Rome, where we almost made history


The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.


We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.


Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.


The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.





The secret is out: Croatia is not ‘undiscovered’

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The guidebooks say there’s still an “undiscovered” quality about Croatia.

Those guidebooks are not talking about July and August in the seaside towns along the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. It’s peak tourist season here, and Sarge is cursing the tourist drivers as if he were a local.

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The boys and I have taken in some sights, even if we have been elbow-to-elbow with people walking the streets of Old Town Zadar or gazing at waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s a wonder we didn’t see anyone in the Plitvice crowd pushed off the park’s boardwalks on the water’s edge. But I guess they have railings where it really counts. (The park is stunning, by the way).

Croatia was undiscovered, at least to me, before we moved here. It was under my radar, and I had to look up Zadar on a map when we found out we had the opportunity to move here. Sarge says all the convincing it took was for me to look at Croatia’s proximity to Italy on a map. I was ready to move as soon as he said, “Go!”

Italy has a place in my heart because I’m part Italian on my mother’s side, and my grandfather used walk around his house in Kentucky singing songs like, “’O Sole Mio.” That was one of his favorites. I heard that song here and imagined the singer to be my late grandfather.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Italian flavor of many of the towns here. I had no idea that Pula, on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, has a well-preserved Roman colosseum that rivals the one in Rome. Or that the fishing port of Rovinj is “the most Italian town in Croatia” and is officially bilingual (Italian and Croatian). The flavor extends to the foods. I’ve had the best cheese and prosciutto here I’ve ever tasted. And the wine isn’t bad, either.

My preconceived notions of Croatia were that it would have lots of Communist-era architecture and be pockmarked from the war of the early 1990s. There is some of that. But there is lots of beauty beyond those scars.


I’m struck by the old windows and doors here that function despite their age – and the old people here who function despite their age, making it up steep streets of cobbled stone, walking the stairs to their apartments and leaning out their windows with brightly colored shutters to hang their laundry.

I’ve heard people say that parts of Croatia are “what Italy used to be.” I’m sure the crowds here don’t rival the summer crowds across the Adriatic in Italy. But the charm of Croatia is no longer a part of secret Dalmatia. The word is out. I’m just another American discovering what Eastern Europeans have known for decades. It’s a pretty good time to be here, even if I have to bump elbows with other tourists.

The Nonna I Never Had


After I walked the boys to school today, I headed toward a different neighborhood for my morning walk. I wanted to take a path along the water’s edge. I took a detour to avoid a muddy construction zone. That’s when I ventured into an alley where an old woman was having a smoke.

She could have easily passed me and said nothing. I’ve noticed a lot of Europeans don’t greet strangers in passing the way Americans do. Sometimes I say, “Bok!” and wave just to see if people return my hellos. So far, almost every “Bok!” has gotten a friendly reply. I think I just smiled at the woman in the alley, but something made her catch up to me and start talking.

We quickly established that she didn’t know English, and it wasn’t Croatian she was speaking. She was Italian, and she looked incredulous to hear I didn’t know any Italiano. Maybe she could sense I have some Italian in my blood. I could make out enough to know she was asking my name. Then she began to sing it: “Tan-yah, oh, Tan-ee-ah!” Bella something-or-other, she sang and smoked. By this time, she had looped her arm in mine and was leading me down the street.

A white-haired man on a bicycle stopped to talk to her. I could tell he was asking who I was and probably why the heck she was serenading me. “Americano.” No Italiano. Something or other. He had no time for that. “No English,” he said as he rode off.


The old woman was not deterred. She asked me more questions. She belted out more songs. She pointed toward her side door and asked me to come and sit down at her kitchen table with the rose tablecloth that matched her vase of roses.

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Part of me wondered what the heck I was doing sitting down in a stranger’s house when I couldn’t even understand her. But I was so entertained, I couldn’t say no. She seemed harmless and lonely. She was the Italian nonna I never had. She made me laugh.

She said her name and it was something close to Maria, maybe Mariska, I couldn’t really be sure. Her house looked like what I would imagine my distant Italian relatives’ homes would look like, with Catholic figurines within arm’s reach.

When her phone rang, she gestured for me to stay while she went in the other room to answer it. I snapped some pictures of the room while she was gone.

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When she returned, she sat down and sang some more until I sang with her.

I think she was going to get up and start making food then. She probably would have let me stay all day. But my Americano impulses didn’t have all day to stay. I felt a little guilty, like a party guest leaving too soon, as I inched out of my seat toward the door. We hugged like old friends before we parted. I felt like I should have kissed her on both cheeks, but I didn’t.

“Grazie,” I said as I began to walk away, “Thank you!”

“Very much!” she called from the door, in the most coherent English she had said yet. “Ciao!”

Then she followed me again, looped her arm in mine and walked me to the crossroads, where we said goodbye once more.