Travel tales from hell: Disease, machetes and the lessons we learn

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.

Eating insects in Phnom Penh with my Cambodian friend and insect advisor, Samnieng Bee.


To truly travel, one must truly suffer.

It’s a backpacker’s creed, one I’ve preached throughout an international travel career spanning 41 years and 100 countries. Break out of your comfort zone like it’s a prison cell. Stroll through new, unfamiliar worlds that make you wake up wondering, “What could possibly happen today?”

When you see the crowd walk one way, walk the other. Enter bars where no one else has your skin color. Go white-water rafting past crocodiles. Eat an insect. Take chances and go through Door No. 2.

Then lose your earphones and take in the sounds of your new surroundings. The arguments of Cairo cab drivers. The music in the streets of Havana. The eerie growls from a pre-dawn jungle in Belize.

Playing it safe is for vacationers, people going on holiday. I knew a woman in Colorado who every year went to the same all-inclusive Mexican resort. She only left the compound on her last day to shop. I don’t think she ever met a Mexican.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.

Outside my ger in Mongolia.


I once asked a travel writer — writers who travel in packs with other writers taken by the hand by tour guides — to give me her worst travel experience. She said one time her flight out of Nairobi was cancelled and she had to spend the night in the city alone.

Come on!

Travel without surprises is like a margarita without tequila. It’s refreshing but there’s no kick. Take a chance. Make an effort. Sometimes Door No. 2 opens up a whole different world.

A deserted, exotic beach in Sri Lanka. A fantastic home-cooked meal in a rural home in Yugoslavia. Watching the sun rise above Africa from the top of Kilimanjaro.

Keep in mind traveling off the beaten path is much easier for a guy. The New York Times recently ran a story chronicling some horrid attacks women have suffered traveling alone. These women travelers suffered too much.

Men don’t get sexually attacked. Hookers do take no for an answer. Then again, men still can suffer. While I’ve experienced all the above, I’ve also walked through the new doors and fallen face first in a pile of Third World trouble. Odds are if you spend enough time off the beaten path you will lose your way.

In cooking class in India.

In cooking class in India.


In other words, I’ve suffered.

Yet, I’ve also learned. I’ve also laughed. It becomes part of the fabric that is travel abroad. It puts your own life in perspective. It helps you handle mundane problems such as the flu and a flat tire. No date on Friday night? Who cares?

I have talked to groups about travel and I always ask, by a raise of hands, how many have had bad experiences on the road, or, as I call them, travel tales from hell? Then I ask what are the travel stories they most often discuss around the dinner table or bar? It’s the time they got shaken down by cops in Indonesia or spent the night in a brothel in Malaysia or thought you got kidnapped in Iron Curtain Hungary. That has all happened to me, too. Yet I rarely tell those stories.

I have better ones.

With spring here and travel season approaching, this is a good time to share three favorite travel stories from hell. Try not to read while eating. Parts are disgusting. Parts are funny. All are enlightening — I hope.

Trekking in Borneo.

Trekking in Borneo.


Just keep in mind that suffering on the road isn’t usually tragedy. As I so often heard from coaches in my sportswriting days, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To travel is to suffer.

This is how I suffered (Unfortunately, there is no photographic evidence. Read on and you’ll see why.):

Typhoid in Thailand. There’s a saying among old Asian hands that if you travel long enough in Asia, you will get sick. It just depends on what disgusting disease you get and for how long. I met a guy whose girlfriend picked up, at the same time, hepatitis and ringworm. Lovely.

In 1978-79, during a year-long solo trip around the world, I spent four months backpacking through Southeast and East Asia. After a freelance writing assignment in Bangkok, I spent the beer money trekking in Northern Thailand. I was hiking through thick jungle among the Lahu and Lisu hill tribes north of Chiang Rai, heading toward the Golden Triangle, back then the world’s leading source for heroin.

One night, I woke up with nausea, a blistering temperature, a serious migraine and the worst thirst of my life. I would’ve given five years off my life for an ice-cold 7-Up. But I was about a two day’s hike from the nearest road and figured this was just my time. I didn’t know until later what I had contracted.

Are you familiar with typhoid? It is a disease of the digestive tract. It’s when all your bodily functions simultaneously say, “FUCK IT!” and quit working. Soon vomiting attacks and diarrhea joined my own personal torture chamber.

I spent two days walking back to civilization, accompanied by a local guide who didn’t have a clue what I had or what to do. I could keep nothing down, not even water, particularly boiled, purified water that had the same temperature as some of the more cooler Jacuzzis. The air temperature was in the 80s with humidity more appropriate for African violets than human life.

When we finally reached a village, I sat down at an outdoor table. I was so weak my head crashed atop my folded arms. I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours for fear of food coming back up again. I had vomited so much my stomach muscles hurt. I was spitting up bile.

I ordered a bowl of soup. I took three sips and the slow groan familiar to Third World travelers began growing in my stomach. The little cafe had one outhouse. I stumbled in and it was nearly pitch black. The lone light was the searing sun piercing through holes in the bamboo.

Then came the double whammy: vomiting and diarrhea at the same time. I was a human volcano. Oddly, I started feeling pain in my feet. Now what? I looked down and would’ve screamed if I had the energy.

Slightly illuminated by the fractured sunlight, rats had crawled out of the hole in the floor and were biting my feet.

Dizzy, weak and disgusted to the point of vomiting more than I already was, I managed to open the door and escape back to my table. A young girl of about 12 or 13 walked in with a mop. I tried to warn her but was too weak to even raise my hand. A few seconds later, she flew out of the outhouse screaming.

A horror film director couldn’t get this scene past any studio in the world.

I eventually took a bus to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s major city, and the clinic pumped me full of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics. No help. I spent New Year’s Eve 1978 throwing up my guts in my guesthouse’s outhouse.

I finally reached Bangkok. Keep in mind the late ‘70s was pre-AIDS and the sex industry left over from the Vietnam War was still alive and very well. Every guy (except me) had sex; every guy got VD. Bangkok, particularly around the backpackers’ neighborhood of Lumphini, had a VD clinic on practically every corner.

I walked into one hoping to get a cure for a disease that’s a lot less fun to catch. I looked like I’d spent a week on a slave ship. My skin had an orange tint, my long hair was everywhere, my eyes were bloodshot, my tongue was swollen. I stumbled into the office and slumped onto a plastic chair.

A Swede waiting to get checked looked at me and said, “My God! Who were you with?”

The doctor diagnosed it as typhoid. He told me that the innoculations I got in Athens earlier that month doesn’t prevent you from getting typhoid. They merely keep you alive.

His dose of glucose, penicillin and antibiotics kicked in the next day. But the end of the ordeal, I had lost 20 pounds in eight days and stood 6-foot-3 and 138 pounds.

Postscript: When I returned to the States and settled into my first job, I got a checkup at my local clinic in suburban Seattle. The doctor said typhoid may build up my immunity system. She was right. In 40 years, I never missed a day of work due to illness.

Machete in Morocco. The Third World has great shopping. However, bargaining is often the rule and you’d better know how to do it. At 22, I didn’t. I learned in a hurry.Thankfully, I was able to bargain again.

I was in Fez, Morocco, home to North Africa’s biggest medina, a marketplace filled choc-a-bloc with everything from fragrant spice stalls to smoky cafes to carpet dealers of various repute. Back then it was a dark and mysterious place, lit mostly by candles, making night shopping like lurking through a haunted house. I’d heard stories of tourists wandering in and never coming out.

It’s a labyrinth covering 540 acres. No accurate map existed. I spent one day taking continuous right-hand turns as I explored only the outside rim. Wanting to delve deeper, I reluctantly hired one of the plethora of men offering guide services.

What I didn’t know is these guides guide you to their merchant friends. Whatever you buy, your guide gets a cut. It wasn’t long before “Abdul” led me into a copper shop. The place was beautiful, filled with plates of every size hanging from the walls. Abdul told me the merchant’s father designed part of the door on the king’s palace.

Now what in the hell would I do with a copper plate? I was backpacking. Where would I put it? Slip it in my shorts? The merchant showed me a gorgeous, shiny, highly embroidered plate about two feet in diameter. It was obviously out of my price range and he confirmed it.

It was the equivalent of about $40. That was more than four days budget for me. I didn’t even want it free. So I decided to insult him.

Five dollars.

I quickly learned you can’t insult a Moroccan merchant while bargaining. He scoffed, shook his head and told me to make a serious offer. I didn’t. He said $30. To make a long story short, in five minutes he had dropped his price to $10. I said sorry and started walking out.

“OK! OK!” he said as he began wrapping the plate in newspaper. “Five dollars!”

Then I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life — or at least a limb. I turned to face him. I told him I still didn’t want it.

Then he felt insulted.

He went behind a curtain and pulled out a knife the size of a Louisville Slugger. He began screaming in Arabic. I screamed in a language I didn’t know I knew and ran out, my guide in chase and so was the merchant’s right foot which barely missed me. He had the good sense to use a shoe as a weapon instead of a machete that could puncture the Goodyear Blimp.

I told the guide, “Why did you take me in there? I told you I didn’t want a copper plate!”

He said, “Sir, he could’ve killed you and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.”

Lesson learned: If you shop in the Third World, you’d better want it before you price it.

Wharf rats in Indonesia. Speaking of rats …

… no, they are not omnipresent in the Third World. They’re omnipresent everywhere. New York. Las Vegas. Rome. You just don’t always see them. And some places they grow bigger than others.

Take any waterside village with lots of garbage and you’ll see rats the size of dachshunds. Which brings us to Tentena, Indonesia.

Tentena is on the island of Sulawesi, the dragon-shaped island just east of Borneo. Sulawesi is an exotic, beautiful island with gorgeous beaches, terrific scuba diving, fantastic food and interesting culture.

Tentena was none of these things.

In 1995 I spent five weeks traveling the island and after about seven hours in a bush taxi through the Sulawesi interior found myself in Tentena. Tentena had no refrigeration, no cold water, no beer and sits on the edge of Lake Poso.

Dead tired, I checked into a budget hotel and after a simple dinner went to bed on a hot night. I left the window open to get a breeze off the lake. Closing my eyes, I heard a thump from inside the room. It sounded like a fallen atlas. I turned on the head lamp. Sitting on the floor wasn’t an atlas.

It was a rat, a giant wharf rat, almost two feet long without the tail. It raced across the room and through a hole in the opposite wall. My threshold for Third World squalor is pretty high. Give me a door lock, clean sheets and a shower and I’m pretty happy. I once stayed in a hotel in rural Egypt where the shower drained doubled as the toilet.

But I draw the line with rats that must drop weight to go three rounds with my cat.

I went to the manager, who spoke no English, and pantomimed my problem. I used a “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!” sound to mimic the noise rats make and bared my teeth.

“AH!” he said, “TIKUS!” I then added the word for “rat” to my growing Indonesian vocabulary. He indicated he’d find something to get rid of it. He didn’t respond when I asked if he had an Uzi.

I went for a short walk and returned to the manager who put me up in another room. Too tired to ask if he nuked the rodent, I went to sleep — with the window closed and my eyes open. Suddenly, like the ominous music of a Grade B horror film, I heard the noise again.

“TSEE! TSEE! TSEE!”

Oh, my God. It’s back!

Then I heard, “TSEE! TSEE! TSEE! TSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEETSEE!”

There’s more than one! There’s more than two! I can’t count them! I can’t see them! Then it dawned on me.

They’re mating. Rats wildly copulating behind my walls! Well, I thought, at least they’re occupied.

I rolled over and after what must’ve been a mass orgasm of the rodent orgy — one sexual fantasy I somehow missed growing up — the room grew quiet. I could not sleep, especially after I glanced at the window. Behind the frayed curtain was a long shadow that wasn’t there before. It looked as long as the rat’s tail but much thicker.

I precariously approached the window. I suddenly related to the guy in the movies who opens the door at the frat retreat before the disfigured psycho disembowels him with a power tool. I turned back the curtain and hanging down was some kind of insect, about a foot long, brown and red with thousands of little feet.

It raised its bulbous head at me. I didn’t need a translator or an entomologist to tell me what I thought it was about to say.

“GET OUT!”

This was “Terminator” Indonesia. I didn’t get out. I had nowhere to go. I eventually went to sleep and the next day at the bus stop, I met an Aussie who was sleeping in a nearby room at my hotel. He said he heard through the walls me say three things that perfectly captured Third World travel.

“GET THAT RAT OUTTAHERE!”

“OH, MY GOD! THEY’RE FUCKING!”

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!

Thursday I leave for my birthday in Beirut. In May I spend three weeks in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etceterastan).

Bring it on.

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.

The heart of Umbrian wine country reveals a rising star: Sagrantino

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.


MONTEFALCO, Italy — One of my pleasant surprises after retiring to Rome with a taste for wine and no car is I never have to leave the city to taste the best wines in the world. I never even have to visit a restaurant or wine bar. All I have to do is wait for the wine tastings that come to Rome nearly every weekend. Piedmont. Puglia. Bio wines. Chianti. Nearly every theme under the massive Italian wine umbrella makes its way to Rome where I can drink my way through an entire region without ever leaving a conference room.

However, I must admit these wine tastings, called degustazioni in Italian, miss a lot of local flavor. You can hold them in the most beautiful hotels in Rome, such as the Radisson Blu, but you only get, literally, a taste. You don’t get the feel. You don’t see the vineyards shining in the sun. You don’t smell the French Oak in the storage rooms. You don’t see the sprawling winery setting in the rolling hills. Degustazioni make you feel like you’re in Rome.

Wineries make you feel like you’re in Italy. Old Italy. Where grapevines hang over picnic tables and entire villages revolve around the wine production calendar. Sometimes you have to get closer to the wine to truly taste it.

For some reason, however great Italian wine is, it tastes even better where it’s made.

After five years in Rome, I finally had that opportunity last week. My good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for the ANSA wire service and Italian food and wine connoisseur, got an invitation to attend the Anteprima Sagrantino. It’s a fair featuring the rare, delicious and little-known Umbrian wine called Sagrantino. It’s held in Montefalco, a town of about 5,800 in the heart of Umbria and the center of Sagrantino production.

It sounded like a great time: two days drinking one of the most underrated wines in the world, stay overnight in a beautiful hotel that has hosted movie stars, eat Umbria’s great local cheeses and meats and visit a couple wineries in the quiet off season.

I decided to tag along.

This was not only two days of drinking wine. It was two days of drinking wine in Umbria, which is rapidly becoming my favorite wine region in Italy. That’s a little like being the prettiest woman in Italy, too. The competition is fierce.

Alessandro picked me up near his home in northwest Rome and drove the 90 miles north to Montefalco. Driving anywhere with Alessandro is like getting a loud lesson in Romanaccio, the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. Every car is driving too slow; every truck is driving in the wrong lane. Then again, he was in a hurry. To wine lovers, Anteprima Sagrantino is like a toppled milk truck near stray cats.

I’ve often called Umbria “Tuscany Light.” It has everything Tuscany has — walled towns, mountains, vineyards — at cheaper costs and a fraction of the tourists of its northern neighbor. It’s the only region that does not border a sea or another country. Thus, it has fewer outside influences. It has remained true to itself and to the relatively fewer outsiders lucky enough to discover it.

I love driving into Umbria, on uncrowded roads, through rolling hills, past walled villages perched high on cliffs like magic kingdoms. Deeper in the heart of Umbria, I pass vineyards, olive orchards and deep, green meadows. It’s now winter. It’s cold, in the low 40s. The vines are bare. But no matter.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco's old town.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco’s old town.

You don’t have to drink wine outside under grapevines.

I tell people that to reach Montefalco, you go to Bastardo and take a right. True. Umbria has a town called Bastardo, named for the Osteria del Bastardo (Bastard’s Inn) around which the town was built in the 17th century. Montefalco has a much more romantic origin. Falcons were known to fly majestically around the foothills of the nearby Apennines mountain range.

Montefalco’s old town sits inside a 12th century wall. This once star-crossed village existed peacefully under the rule of the Papal States for 400 years before the unification of Italy in 1861. We stopped just outside the wall at Villa Pambuffetti, a four-star palace set in the middle of 10,000 square yards of gardens and century-old trees. The lobby looks like an Italian grandmother’s living room with overstuffed chairs and couches and a fireplace to warm your hands. A big jar of sugared jellies and chocolates share a coffee table with the daily papers. Tony Curtis once stayed here.

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti


But the real star of Montefalco is Sagrantino. If you’ve never heard of it, let alone tried it, don’t feel bad. Like Umbria, it’s little known and underrated. The big reason is the Sagrantino grape is only grown in Umbria. Thus, Umbria, off the beaten path, is the only place that makes the wine. It’s an Umbrian tradition for a new grandfather to buy 12 bottles of a vintage and save it for 25 years until the grandchild marries.
Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.

Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.


While the grape has been around since the 16th century, Sagrantino wine is relatively new. It was mostly used to make the sweet Passito wine used during mass in Catholic churches. Being a close proximity to Rome and its 900 churches, Montefalco did a thriving business. But in the 1970s, technology improved and the Sagrantino, made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, received the official DOC denomination in 1979 and the higher-rated DOCG in 1992. Sharing center stage here is Montefalco Rosso, using a blend with Sagrantino, Sangiovese and another grape such as Colorino.

Expansion worked. Today, 63 wineries dot the wine map around Montefalco. Most are exporting, some as much as 40 percent and to as far away as China and Japan.

I had only a passing knowledge of it. Meanwhile, Alessandro, who had lauded this festival for weeks, was panting like a thirsty dog.

We entered through the walled city’s huge arched door and up the narrow cobblestone street to a nearly hidden hallway holding a large conference room. Here was my familiar territory: a square room with 40 wineries sitting table to table all offering four or five of their best wines.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.


Sagrantino is a hard grape to grow. It needs a long, hot season and has one of the highest tannin levels. It’s twice the level of Nebbiolo, the base for my favorite Barolo wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes Sagrantino a much drier red wine. Look at the wine and it is a deep purple, with an almost black center. It just so happens purple is my favorite color.

Thus, Sagrantino is absolutely beautiful to behold — particularly in a glass, even at 11 a.m. when we started drinking.

I became a huge Sagrantino fan before lunch. Among the metropolis of Montefalco wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai is one of the best known. At wine tastings, I always start by asking for their medium wine. Not the best, not the worst. Alessandra Nobili of Arnaldo-Caprai started me with a 2015 Collepiano and it was very good, rich and full with the taste of plum and cinnamon I’d read about.

Then she graduated me up to a Sagrantino celebrating the winery’s 25-year anniversary last year. Simply called 25 Year, it was one of the best red wines I’ve ever had. No wonder. It’s 50 euros in Italy, and about $150 in the U.S. where Arnaldo-Caprai has a base in New York.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his  family's Scacciadiavoli winery.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his family’s Scacciadiavoli winery.


Another big winery here is Scacciadiavoli. It sells in 14 states in the U.S., plus Europe, United Kingdom and Japan. Iacopo Pambuffetti, a cousin of the hotel owners, is a big, jovial bearded member of the winery’s founding family. He speaks of Sagrantino as if it’s a family member, too.

“I love Sagrantino because it represents very, very well my region,” he said. “And it’s an incredible wine. If you want, you can put it among the top wines in Italy.”

He then talked about how well it goes with wild boar and lamb, goat cheese and dark chocolate. I hadn’t eaten since a cornetto on the ride up. My taste buds were hyperventilating. We were in Italy.

In Italy, wine tasting is foreplay.

Alessandro and I went to Olevm (the Latin word for “oil”), a small home-style restaurant with olive print tablecloths and a big chest of drawers holding olive and wine in the middle of the upstairs dining room. Black and white photos of Italian movie legends such as Alberto Sordi and Sophia Loren eating pasta hang on the walls.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.


We had bruschetta with olive, zucchini and potato spreads then I had pasta with greens followed by chicken in Sagrantino sauce (I’m wondering if they use Sagrantino to run their cars, too.). It’s the first time I’ve ever had purple chicken but the unique combination is something that should be exported as well.

Placated with carbs, we entered Anteprima Sagrantino’s war room: the media tasting room. Converted from the Montefalco city council chamber, it sported five long tables with nine seats each, all with six glasses, breadsticks and a spit bucket.

The place was empty.

We took our seats and the young server gave us a list of 45 wineries we could taste. Oddly, we had to try a minimum of six. Who was I to argue? We tried (gulp!) 10: six 100 percent Sagrantino and four Passito.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.


I am not a wine connoisseur. When I taste a wine I rarely can separate the cherries from the tobacco, the plums from the raspberries. Most who say they can are full of fertilizer. They’re trying to impress their date or the sommelier server, most of whom try hard not to roll their eyes. I am not a wine snob. I can tell a red from a white and that’s about it.

But I know what I like and the best of the bunch was the Moretti Omero, rich, deep and the kind of flavor that lasts in your mouth long after you swallowed. Fruits? Christ, I don’t know. Who cares? I just knew I had to buy a bottle.

The highlight of Anteprima Sagrantino is the winery dinner. About 20 journalists, wine writers and freeloaders poured into cars and headed first to Scacciadiavoli for an aperitivo. Scacciadiavoli is the area’s oldest winery, established in 1884. It sits just east of Bastardo with 86 acres anchored by two large white buildings that look like simple churches. Downstairs in the tasting room where we mingled with Montefalco’s crem della grapes while munching on fried baccala’ (cod) and bread with anchovies, washed down with the winery’s sparkling wine.

We then piled back in the cars for a short drive to Le Cimate where we sat in a large modern dining room. Bordering the room were four large tables featuring cheeses, main dishes, wines and made-to-order desserts. It was gluttony paradise.

I sat next to Giulia Goretti who has traveled all over the world promoting her Vini Goretti family winery near Perugia, Umbria’s capital about 30 miles to the north, and two around Montefalco. This winery goes back four generations dating to the early 1900s. When she talked about Umbrian wine, I listened.

“It’s something more special now,” she said. “When you are proposing an Umbrian wine you are proposing something different, something that not many people know. A lot of times it’s more interesting than other regions that are more known.”

Between bites of nearly orgasmic tortellini in cheese topped with truffle shavings, I asked her how so many wines in such a small region can compete against each other. It’s like 30 gelaterias on one block in Rome.

“The world is very big,” she said. “We export a lot. And every Sagrantino is different.”

Perticaia winery started in 2000.

Perticaia winery started in 2000.


The next morning, Alessandro and I went to the outskirts of Montefalco to the small winery of Perticaia (meaning “plow” in the Umbrian dialect and marking the transition to agriculture). Started in just 2000, it’s a split-level mustard-colored building with 123 acres of vineyards and 200 olive trees. In winter, its vegetarian is bare, making the landscape almost ghostlike in the morning fog. But inside the warm, light-filled tasting room, we tried 10 — count ‘em, 10 — wines that belie the size of the winery. I especially liked the brand new 2018 Sagrantino and the 2012 Montefalco Rosso.

We left fat and happy (me a little more as Alessandro had to drive back to Rome) and couldn’t help noticing the smiles on all the faces of the wine people we met. This truly is a wonderful business, manufacturing something you love and can share with the world in a beautiful setting. The stress of economics, competition, weather and marketing doesn’t seem to faze these people. If wine is the key to a stress-free life, maybe I should increase my intake.

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia's storage room

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia’s storage room


“We are always in front of a glass of wine,” Goretti told me. “We are always at a table with a lot of people, talking and drinking and laughing. How can you not be happy? That’s why it’s the best life ever.”

A trip to Rome’s Olympic Stadium is worth the hassle when Roma wins

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma  over Porto.

Making my season debut at Olympic Stadium, a 2-1 Champions League win for Roma over Porto.


Did you know a comb could be a weapon?

And it’s not even a big comb, one of those knife-length jobs you slip in your back pocket, the kind James Bond may have used to cut a Russian spy’s throat. It’s a little round collapsible comb that pops out when you lift the lid and push up from underneath. For years I carried it in my left front pocket, not knowing I had a concealed weapon in my possession.

In Rome’s Olympic Stadium, it is.

Security guards confiscated it Tuesday night when I went through the gate. I asked the female guard what possible harm could I do with this, thinking maybe her tip would be handy if I ever meet a Trump supporter. She made a throwing motion as if hurling a fastball, showing pretty good velocity.

So they don’t want me throwing it on the field or at opposing fans. They were searching everybody everywhere. Pockets. Purses. Backpacks. Limbs. I thought I saw a proctologist on call nearby.

Welcome to the soccer game experience, Italian style.

I’ve seen nearly every AS Roma game this season but this was my first trip to see one live. I eschewed my normal mid-field press tribune seat for a 50-euro ticket with my fellow American expat/Romanista, Loren, an English teacher from Long Island who left Rome last June for Zurich. Two things she misses about Rome are the food and football.

We tried to get a group together but it wasn’t easy. Some begged out because it was a work night and a 9 p.m. start; others didn’t want to hassle with going to the stadium.

And it is a hassle. Even getting there is a problem. Rome is the only capital I know in Europe that does not have a train going to its stadium. One must rely on Europe’s worst public transportation system, Atac, only slightly more reliable than hitchhiking and not much safer. Unlike Rome’s buses, at least cars driven by psycho loners with butcher knives don’t inexplicably burst into flames. If you drive, you must park at least a kilometer away per the absurd security precautions. You never know when a suicide bomber frustrated with Roma’s coaching staff runs his explosives-laden Fiat into a panino stand.

Once at the stadium, the security is something akin to that at a North Korean nuclear facility. You show your ticket plus a photo ID to get through the first gate. The ticket MUST have your name on it to foil scalpers. I’ve seen some in Italy hover outside gates selling discount tickets to unwitting, casual tourists who are then denied entry but learn their first Italian word: ladro (thief).

Then you walk 50 meters and go through an electronic turnstile where you press the ticket’s barcode against a machine’s blinding light, unlocking the gate you walk through. Greeting you is a squadron of security guards who pat you down, feel your pockets and view grooming products as hand grenades.

At the same time you’re arguing the relative merits of combs, a monitor is photographing your face to match up in case a camera inside the stadium catches you hurling a javelin at the opposing goalie.

Still, coming to an AS Roma game as a fan is an experience I can’t get at my midfield seat with the video monitor in front of me and access to press room pizza. It’s definitely more exhilarating than sitting in the cramped upper room of my soccer pub with the other Romanisti eating fish ‘n chips and breaking down Brexit.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.

More than 51,000 fans packed the stadium, including my section on the north end.


And Tuesday night was special: AS Roma-Porto, the Champions League knockout stage. It’s the perfect time to write an update on my favorite sports team. It’s the one liferaft of fandom I’ve grasped after 40 years as a crusty (“WHERE ARE THE STATS???!!!”), emotionally bankrupt (“When’s last call?”), cynical (see above graphs) sportswriter.

It has taken a while this season to hop aboard. The offseason was painful. Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo, the Spanish sporting director known as “Monchi” brought over from Sevilla two years ago after directing it to 11 trophies, headed a purge of Roma’s guts. Gone went Alisson Becker, 25, in the discussion as the world’s best goalkeeper, to Liverpool. Midfielder Radja Nainggolan, 30, the heavily tattooed fan favorite and on-field enforcer, rejoined former Roma coach Luciano Spalletti at Inter Milan. Midfielder Kevin Strootman, 28, a major locker room leader, rejoined Rudy Garcia, another ex-Roma coach, in Marseille. In Alisson (a goalkeeper-record 62.5 million euros), Nainggolan (38 million) and Strootman (25 million) the club got 130.5 million euros in transfer fees.

With that they went out and bought a bunch of kids. Arriving from Dutch power Ajax came Justin Kluivert, 19, son of the former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, for 17.25 million. Patrik Schick, a 22-year-old striker from Czech Republic, came from Sampdoria for 9 million and attacking midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, 18, came aboard from Inter for only 4.5 million. The biggest acquisitions were Sevilla midfielder Steven Nzonzi, 29, fresh off helping France to the World Cup title, for 26.56 million; Paris-Saint Germain midfielder Javier Pastore, 29, for 24.7 million; and goalkeeper Robin Olsen, 28, from FC Copenhagen and who blanked Italy twice to send Sweden to the World Cup, for 8.5 million.

Financially they came out ahead but how much farther ahead on the field would they get banking on the future? And who is this Zaniolo kid? If he looked any younger his mom would hand him Orange Slices after games.

Juventus, the 500-pound carnivore and seven-time Serie A defending champion, added world icon Cristiano Ronaldo and was basically handed the trophy before the first whistle blew in August.

Roma started with 1 win, 2 ties and 2 losses and later lost to 14th-place SPAL at home, 2-0. Olsen was a serviceable replacement for Becker but the defense was terrible and Dzeko, who led Roma last year with 24 goals, was hurt and ineffective. The young kids were still getting comfortable. With veteran captain Daniele De Rossi out with a knee injury, the leadership was nil. In mid-December, Roma stood at 5-6-4 and Roma’s famously impatient and vicious fans had had enough.

On Dec. 16, before a home game against Genoa, the Roma Ultras organized a protest. Thousands didn’t enter until 11 minutes had passed in the game. Those already in the stands turned their backs on the field during player introductions and whistled loudly at the announcement of every player’s name but De Rossi and Zaniolo.

Roma won three of its next four, losing only at Juventus 1-0, to enter the winter break 8-6-5 but it hit rock bottom when it returned. On Jan. 27, it blew a 3-0 lead at Atalanta and tied 3-3 then three days later at Fiorentina got filleted in 7-1 in the Italian Cup, the national tournament not held in high regard except when it’s an excuse to fire the coach.

Eusebio Di Francesco, who arrived last season from Sassuolo and led Roma to the Champions League semifinals and third place in Serie A, couldn’t have been on a hotter seat if the broiler was set on nuclear. James Pallotta, the embattled American owner, said he’d leave the decision to Monchi who steadfastly supported Di Francesco.

Di Francesco, a midfielder on Roma’s last Serie A championship team in 2000-01, has spent all season one step ahead of the executioner’s axe. Roma looked solid in a 1-1 tie against Milan then Dzeko, who awoke from his Serie A coma to score two goals at Atalanta, scored another in a 3-0 win at Chievo. The fact that Chievo is in last place was lost on the 51,000 fans who nearly sold out Olympic Stadium Tuesday hoping Roma could continue its Champions League magic.

Roma finished second behind Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage in which Dzeko had five goals in six games, giving him 15 in the competition for Roma all time, only two behind leader Francesco Totti, Roma’s living god. Roma is rising in Serie A as well, standing 10-8-5 in a three-way tie for fifth place, one point behind Milan for the fourth and final Champions League spot for next season.

Loren and I, being Americans, had to start our evening with a beer. Drinking in Olympic Stadium is an odd experience for an American. There’s never a line, especially weird since the 4-euro price is about half the price of beer in your average American stadium. Romans drink beer like Brits drink tea: slowly and sparingly. I’ve seen so few fans drink beer in the stadium I thought it wasn’t even sold, not because they want to curb rowdiness but because it flat out wouldn’t sell. Olympic Stadium is as sober as St. Peter’s.

We took our seat in the fourth row on one corner of the north end. It’s about as close to the field as you’ll get but with the eight-lane track still left from the 1960 Olympics, the distance from the end lines doesn’t make up for the low vantage point. However, we did get good views of the 3,500 Porto fans who came from Portugal to jam pack one section of the north end, cordoned off from the Roma fans by a tall Plexiglas fence, an empty section and an army of security guards, lined up like sentries on every step.

At 8:10 p.m., a good 50 minutes before the game, the Porto fans lit a fuse under a Rome fan base that only needs a cold shoulder to eat Plexiglas. They started hurling objects that looked like food and fluids over the Plexiglas into the Roma section. Roma fans responded with outstretched arms, the Roman hand gesture for “I mortacci tua” (May your entire family die.) Porto fans then waved the red cape by holding up a “FORZA LAZIO” banner and a jersey of Paolo Di Canio, the former Lazio player known for his fascism.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.

The Ultras in Curva Sud were in full force.


Not to be outdone, some Ultras in Curva Sud held up a banner reading “BASTARDO KOLAROV,” a biting cut to Aleksandar Kolarov, the veteran Serbian defender who has become the fans’ paddling boy for Roma’s defensive deficiencies. The banner was quickly removed.

Olsen was still nursing a calf injury and Roma started at goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, a 35-year-old journeyman making the biggest start of his career but I’d seen him make the second best save all season at Chievo and wasn’t worried.

However, Porto is no Chievo. It is the New York Yankees of Portuguese soccer — except Porto is still winning. It has won 28 Primeira Liga titles, second only to Benfica’s 36, but 10 of the last 16, including last year’s. It was in first place when it took the field on a clear 40-degree night Tuesday with clear memories of eliminating Roma two years ago.

The first half wouldn’t win over my old farm boy sports editor who called soccer “kickball.” Through 23 minutes, no team had a shot on goal. I looked at this glass as half filled and chalked up the 0-0 halftime score to a great defensive game, one I’d settle for after watching the bludgeoning at Fiorentina from an angry pub.

But Roma started pressing the action in the second half with Stephen El-Shaarawy skying an open shot in the 55th minute and Rome native Alessandro Florenzi hitting a bullet saved by craggie goalkeeper Iker Castillas, who led Spain to the 2010 World Cup title.

Finally, in the 70th minute, Dzeko outraced all of Portugal down the field and fed a perfect ball to a charging Zaniolo who slotted in the corner of the net for a 1-0 lead. Six minutes later, Zaniolo did it again, taking a Dzeko shot that ricocheted off the pole into the corner to make it 2-0.

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline "A FAIRY TALE."

Heroes Edwin Dzeko and Nicolo Zaniolo made the cover the next day under the headline “A FAIRY TALE.”


Yes, Roma finally has a young star and Zaniolo is finally a bigger star than his mom whose selfies have gone viral. Yes, Francesca Costa’s shots of herself on the beach in bikinis and posing in miniskirts in front of the mirror is the mother of Roma’s baby-faced sniper. From whence came this 19-year-old who has five goals in 22 games and made his Roma debut at — gulp! — Real Madrid in the Champions League Sept. 19.

Born in the Tuscany beach town of Massa, the son of a former Serie B and C player came up through Fiorentina’s youth system but was released in 2016. He hooked on with Serie B Virtus Entella two years ago and in July 2017 signed with Inter where he became its developmental team’s top scorer with 13 goals. Last summer, Inter shipped him and Davide Santon to Roma for Nainggolan, one of Monchi’s many moves that made many of the more polite fans go, “Che CAZZO! (What the fuck?)”

Zaniolo was hailed long after a Porto goal in the 76th minute made it a 2-1 final. The goal made Roma’s return leg in Portugal March 6 a little more frightening (teams advance on accumulative score with away goals serving as the first tie-breaker) but considering our season, the 2-1 victory seemed like a stay of execution.

The crowd was remarkably subdued at the final whistle. The rollicking “Grazie Roma” sung by fans arm in arm didn’t have the usual verve. In an up and down year, polite team songs sometimes take a back seat to more symbolic post-game looks like the one right near me.

A young man in a gray hoodie facing the Porto section with two middle fingers waving in the air.