Behind the lens

My dear wife often jokes that I must hate something before I love it. The most annoying thing about her observation is that she is right. Perhaps the most blatant example of this quirk (I’m being generous to myself) is my change of attitude about tours. You know, like guided tours, the kind where you spend two weeks with total strangers on a motor coach with a guide covering a lot of ground in Europe. Nope, not for me. Or so I thought. Never underestimate the power of true love.

My wife and I were married in May of 2014 and her dream was to go to Italy for a belated honeymoon that September. I had traveled there a handful of years earlier with three friends, but one can never have enough Italy, so I said sure – until she proposed the idea of doing a tour. She made a strong case – tempting me with perks like no waiting in lines at sites, no stress of driving in a foreign land and the big one – no schlepping your own luggage. And she ran the numbers that clearly showed we could get a lot more bang for our Euros by going the tour route. So, I acquiesced and immediately started worrying about the boring obnoxious deplorables we would be sharing our journey with.

Once again, I was wrong. Are you sensing a pattern here? I call it the luck of the Australians, and we were blessed with over a dozen of them on our tour. Bottom line – toss in a dozen Aussies and you are guaranteed to have fun. You may need to enter rehab upon your arrival home, but meanwhile, you’re going to have the time of your life. We fell madly in love with our mates from Oz and remain in contact with many of them to this day via social media. A subgroup of them has a reunion every other year or so and always manage to include my wife and me in the festivities – like a drunken conference call at 2:00 AM in the US. That 14-hour time difference is tricky. The last time they got together they had two little dolls representing me and my wife and we made it into almost all the pictures – and some of the drinks.

We never think of these travel friends without smiling and we hope to visit them one day in the Land Down Under. My life is bigger and richer for knowing them and I have my wife to thank for nudging (shoving) me into saying yes to a tour. The downside to that trip was that the bar was set awfully high for future trips. I thought we’d never even come close to such a great group of companions. And then we went on safari to Africa in 2018. There’s really no way to travel in Africa other than a tour unless you’re Bear Grylls and/or incredibly wealthy. We are neither, so once again my wife researched the hell out of all the tours and picked one.

If you’ve ever been on a tour, you know that the initial meet and greet is fraught with anxiety. That’s when you first see who you’re going to be stuck with for the next two weeks. It’s like a blind date on steroids. We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania very late at night and rode on a shuttle van to our lodge with some others who were on our tour. I sat in front of a woman from NJ who never stopped talking. And she was a loud talker – one of my pet peeves. She droned on and on – her poor husband never said a word and I started panicking at the idea of being with her in a jeep on safari for ten days. I leaned into my wife and said, “I cannot be with her. I will lose my mind.” My wife is so much better at rolling with obnoxious people than I am. She smiled and told me it would be okay. I was not convinced.

The next morning our group of 13 gathered after breakfast for the moment of truth. Loud Talker was already there monopolizing the conversation and my palms began to sweat. My anxiety was interrupted by a woman from IL who started talking to me. Not loudly. She was friendly and interesting. Her name was Candy, and she was traveling with her husband Fred. Our host introduced us to the two guides who would be driving us and after an overview of the trip, instructed us to get into one of the two vehicles parked out in front of the lodge.

Candy and I wound up next to each other on the walk to the jeeps – Loud Talker was ahead of us. Enter Divine Intervention. Candy turned to me and said in a slightly desperate voice, “I cannot be in the same jeep with her.” I grabbed her by the arm and said, “Follow me!” like I was Indiana Jones leading her away from the Temple of Doom. We climbed into the open jeep – our spouses followed. Already seated were a brother and sister, Jim and Suzie, who I had previously identified as nice. We had one slot open – and then came Marge – a soft-spoken solo traveler. Our vehicle was full, and we were safe. Funny thing – the rest of the entire trip, the seating arrangement never changed. Our group – our fabulous group – was together for the duration.

My wife is prone to motion sickness, so she rode up front with the driver – she offered to rotate her spot, but everyone was so kind, and we all sat in the same seats each day. I was beside Candy and Fred was in the way back with Marge. They were the serious photographers in our pack. I mean really serious. Multiple cameras and long lenses. They liked being in the back because they could stand up when we stopped and have no obstruction as they were shooting.

Fred looked like he was on assignment for National Geographic. You know how some people look like they just bought an outfit for the trip that they will never wear in their real life? Not Fred. His safari wardrobe was well weathered. He looked like he could be in an ad for a safari or a model for the J. Peterman catalog. He was a quiet man – only speaking to add insights into what we were seeing. He was smart and well-traveled, and he was super sweet to his wife, so we liked him a lot right away. And he had the eye of an accomplished photographer and would spot animals long before we did.

Candy would take pictures with her iPhone like us, but then she would call out to Fred like she was Martin Scorsese, “Did you get the lioness on the rock?” Fred always dutifully and cheerfully got the shot. Later at dinner every evening, he would show us some of the primo shots of the day and we would wonder if we had been on the same game drive. Impressive zoom lens you got there, Fred. And we were so surprised after one of the first nights of the trip when Fred called our room and asked if we wanted to meet for drinks before dinner. We liked Fred even more then and we had some lovely conversations – mostly about some of the many places where he and Candy had traveled. We learned about their son and their two granddaughters and that they loved cats, too. The life stuff that helps you get to know someone.

Fred was one of those rarest of men – at least in my experience. He was a man’s man – an Eagle Scout/MacGyver kind of guy who I’m sure could have gotten us out of any sort of jam. He was also a gentleman who would help you up that first big step into the jeep without making you feel inadequate. He had a kind smile, and he would give Candy and me a sly grin when Loud Talker went off on one of her tangents at dinner. And I repeat – he was so sweet and attentive to his wife. Like he would always ask if she wanted another drink before he got the check. Little thoughtful things like that. I think my wife and I both had a little crush on him and I’m certain Candy wasn’t the least bit worried. They were one of those couples that’s just good together and you enjoy being around them.

I could tell that Fred was a good dad and granddad, too. At the airport on our flight to head home, my wife and I had spent all our shillings – that’s the Tanzanian currency – and we desperately wanted to buy a couple of bottles of water. Fred overheard our frenzied discussion and kindly came to our rescue and paid for our waters. Just like a dad to save the day.

The flight from Arusha to Amsterdam was packed and we never saw Fred and Candy again. When we got home, Fred sent me some amazing photos that he had taken and we exchanged holiday cards. Two years ago, Candy let us know that Fred had been diagnosed with cancer. Fuck cancer. He was in and out of the hospital and rehab and we had not heard an update in a while. Until yesterday. Candy let us know that Fred had passed away last Sunday.

I was at my desk when I read her message and I sobbed. Sitting by myself in front of my laptop, I just couldn’t stop crying for a man I had only spent ten days with. I think this pandemic has stripped many of us of any protective layers we might have had. I know I have been teary about a lot of losses of late. And honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be completely authentic with your emotions. I pictured Fred hanging off the back of the jeep to get the perfect shot, telling a good story, watching an amazing sunset. Fred. Happy being on a magical safari with his wife.

I gathered myself and responded to Candy how very sorry I was and that my wife and I would always hold Fred and her in our fondest memories. She wrote back, “Wonderful memories of the best trip ever. And our last together.” Gulp.

So, this is my long way of thanking my dear wife for making me not hate tours. If not for her, I would have never met Fred Brown.

Rest well, intrepid traveler. You got the shot.

Tour of Beauty

Our trip outlined in red.

This boot was made for touring. Our journey is outlined in red.

Andiamo!

That’s the Italian word for the phrase “Let’s go!” – and that was pretty much the mantra of my recent trip to Italy.

We andiamoed all over the boot.

My wife and I decided on Italy as the destination for a belated honeymoon after our wedding in May and the actual planning of the trip taught me that compromise is an important part of a successful marriage. You see, my wife wanted to book at tour – a big fat tour – two weeks, 16 cities, with 43 of our closest personal friends that we had not yet met.

I had never been on such a tour but somehow knew that I would hate it. I don’t really have control issues (no, really) but I don’t much like being told what to do and when to do it. I had more in mind a smaller more intimate kind of trip. In the end, we compromised and booked the big fat tour.

What? I want to stay happily married for a very long time.

Selfies are just as silly in Italy as they are in North Carolina. This one was on the beautiful fishing island of Burano.

Selfies are just as silly in Italy as they are in North Carolina. This one was taken in the beautiful fishing village of Burano.

And to my pleasant surprise, the tour was not the least bit awful and it gave us access to so many unique opportunities we would have never had on our own.

I am now, of course, an expert on Italian tours and will share with you some important keys to having a positive tour experience.  Prego. (You’re welcome.)

First – make sure there are lots of Australians on your tour. This is essential. “Aussie” is apparently universal slang for Most Fun People on the Planet. Seriously. We had 13 Aussies on our tour – ranging in age from 15 to 70+ and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.

The folks from the land down under are a joyous lot and we closed the bar with them most nights. Actually, they let us hang out with them until we fell over and they closed the bar down. Apparently, Aussies also have hollow legs, allowing them to hold greater quantities of spirits.

And then there are those fabulous accents. They told us that they hate that Crocodile Dundee is the image most Americans have of Australians. I told them that we have similar fears, namely Honey Boo Boo.

They even made me a little Aussie dictionary, on a cocktail napkin, of course, with a bunch of their fun sayings. They call vacation “holiday” and all candy is a “lolly” – cute, right?

The next key to a great tour is a great tour director and we scored on that one big time with our guide, Muris, a handsome and charming Italian man – but then again, aren’t they all?

Muris is in his forties and has been a travel director for over 20 years. He was the perfect dispenser of interesting information without being professorial, enthusiastic but not perky. But what I loved most about Muris was how much he loves his country. He talked about Italy in the way you would talk about a beautiful woman and he wanted us to fall for her, too. And we did.

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We’re just mad about Muris. Here he’s schooling us on Positano in the background.

He spoke English lyrically with a sexy Italian undertone and would woo us with phrases like “hid-in treazure” when a surprise stop was upcoming. And he threw in some very special touches along the way – like popping bottles of Prosecco and offering a toast when we disembarked after our gondola ride in Venice.

Most of us – men, women, and lesbians – were in love with him by the end of the trip.

Another key to enjoying your tour is to prepare yourself by letting go of the following three things:

1. Sleep as you know it

2. Trying to not look like a tourist.

3. Fear of the bidet.

Allow me to elaborate. On most travel days, your bag has to be outside your hotel room door by 7:00 A.M. Yes, it’s rough, but nothing three Advil and a double espresso can’t cure.

You just have to admit it, Europeans are cooler than us. Period. I don’t care how suave and sophisticated you think you are. And they are impervious to all weather conditions. The first few days of our tour, the weather was unseasonably warm. One afternoon in Capri, we were sweating like Italian sausages in a skillet surrounded by impossibly gorgeous Italians sauntering around with scarves draped artfully around their necks.

Scarves!

Just surrender and clutch your Rick Steves’ guidebook with confidence.

Okay, the bidet. You have to face it – literally, because it’s in every hotel room just staring at you as if to dare you to engage. Australia doesn’t have bidets either and the fascination with this fixture became a running joke with our Aussie posse. One morning, I greeted them at breakfast with a hearty, “Bidet, mates!”

So be bold and seize the bidet.

My optional solo excursion in Lake Maggiore.

My optional solo excursion in Lake Maggiore.

I did have a few low moments on the tour when I hit critical mass with the pack and I sat out some optional excursions to just chill out and soak up the local culture or as I call it, wine.

Sometimes it was just too much talking. And those damn radios. Every stop along the way we had a local expert telling us everything they thought we needed to know. Near the end of the tour in Florence, we were viewing the magnificent statue of David and I pulled my earplugs out to just gaze as our guide kept filling us with factoids.

My ever attentive wife looked at me seriously and mouthed, “She’s still talking.” I mouthed back to her, “I don’t care.”

I could have sworn David smiled at me.

david

The David. No words needed.

But all in the all, the tour was a magical experience.  Most of our traveling companions were also celebrating special events – milestone birthdays, anniversaries, a grandmother’s gift to her granddaughter, and so on. And there was something very sweet and intimate about sharing a group dream come true.

Maybe that’s why on our final ride to our hotel in Rome on our last night together, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found when Muris cued up his iPod and we heard the romantic tenor of Andrea Bocelli serenading us.

Con Te Partiro.

Time to Say Goodbye.

 

Sunset over the Basillica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Sunset over the Basillica of St. Francis of Assisi.

 

A final travel tip from Muris.

A final travel tip from Muris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excursion Diversions

final meme

 

blogathy

blog – uh- thee

noun

1. absence of blogging or procrastinating from posting on a blog

2. lame excuse for not blogging

Yep, that’s me. I’m suffering from blogathy and the only cure is to post posthaste.

I can now confess to having a deeper appreciation of those who blog on a regular basis – like more than once in a blue moon. It’s harder than it looks.

Seriously.

I’ve posted several things in my head over the last couple of weeks but even though you read my blog, you can’t read my mind. At least, I hope you can’t, and if you can, Jodie Foster was simply making a cameo appearance.

roman holidayTruthfully, I’m having a hard time focusing on anything of late but my upcoming trip to Italy with my wife. We got married in May and we’re calling this our honeymoon because sometimes it’s fun to talk like straight people.

I traveled to Italy four years ago with three other (fabulous) women. I was still raw around the edges after a tumultuous breakup and the journey was a healing balm for me in ways that I could have never imagined.

One day on our trip we were hiking through a tiny Tuscan village when our beautiful guide, Francesca, stopped to speak with an older woman tending her garden. The two women embraced and kissed on each cheek and spoke animatedly to one another for several minutes.

When Francesca returned to our group, I said, “How nice, you ran into someone you know.” She looked at me sweetly with a confused expression and said, “No, I just met her.”

That’s Italy.

Italians savor la dolce vita in all aspects of life – food, nature, people – and you can’t help but fall under this spell when you’re there. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova eloquently captured this feeling when she wrote, “Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of you life.”

This is the first “big” trip my wife and I have taken together and I’m hoping we’re a good travel match. She’s never been to Italy and has read her Rick Steves’ guidebook from cover to cover. Rick-Steves-Italy-2014-P9781612386591

I’ve tried not to be annoyed at night when we’re in bed reading and she feels compelled to share some unknown factoid about Venice with me. Besides, who knew only three to four gondolier licenses are issued annually? Exactly.

I’m usually an obsessive planner with a vacation but this time I agreed to a tour and I’m blissfully letting someone else be the boss for a couple of weeks. I barely even know our itinerary and that is exhilarating to me.

I just know that some lovely stranger is going to schlep my over packed bag from hotel to hotel for me. What’s not to like?

Now I’m shamelessly hoping that my prologue-travelogue has made you forget about my sorry blogathy as visions from pizza to Pisa dance through your head.

I promise to be a better blogger upon my return.

Ciao, ya’ll!

Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.