Posts Tagged ‘Vacation’

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Well, after a few hours of lounging underneath a beach umbrella, and even with the occasional dollop of sunscreen, I was once again wearing God’s straitjacket, and it was a hideous shade of red.

It was our last day in Puerto Rico. We had already attempted, as best as middle-aged Midwesterners can, to get in touch with our adventurous side. It was now time to relax on the beach, and we had overpriced fruity drinks and a couple of decent books to keep us company. The problem was, beaches and I have always had this sort of love/hate relationship.

And a sunburn is usually the period at the end of my vacation sentence. A necessary piece of punctuation, which tells me in no uncertain terms that it’s time to go home. That said, this trip was one hell of a sentence.

OLD SAN JUAN: In which our travelers explore the sights, meet some new friends, and get quite drunk.

I’m a planner. Not a good one per se, just one that needs to know what’s on the docket. If we’re going for a walk, I’d like to know the direction. Is this a walk I can do in sandals? Or am I going to need a pair of sneakers? Do we need a map? Or are we purposely trying to get lost?  I’ve learned that answering the simple questions allows for less fuck ups, and getting more out of the day.

That said, my plan was a basic one, which had more than a few holes in it. We were going to start on one side of the city, at the fort San Cristobal, and work our way to the del Morro fort, which lies on the northern tip of the old city.

Fort San Cristobal is a huge, sprawling fortress that was built by Spain in the 1700’s to protect against attacks on the city. Apparently, a lot of attacking was going on back then. Now, with most of the invading going on elsewhere in the world, it’s a historical site that visitors can explore. We toured the grounds for and hour or so, climbing to the top of the fort and looking out at the city and the sea through the various sentry boxes. The most interesting part of the fort is the tunnels that zig-zag underneath it, and the dungeons and rooms you invariably spill into.

In the dungeon there was a portion of the stone work protected by glass, where a prisoner had once drawn ships onto the wall. The guy was a pretty damn good artist, especially considering the lighting situation in that dungeon.

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated,

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated.

After we covered the San Cristobal grounds, posed for our obligatory selfies, and took in the great views of the city and sea, we were on our way.

As I said earlier, my plan was patched together rather recklessly. And we quickly learned that two major obstacles lie in your way during midday in Old San Juan. The first was a lack of water. The second was a lack of shade. It gets hot and sticky, and if you’re coming from forty degree days, filled with overcast skies and weird forms of snow-rain, then this might come as a shock to you as well.

Soon, we were scurrying around the city in search of both. Finally securing a couple bottles of water at a local café, and finding shade in the form of this beautiful tree near El Convento Hotel in the heart of the old city:

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

After a brief recharge, we were hoofing it to Del Morro. A walkway runs from Old San Juan proper through an enormous grassy park, up to the entrance of the fort. On the right, bordering the sea and the fort’s outer walls, sits Santa Maria Magdalena Cemetery. It’s a beautiful colonial era graveyard that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. I read that it was built there by the Spanish to symbolize the spirit’s journey to the afterlife. Those Spaniards were a poetic bunch.

After a visit to the cemetery, we walked through the grassy park, passing children who flew kites with the help of the ocean’s breeze. Upon reaching the fort, we were confronted by our first encounter with the many lizards of San Juan. They were the chill sort, sunning themselves on the fort’s walls, as tourists posed for selfies with them.

Full disclosure, I’m not a reptile person. In fact, reptiles of any sort trigger a sort of caveman switch in my head, which then sounds an alarm that sounds kind of like this “Awooga! Kill it with fire! Awooga! Run away!”

At first, I was certain the little dragon would scurry up the arm of one of these selfie-taking tourists, and rip open the person’s throat with a casual snap of its demonic little jaws. Fortunately, the little beast must have already fed (Probably on human flesh), because it just laid there, stuffed and sunbaked, as the cameras clicked away.

As evidenced by my own clicking camera phone:

If you look closely, you'll see that our lizard is being photo bombed by one of its brethren.

If you look closely, you’ll see that our lizard is being photobombed by one of its brethren who is sitting off in the distance.

After taking in Del Morro, with its giant walls and great views, we headed back into the city. At this point, we’d been walking for a few hours and needed a drink and some grub.

On the subject of grub: At this moment, I’m still in Mofongo withdrawals. Anyone that’s sampled local Mofongo or Trifongo dishes will undoubtedly share my plight. For those of you that haven’t, Mofongo is a mashed mound of plantains, which are usually served with a combination of fresh seafood, meat, or vegetables. My words don’t do them justice.

Also delicious were the Alcapurrias. These are fried dough sticks made with plantains, which have a spicy ground beef center (More on those later). Rounding out my vacation go-to grub list, were Tostones Rellenos. These are fried plantain cups, with the good stuff pressed into them. The ones I ate were filled with Octopus pulp. I had never heard of, let alone tried, any of these dishes. So you can imagine my inner fat boy’s delight when I took my first bite. If I had a gif of Gilbert Grape clapping, I would use it here.

We had reserved a room at La Concha in the Condado neighborhood. This area caters mostly to tourists. And while it was fun to walk Ashford Avenue (Puerto Rico’s version of South Beach’s Collins Avenue). The most fun we had was walking around Old San Juan at night. We popped into random little bars, while meeting our pickled counterparts, and friendly locals alike. At one bar in particular, we spent a late night slugging down shots of different rums with Luis, our bartender, who was possibly even drunker than us.

During our rum soaked night, we met our new besties Ta and Maria. They were a fun couple from New York, on a weekend getaway. They also happened to have the combined alcohol tolerance of Bukowski, if he were the size of a rhinoceros. Let’s just say, they drank us under the table. Hell, from what I remember of it, they drank us under all of the tables. Seriously, there are no tables left in San Juan. And it’s all their fault.

El YUNQUE and LUQUILLO BEACH: In which our travelers navigate treacherous terrain, climate change, and chickens in the road.

The afternoon before our trip to the rain forest, I stopped into Charlie’s Cars. You guessed it, a car rental shack near our hotel. I reserved a little compact car for our following morning’s excursion. We planned on driving around the island, heading to El Yunque and hiking the La Mina trail to its falls. This was all fine and dandy, but the path to this trail is not for the faint of heart. A tight, winding road that keeps climbing, isn’t something you want to drive up in the pouring rain. But if we weren’t looking for a little adventure we wouldn’t have headed up there to begin with. At least that’s what I kept telling myself between the muttered curses, and the constant tapping of my brakes.

While lower on the island it was a balmy 80 degree day, up the mountain it was at least 10 degrees cooler, with a constant light drizzle. The forest itself was something to see. Rolling, overgrown vegetation surrounded us from all sides of the trail, as birds cooed and hollered from overhead. Almost as if to say “This really is something, ain’t it?”

The hike to the waterfall wasn’t too taxing, about couple hours there and back. The La Mina falls itself was breathtaking. Nature’s power emanated from the crashing water. And though my wife had reservations, we climbed the slippery rocks and went in.

The water was frigid, and once underneath the waterfall, I was filled with a couple of concurrent and contradictory thoughts. One, was of how weak I was in the grand scheme of things. The second was of how empowered I felt to have the falls wash over me. It was as if they were mine. I guess this speaks to the profundity of nature. Swimming in a waterfall can bring out delusions of grandeur, and also humble you in the same moment.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

After our trek through the rain forest, we got back in the car and I muttered some familiar curses, as we descended the winding road to the bottom of the mountain. Along the way, chickens kept crossing the road, and I always hated those jokes, and yes –to get to the other side– it was cheesy, but there they were –crossing the fucking road.

Once out of El Yunque, we headed to the other side of the mountain, where a beautiful local beach resides. Luquillo beach was where the locals were sunning and barbecuing, and they had the right idea. The water was tranquil, a cool breeze was blowing, and yours truly was trying Alcapurrias for the first time. I stood in front of the kiosk devouring my fried stick. The first words that came to me, after a couple of burps, were “This is what hot dogs are supposed to be.”

And so began my Alcapurria love affair.

ODDS and ENDS: In which our traveler figures out how to end a blog.

San Juan is as safe as anywhere else, but just like anywhere else, there’s still a whole bunch of ways to die. I guess what I’m getting at is they use ‘big boy’ rules, which I respect.

Was there a lifeguard on duty at any of the beaches we were at? No.

Is that a good thing? Probably not.

But I also know not to fuck around in the ocean. Stay within a few feet of water, especially when it’s choppy, and you’ll be fine. Big boy rules.

Could the window of our hotel room also double as a sliding glass door? Sure.

Were we on the 11th floor with no balcony and a deadly drop? Yep.

Did we fall to our deaths? No. Because we’re not clumsy idiots.

And as a frequent hotel patron, I respect a hotel room with a strong window game. And this place had mad window game:

"Oh my god! It's a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!"

“Oh my god! It’s a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!”

Our last night in Puerto Rico was a relaxed one, mostly because I had been poisoned by the god damned sun, and was now bed-ridden.

As we lay there watching a disturbing documentary about those old MTV spring break shows, and how young idiots ruined Daytona Beach, while older idiots put them up to it. I was happy to be enjoying a middle-aged spring break, and happier still to be doing it with the missus.

Sure, I wasn’t chugging beer bongs and running naked through the streets, but that’s a young man’s game. And I had more important things to worry about. Like where the aloe gel was, and how long after a glass of wine do I have to wait to take a Tylenol.






Florence was in our rear view, and Venice would prove to be the final stop in our journey through Italy. But first, there was Santa Maria Novella railway station to contend with.

Maria and I waited patiently in line at the ticket kiosk. Ahead of us, occupying one of the perplexing contraptions, was a young Asian couple, who were having a rough go of it. Behind them, and directly ahead of us, was a very short, very impatient, and very flamboyant Italian gentleman.

He let out an exaggerated sigh, and irritably shook his head at the couple’s failed attempts to purchase tickets. A moment later, he snorted loudly, further rattling the already anxious couple. Maria and I exchanged glances. This guy was an asshole.

A ticket machine next to the couple opened up, and the man claimed it like a caffeinated Napoleon. But instead of going about his own button mashing, the man decided he would first explain to the couple his unwritten rules of the Italian railway system.

He gestured wildly, and raised his voice, intimidating the young couple. He then went on a prolonged rant about letting people who knew what they’re doing, cut in front of you and purchase their tickets first.

This was absurd on a couple of different levels:

A: The man’s grasp of the English language was lacking. “You no know how! Me go! You wait!”

B: He obviously didn’t know that schoolyard rules clearly state: No cuts, no buts, no coconuts.

C: Read the next paragraph.

The man continued his diatribe, while simultaneously trying to procure his own ticket. His tirade came to an abrupt conclusion, when the man realized he was at a ticket kiosk that didn’t accept cash. He punched buttons, and muttered something in Italian, which was most likely “Shit. I look like such a fucking tool, right now.”

The couple finally figured it out. They grabbed their tickets, and shot a satisfied glance at the man, who was still not hip to the fact that he was now holding everyone up. The line behind the man grew, and soon he left his machine, and took a sad journey to the end of the line. There he waited for another ticket kiosk to open up. One that accepted cash. It was comeuppance on a cosmic level.

On the train ride to Venice, Maria flexed her photography muscles, and snapped what might’ve been the best photo of our entire trip, or at the very least, the most impressive.

Quick math problem: A train is traveling at 190 mph (which, according to my math, is roughly 8,000,000 km/h). A man is riding his bicycle in the opposite direction of the train. He is traveling at 14 mph. How much time do you have to snap a decent photo of the cyclist? Answer: Fuck if I know. I’m terrible at math.


"No hands. No shirt. All man."

“No hands. No shirt. All man.”



Actually, it was about 3 p.m. when we arrived at St. Lucia station in Venice… but 1 Night sounds much sexier. Anyhow, Maria and I waited in line for the vaporreto boat to take us to the hotel. For those who may not know, you won’t be getting to, or from Venice, any other way. And me with no boat shoes.

The city was beautiful, and completely different than any other place I had been to. I recalled the first time I heard about Venice. My father telling me about a trip there with his soccer team, in the early seventies. Back then, he was just a poor athlete in a strange city. He said it was a maze, and there weren’t any roads, just rivers everywhere, and it smelled bad.

He probably told me more about Venice, but I was ten or eleven, and an attention span wasn’t my strong suit. We arrived at the hotel, and Maria was quite pleased. I went the extra mile on this one (basically, I spent an extra hundred bucks).

Soon, we were out the door and exploring a new city. Unfortunately, our earlier explorations (i.e. all the damn walking), had taken its toll on our feet. My favorite pair of boots were starting to fall apart, and my bloody blisters were almost too many to count (more than three). Maria, going the flip flop route, was not in as dire straits, but her feet had also seen better days. Unless you’re some horny foot fetishist, and in that case, you should know I won’t be sharing any of those photos.

Regardless, we would not be deterred from what could prove to be our only opportunity to visit Venice. I hadn’t read up on the city as much as I would’ve liked. I was planning to read “City of Fortune: How Venice ruled the Seas” by Roger Crowley, but only had time to skim. Books on Rome and Florence had taken up too much of my free time. I was a cliffs notes version of myself. So it goes.

I knew the basics: Piazza San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Doge’s Palace, and lots of shopping.

Considering, I got us lost on multiple occasions in both Rome and Florence, and the fact that Venice was like the Bermuda Triangle meets the Labyrinth, I quickly realized that a map was needed. Within five minutes of walking, even with frequent glances at the damn map, we were still lost.

At this point in our journey, I recall glancing up from the map at Maria, and noticing a very specific look on her face. One that said: “Look at this dope. He thinks he’s Indiana Jones, because he’s wearing cargo pants and has a map. Jeez, what have I gotten myself into?” Still, I managed to get us to a small café. One that served cold beer. So now, my plan was to get her drunk, and even the playing field a bit.

After that, we felt our way to Piazza San Marco. It’s rather easy to feel your way through the streets of Venice, as long as you’re able to shake off the claustrophobia. Exhibit A:

The walls are closing in, maaaan!

The walls are closing in, maaaan!

Once in the square, a common occurrence took place. Our jaws dropped, and we spun in very slow circles. We took in the majesty of another historical kingdom. The piazza hummed with activity, as the church and palaces towered over us from every angle. We toured the square in our slow, meandering way. The selfie-stick men tried their best sales techniques, but their tricks were old hat to us. We didn’t have the time required to visit each of the sites, but Maria snapped away, as we went.

After a couple of hours exploring the area, we decided that Rialto Bridge was next on the list. Now, all we’d have to do is get there. Lucky for us, various signs pointed out the right direction. I still managed to momentarily get us lost. That is to say, until we came to the realization that the hundreds of stores that seem to line every street, would sooner or later deposit you onto the bridge, especially if you were trying to avoid spending money in any of them. Of course, we stopped occasionally to finish our souvenir purchases. Local Murano glass was a popular, and at times, affordable choice.

Once at the bridge, we looked around and nodded agreeably. The sight was now seen.  It wasn’t that we were underwhelmed by it, but after finding yourself on a bridge, where the sun and moon are simultaneously setting and rising on either side of it (See my earlier blog: 3 Days in Florence), you become a little spoiled. And sometimes, a bridge is just a bridge. That said, the area north of the bridge (I think it was north, I wasn’t exactly a compass on this trip), was a very fun spot to grab a drink and hang out amongst the locals.

We sat on a canal bank and watched as the gondolas and vaporretos drove past. We listened as gondoliers serenaded their passengers. And all the while, the buildings across the canal stood defiantly, with their ancient facades and unknown tales.

Soon, being the lush that I am, I noticed a contingent of twenty-something bohemians lounging near us, sipping their beers and bellinis. I politely asked one of them, where two weary travelers might procure such fine refreshments. They pleasantly pointed me toward a booze stand in the old square near us. And so began, the sitting on the dock of the bay phase of our Venetian evening.

An alternative to the gondola ride.

An alternative to the gondola ride.

During our stint drinking at the edge of the canal, we noticed a young woman speed up next to us in her boat. She expertly parked it against the canal wall. Quickly tying it down, grabbing her gear, and jumping off, like a Venetian Navy Seal.

The only proper way to describe her is as follows:

If Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an actual person, living out a new and dangerous adventure in Venice, she would be this girl.  And when our Canal Racer wasn’t bringing social justice to crooked Northern European assholes, she liked to spend her afternoons buzzing around an ancient city in her trusty old boat. Yep, that starts to do this woman justice.

Our heroine in action:

New Millennium book: Girl who drives boats really fast, while being badass in Venice

Anyhow, back to the story. After our drinks at the canal, we decided to find a decent meal. The hotel suggested a couple of different spots, and after a few wrong turns, we found one of them. It was good, expensive, and very touristy. But this late in the game, we were fine with touristy. After all, who were we to deny our nature.

Our voyage home loomed over us, but we were both excited at the prospect of being with our kids, in our own home.

The next morning, we would need to be at our vaporreto stop by 6 a.m. From there, we would take the water bus to the airport, then a flight to Zurich, a quick train to the other side of that infernal airport, and another flight to Chicago.

As the reality of these travel plans sunk in, we thought it best to take the long walk back to our fancy hotel, and have a good soak (The tub in our room was impressive), and then we would finally call it a night.

Venice was a unique city. It had a certain mystery to it. The city’s narrow walkways in lieu of streets, the absence of any automobiles, and the maze-like structure of it, were just some of the intricacies that separated Venice from other cities I had been to.

When I think of science fiction novels, and the strange lands that are dreamt up in those pages, I’ll think of Venice. An alien city. And I write that with the loving naiveté of a tourist eager to return.

Perhaps, it was by circumstance. Venice was built where it was built, no choice in the matter now. And perhaps, in a world of similarities and replicas, the fact that a city like Venice still exists, is the main reason it stands out. A city that defies the rising of the sea. A city, where the fragility of man’s design dances dangerously close to nature’s wrath. Where land and water merge in the most delicate of ways.

And where, at least for a little while longer, travelers will have the good fortune of finding themselves, even when they appear lost.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my long-winded account of our time in Europe. Thanks for reading. -Nik

Our brief reprieve from travel had expired, and our time in Rome was at an end. Florence lay ahead. Preferring a train ride through Tuscany over a flight anywhere, we would need to navigate Rome’s Termini station in order to find our passage there.

The train station was abuzz with travelers, refugees, and vagabonds (Not sure on the latter two, but it reads cool, eh?). The initial chaos of the train station caught us off guard. I spent my first few minutes at Termini, slowly spinning in place. It was a desperate attempt to collect my bearings, while also locating the spot where a couple of newbies could purchase train tickets. Of course, we had spent the last three nights drinking and eating too much, so I quickly stopped with the spinning.

Soon, Maria was pointing us in the right direction. I broke away from the random sign I was trying to translate (I think it said something about paninis) and followed her to the kiosk, where we were able to secure our tickets.

The train ride was picturesque, and I couldn’t help thinking about the possibilities of a train that could go all the way to Chicago from Italy. Maria mentioned something about science and the many other impracticalities of my new universal train theory, but I was fairly certain someone would figure all that out. When the idea started to seem a tad naïve, even to me, I mumbled something about Elon Musk, and left it at that.

DAY 1:

We arrived, and checked into our hotel on a Monday afternoon. Most of the major museums we were planning to visit (The Uffizi and Accademia) were closed. We hit the streets, with an improvised agenda. A few blocks later, and we were strolling through the Palazzo Vecchio. Maria, the better photographer, snapped away as I followed along. Soon, we were outside the Palazzo, admiring the sculptures. Perseus, holding Medusa’s severed head, stuck out. Mainly, because it was quite badass.

I had read about the Firenze Card, and wanted to buy them, so we could pass the ticket-buying lines on our subsequent days there. The cards were over 70 euros each, and while they allowed admittance into most of the museums, my frugal nature won out, coming to the conclusion that lines weren’t all that bad.

The scooters raced down streets, as we walked the city (and eventually got lost). We watched as college students flirted. At one point, we stumbled into what appeared to be an amateur video shoot. One college-aged tourist, took a video of her friend, as she strutted down a street confidently, tossing her hair dramatically from side to side. Her lack of irony made me cringe. She was living out her own imaginary cover shoot. We went on our way, giggling about college kids in general.

We followed the crowds to the Duomo, and were stunned at the grandeur of it. We stared at the baptistery doors for a long while, trying to make out each panel. Afterward, we just walked in circles around the square that the Duomo lies in.

Later, we walked the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. I held my wallet close, as we window shopped at the gold and silver shops that line either side of the bridge. After browsing a bit, Maria lost interest, and I breathed a sigh of relief. We ended up at a more affordable market of silks, purses, and other touristy knick-knacks.

The bronze boar was in this market. And as the legend goes, if you feed it a coin and rub its snout, you will return to Florence, one day. I remembered our near miss at the Trevi Fountain, a couple of days earlier, and realized that our adherence to the ‘Do over’ rule had paid off.

Hey pretty lady, I'm your little pig.

Hey pretty lady, I’m your little pig.

Maria rubbed the snout, gave it a coin, and even a peck on the cheek for good measure. The fates had seen to it, and our cup overfloweth with good vibes.

 DAY 2:

There was a lot of Renaissancing to do and little time to do it. We were out the door early. First stop was the Uffizi. With no Firenze cards, we bought reservations, grabbed a cappuccino, and headed back at our scheduled visiting time, an hour later. As with Rome, our phones were abundant with Rick Steves audio tours, including the Uffizi. We strolled through the museum and listened to the guide’s interpretation of the legendary paintings and sculptures that stood only a few feet away from us. Soon however, the audio tour and the museum took different paths. Apparently, a lot of what was in the tour had been moved around inside of the museum. So, we went it alone, silencing Rick Steves and depositing him back into our pockets.

There were many standouts in the museum, the birth of Renaissance paintings, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, etc. But Caravaggio, who always gave me the creeps, didn’t fail to do the job again in the Uffizi. That guy really had a penchant for painting rape and murder. Maria was not his biggest fan, though I knew that the technical brilliance and life-like quality of his paintings amazed her just as much as the rest of us.

Knowing that Caravaggio creeped her out, and being the obnoxious twelve year-old that I am, I soon developed a devious Caravaggio impression (Think Roberto Benigni meets a pervy Hannibal Lecter). My Caravaggio was half-Christian, half-sadist. He spoke passionately about his hobbies and interests with Maria. She didn’t like him very much, or at least not my impression of him, but it came naturally, and I had trouble parting with it.

Carvaggio's famous shield: Medusa with morning breath

Caravaggio’s famous shield: Medusa with morning breath

After hours of walking the museum, we adhered to our siesta rule. We were on the streets once more in the late afternoon. We ran into a dozen or so Hare Krishna’s. I hadn’t seen this many Hare Krishna’s since that Airplane movie. They played instruments, sang catchy songs, and danced through the streets. They were very happy. They also had some sort of portable sound system, and soon the street vendors, shop keepers, locals, and tourists alike, were all taking in the show. The songs were fun and catchy, but the lyrics were mostly just the words “Hare Krishna”.

Full disclosure: Neither Maria or I knew exactly what a Hare Krishna was. They kept it funny and breezy though, so they got points for that.

That night we shared a giant plate of Bistecca Florentina at a small restaurant in St. Croce square. Maria overheard the couple behind us talking about how large the entrée was. As is in my nature, I made a dick joke.

The meal was amazing. Rustic Tuscan food at it’s finest. Let it be known: If someone was to say that they saw me in the square on that night, and I was stuffing my face, with tears of fat-kid joy streaming down my cheeks, I would not dispute it.

After dinner, we walked through another area of the city. We sat and enjoyed a bottle of wine in a piazza off the beaten path. We listened to locals, as they had boisterous conversations all around us. A Transgender woman sat with friends and enjoyed the night, even as she shooed away a disheveled homeless man who wouldn’t leave her alone. Two dogs began to ferociously fight in front of a church near us. Their owners finally breaking it up, as everyone, including the disheveled homeless man, stopped to watch. Seconds later, the crowd was back to their night, as were we.

DAY 3:

The Reanaissancing was still upon us, and we, the humble travelers, would heed its call. The day started out with the Gallileo Museum, a cool little spot near the Uffizi. The most interesting artifact, in my morbid opinion, was Galileo’s middle finger, which was encased in glass, and according to a certain guide book, eternally flipping off creationists everywhere. It was a pretty long finger… uh, just sayin.

Later, we visited the Bargello, a museum inside of a medieval castle, which is the home to amazing sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo. Here, the ghost of Bistecca Florentina from the night before, decided to remind me that it still possessed a certain part of my body. I turned and faced walls, lifting a leg subtly, and then hurrying away like a spy after a hand-off. I disappeared into the distance from time to time, and reappeared next to Maria seconds later, while others sniffed at the air and shook their heads in disgust. Maria occasionally took deep breaths, holding them like an expert diver, as I left my scent with the castle’s history.

After that, another siesta. These were quickly proving to be one of my favorite parts of the day. In the late afternoon, we went to see David at Accademia. I was a little worried about this, of course I wanted to see it, but I wondered how different this sculpture would be from the imitation that sits in front of Palazzo Vecchio. Would it disappoint? I wasn’t going to lie to myself if it did, I knew that much.

It did not disappoint. The sculpture did what I heard and read it would. It inspired awe. We had seen many scultptures of David, by other talented masters of the craft, but there was something different about this one. It seemed to have the final say on sculptures, hell, maybe even on Renaisance art. It was a high point, for two random people, who are not art experts, and aren’t all that religious either.

That evening we had dinner in the Oltrarno neighborhood, on the other side of the Arno River. While walking back over the bridge toward our hotel, we realized the sun was setting on one side of it, and the moon was rising on the other side of it. There was a metaphor at play in that moment. One which I still can’t grasp. We sat on that bridge for a while, and watched as the sun set and the moon rose.

My lanky arms double as selfie-sticks in a pinch.

My lanky arms double as selfie-sticks in a pinch.

Michelangelo’s David, like much of the art we saw in the last two days, was transcendent in a way I couldn’t fully articulate or understand. We stared up at them, these paintings and sculptures that shaped a world. Each of them leaving us quiet and reverential. Even my well-practiced Caravaggio impression took a backseat.

I’m vividly reminded of a book I read, as I write this. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart. Actually, I’m reminded of a passage from it that struck me as especially poignant. I was thinking about this passage while we were leaving Florence:

And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things. And looked out for them. And pulled them from the fire. And sought them when they were lost. And tried to preserve them. And save them.

While passing them along from hand to hand. Singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time, to the next generation of lovers… and the next”

Our experience there felt like that.

The art and history of Florence swirled in our heads. And the most important thing I can remember isn’t any of those details. It’s that we were standing there, in the soul of that city, a city that once inspired the world, and we were in its presence, taking it all in, together.


Continued later this week in: 1 Day in Venice



After a delayed flight in Belgrade, another brief stop in Zurich, and a frantic gallop to our gate, we were safely on our way to Rome. Or as safe as you can be, when you’re 30,000ft in the air and have seen way too many disaster movies.

We had only brought carry-on luggage for our trip, thinking this would save us a maddening wait at the baggage claim, but Swiss Air had other plans, unpleasant ones. Being the quasi-robot people that they are, the Swiss attendants determined our baggage to be a centimeter or two oversized. Alas, we spent our first hour in Rome at the mercy of FCO’s baggage claim.

Still, after months of waiting and daydreaming, we were finally in it. Surrounded by the Eternal City. Just two people among the masses. The ghosts of an empire haunting our every turn.

There’s a saying: Everything that is old becomes new again. And this was indeed the case when we arrived in Rome’s Centro Storico area.

DAY 1:

The history books, the travel guides, the restaurant and neighborhood suggestions, all of it, or at least the snippets that we somehow managed to retain, swirled in our collective heads, as we dumped our bags and headed out into the night.

Maria and I had decided on the flight over, that our first day, albeit an abbreviated one, would begin with a stop at the Pantheon. Then it would be dinner near Piazza Navona, and a long walk through the city, afterward. Of course, there would also be occasional stops for wine, when we needed to cool our heels and maintain our buzz.

Our hotel was a couple of blocks from the Pantheon, and when we stumbled upon it, our jaws dropped. It was a juggernaut. Standing ancient and proud on one end of the piazza. It dwarfed the tourist cafes that surrounded it. We stared up at the ancient temple for a time, taking it in, as street vendors tried in vain to sell us selfie sticks and glowy thingys (more on that later).

I was fairly opposed to spending money at the touristy cafes, wanting to opt for more authentic Roman trattorias, but an opportunity to sit and enjoy a drink while the Pantheon loomed over us, was too tempting an offer to pass up.

Next up, was dinner at a small hole-in-the-wall pasta shop near Piazza Navona. We had a carbonara dish, and it was everything we were told it would be. The piazza was electric with tourists, locals, and a fairly perverted clown. We people watched, while also dodging the selfie-stick guy’s advances (he’ll get his, just wait).

Soon, we were strolling down ancient streets, stopping here and there for a drink, and that’s when it happened, nature called, and I was its captive audience. The thing about Rome is the public toilet situation is less than ideal. I had read about this in one of the travel guides, but paid it no mind… until now. It took a few euros, two drinks, and a seat at a busy trattoria, but I found the washroom, seconds before impact. This is what I was faced with:

Et tu, toilette?

Yep, no toilet seat. Like most of the public restrooms we encountered, something was always off. There might be a seat, but there was no sink, there might be a toilet and a sink, but you wouldn’t be wiping with paper in that one.

It was as if the public restrooms were a staging point for some strange experiment on bodily functions in foreign environments. And we were their unknowing test subjects. Still, this was a small issue, and from then on, I meticulously timed my body’s more disgusting operating systems.

All in all, our first night in Rome exceeded even our lofty expectations.

DAY 2:

Our day was planned. Cappuccinos to start, and the rest of the morning would be spent exploring the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. I purchased Roma passes from one of the kiosks along the way. This was paramount in evading the longer ticket buying lines, but we still had to evade multiple selfie stick guys (Just wait).

I had downloaded the Rick Steves audio tour for each ancient attraction. We ear budded up and explored the ancient empire. And while the audio tours were a tad cheesy, they were also informative and added to our overall experience.

The weather was quickly climbing toward a balmy ninety degrees, but regardless of the heat, both the Colosseum and the Forum were sights to behold. Even Indiana Jones must’ve been clapping like Gilbert Grape the first time he toured these ruins.

The Forum be like: “I’m gonna photo bomb these suckers.”

During our sweaty walk back to the hotel, we hydrated at various street fountains, and ate what was possibly the best pizza of our lives… and we’re from Chicago.

Upon reaching our room, soaked, pizza stuffed, and exhausted, we decided to follow a typical Roman schedule. A siesta was in order. Napping is not something I do frequently, but I took to it like Caesar to knives (Too soon?).

After a brief recharge, we wandered the streets of Rome once more. When our legs and stomachs couldn’t go any further, we stopped in for a bite at a trattoria in Campo de’ Fiori . Later that night, Maria and I planned to stop in at the Trevi Fountain, and toss a coin for our guaranteed return. Unfortunately, the fountain was closed for repairs.

I couldn’t help thinking this might prove an unfortunate omen for a return trip to Rome. I quickly pushed the thought away, deciding instead that a busted fountain counts as a ‘do over’ in our favor. When in doubt, revert to schoolyard tactics.

DAY 3:

We began our day, like all of our subsequent days in Italy, with delicious cappuccinos. We channeled our inner Fellini, as we sipped the morning away. Once the caffeine took hold, we walked to the Spanish Steps. There we realized, that in Rome, like most major cities, very rich people enjoy shopping for very expensive things.

We walked up the steps, and enjoyed the view. Soon, a flower salesman of the highest order (this guy could bring timeshares back) was congratulating me on marrying such a beautiful woman.

He then tried on multiple occasions to sell me a rose for her. When he realized I wasn’t going to fall for his advanced sales techniques, he offered Maria a rose at no charge. This guy was good, I thought.

She accepted and I cringed. He had won this battle.

Moments later, he was taking our picture, as Maria held a dozen of his roses. All in all, I was down a couple euros, and Maria was stuck carrying a couple of roses for the rest of the day. Hey, at least it wasn’t selfie stick.

That's the smile of a beaten man.

That’s the smile of a beaten man.

After a pasta lunch, and a siesta, we were back at the Pantheon. Ready to enter it, and take another audio tour. On the way in, the selfie stick man once again blocked my path.

This time however, I didn’t need to brush him off, or perform a well-practiced sidestep. A guard, noticing that the selfie stick man was selling too close to the Pantheon, clapped him on the neck, and tugged him away by his shirt, shoving him further off into the piazza. All the while, he hissed Italian curses in the selfie stick man’s direction. S.S.M (At this point an abbreviation is in order) hurried off, clutching his selfie sticks like a 20 year old girl with too many Instagram followers.

Normally, I wouldn’t want to see a struggling street vendor get treated like that, but there’s something about selfie sticks that brings out the worst in me. I turned and smiled gloriously at Maria. She shook her head disapprovingly, and we went on our way.

Later that night, we strolled over the Tiber River to Trastevere, in search of a local Roman scene. I refused to check the map, two days in Rome and I had it all figured out.

We got lost. Or at least that was Maria’s version.

Two older ladies, who spoke no English, helped me with directions.

We got lost again.

One of the things that we came to understand about Rome that night, was that you always end up somewhere interesting, and you’re guaranteed a small adventure along the way. It wasn’t so much about getting lost as it was about discovering something new. That’s my version, anyhow.

Continued next week in 3 Days in Florence


Maria and I have always wanted to travel to Europe together, and the stars finally aligned this year on our tenth anniversary. So, we began planning a trip through Italy (Rome, Florence, and Venice). This mostly required a bit of clever budgeting, timing the trip with my Mom (our very free, and very awesome babysitter), brushing up on our history (both antiquity and the renaissance), and an overdose on Rick Steves travel books.

But first, if we were going to cross the pond, we would need to plan a stop in Serbia to visit my relatives.

I had been to Serbia several times in the past, but it had been fourteen years since I last visited. Before that, I had been there in 1995. Both visits were after different wars in the Balkans, and all of our time in Europe during those visits was spent with our family, refugees of the Bosnian war, now living in a village named Stepanovic.

This time however, my wife would be with me, and we would only be staying for two days.

Day 1:

We flew into Zurich, and then caught a connecting flight to Belgrade. My Dad, who was visiting there as well, and Baja, a bear of a man, with an impressive mustache and a fun loving spirit, were both waiting for us at the airport.

Stepanovic is about ninety miles north of Belgrade. The village is close to the city of Novi Sad, known outside of the region mostly for the Exit Festival. One of the largest music fests in Europe. We were greeted in Stepanovic with a table full of food and drinks, as my grandmother and great aunts and uncles smothered us with hugs and kisses. It was as warm and true a reunion as I could have hoped.

We immediately began our night of catching up, drinking, and stuffing ourselves. Admittedly, my Serbian is a little rusty (I sound like a Balkan Yoda), but I did my best to translate for Maria, as multiple conversations erupted around us.

At one point, Deda Nikola, my great uncle and namesake, surprised at how much my Serbian had deteriorated, decided to let me know what I now sounded like.

His impersonation went like this:

He scrunched his grizzled, and mostly toothless face, and said “Waaa waaa waaa waaa.” And then he pointed and laughed at me. His impression was spot on.


Me and the Serbian Frank Caliendo.

A few Slivovic shots later, and I remembered an old joke about a man on the side of the road. In my slurry Serbian, I attempted to tell it. I’m not one to embellish, but this was a Herculean effort.

The old joke:

A man, sits next to his goat on the side of the road. He is approached by another man, who is driving a scooter. The driver asks the man with the goat for the time. The man, still sitting next to his goat, lifts its testicles and says 10:30. The driver thanks him and leaves.

A few moments later, the driver pulls back up to the man with the goat, and asks him how he can tell the time by lifting his goat’s testicles. The man tells the driver he’s moving them out of the way so he can see the clock from where he’s sitting.

It may not be as funny written in English for a blog, but trust me, when you mime moving goat testicles to the side, this joke works.

Day 2:

It was mid-morning, and I was a bit hungover. I sat outside the house in a small shed, that doubles as an outside kitchenette, with my great-aunt Duska. We smoked and drank Turkish coffee. Life was good.

Later in the day, Maria and I left for the city of Novi Sad to do a little sightseeing with my dad and Baja. In the city, my wife was lucky enough to witness her first bribing of a police officer.

We were pulled over after about ten minutes of driving in the city. A police officer came up to the car, he noticed the license plates (American), and wanted to know if we had insurance, and if this was indeed our car. The car was ours, but unfortunately our insurance was expired. I remember thinking that first world problems were sometimes also third world problems.

My dad and Baja exited the car and spoke with the police officer. I sat in the back with Maria, and translated what I could. A twenty euro handshake was administered, and we were free to go. My wife’s expression during this was worth every one of those euros.

Soon, we got around to the sightseeing. We strolled around an impressive old fortress that sits on the Danube River. After that, we walked around the old city, ate ice cream (more on that later), and listened to a couple of talented mandolin players.

After a quick stop at a village pub, we were back in Stepanovic. Maria and I sat with Duska once more, sipping on our coffees, as Baba Mica (my grandmother) napped on the couch next to us. Soon though, she awoke and looked up at me, groggily. She asked if I had eaten, and I told her that we had ice cream in the city. She sighed, and said “Fuck ice cream.” And then rolled over.

My grandmother has a beautiful way with words, especially the colorful ones. To be more specific, she swears like a sailor and it’s fucking spectacular.

Fuck ice cream became the catchphrase for the rest of our trip. It followed us through Italy, and it may even follow me to the grave, chiseled powerfully atop my tombstone. The perfect epitaph.

Our last evening in Serbia was spent socializing and barbecuing. In the morning, it was heartfelt goodbyes and some tears (not by me though, I’m very manly). And after the last of our farewells were complete, we were off to Nikola Tesla airport and ready to begin the second leg of our trip.

We say "fuck ice cream." Saying "cheese" is for pussies.

We say “fuck ice cream.” Saying “cheese” is for pussies.

…continued next week in 3 Days in Rome

Last week my Cousin and I took our families on a journey into the wilds of the great north… Well, Hayward Wisconsin to be exact.

Lake Nelson, our home for the week, was just the sort of spot a bunch of third-rate adventurers, with children in tow, were looking for. There was an island, an abundance of wildlife, and a wise local or two. Truth be told, most old people seem wise to me. Even the drunk ones especially the drunk ones.

We relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, and we even learned a thing or two along the way.


-Eagles are the Clint Eastwood of birds (evidenced by the photo below).

“Ever notice how sometimes you come across somebody you shouldn't have fucked with?  Well, I'm that bird.”

“Ever notice how sometimes you come across somebody you shouldn’t have fucked with? Well, I’m that bird.”

-We learned that turtles, when not mutated or trained in the arts of Ninjitsu, are pretty chill. Although, they do have a pee-on-you fetish, which is kind of weird. But hey, to each his own.

"I'm peeing on this guy's hands."

“I’m peeing on this guy’s hands.”

-We learned that six children under the age of 8, in a three bedroom cabin, is a surefire way to turn parents into alcoholics.

-I fell out of a kayak. Which taught me that kayaks are a tricky way to travel. Also, fuck kayaks.

-Cleaning a fish is more difficult than it’s portrayed on youtube.

-Bug spray is not sunblock. Sunblock is not bug spray.

-In Hayward, people with the strangest accents will comment on your accent.

-Spotted Cow is a delicious beer.

“I’d drink me. I'd drink me, hard."

“I’d drink me. I’d drink me, hard.”

-Most importantly, I learned that mosquitos are amassing a tiny vampire army, and Wisconsin is ground zero.

“I’m going to poke holes in you and drink your essential fluids. Then you will be itchy and I will laugh at your discomfort.”

“I’m going to poke holes in you and drink your essential fluids. Then you will be itchy and I will laugh at your discomfort.”


My cousin and I stopped at the Walmart in Hayward to purchase much needed supplies. During our purchase, I asked the cashier if he knew of any places that we could pick up more firewood. He looked at me for a long moment.

“Let me think” he whispered.

The seconds ticked away slowly.

“It’s okay, I can—–”

“I’m thinking” said the man, cutting me off.

My cousin and I exchanged an unsure look. The seconds continued ticking away, much slower than before. The two of us watching on as the man thought long and hard. Finally, he sighed heavily and hung his head.

“I can’t think.” He whispered, an almost inaudible admission.

The Walmart checkout line had suddenly become some strange confessional.

“It’s okay, man.” Replied my cousin. He was the Robin Williams to this man’s inner Matt Damon.

The man looked up at us curiously.

“Are you German?” He asked.

I smiled politely at the man.

“No. No, we are not.”

He nodded at this, as if my response had reaffirmed something for him. Something important. We nodded back at the man warily, and then left.

Being from the Chicagoland area, and having survived a winter of Roland Emmerich proportions, a summer day at the beach wasn’t something I could yet wrap my head around. But then my wife’s aunt called, and asked if we’d be interested in using their condo for the weekend. My head was about to do some wrapping.

The drive was a breeze, and we touched down on Friday afternoon. Their condo was the sort of place that offers a warm hug—the comfortable kind, not the drunken stranger ones. It also happened to be a block from the lake, so the bonus points were adding up. I contemplated purchasing them a trophy of some sort, to show our gratitude. Unfortunately, according to my wife, a trophy is not the type of gift you give to show your appreciation. I disagree, trophies are badass, no matter the occasion, but I digress.

With the kids in tow, we walked to the beach, to get a lay of the land, and a better idea of what tomorrow’s preparations would entail. Did I mention that we don’t do the beach that often? I took my mental snapshot. We would need drying materials, sun deterrents, hydration elixirs, digging implements, and of course, booze.

On the walk back, we encountered a group of what I suppose were college freshmen. Sophomores, maybe? Whatever the case, they were young, sunburned, drunk, and mildly retarded. One of these dudebros was shouting up to another small herd of dudebros that were residing on a rooftop deck. I couldn’t quite make out the conversation, but the dudebro nearest us, on the street, insisted that his dudebro brethren throw him down a beer.

I was fairly certain if they did, he would not catch it. He would be hit by the plummeting can, and end up even dumber than he already was. Thankfully, one of the smarter dudebros insisted he get lost. Our street level dudebro shouted “westsiiiiide!” and took off in a jog. At that exact moment, on some far off desert island, Tupac and Biggie collectively rolled their eyes, while Elvis ate pudding.

Saturday on the Beach. With good weather and lots of beachfront real-estate to choose from, we quickly set up our base of operations. Evidenced by my sweet pic:


Most of the day was spent on the beach. Sandcastles were built, the newspaper was read, snacks were eaten, our kids bartered, bickered, and frolicked, and a drink was created (pour half of a frozen margarita pouch into a cup, fill the remainder of the cup up with beer, and then repeat this process often).

A quick note about the lake. It’s chilly. I almost froze my nether regions during an ill-advised swim. On the plus side, this also makes jumping into it on a hot day, invigorating. The mistake I made was staying waist deep for too long. Finally noticing the error, I ran out of the lake, in what I can only assume looked like a hairless Sasquatch being chased through quicksand by hornets.

The pain in my frozen parts reminded me of a prank that I fell for in the eighth grade:

Prankster: “You know the capital of Thailand?”

Nik: “Why the hell would I—“

Prankster: “Bangkok!”

*nails me in the junk*

This was kind of like that, except this prankster was a giant lake, with anger issues, and really cold hands.

Moving on, for the sake of brevity (Not sure if this is a blog or a memoir at this point) I will wrap it up with some quick bits:

– We ran into another dudebro during a different walk. He was attempting to throw a football into a third story window from the street. Apparently, dudebros are fascinated by gravity.

– I forgot how to grill with charcoal. I hate to admit this, and I’m worried that all of my chest hair will now wilt, but it is what it is. This was especially pathetic considering I tried to Google it, but my phone service was sketchy, and my questions fell on deaf ears. I finally figured it out, but not before a neighbor observed my shortcomings as a man.

– Upon leaving town, I hit a pothole that was on its way to becoming a sinkhole, and a block later I passed a tire shop. This was no coincidence. Somewhere near Michigan City, a tire shop employee is using a jack hammer with a silencer on it.

– My wife told me a story of sleeping over at her aunt and uncle’s house when she was a child. In the morning, her uncle asked if the kids all wanted to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. His children groaned loudly, apparently he took them to the zoo quite a bit. He clapped his hands together and said “Okay, that settles it. Maxwell Street it is.” He’s a man after my own quirky heart, I thought.

A bear.

“I’m going to turn you into poo.” -What every bear is thinking.

Our summer lake house trip is less than a month away. The planning phase has been easy enough, until it gave way to an inevitable conversation regarding bear attacks.

And while my wife scoffs at the idea of a ravenous, soul-eating, hell bear hunting us in an unknown wilderness. I’ve seen the game tape, and I’m well aware of the insatiable hunger that lurks in the dark hearts of these gore machines. Allow me to present the evidence.

Evidence A: Grizzly Man. Fucking GRIZZLY MAN. It has more monsters in it than a Guillermo Del Toro fever dream. And they walk among us.

Evidence B: The Edge. Only a brilliant serial killer, Norse god, and knighted Englishman (One Sir Anthony Hopkins) could ever hope to escape from such a vile forest demon.

Evidence C: Kung Fu Panda. Proof that they are adept at many styles of hand to paw combat, and that even the panda bear is an inherently violent creature.

Evidence D: Legends of the Fall. The beast shows no respect. Not even for a dreamy, long-haired Pitt. What chance do we have?

Evidence E: Stephen Colbert. The most brilliant newsman of our generation also happens to have enough sense to tremble in terror at the very mention of these human hating hibernators.

Now, with this abundance of information on hand, I’ve decided we must prepare ourselves for the possibility the undeniable reality that we will have to face one of these marrow-lickers in the near future.

Being a proper father and husband, I immediately began to make the necessary preparations. Guns. Lots of guns. For all of us. Especially my five year-old. He’s the smallest and slowest of our tribe, so he would get both the shotgun and the grenade.

My argument for advanced weaponry was simple. We can’t outrun or out climb them.

Best case scenario: Dance off (Improbable)

Worst Case Scenario: Tickle fight (Almost a certainty)

Unfortunately, this initial safety plan was shot down by my wife. No guns.

So, um, my plan is currently in a state of metamorphosis. Like a soon to be freed bear-killing butterfly.

Of course, I will need additional time to research some of the trickier elements in my current plan (crossbows, poisoned honey,  and spiked pits), and in all likelihood, my workload is about to triple (carving spears and digging pits is time consuming). Plus, we might lose our security deposit, but regardless of the obstacles, safety comes first… whatever the cost.