Lifelogging: where will it take us?

In  an earlier post (Travel photos, travel memories) I asked readers how many photos they take on a trip. I have not had any responses (so far!) but imagine that the answers will range from “none” to “many hundreds per day”.

I am convinced that taking photographs contributes to the richness – both present and future – of a trip. At the same time, I think there is a reasonable upper limit on how much time and energy one should devote to photographing a vacation. Too much of a good thing often deprives the “good thing” of value.

Tunisia 161

Roman amphitheater, Tunisa

How much is too much? Here is an example.

My wife and I participated in an archaeological tour to northern Tunisia. We joined because we wanted to learn more about an important chapter in Roman history and see a part of the world that was new to us. The group, led by an accomplished Roman archaeologist, consisted of 23 individuals, most passionate and knowledgeable about history.

Two members of the group came armed to the teeth with cameras, accessory bags and tripods. They seemed far more interested in photography than history. When we arrived at sites along the way, these two jumped off the bus, running ahead of the rest of us to position themselves for the best shots.  As the group leader provided carefully prepared explanations of what we saw before us, the two “camera nuts” fiddled with their cameras and clicked, clicked, clicked. Never once did they participate in the ensuing discussions.

Tunisia 394

Roman temple, Tunisia

The couple began over time to try the group’s patience. It wasn’t only their lack of sociability. It was also their rudeness. Often we found the camera nuts in our field of view when we wanted to take a photo of the archaeological site we had come so far to visit.

The two camera nuts were the only members of the groups I did not get to know (they sat by themselves in the evening), and so I did not learn what they intended to do with the thousands of pictures they were taking. Perhaps both of them spent the month following their return home winnowing down thousands of photos to a precious few hundred. Perhaps, for them, the real joy of the trip was not experiencing what they saw when they saw it but later rummaging through photos displayed on a computer screen. De gustibus not est disputadum.

Tunisia 138

Roman amphitheater, Tunisia

The couple’s mania seems to be emblematic of a general trend to collect more and more information, to amass data in industrial quantities. It’s this widespread general predisposition, I think, that has led to the NSA surveillance tactics and their seeming acceptance by Congress.

Lifelogging refers to the use of wearable computers and other devices to capture data about an individual’s life experiences. The desire for more and richer data about the experiences of individuals and groups is spawning a new industry intent on harnessing the power of cloud computing and advanced data analytic techniques.

New wearable computers and sensing devices are being developed that can be used to track many different aspects of your life, from your location and amount of physical activity, a range of physiological functions including visual acuity, blood pressure, and heart rate, not to mention indicators of emotional state, eating habits, and length and quality of sleep.  The goal of the emerging industry is to store, sift, organize, and integrate the information “up there” in the cloud.

It appears that we are headed towards a tipping point as more and more technologically inclined individuals embrace lifelogging, and as companies seek better and more profitable ways to track parameters they can then later sell to individual consumers (or, more often, corporations) in a packaged form.  Useful medical applications for the new technology have already been identified, and there are surely more to come.

Google glass

Google Glass worn by Google CEO

I can understand the economic value to marketers of being able to know what consumers desire even before the consumers themselves know what they want at a conscious level. However, I am unsure what real benefits the new technology will bring to us as individuals. And my thoughts return to travel photography.

Some of you may be following the development of Google Glass, the wearable computer attached to a pair of eyeglasses. A prototype version of the device was provided to over 10,000 developers in 2013 at a cost of £1,500. (Eventual consumers will pay about half that.) The developers agreed that more work is needed before Glass is brought to market. But while the technology is being refined, and companies other than Google work to develop applications for Glass, Google hopes to discover just what their new gadget is really “good for”, that is, how people will want to use Glass.

Some applications for Glass have already been defined (inventory control, aids to the visually impaired), but others will surely follow. Among other things, I think that a consumer version of Glass may be of interest to travelers.

samual beckett

Samuel Beckett

Let’s fast forward to 2016. By then, Google will likely have made it possible to mount Glass to users’ own prescriptions. Travelers wearing Glass will be able to use vocally command Glass to take pictures of what they are looking at or record a high-definition video. Assuming that Glass has been tethered via Bluetooth to a smart phone for storage on the Cloud, a traveler will also be able to record location data and vocal notes.

Glass-for-travelers will appeal to people who thrill to new technology, as well as to people who believe that more is always better (like the “camera nuts” mentioned earlier). But I wonder if using such a device will increase travelers’ enjoyment of a trip. Having returned home, will travelers want to spend long hours re-seeing what they have previously witnessed first hand? If not, will the benefit of Glass be the reassurance that when the travelers’ memories began to fade in the future they will be able to review their trips?

Krapp's last tape

performance in Ireland of Krapp’s Last Tape

In a recently published newsletter, Harry Moody mentioned Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Krapp’s Last Tape (1959) in the context of memory. When the curtain rises in the play, the 69 year-old Krapp is reviewing recordings he has been making since he was 39. The voices of Krapp’s earlier selves on the tapes, strong and self-important, recount a litany of minor irritations and health problems.

We come to recognize that the only real constant in Krapp’s progression through life has been the disdain he feels for his younger selves when he reviews earlier tapes. All those earlier versions of Krapp were idiots, you see. The current Krapp has little patience with his earlier enthusiasms until he encounters, on one tape, a former self’s description of a sexual liaison with a woman on a skiff. Krapp listens to – and relives – this event several times.

As Krapp listens to tapes, he annotates their contents on the back of an envelope. There is little, however, that he wants to highlight. There is little about his life, it seems, that Krapp wants to record for posterity in a more permanent and condensed format (ink on paper).

Krapp retreats further into his memories, father from former selves and a past that remains dim and unsatisfying despite the tapes. Harry Moody notes that what Krapp has been unable to do, as he records his last tape, is to impose “order and meaning [from the] pile of tapes and memories he’d collected.” As Moody also observes, “no technology will give meaning to us, so the search for order-and-meaning becomes the ultimate do-it-yourself activity– otherwise known as life-review.”


Posted in Travel philosophy, Travel photography | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Ramble on the Appian Way

Ancient Rome comes alive on the Appian Way. This eight-mile walk takes four hours at an easy pace. Come back another day to linger; today you’re a Roman citizen off to your country estate, drinking in the ambiance. Bring water and a snack – but maybe you’ll hold out for porchetta at the end! You’ll need bus and Metro tickets: see below.

Umbrella Pines, Via Appia

Umbrella Pines, Via Appia

This first and most famous Roman road charted a 330-mile course to the Adriatic port of Brindisi, gateway to the East. A vital military and trade conduit, it doubled as visual propaganda for the emerging superpower: join us and here’s what we can do for you. Massive stones carefully fitted together, wide enough for two carriages to pass, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, each mile marked with a stone obelisk. Such a road had never been seen before. It personified commercial prosperity, efficient administration and military strength.

Residents, Appian Way

Residents, Via Appia

Two thousand years later the impression is still compelling. From the gates of Rome the Via Appia plunges straight across the countryside toward the Alban Hills. Umbrella pines frame green meadows, grazing sheep and grand villas. Lining the road are tombs of ancient Romans, some with sober faces summoning our attention. Many are freed slaves, proud to be known as citizens. At Mile 6, this man speak poignantly:

Stop, stranger, and look to your left, at a tomb that holds the bones of a good man, merciful, a friend to the poor. I beg you, traveler, do no harm to this tomb. Inside lies Caius Ateilius Euhodus, freedman of Serranus, pearl merchant on the Via Sacra. Farewell, traveler.

The evocative atmosphere has long been immortalized in art and poetry. In the eighteenth century the Via Appia became a requisite stop for artists and literati on the European “Grand Tour”: Goethe, Stendhal and Byron were among the admirers.

Today a regional park protects the road and a wide swath of surrounding countryside. Sundays are best for walking; the road is closed to most traffic. Tour buses are allowed, however, and the first part is narrow. To bypass this take bus 118 from Metro Piramide out to the most famous monument on the road, the huge cylindrical Tomb of Cecilia Metella. High up you can make out a marble band of garlands and ox heads; the latter have given this neighborhood its name (Capo di Bove in Italian). The crenelations and fortifications attached are medieval additions.

Tomb core with relief

Tomb core with relief

The crowds thin out quickly as you walk south. You can fuel up at the pleasant Appia Antica Caffe on the next corner. Just ahead is the new Capo di Bove archaeological zone. In this stretch the road is walled in by modern villas, but soon views begin to open up. Tombs of many shapes and sizes appear; some are stripped to a rough concrete core; others have been reconstructed. A few are topped with towers or other odd constructions.

With so much to look at, you may not notice you’re straddling a low ridge that climbs gently toward the Alban Hills, birthplace of Latin civilization and sacred ground to the Romans. But they didn’t realize it was a circle of dormant volcanoes; the ridge you’re following is a twelve-mile lava flow, now called the Capo di Bove flow.

Volcanoes were not recognized as a geological phenomenon at the time. In Sicily, Mount Etna was known to spew rocks and fire but was thought to be an isolated case – perhaps caused by the anger of the fire god Vulcan. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D., was a baffling surprise.

Although not understanding volcanoes, the Romans reaped their benefits. Volcanic soil produced excellent wine grapes and other crops. Volcanic ash was used in concrete, enabling new architectural forms – most famously, the dome of the Pantheon. Capo di Bove has tunnels where ash was quarried two thousand years ago – and where mushrooms were grown when food was scarce during World War II.

Wheel ruts, Appian Way

Wheel ruts, Via Appia

Also quarried here were the basoli (chunks of solidified lava) used to pave the Via Appia, still in place on much of the road. Wear comfortable shoes – they are famously hard! Even so, ruts from ancient wheels are visible. In some stretches the basoli have been covered with asphalt, replaced with smaller stones, or removed entirely.

Quintili Villa

Quintili Villa

About two miles from your starting point stand the imposing ruins of the Quintili Villa. In the second century A.D. the wealthy Quintili brothers were put to death by the Emperor Comodus, who then took possession of their villa. Further ahead are Casal Rotondo, a house and garden perched on a huge cylindrical tomb, and Torre Selce, a mounded tomb surmounted by a striking medieval tower.

Torre Selce

Torre Selce

Rome’s ring road, the Grande Raccordo Anulare, marks your halfway point. Few visitors venture this far, but strange and wonderful apparitions continue all the way to Frattocchie, ancient Bovillae, home of Julius Caesar’s ancestors. At a way station here in 53 B.C., the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher was killed in a clash with the entourage of his rival, Titus Annius Milo. Mayhem erupted in Rome. Unsuccessfully defended by Cicero, Milo fled into exile. This affair is portrayed fictionally in Steven Saylor’s novel, A Murder on the Appian Way.

The ancient way station is long gone; now Frattocchie bustles with traffic. At the main intersection there’s a rustic kiosk called Il Buon Gusto, with picnic tables under umbrella pines. Here you can ponder the story of Milo and Clodius while savoring Cristian’s delicious porchetta, washed down with local Romanella wine. Thus refreshed, ask Cristian to point out the COTRAL bus stop across the highway.  Make sure the bus says “Roma”: it will take you to the Anagnina Metro station.



Transportation: you’ll need the bus and Metro within Rome, and a COTRAL bus from Frattocchie. Buy tickets before you go! If you already have a Rome pass, just buy a #2 COTRAL ticket, sold at many newsstands. If not, buy a 3-zone “B.I.R.G.” instead: a regional pass for Rome and beyond (train and Metro stations have these). Ask for “un BIRG, tre zone” (oon beerg, tray zonay). Remember to validate your ticket in the machine the first time you use it!

Be sure to visit the Via Appia Park website, where you can download informative leaflets such as The Appian Way. For more information contact Dave at Roman Road Walks

Posted in European travel, Literary travel, Slow & sustainable travel, Travel learning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Buying property in Italy, 2

Part 2  Official documents

Perhaps you weren’t convinced by the sage advice offered in Part 1 of this series (“better to rent than buy”) and are looking seriously for a property in Italy. If so, you’ll need to begin learning about some of the key documents and terms involved in real estate transaction here in Italy. The aim of this post is to introduce some of these to you.

The catasto is the official registry of real estate (beni immobiliari). Any property that can be bought and sold in Italy (including land, farmhouses, apartments, houses, stores, garages) will have associated with it a visura catastale containing all legally relevant information such as where the property is located and who owns it.  The other key document associated with each property is the planimetria catastale. I will refer to this document here as the official “floor plan” given that focus of this post is urban real estate.

If you plan to buy a property you should examine every detail of a visura catastale with the help of a knowledgeable person you trust. You might find that the property you have in mind has multiple owners, each listed as having a specific percentage ownership. This is not rare. If someone dies without a will, the property will be divided according to a formula among surviving relatives. Be aware, however, that the larger the number of owners of a property, the more difficult it may be to work through all steps in a real estate transaction. For example, negotiations over price may break down if just one owner – even someone who owns just a small portion — wants to hold out for a higher price. If there are four or more owners,  ask someone (the primary owner or the real estate agent) to arrange for one person to have power of attorney for all of the other owners. Otherwise, it will be necessary for all owners be physically present to sign documents in the office of a Notaio on the day of the official sale.

Signing a real estate contract in the office of a Notaio in Italy

Real estate contracts in Italy are signed by all parties involved in the office of a Notaio

The visura catastale also contains several pieces of information that uniquely identify the property and link it to its official floor plan. Listed are the city (comune) in which the property is located as well as the sezione (section of the registry), foglio (literally “page”) and particella (“parcel”, but in the context of urban real estate, usually a building). A particella, in turn, may be divided into smaller portions, each called a subalterno. For example, you might buy an apartment consisting of the apartment itself along with a ground level storage area (magasino) and a box (garage).

The term rendita catastale refers, hypothetically, to how much could be obtained by renting or selling a property. This assigned value is based on number of rooms, square footage and volume (which reflects the height of ceilings). The values are seldom updated but are important inasmuch as they form the basis of property taxes.


A small portion of a land registry map (mappa catastale). Buliding are cross-hatched whereas inner coutryards and gardens are in white. A cross indicates a church.

Another factor that influences property taxes is a property’s real estate classification (categoria catastale). There are about 50 of these, but the categories you are likely to be interested in are those for buildings in which people live. Category A/1 refers to abitazioni di tipo signorile, a loose translation of which is “luxury homes”. Category A/2 indicates abitazioni civili (normal or typical houses). The category A/3 (abitazioni di tipo economico) is being phrased out as certain housing requirements, such as the presence of a working bathroom, are being imposed. Houses belonging to category A/8, ville (villas) are all free-standing buildings surrounded by a garden or yard.

If you are looking for a vacation or second home, it is better not to buy a property whose classification begins with any letter other than “A” (for example, C/1, stores and workshops). If a property owner or real estate agent tells you that the classification of the property (destinazione d’uso) can be readily changed to residential (“A”) category, ask that this be done before you buy the property. A change in the category, which defines how a property can be can be used (called a cambio di destination d’uso) might be easy for a local person with long-standing relationships with city officials, but it might be more difficult for someone not familiar with the bureaucratic ways of Italy.

A law passed in 2010 (D.L. 122 30/7/2010) made it obligatory for a copy of the official floor plan (planimetria catastale) to form part of the documents prepared when real estate is bought and sold. It is not the responsibility of the official who officiates real estate transactions (the Notaio) to verify the accuracy of floor plans.  Italian law requires the seller to declare that the attached floor plan accurately represents the property. Should problems eventuate, the seller may be held accountable should his declaration prove false. However, given that civil litigation in Italy can drag on for years, it makes sense for the buyer to independently verify a floor plan’s accuracy.

The official floor plan is important because, ultimately, it is not necessarily what you see when you inspect a property that you get. You get what is visible on paper, in the offcial floor plan. There is no obligation for a property owner to update the floor plan on file for his/her property if changes have been made. Floor plans remain legally valid until they are updated and officially registered in the archives maintained in the provincial Property Office (Agenzia del Territorio).

The official (i.e., latest) floor plans for many properties date to 1939 when Vittorio Emanuele III, by grace of God King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia, promulgated a decree requiring all properties to have a floor plan. The 1939 floor plans were not drawn to scale because what mattered was representing the number and configuration of rooms. Back then, taxes were based on the number of rooms. Only later, when square footage became the primary basis for certain taxes did the professionals who normally prepare official floor plans (geometra) begin drawing accurately to scale.

You can obtain measurements that are accurate to within a few inches from an accurate floor plan using a millimeter ruler. You should see all doors and windows on the floor plan when you inspect a property, as well as all entry hallways, steps, stairways, terraces and courtyards declared to be “part of” the property. If the property consists of more than one subalterno, make sure you see all of them. If there is not a perfect correspondence between the floor plan and what you actually see, ask that a new planimetria catatastale be prepared and registered at the Agenzia del Territorio before you buy the property.

On this land registry map,building of historic interest are marked in red. Such building may have special restrictions placed upon them

On this land registry map,building of historic interest are marked in red. Such building may have special restrictions placed upon them

Be especially attentive to terraces and courtyards. Are you planning to buy a house or apartment because it boasts a breathtaking view? Be sure that you will be buying 100% of that terrace. Does the presence of an inner courtyard appeal to you? Find out if it will be yours alone or if you will need to share it with others. (If so, who?)

This last question brings us to the final document to be mentioned in the post, the mappa catastale (“land registry map”). This map is a graphic representation of a great many buildings. It is generally drawn on a scale of 2000: 1, but finer scales are used in densely populated areas. Consulting a mappa catastale will allow you to identify all properties sharing a boundary with the property of interest to you. Buildings are cross-hatched whereas streets and inner gardens and courtyards presented  in white.

Each number on a mappa catastale refers to a particella, either a building or portion of a building (if cross-hatched) or a courtyard or garden (if placed over a white area). If a garden or courtyard “belongs to” to a building (or portion of a building), this will be represented graphically by a graffetta (a kind of elongated “s” laying on its side). This little symbol is easily overlooked, but can be of great importance.


Posted in Language & culture, Vacation rentals & real estate | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Buying property in Italy

Part 1   Under the Tuscan Sun


Frances Mayes’ memoir describing her life in Italy was adapted for a popular movie starring Diane Lane

This is the first of a series of posts dealing with the purchase by North Americans of property in Italy.

Italy has always been a very popular vacation destination for North Americans. Today, as the result of popular books and movies such as the 2003 romantic comedy Under the Tuscan Sun, many people dream of someday settling down in a farmhouse just outside a sunny Italian village populated by warm, generous and caring people.

Many of these dreamers are the descendants if Italian immigrants who long to establish contact with a culture to which they feel strongly attached but know relatively little. Nearly 6 million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 2004, most between 1880 and 1920. The grandparents of many Americans now in their 50s and 60s arrived during this later wave of immigration. [Note: Many other Italians immigrated to Canada. There are nearly 16 million Italian-Americans living on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Fully 16% of residents of RI, CT, MA, PA, NJ and NY have Italian roots according to the National Italian American Foundation.]

Farm house for sale in Cortona, Italy

Farm house for sale in Cortona, Italy

Farm house for sale outside Cortona, Italy

Farm house for sale outside Cortona, Italy

Detail. House for sale in Cortona, Italy

Detail. House for sale in Cortona, Italy

I urge dreamers to not let movie renditions of life in Italy become their road map to happiness and fulfillment. The movie Under the Tuscan Sun is loosely based on the memoirs of the poet, travel writer and essayist Frances Mayes.  Mayes is a Georgia native who became a professor of creative writing in San Francisco after earning an MA from San Francisco State University. Under the Tuscan Sun, At Home in Italy (Harpers 1996) recounts the four years Mayes and her husband spent living in and renovating a casale (farmhouse) near Cortona in Italy. The book was immensely popular, residing on the New York Times best seller list for over two years.

Mayes’ delightful book was not readily filmable, however. The story line and plot devices in the film are the work of Audrey Wells, whose film grossed $59 million internationally. Important aspects of Mayes’ book do find their way into the film, however. I credit Mayes for providing a theme of interest to many, for inspiring the film’s color and tone with her lush prose, and for the film’s emphasis on food. What does not emerge in the movie, however, is a realistic view of everyday life in Italy nor how one goes about buying and renovating property here.

Location of the farm house for sale in Cortona

Location of the farm house for sale in Cortona

The movie’s heroine, Frances, decides on impulse to buy a dilapidated farm house (casale). She finds herself competing with a German couple who also want to buy the place. When a pigeon shits on Frances, the owner decides to sell to her rather than to the Germans because, she says, being shit on is a sign of good luck.

Negotiation on the delicate question of price consisted of Frances deciding how much money she had to spend. The movie Frances needs to use a calculator to figure this out, but only because she needs to convert dollars into lire.

I have no real idea how much money Mayes and her husband Ed Kleinschmidt actually spent on their restoration project in Cortona. I do know, however, that real estate in this part of the world is pricey. A house that appears to be generally similar to the one purchased by Mayes and Klienschmidt is now on the market in Cortona for $2.7 million. (If you are a big time dreamer, click here.) I’d estimate that it will cost another $2 million to renovate this abandoned casale over a two-year period.

Don’t be fooled by the pigeon shit. People in Tuscany are not simple minded when it comes to real estate transactions. Just the opposite! The old Italian lady in the movie knew she’d get more money from the pretty, clueless American than from the tight-fisted Germans. Be aware, too, that if you don’t speak Italian (or, worse, speak it with a strong foreign accent) you will likely pay a premium unless you can find a local person with no interest in the transaction to negotiate on your behalf.

The success of a romantic comedy depends on viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief. Be aware, however, that the final price Frances paid in the movie for Bramasole surely exceeded the proceeds of half a house in San Francisco. If you are rich this may not be a problem. You can arrange to get pooped on and then pay whatever is being asked. The seller will be very happy, as will the various construction companies you’ll subsequently engage. But if you, like me, don’t habitually fly to Europe in Business Class you will need to come up with a strategy for determining the fair market value of the property you hope to buy.

Even if you do find a property in Italy that you absolutely love at price you can afford, the next question to ask your self is whether you want to afford it. Far be it for me to rain on your parade, but let’s be honest. You don’t need to buy real estate to establish or re-create roots in Italy. So ask yourself the “Why” question. Not “Why come to Italy?” but “Why buy property?”

I’d like to draw a distinction here between second homes and vacation homes before exploring this question further. I’ll illustrate the distinction I have in mind with reference to people I knew Birmingham, Alabama before I emigrated to Italy.

Several people I knew owned a second home on nearby Lake Logan Martin, a 30-minute drive from Birmingham. They willingly spent two or three weekends per month at their lake house year round. Lake front properties afforded a welcome change of scenery and a painless way get away from busy professional lives. People with second homes on Lake Logan Martin generally performed their own maintenance, but only that which was strictly necessary because they didn’t feel compelled to make their second homes perfect. In most cases, a second home on the lake proved to be fun and relaxing and provided a great place to entertain friends and to host family gatherings.

Other people I knew in Birmingham opted for a vacation home, usually a condo, on the Gulf coast, a five hour drive to the south. Because of the distance, these people generally waited for a three-day weekend in order to enjoy their property on the Redneck Riviera, and generally spent most of their vacations at the beach as well. It often happened, however, that vacations at the beach began to feel like an obligation rather than a joy.

Most people who bought properties on the Gulf Coast believed it would ultimately provide a way to have free vacations there. They reasoned that the value of beach front condos would continue to rise over time and that it would always be easy to rent by the week via an agency. Alas, they failed to reckon on the massive overbuilding of high rises on the coast, the housing crisis, and hurricanes. [Homeowner’s insurance policies have increased by as much as 500% over the past 15 years. These policies cover damage due to wind but, alas, not water.] Many people who bought a condo with a fabulous view of sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico later wished they had decided to rent at regular intervals in the same place rather than buying.

Before you sign on the dotted line in Italy I recommend you ask yourself the following question: “How much time will I be spending in Italy?” My own experience tells me that long international flights become increasingly more tedious over time. Also ask yourself “Will I be content to spend all of my time in Europe in my Italian property, or will I want to visit other places as well?” Italy is an incredibly varied and interesting country that offers countless fascinating destinations to explore over time. Do you want to deprive yourself of that?

Vacation rentals are abundant in every region of Italy. If you rent an apartment in a small provincial town you won’t need to rent a car (click here for an example from the website). If you are part of a larger group, you can share a car while renting a villa in the countryside (click here for an example.) Generally speaking, rental prices decreases as the length of the rental period increases, and you can get real bargains at times during shoulder seasons and winter months.

If your aim is to establish meaningful connections in Italy, consider renting once or twice a year in the same place, perhaps a grandparent’s place of birth. You don’t need to need to be a property owner to connect. If you do decide to buy, be aware that buying a property in Italy does not fit either the second home or vacation home models I outlined earlier.

One model that might be applied to the purchase of a property in Italy, however, is that of home for your retirement years. Such an approach would involve spending substantial amounts of time in Italy, but always a bit less than six months per year in Italy (examples: two periods of about 3 month, or three periods of about 2 months). Why 5-6 months per year? To ensure that you get a reasonable use from your property without feeling obligated to seek renters. Why no more than six months? If you reside for more than six months per year in Italy you will automatically become tax resident in Italy. This is surely something that even dreamers will want to avoid!

I’ll have more to say on the topic of retiring in Italy in a later post.


Posted in Language & culture, Vacation rentals & real estate | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Learning words in a foreign language

Many people believe that the most important thing you must do in order to learn a second or foreign language (FL)  is to learn a heap of new words.  As Steve Martin famously remarked “Boy, those French! They have a different word for everything!” This post will present a simple method that may help you learn — and remember — words in a foreign language more easily.

But first, a brief introduction. Developing a large vocabulary of words that you can recognize and say in a FL is indeed valuable. In early stages of FL learning, knowing several words in a sentence you’ve just heard may enable you to glean the overall meaning with the help of context. This enables you, in turn, to begin making some educated guesses about the other words you don’t know yet.

But of course there’s a whole lot more to language than just the lexicon (mental dictionary of words). To take a banal example: “Man bites dog” and “Dog bites man” mean very different things because the three words are arranged in a different order. Word order is part of the domain of language called “syntax”. But you can’t have syntax without words, and so words do matter. Linguists simply haven’t been able to agree on how much.

Words, words, words! Learn  more at

Words, words, words! Learn more at

The task of learning thousands of new words of words in a FL seems like a daunting task, especially for older people who have begun forgetting where they left their car keys. Does this mean that older people can’t learn a FL? Not at all. My NIH-sponsored research didn’t focus specifically on lexical acquisition, but I’ve had the personal experience of learning languages.  I’m pretty sure that I acquired new French words more rapidly when I lived in Geneva in my early twenties than when I began acquiring Italian words after moving to Rome at the ripe old age of 56. But my Italian vocabulary has grown slowly over time, and is now fairly large.

I’d like to illustrate my experience with FL lexical learning by describing in some detail my personal experience with three Italian words. What I’ll say here won’t necessarily generalize to other other words or to other people. But I think this brief discussion will serve to introduce you to some important concepts.

A lexical item, or word, unites a pronunciation with a meaning. People often pronounce FL words incorrectly as a result of having learned to pronounce vowels and  consonants in their mother tongue differently. I suspect, however, that foreign accent may be stronger in certain FL words than others. If you pronounce a new FL word incorrectly the first time you say it, it will probably take a long time for you to adjust its pronunciation to the phonetic norms of your FL. But what if you pronounce the FL word correctly from the start? My hunch is that under certain circumstances this might be possible. For me, the Italian word schizzare may be such an example.

A doctor's office in a small Italian town

A doctor’s office in a small Italian town

One day I found myself on a table in the back room of a doctor’s office in the town of Tuscania where I now live. Two days earlier he had taken a look at a sore in my mouth that had been festering for months. “I don’t think it’s cancer”, he observed after glancing at it. I can take care of it for you if you want.” So I returned dutifully, and here I was.

The doctor gave me a local anesthetetic and began his microsurgery, the nurse standing attentively at his side. Moments later he exclaimed “schizza!” with a decidedly worried tone and asked the nurse for a kind of soldering iron with which to cauterize the spot in my mouth were blood was gushing. I could smell my flesh burning, something quite new and alarming for me!

I had never before heard the Italian word the doctor just uttered, but I instantly knew its meaning (schizzare = “to squirt out” in this context). I registered the doctor’s pronunciation of schizza in exquisite detail  - I can “hear” it even now, years later. This especially detailed registration in long-term auditory memory was due, I think, to the fact that all of my senses were in that instant finely tuned to what was happening. I was, to use a psychological expression, in a state of strong “sensory arousal”.

But what about recognizing words when you hear them in ordinary daily life, and being able to call up a word from your mental lexicon when you want to use it a sentence?

My father used to occasionally substitute the words “aunt” and “uncle”. This always surprised me because generally the substitution of one word by another depends on similarity of both meaning and sound. As an example, for a number of years my Italian wife replaced “he” with “she” when speaking English. She made this error repeatedly even though she obviously knows what is the meaning difference these two personal pronouns. What tripped her up, I think, was the fact that these words shared both meaning (pronouns indicating a person) and also shared one of their two sounds, the vowel “ee”.

an "antipasto"

an “antipasto”

The words in your mental lexicon are not organized in a simple alphabetic list like the words in a dictionary. However, words in the mental lexicon do need to be “looked up” using very rapid search techniques based on features associated with each word stored in long-term memory. Psycholinguists who study this phenomenon believe that words sharing a number of features will “compete” with one another for your attention. Importantly, it is just the first word from a set of competitors that rises above a certain threshold that will enter consciousness. The other competing words are blocked, staying down below in the dark recesses of your mind.

an "aperitivo"

an “aperitivo”

For several years I had difficulty accessing a very common word that was part of my Italian lexicon: antipasto (hors d’oeuvres). For example, if we were getting ready to order a meal here in Italy and I wanted to ask my wife in Italian “Should we order an antipasto?” I couldn’t retrieve the word I wanted because another word, apertivo, was winning the horse race. The two Italian words in question share a number of features: both begin with “a” and end with “o”, both have stress on the second last syllable, and both refer to things that are consumed before a meal. “But they’re so different”, you might say, “how could you have possibly confused them”? Well, everyone’s mental lexicon is organized a bit differently, and I’m talking about mine right now. I hypothesize that in my mental lexicon antipasto and aperitivo had enough in common to make them competitors. And the word I wanted to access, antipasto, was losing!

This happened dozens of times until I finally decided one day to use a memory trick. I made up a little story for myself about antipasto. “An antipasto”, I mentally instructed myself, “is something  you eat before a pasto (the Italian word for “meal”). Realizing this was probably too banal to be memorable, I changed this my story to “An antipasto is what you eat before your pasta“.  And I imagined myself eating fettucine cacio e pepe, one of my favorites pastas. It worked like a charm. Now antipasto pops onto sentences whenever it is needed.

Now to the third and final word. At this time of the year a lot of Italians vacation in the mountains, and accidents do happen. One night I heard on TV that someone had been killed in a slavina. “What’s that?” I asked my wife, and from her explanation realized that the meaning of this unknown word was s”snowslide”.

watch out for the "slavina"

watch out for the “slavina”

I don’t have much need for “snowslide” in Italian because we don’t live in the mountains, but I decided to add slavina to my Italian lexicon anyway. Once again I created a little story. “One day a pretty little Polish girl went walking up in the Carpathian Mountains. The wind began blowing and she was covered by a slavina, but fortunately she was easily able to dig her way out”.  The trick here is that slavina can mean a “small female Slav” in Italian as well as “snowslide”. And so I imagined the Polish girl with blonde hair and rosy cheeks, the mountains at her back.


Like this one!

Silly? Yes, but it worked like a charm. Several nights later when another person died in a slavina I instantly knew what the TV announcer was saying. I could see the blond Polish girl getting covered with soft white snow.

To sum up: when you want to acquire a word, make up a story and attach some vivid sensory information to it. The story doesn’t have to make sense. Indeed, if it’s a little odd it will be easier to remember!

This is my technique. What’s yours?

To pursue this and related topics in greater depth, visit the Lingholic site. Of special interest are the two posts dealing with the topic of how many words in a FL you actually need to know in order to be able to speak and understand it reasonable well.














word in



Posted in Language & culture, Living abroad | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Train travel in Italy

Know before you go

Traveling by train in Italy can be an adventure and a pleasure, especially for those who are properly prepared. From a train you can see the Italian countryside pass by, and visit cities both large and small.  This post is intended for those who would like to travel independently by train in Italy for the first time.

But first a disclaimer. This post is based mostly on my now fairly extensive experience of traveling in central Italy. My observations may not apply to other regions of Italy. The reader is directed to an excellent and comprehensive source of information on train travel in Europe developed by Mark Smith for his site The Man in Seat 61. Click here for the section of the site that deals with Italy.


Logo of the Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), which operates most trains in Italy under the name “Trenitalia”

(1) Better to buy your tickets in Italy. Why? Because there is no shortage of seats on most trains in Italy and you may be able to benefit from last-minute deals — or change you mind once you’ve reached Italy — if  you wait to buy your tickets here.

If you have never traveled by train in Italy before, I urge you to make use of the services of a local travel agency soon after your arrival. Rather than wait in line at the train station, find an authorized re-seller of tickets issued by Trenitalia (Ferrovie dello Stato or “FS”,  the near-monopoly train service operated by the Italian government). This is what Italians do.

Example: a Roman need to travel to Florence for a one- or two-day business trip. She goes to a neighborhood travel agency displaying the “FS” logo a day or two before she plans to travel. The travel agent prints out her ticket there on the spot, and she pays a 5% commission for the service.

Why this approach? Italians like the personal touch. They are aware that most everything in Italy is in a constant state of flux, and so seek an expert who can provide up-to-date information such as whether there is a train strike pending. Italian clients hope, too, to save a little money, and may want to avoid the hassle of buying tickets on the internet (more on that below).

How do you find an appropriate travel agency? Let’s use Rome as an example.  There are hundreds of agencies to choose from, many near the Rome’s primary train station, Stazione Termini, which delights some tourists and bewilders others. I suggest looking for a small agency (single room with two or three desks) that caters primarily to Italians (evident from the travel packages being featured in the window). Agencies near Termini tend to focus on foreigners. They may be  interested in selling you things other than train tickets, and may not give you adequate attention if there are other foreigners waiting in line for tickets to the Vatican Museums, rides on double-decker buses and so on.

Consider looking for agencies in other parts of Rome as you begin to explore the Eternal City. Your goal: find a friendly, knowledgeable agent who will dedicate 20 to 30 minutes of time helping you plan your trip in detail. If you buy 400 Euros worth of train tickets, the agent will have been handsomely compensated for her time via the 5% commission. So don’t hesitate to ask detailed questions.

(2) Validate your ticket. If you buy a rectangular-shaped paper ticket, you must validate it. Insert one end of the ticket into a little machine that stampvalidates the name of the station and the date/time. Why? Paper tickets purchased in Italy can be used for up to two months. The validation procedure prevents multiple uses of the same ticket. If you cannot find a working machine (fuori servizio means “out of order”) write the name of the station and your date and time of departure in pen at one end of the ticket. Then you’ll be good to go.

(3) Some trains make frequent stops. Fast trains (sometimes designated “ES” for Eurostar) connect a few major cities in Italy. Inter-city trains (“IC” on the big boards) stop less often than do Regional trains (“REG” or “RV” for Regionale Veloce), which travel within the borders of a region (e.g., Umbria or  Toscana). Regional trains are sometimes crowded because they haul students to high school in neighboring towns and commuters to work.

(4) Fast trains are convenient, but expensive. Fast trains cost roughly twice as much as regular trains (now being called “slow trains” by Trenitalia even though their speed hasn’t changed).  As an example, consider a trip from the Statione Termini in Rome to the S.M. Novella station in Florence. A ticket on the Frecciargento (freccia “arrow” + argento “silver”), one of the fast trains, costs 63 Euro. A few second-class tickets on this train are offered for 43 Euros, but such tickets are usually sold out. In contrast, a Rome-to-Florence ticket on a regional train costs 20.45 Euro (second class) or 31.30 Euro (first class).

Is the extra cost worth it? You decide. The fast train arrives in Florence in 1 hour 32 minutes compared to 3 hours 36 minutes for the Regional train because it stops far less often (1 versus 15 stops). The seats are a bit larger, and more comfortable. Also, you can dine on board. The food is good and not outrageously overpriced.

(5) You can buy tickets for Regional trains from automated touch screen ticket machines (kiosks) in Italian train stations.  Ticket offices in Italian train stations (biglietteria) are being closed or reduced in hours of operation to cut costs. To avoid long waits in line, consider using a ticket vending machine.

The ticket machines take some getting used to. First, determine if the machine you plan to use accepts cash only, credit cards only, or both. Be aware of the Italian name of your destination  (e.g., Firenze, not Florence) and the particular station you want to reach (in Florence, probably S.M. Novella, not Campo di Marte). Select your destination, indicate how many child and adult tickets you want, and whether you wish to travel in first or second class. You will be given a price, and asked if you wish to proceed. Only then do you make a payment. (Most American credit cards are accepted, by the way.)  A printed ticket will then be issued, along with any change  due if you paid in cash. And yes, these machine vended tickets, although smaller in size than regular tickets, must be validated as described earlier.


red: the Orvieto train station, black: the Centro Storico, purple: the funcolare connecting the station to the Centro Storico, green: the road buses use to reach the Centro Storico

Here is a video made by an traveler named Jerrold who, having discovered long lines at the ticket windows at the S.M. Novella train station in Florence, decided to use an automated ticket machine for first time. If Jerrod can do it, so can you!

(6) Know where your destination station is located.  Many Italian train stations (e.g., the one in Pescara on the Adriatic coast) are located right in the center of town, making it easy to reach nearby hotels on foot or, if needed, to hail a taxi. Pescara, however, is an anomaly: a modern city laid out in a grid pattern on a flat coastal plane during the Fascist era.


The funicolare connecting the train station of Orvieto with its Historical Center (Centro Storico)

Stations found in the kind of Italian cities you probably want to visit, on the other hand, were likely founded in ancient times and evolved slowly over the centuries. Their train stations are not always located conveniently. Many are located outside the Centro Storico (Historic Center), others lack good public transportation links.

I recommend that you take a look at all of your intended destinations in using the Use Google Earth to get the lay of the land for each town you plan to visit, then zoom into street view to see what things look like on the ground. It is not enough to simply know the linear distance of the train station from your hotel on a two-dimensional map. Elevation matters too.

The Centro Storico of many towns were constructed on top of a steep hill for defensive purposes. When train lines were laid  in the 1800s, they tended to follow river valleys.  Train stations constructed in that era were necessarily build adjacent to the tracks. Orvieto, a wonderful Umbrian town founded by the Etruscans and later conquered by Rome, is a good example of this phenomenon. If you arrive in Orvieto by train, you will need to reach the Centro Storico up above either by using the funicolare (cable car that climbs the hill) or else taking a city bus or taxi.

tarquinia station

The Tarquinia train station (red) is located about 2 miles from the Mediterranean sea and 1.2 miles from the Historic Center (Centro Storico, black)

In a few (mercifully rare) instances public transportation from the station to the Centro Storico is unavailable. Consider, for example, Tarquinia, a delightful town on the Mediterranean north of Rome. Like Orvieto, it is built on top of a steep hill and is surrounded by thick Medieval walls.

The Tarquinia train station is located about 1.2 miles from the walled Centro Storico of Tarquinia. The road leading up to the town is all uphill and, given that there are still sections that lack sidewalks, walking there is not advisable.

You will have no problem reaching Tarquinia’s Centro Storico if you arrive during the day. City buses connecting the station to the Centro Storico arrive on a fairly regular basis. You will need to make special plans, however, if you arrive after the buses have stopped running. Being so small (pop. 16,700) Tarquinia lacks a taxi company. Under these circumstances, consider booking a reservation in one of the local hotels or B&Bs that offers a pick-up service at the train station (for example, Tarquinia Resorts).


You might need to walk as much as 0.4 miles to reach your train at the Stazione Termini in Rome (point 1 vs 2).

(7) Arrive early. You’d never presume to arrive 10 minutes before your flight at an airport, so don’t presume that it is possible to do so when traveling by train. I recommend arriving 30 minutes prior to departure especially if you don’t know the station well.

First, identify the binario (platform) from which your train will depart (partenze on the big board). Check to see if your train has been delayed or even cancelled (annulato, sopresso). Locate your departure platform. At Rome’s Stazione Termini, the second largest station in Europe, you could potentially need to walk as much as 0.42 miles. Once you have found your platform and validated your ticket, use the time remaining to buy a cup of coffee, a bottle of water (if your train won’t have a dining car), and reading material.

(8) Go to the bathroom. If you have time, go the bathroom before your train departs. In Stazione Termini there is a large public bathroom costing 1 Euro that is clean and well maintained. It’s location — one level below the main level — is not especially well marked, but with time and patience you can find it.

On regular Regional (REG, RV) trains, bathrooms have a way of being “temporarily” out of order. If that’s what you encounter, pass from car to car until you find one that is working. Doing so can be awkward if you are traveling alone because it is cumbersome to pass between cars with baggage in tow. If this happens, identify a fellow traveler to mind your bags while you explore the train. (Hint: look for a middle-aged person reading a serious book.)

(9) Consider going first class. First class tickets cost only slightly more than second-class tickets on Regional trains (example: 25 vs. 19 Euro for a Rome-Naples ticket). The small price differential reflects the fact that there is relatively little difference between first- and second-class seating. Importantly, however, first class cars are generally less crowded than are second-class cars. Moreover, in some instances you can reserve a seat in first class for a small extra charge (a separate ticket, by the way).

(10) Consider reserving a seat.  Having a reserved seat is a good idea during Italian national holidays or for regional trains that are heavily used in certain time periods by commuters and students. Be aware that a train ticket confers the right to travel on a train, not to sit on one. Some trains (“R” on the big boards) require a reserved seat: overnight trains and trains that will cross an international border require a reserved seat. Given that Trenitalia overbooks its trains in periods of high demand, you could end up standing for hours. So reserve a seat on Regional trains longer than an hour whenever possible.

(11) Buy train tickets over the internet only if you must. You can buy tickets for fast trains on the internet, both before or after your arrival in Italy. Both the Trenitalia site and the site of Italo, a private competitor of Trenitalia in the high speed sector, work fairly well.

It can be quite challenging, on the other hand, to buy tickets for Regional trains on the Trenitalia site. The Italian version of the site defaults to fast trains. If you want a Regional train, you need to click tutti i treni (all trains). The English version searches both fast trains and regional trains.

Be aware that dates are specified in the DD MM YYYY format (“02 01 2014″ means January 2, 2014). You need to decide if you want a one-way ticket (andata) or round-trip ticket (andata ritorno). Crucially, you need to know the name of the specific station you want to reach. Hints: Most large cities have multiple stations.  C.le is the abbreviation for Centrale, which indicates a station in the center of a town.

If you choose the English version of the Trenitalia site, things work a bit differently. You are given a choice between “tickets” (one-way or round-trip) and “passes”. Here things get a bit complicated. Let’s say you want to travel from a station in Rome (Roma) and Florence (Firenze). The website doesn’t accept the English names for these cities even when you select the English version of the site. When I selected “Rome” as my departure station I was asked to choose between three stations I have never heard of! When I typed just the first three letters (R-O-M) I was able to choose a specific train station in Rome. The same trick worked when I typed F-I-R to indicate Florence).

If you want to avoid such subterfuges, consider using the site of Italiarail. It is far less confusing than the Trenitalia site even though, apparently, it belongs to Trenitalia. On the Italiarail site you can specify the price of tickets in dollars, pounds or euros.  You can search on the names of cities in English without specifying the exact name of the train station (e.g., Florence rather than “Firenze S.M. Novella” or “Rome” rather than “Roma Tiburtina”).

As a test, I specified a ticket from “Rome” to “Florence” on a particular date and was offered a wide range of possibilities on fast trains (Frecciarossa, Frecciargento). By checking “Slow Trains Only” (ha!) I was able to chose tickets on Regional and Inter-City trains.

The only hitch here was the train station. The Italiarail site “remembered” the destination I had specified earlier. Given that fast train arrive in Florence only at the Firenze S.M. Novella station, I now saw just the trains arriving there. And, although I had specified a morning departure (9:00 a.m.) I was offered trains leaving between 1:03 pm 7:58 p.m.

Here some creativity was needed. I entered “Roma” and “Firenze” as the points of departure and arrival, and entered a new time of departure (8:00 a.m.) This search gave me what I was hoping for, namely a list of regular (non-fast) trains in the morning. I was able to select a first class ticket for $46.00 USD or a second class ticket for $30.00 USD, both arriving at Firenze Santa Maria Novella.

La vita è bella (life is good).


Posted in Slow & sustainable travel, Types of travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The speed of slow travel


The website of the Italian train system is Be sure to click “tutti i treni” if you don’t want to purchase a ticket of one of their fast trains

In 2000 Pauline Kenny created what appears to be the first website dedicated to slow travel ( It was apparently Kenny who coined the term “slow travel”, which she subsequently trademarked and then later sold to Internet Brands before moving to England.

Pauline was on to something important long before the rest of us. Her other claim to fame is the fact that she is one of those fortunate few persons who have managed to transform a passion into a livelihood. Check out the archive section of her current Europe-based site, which contains interesting short pieces dealing with Kenny’s own travel experiences.

In order to trademark “slow travel” Kenny faced the need to define a rather amorphous concept, two little words that, when joined together, evoke both longing and hope among travelers looking for new experiences, connections, maybe even a new way of being.  Kenny defined slow travel as

… a way of slowing down your vacation by staying in vacation rentals, spending one week in a place and seeing what is near you. This gives you the time in one place to experience it in more depth.”


Lecce, Italy

Here Kenny is presenting a general approach to travel, not offering a travel blueprint. An approach that, once adopted, may well create the context for discovering or experiencing things of value that a traveler might never have been exposed to, or never benefited from if he or she were on a tight point-to-point schedule. Indeed, it’s a bit of travel philosophy, one that predicates that less can be more.

Kenny’s definition is by no means synthetic, but it gives a fairly clear idea of what she had in mind. The problem is, the people who gravitated to the kind of travel Kenny was advocating weren’t ducklings following mama duck to the pond. Nearly all were individualists intent on doing things “their way”. Before long, new definitions of slow travel had begun sprouting.

One new formulation of Slow Travel focused on the speed of transport. In this way of thinking, planes are bad, trains are better, and bikes, ferries and donkeys better still.

In a page entitled “What is Slow Travel“, Kenny cites a piece by the journalist Jay Walljaspar who, in his piece in Alternet (Air travel is killing the planet), pointed to a troubling trend in North America travel: people flying to distant points for long weekends. Walljaspar noted that flying less often and staying longer would be a perfectly plausible way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also cited Mark Ellingham, creator the Rough Guide series of guidebooks, as saying that “Travelling slower gives you a sense of place … Trains give you the chance to talk to people, to see a landscape unfold.”


If you plan ahead, you can load your bike onto the train

I think there is a risk here of being overly negative about air travel and too glowingly positive about train travel. Indeed, I think it would be a mistake to over-idealize train travel, at last here in central Italy where I have lived for the past eight years. Let me explain.

I spent my first year in Italy as a student in 1969-1970. Back then, long before the arrival of the so-called “low cost” airlines, public ground transportation in Italy really was excellent. Trains were certainly the best and least costly way to for tourists to see the country.

The serviceability of Italian trains in 1970 had an economic basis. Due to the “Italian miracle” many Italian families had by the end of the 1960s managed to purchase a washing machine—the first sign of coming affluence. However, relatively few families had managed to purchase their first car. Moreover, the cars being purchased by members of the ever expanding middle class in that period were generally too small to transport an entire family and unsuitable for long distances. As a result,  most Italians in 1970 still depended on trains (sometimes buses) to visit family members in nearby cities, go the beach or go on vacation.

There were no high-speed trains in 1970. A train designated “rapido” was likely to be quite slow, in fact, for it was destined to stop at every town big enough to boast a train station. However, there were lots of trains in circulation, and you could get nearly everywhere you wanted to go. If you missed one train you could be sure that another before too long, especially if you were willing to alter your itinerary.

Nowadays there are fewer trains circulating and fewer train stations. When a train is cancelled with no explanation 60 min prior to its scheduled departure, you may well need to wait many hours for the next train. Many trains on the tracks today are dismal. At times they are dirty, lack air conditioning, a workable public address system, or a functioning bathroom on board. Part of the problem could be remedied, I think, if Trenitalia ensured that everyone who rides their trains purchased a ticket. When I travel on trains in central Italy I am asked to display my ticket on approximately 1 out of 3 trips.

People who commute by train to work in central Italy are often quite unhappy about prevailing conditions and have formed a range of advocacy groups to promote better service. Alas, relief doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, so people make do as best they can.

I’m not sure when Mark Ellingham last visited Italy. Like him, I can remember chatting with people during long train trips during my student days in Italy (1969-1970). However, the sad fact is that not many people chat on the train anymore. At least not on the short-distance trains I take in central Italy. People seem generally to be in a bad mood. And this, I think, is due to overcrowding on the Italian train system and the generally poor services that are currently being offered.

The train stations that remain open often lack a human presence, ticket windows having been gradually replaced by ticket vending machines over the past 6 years or so.

Thirsty? It’s been years since train stations have had drinking fountains. Ridership is down because of curtailed services and increased ticket prices. As a result, the bars (cafes) in many train stations have closed, so it’s always advisable to buy a bottle of water and reading material before boarding a train.

The train station in Grosetto, Italy

Free toilets are also a thing of the past. You can expect to pay from 0.70 to 1.00 Euro to use a public bathroom. If you can find one that is open and functioning, that is.

I can think of one station in particular where the bathroom crisis is acute. A sign on the bathroom door announces (in Italian only) “In order to maintain a high level of hygiene, you must ask for a key at the station bar.” But the station bar closed over three years ago, and so there is no way to gain entry to the bathroom! (If this happens to you, do what the Italians do. Pee in the bushes.)

Yes, I know this post is turning into a rant. So in fairness let me add that there are some really marvelous trains to be found here in Italy. One example is the Freccia Bianca you can take up the cost from Rome to La Spezia in order to visit the Cinque Terre. The fast trains (Freccia Rossa) connecting Naples-Rome-Florence-Venice are excellent, although pricey.

Also in fairness, train service in Italy is still far better than in the United States. Many Americans have never experienced train travel and so might want to travel by train in Italy just for the romance of it. But it would be a mistake, in my view, to plan a whole vacation based on train travel between a large number of destinations.

If you are sold on trains, and can’t do without, allow yourself ample time for the unexpected, and take something to eat, drink, and read with you. Don’t be surprised in your fellow passengers are not Italian or aren’t warmly enthusiastic about chatting. Chances are they are going to or returning from work.

It you plan to travel long distances in Italy, for example visiting both Venice and Sicily in a single trip, by all means consider flying one leg. Also, consider taking local buses instead of trains. They cost far less than the trains, and will take you nearly everywhere you’d like to go if only you can learn how to use the schedules. You’ll see more of the countryside than you would from a train because you’ll be sitting higher up.

Posted in Slow & sustainable travel, Travel philosophy | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Travel photos, travel memories


1 Jim Flege 1970

Jim Flege in the winter of 1969-1970 in Frascati, Italy, while he was a student at the Rome Center for the Liberal Arts

When you travel, how many cameras do you pack and how many pictures do you take? Do you enjoy your trips more when take photos? Once you’ve returned home, how many photos do you share with friends and family? And how often, in the following years, do you return to your photos to enjoy anew your earlier trip?

Questions like these yield a wide range of different answers because people have differing ideas of how best to take their pleasures. Does eating one chocolate per day from the box yield more pleasure than gobbling them all down in a single frenzied session? Some would say yes, but …

These questions were triggered by the unexpected arrival of the photo you see at the right. It was taken by a friend when we were both “junior year abroad” students in Rome (Rome Center for the Liberal Arts, Loyola University Chicago).  “Too bad”, she observed”, “that we didn’t have digital cameras back then.”

2 Frascati station train

Frascati is connected to Rome by a light comuter rail line.

I am not sure if she was referring to the quality of the photo, which was a bit grainy, or to the fact that developing photos back then was prohibitively expensive for most student budgets, meaning that few photos were printed. I was delighted, of course, to have gotten a digital copy of the photo, which was taken in the winter of 1969-1970. When it arrived, I asked myself why I hadn’t taken my own photos during that year. This triggered the first of several recollections. I remembered myself expressing the opinion that it is better to travel without than with a camera.

3 Villa Aldobrandini

Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati, Italy

Huh!? What was I thinking? My reasoning, as best I can now reconstruct it now, went like this. People who know they won’t have photos to rely on in the distant future will dedicate more attention during a trip to what they are actually seeing, looking longer and deeper in order to “burn into” their memory what they hope to remember later on.

I’m not sure if this approach really does result in the creation of richer and more durable memories. At least that seems to have been the explanation I gave myself for not taking pictures during my junior year abroad. The real reason, however, was probably that I didn’t have enough money to afford a camera or develop the pictures I might have taken.

Most people who take pictures on a trip will on occasion ask themselves “Where was this photo taken?” (The question has, of course, provoked many a marital battle.) I wasn’t sure initially where the photo of me as a 19-year-old had been taken, but gradually I began to recall bits and pieces of information. With these fragmentary recollections and information I garnered on the internet I reconstructed the context in which the photo had been taken.

Here’s what I think happened. Those present feel free to correct my recollections.

4 itineraryi
The archaeological park we visited is roughly 4.5 km to the West of Frascati

We took a commuter train from Stazione Termini in Rome to Frascati. The purpose of the trip, as I recall, was to visit Cicero’s villa on the “Tusculum Hill”. I don’t remember who suggested this destination but I’m sure I was enthusiastic because I had studied Latin in high school and spent a lot of time translating Cicero.

Once we arrived in Frascati, I’m sure we had a brief look at the Villa Aldobrandini from the outside. It is unlikely we entered because our general strategy was to avoid doing anything that involved spending money. We then followed a curving road that passed to the left of the Villa Aldobrandini, walking in a westerly direction for 4.5 km until we reached what is now an archaeological park (Parco Archeologico Culturale di Tuscolo – La Via Latina) but was then simply pastureland. There we saw an amphitheater built in the second century A.D. with room for 3,000 spectators.

5 amphitheatre

A Roman amphitheater located outside Frascati, Italy

Nearly all of this is conjecture, inasmuch as I have few specific recollections. The lack of specific information seems to belie the claim I made as a youth, namely that the absence of a camera promotes the creation of rich memories. I now agree with my friend that it would indeed have been nice to have had a digital camera back then. If I had gone to Frascati with my present smart phone, I’d now have access to the exact GPS coordinates of all the photos I took and could even listen to notes I recorded as I took them.

However, as I continued to ponder the photo, additional memories began to emerge. I retrieved several images of our walk: a yellow sign with brown letters that pointed us towards our destination, and a section of the road we walked, curving upward and to the right, thick vegetation on either side. I have no recollection of actually seeing the amphitheater, but I do remember how crisp and clear the day was, and I remember the sounds of shotguns as local “sportsmen” blasted away at small black birds.

6 anfiteatro_Tuscolo

The Roman amphitheater outside Frascati, Italy

Now, 42 years after the fact, I know that we did not actually visit Cicero’s villa in the Castelli Romani. Historians are quite certain that the Cicero’s beloved villa was located within the limits of the modern day cities of Grottaferrata, Frascati and Monte Porzio Catone but its exact location remains uncertain. One local writer suggests that the most likely of three competing hypotheses is a site on the Colle delle Ginestre outside Grottaferrata, where it is said that “not so many years ago it was possible to see the ruins of an important Roman construction.”

7 basoli

A section of the Via Latina in the Archological Park near Frascati, Italy

Those vestiges are gone, probably having been sold by dealers in illegal antiquities or else incorporated into the gardens of the modern houses built over the Roman ruins. What does remain, however, are the political, social, and philosophical writings of Cicero.

What remains of my school outing four decades ago are the memories I managed to conjure up, a single photo, and a question of how best to immortalize trips in memory.

Posted in Travel philosophy, Travel photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Life changing experiences

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. -Henry Miller

I’m convinced that having fun is the primary reason most people travel to Europe. I think this applies to just about everyone – it’s not just girls that wanna have fun. If enrichment leads to fun — as I think it usually does – then enrichement is just fine, too. I doubt, however, that many people are looking for, or even want, a life-changing experience. Most are quite happy as they are and where they are. But travel to Europe does occaisonally provoke important life changes. This post will describe one.

I studied in Rome in 1969-1971 at the Loyola University (Chicago) Rome Center for the Liberal Arts (now known as the John Felice Rome Center). This turned out to be an important formative experience for me just as it is for nearly everyone privileged to have a junior year abroad.  (It seems that the acaedmic “year abroad” programs of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced by programs lasting a single semester or less.) Later in life my NIH-sponsored research focused on phonetic aspects of bilingualism, and with a colleague in Toronto I developed a study population consisting of Italians who had immigrated to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. I had lots of exposure to Italians, if only through audio recordings.

As I grew older, my 9-month stay in Rome began to seem increasingly more like a piece of unfinished business. Maybe that had something to do with all those Italian voices I had been hearing.  I realized that my memories of Rome were actually quite vague, that I’d come away without having developed a clear idea of how Rome had developed over the centuries and why and how it had become the city it is today. This was surely not due to a shortcoming on the part of the university, I reasoned, but to my own immaturity at the time.


A stretch of the Aurelian walls I encountered on a random bus ride when I visited Rome in early 2006.


Porta San Sebastiano, the beginning of the Appia Antica.

When I was invited to lecture in Rome, I readily accepted and decided to prolong my visit to two weeks, giving myself time to roam about a city I had first encountered in youth.

I recall that when booking a flight to Rome my primary concern was the possibility of running out of things to see and getting bored. I told myself:  “If that happens, you can always buy a good book to read on a sunny terrace somewhere; how bad can that be?”

Needless to say, I didn’t get bored and didn’t begin counting the days until my return flight from FCO. Quite to the contrary.

Before leaving for Italy I bought a couple of guidebooks to get some general notions of Rome. I was already off to a good start|! Buying and reading guidebooks was not something that had ever occurred to me as a college student.

MURa mappe

Phases of wall construction over the centuries in Rome

I soon discovered that for the price of 1 Euro I could ride city buses for two hours. Riding buses became a key feature of my semi-random exploration of Rome. In the mornings after breakfast, I’d hop on the first bus that passed my hotel and ride it until the spirit moved me to descend.

One day I found myself passing by sections of the Aurelian walls. I was amazed at how massive they were (11 feet thick, 26 feet hight). I learned that the Aurelean Walls had been built between 271-275 AD when the walls built in the fourth century BC no longer sufficed to enclose all seven hills of Rome and its primary monuments (an area  > 5 square miles).

Rome remained comfortably within the Aurelean walls until Rome became the capital of a newly unified Kingdom of Italy (1870). Only then did large portions of the vast green space within the walls start filling up with new structures and building outside the walls begin in earnest.

porta metronia

A section of the walls found near Porta Metronia. The new park is frequented by joggers and people walking their dogs.

One stretch of the walls that I encountered on one of my bus trips is shown above. It’s found near Porta Metronia and Porta San Sebastiano, to the south of Circus Maximum and the Baths of Caracalla.


A portion of the Aurelian walls the crumbled, and will need to be rebuilt, hopefully reusing original materials

Several days after seeing the ancient walls of Rome for he first time I met a wondeful Italian woman. We married in Rome 15 months later and 15 months after that I found myself retired, living in a small town north of Rome, and fully occupied with a number of projects – learning Italian, overseeing the reconstruction of a late medieval house, and trying to “train” a Jack Russell puppy. That was a very full year. My greatest challenge? Without a doubt, the dog.

The stretch of the ancient walls of Rome I menioned earlier turned out to be important. As it turned out, my wife owned a appartment whose terrace looks down on these walls.  Our apartment complex was one of the first to be built outside the walls, in the early 1920s. I’ve spent many hours sitting on our terrace, gazing down on the Aurelian walls.

I do indeed see Rome, and especially the Aurelean walls, with different eyes. Being fixed in one place changes your rapport with the place.  Now I have taken part in meetings designed to give local people a chance to provide input regarding the new park along the walls. I’ve learned that the walls, massive though they are, are not in fact timeless and indestructable. They need to be maintained on a regular basis, or else they crumble.  That’s not something that ever occurred to when I first arrived in Rome as a newly retired professor.


Posted in Language & culture, Living abroad, Travel learning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How do you spell travel(l)ing?


Sometimes you need to get the spelling rite

I’ve discovered something you veteran blog writers have known for a long time:  it’s easy to write the first draft of a post but far more difficult and time consuming to produce a “final” (ha!) version.

I already knew that writing is a chore because, in effect, I earned my living for many years writing NIH grant proposals. What’s new for me is not learning the importance of editing, it’s the number of drafts I now need to go through.

Why more drafts? As we age, our cognitive processing resources diminish gradually. When reading, we focus to an increasing extent on extracting the “gist” of a story or narrative, spending less mental effort on details such as the letters used to spell words.

To counteract this natural age-related tendency, I’ve tried to devote ample time to ridding my posts of grammatical and spelling errors. (Yes, I continue to hope that someday someone will read them!) This burst of fussiness led me to discover a variation in the spelling of a crucial pair of words. I’ve been writing both “traveller” and “traveler”, and using two forms of the gerund (“travelling”, “traveling”).

What this meant, in effect, was that regardless of what is the correct spelling of the crucial words mentioned earlier, I was mispelling them about half the time. I set about discovering what are the spellings and soon learned that using two “l”s is a British usage.

Fine. But I’m a retired American scientist, and am curious to the core. I wondered why I was showing apparently random variation between the competing forms. Some of my former colleagues could write a book or two on the topic. I’ll simply offer my hypothesis: I once spent a lot of time reading British English literature, and I’ve been living in Europe now for some time. I think I use the competing variants because I see (read) both versions of the words in question on a regular basis. The competing variants are part of my admittedly confused mental lexicon.

I could, of course, adopt one variant or the other when writing for this blog and let it go at that. However, when I read the post below I realized that I had better not be so superficial. Spelling, it seems, is something that get some folks into a dither and others to get their panties twisted into a knot. Read on: > Wiki Answers > Categories > Travel & Places > What is the correct spelling traveling or travelling

Answer #1: traveling

Answer #2:  ‘Travelling” in British English. ‘Traveling” in American English. There is surely only English, English is the original language. Therefore there is only one correct spelling. Americans did not invent the language they simply speak it. If Americans fail to spell the language they speak correctly it is not within their remit to change that language to compensate for their inadequacy. Canadians speak English just like their American near “neighbours” yet they have taken the time and trouble to learn their own language, is it not time for Americans to do likewise and not try to reinvent the wheel and call something an Americanism? Likewise is it not time for the rest of the world to realise that American is not a language its simply a poor excuse for bad spelling. Ebonics for an audience that might not be black.

The above answer is a perfect demonstration of a core precept of a now little practiced method of education: “Don’t be content just answering a question if you can find a clever way to insult the person who asked or, that failing a nationality or race”.

As you know, good reader, the intended audience of this blog are North Americans interested in Europe. That is to say, both Canadians and Americans. Thanks to the answer provided by the above subscriber to I was able to learn that my native variety of English is “simply a poor excuse for bad spelling”, something I hadn’t fully appreciated before.

But now I’m facing a terrible dilemna. How do I go about pleasing both the Canadian and American readers of this blog?



Posted in Language & culture, Travel philosophy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment