Saturday, May 10, 2014

I'm 42 and I Just Passed My Drivers Test.


When last we left our hero, he was concerned about moving back to the US after so many years without a valid US drivers license. How would he get around? Would he be able to rent a car with his Italy license? Does anyone care? For answers to these and other burning questions, stay tuned...

...And we're back. I had last taken a drivers test as a high school junior, 26 years ago. My New Hampshire license had expired in 1999 while I was deployed to Kosovo as a soldier in the US Army. NH has (or had, at least) a three year statute of limitations on renewing you license after it expires but I didn't make it back in time so for the next 15 years I drove on my US Army Europe or US Armed Forces Italy drivers license without issue. 

Now I have friends who have been in similar circumstances as me and who have told me that the state that they moved to simply swapped out their USAREUR or AFI license for a state license so I was hopeful that South Carolina - being a state loaded with military bases - would do the same for me. I went to the local DMV with my license, my military ID card and my orders and hoped for the best...but it was not to be. The nice woman actually started to give me the documents needed to do a direct swap and I was thinking I was going to get lucky when she took my AFI license, looked at it with a funny look, and then took it into her supervisor who apparently informed her that it was not one of the licenses that they accepted for a direct swap. My heart sank as she informed me that I would have to take all the tests all over again, the eye test, the written test and the road test. She actually asked the woman next to her if, because I was such an experienced driver, they might possibly waive the road test but the woman (best described as an old curmudgeon who was seemingly not happy with her station in life) shook her head and said no, absolutely not. So the woman helping me gave me the website for the drivers manual to study and instructions to just come back and see her with all my documents when I was ready to test. 

Now, at this point I was worried because one of the needed documents was my social security card and I was sure that it was packed in my household goods. She said I could substitute my DD214 (military discharge papers) since they also have my SSN but those too were in my household goods. I was getting stressed out by this point because my car is slated to arrive any day now and I can't register it without a US drivers license so I had to wait for my HHG, I could have trouble. So imagine my elation when I got back back to the hotel and looked in my suitcase and found that I'd had the foresight to pack both my social security card and my DD214 in my checked bags. Things were starting to look up for a change.

I got to work the next morning determined to spend the day memorizing the SC driving manual because I had to make sure that I passed my test on the first try. My new coworkers all got quite a laugh at my predicament and the parallel parking jokes were flying. I opened the manual and pored over the various speed limits, traffic signs, parking distances to different obstacles such as railroad crossings, fire hydrants and intersections - things I had not thought about since I last took my drivers test 26 years ago. They have a practice test on the website and I figured I'd take it to see how I was progressing. It was surprisingly easy, almost embarrassingly so. I ended up taking it five times to chart my progress and I got a 93, 100, 100, 87 and 100. I felt ready. 

I girded up my loins and departed the office to the sounds of good natured heckling from my new coworkers reminding me to keep my hands at 2 and 10. I returned to the DMV with all of my documents and a confident air that belied the nervous feeling I had in my stomach. The woman remembered me right away. We had spent so much time together at her window that I found out more about her life than I ever wanted to know. I heard all about her father who she was estranged from: (You have to imagine the following part in the voice of an angry black woman...) "He lives in Connecticut but I don't see him anymore because he just can't seem to make the effort to come see me or his grandbabies and if he don't wanna try then I ain't got no time for him. He done nothing but turn his back on us his whole life and I don't care what he do no more." For a minute, I actually started wondering if I was getting Punk'd. Her personal issues notwithstanding, she was really nice and certainly helpful compared to her coworker, the curmudgeon. I passed the written test with flying colors and was passed over to the curmudgeon to process my stuff for the road test. The curmudgeon told me she needed my vehicle registration, I told her I had a rental, she said fine, then she needed my rental agreement ("to prove that you are the driver of the vehicle"). Of course, for some reason, I did not have my rental agreement in the car and I could not locate it in my folder that I put all of my important documents in. I had to go back to the hotel to get it but it was not there either so I had to call the rental car office to ask if they could make me another copy. They asked what I needed it for and I tried to explain it to the guy but he ended up laughing loudly at me having to take my driving test at 42 years old. It was a bit emasculating actually. He apologized for laughing then said come down and he'll make me a copy. I got back to the DMV and sat in front of the curmudgeon's window and waited patiently. They informed me that she was out on a road test and I was instantly terrified at the thought of having her as my road test instructor. She returned and stood at her window, glancing at me occasionally but not acknowledging my presence. Eventually the woman with the estranged father said "He's back with his rental agreement..." and the curmudgeon replied that she wasn't processing my documents, someone else was. I wondered to myself how long she was going to let me sit there waiting for her before she said anything. After a bit, she just told me to go wait outside in the waiting area for my road test.

This pretty much sums up how I felt on this day.
I waited. And waited. And waited. Suddenly a woman - who was not the curmudgeon - came through the door and called my name. She did not look very happy either but at least she was not the curmudgeon, I reasoned. I had kind of though that when the tester found out my circumstances, that I as only taking the test as a formality and that I've been driving all over the world for the past 26 years, they would just be lenient and not really have me do anything crazy. Unfortunately my worst fears were realized as the first thing she did was a thorough check of the rental car - lights, blinkers, horn, brake, everything - and then told me there would be NO conversation in he vehicle as I would need to concentrate on the road 100%. This woman did everything completely by the book, as if I were a high school kid fresh out of drivers ed. It's funny how difficult it is to drive in a situation like that. Something I've done with no problems for 26 years suddenly becomes laborious. I was taking no chances with this woman because she meant business. I kept my hands at 2 and 10 the whole time, I constantly glanced at my speedometer to make sure I wasn't going one mile over the speed limit and I kept my mouth shut and did everything she told me to. At one point she asked me to identify the sign we had just passed; luckily I had looked at it and knew it was a speed limit sign. Later she asked the same question but I was not so lucky this time as I was looking at my speedometer and missed it. She said "ok..." and scribbled in her clipboard. I was tense, nervous. She had me do a three point turn on a small rural road. Then she had me drive backwards on the same road for about a quarter of a mile which is more difficult than it seems. More scribbling. We got back to the DMV and she pointed to a set of big wooden barriers and it was time for my old nemesis: parallel parking. I have never been very good at parallel parking but the good Lord must have been my copilot that day because I completely nailed it on my first try. More scribbling. I sat still for what seemed like an eternity and then I heard the magical words I'd longed to hear for the past several years: "You passed." I paid my 25 bucks, smiled for my picture and walked out of the DMV holding a brand new drivers license.  

And for a brief moment, I was 16 again. 


Monday, May 5, 2014

Let's Talk About Racism...

How could anybody have a problem with this beautiful group?

I know this is a sensitive subject here in the US but let's talk about it anyway. When I found out I would have to relocate to the US, the entire US was open to me even if I knew there were only a handful of places that we had a decent chance of ending up. However, I immediately started receiving warnings from friends from different parts of the US that I would inevitably encounter racism because I am married to an Asian woman and my kids are "Amerasian".

Well, this completely floored me. Now admittedly, there are not a lot of black people where I am from. But, in my experience, I can never remember any incidents or problems of a racial nature. As far as I can recall, people were people regardless of what color they were. I had black friends growing up and never thought twice about about it. When I went to college, I met a black guy from the inner city my freshman year and we got along so well that we chose to live together for three and a half years. The point is, I know there have always been racial problems in the US but I've never witnessed them firsthand. The one and only time I actually came face to face with it was back in 1991 during AIT (job school with the Army) in Augusta, Georgia. We had a guy from rural Mississippi who took me aside and told me "Man, there sure are a lot of niggers around here...". I was 19 years old at the time and scared to make a scene or get in a fight so I just sort of moved away from him and shunned him the rest of the summer. Truth be told,  I was a bit freaked out because I'd never met anyone like him before and I didn't know how to react.

So anyway, we found out we were going to South Carolina and people really started warning me about it. "South Carolina is the south, you're going to have trouble...they are still fighting the war down there!" But I've gotta be honest - at least here in Sumter - I have not found a single hint of racism. Now, I'll preface this statement by reminding you that I grew up in New England; that being said, I've never lived anywhere where there are so many African Americans (I'm sorry, I don't know what the proper PC term is these days, I'm sorry if I offend anyone).  It honestly seems like there are more black people than white people here and yet I've really not noticed any difference in people I've met than anywhere else I've lived. People are people, it seems, no matter the skin color.

See, when I hear the stories of friends who are in "mixed" marriages and encounter problems, it honestly shocks me. I just can't believe that in 2014 there is anyone who has a problem with a black person married to a white person or, in our case, a white guy married to an Asian woman. And thankfully I have not personally witnessed it yet. But the fact remains that several friends have warned me about it and swear that we will be subjected to it at some point. Some have even warned that my kids will have trouble in some of the schools here because they are "mixed". This is something that I honestly never considered when moving back to my home country and I hope to God that I am right in my naiveté. I just can't imagine that after 25 years of service to my country, that ANYONE would have a problem with who I married or what my children look like.

I mean, seriously, in this really a problem?!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Adjusting to Life in Sumter

It’s really hard to describe to people who have never lived outside of the US for any lengthy period of time what being back here is like; to them it just seems like I’m complaining about every little thing or that I hate America.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I love the USA. Truth be told, although I miss Italy tremendously I am actually really happy to be back here in my own country. I remember when I left back in 1998, all I could think about were all of the things I would miss living in Europe but I quickly learned that even though you miss certain things, they get replaced by other things that you didn’t have in the place you left. That’s sort of what I’m experiencing now – rediscovering things about the US that I love but had forgotten about or otherwise learned to live without. Sometimes it’s the little things, like turning on a TV and having every single channel in English. And sometimes it’s bigger, something you can’t quite quantify like just the general feeling you get when you suddenly realize you’re actually back in the US - I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life feeling like a guest in someone else’s country but suddenly that feeling has been replaced by the feeling that I’m finally home (such as it is anyway). 

There are still adjustments though and I am occasionally experiencing bouts of culture shock here in Sumter. I think the biggest shocker for me so far has been this one: you cannot buy alcohol here in Sumter on Sundays. At all. Not in a grocery store, not in a bar, not even in a restaurant. That one was quite a shock to my system. Everybody I talk to seems embarrassed by the law and several tell me that it is coming up for a vote in November and will probably get overturned but it floors me that in this modern day, I can’t go to a restaurant on a Sunday and get a glass of wine with my meal. Or go to a bar to watch a game and have a beer. Apparently it is only Sumter County as I’m told most people just go to Columbia on Sundays. I can’t even imagine what it must be like during NFL season here. Just shocking.

Speaking of alcohol, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I am not going to find decent wine anywhere close to Sumter and so far that has pretty much held true. In many of the restaurants we’ve eaten at so far, I’ve sampled some of the wines on offer and haven’t found anything remotely resembling what I would consider decent vino. Now, coming to Sumter, South Carolina and complaining about the wine selection would be a tremendous exercise in futility so I just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut because a wine snob in Sumter probably has a very short life expectancy. That being said, I have discovered a small oasis in my vino-less desert. There is a wine and spirits specialty store very close to the house we will be living in that features a halfway decent selection of wines from various countries around the world (decent for Sumter at least). The prices are high which is to be expected but there are some decent options at decent prices so at least I know that life will not be completely barren in the wine department.

Not on Sundays...

Food is quickly becoming one of the biggest disappointments for us. We had thought that being in the south and in a somewhat rural area would mean that we would have a plethora of fresh produce and such. Sadly it seems we were mistaken, at least so far. We haven’t found a single farmer’s market, Whole Foods or anything else along those lines here in Sumter. Even the grocery stores’ selections are lacking. It seems like everything here is deep fried or otherwise prepared in the least healthy way possible. Virginia plans to start her little vegetable garden when we move into the house, hopefully that will help. I worry about my kids’ diets living here, quite frankly. 

Fish and seafood - if food in general has been a big disappointment so far, then fish and seafood are right at the top of the list. Sumter is roughly two hours from the coast but we’d been told by a few people that the fish and seafood here was really good. That may be true but unfortunately we have not been able to find any of it. I’d done my research online before we got here and found a place called Liberty Seafood downtown that got rave reviews from people about their fresh fish and seafood so we were very anxious to check it out. We found it on our second or third day – it is a tiny little run down shack of a place that is actually an eatery in a predominantly black neighborhood serving all manner of fried fish but they also sell “fresh” fish. However, by “fresh fish”, we’re talking fish that they must have pulled out of the local creek (or is it called a crick?) - a whole bunch of dirty looking carp-like trash fish. I walked in and immediately felt like I didn’t belong there. I asked the 400 lb guy covered in fish guts if they carried any saltwater fish, seafood or shellfish. He gave me an angry look, cocked his lip and said “naw man, just what you see here, bro.” I beat a hasty retreat filled with bitter disappointment. Even the grocery stores feature terrible selection. Most of what passes for fresh seafood here seems to be farm raised catfish, farm raised salmon and more farm raised catfish. A couple places do have lobster tanks but they charge almost 20 bucks a pound for them. For those who don’t know us, Virginia and I are HUGE fish and seafood eaters. I would give up red meat before I ever gave up fish and seafood. Things have gotten so bad that we actually went to…*shudder*…the Red Lobster the other day.  It was “meh” at best and extremely overpriced but I needed fish so bad we had no choice. It was not my proudest moment. I felt like I needed a shower after we left. It looks like we’ll be relying on frozen fish as long as we’re here. Big disappointment. How big? Huge.  

Oh how we miss you...

Shopping, while not disastrous, is certainly not what I’d hoped or expected. One of the things you miss most about the US when you live overseas is the shopping. You have a small department store on base called a PX that has a limited selection of American stuff and you learn to live with it but you dream of the day you get to go back to the US and have an unlimited selection of American goodies at cheap prices. One of the things I’d sold the X Man on to get him excited about moving here was the huge selection of toys he would have to choose from rather than the one tiny aisle of toys he had at the PX which was always missing the stuff he liked. Unfortunately for us, Sumter is far from a shopping mecca. There’s a super Walmart but their toy section is not much bigger the PX and I’ll never forget the look of utter disappointment on poor Xavier’s face when he saw it. There is the Sumter Mall but it’s so small that you can almost throw a rock from one end to the other. I’ve quickly learned that you want decent shopping you have to drive 45 minutes to either Columbia or Florence. There’s a Toys R Us in Florence so we’ll be taking the kids there to pacify their youthful cravings. There’s also a Target and – my personal favorite – a Barnes and Noble. To put it in a way that the folks back home will understand, there are more shopping options in the Pheasant Lane Mall than in the entire city of Sumter put together. And don’t get me started on the sales tax…

Anyway, those are a few examples of some of the bigger adjustments we’ve had to make so far. There are plenty of other things both good and bad we are finding here and I’ll try to cover some more in the future. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

As Seen on TV...

So the time change is getting the best of us thus far. Everyday around early to mid afternoon I start hitting a wall and it's a real struggle to stay awake past 8pm each night. Worse, every morning I'm up and wide awake around 3am and can't get back to sleep, then I start getting that eye burn thing somewhere around 6 or 7 from lack of sleep. The wife and kids are struggling too - the other night Luca fell asleep in his chair while we were having dinner at Chili's and I had to carry him home.

Each morning this week, all of us have been awake by around 5 am which is unheard of in our family. With nothing else to do at that hour, we usually turn the TV on which has led to Virginia and the kids being introduced to a stalwart of American culture; The Infomercial.

How much would you pay now?!
Virginia, being the culinary addict that she is, loves the ones with the "knives that cut through anything!" and the pressure cooker that "cooks food in minutes!". The kids love pretty much all of them. Xavier thinks it's funny to see how all the people are so completely amazed at every little thing (Ohhh! Ahhh!). There was, however, a nervous moment the other morning when we stumbled upon one hawking some kind of product that guaranteed to "increase your stamina and sex drive!", I changed the channel as quick as I could but not before Xavier started asking all kinds of questions about it that, well, I'm just not ready to answer yet. Then again, what better place for a kid to learn about the birds and the bees than an infomercial? The words "As seen on TV!" would certainly take on a whole different meaning, that's for sure.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Transition Begins...

Our home for the next month or two...God help me.

We are finally on American soil. And, as you would imagine, the last 36 hours or so has been wild and crazy. It started when our friend Ellie showed up at the hotel to pick us up and take us to the airport, our flight time was 0630 and I figured we'd better get going early since we had 3 kids and about 3,567 pieces of a car seat for the baby. We had way too much stuff - Virginia's friend was supposed to come and pick up a bunch of it the night before but never showed up so we found ourselves scrambling at 0330 trying to figure out what to do with everything. Eventually we got everything taken care of (let's just say that the cleaning crew that cleaned our room found themselves quite a bounty that day) and headed to the airport.

Traveling with a baby can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing part comes when getting through lines because most airlines and airports allow families with babies priority and believe me, that's no small thing. The curse comes pretty much the rest of the time. The best part of flying is usually when you get all your bags checked in but we had so many carry on bags, plus the baby, that moving around was a chore. The flights weren't too bad - hour and a half to Amsterdam, 10 hours to Atlanta and then one hour to Columbia. When we arrived in Atlanta, the terminal was completely packed with restaurants and I told Xavier "Welcome to the US" as he gazed around in wonder. I popped into a news shop and bought a Sporting News NFL Draft preview which costs $4.95. I pulled out a fiver but was aghast when it rung up at $5.35 and I was given my first reminder that I am now in the land of sales tax. Back home in New Hampshire, we do not have sales tax so this was quite a shock to my system. It would be nice if they would just put the price - INCLUDING the sales tax - on the item so you don't have to be scrambling at the register to find enough spare change. Someday when I rule the world...

We arrived in Columbia around 1730 and I was pleasantly surprised to see how nicely they've fixed up the airport. Finishing our journey in Columbia was sort of like coming full circle for me because when I left for Europe in 1998, I had to all my in-processing at Ft. Jackson which is right outside the city which means that I started and finished my European experience at the Columbia Airport. I ran into a lady from the USO at the airport who turned out to be very helpful. The USO was a trip because Ft Jackson is the main basic training post in the US Army so there was a drill sergeant there who had a bunch of new recruits standing at parade rest there. Oh, the memories.

Anyway, I had decided against renting a car at the airport since I would need to rent an SUV to get us and all of our bags to the hotel and then trade it in for a smaller car. I figured we'd just bite the bullet and take a taxi to the hotel since we'd be exhausted from traveling all day and my instincts turned out to be right...sort of. One of our bags got left behind in Atlanta for some reason which delayed me even more and then getting a taxi was inexplicably a tremendous chore. The USO gave me the numbers for three different taxi services that they use; the first one wanted to charge me $150 and actually tried to talk me out of it saying that nobody in the area had a van big enough to take all of us and our bags. I was not deterred however and found one that would do it for $125. We were so exhausted and worn out by that time that I said fine but they had all kinds of problems trying to figure out where to meet us.

Now, let me explain a few things here; first, the Columbia Airport is really small. REALLY small. It is also the home to Ft. Jackson and I'd bet that at least half of the traffic they receive have something to do with the military so you cannot tell me that the taxi companies aren't COMPLETELY familiar with the airport and the USO. They said they needed a phone number to call me at but of course I don't have one yet so I gave them the USO number. They called the USO about 15 minutes later just to "confirm" that we were still there and still needed the taxi. Apparently they sometimes show up only to find that the person found a cheaper taxi and had already left. Anyway, they call and say the guy is waiting downstairs outside the baggage claim so the USO lady loans us a huge luggage dolly for our 3,657 bags and then walked us downstairs only to find that the taxi they sent was a regular taxi car. We called the taxi place and reminded the woman that I had specifically told her that I had two adults, 3 kids including a baby in a car seat, and 3,567 bags (ok, it was only 7 but it felt like 3,567) and so we would need a large van. She says "Oh, my apologies sir, I didn't hear you say two adults, I only heard 3 kids and a lot of bags..."

Now think about that for a moment. Has it come to you yet? If not, it will.

She says she is going to send a van as soon as she can. Meanwhile I'm standing there considering just telling them not to bother and going back in to rent an SUV. After a few minutes, the guy comes over and says he's almost sure he can fit all of us and the 3,567 bags in his taxi. I agreed to let him try because we were so worn out by that time that we REALLY just wanted to get checked into the hotel and get something to eat, then crash. To my surprise, he managed to fit everything - it was probably fortunate that one of our bags got left behind in Atlanta because I don't think that 3,568th bag would have fit. We thanked the USO lady who had been extremely helpful but she apparently was not happy with the taxi driver's effort as she went back inside and called the taxi company to complain that the guy had talked us into cramming everything into his taxi when there wasn't enough room. She was white and the taxi driver was black so he made no effort to hide the fact that he felt her complaint was 100% racially motivated, then gave us a solemn warning not to trust anyone in the area and to keep a small circle of friends while we are here because "people around here are two faced". Things were starting to get just a little surreal. The rest of the ride was enjoyable but it struck me that this area is a lot more rural than I expected. We got checked into the hotel and the wife was so hungry that we decided to go get some food even though it was almost 9pm by that time.

The Outback Steakhouse is right next to the hotel so we just went there and had a less than enjoyable meal. Virginia asked for her steak medium-well done with a little bit of pink in the middle but what arrived was something akin to shoe leather. We complained and the waitress apologized and said she'd have them fire up another medium rare for us to take away. There was another moment of trepidation when the bill came and I suddenly realized that I now have to tip everywhere I go (something is not done in Europe). We finished up, came back and all passed out within 5 minutes, exhausted from such a long day of traveling.

I was woken up this morning at 0600 by the phone. I started cursing whoever would call at such an early hour and it turned out to be Delta Airlines in Atlanta saying they found our lost bag. How nice of her to call so early in the morning and let me know! The hotel features the typical southern hotel breakfast - powdered eggs, sausage, ham and biscuits with sausage gravy. I packed my Mokka so I could enjoy my espresso in the morning but there is no kitchenette here so it looks like I will have to suffer with regular brewed coffee during my stay at the hotel. We have a recovery day today so Im headed out to get a rental car and then we'll explore Sumter a bit. Everybody we've met so far has warned us to stay away from the Walmart but the kids are so excited to see this mythical place they've heard so much about. There is an Ihop across the street from us, a place I haven't eaten at since I was a small child. I'm curious to check it out but I'm afraid of ending up in a World Star of Hip Hop video (some of you might get that).

Should be an interesting an fun week. Stay tuned for more adventures!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Personal Best & Worst of Europe, 1998-2014.

With a mere five days left in my European adventure, I thought it might be fun to take a look back and relive some of the highs, lows and other things during my years here. Remembering that all travel is subjective and tastes are all different, here we go...

1. Favorite City:  Admittedly I have vacillated between Rome and Venice over the years here but in the end, La Serennissima wins out. Rome is great but Venice is unique, there's nothing like it in the world.

2. Most Disappointing City: Brugge, Belgium. I have heard countless people over the years extoll the virtues of Brugge as the "true hidden gem of Europe", "The Venice of the North", etc. but I was completely unimpressed by it. Given the choice I would take Brussels over Brugge any day.

Brugge: Overrated.

3. My Choice for Hidden Gem of Europe: I'm going to surprise some people here and say Wurzburg, Germany. The only people who know it seem to be Americans who were stationed there but Wurzburg more than holds its own as a tourist destination. The Residenz and the Marienburg Fortress are up there with anything I've seen in Europe and the city itself is beautiful and perfectly laid out to wander, take pictures, sample the famous Frankenweins and just generally enjoy yourself. The views of the fortress from the city are impressive. Likewise, the views of the city from the fortress are phenomenal.

4. Favorite Country: Not surprisingly, Italy wins out for me here but it's a lot closer than you think. Germany and Austria are up there as two of my favorites as well but in the end, nothing compares to Italy.

5. Least Favorite Country: I actually never found one that I didn't like. I will say however that Liechtenstein was very disappointing for me personally.

6. Most Underrated City: Bologna, Italy. My love of Bologna is well documented. Best food in all of Italy. Best gelato in all of Italy. Surprising amount of interesting things to see and do for any tourist. Interesting and quirky history. Fantastic nightlife. I've never understood why Bologna isn't more famous as a tourist destination but I'm kind of glad it isn't. I like it just the way it is.

Bologna: Underrated.

7. Favorite Tourist Attraction: Tie: Vatican Museum and Checkpoint Charlie Museum.  The Vatican Museum is epic. There's no other way to describe it. You could go several times over several days and still not see it all. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum for me is more personal. Since I grew up smack dab in the middle of it and was old enough to witness the end of it, Cold War history has always interested me and Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much Ground Zero in the Cold War. I get lost reading about all of the escape attempts and some of today's dictators would do well to read about the lengths people will go to be free.

8. Worst Tourist Attraction: Tie: Oktoberfest in Munich and Gondola rides in Venice. I know,  I know, it's Oktoberfest, blah blah blah. I went once and hated it. To say it's overcrowded doesn't even begin to describe it and unless you have a reservation for a seat in a beer tent, you ain't getting a beer. I've had much more fun at the smaller fests around Germany. As far as the gondola rides in Venice, I think I've complained about them enough over the years. We'll leave it at that.

Gondolas: Just say no.

9. Best Food: Bologna. They don't call it Bologna La Grassa (Bologna The Fat) for nothing.

10. Favorite Wine: If you know me, you know that my favorite wine in the world is Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. I have honestly never pulled a bad - or even subpar - bottle.

The hallowed hills of Montalcino, from whence will come the nectar of the gods knowns as Brunello...

11. Favorite Activity: Without a doubt, it has to be driving through the Alps. I've spent a lot of time over the years going between Italy and Germany for work and since my unit is too cheap to fly me, I usually have to get a rental car and drive the 8-9 hours but I can honestly say I've enjoyed every single trip immensely. There's just something about the Alps, driving through them has always given me a sense of freedom and adventure. My preferred route takes me through the Brenner Pass in Austria, around Innsbruck, and then up through the Fernpass.

12. Favorite Castle: I know it's cliche but I still have to go with the Neuschwanstein Castle. It really is just breathtaking to see from the outside (the inside, not so much).

Neuschwanstein Castle: worth the trip.

13. Best Airport: For me, it's probably Venice. It's not terribly large which means it's very, very easy to get in and out of quickly.

14. Most Bizarre Experience: Without a doubt, New Year's Eve, Amsterdam, 2000 (the Millenium). I was trying to sleep outside the train station at 3 am when a black junkie with dreadlocks crawled under my legs and lit up his crackpipe.

15. Most Expensive City: Overall, probably Monte Carlo. I wanted to sit in the Cafe de Paris and do some celebrity watching but the prices were prohibitively expensive for a single soldier. I've never felt so unimportant.

Monte Carlo: not for us common folk.

16. Cheapest Country: Portugal. Spent a couple weeks there back in 2004 and really enjoyed it because we ate good and did plenty and it was all so cheap compared to most other European countries.

17. Gayest City: Probably a tie between Amsterdam and Berlin.

18. Most Scenic City: It really is impossible to pick just one so I'll name my favorites: Venice, Zurich, Naples, Heidelberg. People are surprised when I name Naples as one of the most scenic cities but when viewed from a distance with the bay and Mt. Vesuvious framing it, Napoli is a sight to behold. Heidelberg is well known but sadly most tourists miss the best views, which can only be seen from up on the Philosophenweg across the river. If you haven't seen Heidelberg from up there then you haven't really seen Heidelberg.

19. Best Country for Beer: Belgium. Germany is good but Belgium has the best beer and it's not even close for me. And no, Stella Artois does not count as a good Belgian beer.

Sorry Germany, Belgium does it better. 

20. Best Beer I Ever Drank in Europe: Allsop's Stout, John Bull Pub, Rome. Found it by accident but loved it so much that we rearranged our schedule for the night to stay and drink more and then went back in the morning before catching our train to drink as much as we could since I doubted that I'd find it again, it was that good. Sadly, the John Bull Pub changed hands soon after and I never found Allsop's Stout anywhere else.

21. Best Pizza: Napoli of course. The pizza there is on a whole different level than anywhere else in the world.

22.  Biggest Surprise: Believe it or not, I found the people in Paris to be extremely friendly. It was the first of many European stereotypes to be shattered.

23. Scariest Moment: Overall, I've always felt pretty safe in Europe even though most of the time I was traveling around by myself. However, there were two moments in particular where I feared for my safety. The first was in Amsterdam on Queen's Day, 1999. I was crossing through an empty street and was passed by a group of British skinheads complete with the shaved heads, black boots and white t-shirts. I tried to ignore them as I passed but they started taunting me loudly. I quickly surveyed the situation and figured I could probably outrun them at least to the main street but it was quite nerve-wracking. The other moment came in Frankfurt. I was heading back to the train station and had no desire to walk through the red light district so I walked along what I thought was a parallel street. The street was deserted with most of the buildings boarded up and halfway down I spooked a junkie in a doorway who was in the process of shooting up. He was probably more scared than I was but I kept looking over my shoulder as I walked just to make sure he wasn't coming after me with a syringe.

24. Favorite Tourist Trap: Has to be the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. I met a college student there one time and she told me that Muncheners have a saying about the Hofbrauhaus: "the only people who go there are tourists and assholes". That notwithstanding, I absolutely love the place, it's just plain fun.

25. Most Sobering Experience: Dachau Concentration Camp. It was difficult to see and imagine what happened there and even more difficult to fathom that mankind could be capable of such evil.

The ovens at Dachau: Sobering. 

26. Favorite Traveling Companion: STEVE-O!

Steve-O and the X Man at the Heidelberger Herbstfest, 2008.

27. Favorite View: Probably the view of Vernazza in the Cinque Terra as you're approaching on the hiking train from Monterosso al Mare. Just plain breathtaking.

Vernazza: worth the hike

28. Favorite Restaurant (Italian): So many great ones to choose from but I would say Il Castello in Vernazza, Cinque Terra. Great fish and seafood accompanied by good wine and the most spectacular views of any restaurant I've ever seen.

29. Favorite Restaurant (Non-Italian): The Schnitzelhaus, Heidelberg, Germany. 103 different kinds of schnitzel to choose from. That's ONE HUNDRED AND THREE different kinds of schnitzel. Try to wrap your mind around that.

30. Favorite Pub: The Dubliner, Heidelberg, Germany. Probably not a surprise to people who know me. This place was my second home during our time in Heidelberg. I've never found such a great pub anywhere and I'll always feel like part of the family there, at least as long as Niall owns it...

The Dubliner and good friends...always a winning combination!

31. Most Famous Person Met: Roberto Baggio.

32. Favorite Cheese: I love Asiago and Gruyer. Parmeggiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are also up there. But there's one made locally in Vicenza called Colina that's probably my favorite.

33. Best Piazza or Town Square: Some might say the Piazza San Marco in Venice but for me, nothing comes close to the Grand Place in Brussels, one of the absolute highlights of Europe for me.

La Grand Place, Brussels: Grand, indeed.

34. Place I Most Regret Not Seeing: Sicily.

35. Fastest Speed Reached on the Autobahn: 230kph (142 mph). Scared the hell outta me too.

Gut Fahrt!

That's about all I can think of right now...


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Our Timeline

Without getting to specific (OPSEC and all that), here's our timeline, subject to change:

Household goods pickup: 7-9 April.

Check into hotel on base: 8 April.

Ship car: 16 April.

Leave Italy and arrive in South Carolina: 21 April.

And there it is.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Teaching the Kids About the US States...

The More Things Change...

I took the kids to Bar da Silvia after school for their snack earlier this afternoon. While we were there, a bunch of Xavier's ex-classmates from the Italian school showed up. An impromptu calcio (soccer) match ensued on the piazza with Xavier (and Luca) joining in.

He looked so happy, in his element, shouting out directions in Italian like he'd never left the Italian school and his Caldogno-Rettorgole teammates. I hadn't intended to stay there but a few minutes but ended up staying over an hour just watching him enjoy himself with his Italian friends. Watching the X Man there playing with his Italian friends and having such a good time, it just hit me how lucky we have been that he has gotten so much out of his time here and at the same time it also occurred to me that we are really leaving soon.

A very, very bittersweet feeing to be sure. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Drivers License Conundrum

In 1998 I arrived in Germany and part of the in-processing for new arrivals was to attain your USAREUR (US Army Europe) drivers license. A USAREUR drivers license is basically a type of civilian drivers license that allows people who work for the military to drive in Germany but is pretty much accepted in most countries in Western Europe (at least in my experience). First you attend a class on driving in Germany and Europe in general and then you take a written test and if you pass you receive your USAREUR license. You cannot register a car or drive on base without it. I had no problem with it, passed the first time although there were some who failed a couple times (When I moved to Italy they replace your USAREUR license with the Italian version of a USAREUR license; you don't have to take a test, you just attend a two hour block of instruction to familiarize yourself with Italian driving rule and then they switch your license).

In 1999, my NH state license expired. Since I was deployed to Kosovo at the time, there wasn't much I could do about it so I figured I'd just renew it next time I went home. The next time I was in NH I called t oask about renewing it and was told that NH has a three year limit on renewing your license after it expires so I would have to take the written and road test all over again, which I did not have time for. My sister works for a local police department back home and I asked her to check and see if I was allowed to drive on my USAREUR license. She told me that as long as I was on leave status, I could drive on my USAREUR license. I actually got pulled over for speeding while I was home and had no problem with the policeman who pulled me over so obviously she was right. I always figured I'd just renew my license whenever I moved back to the US but I had no idea back then that I would end up being overseas so long.

So now I'm moving to South Carolina. I know that I'll have to get my drivers license which means I'll have to study the driving manual and take the written and road tests. This gives me a little bit of worry since the last time I did this was when I was 16 years old for cripes sake but it is not what worries me most. Nay, there is another potential problem that weighs heavy on my mind; getting a rental car. I just got our tickets reservations made and we will arrive in Columbia on the evening of April 21st. Upon arriving, I'll have a gaggle of children and several suitcases along with the baby's carseat and who knows what else. If I am not allowed to rent a car using my USAREUR drivers license, I'm going to be stuck at the airport with a small army of kids and luggage.

Now, I must point out that this could very well be much ado about nothing. On the driving page of the USAREUR website, they have a list of all 50 states and what the rules are for people who are moving back there - under South Carolina, it states that a USAREUR license is valid for 90 days after PCSing. If this is true, I have no problems however I emailed the DMV to confirm and got an email from some low level DMV employee saying that a military license is not valid in SC. Obviously my only recourse is to email the car rental places at the Columbia airport and inquire about whether they will allow me to rent a vehicle with my USAREUR license. One would assume that with South Carolina being a state laden with major military installations, this would be something that they deal with all the time but it's hard to get answers.

So there it is. If the rental car places will allow me to rent a car, problem solved. If not, I am up the proverbial creek. The one thing I remember full well about the US is that you can't do ANYTHING without a car. So this has me pretty stressed. Quite the conundrum...

Saturday, March 22, 2014


[This will be the first in a series of compositions about people, places or things I am going to miss most when I leave Italy next month. There are way too many to write about or even name so I've decided to focus on a few of the ones that have gained a special place in my heart or made an indelible mark on my life over the past 15 years or so.]

Venice. Bella Venezia. La Serenissima. What can I possibly say about her that has not been said by millions of others over the years? My love affair with Venice is well documented in my "other" blog but as we prepare to leave Italy in a month or so, I wanted to reflect on the little island that has captured my heart during my years here.

Venice is a mere 40 minute drive from Vicenza and upon arriving here in the summer of 2000 I was extremely anxious to visit the city that had always existed for me as a picture in a storybook I'd had as a child. I made my first foray to the island in September of that year and I don't remember too much about that first trip except my first gondola ride. There were four of us that day and of course the one thing everyone just HAS to do in Venice is ride a gondola so we found a gondolier and he gave a us a price of 120,000 lire which was about $60.00. Splitting it four ways meant each of us only paid $15 so we happily agreed. The gondolier took us down a small canal into the Grand Canal and back, the entire ride took about 40 minutes and he even sang "O Solo Mio" during the ride however I was so completely underwhelmed by the experience that upon disembarking the gondola I distinctly remember looking at one of my friends and saying "I cannot believe I just paid fifteen bucks for THAT...". All these years and several dozens of trips to Venice later, it remains the one and only time I've ever taken a gondola ride. In each subsequent trip I have not once had the urge to ever do it again. Nowadays the average price of a gondola ride is around 80 euros (about $110) and tens of thousands of tourists happily pay it every week. For my part, I'm glad they do for despite my disdain of how the ancient tradition has been turned into a mere tourist trap, the ubiquitous gondolas have provided me with some fantastic photos over the years.

I quickly developed a fascination with the island and its history and since it was so close I would often go spend a day or a weekend there. I very seldom visited the usual "tourist" places like the museums and such, always preferring to just meander the back streets and little walkways that often lead to dead ends or quick drop offs into the laguna that has protected Venice all these years yet now threatens to destroy it through flooding and erosion. Eventually Virginia and I made friends with some locals who we remain close to even today. No trip to the island is ever complete without a visit with our friends Theresa and Michelangelo (who own a cute little glass shop near San Marco called Atmosfera Veneziana). Theresa is an American from Chicago who has lived in Venice for many years and has helped me tremendously over the years with recommendations and tips for enjoying the island. Another of our friends managed apartments around Venice and would occasionally allow us to stay in them on weekends when they weren't rented out. On these special occasions we would take full advantage of the opportunity to explore a side of Venice that some people never see; Venice at night and in the early morning. Venice has some surprisingly fun nightlife if you know where to look and for a few years I became a master of the impromptu Venice Pub Crawl. As I've written about, Venice pub crawls are unique in that they are not about the pubs or the drinks; it is the walk between pubs where the island itself takes center stage in all of it's late night glory. Venice at night and early morning is a completely different city than during the day. Gone are the hoards of tourists and day trippers. If you want to see Venice - the true Venice - you need to walk around the island in the wee hours of the morning, in the time between the sun coming up and the tourists starting their daily invasion. In that time Venice is transformed back into what she was in her heyday, back when she was "La Serenissima", the most powerful republic in the known world. There are no tourists, no day trippers, no Indian vendors trying to con your kids into badgering you to buy their cheap toys, no Africans pawning cheap knockoff Gucci and Prada bags....there is only the occasional scuffle of a native Venetian out buying their daily produce or enjoying their morning cappuccino and brioche. Venice is a special place when you have it all to yourself, even if it's only for an hour or two.

Over the years I visited many other places around Italy but I was always drawn back to Venice. It has always baffled me how so many Americans living here in Vicenza will never once venture out to see Venice. Living so close to one of the world's greatest treasures - a mere 5 euro train ticket away - yet not once bothering to even step foot on her. I've lost count of how many times I've visited Venice over the years and every single time has been like the first time. There is always something new to discover, some new corner of the island I've never seen, some little hole in the wall trattoria or unassuming wine bar to while away in. At some point I became so familiar with the island that I wouldn't even bother bringing a map or guide book. I knew my way around so well and had so many favorite little places that Venice started to feel like mine, at least in some small way. The many people I've met or known over the years who simply could not appreciate Venice have been completely lost on me. Venice is not for everyone. It cannot be discovered in a day, a weekend or even a week. When you fall in love with Venice, you accept her as she is despite her many faults. You cast a blind eye to the exorbitant prices of things and focus instead on the uniqueness, the character, the ambiance.

The memories of Venice come flooding back to me now; my first Carnivale when it was so frigid that Kevin Kuss and I had to keep ducking into bars and cafes to get a drink and warm up...the first New Years Eve that Virginia and I spent there in the nameless wine bar with locals who welcomed us as one of their own...the New Years Eve two years later that I spent there alone atop the Ponte Rialto with a bottle of Chianti toasting Virginia and the X Man who were in the US visiting my mother...sitting at the edge of a dock with Virginia eating fresh cherries that we bought from a local vendor and spitting the pits into the Grand Canal...Me, Virginia and Steve-O carving our names into the table in the back of the Inishark...two years later, carving our names into the same table with my college roommate Ed and his wife first pub crawl where I met Ian and Allison who remain good friends to this day...The weekend where the guy jumped to his death from the campanile...taking our car on the ferry to Lido to spend time with our friend Hemingway Weekend after reading his brilliant novel "Over the River and Into the Trees" when I toured the Gritti Palace where suites start at 3000 euro per night and spent 18 euro on a Bellini at Harry's Bar just to say I did it...the day I spent showing Steve-O and his friends around the island after which they surprised me with a 1997 Poggio d'Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, the most expensive bottle of vino I've ever owned...The day Virginia almost caused an international incident by taking a picture of one of the illegal African immigrants selling knockoff bags...getting stuck at an outdoor cafe in a two hour rainstorm and not even caring...the out-of-the-way mask shop Virginia and I discovered by accident selling homemade masks dirt cheap (still have them!) favorite little wine bar, since gone out of business...the time I saw a girl trying to beat the heat by dangling her legs into a canal and yelling "I hope you've had your tetanus shot!"...stepping outside of the Bacaro Jazz on a pub crawl and  running into a lost tourist who happened to be a fellow Red Sox fan...discovering La Zucca...watching Luca Toni score his first ever goal for Italy against Norway in a World Cup qualifier at the Inishark...cicchetti - tons and tons of cicchetti...shaking hands with Dino De Laurentis at the Venice Film Festival...Giustia Rossi (anyone who has gone to Venice with me should remember her but probably won't)...the BBQ at Denise and Mauri's house on Lido where Michelangelo got a little drunk and FINALLY let his hair down :)...every caffe we shared with Theresa on our many trips to the many memories, they could fill a book.

I haven't been able to spend much time in Venice lately with the third child arriving and other duties which have come to occupy too much of my time and maybe it's just as well; Venice, I've noticed, is starting to turn on itself. These days it survives wholly on the tourist dollar yet it is becoming more unfriendly to tourists every day. Gone are the pigeons in San Marco since the city suddenly and inexplicably decided to start enforcing the years old ordinance of not feeding them. Now they actually have security guards whose sole job is to patrol the Piazza San Marco and tell tourists that they are not allowed to sit down anywhere on the Piazza except on designated benches. Chinese entrepreneurs have slowly but surely taken over many of the shops and cafes. My favorite pub, the Devil's Forest, raised the price of a pint of Guinness almost overnight from 5 euros to a whopping 8 euros, the most I've paid for a pint anywhere in the world. Despite my love of Venice, it gets harder and harder to enjoy it as I once did as I see the things I loved about it disappear, little by little. And yet the tourists still arrive daily in droves, oblivious to the blight they are paradoxically helping to feed and blissfully unaware that the Venice of their imagination does not fully exist anymore. I've delighted in playing "ciccerone" (tour guide) to friends and family over the past several years, showing them parts of Venice that they won't find in guide books. Perhaps that's what I'll miss most of all, seeing the wonder in peoples' eyes as we make the last turn off Bocca di Piazza and they take in the magnificence of the Piazza San Marco for the first time. Or when they gaze up at the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo as it appears out of nowhere. No place in the world has been as big a part of my life during my 16 years in Europe as Venice.

It's still difficult to accept that soon Venice won't be a part of my life anymore except in memories and dreams. To think that when I wake up in the morning and feel like going to spend the day in one of my most treasured places, it won't be there. I will come to terms with it because I must but it won't be easy. As the one true ring was to Gollum, Venice has become "my precious". I will miss her greatly. I'll be forever grateful for all she has given me these past 15 years and for my part I've left a small piece of me with her every time I've tread upon her calle and campi so I consider it an even trade.

Bella Venezia, 2000-2014.


Friday, March 21, 2014

A New Englander in the South

Go Sox!

Though this blog is mostly about our adjustment to moving back to the US after living abroad so many years, there's another adjustment that I'll have to make; living in the south. For those who don't know me well, I'm originally from Nashua, NH which is sort of an extended suburb of Boston. People south of the Mason-Dixon Line would refer to me as a Yankee but as a diehard Red Sox fan, I bristle at the thought of being described as the Y-word (though admittedly I have used it to describe myself on occasion).

I actually do have a little experience with the south and southerners in general and I have always been fond of both. I attended basic training with the Army back in 1990 at Ft. Dix, NJ and it seemed like 90% of the people in my company were from the south. They talked different, they acted different, they were just...different. The following summer I attended my job skill school for the Army at Ft. Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. We were allowed to go off base there and I went downtown to the mall a few times and it was a different world to me. People would just come up to you and say hi and start talking to you which is not something that happens where I'm from so I was suspicious of everyone until eventually it dawned on me that people in the south are just really friendly. The only time I can remember someone doing that back home was when my buddy Mike and I were having a pre-game beer at the Cask n Flagon outside Fenway Park and a couple guys approached us and struck up a conversation...turned out they were gay and were trying to pick us up.  

In 1995 some friends and I drove cross country to Las Vegas, traveling right through the south. There, I got my first real taste of how seriously southerners take their college football (recounted here: The Day I Almost Got Lynched in Tennessee ). My near-lynching notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed driving through the south and experiencing a little of the culture. I definitely enjoyed experiencing the food. 

In 1996 a couple buddies and I drove down to Florida to catch a few Red Sox spring training games and on the way down we stopped and spent a day in Charleston, SC. I loved the city and the surroundings, it was very charming and surprisingly modern. I am definitely looking forward to exploring it some more. 

To be honest, I am really looking forward to living in South Carolina. Everything I've heard about it makes it sound like a good place to live and raise a family and the best part is that I will very, very rarely ever have to worry about snow. I have had a few people tell me that we may face some racism since my wife is Asian and our kids are mixed and it makes me wonder - is this really a problem in the US these days? I know I've been gone a long time but it just blows my mind to hear that there are still people who have a problem with couples of different ethnicities in this day and age. I personally have a hard time believing it and am not very worried about it but I have honestly had multiple people tell me to expect it. 

Before even stepping foot in our new home, here's my impression/expectation: it's 2014 and as much as people move around these days, someone from New England living in the south is probably no big deal to anyone. If I was moving to, say, rural Mississippi perhaps I might be worried. But South Carolina? There will be some culture shock to be sure but overall I think it will be an enjoyable adventure for me and the family. Besides, what is life without a little adventure, right?

So...anyone from the south or living in the south have any advice, suggestions or observations for us? If so, feel free to sound off!


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The X Man...well...he's not handling the move very well so far.

Xavier (affectionately known as the X Man) is my first born, my big guy, my shining star. As our first born, he has sort of become the child that we, as parents, learn from. He has always made me proud.

[Ok, full disclosure...he hasn't ALWAYS made me proud. As you may or may not know, he attended the Italian school until this past year when he went the American school for the 5th grade. In the Italian school, the kids have something called a "diario" into which they write everything from their homework to announcements to letters home to their parents. Once, when he was in third grade in the Italian school, I got called in to see his teacher. She showed me a page in his diario that contained a message to us about him not bringing all of his school materials to class despite being warned several times about it. Now, the fact that neither his mother nor I speak fluent Italian was a constant source of frustration for us as we could not fully help him with his homework (I am probably the only parent outside of China who paid over $15 and hour for a tutor for a third grader). Anyway, the teacher showed me the diario entry, pointed to my wife's signature at the bottom of the page and kept saying something about us having to sign the page. Though my Italian is admittedly limited, I could tell she was talking about us signing his diario but it wasn't making sense because I could clearly see Virginia's signature on the page. Eventually it became clear; Xavier had actually forged Virginia's signature on the page. It was such a good copy that he had actually fooled me! I was absolutely floored that a third grader could copy my wife's signature so amazingly close but there it was. It took me a while but I eventually got over it. I assure you, it was not easy. Sometime during his 4th grade year he started asking is he could go to the American school. I couldn't understand it at first but eventually it dawned on me that he was under the impression that the American school would be easier than the Italian school.]

When the LQA nightmare started last year, it was clear that one way or the other, we would be headed back to the States before the year was up. With this in mind we decided to honor his wishes and place him in the American school on base. He adapted immediately and after one week announced that he much preferred the American school to the Italian. Because he'd only attended Italian schools previously, they recommended he attend ESL (English as a Second Language) classes once a day to ensure that he kept up with his classmates who'd spent their entire scholastic career (such as it was) in American schools. I'd spoken with his teacher and with the guidance counselor about his situation and both assured me that he was having no problem adjusting, and both even said that they'd never have known that this was his first year attending American school if I hadn't told them. Several times during the year his teacher reported to me that he was doing very well, that he was one of her best students, one of the most curious and inquisitive and always fully engaged in class discussions and such. For my part, I have worked with him a lot over the past year to ensure that his grades were kept up and that he understood his assignments and got them done on time and correctly. He even won the "Good Citizenship" award which is awarded to students who display exceptional behavior, participation and achievement in class. I was so damned proud of him.

Well, today I received the email I'd dreaded all year:

"Mr. Thibodeau, Mrs. B is most upset lately w/ Xavier's behavior in
her class. He seems to have mentally 'moved' on....not wanting to be
cooperative much anymore."

Mrs. B is Xavier's ESL teacher. Her email to Xavier's teacher was thus:

"Xavier is being disrespectful to me, won't complete his work, will not
do what I ask him to do and talking while the other students are trying
to finish their work.  He was trying to pull a paper out of my hand as I
was going over his work."

I was completely livid when I read this. I've always raised the X Man to be respectful of his elders, particularly his parents and teachers. I could not understand what was going on. Just two weeks ago he was very disrespectful to his mother which resulted in him being sent to his room and a serious heart to heart talk with me whereby he promptly apologized to Virginia and promised he would never talk to her like that again. Fortunately I received the email before he arrived home because my first instinct was to fly off the handle and yell and scream at the top of my lungs; unfortunately I have inherited my father's infamous temper which I have been working hard to not let get the best of me because I don't want my kids growing up terrified of me the way I was of my father. Upon picking him and Luca up at the bus stop we went to get a snack at Bar da Silvia as is our custom. Once there I asked Xavier if he had something to tell me and to his credit he was very forthcoming. It was very difficult for me but I remained completely calm, told him that as soon as we got home he would write a letter to his ESL teacher apologizing for his behavior and informed him of his further punishments. Surprisingly he was very contrite and agreed that he needed to apologize to his teacher. On the way home he actually thanked me for not losing my temper and yelling at him even though he knew how angry I was. It was a very humbling moment for me.

So anyway, my fears seem to be coming true - that Xavier is sort of "checking out" because he knows we're leaving soon and doesn't feel like he needs to put forth the effort in school. And in the bigger picture, we have noticed that his attitude and effort have been declining since he started hanging out with the American kids at school and in the neighborhood. We are seriously considering looking at private schools when we get to the US. He's a bright kid and has a great future but he is impressionable and I don't want him to waste what God has given him. This parenting stuff is not easy...


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Things in the US I am looking forward to (Part I)

1. Watching sports at a normal hour. This can not be overstated.

2. Trying foods/restaurants I've only ever heard about. Authentic southern BBQ and Chick-fil-A are at the top of the list.

3. Stores that are opened on Sunday.

4. Mega bookstores like Barnes and Noble.

5. Commercials.

6. Batting cages.

7. Watching a movie in a comfortable theater. And not having the video or audio screw up two or three times during the movie.

8. Taking my kids to Fenway Park.

9. Cheap(er) gas.

10. Not paying for condiments at restaurants (That's for you Steve-O!)

11. Subs.

12. Not carrying two types of currency at all times. And not having to keep up with the exchange rate.

13. Watching something online without getting that annoying "Sorry, this video is not available in your country" error message.

14. Being able to do normal everyday things without having to deal with overly restrictive foreign laws and regulations in foreign languages.

15. Getting my personal space back.

16. Lower cost of living.

17. Walmart. That's right, I said it. Deal with it.

18. Good Chinese food.

19. Ice.

20. Knowing that if I have to go to the bathroom at a restaurant or public place, there will be an actual toilet bowl....WITH a seat and toilet paper and not just a hole in the floor.

21. TV shows in English.

22. Good health care.


24. No more metric system. 14 years in Italy, I still don't know what the hell an "etto" is.

25. Not having to figure out the kilometers-to-miles conversion.


Friday, March 14, 2014

So...How Do You Rent Movies in the US?

I honestly don't know. Last time I lived in the US, there was no such thing as DVDs. The movies we rented looked like this:

And we rented them at Blockbuster or your local neighborhood video store. As far as I know, Blockbuster has gone out of business (Hasn't it?). I don't know much about Netflix except that you pay a monthly fee and get the movies mailed to you or something. I know they have an online thing where you can stream movies as well actual "video stores" exist anymore in the US or is everything online now? I'm not averse to downloading and watching things online if I must but in this I am decidedly old school; I much prefer to rent a Blu-Ray disc and pop it in my player at my leisure. It's just so much easier. Here, we have a shoppette (like a convenient store) that has one wall dedicated to video rentals. One section DVDs, the other section Blu-Rays. The selection is tiny which sucks for a film junkie like me but these are things I've learned to live with being overseas. Occasionally I rent movies through iTunes but I do not enjoy doing it as I can't figure out how to get the volume through the TV and the speakers on my Mac make it impossible to hear unless there is 100% complete silence, something we have not experienced since sometime in 2003.

I assure you, I am not being glib or acting dumb; I am honestly wondering how one rents movies in the US these days?


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Columbia or Sumter; The Great Debate...

In case you weren't aware, we are headed to Shaw AFB in Sumter, SC. As soon as I got notified that I'd gotten the job I started my online research about the area and, most importantly, where we might want to live. Admittedly I'm not familiar with the area and I know I can't really make a completely informed decision until we get on ground and look upon each area with our own eyes but I would be remiss if I didn't take full advantage of this new fangled invention called "the internet" that the kids are raving about these days in order to do as much leg work as possible before we arrive back in the good ole US of A.

At the moment we have two main contenders in the battle of "where will we live?"; Columbia and Sumter. Both places seem to have their positives and negatives and I find myself vacillating between the two. Let's go to the tale of the tape...


The main advantage to living in Sumter of course would be that the base is there which means an easy commute - no small thing for me as I abhor commuting. A quick online search shows that Sumter seems to be a nice little city/big town with some old world charm, good restaurants, decent shopping (yes, they have a Walmart Superstore), close to Route 95 (for easier road trips to Myrtle Beach, Charleston, DC, etc.) and some other stuff that make it attractive. On the negative side, it is smaller than we would like and the public transportation options seem to be limited which is important because Virginia doesn't drive and it may be a couple years before she gets her license. On one hand it seems like a great place to live and raise a family, full of southern charm and all that stuff but on the other hand I wonder if we would find ourselves a bit bored there. Columbia is only a 45 minute drive away which helps. Speaking of Columbia...


Columbia is the state capital of course and as such offers many advantages. It's a somewhat sizable city which would offer far more amenities than Sumter such as shopping, restaurants, public transportation, sporting events and the like. Were all things equal, I would choose to live in Columbia in a heartbeat. However, I am having trouble getting past the daily commute it would require. Several people have told me that you can live in the east part of Columbia and the commute to Shaw would only be about 30 minutes but just looking on Google maps makes me skeptical about that. The University of South Carolina (Their nickname is "The Gamecocks". Seriously.) is in Columbia which usually means more cultural opportunities as well as better medical facilities. Still, even living in Sumter, Columbia isn't a far drive. The public transportation would probably be much better which means Virginia can get around easier and not be stuck home bored. All things considered, I think we would enjoy Columbia much more than Sumter but I still have trouble getting past the commuting issue. A 30-40 minute commute may not seem like a big deal to some people but when you do it every day, twice a day, it starts wearing on you. I also consider the fact that I may be working late some nights and will probably be going to the gym or running errands after work at least a couple nights a week which means I could be getting home after 7pm and, to put it in South Carolina parlance, that dog just won't hunt.

As you can see, we've got a big decision to make. If you ask me today, I'd tell you that I'm leaning towards living in Sumter, assuming we can find a place close to downtown. But, if you were to ask me again tomorrow I would most assuredly tell you I've changed my mind and would prefer to live in Columbia, commute be damned. That's really how torn I am. I've been told that our household goods will take two months to arrive there once they're picked up here so I probably have until sometime around late May/early June before we can move in anywhere anyway.

If anyone has any thoughts, advice, knowledge of the area(s) or anything else to contribute please feel free...


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The X Man Cometh

Of my three kids, the X Man is the only one who has actually been to the US. Of course he was only about a year old and he was only there a couple weeks but at least he's been there. I think of all of us, he is the one that I am most interested in observing during the transition. For one thing, he is 10 years old and he is very, very curious. He was born in Italy (in a beautiful little walled town with a castle overlooking it named Soave, famous for it's crisp white wines which pair perfectly with seafood) and had gone to the Italian school his whole life until this year. Sometime about two or three years ago he started asking a lot of questions about the American school and about the US in general. Eventually he started asking if he could go to the American school on base which kind of surprised me because he knew nobody there. All of his friends were in the Italian school, he played on the local town soccer (calcio) team and his request came out of the blue. But, realizing that this would be our last year here one way or the other, we decided to start him in the American school this year. He had just finished fourth grade in the Italian school and I worried that they would hold him back a year but they left it up to me and I cautiously decided on the 5th grade. To my surprise he adjusted quickly. I had talked to his teacher near the beginning of the year to make sure she knew that he was coming from the Italian school so to please let me know if she thought he was having trouble. I was pleased when she told me she never would have known that he had never been to an American school before, that he was one of her best students. For his part, he LOVED the American school immediately. After the first week he declared that he liked it much, much better than the Italian school so I guess that's a good sign.

The thing about the X Man that has occurred to me is that his entire scope of understanding about the US is limited to the little base we have here. He has no concept of how big and unending everything in the US is. For example, in the past couple weeks he has asked me questions like "Will there be a PX in the US where I can still buy my toys?" and "Is there going to be a Burger King in the US so I can still get my burgers?". When I tell him there will be 100 places wherever we go to get a burger even better than Burger King, his eyes get really wide and he goes quiet...then he says he doesn't believe me because there could never be a burger better than Burger King.


He has so much to learn.

I have to say though, one thing I have worried about for a few years now is that he will lose his "Italian-ness". He is completely fluent in Italian and if/when he loses it, it will break my heart. I'm guessing there won't be a lot of people in South Carolina who speak Italian. His best friend next door is Italian and we're hoping maybe we can do Skype with him and his family occasionally but I'm not very hopeful that Xavier will retain the language as well as he speaks it now. I'll speak it with him as much as I can but my Italian is very far from perfect (I often say that I speak it just well enough to cause an international incident).  I have actually noticed over the past couple years that his attention and interests have slowly but surely drifted away from the stuff he grew up with and more towards all things Americana so I shouldn't be surprised that he's looking forward to living in the US. About a year ago he told me that he actually prefers the American-style fast food pizza joint on base (Anthony's Pizza) to Italian pizza. I probably should have realized at that point that we'd already lost him...

Monday, March 3, 2014


I enlisted in the US Army in 1998 at 26 years old and came to Europe. It's now 2014, I'll turn 43 this year and I'm preparing to move back to the US. 16 years. 16 looooooooooong years. That's how long I've been living outside the US of A. It's very, very strange to think of how the US has changed since I've last lived there. To put things in perspective and to get things started, here are some interesting facts from 1998:


Saving Private Ryan
There's Something About Mary
A Bug's Life
Deep Impact
Dr. Doolittle
Shakespeare in Love
Lethal Weapon 4


Too Close ~ Next
The Boy is Mine ~ Brandy and Monica
You're Still the One ~ Shania Twain
Truly Madly Deeply ~ Savage Garden
How Do I  Live ~ LeAnn Rimes
Together Again ~ Janet Jackson
All My Life ~ KC and JoJo
Candle in the Wind (Princess Diana Tribute) ~ Elton John
Nice and Slow ~ Usher
I Don't Want to Wait ~ Paula Cole


Europeans agree on single currency, called "the Euro".
US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania bombed.
President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal erupts.
FDA approves viagra
Indonesian dictator Suharto steps down after 32 years.
German chancellor Helmut Kohl defeated by Gerhard Schroder
Good Friday Peace Agreement in Ireland
Autopsy on Chris Farley showed of overdose (duh)
Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn pleads no contest to drunk driving
Denver Broncos defeat Green Bay Packers in Superbowl XXXII
Philippine DC-9 crash kills all 104 aboard
"Titanic" wins big at Oscars
Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks play their first ever games as expansion teams
"Seinfeld"'s last episode
Hong Kong opens brand new Chek Lap Kok airport
France beats Brazil 3-0 for their first World Cup victory
Google is founded


US population is 268,921,733
Dow Jones closed at 9181
Average cost of a new house was $129,300
US Postage stamp cost .32 cents

Anyway, the next few months are bound to be very strange as I readjust to life back in the US. Since I've always enjoyed writing I thought it might be interesting to keep a blog/journal about how the transition is going for us. I've been back to the US a handful of times for work and such and each time I noticed that I feel more and more like a foreigner in my own country so I've decided to call this blog "An American Foreigner in America". I'll update it as I feel like it and welcome comments from anyone who feels like commenting.