the famed American-based hotel that was the main symbol for East vs. West conflict and remains the most bombed building in Beirut. Both sides used the rooftop of the 26-story building to throw off opponents. Today it is a gray blight on the landscape with every window blackened like a thousand eyes that saw too much grief. Like so many other buildings, this one is owned by dueling corporations who can’t decide what to do with it.

The Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. Photo by Marina Pascucci


One of the prettiest buildings in the Middle East is Beirut’s Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. It’s a beautiful palace made of yellow Saudi stone with four minarets and sky blue domes. Marina and I walked inside, sans shoes, and stood on a giant red, blue and yellow Persian carpet under a six-ton glass chandelier. Next door stands St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, symbolic of Beirut’s current peaceful co-existence. Yet right across the street in Nehmeh Square, Martyrs’ Statue features two men, one holding a flame, and the other missing an arm — and both covered in bullet holes.

A block away stands The Egg, a huge concrete oval built in the 1960s as a proposed cinema but now is a charred, broken shell from years of civil war bombardment.

Martyrs’ Statue. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Beirut is littered with 30-year-old black eyes.

Yet talking to the people, it’s as if these sites are invisible. They’re too busy drinking, eating and dancing to talk about the past, let alone worry about it. Beirut’s nightlife may be the most underrated in the world. Who knew this former war zone has some of the best nightclubs in the world? Get up early for a pre-dawn airport taxi and you might see cafes crowded with late-night revelers eating breakfast.

I loathe nightclubs. They’re the same from Barstow to Bangkok. Instead, Marina and I went into Hamra, the neighborhood near our hotel and teeming with neighborhood bars and local restaurants. We went to one of Beirut’s best dive bars. Li Beirut is a dark, small, narrow hovel with black-and-white photos of old Lebanese musicians on the wall and soft Lebanese music playing on the loudspeaker.

The Egg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s here where we met our friend from Rome. Dallin Van Leuven is a 33-year-old Roberts, Idaho, native who lived in Beirut from 2016-18 as a peace-and-conflict worker for an international non-profit organization. He later married an Italian he met in Beirut and moved to Rome last year. I met him at Expats Living in Rome, Rome’s expat Meetup group. He joined the long line of Beirutis who lauded the city, from its food to its peace to its people, especially the people.

He was back in Beirut giving a lecture and Li Beirut was his old hangout. We ordered tall glasses of arak, Lebanon’s deadly licorice-flavored liqueur, and he took a savory sip.

“Beirut, not to say the rest of Lebanon, is the most alcoholic place I’ve ever been,” he said. “You can have a beer in your hand and jump in a taxi. And sometimes the taxi driver’s drinking, too.”

At Li Beirut, from left: me, Charbel Abou Halloun, waiter, Stephanie, Dallin Van Leuven, Marina and friend.


Van Leuven, who added that it is illegal to drink and drive in Lebanon, has heard all the stereotypes about Beirut. It’s as if the outside world still thinks locals are dodging mortar shells. He became part of the community. He made Lebanese friends, dated Lebanese women. This small-town Idaho boy felt at home here.

“Like most Middle Eastern countries, Lebanese people love Americans,” he said. “They have issues with American foreign policy, for sure, but they can disengage our politics from our people.”

I asked what’s the best part about living in Beirut.

“Lebanon’s a small country but it has a lot of variety,” he said. “You can hike in the mountains, can go camping on the beach, can go snorkeling, float on the river. You can do so much here. You can ski. There’s something to offer all the time.”

Lebanon also seems more open sexually. Each Muslim country has its own sexual and social mores but in Lebanon things are slowly changing. Besides women dressing as sexy as they do in Rome, attitudes are changing. During our weekend they held the 2019 Women’s Race where hundreds of women ran races of 10, 5 and 2 kilometers to raise funds for such causes as cancer awareness and Ahaad, a women’s rights NGO. That same day, Lebanon’s top military prosecutor decided not to prosecute a case of “sodomy,” stating that homosexuality is not a crime even though Lebanon’s Penal Code states, “any sexual act contrary to nature is punishable by imprisonment of one year.” Judge Peter Germanos told the Daily Star, Beirut’s English-language newspaper, that the law doesn’t spell out what’s considered “contrary to nature.”

Sexual mores are changing as this mural in an alley suggests. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Homosexuality is still illegal here, but I have plenty of gay Lebanese friends who may or may not practice openly,” Van Leuven said. “It’s more accepted here but it’s still a crime. They have drag shows here.”

Soon, three of Van Leuven’s old Lebanese friends entered Li Beirut. These young people represented the new Lebanese, the upwardly mobile, outwardly friendly, English-speaking yuppies. Charbel Abou Halloun is 22 years old and hails from the northern Lebanese city of Akkar. He’s a civil engineer and moved to Beirut in 2004, well after the civil war ended.

Talking to him, he could’ve been from Milan or Santa Monica.

Me and Marina on the Corniche.


“The new generation learned from our fathers that, for example, this religion is this and this religion is that,” he said. “So we have stereotypes. We know our history. We have to live together so you forget everything and you live new. It’s our parents who had to go through the war. Not us.”

Still, the old generation has its say. Halloun is a Christian and said he couldn’t marry a Muslim woman.

“Because of my parents,” he said. “Some people, they do it but their parents don’t accept it. So they live alone without their parents’ support.”

Still, Lebanese show displays of public affection. While no man bent a woman over a fruit cart as I often see in Rome, I did see women in hijabs holding hands with men. In the spacious Main Street Cocktail Bar, Beirut’s closest thing to a sports bar, a beautiful blonde in skin-tight black leather pants nuzzled the neck of her boyfriend wearing a Yankees ballcap. She’s a Lebanese atheist divorcee.

Divorced? In Lebanon?

“Yes,” she said with a smile, “and it’s easy.”

I won’t get pollyannish on one of my new favorite countries. Lebanon still has plenty of problems. It has an $80 billion debt, third largest in the world behind Greece and Japan. Recently the head of the World Bank Middle East said the Lebanese economy “is defying gravity.” His organization won’t give a single shekel until the country fixes its electricity problem. As I read this over our hotel breakfast buffet, the lights went out.

Beirut’s tourism numbers have risen five years in a row. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, Lebanon has a population of 6 million people. That includes 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 80 percent of whom have no legal status. It’s a growing source of tension among Lebanese who complain about crowded buses and drained public resources.

The plethora of political parties are fractured and stories of corruption are the worst-kept secret in town. In the wine room of the Bread Republic, a bakery oddly connected to an enoteca, I talked to three attractive Beirutis about modern life in Lebanon. They wouldn’t give their names but said life in Beirut isn’t as beautiful as it seems on a long weekend. It certainly seemed pleasant. Young, smiling, well-dressed people stood outside the wine bar sipping Lebanese and French wine.

I told them I heard Beirut’s legendary garbage problem had improved.

“That’s better,” the man said. “But we have a lot of garbage in politics you can have.”

As a traveler, you can ignore politics. However, you can’t ignore Beirut’s biggest problem: the world’s worst public transportation. It’s like Albania in 1994 after the communist government fell and the ban on cars had just been lifted. Street signs and building numbers are mere rumors. Maps are as worthless as last week’s Daily Star. Formal addresses weren’t given until after independence in 1943 and remain fairly invisible. Cab drivers know only major points of interest and drop you off in a neighborhood for you to fend on your own. GPS is highly advisable. Buses are small, old and infrequent. On a long weekend, I think we saw three.

Liza is in a 19th century Ottoman house.


On my birthday, we went to a restaurant Conde Nast Traveler billed as “One of the most beautiful restaurants in the world.” You’d think Liza would be well known to cabbies. We had two cab drivers who had no idea where it was. Nor could they find it. Our first cab driver was a grizzled, old man with a scraggly beard and a nasty habit of spitting out his window every two blocks. He had to ask two old men on the street where it was and still couldn’t follow the directions.

We jumped out, paid him 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) and a young driver who spoke English finally got us in the stylish, leafy Achrafieh neighborhood. After 10 minutes of driving around in circles, we got out and used Marina’s GPS to find Liza four blocks away.

The search was worth it. Lebanese food is always worth it. We are both huge fans of Middle Eastern cuisine and Lebanese is the queen of the Middle East kitchen. Sizzling lamb kabobs. Creamy hummus. Grilled meats. You can live alone off the mezes, Lebanese hors d’oeuvres that range from olives to ghanoush, mashed cooked eggplant with toasted sesame seeds.

Liza lived up to its billing. Inside a home built during the Ottoman occupation in the 19th century, Liza drips romance. Its white-decorated tables with candles sit atop elaborately tiled floors. Murals of Beirut’s skyline adorn the walls. I had halloun, pan-fried local cheese with tomato jam and sesame seeds. My entree was chicken taouk, marinated chicken with thyme and garlic. They tasted as good as they sound.

Kabob Habiba at Karamna.


After touring the mosque we stumbled onto a wide walking mall where we had lunch at Karamna, a huge restaurant of yellow sandstone walls. Patrons smoked nargiles, filling the air with scents of green apple and jasmine. I knew Beirut had a sophisticated drinking culture when the waiter brought my Almaza, Lebanon’s national beer, in a frosted mug. We munched on mezes of carrot sticks in lemon, salt and cumin and also tabbouleh, a tangy salad of parsley, tomatoes and onions. The main course of kabob habiba was three long, lamb sausages under slabs of bread in chilies. Along with a plate of hummus for extra bread dipping, we nearly waddled out.

However, the friendly owner intercepted us and sat us at one of the outdoor tables, under cover from the rain. He brought us homemade almond saffron cookies and basil tea, all on the house. Coming from Rome where dining is more of an art than a function of life, we were blown away.

A bakery in the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We had read Beirut is famous for its Armenian food. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud is Armenian. It has been this way since the Turkish genocide in the 1920s when Armenians flooded into the east end of Beirut and stayed. It’s a mishmash of narrow streets packed with open-air bakeries, jewelry shops and haberdashers. A blackberry bush of electrical wires hangs over every small intersection. Armenian flags and language fill the air.

The Badguer restaurant doubles as an Armenian cultural center but the restaurant is Bourj Hammoud’s main attraction. Where else can you get the delightfully named fish net kebab, meatballs in a thick wild cherry sauce and covered in pieces of fried bread? With a glass of Armenian wine, and a table full of Danish tourists nearby, we chatted with the waiter, 24-year-old Chris Koudouzian, a Lebanese-born Armenian, about Beirut’s fractured image.

“I hear this all the time: Outside Beirut people think it’s a scary place,” he said. “It’s not like all the Arabian countries. You come here to relax. Lebanon is a peaceful country now. Are we surrounded by war? Yes. But it hasn’t affected Lebanon yet.”

Despite all the attractions, Beirut doesn’t feel touristy. It remains off the beaten path and is only a mecca for the intrepid traveler. In fact, it’s hard to find a postcard, let alone souvenirs. However, we did find the perfect memory. In a little art store called Plan Bey, where they sell posters and postcards of old Lebanese films, I bought a poster of a Lebanese flag. It’s a giant photograph taken by Fouad Elkoury, a Lebanese war correspondent. It has the red and white stripes and the trademark green cedar tree. Sounds boring? It isn’t.

The flag is completely covered with bullet holes.

Perugia: Italy’s chocolate capital a sweet spot to celebrate the dying profession of journalism

Perugia on one of the few times it didn’t rain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


PERUGIA, Italy — If Italy was a gelato cone, Perugia would be the hot chocolate syrup they dip it in.

It’s the chocolate capital of Italy. It’s home to Perugina chocolate (Baci chocolate kisses, anyone?), the annual Eurochocolate festival and more chocolate shops than Dublin has pubs. Thus, my heart — and my dentist — have huge sweet spots for this hill town in the heart of Umbria.

It’s not just chocolate that brought me here recently. The International Journalism Festival had five days of lectures and conferences, including the intriguing and newsworthy American topic, “Beyond Fake News: What’s Next for Tackling Online Misinformation.” Perugia is the capital of Umbria, pushing Sicily as my favorite region in Italy, with fantastic local cuisine and wine and an unspoiled persona. As the only one of Italy’s 20 regions not bordering an ocean or another country, Umbria has been the least vulnerable to outside influences.

Oh, I also won an award.

Perugia is the birthplace of Perugina chocolate. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The Camera di Commercio Perugia takes such great pride in its town and region it bestows awards to journalists shedding light on a place oft overlooked on tourists’ well-trodden pilgrimages across Italy. I won the Umbria del Gusto (Flavor of Umbria) award for the January blog I did about American transplant Ev Thomas buying an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turning the few grape vines into a fledgling winery. The Local, Italy’s only English-language news source, picked it up and while it didn’t go viral, it did go Umbrian.

The town put up my girlfriend and me for two nights in the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel, wined and dined us and feted us like the celebrities that we aren’t.

No, Umbria del Gusto isn’t the Pulitzer. But it’s in Perugia, and that’s award enough. Plus, it’s always fun trying to explain what “Dog-Eared Passport” means in Italian.

Perugia (pop. 165,000), 100 miles north of Rome, always gives me the early impression that I’m walking onto a science fiction set. To reach the centro storico (historical center) from the hotel, you must walk up through a complex of dark, eerily lit tunnels, lined with huge, high-ceilinged rooms used for everything from a souvenir shop to conferences. I remember sitting blindfolded in one of them during Eurochocolate 2008 and having a blind chocolate taste — run by blind people.

Rocca Paolina was built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The area is called the Rocca Paolina and built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s as a fortress over a very wealthy neighborhood. In 1983 the city conveniently outfitted it with escalators, making the steep climb into darkness a lot less taxing. Nevertheless, I still always feel like I’m in a subterranean, prehistoric cave waiting for a T-Rex to step around the corner.

Escaping from the tunnels you come across a compact centro storico that is tranquil until the hordes of university students hit the piazzas and bars at night. The town is home to the University of Perugia, founded in 1308, with 35,000 students and the University of Foreigners with 5,000 foreign students, most of whom are abroad with mommy and daddy’s money for the first time. It was this atmosphere that Perugia received its most fame in recent years.

Amanda Knox, a Seattle native studying in Perugia, was arrested and convicted of murder in 2009 when a roommate had her throat cut during what many have termed a group sex game that went bad two years previously. The attractive Knox became a media sensation. “Foxy Knoxy” spent nearly four years in jail and was eventually exonerated after evidence emerged of the police’s colossal series of screwups.

On one past trip through Umbria, some friends and I stopped by the roommates’ old house on the downslope of the hill. The long, two-story home has become as big a tourist attraction as San Lorenzo, Perugia’s 1,100-year-old cathedral. After many conversations with locals, who don’t seem to mind the persistent question, I’m firmly convinced the only people who think she’s innocent are in the city of Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, Perugia felt like it all weekend. It poured nearly the entire time. I emerged from the tunnels to a tempest making the cobblestone streets empty and slick. I walked past the Perugina outlet store and to Palazzo dei Priori, the 13th century palace that looks more like a small castle than the city’s main art gallery. I managed to find a staircase that wound down into a dark alley to a small sign reading “LA TAVERNA.”

Pappardelle with Umbrian ragu at La Taverna.


This hidden, elegant diner is THE place to try Umbrian cuisine. This region is known for four main foods: cinghiale, wild boar that so over runs Central Italy even animal lovers don’t protest its hunting season; tartufi, black truffles that are considered a delicacy all over Europe and without question the most overrated food in Italy; lenticchie, lentils made into a thick soup terrific in winter; piccione, pigeons, cooked whole and once the diet staple of locals while under attack in the Middle Ages.

While I waited for Marina to get off work and take the train up, I took a seat alone at a table with a white tablecloth and looked up at the vaulted brick ceiling. Eating inside what seems like a cave has its own romance, especially when Umbrian food is added. My pappardelle with Umbrian ragu (long, flat noodles with wild boar meat sauce) was thick, fresh and fantastic. Topped off with a glass of Umbria’s Morcinaia wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, it was a great bargain for only 23 euros.

Works by Gerardo Dottori


The award ceremony was a two-day affair beginning with an evening guided tour of the Museo Civico di Palazzo della Penna which hosted weird, haunting works of Gerardo Dottori, a Perugia artist famous for his futuristic works from the early 20th century. Later, the other seven award winners and I joined the organizing committee and judges for an aperitivo of local meats and cheeses followed by an Umbrian feast. Besides my tender manzo, I had a dish called sfornato, kind of a local polenta but much thicker and tastier than the bland polenta I’ve had in the past.

I sat next to one of the judges who read my work. Dennis Redmont is a retired former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome. Amazingly, we had met before. In 2003, nearing the end of my first 16-month stint in Rome and deeply in the throes of love with my adopted city, I went to him hat in hand opening I could land a part-time job and extend my stay. He sat down with me and said that AP was in the process of shedding about 15-20 percent of its workforce around the world. It was foreshadowing of what was to become in my news industry.

Since I returned to my old job at The Denver Post in 2003 to today, The Post’s newsroom has gone from more than 350 reporters to 60. The staff is so small the paper moved from its cool downtown location to the suburbs where it shares space — with its printing plant.

Yes, I did get out at the right time.

The award winners. (I’m the tall one.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


But events like Perugia makes me glad I keep a hand in it. I dressed up in my toned-down gray Italian suit. Marina talked me out of one of the shiny silk suits that make me look like a flunky for the Irish mob. Before the ceremony at Centro Servizi G. Alezzi conference center, we escaped the rain across the street at Caffe Perugina. It’s one of Perugia’s beautiful bars (cafes are often called “bars” in Italy), with ornate furnishings and brass tabletops. Over a cappuccino, it felt like we stepped into Perugia in 1920s. I was taken aback when the barista said Caffe Perugina began in 1997.

During my career, I was never big into awards, mainly because I didn’t win many. I was more of a grinder journalist, a sportswriter who plugged along day after day, seeking news and sprinkling my coverage with the occasional long human interest story. When I branched out into food and wine, things changed. You don’t really break food news. What, “TOMATOES SEEKING MORE RESPECT IN SUPERMARKETS”?

Instead, I wrote the weird (I tried eating a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas), the trendy (restaurant boom in Moscow) and the disgusting (animal penis restaurant in Beijing). I always tied it to the local culture. This was the second award I’ve won for food and wine writing. Maybe I missed my calling.

The conference room was packed with observers and photographers. I sat in the front row with the other winners, all of whom walked up to the dais for a question and answer period. Notified shortly beforehand that the session would be in Italian, I nearly fled the room. I can answer any question in Italian; the problem is I likely won’t understand the question in Italian.

I told Redmont my dilemma, who said he would do the Q&A in English and translate.

“It’ll be more exotic,” he said.

Most of the awards were for videos, showing Perugia at its majestic best, catching sunrises from the hilltown and the monuments glistening in the city’s soft lights at night. Two guys traveled around Umbria talking and capturing video of the region’s underrated wineries.

I felt so old school. It was merely a blog. How boring. But Redmont asked me about the theme of Dog-Eared Passport and a recent blog I wrote about my three travel stories from hell. I talked too long and talked too fast and hardly anyone understood. I had to wait for Redmont’s translation to hear any laughter about my bout with typhoid in Northern Thailand.

Later, we all gathered for group photos, standing in front of a phalanx of photographers as if we were standing on a red carpet instead of a concrete floor.

Afterward, Marina and I dashed back to the hotel to change clothes more appropriate for early flooding stages and waded back into Centro Storico. The journalism festival had 275 different conferences. We had time to choose one. Appalled by Pres. Trump’s attack at the free press and labeling every critical sentence “fake news” drew me to the lecture “Beyond Fake News.” James Ball is an English journalist and author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World.” He was part of a London School of Economics commission that did a report on misinformation.

I met him outside the Arcivescovado conference room, sharing the same piazza as Palazzo dei Priori. Late 30ish and casually dressed, he talked to me about how news coming out of Brexit is getting as scrutinized as much as it is out of Washington. Ball is a level-headed, highly intelligent journalist with a quick British wit and an analytical bent.

James Ball


One point was fake news involves more than Donald Trump. Before Trump started defecating on the First Amendment, journalists wrote wildly hilarious headlines just to get the reader “clicks,” the new media measurement for economic success. He mentioned some headlines from that day:

“BIBLE SHOCK! WHY EXPERT CLAIMS JESUS RESURRECTED THROUGH ADAM’S BODY AFTER CHURCH FIND!”

“NH370 SHOCK! DATA FROM MISSING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT SHRUGGED OFF AND IGNORED!”

“TIME TRAVEL SHOCK! TIME TRAVEL FROM 2018 SHOWS PHOTO OF DINOSAUR FROM THE PAST!”

He said they were all from that day’s edition of The Sun, the United Kingdom’s top-selling newspaper.

“So if fake news is this terrible threat to journalism then why is our biggest paper putting it out? If fake news isn’t the problem, what is? … What we have is a bullshit problem and a misinformation problem and that’s a lot harder than fake news.”

He brought up the story in Breitbart, American journalism’s equivalent of “Mein Kampf.” It wrote that a Muslim mob set fire to Germany’s oldest church. What actually happened was a protest march of recent Muslim immigrants seeking asylum. There were some fireworks and one hit a tarpaulin on a boundary wall of the church grounds. It started a small fire and the protesters helped put it out.

“There was a fire. There was a church and it was a majority Muslim crowd,” Ball said. “Is it fake news to turn it into what Breitbart did?”

And it’s not just the rags that are guilty of this, Ball said. Take Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election.

Marina and I near Palazzo dei Priori


“They put those emails by Wikileaks but that’s not where the public saw them,” Ball said. “They saw them through Fox News, through CNN, through The New York Times, The Washington Post. We don’t self search. We shout at Facebook. We shout at Twitter. We shout at the public. We shout at Russia. We ignore the fact that we’re the agents for all this.

“We’re not good at not being played.”