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 three 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 fusbol, 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.


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: 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.”

In an Italian housing market reaching a crisis stage, this man is raffling his Abruzzo home for $65

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo

This 1,300-square-foot house is at 850 meters on the edge of Gran Sasso National Park. Jamie Abbott photo

Owning a home in rural Italy is as romantic as it sounds. Wake up to sunshine nine months a year, see rolling green hills above pretty, undisturbed meadows. Shop for fresh food every day in open-air markets and walk along millennium-old, cobblestone roads meant only for foot traffic. If you’re lucky, as I chronicled about a California man who moved to Umbria with his wife, you’ll find a house with a small vineyard and turn it into a fledgling wine business. Yes, buying a house in Italy is the stuff of dreams.

But try selling one.

In the last few years, that has become a nightmare. Italy is one of the few countries in Europe where property prices are going down. According to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistical institute, last year Italy’s property prices dropped 0.8 percent, the most in Europe next to Sweden’s 2.1. Doesn’t sound like much? Italians have price envy of Slovenia (up 15.1 percent), Holland (10.2) and Ireland (9.1).

Well, one man has found a way to beat the market: a raffle.

Jamie Abbott, originally from Colchester, England, is raffling off his three-story house in a village in rural Abruzzo, maybe the most underrated, prettiest, unspoiled region in Italy. He is selling raffle tickets for 50 pounds (about $65) and will hold the drawing in October.

A raffle is a long shot? Maybe but how often can one buy a 250,000-euro house, his asking price before the raffle, for $65?

Like so many homeowners in Italy, Abbott has become a victim of the housing crash. Somewhere between the time writer Frances Mayes made a house in Italy cool with “Under the Tuscan Sun” in 1996 to Italy’s current recession, a house in Italy went from cool to ice cold.

“The property market is so bad, that even for a gorgeous house like (this) … it was getting a lot of interest in property circles,” Abbott said by phone Wednesday. “People loved the house because in this particular area it’s almost impossible to find a detached house with a garden near the historical center of the village. So it was getting a lot of interest but people just weren’t going any further than that.”

The house is 120 square meters (about 1,300 square feet) with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It features curved brick and stone ceilings and vines stretching over the door frames. It has great views of the surrounding countryside, situated near the southern Gran Sasso mountains and just under 8,400-foot Monte Prena.

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo

Carapelle Calvisio (pop. 90) is the smallest town in Abruzzo. Jamie Abbott photo

It’s located at 850 meters in the village of Carapelle Calvisio, just 18 miles from the Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila on the edge of the Gran Sasso National Park. With only 90 inhabitants, Carapelle Calvisio wears the crown as the smallest town in Abruzzo. The former Roman village is known for its truffles and is so picturesque it was used as the setting for “Ladyhawke,” a 1985 medieval fantasy film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer.

Abbott, 42, and his wife Lea went all out in making this raffle happen. He hired a web man to put together a lovely website, complete with video and is spreading the word by strategically leaking publicity on Facebook group pages and travel websites such as mine. They have a Facebook page and Instagram account (your_italian_house). As a fellow expat, and a lover of Abruzzo, I’m helping him.

Financially, it makes sense. Abbott has 6,000 tickets available. If he sells all of them for 50 pounds each, it will earn 300,000 pounds (about $400,000). That’s more than the property is worth. He is also raffling a second prize of 10,000 pounds ($13,200) with five third prizes of food and wine hampers. First prize also includes all notary costs, car rental and flights from anywhere in Europe.

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo

The garden. Jamie Abbott photo

Launched last April, they’ve sold just under 3,000 tickets and must reach 4,000 to cover costs.

“We’re just being as open and transparent as possible,” Abbott said. “We want to give the raffle authenticity to make it personal.”

House raffles have been successful in Great Britain for years, but in desperate Italy they’ve gone past raffles and are practically giving away houses. Last year the dying village of Sambuca, Sicily, announced it would sell houses for 1 euro. Two catches: Buyers had to commit 15,000 euros for renovations and put up a security deposit of 5,000 euros.

It didn’t put off many. Tens of thousands responded, including U.S. lawyers who wanted to do business and a Dubai woman who wanted to buy dozens of houses. The local mayor had to put up the town’s first stop sign — in the form of a No piu! (No more!)

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo

Looking out onto the patio. Jamie Abbott photo

Another mayor in Bormida, Liguria, posted an announcement of 2,000-euro bonuses for anyone relocating there. After 17,000 applications buried his office, he quickly removed the proposal, saying it was only an idea to the regional government. In January 2018 the town of Ollolai in Sardinia sold 200 uninhabited houses for a euro each. Gangi, Sicily, has sold homes for 1 euro since 2014.

Sound desperate? You’re right. This is the Italian real estate market’s equivalent to global warming. Italian authorities predict half of Italy’s smallest towns will become deserted in the coming decades. Abbott is aware of the skepticism. It’s one reason he’s avoiding the mass publicity by advertising in the big European dailies.

“People are like, It must be a scam,’ because it’s too good to be true,” he said. “We’ve published this on many group pages, like Facebook. But before they even look at the site they instantly come back with a cry of ‘Scam! Be careful.’ I personally reply to every single one of those saying actually it’s not. We’re trying to be open and transparent. Fifty percent come back and go, ‘OK, my apologies. My bad. Because I didn’t read it.’”

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo

Living room. Jamie Abbott photo

He set the price at 50 pounds to insure people are willing to make the commitment if they do win. Unlike the homes in Sicily, this home needs no renovation. In fact, because the national park is between the house and L’Aquila and its foundation is natural rock, the house suffered no damage during the 2009 earthquake that destroyed much of L’Aquila and killed 308 people in the area.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, not many want to buy in regions where people get buried in their own homes. Combine that with a general downturn in the foreign market to buy second homes in Europe and you see what Abbott is facing.

I asked him, so why sell at all? He has an online rustic Italian antique business and wanted to sell the house to start another project. He currently rents it out as an AirBnB and lives in the nearby village of Caporciano.

He does not want to leave Abruzzo. We both agree it’s one of Italy’s best-kept secrets. He first discovered it about 15 years ago when he rode an old Italian Vespa motor scooter from London through France, Spain, Corsica and Sardinia onto the Italian mainland and then to Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome’s Lazio.

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo

The kitchen. Jamie Abbott photo

He fell in love with Abruzzo and bought the house in Caporciano. His parents followed him and bought a small apartment as well. Three years later, they bought the house they’re raffling.

“There’s so much to do here,” he said. “It’s like going to Tuscany but it’s completely undiscovered. You feel you’ve got something to discover and explore. It’s not overrun with tourists, even in the height of high season in August. You can hike on your own. There are lakes. You can ski in the morning, you can swim in the afternoon in the sea. You’ve got massive diversity of landscapes and within half hour of the house there are four national parks, one of which the house is literally on the doorstep.”

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo

The bathroom. Jamie Abbott photo

Ticket sales end Sept. 30 and the raffle will be held sometime in October depending on the notary.

AO! M’HAI SENTITO?! Roman dialect is the language within the language on the streets of Rome

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

People the world over swoon over the Italian language. Next to French it’s the most romantic language in the world, a conversational song seemingly written for lovers and poets. Nearly every word ends softly, with a vowel, like a feather landing on a four-poster bed.

But buried under the Dolomite-high pile of frothy adjectives and illuminating nouns sits a local dialect few outside the streets of Rome know. If you heard it, you wouldn’t swoon. You might cringe, just from the sound. Then you might gasp from the meaning.

Take this phrase that is creeping more into my daily conversation: Li mortacci tua!

That loosely means, “Your entire family is dead!” It even sounds evil, doesn’t it? The word mortacci sticks in my throat, like a dagger getting ready to be flung across a room. Where does the phrase come from? No, it’s not Italian.

It’s Roman. That’s the local dialect, one I often hear as much as classic Italian. It’s distinct, often crude with a sub-dialect that’s devoted entirely to profanity. No, “Your entire family is dead” carries no dirty words. But in Italy, where the nuclear family remains as tight as layers of lasagna, it is not good to say someone’s family got hit by a Fiat.

It’s part of a street slang that I’m picking up after five years living in the heart of Rome. Classic Italian is hard enough. Blend in dialects, ranging from regional to some varying from village to village, and it’s no wonder one part of the country doesn’t know what the other is doing.

When Marina and I travel around Italy listening to locals, she often has the same blank expression as when we were in Hungary. In Naples, the dialect seems so violent, added by the Neapolitans’ nature to scream when merely asking for the parmesan, every conversation sounds ready to end in a knife fight. The Sardo language in Sardinia has more apostrophes than commas.

The Trentino dialect of Alto Adige in the north sounds like you’re in Berlin. Sicilian in the south is so different, Italian is almost considered a second language.

In Italy, you can’t tell the language without a linguist. It wasn’t until 1861 when Italy became united did Italian become the official national language. Benito Mussolini went so far to further unite the people, he banned German names for road signs in Alto Adige. Fat good that did. All signs today in Bolzano, Alto Adige’s capital, are bilingual.

Here in Rome, it’s even more complicated. People don’t even know what to call their dialect which goes in lockstep with everything else in this chaotic city. Depending on whom you talk to, it’s either called Roman, Romanesco or Romanaccio.

Its original name was Romanesco. Once considered closer to Neapolitan than Florentine, the dialect became more northern with the election of two Medici popes from Florence. After the Sack of Rome in 1527, a large immigration moved south from Tuscany, now considered home to the most classic Italian. Many Tuscans today sound like graduates of the Rai School of Broadcasting.

Poets and writers made Romanesco famous, particularly Gioachino Belli (1791-1863) whose collection of poems in “Sonetti Romaneschi” became a huge source of pride to 19th century Romans and their culture.

Still, until Rome became Italy’s capital in 1861, Romanesco was only spoken inside the walls of the city. Read Romanesco today, and it’s a mind-bending collection of doubled identical consonants, mangled nouns and weirdly placed apostrophes. One of Belli’s lines is “Io so’ io, e vvoi nun zete un cazzo.” (I am me and you’re not a fucking thing.)

You don’t see this much anymore. In fact, many scholars say it’s a dying dialect. I sometimes heard it in my old neighborhood of Testaccio, where many locals are as old as some of Rome’s monuments. But I never heard it from anyone under 60.

What you hear in its place is a modernized version I simply call Roman or, in Italian, Romano. You know those pretty little syllables that hang off Italians’ words and their tongues? In Roman, they’re gone. Romans eat their words, like they’re pizza slices and their pausa (afternoon break) is ending soon. Baristas often call my cappuccino a cappucc (pronounced ka-POOCH). Andiamo (Let’s go) becomes nnamo. Mangiamo
(Let’s eat) becomes magnamo. Che film vuoi vedere? (What film do you want to see?) becomes Che firm voi vede’?

Some call the dialect Romanaccio. However, I consider Romanaccio the sub-dialect that’s laced with dirty words. It’s what you hear when you see two cab drivers in an argument. When two lovers fight, you’ll need a Romanaccio translator. Marina, a third-generation Roman, is fluent in Romanaccio and has made me a convert. Amazingly, while my comprehension of basic Italian still lags behind my speaking ability, I seemingly understand everything she says in Romanaccio.

There is “Cazzo!” (Fuck!), “Che cazzo!” (What the fuck!) and the ubiquitous “Che cazzo fai?!” (What the fuck are you doing?) Again, the word cazzo is the perfect sound for Roman profanity as it comes from deep in your throat, like bile.

There’s also “Pezzo di merda” (Piece of shit) and “Non me rompe li cojoni” (Don’t break my balls.), both coming in handy in Rome’s post office, cell phone store and your landlady’s presence.

In lieu of a completely x-rated blog, here are a few examples of basic Roman you’ll hear on the streets. Notice I accompany them all with the appropriate hand gestures. In any Italian dialect, hand gestures are as important as the tongue. After a while, they become automatic, subconscious body reflexes, like when I clench my fist when reading about Donald Trump. I’ve seen drivers talking through their cell phone’s mike pull their motor scooter to the side so they can use both hands while talking to someone they can’t even see. (Italian and English translations follow.)

<strong><em>Ma che davero davero? (Ma veramente?)</em></strong> <strong>(But really?)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ma che davero davero? (Ma veramente?) (But really?) Photo by Marina Pascucci

The hands are placed in praying formation as if to say, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me?” Often seen in Olympic Stadium aimed at a soccer referee.
<strong><em>Ma sto a taja! (Sto morendo di risate!)</em></strong> <strong>(I’m dying of laughter.)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ma sto a taja! (Sto morendo di risate!) (I’m dying of laughter.) Photo by Marina Pascucci

Don’t use this as a sarcastic gesture. Italians do not get sarcasm.
<strong><em>Se magna! (Finalmente mangiamo!)</em></strong> <strong>(Finally we eat!)</strong>Photo by Marina Pascucci

Se magna! (Finalmente mangiamo!) (Finally we eat!)Photo by Marina Pascucci

In a society based more on food than politics, this gesture is common.
 <strong><em>Ma che me stai a di? (Ma che cosa dici?)</em></strong> <strong>(But what are you saying?)</strong><br />Photo by Marina Pascucci[/caption]

Ma che me stai a di? (Ma che cosa dici?) (But what are you saying?)
Photo by Marina Pascucci

The hand enclosed by the thumb and four fingers, up toward the mouth, has become common all over Italy. It’s also kind of a polite way of saying, “Well, fuck you.”
<strong><em>Ao! M’hai sentito?! (Eh! Mi hai sentito?!)</em></strong> <strong>(Hey, did you hear me?)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ao! M’hai sentito?! (Eh! Mi hai sentito?!) (Hey, did you hear me?) Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Ao” is a common greeting on the streets although this gesture is not. Who can’t hear Romans?

<strong><em>Anvedi questo. (Ma come il sei vestito.)</em></strong> <strong>(But look at how she’s dressed.)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Anvedi questo. (Ma come il sei vestito.) (But look at how she’s dressed.) Photo by Marina Pascucci

Dress like a typical American in Rome, you’ll be sure to have this happen behind your back.
<strong><em>Ah FICO! (Sei molto BELLA!)</em></strong><strong>(You are BEAUTIFUL!)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ah FICO! (Sei molto BELLA!)(You are BEAUTIFUL!) Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is what I do behind Marina’s back.
<strong><em>Li mortacci tua! (Maledetto te!</em>)</strong> <strong>(May your entire family die!)</strong> Photo by Marina Pascucci

Li mortacci tua! (Maledetto te!) (Your entire family is dead!) Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is as bad as it gets, something you say to the person who ax murders your family or what Marina would say if she saw what I gesture behind her back.

<strong><em>T'aa appoggio. (Sono per te.)</em></strong> <strong>(I'm with you.)</strong>

T’aa appoggio. (Sono per te.) (I’m with you.)

A simple agreement goes a long way in Rome.

<strong><em>Te gonfio! (Quando ti incontro ti uccido!)</em></strong> <strong>(When I meet you I'll kill you!)</strong>

Te gonfio! (Quando ti incontro ti uccido!) (When I meet you I’ll kill you!)

I find Italians the nicest people in the world so I’ve never used this. Feel free to use it when you realize a cabbie ripped you off as he drives away.