Join us in our adventure around the world from April 12 – May 4. We invite you to share in our exploration and discovery as we venture into the unknown.
We take a train from Verona to Innsbruck. It curves through gorgeous mountains in a way that would make Harry Potter and classmates jealous. But unlike Harry and his real magic, we find Innsbruck comes off a little too Disney for us. And it might just be that the top tourist attraction truly is a tourist attraction. The Swarovski crystal company is located there and they offer a shuttle from downtown to their sprawling complex. But rather than see how crystals are made or anything remotely scientific, you get to see 17 art installations inspired by famous artists and designers. The real kick in the pants is when you find yourself in a gift shop larger than Costco and arranged so you have to zigzag through every aisle. The Disney comparison isn’t far off, turns out they have crystal Mickey and Minnie and Yoda and Vader.
The center town has a Christmas market still going after New Year’s. They have snowy mountains so I guess they get to milk the holiday a little longer than most locales. And the downtown riverside is adorable, it’s just that we’ve traded homemade pasta for schnitzel and spaetzle (reminder, my name is Salvatore, not Hans). And maybe it isn’t fair of me, after all, we just came from Verona, not a Turkish prison. Had it been the latter, this review would have been far more glowing.
But the real issue with Austria is that one of us is not mature enough to go there. Just take a look.
And the other of us acts like she’s more mature but still snickers and giggles like a little girl.
If there is anything you should have learned about these adventures it is: as you go through life don’t forget to stop and look at the street signs. That, and skip all light shows in Innsbruck…holy cow, 20 minutes of life…evaporated. Here’s a picture of me, bored to death.
Okay, that was an Egyptian mummy seen in a museum in Trieste, but trust me, I looked just like that.
One last thing for the health food junkies, some Austrian breakfast joints have “waffles” that are really cake donuts cooked in the shape of waffles – I highly recommend two or three after your morning angioplasty.
Next stop, Verona. The trains are easy to navigate and we find ourselves in Verona on New Year’s Eve. We scored a free hotel room from our frequent use of Hotels.com and use it for the fancy Hotel Due Torri in the center of old Verona. Upon checking in we are told we were upgraded to a suite. We ask about dinner reservations and the concierge laughs, “You don’t have dinner reservations?”
Of course we do, we are just playing games with you. You caught us.
Of course we don’t. We fly by the seat of our pants. And when we tried Fork a couple of hours ago there weren’t any anywhere or anytime. The concierge gives us a pitiful look like she will be the one saddled with pulling our starved corpses out of the room tomorrow morning. She shows us on the map where a bunch of Osteria’s are and wishes us luck.
Vi and I beeline down the cobblestone streets to find food for the night. The first few restaurants send us packing and then we find Verona Antica. They are having a fixed menu for the evening and the owner describes the menu. Two appetizer choices, two first courses, two second courses, and one desert option. Polenta with black truffles! We are in…4 hours from now. The dinner starts at 8 and ends at 11pm to allow the diners to join the revelry at the Roman Arena a few blocks away.
Perhaps no surprise, but drinking is a big part of Italian culture. The drinking age is 16, but, like most laws, no one enforces it. As we walk the streets we see many wine bars filled with patrons, even the tables on the sidewalks and filling alleys are filled in the balmy 10 degrees Celsius (50F). The sun sets knocking off a handful of degrees and Vi and I agree that we are not good enough friends with anyone to consider sitting in freezing cold and drinking. Or, just maybe, we aren’t alcoholics.
For the fashionistas, pull out your 1990’s footwear. If Italy is still a trendsetter, then young women will soon be wearing tight leggings, including shiny faux leather ones, along with chunky boots. Doc Marten and friends are back. Vi buys a really cute pair of boots with zippers on the sides that look like something Gwen Stefani would wear if she became a paratrooper.
Dinner time. We arrive at the restaurant and are served bread and olive oil and wine. A plate of salami’s and other prosciutto type meats along with a scoop of ricotta in the center is set down in front of Vi. Apparently we didn’t get a choice between the two appetizers. Then a plate of more of the same arrives for me. And then a big bowl of polenta with mushrooms and truffle shavings is delivered. Vi and I look at the menu and convince ourselves that the appetizers were given together, but that any moment now our waitress will ask us our choices for then next courses.
Vi’s seat allows her a view of almost every table in the tiny stucco restaurant. Everyone has finished the appetizer course. Minutes later a giant scoop of red wine risotto filling a dinner plate is delivered to every diner. Vi and I confirm that if we eat all the risotto, we will both be stuffed, yet the 120 pound woman next to us and her husband are plowing into it like it is their last meal before being locked in a cave for three days. Valpolicella risotto is a local dish the we are thankful to try but don’t love. Vi is always immature and eats hers to look like Pac-Man. I had nothing to do with it.
Everyone devours their risotto except Vi, me, and a slender Scandinavian appearing woman. How do I know she was Scandinavian, besides the blond hair and pale complexion, when the waitress asked “Finish?” in broken English, the woman replied. “Yes.” As I have previously asserted, there is no such thing as a bad pun.
At this point Vi and I start discussing the options. 1) We accidentally joined a dinner serving WPEA (the Worldwide Power Eaters Association). Neither of us knows what Joey Chestnut looks like. 2) We are part of a Candid Camera show. When I was a kid I saw an episode where they secretly welded a 100 gallon tank under the back seats of Volkswagen Beetle. Then they drove to a gas station and had the attendant “fill’er up.” Around 20 gallons the attendant started looking under the car to see if gasoline was leaking out. At 30, he was tapping the gauges on the gas pump, at 40 he was circling the car looking for the spilling gas. The poker faced driver gave the attendant the “what’s taking so long” look while the audience laughed. We hope an audiencesomewhere is getting their giggles off of us.
The next dish, a full plate of homemade pasta topped with a light mushroom sauce and wide shavings of parmesan came out. This in itself, was an incredible meal. The table of young men next to us shoveled it in like there was no tomorrow. Granted, this was the German Professional Eating Team coming in straight off their win in Brussels. And the table from Moscow (no joke, the owner was proud to announce what a diverse group we had that night) was on their tails. The Russian’s wife did make a run to the restroom, a very suspicous move. The pasta was so tasty that I cleared my plate despite knowing another three rounds were on the way. A fool and his stomach are soon bloated.
The skinny blonde along with almost everyone else finished it. Where was all this food going? Were they all told to fast for a week before coming? Why wasn’t anyone on the ground moaning besides Vi? She was done for the night.
The following dish was a Thanksgiving sized heap of mashed potatoes and stew. We wised up and had the waitress deliver only one for the table. Vi rallied and ate a good chunk of potatoes, one of her weaknesses. I often bribe her with mash potatoes, like putting a Ziploc bag of them in her glove compartment as a thank you for going grocery shopping. She bites off one corner of the bag and squeezes them into her mouth like a professional cyclist downing a gel pack.
All five Germans clear their plates in record time. The other tables keep pace. Vi and I eat half of one plate. The Americans utterly disappoint. “But we didn’t know,” we cry. I think there is a movie to be made about a guy who accidentally becomes the U.S. contestant/representative in the World Power Eating Championships. It’ll fall somewhere between Talledega Nights and Cool Runnings as far as feel goes. Reserve your tickets now for opening night.
The next dish, a full dinner plate like all predecessors, has brown lentils cooked in beef broth, a pale gelatinous congee-like substance made from blended bread, olive oil, and pepper – a Verona special, and cooked chunks of a thick sausage glistening with grease. The owner tells us any cookbook of the region would proudly feature this on the cover, or in the first couple of pages. It is a working class staple, like pizza, and at this point I can barely muster dragging the tip of the fork across the food and tasting what sticks to it. Vi looks like she is going to be sick. She claims she can feel the food at the top of her esophagus. I have her open her mouth wide and sure enough, white potatoes are filling the pits of her tonsils.
Guilt from Vi’s childhood wells up from the past and soon she is crying. Her mother would fill her plate with food and not let her leave the table until she finished it. A heavyset Italian woman comes over and hugs her, nearly smothering the life out of her with her giant breasts, and then recommends she visit the bathroom and “be a good little Ancient Roman.” But Vi can’t make herself purge. The Finnish couple has it figured out, they go together and one puts their finger down the others throat, simultaneously. Those Scandinavians always excel at synchronized sports. I won’t do this for Vi because the last thing I want is mashed potatoes under my fingernails.
I tell Vi my childhood was different. We were taught to “eat what you take” and could control our own portion sizes. Vi looks at me with uncharacteristic envy. She confesses that she couldn’t even joke about mailing the excess food to starving kids in Africa in her house. Something we would both do at this moment if Fedex delivered on January 1st. We hope that dogs or pigs somewhere get to eat all these scraps and we eat about 10% of what is on this final dish.
Dessert is a ricotta cheesecake on a crunchy oat crust and topped with berry compote. A single slice is large enough for two, so Vi and I take one to share. Vi proves her claim to have a separate stomach for desert and eats far more of it than I could imagine. The rest of the room has shown no sign of slowing and soon forks are scraping the plates clean. Vi and I can’t stop laughing at the prank pulled on us, like a good magic trick, we can’t figure out how all the food was so quickly concealed at the other tables.
We waddled out the restaurant and a mile down a stony promenade filled with drunken revelers and partygoers of all ages. Even at their worst, it was a tame, even polite crowd. At midnight, they launched fireworks over the Roman coliseum, and we exchanged kisses. Vi tried to exchange my kiss for one from a more handsome man but there were no takers so she got stuck with a sloppy dog lick on the cheek from me. I bring in every New Year the same way…with a resolution to grow up, and abandon it seconds later.
One of the goals of seeing Trieste was to visit an Escher exhibition. The master of the tessellation (perfectly interlocked figures) lived in Italy from 1924 to 1935. Our friend, Federico, has lived there his whole life and it was his collection on display. We had lunch with Federico and it was then I learned that I’m truly Italian when he said, “Italy has rules, it’s just that no one follows them, that’s the Italian way.” A bit of context: he was referencing getting work done, not looting old ladies. Vi didn’t contribute to the conversation because she was too busy demolishing a giant plate of pasta adorned with prawns the size of kittens.
Federico’s wife was at home with a back injury from a skiing accident. Vivian offered to send her a box of chocolates and he replied, “she doesn’t need chocolates, just send an image.” Apparently the saying, “it’s the thought that counts,” is taken to an extreme in Italy.
As for dinner…Italy has changed. I rarely do product promotions pro bono, but the Fork app (from Trip Advisor) is a must. Many of the smallest mom and pop eateries are now on it and the restaurants are fully booked by locals and tourists alike. We do give puppy dog eyes to the host at a pizza joint and 45 minutes later find a table at Pizzeria Bianco and it was worth the wait and groveling. Vi and I share a love for that stretchy, doughy crust and the lump of burrata in the center of the pizza is the proverbial cherry on top.
One of the things Italy lost in the war is a chunk of real estate called Slovenia. Vi an I decided that a day trip into Slovenia was worth it just to say we’ve been there. But tell you what, the dramatic road signs were a bonus payoff. Sure, they had the sleek Italian deer, but they also had cars driving on two wheels through pelting rain like a 1980’s movie stunt. The scenery besides the signs was nice too, if you like majestic rolling hills covered with pine trees.
Our driver said the country had two giant windmills for generating electricity but some environmental group said they were harmful to birds so they won’t build more. They don’t even have the two running because they are still arguing about it. Given the age of windmills and the aggressive environmentalists in the US, I would have thought this issue would have long been solved – but the Slovenians like to figure things out for themselves. They also are still figuring out our first lady – there is a pride in that she is helping put Slovenia on the mental map for Americans, but the question they ask is one asked worldwide, How did she end up with him? Immigrants will take jobs Americans won’t. Ok, no more politics, I don’t want to ruffle the feathers of my Republican fan base.
We visitied the largest cave in Slovenia. 24Km long. The biggest inhabitant, other than plodding tourists, is an albino salamander whose heart beats once a minute, breathes once every ten minutes and lives a hundred years. It eats once every three months. Talk about a wrench in the dating scene. “Want to go out to dinner.” “Sorry, but I ate last week.” “So, um, how about in 11 weeks?” “Maybe…I want to take things slow.” A long sigh for teenage cave salamanders.
The cave is cluttered with tourists. A group of older Asian women move like a cluster of grapes, bouncing off each other while moving en masse, held together by invisible stems. They smell…like lavender and baby powder. Intimate Fragrance! I lurch, holding back vomit. I break off two stalagtites and shove them up my nostrils.
We also toured a castle built into a cliff that once housed the legendary knight, Erasmus. The emperor wanted him dead as revenge for a murder that Erasmus committed as a revenge for a murder, which in turn was a revenge for a murder (it’s revenges for murders all the way back). The local governor learned Erasmus had holed up in this castle and it took over a year to get him – the castle has a great strategic position but lousy natural lighting. The inside of the castle connects to a large cave system (Slovenia has over 8000 caves and a gazillion bats) that none of the attackers knew about. This allowed Erasmus a fresh water supply and to sneak out and get food supplies as needed in a nearby town (clearly the days before wanted posters). A servant betrayed him and told the enemy the weakness of the castle, no, not the cave system, but rather that the loo had stone walls only a foot thick instead of more 3.5 feet like everywhere else. The servant signaled with a candle when Erasmus was in the line of duty, so to speak, and they blasted him with giant rocks from catapults. Now you know why Vi and I don’t have servants. It’s always the butler.
We aren’t big on touring castles unless they are where Scooby Doo episodes take place, this one was a worthy exception to that rule.
We contact an Italian friend to go skiing. Here’s how the conversation goes:
Me: What time should we meet in the morning?
Friend: Anytime. I am always up early, by 8am most days.
Vi and I are truly on vacation, my friend clearly lives on it. We decide to meet at 9.
The next morning we meet up 50 feet from the hotel and jump onto the first lift. It is chilly and the cold air almost stings, but we are on vacation! And here is a couple that makes it onto a mountain about once every 5 years now in one of the most famous ski areas in the world…what could go wrong?
My friend leads the way down the runs that spider web the mountain. Vi and him are on skis and I’m on a snowboard. You know who snowboards in the Alps? Me. Just me. I’m told that once freestyle skis became popular snowboarding faded about 15 years ago. Sorry, Tahoe. The reason in the Dolomites becomes obvious, there are a lot of traversing to get from one set of lifts to another. Snowboarders don’t have poles and going sideways is impossible for any distance. I get a right leg workout kicking like a skateboarder across the hills. Our friend isn’t helpful with early warnings either so I don’t know when to maintain speed when we come up to forks in the run.
Me: Which way down, right or left?
My friend: “Yes.”
This is a source of amusement for Vi.
Everywhere we go, people drink bottled water. They are in the Dolomites with some of the freshest water in the world flowing down the mountains, yet the water they drink is bottled in nearby Bressanone. We are told that even in Bressanone they drink the water bottled in Bressanone. Are you scratching your head? But shy drink water when you have a full on open air bars on the mountaintop, some with DJ’s turning out beats loud enough to cause avalanches? Alcohol, thin air, dehydration, and freezing cold – Viva Italia!
Anyway, there is no better way to discover how physically inflexible you’ve become than to snowboard for a two days. Our hotel has a lukewarm whirlpool that helps alleviate soreness and is just cold enough to keep you from staying in it too long – the psychology of forcing people to share is at work here. These Tyroleans are clever.
Surprise! We are headed to Austria, Slovenia, and Italy for a little R&R, but what could be more fun than forcing our adventures upon you, dedicated Follower?
The plane boards late. This is not new. Probably not even worthy of mention. But it does set the stage of getting onto a plane. I make a quick trip to the plane’s restroom. Next to the soap is a little tray of mouthwashes, combs, and razors with shaving cream. You know you are on a long flight when they supply razors. Hopefully Vi will shave her legs. If I’m going to join the mile-high club, there better be smooth legs involved. I think we technically have joined that club in Denver, the mile high city, so if she isn’t game, no loss. I grab a comb. I am bald, and any residual hairs were shaved off the other day, but I take the comb anyway with the hopes that little gray combs with the Lufthansa symbol on them have high eBay value. Maybe I’ll keep it in my back pocket in Verona to give the Italian pickpockets something to do.
Okay, doors closing. The pilot is busy blaming the jet’s late departure on the weather. There are clouds somewhere. I stand up and holler, “Just take some responsibility,” but those doors between the holding pen and the cockpit are fairly soundproof, so I’m told by the charming flight attendant. Charming because the drugs were pushed moments before we were allowed to board. We shall see how cheery she is when I have full stubble.
We are in the air. Years of credit card points all swapped for this business class extravaganza; nice to know the trips to Home Depot and failed gardens have finally paid off. The seat is uncharacteristically hard – how perfectly stereotypically German. If you misbehave a spike-haired military muscleman rips the seat out from under your bum and beats you with it. Vi points out that a little cubby holds rolled up mattress pads for our reclinable seats. But she doesn’t call them mattress pads, she calls them “wee wee pads.” In her universe, there are no mattress pads, only pads that absorb urine while you sleep. Yes, you are wincing, but don’t forget that I’m the lucky guy sleeping next to someone always prepared for a bladder leak. Now you know why we don’t have kids (well at least the women who have had a few kids and now have to cross their legs when they giggle while reading this do).
Anyway, the wee wee pad makes the seat much more comfortable and now that we are at 30000 feet, there are no clouds, just clear skies and Italian wine. I’ll be back when I’ve had enough to drink that my jokes will be funny.
I’m back. I fell asleep during the movie Ad Astra. Finally I have something I can bring with me to use as a sleep aid for jet lag. Thanks, Brad Pitt. Vi sees me awake and points to a button on the armrest. The hardness of the seat it adjustable! I can go from concrete to futon with one click. Hooray, technology. Those Germans.
The lining of my nose feels so dry that if I sneezed it would come up in one pink cast and shatter upon hitting the floor. I go to the bathroom. They don’t supply nasal saline. And four of the five combs are gone.
The guy in front of me didn’t get a comb. He wakes with the bedhead of a troll doll. Score one for the bald guy, you can’t tell I just slept six hours on a plane…other than the wrinkled clothes and funky odor (and that I told you or you wouldn’t have noticed).
We make it to Frankfurt for our connection. The airport has food places with American names that are literal descriptions of their business. Traditional Bakery. Original Italian Dining. So stereotypic German! How consistent.
Flying into Innsbruck is the first glimpse of how beautiful the Alps are. It is December, but there are lush green fields in the valley with elves in houses (I’m sure of it) and snow capped mountain tops jutting out on the sides. Our prop plane does a loopty-loo and lands. Okay, my stomach does a loopty-loo as the plane lands.
Our driver tells us the history of the area and how the Dolomites were once part of Austria but that Austria lost World War I so the border was moved. Italy lost World War I too, it’s just that Austria lost it more. The Italians don’t mind giving up or flipping sides if it saves them a little acreage.
We check into the hotel and discover dinner and breakfast are included in our stay. The dining room overlooks mountains laced with ski slopes weaving their shaved paths through snow covered pines. Dinner includes a Tyrolean dish of polenta and stew – a comfort food to help with the cold just outside the windows and the strange stares from the people just inside them. Unbeknownst to us, the Pope must have announced earlier that day that the Devil has taken on the appearance of Vivian. The looks she attracts are not subtle. I tell her it is because she is so beautiful they wonder what she is doing with a pasty, bald North American ape.
The dry mountain air sucks all the moisture from us. Yet the hotel doesn’t supply skin lotion, yes, a First World complaint, only made because the absence of lotion and the inclusion of “Intimate Fragrance” reveals the Italian priorities do not align with Vivian’s. Apparently you can have your genitalia smell like a combination of baby powder and lavender while every time you smile your lips crack and bleed like a cheap special effect in a horror movie. Viva Italia.
Just like the cars, even the deer are sleeker in Italy.
The point spreads are such that nothing that happens today will change the position of the top five teams. That said, the top three teams have to participate today because a team cannot place without handing in a scavenge sheet for every leg.
Vi is on it. Cream cheese bagel and coffee for fuel and a walk to the UN. There we count the flags flying at the UN (only the UN flag flies on weekends, who knew). Then we catch a taxi to the Brooklyn Bridge to walk across it. Our taxi driver rounds up a 17$ fare to 20$ even though I can see the meter and I realize we’ve traveled around the world to discover some things are the same everywhere.
I do my best Spider-Man along the cables of the bridge. Tourists are snapping photos at my leaping, swinging, web-spinning mastery. Although the booklet doesn’t have it, this city is the perfect setting for a Superhero Challenge…Batman and Superman also frequent here. And look at this gothic church across from our hotel – this is Ghostbusters material.
After our mandatory scavenges we spend the next few hours visiting friends. Sitting in a restaurant eating a calzone without planning our next eight steps feels like a vacation but it also feels like we are slacking. Despite just eating a calzone, Vi can’t resist the opportunity to try to squeeze in a trip to a Five Napkins Burger before getting back to the team rendezvous point. I send our Ringmaster a text, “Does the admission price of the trip include therapy sessions to help reintegration into society now that the scavenging is over?”
He says “no” so I’ve come up with an alternative. I’ll make weekly scavenge booklets. Walk dogs (25 points). Clean dog doo (75 points).
She won’t be able to resist that one.
Back at the hotel we have a rewards ceremony. It’s Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you) so I was hoping for a Princess Leia lookalike to put the bronze medals on us while the theme song blared. No such luck. However one of the other teammates went to a baseball game and brought back a Star Wars themed Bobblehead for me.
I can’t figure out how she knew I was a closet Star Wars fan. The Sith Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
We have a goodbye dinner and Vi and I take some time to talk to the Ringmaster and his wife (a classic case of the woman behind the man who makes it all happen – she deserves an ovation for managing the nuts and bolts). We realize they know the game isn’t perfect and don’t really want it to be. The game is what the players want it to be, not what they force it upon you to be.
I can’t help but make a comparison to WestWorld. The architect creates the game, but what you do within it is entirely of your choosing. Does he wish more teams would compete the whole way through? Yes. Does he expect it? No. He stresses that the game makes you look in the mirror to see you for what type of traveler you are, what type of competitor you are, and most importantly, what you think you know about the world.
I wouldn’t say that Vi and I learned much new about each other. If anything, I can get away with being even more of a goofball. I find her giggling at random times when she reminisces about me being the annoying-mime-juggler-street-performer. 10 minutes for 75 points! And I find myself wondering how any of her patients survive if she hasn’t had her coffee. I can just imagine her traipsing in to work at 7am without her coffee and the nurse calling down to the morgue to ensure they have plenty of space ready.
But Vi and I did learn that the world is changing. People are optimistic and kind even in places recently ravaged by genocide (Myanmar). As my friend Sean says, “materially poor but rich in spirit.” The New Yorker who took a minute to set us toward the Clark Street station without us even asking was a positive experience to offset the evening before. Go Brooklyn!
We confirmed Vi has no circadian rhythm and mine could be broken! Sweet. And 9am is the ideal time for karaoke.
Vi noticed the world is becoming more homogeneous. There is a Western influence everywhere. There’s an increasing acceptance of other cultures that manifests in women in the Middle East not always needing to cover their heads. Their were so many English speakers who admitted they learned the language from movies. We learned the US isn’t that special – there are plenty of places that are just as nice, if not nicer in both cleanliness and modernness. The World Wide Web really is World Wide. We are all linked. The opportunities to learn and connect are abundant – a chance to see people as people rather than countries (we’ve been trained to think of huge areas of land as having an identity, such as “North Korea, Vietnam, Middle East, etc.”). Traveling makes you meet individuals and none of them seem much different than us.
Shove me in the shallow water before I get too deep.
The emails and texts have already been coming in. “Would you guys go again?”
Does Darth Vader wear a funny helmet?
For those of you who want to hear this same voice in a medical setting, I wrote a book: