How to pack for a holiday in Rome: Light, in a backpack but don’t forget the sport coat

For Rome, you can pack light and still be stylish. Photo by Marina Pascucci

For Rome, you can pack light and still be stylish. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The snow has melted, and you’re holding your smiling face up to the sun every day. You’ve been staring at that photo of the backlit Colosseum ever since you booked your Rome vacation for this spring. Lent is over but you’re continuing your abstinence from all Italian food until you sink your teeth into that first pizza at Pizzeria Remo. Soon, however, you’ll need to get to work. Decisions must be made. Items must be bought. The biggest question facing many travelers is a source of unnecessary stress.

What should I pack?

As a veteran traveler, I don’t sweat the small stuff. And packing is small stuff. I can pack for a month’s trip to Jupiter in about two hours, depending on if my anti-poison astro suit has been washed. The general rule of thumb I tell people is pack what you think you’ll need — then cut it in half. Don’t pack anything unless you plan on wearing it at least twice. While packing, look in the mirror. Pack what you’re wearing. That way you’ll look normal and you’re not walking around rural India in those stupid Ali Baba pants you’ll never wear again.

Rome isn’t as easy as the weather would suggest. Yes, in the ideal visiting months of April, May, September and October the average high temperature ranges from about 72-82 degrees. Rain is maybe three inches a month. But Rome can be complicated. In the capital of the most stylish country in the world, you don’t want to look like you walked out of an Iowa cornfield. Yet the 2,000-year-old cobblestones covering most of the town center can turn your feet into Norcia sausage before you climb one Spanish Step.

I’m here to help. After living here 5 ½ years and visiting many other times, I know what to pack and what not to pack for any time of year. For simplicity sake, I’ll stick here to the ideal months of spring and fall. Forget summer. If you’re crazy enough to visit Rome in July and August you won’t listen to this advice anyway.

So keep this list on your laptop while you’re packing your backpack, which brings us to my first item.

Backpack. Don’t take a roller bag or anything on wheels. Rome’s sidewalks are about as wide as your average Italian runway model. Your bag will spend most of its journey to your hotel in a gutter. Many streets are cobblestones. The rattling of the wheels will drown out your conversation and your bag will need a NASCAR pit crew to repair the wheels. Backpacks are comfortable, convenient and hip. You can walk anywhere with them, take up less space on crowded buses and subways and you’ll look like a road-wise traveler, not like you came from an American Express bus. This will earn you instant street cred with the pickpockets, which brings us to item No. 2 …

Money belt. I wear them anywhere in the world, but in Rome it’s more important. It’s No. 2 in the world in pickpockets behind Barcelona. The number reported in 2014 hit 1,848. That’s reported. Don’t try to be macho here. No reason to flash clenched fists. You won’t know you’ve been robbed until you try to pay for lunch. They’re that good. Instead, buy a thin, five-inch-wide money belt that slips inside the waistline of your pants. They’re available in any luggage store. Put everything in there you can’t afford to lose: credit card, cash card, excessive cash, passport, etc. Keep just enough cash in your wallet to get through the day. They can’t rob you unless they knock you out and strip you. Also, just in CASE, keep another credit card in your wallet or separate from your money belt. Don’t take it off except to bed or the shower. Do NOT pack a fat fanny pack you hang around your waist or money belts that hang around your neck. You might as well replace them with a sign reading, “ROB ME.”

Soletopia photo

Soletopia photo

Sport coat. Yes, it might be a pain to pack but it’s essential in Rome. You can NOT overdress here. Roman men wear sport coats all the time, particularly in the evening. Pack a dark blue, something that goes with everything and dresses up anything. The weather is mild enough where you can wear it comfortably during the day and night. For a little flair, pack a pocket kerchief that matches your shirt. You won’t look gay. You’ll look Italian. (Bonus advice: Don’t wear this outfit anywhere near Lubbock.)

Italian shoes. If you don’t have any to pack, buy them here. They’re beautiful, practical and so comfortable you could leave a shoe store and walk the Appian Way in them. (Psst, men! They’re cheaper here than in the States. Italian stores price them for Italian men on Italian budgets; they price women’s shoes for women tourists.) Call them shallow, but Italians judge you on how you dress. They start from the ground up. Women, don’t let the cobblestones intimidate you. Pack those heels you’ve been dying to wear. Centro Storico is compact. You won’t have to walk far. Besides, one of the three basic questions Italians ask each other, besides where you’re going on vacation and have you tried a new restaurant is: Where did you buy your shoes?

Merrells. During the day, you WILL walk a lot. I average four miles a day living like a local without ever “going for a walk.” Merrells, out of Rockford, Mich., are the best travel shoes I’ve ever owned. A French photographer I met in Mongolia had a pair that put my white Nikes to shame. Merrells feel like sneakers but the design makes them more dressy. I’ve worn them trekking in the High Tatras in Slovakia and out to dinner in Paris. They hide dirt well. They won’t look out of place with a nice pair of pants.

Loose pants. Rome’s humidity won’t be confused with Houston’s or St. Louis’ but it does reach 50 percent. When it’s mid-70s you don’t want your pants glued to your skin. Dockers or cargo pants are excellent for touring Rome. Don’t try buying them here. Romans wear them extra tight. My legs are hopelessly skinny and even I struggle to find them big enough. My girlfriend, Marina, suggests leggings for women. They’re light and comfortable and versatile for changes in weather.

T-shirts. This might be an easy assumption. Everyone packs T-shirts. The important point in Rome is what to have on it. To fit in, wear something plain. No wording. No “I’M WITH STUPID” or an Eiffel Tower. You look like a tourist already. No reason to further advertise it. And no one cares if you went to Michigan State. Italians think it’s just the state of Michigan. Leave your school colors at home. Wear dark colors. They hide sweat stains from any creeping humidity. Many Italians wear T-shirts of major brands: Abercrombie & Fitch, Dolce & Gabbana, Kappa. Those words are accepted. Also popular in Italy are solid-color v-neck T-shirts.

Collared long-sleeved shirts. Italian men wear long-sleeve shirts untucked often with their sleeves slightly rolled up and two top buttons unbuttoned. Cotton is very comfortable. Growing in popularity and taking more space in my closet are long-sleeve un-collared shirts. They’re more casual and cool. For women, Marina says silk blouses are practical and stylish. For 2018, green is IN.

Hat. I’m not a big weather guy. Weather never affects my mood. It only affects what I drink and what I wear. I do wear hats here. You’ll be in the sun a lot and may want to cover your face. Wear a fedora of black, straw or gray. They’re cooling, practical and look good with a sport coat or stylish shirt. Do NOT wear the white fedora that every tourist seems to receive when going through Rome’s airport customs. No matter where you go, even the bathroom, you’ll look like you’ve strayed from a tour group. Also popular are the short-billed, flat-topped fisherman’s hats. They’re not great for the sun but excellent in a flash rainstorm. They also fit in the inside pocket of your sport coat. Women can wear wide-billed hats of enormous variety.

Shorts. When I lived in Rome the first time in 2001-03, no one wore shorts, even in July. That has changed. When it’s hot Rome men often wear shorts — but stylish. They’re long, to the knee or beyond, and in bright colors that go well with matching shoes. Do not wear cargo shorts. This is Rome, not the Amazon.

Lightweight jacket. At night it can cool into the mid-50s, low 60s. It’s comfortable but a waistcoat or leather jacket is perfect for nocturnal excursions in case a sport coat isn’t warm enough. Also, pack a hooded windbreaker that stuffs into a corner of your backpack. They’re good also for the occasional rainstorm.

Coin purse. The euro has changed the way Italians carry money. With 2- and 1-euro coins, you can’t afford to lose any. Find a little four-sided leather pouch that snaps shut. It’s perfect for holding loose change while you’re in a long line buying a gelato. It also won’t fall out of your pocket when you’re reclining in a hotel lobby easy chair.

Daypack. In the bottom of your backpack, put a smaller pack to take with you while sightseeing during the day. In it put your camera, guidebook, map and snacks. You don’t want to have your camera exposed on Rome’s public transportation or trains in Italy. You don’t want to be seen staring at your guidebook. Hide it. Women should bring a small handbag at night. And bring it from the States. Yes, women come from all corners of the globe for Italian purses but they’re expensive. What would you rather do, ladies, have an Italian handbag or eat well? Never mind. I know the answer.

That’s it for now. Use this as a guide, not a bible. You all have your own needs. Just pack light. Leave just enough room for style. And remember: Rome isn’t just a destination. It’s an attitude.


Caravaggio: Your city guide to see all works of Rome’s greatest Baroque painter and famous all-around rebel

Caravaggio came to Rome in 1592. Today nine sites hold more than two dozen of his paintings. Port Mobility photo

Caravaggio came to Rome in 1592. Today nine sites hold more than two dozen of his paintings. Port Mobility photo

My hero is a murderer.

He’s also dead, along with Wilt Chamberlain, my childhood idol. However, like Chamberlain, this man inspired me with his fierce independence as much as his enormous talent and an image bigger than life. His fame dwarfs the 7-foot-1 Wilt’s and gets bigger with each passing year.

It’s 408 years and counting.

I’ve admired Caravaggio, Italy’s greatest Baroque painter, ever since I first lived in Rome in 2001. An old baseball writer colleague, Mark Saxon, lived here then and raved about him like he raved about some major league slugger. Caravaggio was different. Even in an era and a country where artists were the rock stars and athletes of their day, Caravaggio was an all-star, a future hall of famer who advanced an art already at its height.

Today he transcends society. Even to an untrained eye such as mine, from the first Caravaggio painting I saw I was transfixed. Was this a painting or a fantastic photo from a photographer who really knew how to use a light meter? Before living here, art was a look into a country’s history. I’d stroll national art galleries to get a sense of their conflicts and passions. The quality of the paintings themselves? After a while they all blended together, like spilled paints onto a floor. I knew nothing.

In a museum, I was a pair of white Nikes on a tuxedo.

Caravaggio changed that. So did Rome. Caravaggio is everywhere here. I can escape the rain into a church and find myself under three Caravaggio masterpieces. It won’t cost one centesimo. It recently rained in Rome for more than a week, a perfect time to revisit my favorite artist. In Ireland they say it doesn’t rain in pubs. Here we say it doesn’t rain in museums.

Caravaggio, born Michelangelo Merisi in the town of Caravaggio near Milan, was a brawler, a womanizer and, indeed, a murderer. You can walk down the street and see the site of the murder that sent him fleeing from church authorities all over the Mediterranean.

What stands out for me was his rebellious nature. A genius to whom the Catholic Church gave numerous commissions, he painted religious figures with a realism that often grated at the snooty authorities. Jesus was sometimes seen with a gut and 5 o’clock shadow. Occasionally Mary didn’t look all that pretty. Violence and blood jumped from his paintings. They not only depicted his violent nature but also reflected a part of a Italian society around the turn of the 17th century that many didn’t want to see. He stood up to the church, at the time one of the most powerful, vicious forces in Europe.

The Calling of St. Matthew shows his mastery of light and shadow. WebMuseum photo

The Calling of St. Matthew shows his mastery of light and shadow. WebMuseum photo

His mastery of shadow and light made him worth the trouble. Look at his work and see how light through a window casts delicate shadows on faces, forearms, even swords. No one in the Renaissance could match that. No one could since.

Rome has nine places to view more than two dozen of Caravaggio’s works. If you idolize him as I do, are just a casual admirer or can’t even pronounce his name (car-a-VAGG-io), use this blog as a guide to explore. Some works are free. Some require a reservation. All can be seen by walking. When you’re finished you’ll see most of the important sites in the most important art city in the world.

Even if you put strolling art museums on a level with shopping, give Caravaggio a try. He may bring out the inner artist in you.

These are in a rough order if you wanted to walk to all of them. If you do, take three days. These museums and churches have more than Caravaggio, and the Vatican Museums are a voyage all their own.

Piazza del Campidoglio. OMNIA Vatican photo

Piazza del Campidoglio. OMNIA Vatican photo

Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio 1, open daily 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., 15 euros. Piazza Venezia bus stop. Warning: Campidoglio is a bit of a tourist trap. You may have to weave your way through cell-snapping tourists to negotiate your way up the long, wide, elegant staircase known as the Cordonata. It’s on Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome on which the city was founded. It’s worth the effort and you’ll see why tourists flock here. At the top of the staircase is a beautiful piazza designed by the Michelangelo of Renaissance fame and anchored by a statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s emperor during part of its height of power from 161-180 AD (Psst! It’s a copy. The original is in the museum.)

The palaces on the left and right, Palazzo Nuova and Palazzo dei Conservatori, respectively, house the museums, the oldest national museums in Italy. They hold two Caravaggios:

The Gypsy Fortune Teller (1594): More than 400 years ago, gypsies were the lowest form of human life, much as they’re viewed today in Rome. But Caravaggio identified with the gypsies’ desperate nature. The gypsy he paints is attractive, not a vagrant off the street, and wins the customer’s heart before stealing his ring.

St. John the Baptist: Youth with a Ram (1602). Caravaggio did eight paintings of John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus. The ram symbolizes lust, and the boy’s smirky grin fits in well with Caravaggio’s own libido.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Italian Ways photo

Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Italian Ways photo

Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Via del Corso 305, daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros. Piazza Venezia bus stop. Via del Corso is on any Rome shopping street list. It’s lined with such high-end haberdashers as Ralph Lauren, Elisabetta Franchi and Yamamay. It’s closed to cars on Sunday, turning it into one long pedestrian zone commandeered by shopping bag-wielding warriors. In the middle of the mob is an early 16th century palace with Doric columns framing the tall doorway. Inside is total tranquility where you can escape amongst orange trees and a bubbling fountain.

The collection is from the Doria and Pamphilj families and is considered the largest privately owned gallery in Rome. They include three Caravaggios:

Mary Magdalene (1595): Most artists pictured Mary Magdalene nude as the prostitute she was, or innocently reading a book as the repentant she became. Caravaggio, instead, had her seated low, in the dark, in sorrow. Note the tear near her nose.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1597): This comes from the Bible story in which the Holy Family is fleeing to Egypt after hearing Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judea, was seeking to kill baby Jesus.

Young St. John the Baptist (1602): This is a copy of the one in the Capitoline Museums. But don’t be disappointed. Caravaggio copied many of his paintings.

Three Caravaggios can be seen in one chapel in Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi photo

Three Caravaggios can be seen in one chapel in Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi. Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi photo

Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi, Piazza di San Luigi dei Francesi, Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m., 2:30-6:30 p.m., Saturday 2:30-6:45 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m., 2:30-6:45 p.m., free, Senato bus stop. Welcome to THE best bargain in Rome. It’s better than free limoncello from your overly friendly trattoria owner. Here you can find three Caravaggios in a corner of a church, absolutely free. All you need is a 50 centesimi, 1 euro or 2 euro coin to plunk in the box that illuminates the paintings.

This 16th century church was dedicated to, among others, St. Louis IX, the king of France, and is France’s national church in Rome. The Archbishop of Paris is the resident priest. Any francophobes are warned to stay away. You’ll see tons of French tourists.

They’ll be occupied, maybe breathless. So will you. In the far left corner of the church, in the Contarelli Chapel, are three Caravaggio masterpieces:

The Calling of St. Matthew (1600): This is one of Caravaggio’s best illustration of his use of shadow and light. Note how the light from the window illuminates Jesus’ face and the men looking at him as he calls for Matthew to follow him.

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600): This violent painting shows a soldier about to kill Matthew for standing up against an Ethiopian king for sexually harassing his own niece. How much do I like this painting? A print is framed and hanging over my couch.

St. Matthew and the Angel (1602): Caravaggio did eight paintings of St. Matthew. This one is a replacement that was rejected and later destroyed. An angel is beckoning Matthew who seems bothered and in a hurry as you can see by his stool teetering on two legs.

Basilica di Sant'Agostino. Reid's Italy photo

Basilica di Sant’Agostino. Reid’s Italy photo

Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Via di Sant’Eustachio 19, daily 7:45 a.m.-noon, 4-8 p.m., free, three-minute walk from Chiesa di San Luigi. This is one of the first churches built in Rome during the Renaissance, in 1483. The travertine rock used in construction was taken from the Colosseum. It houses only one Caravaggio and it is currently on loan to Chiesa Santa Domenica in Northern Italian town of Forno. It returns at the end of June.

Madonna del Loreto (1606): Another Caravaggio painting gets under the church’s skin. He shows Mary barefoot and not very pretty, just like a normal Mary.

Palazzo Barberini. Wikipedia photo

Palazzo Barberini. Wikipedia photo

Palazzo Barberini, Via delle Quattro Fontane 13, Tuesday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros, Barberini Metro stop. The Barberini name is all over Rome, particularly in this neighborhood north of Termini train station. This spectacular palace was built in 1893 by Pope Urban VIII to celebrate the Barberini family’s rise to power. Bernini and his rival, Borromini, worked on the design. Besides the three Caravaggios, check out the gorgeous painted ceilings.

Narcissus (1599): This is one of two paintings Caravaggio did from mythology. It shows a handsome boy who can’t stop staring at his reflection. According to the Greek myth, even as he is carted off to hell, he still stares at his reflection in the River Styx. It’s where we get the term “narcissism.” We all have a family member who could use this print, don’t we?

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620): Caravaggio often used prostitutes as models and in this one, a famous courtesan named Fillide Melandroni, is beheading a tyrant.

St. Francis in Prayer (1606): St. Francis’ humility and poverty were a popular theme for Caravaggio who could relate with his troubled life.

Borghese Museum. Borghese Gallery photo

Borghese Museum. Borghese Gallery photo

Borghese Museum, Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5, Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-7 p.m., by reservation only,, 39-06-32810, entries 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 15 euros, Pinciana/Museo Borghese bus stop. This is my favorite museum in Rome. It has all the great Italian masters from Bernini to Raphael to Botticelli. Cardinal Scipione built it in the early 17th century to house his art collection and Prince Marcantonio Borghese did a renovation a century later. It’s not too big that you’ll get exhausted. It’s just big enough to take in leisurely in the two-hour viewing sessions. Also, the 198-acre Villa Borghese park where it sits is a great place to have a pre-museum picnic.

The Borghese has the most Caravaggios in Rome. Here are the three main ones:

Young Sick Bacchus (1594): Caravaggio painted this shortly after he arrived in Rome from Milan in 1592. He painted it using a mirror to illustrate his own horrific ailment, probably malaria, that put him in the hospital for six months.

Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1606): The child kills the snake representing Satan. St. Peter’s rejected it because of Caravaggio painting Madonna with huge breasts. I had this copy on my wall in Denver. (I’m not a breast man. I just loved the satanic imagery.)

David with the Head of Goliath (1610): Look at the inscription on David’s sword: “H-AS OS.” It stands for the Latin phrase, “Humilitas occidit superbiam.” (Humility kills pride.) Note the humble look on David’s face.

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo. Pro Loco Roma photo

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo. Pro Loco Roma photo

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo 12, Piazza del Popolo daily 7 a.m.-noon, 4-7 p.m., free, Flaminio Metro stop. In one of the most famous piazzas in Rome, near the gate where triumphant Roman armies re-entered the city, the church was built in 1477. It was one of the first churches Rome visitors saw. On the wall facing the church, see the plaque depicting the church’s last beheading, which took place in the piazza in 1825.

The Conversion of St. Paul (1601): Like the accompanying Crucifixion of St. Peter, this was first rejected for reasons that remain unclear. But it depicts Saul of Tarsus who’s blinded by brilliant light while on his way to Damascus to slaughter its Christian community.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601): Peter did not want to imitate Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus Caravaggio had him crucified upside down.

Vatican Museums. Best Tour in Italy photo

Vatican Museums. Best Tour in Italy photo

Vatican Museums, Viale Vaticano, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., last Sunday of month 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 17 euros without online booking, 21 euros with Skip the Line online booking,, free last Sunday of month, Ottiviano Metro stop. You’ll need a whole day to see this. It has 13 ½ acres of art, making it what’s considered the largest art collection in the world. Hint: To see the Sistine Chapel, head straight for it and work your way back. If you see every painting between the entrance and the chapel, you’ll be too dead to look up.

However, the Vatican has only one Caravaggio which tells you something about how he alienated the church. It’s in the Pinacoteca museum, an underrated papal picture gallery.

Deposition from the Cross (1604): Considered one of his greatest masterpieces, this is one of the only works depicting Jesus getting placed on the stone upon which he’ll be entombed. Rubens and Cezanne later copied the work.

Galleria Corsini. Reid's Italy photo

Galleria Corsini. Reid’s Italy photo

Galleria Corsini, Via della Lungara 10, Wednesday-Monday 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m., 12 euros, Lungotevere Vallati/Pettinari bus stop. Located in the once-Bohemian-now-trendy neighborhood of Trastevere, Corsini doesn’t get much foot traffic. The Corsini family built the Baroque palace in 1740 a dead carp’s throw from the Tiber River.

St. John the Baptist (1606): Caravaggio strength in realism shows through more than anywhere here. It shows the famous saint as a young man, looking disheveled with “boy band hair” as if he just woke from a bender.

(Bonus tip: Caravaggio’s old apartment and the street where he murdered his rival are one minute apart. His apartment, marked by his giant portrait, is on Vicolo del Divino Amore near Piazza Navona. Around two short corners on Via di Pallacorda is the site of an old tennis court where he killed an enraged Ranuccio Tomassoni in 1606, which sent Caravaggio running from the law until his death in 1610.)

Caravaggio's old apartment near Piazza Navona.

Caravaggio’s old apartment near Piazza Navona.

Italian election: An entire nation scratches its head as threat of fascism looms and economy teeters

Supporters of Matteo Salvini, leader of The League, Italy's ultra-right party, campaign ahead of Sunday's election. Photo by The Nation

Supporters of Matteo Salvini, leader of The League, Italy’s ultra-right party, campaign ahead of Sunday’s election. Photo by The Nation

Italian politics for retired expats has always been an amusing sideshow too complicated to worry about. Italy changes governments faster than soccer teams change managers. With 65 since World War II, you can’t tell the prime minister without a scorecard. They’re in office not even long enough to write a bio. (“You’re WHO again?”)

Sunday’s national elections, however, are way up the gonzo meter. I’ve done informal surveys — usually with a glass of wine or cup of espresso in hand — and have met only one Italian who knows who’ll get their vote. That includes my girlfriend, a driven, professional college graduate. It includes the coffee jockeys in my bar. It includes my other learned Italian friends, even my Italian instructor.

The election is in three days.

The selection of candidates is so dismal, I learned a new Italian phrase, often dragged through the streets at election time: Meno dei peggiori. (Least of the worst.) If a cartoonist drew a group picture of the candidates, it’d resemble a food fight at Mickey Mouse’s clubhouse. Italy has more parties than Florida State’s Theta Chi house, and not one candidate Sunday will ever be mentioned in the same sentence as Caesar Augustus.

They include an 81-year-old three-time prime minister convicted of tax fraud with a runaway libido, a 31-year-old college dropout backed by a former stand-up comic, a neo-fascist who has declared war on immigrants, the previous prime minister who resigned just 15 months ago, a hot (Hey, it’s Italy) former female journalist just to the left of Eva Braun, one guilty of corruption and the crooner who sings “O Sole Mio” to tourists in Trastevere.

I made up that last one. But the rest are real. And Americans thought their selection two years ago was bad. This is why as of Tuesday 30 percent of Italian voters were undecided. It’s why 80 percent said they don’t trust any of the campaign promises. It’s also why the world is paying more attention than usual to Italy’s election. It’s anyone’s prize with polls so close no one is a solid favorite.

The outcome also may lead Italy down a path of fascism fueled by racism and nationalism, a scary prospect for a country once welcoming of immigrants.

Sound familiar?

Yes, I can’t imagine a worse world leader than the Mango Mussolini tweeting naked in Washington but Sunday’s election has candidates who seemingly crawled out of the same tarpit. Italy has enough problems already. The unemployment rate for Italians under 25 is 32 percent. It’s 11 percent overall. In all of Europe, Italy is one of the last to pull out of the recession from 2008. People lost jobs and their life savings. The public debt of Europe’s third largest economy is 133 percent of its gross domestic product. The European Union fears Italy will be the next Greece. Corruption in poverty-stricken local governments is massive which is one reason Rome has become the filthiest capital in Europe. But what is the No. 1 issue in Sunday’s election? What else when it includes a right wing growing around the world?


In the last four years, 600,000 immigrants have moved to Italy. Matteo Salvini, the leader of The League, Italy’s far right party, told ANSA, Italy’s wire service, “I’m waiting for elections so that Italy can defend its borders again. Give me the interior ministry for three months and you’ll see what order and cleanliness I bring back from north to south all over Italy.”

Paolo Grimoldi, The League’s regional leader in Lombardy where Milan is the capital, told the BBC, “It’s better to take immigrants from Ukraine … They are Christians or from Belarus. They are not Muslim and they can not be terrorists.”

Giorgia Meloni, head of the ultra-right Brothers of Italy whose campaign posters near my gym make me think Meg Ryan could be leading the country, blamed Italy’s failure to make this summer’s soccer World Cup on the national league having too many foreigners.

Luca Traini. Photo by La Repubblica

Luca Traini. Photo by La Repubblica

The rhetoric has sifted through Italy’s friendly cobblestones into whatever caves and sewers the racist right dwell. On Feb. 3 in the Le Marche town of Macerata, Luca Traini, a 28-year-old neo-fascist, shot and injured six African immigrants. The incident was apparent retaliation for the murder of Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old Roman woman found dismembered in two suitcases in the Le Marche countryside Jan. 31. Three Nigerians seeking asylum were arrested. Traini was later seen in photographs wrapped in an Italian flag and giving a fascist salute.

The reaction was absolutely Trumpian. Salvini said Mastropietro’s blood is on the hands of the current center-left government for allowing immigrants into the country. Meloni responded to Traini’s arrest with, “Uncontrolled immigration must be regulated.”

Italy does have a liberal side. It’s here in the south where I’ve lived 5 ½ years and yet to encounter a single racist. Then again, I wasn’t near Rome’s mosque Oct. 5 when CasaPound, one of the smaller right-wing splinter parties, rallied in front of it holding a huge banner reading, “BASTA DEGRADO. CHIUDERE LA MOSCHERA!” (ENOUGH URBAN DECLINE. CLOSE THE MOSQUE!).

Be thankful you don’t have to choose between this collection of has beens, clowns, wannabes and quasi Nazis. Below is the list. Keep in mind in Italy, people vote for parties and the winning party chooses its prime minister. The list below includes all parties, with their leanings and listed leaders, that received at least 4 percent of the vote in the last national election.

Matteo Renzi

Matteo Renzi

Democratic Party, center-left, Matteo Renzi, 43. He’s the former fair-haired, media savvy liberal who was elected in February 2014 and lasted less than two years. He simplified civil trials, recognized gay marriage and abolished several minor taxes. He was bashed for Italy’s high immigration but his Waterloo was constitutional reform. His recommendations for reforming the political system were approved by the Parliament but rejected in a constitutional referendum, 59 percent to 41. He immediately resigned, handing the job to Paolo Gentiloni, his Minister of Foreign Affairs. This is like Hillary Clinton running again in 2020 10 fold.
Luigi Di Maio. Photo by Il Post

Luigi Di Maio. Photo by Il Post

5-Star Movement, populism, Luigi Di Maio, 31. His father was counsel for the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement in Naples. Luigi organized student unions in the two universities he attended but didn’t graduate from either of them. The 5-Star Movement was founded by Beppe Grillo, a 69-year-old former stand-up comic who wants Italy to leave the European Union and drop the euro. Di Maio isn’t as radical but it’s difficult for a nation of 60 million people to follow a guy who still looks like the steward he once was at Naples’ San Paolo Stadium. As former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said, “To think that a 31-year-old kid who’s never worked could take charge of the government of this country is a joke.”
Silvio Berlusconi. Photo by

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo by

Forza Italia, center right, Silvio Berlusconi, 81. He has been back in the news the last two years for two reasons, neither of them good: He is making a political comeback and he was the unfortunate punching bag for comparisons with Donald Trump (See 2016 blog here). Berlusconi wasn’t as bad. He never once filed bankruptcy, let alone three times, and never pissed off North Korea, China, India, the NFL … OK, I’m getting carried away, again. But the former media tycoon’s three-time reign has been permanently stained with allegations of not only tax fraud but sex with underaged girls, hard lines on immigration and racist and sexist comments. No, he’s not a Republican. He founded Forza Italia in 1994 but his 2013 tax fraud conviction banned him from public office until next year. He has vowed to remain as party leader and no one doubts his influence on the country if his party wins. He could. Would Americans take George Bush back right now?
Giorgia Meloni

Giorgia Meloni

Brothers of Italy, right, Giorgia Meloni, 41. She’s a former Berlusconi appointee as his Minister of Youth. The ex-journalist from Rome heads a party that’s a descendent of the post-fascist Italian social movement. She believes in preserving the traditional Italian family (Read: No gays.), and campaigned for mayor while heavily pregnant. She is against granting citizenship to children born in Italy to foreigners. She is scoring well in Southern Italy and not just because of her campaign posters.
Matteo Salvini. Photo by Terzo Binario News

Matteo Salvini. Photo by Terzo Binario News

The League, right, Matteo Salvini, 44. Another college dropout, Salvini is big buddies with Marine Le Pen, France’s resident right-winger, and is an admirer of Vladimir Putin. Salvini is against gay marriage, the EU, the euro, immigration, Inter Milan and probably Roman-style pizza. He is a vision of hate. His public rallies need only a balcony and jack boots. He does, however, support family values and Donald Trump (fill in your own one-liner). He’d like Italy to adopt the same travel ban of some Muslim countries as Vanilla ISIS did. Salvini called the euro, “a crime against humanity.” While even many Italian liberals hate the euro, returning to the lire isn’t getting any support, either. Salvini is, however. He has a huge following in the north although he dropped the word “Northern” from the original Northern League title.
Nicola Fratoianni. Photo by Daily Express

Nicola Fratoianni. Photo by Daily Express

Italian Left, democratic socialism, Nicola Fratoianni, 45. He formed this new party in early 2017, basing it on Keynesian economics behind the principles of Joseph Sliglitz, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for economics who said the key to short-term economic output is the total spending in the economy. Good luck with that policy when most Southern Italians can barely make rent.
Denis Verdini. Photo by

Denis Verdini. Photo by

Liberal Popular Alliance, center, Denis Verdini, 66. The ex-Berlusconi aid was found guilty of corruption last year in a contract for building a military academy in Florence.
Roberto Speranza. Photo by Twitter

Roberto Speranza. Photo by Twitter

Democratic and Progressive Movement, center, Roberto Speranza, 39. Resigned from the Chamber of Deputies after clashes with Renzi then left the Democratic Party.

Who’s leading in the polls? Italy has a 15-day polling ban before elections but according to the last Milan-based EMG poll, Di Maio’s 5-Star Movement led with 27 percent and Renzi’s Democratic Party had 24 percent. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia had 16 percent but is forming a coalition with Salvini’s The League (14 percent) and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (5.5 percent). If that coalition wins, whichever party has the most votes will choose the prime minister.

However, considering they must win 40 percent of the vote, it’s unlikely a winner will be determined Sunday. If that happens, the current president will press for a different formula and Italy will remain in limbo.

Paolo Gentiloni. Photo by Daily Express

Paolo Gentiloni. Photo by Daily Express

Not that it would spell disaster. Under Gentiloni, there has been an increase in family welfare from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of the GDP. Through working with Libya to curb migration, “only,” ahem, 2,832 immigrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2017, the lowest total in four years. Gentiloni, 63, is not running but, in lieu of a 40-percent majority, he will likely hang on while Italy’s mulberry bush of an electoral system plays itself out.

In the meantime, I may spend election day reading an old book, one that helped me learn Italian in my early years in Rome. It’s not only good practice but symbolic on the biggest day of Italian politics.

Mickey Mouse.

My list of the most romantic dates in Rome: A city where every day is Valentine’s Day

Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona. Marina and I on Terrazza Barromini above Piazza Navona.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the most romantic city in the world. Maybe you’ve had a fantasy about celebrating Valentine’s Day in Rome but don’t feel sorry if you miss it today. The beauty of Rome is every day can be Valentine’s Day if you want it. It’s not just because this city is sprinkled with back-lit monuments, tree-lined palaces, narrow pedestrian alleys winding through Centro Storico and enough outdoor cafes and trattorias to feed half the population.

Valentine’s Day is a Roman holiday.

It’s named for a 3rd century saint named Valentinus who went crossways with the Roman Empire when he performed weddings for soldiers forbidden to marry. The Senate also wasn’t crazy about him aiding Christians getting ready to be burned at the stake and fed to starving lions. While imprisoned, his healing powers extended to a blind judge’s daughter who regained her sight. Just before he was clubbed and beheaded for not renouncing his faith, Valentinus, who became known as St. Valentine, wrote her a letter and signed it “Your Valentine.” He was 42. The date was Feb. 14, 269. His name resurfaced in the High Middle Ages when Feb. 14 became known as the day of courtly love.

Ol’ Valentinus had no idea he would launch a thousand years of opportunistic, larcenous, price-gouging restaurants. Screw you, Valentinus.

But fear not. There is no better way to experience Valentine’s Day than in a romantic city without Valentine’s Day prices. Come to Rome — on any day but today. I’ve lived here as a bachelor for more than four years and have had an Italian girlfriend for nearly three. I’ve learned a bit about romance in Rome.

And I’m here to help. So below is a list of some of my favorite romantic dates in the city.They won’t break your bank. Some take a little planning. Others take a little effort. But they all will leave you with a pitter patter in your heart and your lover in your hand.

If they don’t, well, just stay home and take her to Waffle House.

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza Navona from Terrazza Borromini. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The views in Rome are spectacular. One look and you’ll realize why you came here or, in my case, why you retired here. It could be from a park, a hotel balcony, a walking path on a hill.

One of the best views is from the rooftop Terrazza Borromini. It sits atop the Palazzo Pamphilj just behind Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone, Francesco Borromini’s Baroque-style church that anchors one side of Piazza Navona. Marina and I went for cocktails and strolled around the roof with views of St. Peter’s, Il Vittoriano, the justice building, the dome of Sant’Agnese and, of course, spectacular Piazza Navona. Then we walked down one flight to the restaurant where we dined right above Bernini’s famed Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

On a warm summer night, we stared at the fountain’s turquoise water and dined on grilled octopus with a nice Pinot Grigio. Then we descended to the ground floor and went around the corner to the piazza and Tre Scalini for its famous tartufo: a frozen ball of rich, dark chocolate with a cherry inside and topped with a big pile of whipped cream. To digest, we strolled around the piazza looking at the local artists’ works and lost ourselves in Centro Storico’s back alleys.

Costs (all estimates for two people, phone numbers don’t include 39 country code). Drinks, Terrazza Borromini (Via di Santa Maria dell’Anima 30, 06-686-1425,, 25 euros, dinner 50. Dessert, Tre Scalini (Piazza Navona 28, 06-688-01996,, 12. Total: 87 euros.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.

Villa Borghese is a 200-acre park on the north end of Rome.


A picnic is more of an American custom but Italians are starting to get into them. With such great fresh, cheap food in public markets, how can they not?

Rome also has very underrated parks. Doria Pamphilj south of the Vatican and Villa Ada in north Rome aren’t known by many tourists. I take Villa Borghese near famed Via Veneto for one reason: the Borghese Museum, my favorite museum in Rome.

First, go to any public market. They’re scattered all over the city. You know those farmers markets in the States where the “organic” tomatoes cost as much as a country ham? Those are the norm in Rome’s markets. Stroll through and grab some prosciutti here, some cheese there, some grapes here, some bread there. Add some sliced salami and a bag of olives, whatever is your taste, and maybe a few sticks of chocolate biscotti. Be sure to stop off at the wine booth for a cold, crisp bottle of Frascati, from just south of Rome and excellent for picnics.

Take whatever bus goes up Veneto and find some space under a tree in Villa Borghese. It won’t be hard. It’s 200 acres. Lay out a blanket and enjoy dining on food Romans eat every day at home.

Second, time your picnic with the reservation you’ll need in advance for the Borghese Museum. They let in only a few at a time and you’ll appreciate the straddled entries. Housed in the gorgeous 18th century palace owned by the Borghese family, a long string of noblemen dating back to the 13th century, it is Rome’s most manageable collection of Renaissance and Baroque art. You’ll see Bernini, Botticelli, Raphael and Caravaggio over two floors just big enough to see comfortably in the two-hour allotted time limit.

Third, wander down Via Veneto and see the tony cafes where Rome’s glitterati and paparazzi hung out during the glory days of the 1950s. (Avoid trendy Harry’s Bar unless you think a shrimp cocktail is worth 30 euros.)

Costs. Picnic food 25 euros. Museum, Borghese Museum (Piazzale Scipione Borghese 5, 06-841-3979,, 29.50 euros: 55 total.

Bernini designed St. Peter's Square in the 17th century.

Bernini designed St. Peter’s Square in the 17th century.


The world’s smallest country (yes, it’s an independent state) changes at night. I lived in the Prati neighborhood around the Vatican for 16 months and when the tourists leave after touring the church, the ‘hood becomes very local with lots of local hangouts.

I liked starting an evening at Del Frate, one of the most romantic enotecas (wine bars) in Rome. It’s dark, small, quiet and the wine-by-the-glass list is written on a blackboard. The helpful staff will pick out a wine to your taste and then leave you alone.

Walk down Via Scipioni three blocks to La Pratolina, which I ranked in my top five of the best pizzerias in Rome. It’s not intimate. No Rome pizzeria is. But it’s one of the few in the city that make pizzas in the pinsa style of Ancient Rome. It comes from the Latin word “pinsere,” which means “to crush.” The ancient Romans ate a crushed flat bun or pie, the precursor to the pizza. The crust, uniquely oblong, is a little thicker but the wood-fire oven still provides those luscious little spots of burnt crust.

La Pratolina has the best sausage pizza in town and save room to share a pratolina, its signature dessert: a big messy glob of chocolate, cream, sugar and thin pieces of pie crust.

After dinner, walk seven blocks back where you came from to the Vatican. Walk into St. Peter’s Square and gaze at St. Peter’s, the center of Christendom all back lit in all its glory and ringed by the statues of 140 saints and anchored by Bernini’s fountains. The crowds are gone. The priests are home. It’s just you two and one of the prettiest man-made structures on earth.

You never knew religion could be such a turn on.

Costs: Wine Del Frati (Via degli Scipioni 118/122, 06-323-6437, 5-7 euros per glass, dinner La Pratolina (Via degli Scipioni 248, 06-3600-4409, 40 euros: 60 total.

AcquaMadre's tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.

AcquaMadre’s tepidarium is where you start your thermal bath.


About 2,000 years ago, the citizenry of Ancient Rome bathed in public baths. Most homes were too small to have their own. One remains. Well, acquaMadre Hammam started 12 years ago but it’s designed after the thermal baths of Ancient Rome.

On a quiet back alley of the Jewish Ghetto, acquaMadre is a very sensual way to start the evening together. It’s dimly lit with only red and white candles, perfect for couples. The only sounds you hear are the quiet splashing of water and your own moans as a young woman gives you a back scrub. You then go into a steam room set at 113 degrees and 100 percent humidity and sweat out seemingly half your body fluids in five minutes.

You then step into a cool shower and pour yourself into the “cool” pool set at 82 degrees. There is no Jacuzzi but the cooler water opens up the pores better. You then take another shower with various gels provided and flop down on a comfy rattan chair where you’re served black tea with sugar.

Feeling cleaner than you’ve ever felt, try to walk five minutes past Torre Argentina to Pascucci, an all-natural juice bar where you can cool down with a coconut shake and think how good the Ancient Romans had it.

Costs: Spa, acquaMadre Hammam (Via di S. Ambrogio 17, 06-686-4272,, 60 euros. Juice, Pascucci (Via di Torre Argentina 20,, 7 euros: 135 total.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.

The Forum from behind Il Vittoriano.


Also known simply as Vittorio Emanuele, this is the gargantuan white monument in Piazza Venezia that looks like a giant wedding cake, which is just one of its nicknames. It’s also called Mussolini’s Typewriter as Il Duce’s balcony where he addressed his mob of fellow fascists overlooks the piazza.

Today, Il Vittoriano often houses very interesting art exhibits, usually concentrating on one master, in its Complesso del Vittoriano museum on the left side of the monument. I saw the Edward Hopper exhibit and it was fabulous. Like the Borghese Museum, it’s just big enough to give you your fill without making you numb from overload. Past exhibits have included Botero and Antonio Ligabue.

Currently showing is Monet until June 3 and Giovanni Boldini, the 19th century Italian painter, will be there from March 4-July 16.

Afterward, continue to the back of Il Vittoriano and stroll along the quiet, dark walkways. Soon you’ll come to one of the most spectacular sights of the city: the Roman Forum all lit up in soft yellow light. Linger a while and imagine the center of the most powerful civilization in history below your feet 2,000 years ago.

If you haven’t kissed your date yet in your relationship, pal, this is the time to do it.

Costs. Museum, Complesso del Vittoriano (Via di San Pietro in Carcere, 06-678-0664,,14 euros. Total: 28 euros.

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Madre opened two years ago. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In a city that’s going broke, fast, this neighborhood in the shadow of the Colosseum is thriving. It’s hip. It’s fun. It’s vibrant. All kinds of cool bars, restaurants and enotecas are sprinkled around the narrow cobblestone streets — and that includes more than the Ice Club, the lounge on Via della Madonna dei Monti where they serve you cocktails in a 23-degree room.

Two years ago, they opened Madre. It’s attached to the Roma Hotel Luxus off Via Nazionale and is one of the most romantic bars I’ve visited. I took Marina there Saturday night and we sat at a small table under a roof covered in hanging vines. Potted plants ringed the entire place.

It’s also a restaurant but we grabbed a drink there before the place filled up by 7:30 p.m. They specialize in designer cocktails, the kind that includes a lot of liquors, a lot of juices, a lot of sugar and couldn’t get a kitten tipsy. But my Tiki Tango came in a cool, tall glass right out of the Caribbean and the atmosphere was worth prices so larcenous Marina declined to order.

We then made a short 10-minute walk down the quiet street of Via del Boschetto for true Roman cuisine in an old-fashioned, cozy Roman trattoria. La Taverna dei Monti is lined with oil paintings of old Rome and features a small nook with only a few tables.

It serves all the standard Roman dishes: amatriciana, carbonara, cacio e pepe. My lasagna, rare on Rome menus, was outstanding but not nearly as good as Marina’s veal saltimbocca.

For dessert, we skipped its legendary tiramisu to walk to Grezzo, a designer chocolate shop featuring all-natural, gluten-free, raw chocolates. My chocolate-covered coconut made me swoon. “This isn’t chocolate,” I told the young clerk. “This is sexual.”

Costs. Drinks, Madre (Largo Angelicum 1A, 06-678-9046, 28 euros. Dinner, La Taverna dei Monti (Via del Boschetto 41, 06-481-7724,, 30. Dessert, Grezzo (Via Urbana 130, 06-483-443,, 6.00. Total: 64 euros.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.

Appia Antica was built in 312 BC.


All dates don’t have to be at night. Rome is gorgeous during the day, mostly all year round. If you’re an active couple, rent bikes and ride down historic Appian Way (Via Appia Antica). It’s arguably the most famous road in Europe. Built in 312 BC, it transported the Roman army to the Adriatic Sea at Brindisi.

You’ll ride along the smooth stones that were revolutionary in their construction at the time. Cruise along the tree-lined road and pass ruins of villas once owned by Roman noblemen. It’s flat, quiet and beautiful. If you want to blow the mood, just tell your date that in 71 BC along this road hanged the bodies of 6,000 slaves who were crucified for joining Spartacus’ rebel army (See: Failed Labor Revolts) in 73 BC.

You can pack a picnic lunch in a daypack or eat at Ristorante L’Archeologica, started in 1890. It’s a bit high end for a post-cycling meal but the nice outdoor seating area is casual. Lots of seafood choices starting at 14 euros.

Costs. Bike rental, Appia Antica Regional Park Information Point (Via Appia Antica 58-60, 06-512-6314,, 3 euros per hour first three hours, 10 euros all day. Dinner: Ristorante L’Archeologia (Via Appia Antica 139, 06-788-0494,, mains starting at 14 euros. Total: 60 euros.

That’s all for now. I hope this helps but remember, romance is found in the heart, not on the Internet. You can find your own romantic date in Rome just by showing up. I’d give you more ideas, but it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’ve got a date.

Handy tips on preventing illness overseas: Or why never to eat animal parts with hair

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

FRANKFURT, Germany — I just finished the worst road trip of my life, which is saying something after traveling to 101 countries and 47 states. That includes such backward rural outposts as Haiti, Borneo and Nebraska. This time I went to a very tame destination, one I’ve always enjoyed visiting and that has all the modern conveniences of every day travel.


No one gets sick in Germany. You get hung over in Germany. You don’t get sick. It’s as clean as Switzerland with funner people. But how bad was my magazine assignment to Germany? In five days, I didn’t drink one beer. I didn’t eat one sausage. I mean, what’s the point of going? It’s like going to Italy and consuming nothing but Pringles and water.

It proves my point: When you are sick overseas, even Shangri-la seems like the third circle of Hades. That’s where I just spent five days, curled up in a feverish pit in Hell where I barely had enough energy to crawl to a grocery store for food rendered as tasteless as last month’s Der Spiegel.

This marks my 40th year of international travel. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had very few illnesses overseas, but a lot of it isn’t luck. I know how to take of myself on the road. I get the proper inoculations. I know what preventative medicines to take and keep a keen eye on what food and fluids I ingest. Traveling primarily alone, I’m my own medicine chest/nurse/doctor/free clinic.

However, if you stay off the beaten path long enough, you’re bound to get nailed. It’s inevitable. Evil lurks in the unknown shadows of the world’s darkest corners. You won’t know what will hit you. You’ll just know when. However, if you try too hard to stay on that beaten path, for fear of eating fried tarantulas will upset your system, chances are you’ll be praying to the porcelain gods, too. I once met an American couple scuba diving in Mexico. The woman was so paranoid about the local food, she packed enough food to last her the whole week. She was violently ill in three days.

Overseas one must build an immunity system. Otherwise, any strange strain will invade your system like armed jungle bandits, all of whom I would’ve welcomed the one time I had typhoid in Northern Thailand.

For all those planning international travel in 2018, here are four key rules I’ve learned — the hard way.

Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo, China

DON’T EAT EGGS IN ASIA. I’ve been sick five times in Asia. Three times came from eating eggs. Eating street omelettes in Taiwan and South Korea left me retching in the streets before I even made it back to my room.

I once traveled 28 hours to the lovely Chinese lakeside village of Yangshuo. Arriving late at night, the hotel lost my reservation and they stuck me in a hotel out in the sticks, where dirt roads border rice paddies. The next morning, the crestfallen Yangshuo hotel owner felt guilty and came over with a free breakfast. That included eggs. Sometime about noon I finally stopped projectile vomiting.

In Asia, they often don’t refrigerate their eggs, and that region of southeast China in summer is hotter than the inside of a Buddha’s bowels. Heat plus spoiled eggs is not exactly sweet ‘n sour.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

DON’T EAT ANY ANIMAL PARTS WITH HAIR ON THEM. This time last year I was in Laos where I woke before dawn to catch the Super Bowl at a U.S. Embassy annex. When it was over it was about lunchtime and I found a small outdoor place with an item loosely translated to “buffalo salad.” This “buffalo” was not the buffalo I enjoyed in hamburgers and stew in Colorado. It wasn’t the bufala mozzarella I eat with tomatoes and olive oil in Rome. This “buffalo” was the shin of a water buffalo. The chunks of buffalo skin featured little sprigs of bristly hair that don’t have the same palatable effect on a salad as say, oh, sourdough croutons.

The next morning, the symptoms of food poisoning came one at a time, like messengers welcoming me to Hell: “Good morning, sir. My name is diarrhea. Welcome to Laos.”

Buffalo skins in market

Buffalo skins in market

“Hello, sir, this is your stomach calling. Please empty my contents all over the toilet.”

“Hello, sir. My name is Migraine. And I’ll be accompanying you for all your waking hours today.”

“Good evening, sir. This is your fever. Try not to move too far off the bed.”

Fortunately, I was in the capital of Vientiane and the nice Lao woman in the pharmacy knew exactly what I needed and wasn’t surprised by my plea. I think she often gets cases of buffalo skin hangover. She sold me some Tylenol and Thai-made orange electrolyte powder and I was fine by morning.

TAKE PEPTO-BISMOL. They are little pink chewable tablets that serve as a contraceptive against stomach ailments. I eat two after every meal in the third world and my intestines are comfortably blocked up. You get a little constipated but that is much better than the alternative, particularly when taking an eight-hour bus ride through land void of bathroom relief.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take Pepto-Bismol in 1978 when I went trekking in Northern Thailand. I do remember eating stirfry from a street stall in the days leading up to the trek. I just don’t recall what was in the stirfry or where it was before getting fried. I learned quite painfully that if a pile of food has been sitting in the hot sun all day, it doesn’t matter how much they stirfry it. It’s going to explode inside you.

To this day, I am the only person I know who ever had typhoid. What is typhoid? It’s basically when your insides wake up and go, “FUCK IT!” and stop working. The list of symptoms could fill a medical dictionary: 103-degree temperature, vomiting attacks, diarrhea, migraine, severe dehydration, dizzy spells. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3. I was down to 138 pounds. I could put one hand completely around my bicep. I could put two hands around the top of my thigh. I looked like a ghost from Dachau.

When it happened I was two days hike from the nearest road. What did you do on New Year’s Eve 1978? I was throwing up my guts in a bamboo-thatched outhouse in Northern Thailand.

Yes, I did get a typhoid innoculation. Here’s the myth about innoculations: They don’t keep you from getting sick. They keep you alive. I put my head down and walked, without food, for two days to the nearest village. One bowl of soup resulted in a mad dash to a jungle outhouse where I got attacked by rats coming up from the hole in the floor. I made it to the major Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai where they pumped me full of antibiotics, penicillin and glucose. No help.

I took a very painful overnight bus ride to Bangkok where I called my parents to say I was headed to the hospital the next morning. My mother was old enough to remember as a child when entire small towns in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. She immediately wired me $250 as I went to a local clinic specializing in VD.

This was 1979, pre-AIDS and I think I’m the only male alive to visit Bangkok and not have sex. I walked into this clinic and I made a zombie look like George Clooney. My eyes were bloodshot. My hair resembled a snake’s nest. My skin had a weird orange tint. My tongue was swollen. This Swede waiting to get treated for syphilis took one look at me and said, “My GOD! Who were YOU with?”

There is a happy ending here. After the clinic gave me another dose of medicine, the next day I didn’t vomit for the first time in four days. I built up enough strength to move on to Phuket, with my mom’s generous gift going to fresh seafood and beer. The typhoid also built up an immunity system stronger than a bank vault. I never missed a day of work due to illness in 40 years. Then came Germany and my new rule of the road …

Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena.

DO NOT, WHEN RACKED WITH FLU, SIT IN 38 DEGREES IN A SOCCER STADIUM FOR THREE HOURS. Part of my assignment was to attend a Bundesliga game and capture atmosphere in the best attended soccer league in the world. Eintracht Frankfurt hasn’t won a league title since the Bundesliga’s inception in 1963 yet still fills 50,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena almost every game. Cheap tickets. Beautiful stadium. Tradition. They all help. Also helping attendance is the kilometer-long road from the tram stop to the stadium lined with beer stalls. The walk to the stadium was one long frat party.

I sat in my press seat coughing so much I couldn’t have asked a question in the mixed zone afterward even if the one American on the team, Timotny Chandler, deemed me worthy to grant an interview. After the game, I had to weave through seemingly an entire nation of drunks. Women helped steady plastered friends onto the sidewalk. Men yelled obscene songs where translation was not needed. Fans stumbled horizontally on the dark sidewalk, glass beer bottles waving dangerously in hand. At the tram stop, I saw a man wheel an adult with severe cerebral palsy onto the edge of the platform. The man in the wheelchair was spilling his beer all over his lap. Even he was drunk!

For two days prior to the game, I laid in my AirBnB and stared at the ceiling, too weak to read, eat or move. The flu epidemic that has hit the U.S. has hit Europe, too. Alone, in pain and frustrated, I alternated between shakes from chills as if I sat in the stadium naked and sweats from a fever that made me think I was back in the jungle in Northern Thailand. I managed to take a tram to the train station pharmacy where they gave me menthol lozenges. They offered temporary relief but not enough to counteract a trip home that seemed like a return from Jupiter.

Part of RyanAir’s poverty-level discount fares is a bus connection from the Frankfurt airport to Cologne, 115 miles to the north. An airport shuttle bus took me to the FlixBus terminal on the fringes of the airport. The FlixBus terminal has no lobby and the lone seats are on a cement, uncovered platform, a lovely place to spend 90 minutes with the flu in 38-degree weather. How’d I stay warm? For 90 minutes I sat on the floor of the heated bathroom like a stray dog. In my delirium I asked myself, Where the hell am I? Rural Kazakhstan?

When I finally managed to land in Rome that night, Marina was there to greet me — with the flu. I happened to land in a two-hour window where she had enough energy to drive. We hacked and sniffled and shivered all the way back to my place where she dropped me off and went home to sweat out her own illness.

We’re fine now. Good pizza, pasta and wine are great Italian medicine. So don’t let potential illness discourage you from venturing into strange unknowns. When I sit around with fellow travelers, the best stories don’t revolve around museums, hotels and beaches. They often center around travel tales from hell, feverish hikes and strange clinics and foods of questionable origin. To truly travel, one must truly suffer. It’s the nasty little side effect of adventure. So is one other symptom.

I am dying for a sausage and a beer.