The Road to Assisi

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-23 04.31.39Wednesday, September 25.

Yet another super-early start to the day …

But for the first time on this trip, our tour group’s getting a bit of a reprieve in the (non-stop) excursion department.

Our driver, Pierluigi, has a lot of ground to cover if he’s going to get us to our next destination – the town of Assisi.

I take advantage of the long ride to catch up on my sleep, as the last couple of nights haven’t been entirely restful.

Our first short stop is at the Cassino war cemetery, the final resting place for many soldiers from the Commonwealth – New Zealanders, Australians, Brits, and Canadians.

As we enter the grounds, a military ceremony is underway at the far end, so we move along as quietly and respectfully as we can between the rows of gravestones, gazing at inscriptions and taking photos.

2013-09-23 04.49.18Prior to our arrival at the cemetery, Franco told us that a large number of the fallen buried here are Canadians.

Standing on the grounds now, I can see them – rows upon rows – on the right-hand side of the cemetery.

The sheer number of tombstones – compared to the other soldiers from other countries – says volumes about their involvement and the ultimate price they paid.

Some were as young as 19 years old – as far as we know. Some could be younger, as it’s known that some young men lied about their ages to enlist. The visiting is quite sobering, but worth the visit.

Back on the bus, we travel for a couple more hours, passing Rome’s outskirts and going beyond, stopping for lunch at a rest stop near the town of Spoleto.

From there, it’s another two and a half hours before we reach Assisi – home of St. Francis.

2013-09-25 10.01.46As it happens, our group has arrived roughly a week and a half before Pope Francis is due to visit the town and give mass, on St. Francis’ Day (October 4). At the time of our visit, we’re told that Assisi is expecting somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100,000 people to descend upon the town for the festival.

Seeing the town at a distance from the bus, with the basilica appearing to be perched on the edge of the hill, the thought that we would be soon ascending up there seems a bit daunting.

But upon meeting our local guide for the afternoon, Vania, it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as originally imagined.

For starters, she leads us up two sets up escalators (no, really) towards the “new” gate, on the town’s northeastern side.

Assisi is anything but flat, but it honestly doesn’t seem so bad to navigate. It’s precisely the type of picturesque little town you’re supposed to imagine when you think of Italy, with scenic views of the landscape that don’t seem to end, and architecture that beckons you to take photos.

2013-09-25 10.17.09The streets are lined with shops, including meringues in patisserie windows the size of my face!

Every stairway, nook and cranny visible to the naked eye is image-rich. The two squares through which we’re led have views of the countryside that no picture can really properly capture.

Vania takes us inside St. Francis’ Basilica, where she talks a bit about St. Francis’ life before his decision to dedicate his life to religion, as well as the frescoes on the church walls that depict his life and work.

2013-09-25 10.41.12

(Another historic tidbit/sidebar: we’ve arrived the day before the 16th anniversary of the earthquake that hit Assisi [1997]; it damaged part of the basilica’s portals, apparently shattering it into some 200,000 pieces. A fair bit of one of them – I believe near the church entrance – has been re-assembled by experts through a painstaking method much like a jigsaw puzzle.)

From the sanctuary, we’re then taken down to the basilica’s lower level, where St. Francis’ tomb is kept. The structure is dramatically different – the lower ceilings, the design. It’s (obviously) from an older time, and so the atmosphere feels slightly more eerie, but also more sombre and reverent. Both clergy and average folks alike are there in the small, ancient chapel, praying. It feels a bit strange (even a tad disrespectful) to be shuffling about as a tour group, while this otherwise most sacred of acts is going on.

2013-09-25 11.50.46The tour ends, and we’re let loose for about 45 minutes.

There’s not as much to look at in the southwestern section of town. I opt to take a look in a couple of nearby shops, purchasing a sticky almond pastry from one of them. (The pastry is nowhere as sweet as I think it’s going to be – just very nutty.)

Finally, we’re rounded up and taken to the hotel – a tiny, 40-room establishment. The rooms and bathrooms are just as compact.

Following a lovely dinner, it’s once again to bed, and it will be early to rise. We have a full day of driving ahead for the next stop.

A Day on the Coast

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

2013-09-22 04.12.59Tuesday, September 24.

Today’s a long day, but a good one.

Our first stop: the town of Sorrento – which also happens to be our trip leader Franco’s hometown.

I didn’t know this before we arrived, but Sorrento’s known for its intricate wood inlay designs, which can be found on everything from tables to music boxes. So – of course – the first place we visit in town is a wood inlay factory.

There’s a presentation by the man who runs the factory, followed by a “stop” in the adjoining gift shop to admire and – naturally – an attempt to entice us into buying something. (Nice try, wood-inlay man.)

Leaving the shop, we walk into town for a mini-tour of the shopping district. We pass numerous shops selling leather purses (this catches my eye), sample sweet almond candies, and even are treated to some gelato, courtesy of Franco (see photo of my selection, below).

2013-09-22 04.27.53But herein lies a test. For you see, my dear, sweet mother – who chose Italy as our travel destination – is lactose-intolerant (and gets a bit of heartburn when she eats tomato sauce). Yet here we are, lined up inside a shop that’s said to serve the best gelato in Sorrento. Fifty-six flavours’ worth.

We’ve already had a disappointing food experience the evening we arrived in Rome, and my mom hasn’t been completely impressed with her food options thus far. So I’m nervous.

But it turns out I don’t have to be. With Franco’s help, she finds a milk-free melon flavoured treat … and she likes it.

(Yay! A small success!)

We also make small talk with some of our fellow travellers, including a couple named Dallas and Randy, who hail from Winnipeg. As we find out, Randy is (1) quite funny and (2) an avid eater of gelato. He and my mom seem to get along almost immediately.

Around 11:45, we’re let loose. Some people set off on an excursion to a mozzarella farm outside Sorrento. Because of my mom’s lactose issues, we opt instead to browse a few of the shops in town, then take a local bus tour which lasts 35 minutes (cost: 6 Euros), following that up with lunch.

We find a little sit-down place where I chow down on pizza, while Mom has to improvise with some boiled potatoes seasoned with olive oil and onion (which she claims she likes).

After lunch, we elect to rest a spell on a bench somewhere. The only one I can find is under some trees that line one of the main medians in the town centre. Of course, it happens to be across from some not-so-young Italian men loafing about, smoking and such.

In the span of about 10 minutes, the gaggle of Italian dude-bros grows to almost a dozen, standing almost in the road, sitting next to us, just loitering. Mind you, they don’t bother us, but I grow tired of the impromptu sausage party pretty quickly.

We return to our group’s meeting spot by the wood inlay factory, where we board mini-buses for the afternoon drive down the Amalfi Coast, where we will stop in the village of Positano.

2013-09-22 09.18.29The journey down the coast is narrow, and a bit steep. Having done a similar stretch on my trip to Morocco several years ago, I’m not unnerved. For my mom – between the narrow roadway down, various cars and scooters zipping in and out, and huge trucks expertly navigating the terrain – it’s a bit daunting.

But the view leading into Positano is simply spectacular. In some ways, it sort of reminds me of Croatia.

The stop in Positano is lovely. But truthfully, there’s not a lot to do for the short time we’re here. Our local guide, Stefano, is nice, but he doesn’t say a whole lot about the town.

2013-09-22 10.03.28He leads us on foot, from our drop-off point at the top of the village down to the beach. It’s lovely, but the sun is high, so it’s quite hot … and there’s not a whole lot to do.

Our sightseeing done, we leave town and arrive back in the town of Castellmare di Stabia (where we’re staying) sometime after 6 p.m.

Dinner is spent with two nice American couples, Judy and Charles from Florida (they’re just lovely!) and a woman named Rosemary and her husband (whose name eludes me). We dine on spaghetti carbonara, followed by chicken and vegetables, with a flan for dessert. Mom gets spaghetti minus the tomato sauce, along with a special omelette with vegetables. (Other than the portion size – which she says is huge – I think she does okay.)

The hotel offers post-dinner tea upstairs, but tonight it seems a lot of people are too pooped to go. Mom and I do end up sitting and chatting with three Australians – a couple, Kerry and Keith (I forget where they’re from), and a lady named Susan, who’s from Darwin. She’s an outreach ENT nurse working to get care and treatment to those in far-flung Aborigine communities. (Listening to her talk about the language, cultural and geographic challenges, as well as her program being under constant threat of dwindling government funding, is unreal.)

The night winds down, and Mom and I head back to our room.

Tomorrow, we’re off to our next stop: the town of Assisi.

Oh Hey, Pompeii!

2013-09-21 09.59.27Our tour bus arrives outside the ancient city of Pompeii around mid-afternoon.

This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing. Ancient-ruin-anything pleases my inner geek.

Once inside the front gates, we meet our next local guide Vincenzo (or Enzo, as he likes to be called). He takes our group down a tree-lined path and into the sun-baked ruins of part of the old city.

We’re told it’s impossible to see the entire old city in one day; for our part of the trip, we’ll see roughly a third of the ruins (which lasts about two hours).

Enzo’s actually third-generation resident of the modern-day town of Pompeii, so he’s as chock-a-block full of information as he is entertaining when he describes what life in ancient times would have been like.

2013-09-21 10.08.28He takes us to see an ancient ampthitheatre, and explains practical purposes for things, such as the way the roads were paved, and how merchants set up shops.

He shows us an ancient “fast-food” restaurant, as well as how to determine whether the ruins of a home belonged to someone of a certain class.

We take respite from the sun in an old structure, and take a look of a couple of figures in plaster – said to be real people, frozen in the positions in which they died. I’m not sure what’s more surreal – that, or seeing them under glass, themselves relics from an ancient event.

2013-09-21 10.48.39From there, Enzo takes us to a section of town that housed a brothel, explaining how prostitutes would bring in business.

Up on the walls near the brothel’s entrance are faded erotic pictures, depicting the kind of services customers could ask for.

(In the street not too far away from the brothel, there’s a drawing on of of the stones that one could describe as an ancient form of “GPS”, so to speak.)

2013-09-21 10.13.27Near the end of our tour, we pass through a very large courtyard.

At one end is a building housing all sorts of recovered artifacts – urns, vessels, pieces of moulding, and again, figures frozen in plaster and time.

One particular person is crouching – likely under something to protect himself, but sadly, his gesture was in vain.

It’s been an interesting look around Pompeii. But after a post-tour gelato, it’s time to pile back onto the bus to get to the next leg of our destination.

A Morning at the Vatican

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 23.

2013-09-21 02.18.00We’re up at the crack of dawn, and in the hotel lobby by about 6:30 a.m., taking our places in what seems like the longest lineup ever.

And it’s just the queue for breakfast.

The morning we’re due to visit the Vatican, HUNDREDS of Spanish tourists (or so it seems) are all leaving the hotel at the same time.

After breakfast, Mom decides to grab some foodstuffs from the buffet to make more sandwiches for the day.

I’m waiting relatively close to the dining room entrance, a plate of already-made sandwiches in hand, when suddenly this disagreement breaks out between two of the Spanish tourists – a man and woman – seemingly over a black, vinyl bag (or, perhaps, its contents).

As the argument eases and escalates, I have visions of fisticuffs, me getting caught in the middle, and those delicious, precious bacon sandwiches flying in the air. I silently plead for my mother to hurry the hell up.

Unscathed, we grab our belongings and – after some confusion as to where our group’s bus is parked – are on our way to Vatican City.

The crowds outside the Vatican‘s city walls are already enormous by the time we arrive (see above), just after 8 a.m. Luckily, though, we don’t have to wait long to get inside – we’ve paid in advance, so we get to bypass some of the lines. But, man, do we ever shuffle just to get inside.

After a couple of false starts (one of our fellow tourists loses one of her sons in the shuffle up the escalator in the museum, then my mom’s radio guide – used to hear our guide, Tiziana – refuses to work), we finally get going.

2013-09-21 03.34.40The Vatican Museums include huge halls with ornate columns and ceilings, filled with all manner of sculptures (many of them missing arms), tapestries, painted reliefs on ceilings, and so on.

We’re led outside in a sort of courtyard, where Tiziana gives us an introduction to understanding the different panels of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the length of time it took the artist to complete his work, where the man left his signature, and even a fun anecdote about what he did when one local cardinal kicked up a fuss about the content of his masterpiece.

We eventually get in to see the chapel. But it’s a bit of a circus, to be completely honest. People are everywhere, being herded like sheep by the guards keeping watch. (Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to take pictures, so you’ll see none here. Google’s your friend for this one.)

Our group moves to one corner of the chapel, where – amid the insanity – I crane my neck and look straight upwards to gaze at as much as I can, before we’re shooed out.

2013-09-21 04.28.18We move along to St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s just as you’d probably just as ornate as you’d imagine – imaginably high domes, marble floors, sculptures in every corner, mosaic tiles galore. And then, there’s that massive, almost menacing, black canopy at the altar.

Embedded in the floor are tiles that compare the sizes of other big cathedrals around the world to St. Peter’s. (From what I understand, St. Peter’s is the biggest basilica in the world.)

Then, it’s out into the sun, past St. Peter’s Square – filled with row upon row of chairs set up for some sort of event – and the famous obelisk, for a break before we start the next leg of our trip.

Blurry-Eyed Beginnings

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 22.

2013-09-20 03.55.52It’s amazing how the months before a trip can seem so long, then seem to vanish in the blink of an eye.

But here we are. My mom and I, with our tour group, in Rome. Italy. Finally.

Technically, it’s “day 3” of our itinerary, having spent the first evening, then most of the following day in the air, and finally arriving at our hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon, exhausted and practically nodding off during the orientation session with our trip leader, a compact Italian man named Franco. (Well, me, anyway.)

Today, is much, much better. We sufficiently fill our tummies at breakfast and slap together some small sandwiches for lunch.

Our day starts with our tour bus passing Rome’s historic ruins before we’re let off for a closer look. Franco hands us off to our local guide Tiziana, who leads us from point to point, rattling off historic facts and waving around an antenna with black, white and red ribbons tied to it, so we can see her at all times in the sea of other tourists, and keep up.

2013-09-20 04.27.11We spot the ancient arch after which Paris’ Arc de Triomphe is modelled, and  come across some sort of military parade as we’re looking at the various remains from the old city. We follow Tiziana farther, and pass by the exterior of the Colosseum.

At this point, the group breaks up for an hour or so. Some of our fellow travellers enter the Colosseum for a more detailed tour. Mom and I opt to stay outside.

The grounds around the exterior are teeming with tourists. Men illegally selling their cheap knock-off scarves, squeeze toys, and other wares, approach us repeatedly.

At one point, while taking some shade from the sun, we see a few pedlars high-tailing on it on foot, whizzing past us. There are police officers in the area.*

The group re-assembles, and we return to our hotel on the outskirts of town, where I gladly take a nap to battle my lingering jet-lag.

2013-09-20 10.51.09We return downtown in the late afternoon for a walking tour of the various piazzas and fountains, most notably, the Trevi Fountain – the biggest and, obviously, the busiest of them all.

At the fountain, we navigate around the hordes of tourists, finding a small patch of marble long enough to sit and snap a couple pictures.

Next, we pass through a shopping galleria with ornate stained glass (and stores with expensive designer labels), pass by a couple of smaller fountains and check out Trajan’s Column.

2013-09-20 11.39.49We head to the Pantheon, whose interior is not only architecturally stunning, but simply massive.

I glance up at the hole in the roof of the dome. Because of the time of day, the sunlight casts a shadow just inside, acting like a sundial.

Remains of various individuals are buried here, including those of the artist Raphael.

Our scheduled sightseeing for the day ends at the Piazza Navona, where merchants are hawking their wares and buskers are in abundance.

We’re let loose for dinner, and Mom and I partner up with two ladies – Susan from Darwin, Australia, and a Dutch lady from Vancouver named Else. (We don’t find out her name until later, because unlike a lot of people on the tour, she’s not wearing a name tag.)

2013-09-20 13.27.42We walk away from the main drag and manage to find a restaurant who can fix something Mom can actually eat!

Our meals consist of pasta and pizza; Mom can’t finish her meal, and I’m lucky my appetite’s big enough to demolish mine.

We aren’t downtown much longer after dinner, before we’re collected, walked back to our bus and whisked back to our hotel.

Today was so-so. We’ve got another early start ahead. We’ll see what the next day’s itinerary holds.

*Seems the police don’t really arrest these guys; rather they chase them around the area.

Just Call Me Lazy.

Speaking of writers who’ve gone AWOL …

Who’s got two thumbs and has been a lazy git when it comes to telling you about last fall’s travels on this blog?

I’m going to fix that.

Starting on Wednesday, I will slowly reveal just what happened to me when I went on vacation with my mom last September.

You could see a post every other day. It could be two posts a week. We’ll see how ambitious I end up being.

But please visit, and visit often! Tell your friends!

And if you’ve been to Italy and have any anecdotes to share during the course of the series, feel free to do so in the comments.

Now … onwards!

The Author Who Went AWOL

Dear writers and proofreaders who happen to read this:

I’ve got a strange story to tell, and wouldn’t mind some advice. Apologies in advance if this comes across a bit rant-y – I’ll try to keep it to a minimum and stick to the essentials.

So. In March 2011 (some of you might have read this), a woman I knew from university – and with whom I keep sporadic contact – contacted me out of the blue, asking if I could proofread her thesis. Which I did.

A few weeks later (in April), when we met in person (she wanted to thank me), she asked if I would help her out by proofreading a manuscript for her first novel.  She was going to self-publish, and was looking into particulars like cover art and even an ISDN number.

To me, she seemed excited. Heck, I was a little excited for her.

As someone with my own interest in literary fiction, I thought it might be a good exercise to try. So, I took a week to decide and told her I’d do it.

We discussed details such as a payment rate (which she asked me about), and what precisely she needed me to do (read for grammatical and structural mistakes, not for tone or character profile).

I didn’t actually receive the manuscript until roughly one year later – in late April, 2012. She asked me to wait for her to re-read and revise it until she felt she had a decent-enough version ready for proofreading.

Due to my own busy schedule, I didn’t start my part of it until late May, and completed proofreading at the end of July.

In all honesty … her book wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. But I absolutely commend her for writing this while working and going to school.

After letting her know I was done, we exchanged a few e-mails about meeting to discuss her work, before I went away on vacation in September. The meeting never happened, as our schedules just didn’t seem to align.

When I returned from vacation, I sent a message to her (in early October 2012) to see if she wanted to meet. She had family obligations and three papers to write for school, so she suggested after Thanksgiving. Post-holiday, she reached out to me, and this time, it was I who had prior engagements I couldn’t re-schedule.

I contacted her a couple of days later. She was working on another paper, and proposed perhaps meeting the following week.

I didn’t hear from her for six weeks.

I didn’t press the matter, as I figured she had schoolwork to complete. So I e-mailed in November with my phone number. I believe I also tried phoning her a couple of times.

Then I sent her another message in February 2013, with my schedule, to give her options for meeting up.

Then again in April.

And once more – with feeling – at the beginning of August.

Three days later, she responded.

She said she was moving soon (she promised to send her new address) and that her e-mail address had been infected with a virus. She added she did use Facebook to keep in touch for certain people, and finally apologized if I had been trying to reach her.

So I wrote her back and included both my snail-mail and e-mail addresses.

That has been the last time I’ve heard from her. No address has emerged. No new e-mail address has surfaced.

I sent her one Facebook message apiece in October and November.

This past Wednesday, I was checking Facebook and noticed she was online. (She’d commented on a friend’s Facebook status.) So I simply sent her a couple lines, wishing her well, to see if she would write back.

She hasn’t.

Meanwhile, her manuscript – the one I received in April 2012 and completed proofreading in July of that year – is sitting on one of my end tables, collecting dust.

I completely understand that trying to write while navigating life’s responsibilities – work, school, family – isn’t easy. For first-time authors, it can take years to get that labour of love in the hands of a publisher, and into print. I know colleagues and friends who have gone through this, or are going through this right now.

But … and perhaps this is a dumb thought … wouldn’t someone who’s talked of all these plans of being a published author (by whatever means), want his or her work back so he or she can get it published?

I’ve wondered whether it’s about the money and she’s trying to figure out how not to pay me. But judging from her Facebook profile (which, again, could be portraying a false sense of reality), she’s not in the poorhouse. And it’s odd that someone who offered to pay me for this task would then want not to hold up her end of the bargain, or negotiate if she somehow found the rate too high.

I’ve pondered whether – despite telling me she was prepared for whatever criticism I had for her work – she actually doesn’t want to hear what I have to say.

It could very well be that she’s very busy. But I don’t buy that, either. If she’s the type of highly effective human being who can write book manuscripts (she’s got more than one, apparently) while working, going to school and being present for social events – even travelling! Again, Facebook has shown me this – surely she can reach me if she wants.

Of course, I could reading waaaaay too much into this. But I find it bizarre.

Despite our agreement (which is in writing) this isn’t about the money. Yes, she should honour the agreement. But I work full-time, so I can pay my bills. And I simply saw this as a fun favour. So I’m willing to cut my losses.

I just want this manuscript out of my apartment, and returned to its rightful owner – especially since I’m moving in less than two months.

A while ago, I mentioned this woman’s radio silence to a friend, who suggested that I just stop e-mailing.

Which would be fine. But there remains the unresolved issue of being in possession of a piece of work that doesn’t belong to me.

Part of me thinks about how much time this probably took to do and that I should perhaps wait a bit longer.

But another part of me wants to send her a note with a deadline, and if she doesn’t claim it, dump the manuscript in the recycling bin.

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do about it?

Or, is there another solution I’m not seeing?