Dear friends of Switchback,
I was asked by the staff of the Venu, a residential resort community in Scottsdale, Arizona, to write an article about how Switchback has adopted them as not only a place to play, but as a base camp for our Southwestern U.S. touring. I realized that this article could explain the synergy that is created by our friends who support our music and aid in our ability to bring our music to new audiences. This article might also inspire you to join in the effort.
This cooperative effort is what I call “making a WayGood World.” I tease that “The WayGood World is a vast and ever-expanding Empire that is larger than Switchback itself.” People new to our music, and the close relationship we maintain with our friends, are confused. Some wonder if we are a cult! We aren’t, nor do we offer Kool-Aid at any of our concerts, nor espouse dressing alike or having our haircuts all look like Dr. Spock’s.
Our friends realize that I am referring to that collective joy that has been created between them and ourselves. Picture a bunch of Deadheads that actually help the Grateful Dead tour, donate money to make records, sell merchandise and spread the word about their music, and you get the picture. The Venu is a location where there now resides a whole passel of Switchheads. And it didn’t happen overnight.
The Venu is a collection of condominiums and rental properties, very much like a lot of resort communities in the Southwest. So there is a community room and a swimming pool. A lot of people who stay there are “snowbirds” coming from the colder climes of North America, with a few European stragglers thrown in. The result is a very vibrant community that coalesces around wintertime. Add in one very determined, energetic friend of Switchback, Norm Weitzman, and faster than a flu-virus the joy of the WayGood World can spread.
Norm used to live in Chicago and moved permanently to Arizona a few years ago. Keen on having the band come to the Southwest, he reached out to Brian and myself. Norm did two important things to make it happen. He offered us a place to stay and he created some initial concerts at the Venu that in turn brought in more friends to the music. This happened not by coincidence, but by some very thoughtful planning on his part. The first concert we did was in the great room of the Venu. We had driven down to Arizona, so were able to bring our equipment. The result was an enthusiastic embrace from folks who really enjoy live music. Soon we had Diane Gilbert making dinner for the band and that then morphed into a potluck dinner for the residents who attended the concert. The general public soon started coming due to word of mouth, so the traffic (and subtle marketing) at the Venu increased.
Norm decided that we should have an outdoor concert. The beautiful desert behind the Venu was the logical choice to have it. Surrounded by stately saguaro cacti and desert plants, the event took place much like a Mickey Rooney “Andy Hardy” movie. We decided to see how much extension cord we could run out from the Venu. John Steinsky volunteered to film the event and Brenda Steinsky helped mobilize folks to come out and attend. Flyers were created announcing the date and pretty soon an amazing “Concert in the Desert” was created. It was nicknamed “Desert Norm” in honor of Norm and the name stuck. Pretty soon the public heard about this concert and came from as far as Sedona and Mesa to attend, along with a dish to pass. Some friends of Switchback, vacationing in Arizona, made the trip to the Venu and in turn met the Switchback friends living there. The community-creating aspect of the shows brought new attention to the Venu and new friends to Switchback and the WayGood World. And the unique setting of “Desert Norm,” with the mountains bathed in the red-orange sunset, hummingbirds, quail and the odd javelina walking by, made the music that much more magical.
Obviously Brian and I carve out a living making music and it takes money to travel. So over the course of three years, Norm doggedly worked on having Switchback come at regular intervals to the greater Phoenix area. And much like an invading army, Switchback and our supporters at the Venu have collectively struggled to get a toehold on the beachhead of regular shows in Arizona, as well as back in their summer homes. Robin Gilbert has been working with our agent to have us play in Canada and John and Brenda Steinsky have plans for a future Switchback concert on Prince Edward Island. Joel Greenburg and his wife, Judi, have mentioned our invading Boston.
In addition, Switchback now maintains a complete sound system at the Venu. We fly to Phoenix, rent a van and head to our Southwest home. We not only continue to present concerts at the Venu, but plan to offer a poolside party as well as some other special events in the future. The desert concerts will continue with the next one being offered on March 24.
We have been blessed over the years to have people who believe and support our music. Many of you reading this did what Norm and the folks at the Venu are doing. I would encourage you to mention where and how you helped in the comments section of our blog page to encourage others to do the same. We have been able to travel and present our music without the support of a major label or company because we have the support and company of our friends. As I have also said, “We are only as successful and popular as our friends wish us to be.” Thanks to our friends, like the ones at the Venu, it truly is becoming a WayGood World.
Dear Friends of Switchback,
Four years have gone by since the polar vortex of 2014 and the birth of my daughter, Áine. In a lot of ways, I now measure the years by her growth. It’s been fun to line her up with the well-traveled bass case and see the changes. And, so far, she has been willing to cooperate with these yearly pictures. I don’t know how it will go when she turns 13.
The big change this year for Áine has been preschool. Preschool did not exist when I was a kid, and so it was sort of an odd thing to have to enroll in it to begin with. Growing up, kindergarten (what was considered formal education) did not start until age 6. In our family, the years of three to five were spent doing things that made sense, like eating and learning how to flush the toilet.
Mom had courses for us, like Diaper Folding 101, which was an advanced study of taking a diaper out of the dryer and folding it. I got pretty good at it by the time I was four and so I was advanced to Sock Mating. This course I flunked out of and still to this day am a remedial sock mater.
So with Áine heading over to preschool, I was befuddled by having two more years of education prior to kindergarten. And, since we enrolled her in Catholic school, two more years of tuition. But Annie and I reasoned (and our calculators confirmed) that in some ways it was more reasonable than a nanny or daycare.
I was all for the idea of taking her on the road with Switchback and letting her education start there. However, Annie felt that pre-K (the technical term used nowadays) was the way to go. Brian and I do not have the best track record for keeping the Switchback van clean. We also lose things from time to time, like microphone stands and well, whole vans. It would be “Two Men and a Baby” meets “Dumb and Dumber.” So, Annie won out and we enrolled Áine where she would be able to eat something other than trail mix.
She was excited to be going to school and became part of a class called the Caterpillars. Now, anyone who has a kid born in the last 20 years would quickly recognize that this is a reference to the Eric Carle book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” This is staple pre-K reading. Carle has built an empire on it, and for us parents, that translates into “Hungry Caterpillar” videos, stuffed dolls, games, and the like. A slew of spin-off books by Carle have also become “must haves” in this weird Pre-K world. My book is going to be called “The Empty Wallet.”
There are about 20 kids in her class and already the dynamics of personality are emerging. Some kids are “popular,” which at almost four means that you get hugged by the other kids and asked to be a friend. Some kids are lone wolves, hanging out by their cubby holes where the books, coats and shoes are placed. Áine is very social and both types of kids are confusing to her. She just wants everyone “to be my friend.” And so tirelessly she will go around hugging kids, occasionally getting bitten or hugged in return, depending on the kid.
Dropping her off at school last November, I was very proud when she approached a new child crying by her cubby hole. Áine put her arm around her and said, “Don’t be scared. I was scared too when I started here, but you will like it.” Already an old salt in the Pre-K world. The little girl hugged Áine back, excited to have a “new friend.”
Some kids get weepy when leaving their parents. Áine walked into the classroom and did not look back. She is very happy to see us at the end of the day but already a streak of independence flares up, especially as I try to get her buckled into the child seat, ask her to eat dinner, go to bed, blow her nose, or say her prayers. Already she is starting to write songs and cuts me off if I start singing with her. “Poppa, I am singing.” So I sort of know my place in the music business around our house.
The hardest part is seeing the child emerge from the toddler. Pre-K is not a toddler world. The kids are learning how to write (cursive as well, thank God) and do some simple math, read a bit, and oh, run a computer program. So much for folding diapers.
One thing I could not wrap my head around was being asked to attend “parent-teacher” conferences. “C’mon,” I said to Annie. “What are we going to talk about? I am not going to discuss her macaroni and glue art!” But sure enough, I went dutifully to meet her teacher. I suspect this was a ruse to train me instead. Annie and I sat in the little chairs and discussed seriously her writing skills and social skills and looked at how many stickers she had by her picture for good behavior. That last one is a good idea for Switchback.
Still, this veteran of Pre-K is our little girl, and so great to hold, carry and play with. I think of how Brian talked of playing the board game “Candyland” with his daughter, Siobhan. And now here I am, purposely losing to Áine as he did to his daughter.
We spent the Christmas vacation building pillow forts, seeing a movie (her first), and watching with delight as she reveled in the magic of the holidays. She was a star in the nativity play. Literally a star, as in starry night. I think that was less of an acting challenge than the kid who was the donkey. But those roles, like donkeys and shepherds, are for the Butterflies, who are a year older and wiser.
I realize as she grows and I age, the gift of now, of what time I get to spend with her is so precious. As Bil Keane best put it, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
My wife Annie sent me an interesting column, written by Kat Eschner for Smithsonian.com. It was about none other than the fantastic military marching music maker himself, John Philip Sousa. The inspiration of the Sousaphone (which everyone knows is the hybrid of a tuba and helicon -- what the heck a helicon is, is anybody’s guess) and known by his nickname “The March King,” Sousa created fantastic military marches. Any lover of Monty Python has listened to his “Liberty Bell” march, which is stirring and able to make the most sedentary of humans stand up straight and start stepping.
In an essay titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music,” which he wrote for Appleton Magazine in 1906, Sousa laments this horrible new era, the era of recorded music. He sees that recorded music will take away the feeling of community, creativity and class. Anyone watching a DJ gyrate at a wedding can see that his prediction has, alas, come true. In the essay, Sousa states that mechanical music is “sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries, or popular novels” and would form a “substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul.” In other words: “Beware the DJ.” He also was right about political war cries, but that is for another article.
In his essay, Sousa was railing in part about the lack of composer rights, an issue that dogs songwriters to this day. But in a larger sense, before television and the iPhone, Sousa laments the loss of the common man playing an instrument in community.
When the essay was written, in 1906, the phonograph was just starting to take off. Sousa was afraid that it would chip away at the unique “musical mecca” that America had become. He testified to Congress that “these talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day.”
When I was a boy, my great Uncle Frank reminisced about his youth in 1906 Dubuque, Iowa, when neighbors would do just that, gather at homes to play the piano and sing. Everyone learned the piano because it was a social instrument for entertainment and community. The creation of the phonograph and later devices did not stop music. But it did change community.
What Sousa felt was that the vital and vibrant part of our sense of “we” that centers around community participation would be laid waste by a profusion of technology, and a commercial lack of taste.
In an era when laws have to be created to fine people from texting while crossing the street, the danger of devices does lie in the elimination of community, of literally seeing our neighbor and being in the moment. Why talk to someone when I can text anyone? And why attend a concert when I can watch it on my phone? (Or worse, spend a concert so consumed with trying to capture it on our phones so we can share it to social media rather than actually experience communion with the artist giving their all on stage.) We are now distressed by what is happening halfway around the globe without knowing what is happening halfway down the block.
Sousa also lamented “the general assault on personality in music.” Just watch the CMA awards and you will see he wasn’t too far off the mark. Like devices that are mass produced, taste trends toward vanilla in an effort to accommodate the majority.
So what is the lesson to take away from this? As the holidays approach, get out to see live, original music. Start a house concert series in your home and foster community. Learn an instrument or put the smartphone in the drawer for an hour or two. Encourage your children and grandchildren to pick up an instrument with an eye toward mastering it.
I think Sousa would want us to shake things up, to break the spell that mechanical devices can give us, if we allow them to. Sure, I am grateful for technology and the fact that even ol’ John Philip Sousa was recorded leading his band for me to hear today.
But anyone who has joined Switchback in a cave concert, or jingled keys during a Christmas show, or looked over the hills of Ireland while Brian’s mandolin strums, understands that we are creatures of the moment.
Those moments cannot be recorded. One has to be there, be present and share that moment with others. And sharing those moments together is the ultimate culmination of being alive.
Dear friends of Switchback,
As I woke up on the second of October, Annie was reading her phone to catch the morning news. Aine was already up, getting ready for school. “There was a s-h-o-o-t-i-n-g in Las Vegas,” she said, so Aine couldn’t understand. “Fifty-eight d-e-a-d.” I shook my head as it was too much to comprehend. Praying that it wasn’t some terror plot, I was relatively relieved in some odd way to know that it was a lone wolf. While the fact that all those people died cannot affect me the way I know that relatives, loved ones, and the wounded and innocent bystanders are affected, still it made me feel empty inside, trying to get my head around the motivation to do so much evil. Once again it was attack on music and people gathering to celebrate life.
Once again, like the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, a person chose an attack on the one place where people can be together without any politics, religious differences, or social judgment. It is the one place in my opinion where pure joy can be created and shared.
As the news unfolds, it has become apparent that this person deliberately plotted and stalked these people. The difference between him and the terrorists who killed in Paris rendered nil. The senselessness only magnified. I am guessing this person, as well as the terrorists at the nightclub in Paris, are motivated by a misguided urge to be recognized as “somebody."
The one clue that I noted to motivation is that one of the shops that sold this person the means to kill and change so many lives is called “Guns and Guitars.” The shop has the legal right to sell such weapons, and that is not the point of this article. What is the point is what the name of the shop says about what attracts such people to these feats of evil.
It is my opinion that our world has become a place where being “somebody” is what life is about. And one way to be “somebody” is to clutch a guitar in one’s hands and stride across a stage in front of a lot of adoring people. This desire to be relevant I believe transcends the reality of the work, sacrifice, and plain luck that being a rock star is all about. But that doesn’t matter as long as the allure of it is offered. That said, it is a lot harder to master a guitar than a gun. One can have the most expensive guitar in one’s hands and that won’t make that person a rock star. However, one can have a gun in one’s hand and that alone can make that person feel powerful.
And here is where the gun issue comes into play. These guns are also misused by people wanting to be “somebody." You cannot screen or make a background check to determine who wants to be “somebody.” And so the quandary. We end up with a few with the means to do a lot with a tool that makes them think they are “somebody.” And that tool, unlike a guitar, is a hell of a lot easier to learn to use. And like with a guitar, the glamor and allure, no matter how misguided, are just as strong.
The terrorists like to extol their minions by turning them into martyrs or “somebody." They go as far as lauding them in magazines and videos. They give them just enough craving, just enough adulation, to make them go out there and kill. Not in the name of an ideology, as they would like us to believe. But in the name of being “somebody.” It has become a cult, a hollow religion in and of itself. In my opinion there is enough blame to go around for the creation of this cult, this odd need to be “somebody.” It has been around for a long time and perhaps we will always be fighting to rid our human condition of its siren call.
Like guns, in the wrong hands guitars can cause a lot havoc. Unlike guns, guitars cannot kill someone. Like guns, guitars can change someone’s life or the lives of hundreds. Where one properly used can elevate, the other improperly used can destroy.
If my line of thinking is correct, the only alternative we have is to destroy the cult of being “somebody.” Replace it with being “someone.” Someone who serves and lifts others to boot. Lincoln was “Someone.” John Wilkes Booth wanted to be “Somebody.” And that illustrates my point.
We also have to take a deep breath and admit that because we haven’t eliminated the drive for these individuals to be “somebody” we need to adopt a line that “nobody” can do or have certain things until we change this. And yes, that means that we have to eliminate the ability for the easy misuse of guns. That is something I pray we can all agree on and start from there. If we don’t, “somebody” will make sure there is nobody left.
Read writer Greg Palast's first-hand perspective, "I Went to School with the Vegas Shooter."
Dear Friends of Switchback,
While I nursed a cup of coffee and gazed out the kitchen window of my childhood home, a doe and her fawn grazed across the front pasture, nibbling on bluestem. I put on my boots and walked out the door and onto the dew-soaked grass. Immediately the deer were nowhere to be seen. I walked down to the barn, the scene of so many of my childhood memories, the place where I helped lambs get born, rode horses, stacked hay and milked the odd goat. My parents are now dead, not even a year since my father passed, and like that doe and fawn, their presence lingers but then the reality hits and they are nowhere to be seen.
I came out to the farm to help sort, pitch, save, recycle, donate, burn, and in some ways, put my parents to rest. The accumulation of years of farming and living that resulted in an excess of materials that now had to be determined and addressed. I was keenly aware of the devastation going on in Texas and Florida that served as a backdrop of the odd ritual in which I was now participating. Irma and Harvey left a lot of people doing the same heart-heavy process. That of delineating between “stuff” and “things.”
When viewed on a sheet of paper, the two words seem like two sides of the same coin. But there is a difference in my opinion. Stuff are materials gathered that have no true sentimental, historical or emotional attachment. Things are just the opposite, not perhaps having financial value, but all or part of the former make them necessary to processing our existence. There are people, who in confusing the two, make a practice of gathering as much stuff as possible in the hope that they can become things. And there are people who believe in a minimalist approach, thinking that by eliminating stuff they may just be able to have things. Those people are also touched by the same desire, to create a sense of understanding of their existence.
What to do? If you strive to surround yourself with stuff, you may never have things. If you attempt to eliminate things, you may just be left with stuff. To the archaeologist, all things become stuff and valuable in that they help to hypothesize what people must have treasured as things. That is why I don’t enjoy antique stores. So much stuff that had once been things to someone, and now are devoid of context and meaning.
The irony of works of nature such as fire, hurricane and flood is that it doesn’t choose between stuff and things, but eliminates equally. Then you have people who look at the television camera and say “we lost every-thing, but are blessed.” Or the family, before the wildfire claims their home, deciding what things they need to quickly stash into their car. And how odd those choices can be. Pictures, books, locks of hair, grandfather clocks, guitars and family bibles. You never hear of someone putting the widescreen TV and the porch chairs in the boat. That’s stuff and expendable. But those rare things are what always make us, as humans, crane our heads toward the television to see what our fellow human beings are willing to transport. Like the Ice Man, found frozen in the Alps of Italy a decade ago, we wish to grasp what things are carried to identify us. And we ponder, what did the Ice Man deem as stuff and what, if anything, was a thing to him?
And so it is a slow process with my parents “remains.” For things may just be stuff in hiding. The clock that was there in the front parlor for decades. Do I attach false value to it? Was it just a clock or was it something that reminds me of some-thing. It is a tough walk through a minefield of emotions. Ultimately, a decision is made. Fire curling through old picture frames and broken chairs. Or a piece of children’s art, with 40-year-old glued macaroni and painted gold, held onto like a treasure from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Perhaps that is why I need to decide in my own life what I want my loved ones to think of as some-thing of mine. A connection to me. And how important it is to separate the stuff of my daily life, material and nonmaterial, from the things that really matter. To not, in my opinion, runs the risk of stuff overruling life itself. The peculiar havoc a disaster brings, whether manmade or natural, allows us a chance to take stock and let go of the stuff and give us the blessing to bestow things to others.
We have a saying in Switchback, “Travel light to travel far.” Certainly when it comes to stuff that is true. And I will never forget the one great thing my best friend Dave’s dad gave him. An envelope on which he wrote, “You may open this and find nothing in it, but you would be wrong, for it is filled with my love for you.”
Dear Switchback friends,
I recently saw a video in which David Letterman, the well-loved and long-time host of Late Night, was having an exchange with Al Franken, the comedian-turned-Minnesota senator. Having come to fame in the entertainment industry, both were used to being in front of a lot of people. And both decided at some point to turn away from the limelight to concentrate on other things. For Franken, it was the desire to serve his country. For Letterman, the desire to serve his family, namely his young son.
So, when Franken mentioned that Letterman had a lot of fans, Letterman corrected him. They were not fans, said Letterman, and he pointed out that Johnny Carson was a celebrity with fans. Letterman then went on to point out that he specifically asked that his show be called “Late Night with David Letterman” to emphasize that he was not a celebrity, but rather someone who hosted a show that had celebrities on it.
It was a great example of Midwestern modesty, I thought, and of course it made me think about the WayGood World. I have always struggled with the word "fan," as it meant something that did not truly fit in to what I considered the WayGood World.
According to Wikipedia, a fan, or fanatic, sometimes also termed aficionado or supporter, is a person who is enthusiastically devoted to something or somebody, such as a band, a sports team, a genre, a book, a movie, or an entertainer. Collectively, the fans of a particular object or person constitute its fan base or fandom. They may show their enthusiasm in a variety of ways, such as by promoting the object of their interest, being members of a fan club, holding or participating in fan conventions, or writing fan mail. They may also engage in creative activities ("fan labor") such as creating fanzines, writing fan fiction, making memes, or drawing fan art.
Over the years, Brian and I have met fans of Switchback. I remember meeting one person who took the harp from the artwork of Bolinree and made it into tattoo on her arm. Other people have taken lyrics as tattoos. There are people on Facebook whom we have never met following our music. They would be considered fans. But there is something very limited in the scope of having fans.
I think the WayGood World has been an unconscious decision on the part of Brian and myself to foster a world of friends, brought together by the music of Switchback. What I mean by unconscious is that Brian and I didn’t sit down and say “Hey, let’s make a bunch of friends.” Rather, we played our music and met people who liked our music and because of that, came the friendships.
Merriam Webster defines "friend" as
1a: one attached to another by affection or esteem She's my best friend.
2a: one that is not hostile Is he a friend or an enemy?
b: one that is of the same nation, party, or group showbiz friends
3: one that favors or promotes something (such as a charity) The friends of the library will host a fund-raiser.
To me, it seems that the value of friendship far outweighs the value of fanship. Perhaps having fans is the luxury that comes with being a big celebrity. Taylor Swift can afford to have fans perhaps, but Switchback needs its friends.
We have been blessed over the years to have people offer time, treasure and their homes to us as we have traveled around the world. Our tours and past group gatherings (such as the Rondy and the Cave Concerts) have been the attempt to solidify that friendship, not only between Switchback and friends, but through the joy of seeing people meet each other and create friendships. To make joyful meaning of the time we are here together on Earth. There have been couples married, babies born, and friends we have lost through the WayGood World. I wonder if Garth would take a fan's ashes and scatter them in Ireland. But when our friend Wanda passed, it made sense to honor her family’s wish to bring her to where she always wanted to go with us.
Perhaps the biggest blessing is that Brian and I did not “make it” in the sense of being a commercial success, like Garth Brooks or U2. We did not become “objects of interest.” Our path has been a path thus far of forging ties of affection. Our friends have helped us secure shows, be our agents, contributed money for recordings, created concerts in backyards, and introduced their friends to our music, all to make the WayGood World “a vast and ever expanding empire,” as I like to tell Brian. And like real friendships, we have had fallings out and challenges with our friends over the years. People who have decided that we shouldn’t be friends. If a fan leaves, an entertainer might shrug his or her shoulders and look for the next one in line. But the loss of friendships -- well, that hurts. And for those who we may have hurt over the years, I am sorry. Because friendships do matter and the loss of friends for whatever reason is sad.
The WayGood World is built on affection and esteem, as Mr. Webster might say, delicately tiptoeing around the word "love." And it takes a village of friends to raise up a band as we have found out. So thank you, friends, for continuing to create and expand the WayGood World. For helping Switchback make music and bring joy to a lot of people. Thank you for helping us touch souls and allowing our own souls to be touched in return.
Dear Switchback fans,
Some years ago, when visiting my brother Tony in Decatur, Illinois, he put Brian and me up to a dare. Having just returned from a Catholic retreat in Jackson, Wyoming, Tony noted that both Brian and I grew up playing Catholic Masses and he thought that we should consider writing one.
This suggestion was sort of delayed and postponed, but not rebuffed, because both Brian and I owed a lot of our musical upbringing to playing those Masses. Back in the early days, when we were playing clubs, we would finish a club around 2 a.m. I would get home about an hour later and then wake up to drive out to Oak Park, Illinois and play the 9 a.m. Mass. Brian would be there and we would both be bleary-eyed as we stumbled up to the choir. I would open my bass case and out would waft the disconcerting smell of cigarette smoke from the night before.
We played those morning Masses for a lot of reasons. Mainly because it was good to play. It was something that, being Irish Catholics, was sort of hot-wired into our systems. And, it allowed us to grow musically while expiating some sins along the way.
Eventually we took up my brother’s dare and wrote a Mass to be performed by the choir at St. Edmund’s parish in Oak Park. It wasn't too long before we decided to write an Irish Mass after performing at the Michigan Irish Music Festival and later at the Des Moines Hibernian gathering at the Old Irish Settlement. As musicians, we found it a bit of a challenge to write a Mass. For one reason, there are certain parts of the service where one cannot deviate from the words. The Gloria for example, is probably one of the most difficult assortments of words ever to which music must be applied. The English, taken from the Latin, is not smooth and flowing. So to create something that would feel beautiful (and accessible to a congregation) to sing, while taking care of the words, was rewarding.
We have since written several Masses and have had them performed by choirs and done by ourselves for various churches (not all Catholic, either!) across the country (plus one performance in Pompeii, Italy in 2010).
When my wife suggested that we go to Rome to attend a conference for Serra International, the Catholic nonprofit she works for, I was surprised to hear that there was the chance we would meet the Pope. I basically thought that meeting the Pope would be meeting the Pope in a crowd of a lot of people. The last Pope I saw, John Paul II, was with a million other people at Grant Park in Chicago back in 1979. He was a minuscule and inaccessible figure from where I was standing. And I got harassed by a policeman who in turn got lambasted by my sainted mother (that's another story for another day).
Still, I thought that it would be amazing if Áine could see the Pope. And just in case I would be closer than a million people, I would bring along a Hibernian Mass CD. I imagined I could pass it to him through one of the Swiss guards.
Before we came over to Italy, we had to explain to Áine who Papa Francesco is. Annie told her, "He's dressed all in white and he is sort of like a superhero and Santa Claus” which I thought was pretty funny and accurate at the same time.
The day came for seeing the Pope and I was amazed. Still jetlagged, we got up early to board buses to Vatican City. Around 10 a.m., we gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s behind the big altar (the iconic Altare della Cattedra by Bernini), in the area where most people do not get to go. And here I was in a place that I probably will never get to stand or sit in for the rest of my life. It felt very strange but thrilling at the same time.
There were 40 elite people who were selected to personally meet the Holy Father, but I was happy to be with the other 500+ people in the crowd.
After Mass, our large group left St. Peter’s and headed over to the Aula Paolo VI, a large hall for private papal audiences. Up ahead were two Swiss guards with halberds at their sides, marching away from us. It felt like I had stepped back into another time. When we entered the hall it was warm (every day in Rome during our stay was over 90 degrees F) and cheerfully lit thanks to the arched skylight that made up most of the roof. At the back of the stage was a modern, rather abstract bronze sculpture of the resurrection of Christ. I thought it would be pretty weird for Christ to return and see what people thought He looked like.
Once again we filed in and sat down, waiting for the Pope to arrive. Television cameras were set up and photographers were at the ready. Slowly some cardinals came filing in, as well as some sort of Vatican orderlies dressed in grey morning coats. Plain-clothes as well as uniformed police mingled with some Swiss guards, but we had been screened prior to coming into St. Peter’s and the atmosphere was pretty electric. From her purse, Annie produced not only a Japanese fan but also a juice box and snack for Aine, who played with a parish musical director from Omaha who sat next to us.
About 20 minutes after the noon appointment time, those two Swiss guards with their halberds came walking into the room. They flanked both sides of a big chair set up in front and snapped to attention. And then, into the room walked Pope Francis. Everyone started applauding and taking pictures. After some brief introductory remarks from the Italian president of Annie's organization, the Pope gave a short address in Italian, for which unfortunately no translation was provided to us mono-lingual Americans, but here and there, he paused and made a point. I could sense from the tone, he was being gentle, but sincere in the address and the many Italians in the audience who could understand him politely applauded here and there. It didn’t matter too much as it all felt fairly surreal.
For me, being a Catholic, I was witnessing the most recent in an unbroken line of successors of St. Peter. Sure, the line got wobbly and downright erratic from time to time, but still, that line remained unbroken for almost 2000 years. And here was a pretty decent guy to boot, I thought.
Finally, the Pope walked down from the stage to shake the hands of the selected people while the rest of us waved a bit and raised our smart devices overhead to capture some pictures. I hoisted Áine up on my shoulder and brought her over to the barricade to get a better view. Annie stayed behind. Perhaps, I thought, the Pope might walk over to everyone else and Áine could receive a special blessing. A guard spotted her in her bright coral dress and motioned to me. He told me in broken English to "Get to the center of the room.” I realized he was asking us to move to where the main aisle of the hall was, to get out of the group! So, I started moving through the other hundreds of people crowding forward.
I called to Annie, “Come on, I think Áine is going to get to meet the Pope!” As we made our way to the center aisle, Annie yelled at me to adjust Áine’s dress which had migrated up over her underwear as we waded through our fellow Pope admirers. As we threaded our way through the throng, I kept looking over at the Pontiff who was working down the line of those 40 “golden ticket” folks. It was sort of a race of me against the Pope to see who was going to get down to the end of the line first. I made it to the center aisle of the hall and a serious-looking guard looked at me.
“You are going to meet the Pope, with baby,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
The guy started to undo the barrier so Áine and I could enter.
“Wait,” another guard said as Annie caught up. “You are the mother?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“You all go see the Pope,” the guard said. He opened the divider and let us through. And you know, the folks who were around us were delighted for us, but mainly for Áine. They applauded and I was totally in shock.
We got in line -- we were the very end of the line, in fact -- and there, larger than life, or at least larger than St. J2P2 (as we Star Wars-struck kids called John Paul II) in Grant Park, was my hero, the Pope I had been praying for, the Pope who was a Jesuit priest, who, like me, was educated by Jesuits, the Pope who lives in a regular apartment, wears regular shoes, and who likes to sneak out of the Vatican in regular priest garb and walk among his fellow humans. That guy. Francis.
He came over to where we were and I shook his hand. I gave him the Hibernian Mass CD.
“Here is a Mass that I wrote,” I said.
He looked at it smiling. He then looked at me and said, “Thank you.”
His aide, a German cardinal, smiled and took the CD. “Are you German?” he said, smiling at me. “No, um, Irish American,” I stammered.
Pope Francis didn’t move. He smiled and Áine smiled back at him. Despite her smile, she also seemed a bit overwhelmed.
“This is my daughter, Áine,” I said.
Pope Francis touched and kissed her cheek.
Then Áine leaned over and planted a big kiss on Pope Francis.
He smiled and laughed a little. Áine, usually such a gregarious toddler, remained pretty serious; much more aware, perhaps, of the gravity of having kissed a superhero Santa than her Poppa giving a CD from Uncle Brian’s and Poppa’s band.
“My wife, Anne,” I said. And Annie shook the Pope’s hand and said how wonderful it was to meet him.
He didn’t say too much in English. It was mainly smiles and gestures. Later Annie and I would discuss the things we would have liked to have said to Pope Francis but which evaporated when we, starstruck, actually met him -- something we had both fantasized about but which we didn't think would actually happen.
He moved on to wave to the crowd before retreating once again behind the stage.
Like that, it was over. But the enormity of that minute or two in front of him came through days later.
I held the Pope’s hand, I thought. I met a real hero. My daughter and wife met the Pope. My daughter can tell people years from now she kissed the Pope. She will be forever changed and it will be an awkward high school prom years from now when I pull out the Pope pictures and place them in front of her date.
And that CD. That representation of years of Brian and me waking up early from a late night and heading over to church. The desire to give back something and somehow bring honor to those people who have played in the church choirs with us. Now, I optimistically imagine it in the Pope’s CD collection.
Maybe, just maybe, he will sneak out of the Vatican on an early morning. Fire up his tiny Fiat and go driving a bit. As he wends his way out into the Italian countryside, far from the frenzy that is Rome, maybe he will stick that Hibernian Mass in the CD player and sing along a bit to the "Holy Saints of Ireland."
Yeah, that’s my Francis.
Dear Switchback fans,
I never was a big fan of rabbits. Even as a kid, I remember rooting for Elmer Fudd when he was up against Bugs Bunny. There was something about Bugs that rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps he was too smug, too confident that he was going to get ol’ Elmer to once again shoot himself with his shotgun. When reading Peter Rabbit, I always thought Farmer McGregor was, to some degree, in the right. It was his garden after all!
The “Hey, let me help myself to everything that’s good” mentality, to me, is embodied by the rabbit. Even though I am not in love with squirrels, either, I do have at least some respect for them. They eat nuts, hang out in trees and generally stay out of the way. Even the much maligned rat is on my respect list. The rats in our neighborhood do their thing mostly behind the taquerias that line Clark Street. They prefer to keep out of sight. Yet, they are constantly public enemy number one. No one goes around poisoning rabbits, but there are more rabbits than there are humans or rats in our neighborhood.
When I was growing up, the pest was not rats, rabbits, or even mice, but deer. “Rats with hooves” was what one farmer called them. In truth, the farmer should have said “Rabbits with hooves” because both deer and rabbits think it is perfectly fine to eat things like flowers. Purchase a creeping phlox at Home Depot? They might as well have a calorie listing, because that is manna to the rabbit. Or daisies, or any sort of native prairie plant. Even the tough cup plant, with its rigid stalk and unappetizing, scratchy leaves, is on the menu. I come home from being on the road and there it is, my “what once was a prairie flower garden.” Sticks sticking out of a denuded plot of land and there, sitting in the middle of it, is this rabbit. And of course, she has that “What?” look on her face as she is chewing on the last of my columbine.
One day, I found her eating all my tulips. This was a female for sure because after I chased her out of my “what I thought was rabbit-proof” yard, she returned. She hid out under the woodpile for a bit and then, decided that it was time to teach me a lesson: She delivered a litter of about 20 baby rabbits there on the spot. I stumbled onto them the week I was desperately trying to replace all the plants that had been eaten with plants that I thought rabbits wouldn’t like -- like cactus (turns out they like cactus). These young rabbits were fairly naive. I caught about three in a bucket and got them to the railroad tracks where I figured they at least had a fighting chance. The others got wise and scrammed, egged on by their mother.
One evening before dinner I had a "what to do about rabbits" discussion with our next door neighbor, Dave. A farm boy like me, Dave got that shovel-grabbing look on his face and said, "I know what to do about rabbits." Annie overheard us and sternly declared, said "THERE WILL BE NO BUNNICIDE ON THIS PROPERTY." Annie, a city girl and totally unaware of such things as the fact that rabbits can eat whole trees, looked at me with a look of disdain. She didn't realize that she'd done it; she'd said the “B” word: Bunny.
Now, for those of you who dislike rabbits like me, when the word "bunny" is uttered it conjures up an image of soft, cute, cuddly, friendly, non-invasive, non-denuding, big eyes almost ready to swell with tears sort of creature. (Which reminds me that I never was into the Easter Bunny, either).
“We have to do something,” I pleaded, knowing that once the “B” word is uttered, these miniature rabbits were now on the protected species list at our home.
“You will not do anything to those bunnies and certainly not in front of Amanita,” Annie said. And with that, the tiny, evil rabbits laughed and ran off into the ferns and out of sight, waiting to gnaw the paint off our house.
So, I trudged over to the hardware store. Never mind that Brian and I had to be on the road to a gig. This was war. I bought 50 feet worth of chicken wire to put over the so-called rabbit-proof fence that I bought from the same store last year. (I saw our female rabbit clear three feet of it and over to the condos to the east, thus rendering my fences de-fence-less).
With a steady, cold rain pouring down on me, I slowly rolled out the wire fence and hammered it into the areas of our property that had the slightest gaps in it. I kept at it until Annie opened a second-floor window to yell at me to cut it out and get going to Iowa. My hands were scratched and even some blood oozed onto the earth as I stood out in the pouring rain, punctuated by thunder booming and the occasional flash of lightning, raising my arms to heaven and shaking my fists at the curse that is the rabbit. Meanwhile, the rabbits were under the yew trees, watching me as they nibbled some hosta plants just for the fun of it.
As of this writing, I think am now down to one “bunny.” Yes, a cute, sweet, doe-eyed (see what I mean?) bunny. Predators seemed to have cleared out the other rabbits, or it could be that everything that could have been eaten has now been eaten at our property.
We now have coyotes in Chicago and I am all for them eating rabbits, squirrels and the odd yapping poodle. Even a mountain lion wandered down the train tracks and made a very brief visit (until it was shot by the police) a couple years back. That tells me one thing: rabbits are here and they are by no means going away. And I will fruitlessly (and plantless-ly) try, but never win in my attempt to create a rabbit-free zone on my property.
Later this month, the peach tree will ripen and we hope to have the same number of luscious fruit as last year. But I swear I saw the bunny and a squirrel the other day having a meeting. They were looking at the peach tree and then at me. I am pretty sure they both then laughed. It still is war.
Dear Switchback fans,
We were in Stillwater, Minnesota last week, and as usual we chose to do some outreach programs. We were at a retirement home called The Greeley. It was an unbelievably warm day, and the residents were brought outside for a concert on the patio. The director brought out straw hats for them to wear as we set up our sound system and commenced playing. It was a great deal of fun as always, with the twists and turns that one encounters when doing outreach programs. As our “Sycamore View” song goes, every resident has some “damn claim to fame” and more often than not, it really is a bona fide claim to fame or notable accomplishment. (I feel one of the great tragedies of modern living is that our elderly and their life experiences are not appreciated, recorded, or used for knowledge by the younger generations, but that is for another article.)
He was sitting in a wheelchair and watching us play with an intensity that made me guess that he must be a musician. We continued on and about halfway through our concert he left, wheeling back through the door and into the residence. Usually when that happens during a senior outreach, it means one of three things: a) the person is bored with our program; b) the person has to go to the bathroom; c) both. In this case, I thought that he must need to get to the bathroom, for he was clearly enjoying himself. Sure enough, out he came about two songs later with a manila envelope in his hand. He clutched it throughout the rest of the show, and when we were finished with the program, he came up to us.
“My name is Eric Sjoberd and I am a Laplander! My people came from the far north.”
“Ok,” I said, “well, you live in the right state then.”
“I do,” he smiled. “Did you know that Sjoberd is Lapp for Sea-Mountain?”
“No,” I replied, “but that is a pretty cool name.”
“I was in music,” he said.
Brian and I naturally are curious when someone says they “were in music.” That can mean a lot of things, from playing in a high school band to sharing the stage with Dizzy Gillespie. Eric carefully opened the manila envelope and pulled out a photo. It was a scene from the late 50’s of a tour bus. Hanging out of its windows and around it were various musicians, all dressed in suits of the folk era and clutching musical instruments.
“This was my group,” he said. “The Jubilaires.”
We studied the photo of the band. Here was clearly a traveling outfit which reminded me of the New Christy Minstrels-type of bands that were popular before rock and roll started taking off. It was a magical time, when folk music was king and before some other Minnesotan with the last name of Zimmerman traveled down Route 61 and literally changed the world as we knew it.
Eric pointed to people in the photograph. “Here is my wife. She played the banjo. And here is my son, he played guitar.”
Turned out that Eric and his wife lived up in the Iron Range part of Minnesota. His wife’s musical interests were something that he embraced. Together they formed a traveling folk band. Gathering other musicians around them, they formed the Jubilaires. (In research on the internet, I found the Jubalaires, which was a gospel group from the 1940’s-1950’s, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eric’s group.)
“We would plan a tour of about 28 shows and see how far we could get from the Twin Cities,” said Eric. “And we kept it going for 42 years.”
Sadly, the Sjoberds' son died of an aneurysm, and at his passing they decided to end the band.
“How old are you now?” I asked.
“96 years old,” he replied.
“Ah, another proof of music keeping you young!” I said.
He happily fist-pumped the air, holding onto his picture.
Brian and I thanked him for being a journeyman. And for taking the risk of doing what he loved. Amazingly, the fact that he, his wife, and son were able to share those 42 years bringing joy to countless others was something that stuck with me.
Too often, it seems that we are preoccupied with equating fame with success. The idea that one can be a success but not famous (or rich for that matter) is not as exciting. We were raised on the notion that to be someone in this world, we had to be something. That is why social media has become such a huge hit. We all can be something, even if it just means that it is something going out into the ether.
The journeyman (and woman) flies in the face of this notion. Their idea is that this world is just a playground for the imagination. And whoever touches the most souls during the journey wins. What wasn’t in Eric’s photo were the countless souls that were touched. Souls that most likely had no idea of the personal cost of losing his son so suddenly. Or that he is now confined to a wheelchair at a nursing home in Minnesota.
But Eric does. And that is the point.
Dear Switchback fans,
Brian and I have been on a long tour that essentially started with our St. Patrick’s shows (which began around Valentine’s Day) and is now ending in Hawaii. In the middle of all of this we took a tour group to beautiful Tuscany. As usual, we had a great time and I have to boast that our fans make the best tourists of any band out there. Here is a journal I kept of thoughts during the tour, and I hope you enjoy it. I want to especially thank Michele Shubitowski, our Switchback STeam leader, for taking so many exciting pictures of the trip. Ciao!
Newark, New Jersey
The Voice Has the Man
Brian and I had been on the road almost nonstop since February 10, with stops in Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana throughout the St. Patrick’s season. Most days had more than one show booked as we ranged from private shows to resorts to performing arts centers. The last week was pretty intense with us flying to Arizona, driving nine hours round trip in one day to California and playing four sets there, boarding a jet to New Jersey to play the equivalent of five sets in one day there, boarding a plane to Chicago, driving across from Midway to O’Hare Airports, and then hopping on a plane with 40 fans and flying over the ocean to Tuscany. And so as we played our last show in the States, I could feel my voice finally telling me “enough!”
As Brian can attest, music has a way of keeping you healthy, but the sheer amount of singing required specifically for the Irish shows had worn me down. And so as we were leaving Arizona for New Jersey, I knew that I was developing a nasty cold to contend with.
A long time ago, I heard my mother quote the great Caruso who asked rhetorically, Does the Man have the Voice or does the Voice have the Man? It is a great question for any singer, because one needs to be aware of one’s health status to answer the latter affirmatively. Unfortunately, my voice was hoarse, and for one of the few times in my life, I felt that the “voice had me” in its control. Truthfully there was very little I could do as all it takes is an errant cold virus to knock on the vocal chords and wreak havoc. Keeping the voice rested would be easy if it could be restricted only to singing. But as independent musicians, we use our voices for so many other things, such as coordinating with hosts where one is staying, talking to fans during breaks, talking to supporters after shows, and negotiating with new and future venues while playing the current place. Add the fatigued body, boosted with coffee, and throw in the odd sleeping arrangement, such as upright in economy class, and voila! The voice has the man. One can see how some singers act antisocial, as that can be an effort to protect the voice.
So my voice is croaking and my left ear is plugged which makes flight in a pressurized cabin a thing of joy. The goal is to be nice to my voice and allow it some rest which I hope to do while taking in the beauty of Tuscany.
Newark Rain to Roman Sun
“So,” I asked the lady sitting next to me at the Newark terminal, “what are you flying to Chicago for?” Brian shot me a look as he saw me sip my cup of coffee, while sucking on a lemon Cold-Eeze lozenge. My voice sounded as if I was the love child of Janis Joplin and Gollum.
The lady took no notice of my voice. “I am heading for something sad,” she said. “My brother passed. He was in the military for 27 years and if there is one thing worse than a regular funeral, it is a military funeral.” I nodded. I knew what she meant. My own dad’s funeral had a military honor guard and the slow folding of the flag. It tugged on the heart. “But he had a good life,” she said. “He was 80, but that leaves just me out of all my siblings left alive.” I tried to console her as much as I could and when she asked me what I was doing, I croaked that I was heading to Chicago to catch a flight to Tuscany.
She smiled when she heard that. And I had to explain that I was a musician, that I was in this band and the guy looking annoyed next to me is he guy I have worked with for thirty years and that we also take people to Ireland each year and so on.
The lady, who had a lovely Long Island accent, told me she was Irish and then asked would I like to hear a joke. I replied that I would.
“Seamus O’Toole’s pet dog died, and beside himself in grief he went to ask Father Murphy, the parish priest, to say a funeral mass for the dog. The good Father acted insulted. ‘I do not say the holy Mass for some animal,’ he snarled. ‘Go find ye some other church.’ Seamus, being a humble man, took his hat off and said quietly, ‘Yes, Father, but would ye answer me this: is $5,000 too small a price to pay for a funeral Mass?’ ‘Oh,’ Father Murphy said sweetly, ‘you didn't tell me it was a Catholic dog now!’
I laughed out loud and we carried on for a bit until Brian said. “Marty, save what is left of your voice!”
We flew to Chicago and I called an Uber ride. Mahood who was from Lebanon, picked us up and we headed toward Oak Park. I had clicked Uber Pool, which is the cheapest option and usually you end up being the only riders as there are few people who act on it. But today, needing to get the airport, would be the day we actually had someone who wished to ride with us and our luggage.
“Why did you pick Uber Pool?” Mahood asked. “No one picks Uberpool.” We pulled up outside a brownstone, and he called the rider. “Sarah, you should be downstairs!”
While waiting for Sarah, Mahood asks me, “Do you ever play the Oud?”
“What is an Oud ?” I asked.
Mahood takes his cellphone and starts searching for an Oud to show me on YouTube.
About five minutes later a young girl came down and got in the car. I look at my phone, about three hours to flight time.
“Here is the Oud ,” says Mahood, and he starts playing his cellphone, while looking for the right place to drop off Sarah.
The video shows a young woman on “Arabs Got Talent” who looks a bit like Sarah McLachlan playing a very medieval looking instrument.
Meanwhile we passed Sarah's place by two blocks.
“I think she was to be dropped off somewhere back there,” says Brian.
Mahood turns around while the video plays this very serious, somber song, with jump cuts to delighted judges nodding and smiling approval. She must really be tearing it up, I am thinking.
Sarah's apartment number it turns out doesn't exist.
“I am not from here,” she says. “Let me call my friend.”
She calls her friend and we spend another five minutes circling the block while “Arabs Got Talent” erupts in cheers for the serious Oud playing McLachlan lookalike.
Finally, Sarah's friend, a teenage kid, walks out to the street in his socks and stands on the sidewalk.
“That is the wrong number!” cries an exasperated Mahood. “If I was to leave her, I could get in big trouble, but look what it does to me!”
We manage to calm him down and get to the apartment in Oak Park.
The next fifteen minutes are spent getting all the gear shifted from the Arizona-New Jersey Tour to the Tuscany Tour. I call Uber and request a large vehicle for four passengers as we now have Brian's wife Maggie as well.
Five minutes later a driver in an Audi shows up and the only thing large is the fact that he has been working out. He looks at us, our baggage and guitars. “I got stuff in my trunk,” he says, looking at us like we are going to give in and get rid of a suitcase and guitar. “Don't know if I can squeeze you in.”
He decides that he can't and leaves. I now request the Uber SUV which I personally think should be called Uber-Uber, but that request would take 30 minutes to show up.
We call a cab and request a minivan. It comes in five minutes. We are on our way.
We arrive at O’Hare where Annie and Áine are waiting. Áine jumps into my arms and hugs Auntie Maggie and Uncle Brian. We sail through security, and I am impressed and relieved that TSA got its act together in Chicago. They even have an assistant to help passengers load their trays for the X-ray, which was a welcome first. We settle into our plane for the flight to Rome and all was uneventful. The morning came as we flew over the French Alps, covered in snow and looking majestic. Áine hung out with Auntie Maggie and looked out the window.
Then we flew into Italy, curving out over the sea and over fields, vineyards and tiny villas with tile roofs. Our plane gently touched down. Fiumicino Airport was awash in sun, and already my throat felt better.
A Beeline to Figline
Donatella Cerrone is the guide for our tour. A pretty woman with dark hair and a great smile that all energized all of us tired Americans immediately, she rounded us up and walked us through customs and out into the warm air.
She immediately passed the test as Brian teased her.
“You are our guide? This is all like a bad dream.”
Not missing a beat, Donatella shot back in her Italian accent.
“Yes, I am your worst nightmare, now get on the coach.”
We all laughed like we knew each other for years.
Our coach was waiting with a friendly driver named Luigi, who took the bags and got us settled inside. All at once we were off through the countryside, skirting the congestion of Rome and heading due north to the small town of Figline. Pronounced like the Italian director Fellini, but (as Donatella teased us) butchered by Yanks to sound like a line of Figs. We crossed over to Tuscany, the hills becoming more pronounced, with rolling vineyards and tiny plots of cultivated land. The trees were all in bloom, and here and there various fruit orchards were showing their colors of purple, white and a rare pink here and there. Magnolias would be interspersed among the arborvitae and pines. The whole land was awakening and for a cold Midwesterner it felt like a very good dream indeed. Here and there along the highway there were overpasses where graffitied panels would jar the idyllic surroundings, but compared to the dull Chicago gangland tags, the work was almost inspired, even whimsical.
Off the main highway we rolled to Figline. A few more miles of scenery and we arrived at the Villa Casagrande, which would be our place of stay for the next six nights. A combination of old farmhouse, modern hotel, and nobleman’s retreat, the Villa is itself a microcosm of Italy today. Modernity seamlessly blends into the ancient, and the elements embrace in old stone and brick walls and arches, a dramatic two story interior waterfall wall, and spacious tiled rooms, with each view looking out over gardens and tiled roofs covered in moss, lichens, and the occasional flower that managed to make its home among the crevices.
Áine immediately found the Italian garden and ran along the paths, picking up stones and other “treasures” like twigs, flower blooms, and colored bits of old glass. She brought them to a column in the garden’s center and laid them on the base. Then she produced a twig and waved it over her treasures, saying “magic, magic, magic.”
“Where did you learn that?” I asked her.
“From me,” she said solemnly.
I looked at her and then around the surroundings.
It was magic, magic, magic.
We had a tour of the ancient estate, getting a history of the owners and seeing the rooms of the Villa that are still preserved with original furnishings and pictures of bearded lords and demure ladies through the centuries. The Villa was technically an estate until the 1980’s when it became a place for guests. But unlike in the States, where the place would be leveled and a new six story steel and glass square would be built, the Tuscans decided to make the place part museum, part hotel, part winery.
Our group then met in the courtyard for a wine tour and tasting. The original casks from the 1400’s were still in place and Brian and I had a couple pictures taken. I couldn't get over how again things were reverentially allowed to remain and add to the over unique feel of Villa Casagrande.
The Villa has its own wine made and along with various vintages sampled, there were great portions of bruschetta and salami, tomatoes and cheese. The selections of wine, along with the great accompaniment of food, made our group rather reluctant to leave for dinner.
Dusk was deepening to evening as we proceeded across the road and up a hill to the Aqua restaurant that commands a sweeping view of the foothills that surround the town of Figline. We admired the view, but then we were enticed to head over to the outdoor rotisserie where our dinner was being prepared. The concierge beckoned us into the restaurant and we seated ourselves around several tables washed in candlelight. On the walls hung whimsical fish, sharks and sea creatures fashioned from old parts of agricultural machinery.
The dinner was salad, followed by roasted potatoes and cannellini, accompanied by a wonderful combo of roasted pork and chicken. On the rotisserie, the chef had cleverly separated the meats with thick slices of bread that soaked up the juices of the meat and became a fascinating dish in and of itself. Dessert was an elegant yellowcake, warm and browned lightly on the top, with just the thinnest dusting of powdered sugar and a hint of fresh coconut within.
By the time dinner was over, Áine was fast asleep and already it had been a full day with that odd sensation of having two days worth for every day spent. We all departed to our comfortable rooms of our new home Villa Casagrande for a well-earned night's sleep.
A Flurry of Florence
As always morning comes way too soon on tour. No matter if I had slept for two days, the excitement of the journey and our new surroundings were not enough to get my body into full gear. That was taken care of by about four cups of cappuccino, along with a full Italian breakfast of eggs, bacon, fruit, smoked swordfish, sausages, various cuts of salami, orange juice, cereal with yogurt, and toast with Nutella spread.
We assembled for the trip to Florence. I had last been to Florence around 1995, and then it was January and one of the coldest winters in Europe. That tour was with a company that taught me how not to have a group tour. I remember being in a blur as we rocket sledded around each country in about a day and a half. So I welcomed the chance to stroll with the group with time and bright sunshine.
The coach paused just outside the city in order for Luigi to get the fee to bring us into the city proper. Áine took the opportunity to pick daisies and I was very proud of her when she gave one to Donatella. Once on our way we parked next to the river that flows through the city and walked over to the cathedral where the statue of Dante (of Inferno fame) stands staring at everyone who invades his piazza, and met Sylvia, who showed us the sights of Florence.
Part of the scenery was the variety of people who grace the streets of Firenze, as the Italians call their town. Great hordes of high school and college students from the US and Europe jostled alongside Chinese seniors scurrying after a guide with a small Italian flag and merchants from North Africa, selling imitation haute couture purses, electric current adapters, and for some reason bizarre posters of the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. Then there are the artists of the streets: singers, guitarists, brass bands, and lone grizzled accordion players, as well as chalk artists, reproducing great works of the masters while delivery vans whisk alongside and tourists sidestep, weave, part and leave the prostate artist and art an island of concentrated calm in a torrent of chaos. Alongside all of this somehow existed the actual denizens, who were comprised of the gold merchants, leather merchants, businessmen in dapper suits and women dressed superbly in high fashion of leather, heels, dresses with deep cuts and impeccably done makeup. And alongside these folks, the other denizens: Gypsy beggars. Dark skinned women with careworn faces holding plastic cups and pictures of their starving families, or pregnant women sidling up while one gazes at the architecture to murmur something, while patting their bellies and thrusting empty palms. And finally, the real thieves, pickpockets and the like who, like sharks in a sea of blood, swim with their mouths open and eyes wide, taking in everything and striking when the bait is grouped in a ball of confusion. All the while, the sounds of talk in a dozen languages, the clomping of horse hooves from the tourist traps bearing the wedded Japanese couple while in the other direction comes another trap with an Asian couple and their young child, as if the future passes reality, passing the past in the form of an old woman hobbling along alone. All of it, from the Pont de Vecchio to the Domo, timeless in its repetition, as if Firenze herself is one living creature, breathing and writhing in the warmth of a Spring sun.
And one cannot truly escape this torrent of people, except to move to an eddy here and there, the coffee bar, where awnings and tables allow one to drink caffe macchiato and drink in the display of faces and light going by. The G7 was at the town hall for an important meeting on culture and terrorism and throughout the city, soldiers with guns, police with pistols on their sides and rifles at the ready. They were part of the whole event, as it were. And, where the G7 were meeting in the town hall, below, streams of people entered to take in the art collection. The act of living and enjoying art and culture is in itself now an act of defiance.
Our group wended its way along the Pont de Vecchio, the only original bridge of the city that was spared the wrath of the retreating Nazis during WWII. The Medici family, the medieval dynasty that ran Florence, had custom fitted the bridge with a private walk above to keep them from mingling with the rabble, as well as avoiding any assassin that was lying in wait. They also got rid of the butchers, who had used the bridge for centuries, and brought in goldsmiths, thus elevating the standard of the city and ridding themselves of the smell of rotting meat. The bridge still bustles with gold dealers and shops of gold jewelry. Further along, an area devoted to leather goods and further still, objects as diverse as reproduction Roman statues next to wooden copies of the town celebrity, Pinocchio.
We went to lunch with Donatella at Ristorante Paoli, which was a restaurant that was elegant and affordable at the same time. Old crests of families were along the wall and the waiters dashed among the deep walnut woodwork. It almost had the feel of dining in a chapel. The homemade pastas and sauce were served with thick crusty bread. In spite of being gluten free, I found myself giving in to the the joy of having such beautifully created food. Áine was quite the hit with the waiters and she enjoyed her meal as well, especially since we had the treat of gelato at Venchy as the final course.
Known for its chocolate waterfall (yes a rear wall of flowing chocolate that would make Willy Wonka envious), Venchy was filled with people. Donatella treated us to the gelato, queuing to pay for the ice cream first, then joining us in the next line to actually get the gelato. That is fairly standard practice in Italy for coffee, and at most places, except for restaurants, one will see people paying in one line and bringing their receipts to the second line. In some instances, it is efficient, while in others, like at the Autostrada oasis, it can be a drag on time.
Either way, the end result was worth the wait, for the gelato in Italy is one of a kind. Creamy, rich, and just the right amount of sweetness, Italian gelato easily puts American ice cream to shame. The main reason is that foods in Italy (and Europe in general) do not use the “partly hydrogenated-homogenized-ostracized” additives that we in the U.S. have grown accustomed to using. So the American taste bud is at once shocked and delighted by the sensation of real food. It happened time and again on our tour, much to our happiness.
Just when our euphoria was wearing off, we got word that one of our party had been pickpocketed. It happened quite easily. At a gelato stand, a “shark” looking for prey saw his chance and bumped one of our group as she was putting her coin purse away. Distracted for just a second, she in an instant realized she had been robbed. Ironically, her husband just snapped a picture a second before the pickpocket struck, catching his full image. That was turned over to the police, who in turn reassured our group that the thief was looking for cash, not credit cards. The cards were promptly canceled anyway and Donatella said she was ashamed that it occurred in her country. But we all told her that it could happen anywhere and to any one of us. We were all impressed with her graciousness about it.
There is the “situation” with some of the Roma people who have decided that a life of petty theft and beggary is acceptable. Perhaps from years of marginalization, they hover on the fringes, with different sorts of “acts” set up to observe and then the “sharks” who are quick and just plain ugly strike. The “acts” are old ladies, shuffling to and fro with a plastic cup, sometimes with a picture of a family taped to them. Toothless, their faces creased in supplication, they work over the tourists, with a few coins clinking in the cup. Or there are the pregnant mothers, again with a family picture, a hand on their bellies to remind you “I am pregnant here!” and staring hard at you to shame you into giving. The occasional old man sitting with a cup or even lying in a “downward dog” position, the cup alongside him. A bright spot has been the complete disappearance of Roma children begging in the streets. At one time, back in the late 1990’s, these kids were like wolves in a pack, pestering, darting in, grabbing, swarming, and leaving tourists bereft of wallets, passports, and their dignity. Hopefully, schooling and more attention to elevating this section of Italian society are occurring within the European Union. The ones left on the street seem to be of a different time. What is present at this time are the street vendors, mainly from north Africa, who operate in one big organized selling operation. I personally observed a “captain” get up from a crowd watching a performer (who I now suspect was also part of the selling operation) and rounding up his salesmen, directed them to the outskirts of the crowd. He returned and sat down, and a song later, the performer ended, the crowd dispersed into the vendors hawking imitation this and that and those ugly Joker posters.
In spite of that element, it was a part of what made Florence interesting and part of what made this a place that for centuries has collected the various strata of society and somehow, blended them together to make a magnificent city. We walked back to the coach and returned to the Villa a bit weary from walking and anticipating a glass of wine and an evening of relaxation. For Annie, Aine and myself, it was dinner at the Villa. Aine eating pasta with tomato sauce, Annie, pasta with guanciale (bacon) and for myself, wild boar with juniper berries and roast potatoes. Aine was fast asleep by dessert, so we quietly paid for our meal and walked across the flagstones and to bed.
San Gimignano, the Heart of Tuscany
How many cappuccinos does it take to get going in the morning? This morning for me it was five! Italians are kind of funny about coffee. They like espresso, and so they will order about 10 of them during the course of a day. Espresso is basically a shot of concentrated coffee and they get this in teeny tiny coffee cups that they throw back and then they get with on their day. The whole ritual of coffee in the morning is something they don’t really have much of an idea about. Cappuccino is a breakfast espresso with foamed milk. It is served in a coffee cup about a third the size of an American coffee mug. So five espressos, though it sounds impressive, is not that much really by American standards. The espresso at the hotel was made by a very lovely young lady, Alitera, who hails from Cuba and is a former dancer and crack espresso maker. Her bubbly personality was a shot of caffeine in and of itself. Aine would enter the restaurant and greet everyone with “Buongiorno!” and that would get the staff smiling even more.
Donatella had us onto the coach around 8:30 a.m. Normally I raise my eyebrows at leaving so early in the morning as it is counter to what we strive to do with our “Tourmet” types of tours. But the walled city of San Gimignano lay about 90 minutes away, and we were rewarded for our effort. This city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is amazingly preserved with towers, medieval walls, cobbled streets, and a stunning view of the Tuscan countryside. Sitting on top of a hill, it must have been one of the first “skylines” of history as it towers over the area with a feeling of authority and power. We arrived and, after some of us ponied up a euro to use the public bathrooms, proceeded to walk up to the opening of the city. Here the feeling was more like stepping back into the Middle Ages as anything remotely modern is successfully blended into the architecture. Tourism is the primary business here and aside from several kitschy torture chamber “museums,” most shops sell local meats, the area wine known as Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and souvenirs of Tuscany.
We walked up to the main church of Sant'Agostino, which by luck was available for entry as there was to be a baptism later that morning. We filed past the font, set outside the church, already set with the baptismal cloth and chrism, and into the church. I had my GoPro camera and the stick folded. I was about to take it out when a guard came to me. He gestured to the stick and shook his head “NO.” I looked at him puzzled as there was no ban on sticks for cameras on the “rules of etiquette” outside the church. I then took the camera from the stick holder and asked if that was ok. He nodded yes. So instead of taking pictures with a stick, I just raised my hand in the air. Pretty dumb in my opinion, but everyone likes to be an authority, I told myself. I soon forgot the grumpy guard and focused instead of the frescos that were inside. These were painted in the 14th century and were just magnificent. On one wall were the Old Testament displays, painted so an illiterate congregation could learn about the bible. Here was the creation, Eve coming out of Adam, the couple getting kicked out of Eden, and other themes. The paintings were resplendent in color and. though painted with a trained hand, lacked the dimensionality of later works of art. It had that one-dimensional “medieval” look, which for being a 14th century fresco is A-OK. The other wall was all New Testament. Here was an amazing depiction of Jesus rising from the dead. The Roman soldiers are all dressed in the garb of the 14th century and there is an ardent passion that just leaps out of the work, as if the painters were doing their best to convince you of the divinity of Christ.
For those illiterate 14th Century skeptics, the side wall in the rear of the church was a bit more convincing. Here was the “ya-better-believe-or-else” wall. Showing the Last Judgment, the artists painted all the sinners getting theirs for each of the wonderful seven deadly sins. The gluttons, forced to eat food by gruesome devils, the greedy forced to eat money by gruesome devils, the fornicators (who were all good looking women for some reason, at least by 14th century standards) were forced to do what fornicators do with gruesome devils. It was a rather scary depiction of Hell, so much so that Heaven was somewhat eclipsed by the hot place. It was the second most scary depiction of the Last Judgment, the first being at Our Lady of Lourdes in Chicago which pictures Jesus sending people into Hell, but at the same time turning the righteous all into Teletubbies. Hideous in its own right.
We took in the beautiful frescos for quite a while and finally headed out into the piazza in front of the church. Aine took to playing with a little Spanish boy, who decided to throw sticks at her. “That boy is a bully,” said Aine. “I don’t like him,” and proceeded to sever all diplomatic relations. The kid then decided to throw a stick at me. We moved away from the brat. Anyway, it was time to try more gelato. When one gets a stick thrown at him by a Spanish brat, one must retaliate with copious amounts of gelato. So we went to Dondoli where I ordered a chocolate, white chocolate, and Nutella cone. Aine had a strawberry cone and Annie the “kiss of Santifina” which was toasted pine nuts and saffron. Saffron is one of the things that San Gimignano is known for in its storied history and so getting a cone with the local flavor made some sense. But for me, chocolate or no cone.
We were back on the bus for our visit next to a winery. This was Torciano (their website has a nice history on San Gimignano and their winery) and it was in the middle of a beautiful valley completely surrounded by vineyards. A man was riding a horse as we drove in, and out in the fields a couple hands were looking at some of the vines. An eyebrow-raising helipad was marked out on the nicely groomed lawn and a path led to a labyrinth made of grapevines that had a nice shady gazebo with a linen top. I thought that a nice touch, easy to get into, then you try their wines, and then it’s tough to get out of. And there were guard geese hanging around the labyrinth too, a bit Mario Brothers when one thought about it. We were greeted by a cheerful woman, who asked us where we were from. She was very delighted when we told her that we were mostly from the midwest. Turns out that Torciano has a wine distribution center in Lake Forest, Illinois, which delighted us as well, especially when ordering their wine.
Aine was not up to the wine tasting and as soon as we were led into the room made of oaken casks with a linen ceiling that let the warm Tuscan sunlight the space with a honey golden glow, she asked me to head out so she could find “treasure.” Aine (like her Poppa) likes to collect rocks and these become her treasure. So while our group was being treated to generous pours of the various stocks of wine, we headed outside and over to where the horses were. Aine managed to find some rocks, including a diamond shaped rock. We also heard a helicopter landing on the pad and looking over saw a chianti-colored helicopter, its blades coming to a stop. I thought it a nice touch to have a wine-colored helicopter. Business must be good, I thought.
Laughter was coming from the wine tasting room, and I knew our crowd was getting a good experience. Aine and I continued to look for rocks and along the fenceline, we spooked about 20 little leaping lizards that ran every which way across the horse pen and along the road. We were taken a bit aback, having not seen any reptiles in Italy until that point. One of our group yelled over to me that we were about to have lasagna. Aine and I both headed quickly over to try the famous Torciano grandma’s recipe. It was made with handmade pasta and sauce and was delicious. Not drinking any wine, I gave my samples over to the table where I was sitting and Aine’s as well. She is a little under the drinking age, even for Italy. After lunch, Brian and I brought out our guitars and we proceeded to play Stellar Jay’s Wing, which made Maureen Hutchinson happy as it was hers and her late husband Tom’s song. Then Maggie joined us for In My Glory, which got some of the group and even the Italian staff dabbing their eyes. Nancy Wisniewski requested the final song, which of course was Pour Me! Everyone left the winery happy, full of wine and lasagna, and wallets a few euro lighter with crates of wine heading back to the States.
As we drove along the autostrade, Donatella pointed out a somber sight. There, nestled in a little valley not far off the roadway, was a cemetery of American dead from WWII. About the neat rows of white marble waved the American flag. Donatella told us that on a previous tour, one man asked to stop at the cemetery. There, for the first time, he walked down the rows and stood at the grave of his grandfather. Italy was a hotly contested battleground between the Axis and Allies. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place in Italian towns like Monte Cassino and Anzio. We all gazed at the peaceful scene as we passed the cemetery and I felt a mixture of sadness and pride for those men who died in such a beautiful place during such a hellish time.
Back at the Villa, some of us took naps, while about 20 of our group met with the head chef Anna to do some Tuscan cooking. Aine and I took a nap and missed out on the fun, but the main part of it was that our already wined and dined group were given more wine to drink before the cooking began. Each person was given a role and even the driver Luigi showed up to help in the making of the various bruschettas, two kinds of crostini, with chicken liver pate as well as chicken breast, herbed pork loin, two different kinds of gnocchi, and for dessert biscotti. Wine was flowing and by the time Aine and I showed up, dinner was about to be served. But Anna saved some dough for Aine, who then with Anna’s help made her first Italian pizza. We sat down to a candlelit dinner and feasted on the team’s creation. Donatella and Luigi helped bring in the food and joined us for the Tuscan repast. I was especially impressed with the cooperation and ease that our guide, driver and Villa staff showed to make our experience a memorable one. Even at the end of the night, both Donatella and Luigi were clearing off plates and setting the kitchen to order. “Get to bed,” I chided her. “We don’t want to leave tomorrow without you!”
Day 5, Sunday April 2
Just Two Kids from Woodstock
It was to be a six cappuccino morning. We had already experienced a week of events in a few days with all the activities, and I was especially anticipating today’s visit. My friend Vallanna Widoff, who I grew up with in Woodstock, was going to meet up with us in Bologna. She and her husband Giorgio lived about 20 minutes outside the city, and we were going to head to a restaurant, away from the crowds and in the real “home” part of Bologna.
Bologna is a bit of a drive from the Villa, but the countryside more than made up for the travel. The weather called for rain, but luckily the overcast conditions did not ever open up into a shower. Had it done so, we would have been all right, for Bologna is a town that invented the use of porticoes. Sort of how American cities like Minneapolis would later create walkways that allow the public to stay warm and dry, especially in the winter, the Bolognese had already perfected this practice centuries before. The porticoes kept folks dry in the winter and cool in the summer. This was not the place to freeze or fry one’s brain, for Bologna was home to the world’s oldest university.
The University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, this university boasted several prestigious students, among them the famous writer Dante. Centuries ahead of its time, Bologna was truly an international city due to its educational presence. Our guide pointed out that even an “Indio” from the new world travelled over for education at the university.
A big city, Bologna has done well to preserve its ancient, medieval, and post-medieval buildings. WWII did a number on the city, but all in all, the flavor of the city is still one that was found in Florence, old and new seamlessly intertwining. However, Bologna is very much a modern town, and though it keeps its past, the new buildings, football stadium, and modern homes away from the city center point to a big city of the European Union.
Valana and Giorgio were waiting for Annie, Aine and myself as the tour group made its way into the Piazza Maggiore, which is one of the largest piazzas in Italy. From there we hopped into two cabs and headed off to a section of town that was very middle class. Families were resting on a Sunday afternoon, visiting one another and meeting at restaurants. We went into a small restaurant and over plates of homemade pasta and salad caught up with each other. Valanna had left Woodstock after graduation from college. During school she had spent a semester in Rome and was hooked on Italy after that. Upon her graduation, she found work in Italy, eventually joining a company that creates sophisticated manufacturing equipment, meeting her husband Giorgio in the process. They live at the family house that has spanned generations. Every summer, she gets a chance to fly back to the States and Woodstock. We talked about the passing of Mom and Dad. Val Anna's mom was friend of my mom and she was very supportive of my decision to follow music. She would reassure mom that I was making the right decision and for that I was always grateful to her for her support. We talked about working over the summer detasseling corn. Valanna lived about a mile from my house as the crow flies.
Valanna is one of those people who experienced a life changing event. In this case it was a terrible car accident that injured her father and mother and killed her grandmother. After that day, life was something different to look at, an appreciation of everything one has and not to take any day for granted. We took Aine over to a nearby park and she played as we continued to talk. She loved Italy, but Valanna did not think of herself as Italian. “I always love it when customs says ‘welcome home’ to me”, she said. “I love Italy, but I consider myself still from Woodstock.” She said the best compliment Italians would pay would be when they tried to figure out her accent. Most of the time they thought her Dutch or from the north of Italy.
The time flew when we were visiting and soon it was time to leave. We sat outside the restaurant, waiting for the cab.
“Pretty neat, all the changes life hands you,” Valanna said to me. “Here we are, a couple of kids from Woodstock, sitting here in Bologna.” I nodded. It was a long way from Kishwaukee Valley Road.
Heaven in Italy
Cinque Terre are five towns that are nestled onto the coast off the Ligurian Sea. It is one of those locations that should be on everyone’s bucket list, for it combines high, terraced cliffs that drop straight down into the sea. The vertical aspect of this landscape makes for a dramatic, awe-inspiring visual feast that leaves one asking two questions: why did they build here and why can’t I live here?
The rough translation of Cinque Terre is “five lands” and the biggest of these is the port of La Spezia. This is the real town among the five, with a huge naval port that has been sought after over the years by the likes of such rulers as Napoleon. Bustling with the usual seaport cargo containers, cruise ships, and naval vessels, La Spezia would be a neat destination in and of itself. There is sort of a familiarity with the terrain, a Californian vibe with the palms, the sea, air, and smartly dressed people. Once we headed over to the next town, the hairpin turns of the mountains brought us to Riomaggiore, which is a diminutive place with three story row homes painted in bright colors, little bridges of stone that cross over the mountain stream cutting down its main path, and a tight harbor that leads to a dock accessible by squeezing through a cleft in volcanic rock. Part of the beauty is the variety of flowers, vines, palms and other vegetation that are lovingly maintained by the locals in postage stamp gardens and backyards that hang off the edge of the cliffs.
Up the sides of the hills are the vineyards and gardens that rise up to the cliff tops. The ingenuity of these people in literally clinging to the side of a cliff can be found in a series of monorail systems that bring people, grapes, and other goods up and down the cliffs, from farm to farm, in a snaking path that rises directly up and down. How they did these things 100 years ago leaves one to wonder, but the reality was that until recently the Cinque Terre was isolated from the rest of Italy, accessible primarily by boat. A rail line punched through the cliffs now offers the easiest access to the villages, but we boarded a boat and took a 15 minute mini-cruise to take in the best view, that from the sea.
We docked at Manarola, which has a great piazza/harbor and amazing views. An old man in a jaunty bright blue beret with a red pom-pom on top sat at the front of the harbor, looking like an ad for the area. The whole region is designated a National Park and an UNESCO World Heritage site, which is a good thing, for nature does reign supreme and can visit some chaos on the inhabitants. In 2011 a raging flood came tearing down the mountains and out into the harbor of Manarola, destroying much of the piazza and killing six people in its torrents. The price of clinging to a cliff was made evident and had it not been a heritage site, the necessary repairs may not have happened as quickly as they did. The scars of the damage had begun to fade with the new sections of stone dulling in the strong sunlight. We had lunch at a little “restaurant” that had bright red and blue umbrellas that cast a festive glow over the tables. Seafood was the order of the day, and Sue Arnold and Annie both ordered grilled sea dishes with local catches that had tiny lobsters propped up on the plate, waving amongst a sea of shrimp, scallops, and winkles. The artistry of the plate was as great as the taste.
After lunch we made our way to the train station and headed to Monterosso Al Mare, which actually has a beach, albeit a thin stretch of sand grudgingly left by the cliffs. Nevertheless, this was a bonus for vacationers who made this town their destination. People were all around us, dragging suitcases from the station to their hotels. We went along a seaside walk, where a jutting cliff bisected the town. Here among the old watchtowers and gardens was a WWII pillbox, its dull brown concrete making it look almost like a feature of the land. It was a reminder of the strategic importance of La Spezia and the vulnerability of maintaining a country surrounded on three sides by seas. Whether the pillbox ever fired in anger at the Allies was anybody’s guess; still it was there, a representation of money wasted in the name of war. A man sat on top of the pillbox, gazing out at the sea and I thought it ironic that 75 years earlier, an Italian or German soldier might have been doing the same thing.
We took some time to do some shopping in town. Aine was attracted to the clothes and literally surrounded herself in some of the bright cloths and beads offered. I picked up a tiny wooden owl she was liked. My mother always collected owls and I took it as a sign that Mom was close by. A necessary stop by a gelato shop rounded out our visit.
Here, as in any other tourist destination we had in Italy, was the ubiquitous street vendor. Once solely the domain of Roma, these jobs now are run by immigrants from Africa. A tall African man, sporting a red New York Yankees logo hat and red sneakers, made his way down the street. Around his neck were necklaces of little wooden beads and faux flowers and each arm was festooned with bracelets of cheap metal, leather, and other materials. He came up to me while Annie and Aine were shopping. In broken English he gestured to what he was selling.
I shook my head no, and said “no euros” which was true, as I gave them all to Annie.
He persisted, holding up a bracelet.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Senegal,” he answered.
“Why are you not doing something else?” I asked. “You are so tall, you could play basketball!”
He smiled and shook his head.
“I am here,” he said. “No life in Senegal.”
He slipped a bracelet on my wrist and fist bumped me. Was this a gift? No.
He said “Five euros.”
The bracelet was a thin string and fiber contraption that pulled tight would cling to the wrist. The perfect foil as it couldn’t be taken off easily.
“No, my friend,” I said. “I have no money on me.”
He rubbed his belly and pointed to the restaurant.
I pointed to my wedding ring. “See this?” I said. “Married. No money.”
He shook his head and slipped the bracelet off my wrist. There were easier marks for his wares and I saw one, pulling his suitcase to the train, a garish necklace of wooden beads and faux flowers thumping against his black t-shirt. The interesting thing was the meeting with this man. I was curious as to his being in a place most people would spend a great sum of money to get to. But for him, this place was nothing more than a work zone where he was working hard for very little return, at least with tourists like me. It made me wonder what life must be like in Senegal for this man to have risked such a journey in the first place.
We were out of time as we got on the train and headed back to La Spezia. The trip was quick and the perfect means of darting around the towns for visitors. I would certainly return but probably hunker down at some beautiful hotel, looking over the Ligurian and try to get a ride on one of those monorails up the cliff.
Playgrounds and Piazzas
We played hooky from the group today. One of the fun things about our tours is that you do get the option to do things on your own if you choose. For some, this is planning a trip to visit a relative or just staying put to read a book. In our case, Annie and I decided that Aine deserved a day to hang around with some kids her age. The coach left for San Marino, which is a republic that sits within the Italian state overlooking the Adriatic sea. San Marino is one of the oldest functioning (and smallest) republics in the world. It also made Abraham Lincoln an honorary citizen of its country. But for Aine, San Marino would have to wait for another tour. She was interested in finding a Figline playground. We had breakfast (a three cappuccino morning) and then, taking my hand, Aine and I headed into town. The piazza in Figline was alive with market day. Merchants had driven early in the morning to the piazza. Each one drove a van that had a contraption on the roof that held an awning that could expand and contract. Once the van was in its proper place, a motor was used to draw the awning out from the van and over a space the size of a small room. There, the merchant would either hang up clothes, stack white cardboard boxes with shoes inside, pile breads and meats, fold blue jeans and t-shirts, display purses, wallets and other curious items. It was similar to a flea market back home and the aisles of the market were jammed with mainly Italian women, flocking around the stalls and haggling with the merchants over prices. We skirted the main area, heading through an aisle crammed with pajamas, belts, watches, gym shoes, and boots and finally made it out of the piazza, turned right, and walked toward the train station.
In many ways, Figline could easily stand in for a small midwestern town. Many of the same sort of shops are there, such as florists, bakers, banks, and farm machinery salesmen. We quietly walked away from the bustle of the piazza. We crossed a street and headed toward what looked like a strip mall. There was no one around, except for a couple talking on a bench, and I figured that everyone was either working or at the market. Aine explored a stone wall and stopped to examine the sparkling trails of dried slime left by snails earlier that morning. She then would pick some flowers, find a leaf, or grab a small rock to add to her “treasure.” Another pastime of hers was chasing the pigeons that also loved to hang out in the piazzas. She saw some pigeons and decided to give chase. Once they were in flight, she came back and we resumed looking for a park. I turned a corner and entered into a walkway the opened up into a green area bordering a school. On one side a high wall of stone stood, covered in graffiti. Across the way stood a war memorial with a statue of a woman dressed as Liberty holding aloft a garland in her hand. Under that were the years for WWI and WWII. And between the wall and the statue was a park! Aine let go of my hand and immediately attached herself to a couple of kids her age.
I looked around the park. Figline, like a lot of Italian towns, has a problem with a great amount of graffiti. Unlike some of the more artistic examples we saw along the autostrada, this seemed to be graffiti for graffiti’s sake. Just bad, gangland-like style writing in Italian. Even the playground equipment was not immune to the attack. It made me curious to find out why this graffiti exists in the first place. Was it just a means to emote artistically or strike out at the “man?” Why mar the very place you live? As the old saying goes, “One doesn’t sh-- in one’s sandbox,” but here, it seemed that the taggers were hellbound to do just that. There have been several attempts to psychoanalyze this. Here is a great article about Italian graffiti.
Ironically, Italy is the birthplace of modern graffiti. The word itself is Italian: “graffiato” which refers to the act of scratching a message on a public wall. Ancient Rome is where such work became commonplace, and so perhaps it is part of the Italian DNA to feel the need for the ordinary working man to tag “I exist” in so many words. I remain a skeptic, viewing all of the tags at the playground as an insult to everyone, including the tagger. In my eyes, it wasn’t art at all, but more a plea to be noticed. Find a way to make everyone feel relevant, and perhaps you wouldn’t see graffiti. In the meantime, even Figline was not immune to its ravages. Importantly, the taggers avoided the statue of the bronze Liberty figure, so I figured they have some ethical qualms about where one can tag. And for Aine and her new Italian friends, they took no notice of it but instead ganged up on the pigeons, forcing them from scratching their own tags in the Italian dirt to seek refuge in the little pockmarks and crevices of the ancient wall along the park.
We left the park and joined up with Annie, who spent part of the day at the Villa, getting work done for her job in the States. The internet is a wonderful invention in that you can “get away” from the office, but also it is a curse in that the office is always still there for you. But we all walked out to the piazza and had a casual lunch with Marc, Pam, Jean Marie and Joe at a little cafe. The market was over, and the vans were retracting their awnings, queuing up to leave the piazza and leaving in their wake a square littered with plastic bags, boxes, wrappers and the like, blowing around in eddies and swirls. A small crew of street cleaners came in with brooms, bags and machines to start rounding up the debris. The sky was bright with clouds here and there, including some rain clouds that splashed the street occasionally with drops as they scuttled along their way. We had some sandwiches and Italian pastries including a chocolate covered horn of flaky crust, filled with a thick chocolate ganache that was perfectly matched with an afternoon espresso.
The evening was to be our full tour group farewell concert at the Villa. However, I was surprised to get a phone call from Brian.
“Marty, we are stuck on the roadway and won’t get back to the Villa for about two hours,” Fitz said.
“Get out of here,” I replied. “Stop pulling my leg.”
“I am not!”
“Get Andy Arnold on the line.” I believe Andy.
Andy Arnold got on the line. Andy is a great friend of the band and tells no lies.
“Marty, yeah, we are stuck. A truck is on fire and they blocked the autostrada.”
So I brought those who stayed behind to the room reserved at our Villa and there was the chef, talking to me in Italian. He was confused that there were only 15 people in the room, so I called Donatella and had her explain the situation. So we had dinner for our group and I occasionally texted the “Donner Party” on the coach, sending pictures of the food we were eating. Brian would text back saying that everyone was reduced to eating M&M’s on the coach.
Eventually the accident cleared on the autostrada. Had not Luigi noticed that the traffic block was opened at the last second as he was being diverted off the roadway, the coach would have had to divert to Sienna for a two hour round trip. As it was, most of us stayed up for the coach and welcomed them back as heroes. We had a nice concert in the room, which was perfect for an acoustic concert. Tomorrow was the last day of the tour. Some of us were heading home, some continuing on in Italy on their own journey, and some of us heading to Rome.
Rome Wasn’t Toured in a Day
We had to leave at 5 a.m. and there was no way around it.
Fiumicino Airport was a couple hours away and those heading home needed to be at the airport early enough to be able to leave with the least amount of stress. I looked at Aine and she was not in the least irritated by the early leaving. She snuggled down on Annie’s lap and promptly fell asleep. I took the early departure from the Villa to look across the Italian countryside, as the pinks and russets of the rising sun washed across the farm fields. I saw a wild boar along the edge of what looked to be a wheat field. Another field revealed two deer grazing not too far from a herd of cattle. A pheasant here, another boar there. For a land that had been “civilized” by man for several millennia, there was still plenty of wildlife making their home in the green fields of Italy.
We stopped at an oasis and transferred to another coach. Luigi would take the rest to the airport while we journeyed on to Rome. Rome is probably one of the most amazing cities in the world. It is layer upon layer of history. Dig a hole and you unearth a ruin. Dig under that ruin and you unearth another ruin. The jamble of humanity results in an complex jangle of former palaces, hovels, arches, schools, roadways, and basilicas. These compete with the current structures of the modern capital of Italy. Somehow it all makes sense. We made it to the heart of the city outside of the Colosseum and started into the ancient Roman forum.
Visiting Rome in a day is a stretch and a strenuous walk. And walk we did, along the arches depicting the sack of Jerusalem, the original Roman roads, the huge basilica constructed as a market and meeting place, and the palace of the Emperor. Most of the ruins require a bit of imagination, as the history of the city and rise and fall of the empire reduced the once majestic temples and columns into mere remnants of their overall greatness. For Rome was once, at its height, the center of the world and all roads did lead to it. Everything in the forum, indeed the entire city, was clad in marble. As our guide remarked, “Every day the baths were there for the citizens to bathe. By the Middle Ages, a citizen was lucky to bathe three times during his life.” And as Donatella quipped, the Roman Baths were free for all. That along with a working sewer and water system that would rival many modern models, the ancient Rome still offers amenities that modern Rome lacks. A free public bathroom in modern Rome doesn’t exist.
The greatness of Rome was in truth the security of its middle class, a pragmatic lesson for any democratic system alive today. Once the decline began, there was no stopping it until Rome became a shell of itself, an ancient Detroit with small pockets of people surrounded by returning wilderness, ruins, and reclaimed farmland. Still, walking among the ruins, the suggestion of the grandeur of what had been was enough to impress.
If I had past lives, one or more of them must have been in Rome, for the ruins played upon my emotions. I at once felt joy and sorrow at seeing them again.. Perhaps because they have survived the decline and destruction by their later residents and yet have retained a power intrigues me. Rome is at once a warning and an example for civilization today. How absolute power can corrupt absolutely. How the building of such distractions as the Colosseum can mollify a public for only so long a time before the roots of decline and corruption destroy. The frustration of seeing the broken ruins and wishing to see Rome in all of its ancient glory is powerful, for it must have been such an amazing sight to enter Rome at its heyday. Imagine coming from some remote village and here, awash in bright marble, was the center of the world. People speaking dozens of languages, bustling among the chariots, the stalls with cooking food, the color and splash of the exotic. That echo still resonates if one is still enough to take it in.
It was the third time in my life that I had been to Rome, and each visit makes me appreciate the modern city all the more. For Romans are in a quandary, how to respect the past while accommodating the present. With only two rail lines, the streets are smashed with tiny cars and scooters, the latter darting in and out of the former alongside the lumbering, elephant-like tour buses. Rome needs some sort of floating airborne transportation system, for that is truly the only area that does not have something sitting on something. In spite of it all, it works, haltingly, imperfectly, but adequately. The Colosseum is a microcosm of Rome. Here there are lines of people trying to enter into it. The crush of people is managed as best as it can be managed, especially with security measures in place to prevent would-be idiots from wrecking a treasure. Once inside, the crowds are slowly moved by their guides to a spot and there one gets to witness a portion of a building that is still being preserved, but was partly destroyed by marble recyclers to use elsewhere in Rome. ( It wasn’t until the 1740’s that it was preserved by Pope Benedict as a Christian shrine. By that time, it was half a shell of its former self, the greatest amphitheatre ever built, being used as a stone quarry to build churches and government buildings.) The Colosseum has the world swirling literally swirling around it, in the forms of tour groups, vendors, and the ever-present Roma Grandma’s begging a coin or two. And around that is the modern Rome. Indeed, Pope Francis will be walking the stations of the cross through it for Good Friday. A ruin? Yes. A part of modern Rome? Yes. A symbol? On so many levels, yes.
Back into the bright sunshine outside of the Colosseum, we boarded a coach to continue on to Vatican City. Here we spent the rest of the day, walking through St. Peter’s along a mile of the galleries and through the Sistine Chapel. To describe it is difficult. Many in our group described just feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of art, architecture, the history of Vatican City. As a dessert tour, it was fitting to just surrender to all of it and snap pictures and observe the little things. For me, that was the smell of the wood polish that was being used inside St. Peter’s, preparing the basilica for Holy Week. Or the African priest, offering confession to a young woman in a corner, while the milling crowds craned their necks to gaze at Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine. The security guard at the Sistine, uttering “Silencio” in a big booming voice as the mutters of astonishment build to an overwhelming level. The shops crammed with religious goods, pictures of Pope Francis, crucifixes, rosaries, an almost sacrilegious snowman nativity scene. And an encampment of homeless men, surrounded by old luggage, the scent of urine in the air on our way back to the coach. A Roma boy, playing the accordion, sensing we are Americans and starting into “When the Saints Go Marching In.” All of it, jarring, astounding, overwhelming. A visit to Rome is a trip unto itself, and I was quite proud of our group being resilient enough to take it on. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should one consider a day enough to take it all in. But for our dessert tour, it was the perfect cherry on the top of our gelato.
We finished the tour at La Fraschetta Romanesca, a family run pizza ristorante, where we sat down to a dinner of fresh greens with tomatoes, quattro formaggi, salsiccia, funghi pizzas and vino. We sang our songs, took requests from our merry band of travellers, and saluted Donatella. Her husband Lucca joined us and even three year old Aine was gobsmacked at this handsome, congenial Italian man. As Jean Marie quipped, “When can I take his tour?”
Maggie stood up and sang “Here’s to the Evening,” her father’s song that has now become a traditional final toast to our tour. And of course we finished the evening with “A Simple Benediction,” which seems very fitting for our Tuscan/Roman holiday. We joined hands and we all sang along, celebrating a fantastic tour.
“See us safely on our journey,
Lighten the trials we bear,
Guide us and protect us
From every woe and fear.
We’re offering today,
A simple benediction,
God bless us
And keep us
And see us safely home.”
Testimonials from our Tuscany tour group
I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Italy especially the gorgeous Tuscan countryside, excellent pasta and wonderful Chianti. I loved the wine tasting, cooking school and re-connecting with Switchback friends from previous Ireland trips. We've been back for a week now, and Italy still occupies my dreams! - Diane Norman
"Fabulous trip. Great mix of people - friendly and fun" - Darlene Swanson
"We just returned from the Tuscany tour and offer nothing but positive comments. The tour was great, the tour guides were greater, and greater still was our fellow travelers....And never have we ever encountered such a wonderful group of fellow travelers united by one unique strong bond namely Marty and Brian!" - Jerry Walsh
"Great trip! My wife Diane and I signed up for all of the optional activites and excursions in Tuscany. They were really fun, educational, and arranged so well by Celtic Tours. We stayed in Tuscany for several more days and Celtic Tours helped make the arrangement for additional days at the Villa Casagrande, car rental, and train to Rome and overnight accommodations there. Thanks!" - Michael Markowski
"Great group of light, bright, interested and interesting people with a wonderful thing to bind us all, Switchback! My first trip with this group and it couldn’t have been better. Go places, or not, find a group or a few different ones to spend time with, or not, be who you are and relax and enjoy." - Lexie Nevins
"I'd like to add my two-cents worth to the epilogue of the trip to Tuscany and the several other Districts of Italy that were included.
When folks ask me about the trip, I admit it was physically challenging for me. Joe and I are in pretty good shape for a couple of old dudes, but I did find myself whining about steps, always more steps! We marveled at the others who kept going and going without complaint! Like Energizer Bunnies!
It was when we reached places like the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence and seeing, not just David, but numerous sculptures, both finished and unfinished, that I forgot my aches and pains. Unbelieveably beautiful. The same goes for the fortresses, towers, churches and basilicas in the other cities. I know this sounds corny but I was almost limping from sciatic pain when we made it to the Vatican Basilica. Surrounded by all that ancient history and beauty, I completely forgot that I had ever had an ache or pain! Maybe it was the Holy Water that I dipped my fingers in!
But the scenery and art weren't the only things that were special! We were able to reconnect with many of the good people on the tour that we had met on previous Switchback trips. We also met and made friends with the new people! Laughing together, in awe together, shopping together, having snacks on the streets of Figline with random fellow tourists!
These are the things that make Switchback Tours so very special. I hope to see many of you at upcoming concerts or in the fall, Traveling Down an Irish Road." - Jean Marie Hall
American Roots & Celtic Soul