All Y’All Are Welcomed…Except You

I was raised with Southern sensibilities. When someone came to the door, they were welcomed to sit a spell around the kitchen table or out on the front porch, all the while sipping sweet tea and sharing pleasant conversation. Hospitality and politeness were always offered to visitors, even on days when we were not feeling very sociable.

It is this standard of behavior that I have come to expect from myself and others, which is why I find it so mind-boggling how unwelcoming I feel toward a certain “celebrity” whom I have not had the misfortune, I mean, the pleasure of meeting. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you about a dream I had last week.

In my dream, I was sitting out on the deck, sipping iced tea and soaking up the sun. Down the lane with his long-legged stride came Lyndon Baines Johnson. Despite the fact that good ole Lyndon had gone on to the great ranch in the sky 48 years ago, there he was, wearing a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat. After a few moments, LBJ arrived at my doorstep. Being a Texan, born and bred, I figured he would fancy some sweet tea. He accepted and sat down on the settee across from me. (I don’t even own an outdoor settee, but for this dream, I did.) We talked about the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and JFK’s assassination.

At some point in the conversation, I looked down the road, and who should be coming but Richard Milhous Nixon with his hands held up in victory. Even though he had been dead for 26 years, I asked him if he too would like to come and sit a spell. With his gruff voice, he said that he would and sat himself down on the settee beside his predecessor. We then talked about his Quaker upbringing, Henry Kissinger, and Watergate. Even though that pesky wire-tapping scandal ended his presidency, rocked the country, and tainted his legacy, I found him to be quiet, unobtrusive, and slightly awkward—in other words, the type of person with whom the nerd in me could relate.

Next came Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., stumbling over a branch along the way. He too joined us for some sweet tea and some deep thoughts.  Although it had been 14 years since his passing, he was full of life. We spoke of football glories, assassination attempts, the end of the Vietnam War, and unpopular pardons.

Following in Ford’s footsteps was a peanut farmer from Georgia, James Earl Carter, Jr., otherwise known as Jimmy. The first living president to star in my dream, I was surprised to see him. But since he was there, I told him of how much I admired his humanitarian work in the decades following his presidency. A good person and a devout Christian, I appreciate how he serves God by serving others. Humble and soft-spoken, Jimmy awe-shucked my praise before reminding me of gas shortages and hostage crises.

No sooner had he finished speaking, then along came a retired actor, Ronald Wilson Reagan, who jumped up on an oak stump and delivered an impassioned speech on trickle-down economics, the Berlin Wall, the war on drugs, assassination attempts, the AIDS epidemic, the scourge of apartheid, and Iran-Contra… all before the ice had melted in my glass. Even though 16 years had passed since he had passed on, Ronnie could still deliver one helluva speech.

When Reagan came down from the stump, up walked George Herbert Walker Bush, whose death two years ago was mourned by many, myself included. He had a humorous outlook and a ridiculously impressive resume. Bush Sr. accepted a glass of sweet tea and a nearby rocker before talking about combat flights, the U.N. and the CIA, China, dimwitted VPs, the end of the Cold War, the start of the Gulf War, and a thousand points of light.

His political rival and unlikely friend, William Jefferson Clinton, then showed up with doughnuts and jokes to share. A natural-born people person, he could charm the spots off a leopard. The ensuing conversation centered on the economy, don’t ask/don’t tell,  NAFTA, assault weapons ban, health care coverage, impeachment, war and peace and war again, sexual scandals, and balanced budgets. As Bill was entertaining the other ex-presidents, I rose and walked to the garage to grab some tools.

I had just come out of the garage, hammer in hand, when up the road strode George Walker Bush with his bubba drawl and Yale degree. He reckoned that he too could do with an ice-cold sweet tea before he sat down beside his father. The conversation shifted to oilfields, no child left behind, hanging chads, hurricanes, terrorism, war and more war, and immigration. As he spoke, I headed to the shed to retrieve two-by-fours which I carried, one by one, to the end of my lane.

I had just brought up the final board when up walked Barack Hussein Obama II. I welcomed him to the impromptu get-together and told him that the sweet tea and his predecessors were waiting for him on the deck. Soon, sounds of laughter drifted down the road, beckoning me back, but I had work to do. Hammer in hand, I began building a fence. As I hammered, I heard snippets of conversation about Guantanamo, equal pay, renewable energy, gay rights, health care reform, school shootings, Osama bin Laden, and travel to Cuba. 

The conversation began growing louder, soon rising above my banging. Behind me stood the ex-prez squad, wielding hammers and saws of their own. They had come to lend a hand. Jimmy, a born builder, rallied the troops, showing them how to build things right and tight. When we were all done, my property was walled off behind an immense fence. (Seriously, where in heavens’ name did all that lumber come from?)

In the distance came an uninvited visitor swaggering toward us. There was just had one thing left to do. Grabbing a No Trespassing sign off the nearest tree, I nailed it to the gate before walking inside and locking the door. Whew… that was close!

I then turned to my guests and asked, “Did y’all drink up all the sweet tea, or is there a little left for me?” They laughed as we went back enjoy each other’s company on a sultry summer evening.

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Ciao Italia!

In November 1997, my spouse and I traveled to Italy. With one foot in the past and the other in the present, we explored the many facets of this wondrous country and our families’ history.

MILAN

We started our journey in Milan, where designers flock to the city’s runways and shoppers swarm to purchase their wear. With the shoppers came pickpockets, who are prolific, especially in and around Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Piazza del Duomo. Gypsy children and teens practiced their sleight-of-hand on unsuspecting tourists’ purses and pockets.

Despite the sticky-fingered miscreants, Milan had several upsides. The first was Leonardo de Vinci’s mural, The Last Supper, covering an entire wall in the convent, Santa Maria delle Grazie. The second was the Duomo di Milano. This cathedral is absolutely gorgeous, and the views from its rooftop terrace are breathtaking. The third was the Sforza Castle, a Medieval-Renaissance fortress with historical museums, containing art from da Vinci and Michelangelo. The final Milan must-see for me—the genealogy addict—was the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, noted for an abundance of artistic tombs and monuments.

FLORENCE

Upon leaving Milan, we enjoyed the scenic beauty of Tuscany, stopping first to spend a few days in Florence, touted as a cultural and artistic hub of Italy. One of this city’s must-see sites is the Santa Maria del Fiore.

I have a funny story that I would like to share with you about my quest to see the Florence Cathedral. My spouse and I thought it would be a great idea to travel on foot from our hotel to the cathedral, so off we went. Rising in the distance, we could see the Santa Maria del Fiore, but we could not determine where we were on the map we were carrying. It was obvious: We needed help. Luckily, I spotted a member of the Carabinieri (Italy’s military police) and inquired, “Scusi, dov’è la Duomo di Firenze?” and pointed to the map. He looked at the map then looked at me with a slightly sheepish smile. I thought that maybe I had botched my Italian pronunciation or grammar. No, my Italian must have been comprehensible because the officer pointed to me before indicating a spot completely off the map. I chuckled at how far off course we were.

Eventually, we made it to the historic section of Florence. We saw the Baptistery of St. John with its golden doors (the Gates of Paradise). Not far away was the Santa Maria del Fiore with its distinctive red-tiled dome and Giotto’s Campanile, a nearly 300-foot bell tower that offers a great vantage point of the city. After touring the Duomo and bell tower, we enjoyed the architectural splendor of the Piazza della Signoria, an L-shaped piazza dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio.

We then headed to the nearby Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, located in Piazza del Signoria. These museums house some of the world’s greatest works of art, including Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. Sadly, when we went to visit these museums, the workers there were on a one-day strike (just my luck). The reason behind the strike is unknown. Strikes seem to be a common occurrence in some European countries (or at least the ones I have visited).

Since we were barred from entering the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries, we meandered over to the Ponte Vecchio, perusing the shops that align this famous bridge. On the other side of the River Arno was the Palazzo Pitti, a Renaissance-era palace once owned by the Medici family. The palazzo is the largest museum complex in Florence, housing several museums and galleries. I especially enjoyed perusing the artwork in the Palatine Gallery and the furnishings of the Royal Apartments, as well as the tranquility and opulence of the Boboli Gardens.

Crossing back across the Ponte Vecchio, we turned right and ended up at the Piazza di Santa Croce where we toured the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Niccolò Machiavelli, Gioacchino Rossini, and others are found. When then headed back to the hotel, checking out the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella en route.

SIENA

After leaving Florence, we visited one of my favorite sites in Tuscany: the walled city of Siena, where the Palio, a city-wide horse race, is held twice a year. The Palio takes place in the Piazza del Campo. Since 1633, this race has been run on July 2nd in conjunction with the Feast of the Visitation and the festival honoring the Madonna di Provenzano. Then, starting in 1701, a second race was added on August 16th to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption. Standing in the middle of the piazza on that cold November day, I swore I could hear the cadence of horses’ hooves clip-clopping on the cobblestones.

Siena residents are proud of their traditions. Not only do the faithfully participate in the Palio, but they also faithfully attend church. The Duomo di Siena was built between 1215 and 1263. The cathedral is shaped like a Latin cross with a dome and bell tower. The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes. (Black and white are the symbolic colors of Siena.)

VENICE

After Siena, we traveled to Venice, one of the most captivating cities I have ever encountered. From the mainland, we boarded a vaporetti (water bus). With the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, we raced over the waves toward the Grand Canal. Upon disembarking, we headed to our luxury hotel on the Grand Canal. The next day, during the solitude of sunrise, I gazed across the canal at the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, listening to the rhythmic rapping of the tide—gondolas swaying back and forth to the beat.

A couple of hours later, we ventured out into waterlogged walkways. Each year, between October and December, Venice floods nearly every morning during acqua alta (high tide). It is amazing how the Venetians have adapted to this inconvenience, laying boards end-to-end on braces to allow pedestrians to traverse through the streets as if on balance beams.

We walked from our hotel through a narrow alley, emerging under an archway into the grandeur of the Piazza San Marco. Across the open space lay the Basilica di San Marco with its bronze horses standing sentinel above the entry. To the right, the Campanile di San Marco loomed high over the piazza. Behind the basilica was the Palazzo Ducale. We spent hours enthralled with the breathtaking beauty of the Doge’s Palace. And as I walked from the Doge’s Palace to the Prigioni via the Ponte dei Sospiri, I swear I heard the soft sighs of past prisoners whisper on the wind. After finishing our tour of the prison, we returned to San Marco Square, where the tide had receded. However, instead of floodwaters, the piazza was packed with pigeons. We waded through the fowl flock. (Personally, I prefer the water…)

Radiating out from the Piazza San Marco is an intricate maze of canals, alleys, and bridges. Each day, we explored the twist and turns of the city, often getting lost in its labyrinth. One evening, after all the day tourists had departed, we set off in search of the Rialto Bridge. The streets were silent. After several missed turns and deviations from our original route, we finally found the most famous bridge in Venice. Before we headed back to the hotel, I took a moment to savor a steamy espresso in the crisp autumn air.

The next day, we were determined to enjoy the artistic masterpieces housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Museo di Palazzo Grimani. It was a long, yet fulfilling day. With tired feet and full hearts, we ended our last day in Venice.

ROME

After bidding a reluctant goodbye to Venice, we journeyed to Rome, a city that balances old and new, tradition and change. From the Trevi Fountain to the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome is teeming with history. The Coliseum is encircled by four lanes of heavy traffic. The Vatican is bordered by fast-food and chic designers. An ancient Roman temple has been converted to a Catholic church. Highlighting Roman squares are Egyptian obelisks, booty from past conquests. These monoliths are topped with golden crosses.

While in Rome, we stayed in the Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel. Next door was the Giardino Zoologico di Roma, a 42-acre zoo opened in 1911. When we visited this zoo in 1997, we were shocked at how small the animal enclosures were and how run-down some areas of the zoo had become. Luckily, our concerns must have been echoed by many others because, a year later, the zoo began its transformation into a biopark—a blending of a zoo with a botanic garden. (Today, the animals are housed in exhibits similar to their natural habitat.) The zoo sits on the grounds of the Villa Borghese, a nearly 200-acre public park. Also on the grounds is the Galleria Borghese. This museum boasts masterpieces by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), and Tiziano Vecelli (Titian).

Early the next morning, we ventured to the Vatican. Words alone cannot express the splendor of the Vatican. From its museums to the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica to St. Peter’s Piazza, I was absolutely awestruck. I looked just like a kid in a candy shop with eyes wide as saucers and mouth agape.

On our final day in Rome, we took a taxi to the Coliseum. After learning a bit about Ancient Rome and marveling at the Coliseum, we began our trek back to the hotel, past the Roman Forum ruins, the Capitoline Museums, the Altare della Patria, and the Pantheon. Between these stops, we strolled through myriad piazzas (including Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona), sampled local cuisine, and marveled at the stunning architecture. We soaked up the culture in the warm sun while casting wishes in fountains, including the world-famous Trevi. We then came to the Spanish Steps and began our slow ascent of yet another of Rome’s seven hills. At the top, we visited the Villa Medici before heading back through its gardens, adjacent to the Borghese Gardens. After a long, hot day, we arrived at our hotel, foot-weary and sweaty but thoroughly enlightened.

SORRENTO, POMPEII, CAPRI

In stark contrast to the metropolitan sprawl of Rome, Sorrento, a small town half an hour south of Naples and Pompeii, rises quietly in quaint terraces above the Mediterranean Sea. In the distance, the precipice of Mt. Vesuvius looms. The southern landscape is saturated with olive trees: nets hung from tree to tree catch the harvest in its descent. The sea meets the land dramatically, with cliff walls plummeting hundreds of feet to the water. I spent a memorable afternoon overlooking the Bay of Naples from Sorrento’s heights while sipping an ice-cold limoncello.

We spent our first full day in this region trekking through Pompeii. Circa 24 August in the year 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius erupted. A 17-year old by the name of Pliny the Younger, documented the eruption:

I cannot give you a more exact description of its appearance than by comparing to a pine tree for it shot up to a great height in the form of a tall trunk, which spread out at the top as though into branches. […] Occasionally it was brighter, occasionally darker and spotted, as it was either more or less filled with earth and cinders.

According to his correspondence, Pliny was awoken by a tremor that night. Another tremor struck around dawn. With the third tremor “the sea seemed to roll back upon itself and be driven from its banks.” The early light was obscured by a black cloud through which flashes of light appears, similar to sheet lightning. This cloud obscured nearby Point Misenum, as well as the island of Capri across the bay. A rain of ash fell. Pliny noted that it was necessary to shake off the ash to avoid being buried, comparing the ash to a blanket of snow. Later that day, the falling ash ceased, and the sun shone weakly through the haze.

When the volcanic activity finally ended, Pompeii lay in ruins, and thousands of people had perished. Approximately 1,100 casts have been made from impressions of bodies in the ash deposits in and around Pompeii; the scattered bones of another 100 people have been discovered. The majority of the body molds were found inside buildings. It is surmised that these people were probably killed by roof collapses or falling debris. The remaining 62% of remains found at Pompeii were within pyroclastic surge deposits. One of the pyroclastic surges produced temperatures reaching 572 °F that killed hundreds of people in a fraction of a second. The bodies were frozen in suspended action. Today, stray dogs roam the ruins, residing side-by-side with the spirits of those who passed away so long ago. I found it to be a sobering experience—one that I shall never forget.

Across the way, the island of Capri, renowned for its Blue Grotto and natural serenity, rises majestically in the morning mist. The next morning, we boarded a ferry, crossing the bay to this picturesque island. We disembarked in the quaint town of Capri. Shopping abounds in this village. We enjoyed some gelato in Piazza Umberto I while watching locals and a few tourists stroll by. We also visited the remains of Villa Jovis, a palace built by Roman Emperor Tiberius in the 1st Century. This villa covered more than two acres and was built on several levels.

Afterward, we headed to Anacapri, a town perched atop the island. To get there, one must either navigate a circuitous, narrow road or take the funicular. Our group braved the road up, barely dodging descending traffic determined to run our vehicle off the road. After touring the beautiful garden of Villa San Michele and soaking up the splendor below, we climbed on board the funicular, where we sang:

Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà
Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa jammo jà
Funiculì, funiculà
Funiculì, funiculà
‘ncoppa jammo jà
Funiculì, funiculà.


Originally published on 8 August 2018: Ciao Italia