House rules

I’m gratified to see that this blog has increasing numbers of visitors and readers over its short existence. Thanks! But besides just reading, please take the time to leave a comment. I find that comments are some of the more interesting parts of weblogs, giving readers (and the author) insights into who else in the world is interested in the same subject. And a chance to interact.

Blog comment streams can also be cesspools of negativity, but I’m using comment moderation to filter those out. Internet trolls and spambots not welcome here.

So leave a comment, say hello and preserve your Internet footprints here. We’d all appreciate that.

(Feature picture above is of owner/chef Faro Trupiano of 127 West Social House, a super Fallbrook bistro. Drop in and tell Faro hello – the food is great.)

Actually, you can go home again

My trip to eastern Ky and my hometown was better than expected. My dad and stepmom were in pretty good shape so no action or intervention required. The hotel I stayed in was good (sleeping arrangements in the parents’ house are limited and complicated; long story) – it was the refurbished Ashland Plaza, now a Marriott. I stayed there a lot 30 years ago and now, here I am again. Deja vu.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_c809.jpgI drove around and saw all the old places from my youth – houses we lived in, houses of relatives, favorite neighborhoods, old schools, the high school football field and Crisp’s Dairy Treat , a real tradition. I remember our school bus driver Mr. Helton stopping at Crisp’s on the last day of school every year and treating everyone on the bus to a five-cent ice cream cone. It was a nice drive down memory lane.

I took a longer drive into the countryside, venturing into Argyllite, Flatwoods and Greenbo Lake.

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Greenbo was beautiful, pretty much peaceful and unspoiled just as it was fifty years ago. It was awesomely quiet at Greenbo – that’s something you just don’t “hear” in Socal. You can go miles and miles without seeing any “civilization” in those parts. I was shocked at how little things have changed in rural Boyd and Greenup counties.

It’s hard to describe the area to someone from Socal. Small cities, tiny roads outside the cities, miles upon miles of trees, streams and lakes sprinkled liberally. The radio stations are mostly religious or country. I did encounter a few really weird FM stations below 90 Mhz where a country preacher was holding forth in broken English, a strong KY-country accent and a low, gravelly voice murmuring challenging questions for unsuspecting listeners (“have you given your all to Jesus?” “do you allow Satan in your home?”).  That’s new. A lot of Trump stickers on trucks, but I guess one can see that in the West also. I was once again amused to see the place-names of eastern KY. I drove on roads named Culp Creek, Turkey Lick, Salt Lick, Long Bottom, Needmore Hollow, Shanty Branch and Barbeque Road. In similar vein I saw an advertisement for a sheriff in Ohio named Sheriff Jeffrey Lawless.

On the way back to Louisville I stopped in Mt. Sterling KY to see an old family friend, and then made my way to LexingtonUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_c82d.jpg to see my nephews Corey and Chase, my brother Mike and Chase’s better half Katie. And their very nice dog Sophie (in the headline picture). It’s great to be able to drop into multiple cities and have friends/relatives to catch up with – I guess that’s called having roots in a place. All in all it was a very satisfying trip and an itinerary I plan to repeat soon.

Traveling through time

I’m planning a trip back to my hometown of Ashland, KY soon to visit my dad and stepmom. It’s as much a trip through time as through space. I left Ashland 44 years ago to attend the University of Kentucky and only briefly ever lived there again. In 1982 I moved back to Ashland for a very short time during the final weeks of my Mom’s awful fight with cancer. And then again for a couple of years between marriages, when Emily was in middle school. I left again for good in late 2000 to make a life in Socal with Kathryn, and Ashland has felt increasingly distant from that time forward. (The featured picture above was taken in Ashland around 1999. From the left it’s my brothers Mark, Mike and Don, then me and my Dad. We looked pretty good back then.)

I’ve always had a fraught relationship with Ashland and eastern KY. On one hand I remember it as beautiful country and a great place to be a kid. My brothers and I ran through the hills like wild animals and loved every minute of it.

On the other it holds some harsh memories of people departed and poor decisions I made during my college years (another set of stories for another time). In those days I traveled weekly from Lexington to Ashland and back, one foot in the past and one attempting to find purchase in an uncertain future. I remember getting lots of traffic tickets in those days, as the interstate highway speed limit was 55mph and strictly enforced. Just try driving at 55 today on the highway and see why a young, impatient person might have ignored the limit.

During my adult years I’ve watched Ashland decline as a city and a region, as the steel mill closed, the tobacco and coal economies collapsed and population declined. It’s one of the poorest regions in the country, now gut-punched yet again by being in the epicenter of the opioid epidemic.

I tell people I’m from Appalachia and that’s true. It’s like a completely different country there – people, culture, language, values, economies – all pretty much the opposite of  my chosen life in Socal. So my upcoming trip to Ashland feels like a much longer trip than 2300 miles. It’s a journey back into the past and into a somewhat foreign land. Planning for the trip has kicked off a big round of introspection, nostalgia and pointless thoughts of “what if?”.

I hope the person I’ve become post-retirement finds a way to appreciate my hometown for what it is and what it was. We’ll see when I get there; old habits die hard. For 40+ years I’ve gotten in there and out as fast as possible, wondering how I ever escaped in the first place. Thinking about it now I wonder, “Did I really?”.

 

Smell the roses

Might have to rethink the narrowly-defined charter for this blog – having nothing to say when we’re not traveling is a sure way to lose readers. I like blogs that update every day or two, and now that we’re past our manic travel schedule for 2019 it could be a while between posts.

Since returning from Malta things have gotten back to more or less normal, though I’m still figuring out what “normal” is in a post-retirement life. One sure thing is that I’ve gotten recommitted to creative writing. Attending last weekend’s Fallbrook Writer’s Conference with Kathryn was a big boost. We met some great people and I came away fired up to rewrite and finish the novel-in-progress.

Another thing on my mind a lot since returning is mortality. I suppose that’s normal for someone creeping up on 65, but it seems like a lot is happening in my orbit. My favorite blogger over at Blue Heron Blast fighting cancer again. My brother Mark with a semi-serious surgery. Celebrity deaths. My friend Lumpy recovering from a serious stroke. Another friend paralyzed in a bike accident. One of my best friends with skin cancer and some serious arrhythmia (who the hell can spell that right?). Life is pretty fragile. So I’m motivated to use my time better than in the past, and I’m doing pretty well.

Mo’ Malta and Sicily

My normal blog writing process is to write a short essay and then find the pictures that best fit that story. In this case I’ll do the opposite. Here are some of our better pictures of the trip with a sentence or two that puts the picture in context.

First up, the featured image above the title. Before Europe we spent three great days in Louisville centered around grandson Hudson’s second birthday. I was at the house when he woke up for his birthday breakfast, and there’s the happy family. No one should look that good first thing in the morning, much less all three of them. And here are a couple of good pictures from the birthday celebration itself.

As it was hotter than blazes (Kentucky in mid-August, not a surprise), Hudson spent most of the day in his pool. We sweaty adults could only look on in envy.

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And it wouldn’t be a family get together without a great spread of food. Note the Moana theme – Disney reigns supreme in a two year old’s home.

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Moving on to Europe, if we ever went back to Sicily (unlikely, to be sure), I would stay in one of these luxe seaside hotels in Taormina. Nuff said.

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A highlight of our Sicily trip was the journey up Mt. Etna and an included hike (more like a crawl) through a lava tube. Here we are before entering the underworld. The lava tube was a little intense but a great experience – razor-sharp rocks on all four sides, terrible footing (making the concern for said razor sharp rocks more acute) and wedging our way through a tiny exit hole. Was glad to experience it, but once was good for me.

Looking back at what I’ve documented so far I realize there aren’t many pictures of Palermo. We can remedy that. Palermo was surprising, in that it was mostly pleasant, huge, and fairly photogenic. Quite different from Catania. And another missing feature of our trip is churches. Churches, cathedrals, ex-mosques, religious ruins…we saw lots of them. Below is the cathedral part of the Royal Palace of Palermo near where we stayed in Palermo. These places are vast, and it’s hard to get a good picture showing the scale. And they’re ornate – mosaics, gold leaf and sculptures covering every square inch. It’s mind boggling how much labor and cost went into building these religious monuments. We saw cathedrals and churches like this in each city – Catania, Palermo, Valetta, Mdina, etc. They’re ubiquitous in this part of the world.

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Another trip highlight occurred in Palermo – we took a bike tour of the old city. We got to see and hear a lot of the history of the place, which is deep and rich. Bikes were a great way to cover ground and get a little breeze on a hot day.

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Next up are nighttime and daylight pictures of the Palermo Cathedral, built in 1185 and a beautiful structure and plaza just steps away from our B&B.

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Finally, on to Malta where we have many great memories. I think we’ve documented those pretty well in previous posts.

The Joys of Travel

(Headline picture above was taken by Kathryn on the roof of our friends’ home in Malta. The fireworks deployed for their St. Caterina festival were truly amazing.)

Since returning to the Left Coast sleep has been problematic. On previous international trips in which time zone lag becomes noticeable, I was employed and was forced to make the adjustment by any means available  – drugs, lying in bed resting even if I couldn’t sleep, etc. I had to get up and go to work so I pushed through the adjustment as quickly as possible. Also, I was younger.

Not so this time. Left unchecked, it turns out that mixing rather ingrained insomnia with a nine hour time difference leads to some weird sleep patterns. I’m embracing my sleeplessness rather than fighting it. I’m getting 2-3 hours of good sleep at a time, several times in a 24 hour day. Everything I read says that’s not good, but it actually feels pretty good. We’ll see how long it takes to get back to a more aggregated sleep pattern this time.

Another joy of travel is the inevitable science projects you find in the fridge upon return. We did a pretty good job clearing food out before we left, but some vegetables were left in the veggie compartment and they were…unpleasant. So we took the opportunity to further clear the fridge and clean the inside.

Finally, we live in a rural area and there’s a constant infiltration of mice into the house. We keep up with them pretty well when here full time, but a week away and inevitably a mouse finds its way in and runs rampant in a closet or cabinet. With a three week absence we had one or more mice get into the pantry, something we hadn’t seen before. So we ended up clearing the entire pantry, throwing out massive amounts of dry goods in paper packaging, and cleaning the shelves with disinfectants. This led to a trip to buy new plastic containers for everything other than canned goods. We’re almost finished with that project, though still waiting to catch the culprits in newly-set traps before we place everything back in cabinets. (Pro trip for next trip: add this to the pre-trip checklist. Set traps proactively in likely spots.)

All this being said, we’re really happy to be home. The fact that north county San Diego weather has taken a turn for the cooler is a big plus – we’re loving the cool nights after the cooker temps in Sicily and Malta. Let’s hope that weather pattern continues right into our true Fall season, starting late October.

Photography Blues

Once I got home and could really look at my pictures from the Malta/Sicily trip, I was very disappointed by the quality of many shots. The new camera – the Fujifilm X-T30 – has a stellar reputation, one of the top-rated cameras these days. So I was puzzled and frustrated by the wayyyy-overexposed pictures I kept getting.

After some thought and some comparison, I’m pretty sure I have the answer. Operator error, a very rookie mistake. I took two lenses with me, a 50mm prime lens and a 50-230mm zoom. The pictures with the prime were generally good, even great, but the pictures with the zoom were not. First I thought it was simply the lens quality – I bought the XF version of the prime lens, where “F” stands for “fine”, indicating a higher quality build. I bought the XC version of the zoom to save some bucks, where “C” stands for “cheap”. (Actually, the XF indicates a lens with all metal construction and the XC version substitutes plastic for a lot of the lens body).

Then I thought it might be the fact that I was shooting everything with in auto-ISO mode. This isn’t something that was even possible back in my film-shooting days, and is made more practical now by the way the Fuji can take crisp shots at crazy-high ISO settings, as in ISO 12,000 or 16,000.

Then I noticed that the night shots with both lenses were excellent. At that point I realized what must be happening. Like an idiot I left the lens hood for the zoom lens home – it’s pretty big and I thought it wouldn’t make a difference. Boy was I wrong. Pretty much all the daytime shots with the zoom are washed out due to light leaking in from the lens’ front edge. Zoom lenses are focused on something in the far field and make their focus and exposure decisions based on the light gathered from afar. Light leaking in from the edge causes an overexposure. Here’s an example. The first picture is with my Fuji zoom lens, taken at ISO 800, F6.7 and 1/20 second. I was trying to capture the amazing colors of the lichen growing on Mt. Etna above the tree line. Didn’t work, as you can see.

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Here’s approximately the same scene in the same light shot by Kathryn’s Canon G9. Huge difference in colors and contrast. Her Canon took the photo at ISO 400, F4 and 1/200 seconds.

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One more example to illustrate the point. Here’s a photo taken on a bright afternoon with the zoom lens, trying to capture Valetta’s beautiful seafront. It was taken at ISO 160, F2 and 1/1000. Horrible result.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bc6d.jpg

Here’s the same photo taken by Kathryn’s G9 at the same time. It was taken at ISO 100, F4.5 and 1/2000 of a second.

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This careless, rookie mistake cost me hundreds of pictures. Fortunately we took many of the same shots, so Kathryn’s pictures fill the hole where I failed. But a hard lesson nonetheless and one I won’t forget.

Malta in the Rear View Mirror

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bcc6Pictured above are our friends Todd, Tania, some of their Maltese family and our new-found friends. They were very generous with their time and hospitality. We spent ten days in Malta, the longest we’ve stayed anywhere overseas other than our Scotland wedding trip. We chose to stay here that long in order to spend some quality time with Todd and Tania, who were visiting Tania’s Maltese family in Zurrieq. Ten days here seemed questionable at the time we booked, but in retrospect we’re glad we did. Thanks to Josette, Tania’s sister and wannabe/should be tour guide, we saw parts of Malta and Gozo that we would never have otherwise. It was great.

As we leave, here are some random observations about Malta and Valetta:

  • We knew it would be hot in both Sicily and Malta, and unfortunately we were right. Including our time in KY, twenty-one days of sweaty clothes isn’t something I care to repeat. Heat now bothers both of us more than when we were younger, and this was a stern test.

  • I’ve ridden more buses in the last ten days than in my entire life. The buses cover Malta like locusts – they’re everywhere. We rode the bus an average of about 2 hours each day. Cheap way to get around, but requires a lot of patience.

  • Maltese people are very generous and polite. Even driving the narrow twisty roads they willingly make room for each other.

  • The August/September religious feasts (festivals?) are unique and amazing. I’ve never see such civic pride. Everyone turns out, everyone celebrates for days. Our pictures of the Santa Caterina feast at Zurrieq show how fun and crazy it all is. Mardi Gras has nothing on these folks.

 

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  • It’s weirdly hard to find a good bottle of wine in Maltese restaurants – at least in the 10-12 restaurants we tried. It’s hard to explain in this part of the world. But Malta seems to be more of a beer culture than a wine one.

  • Stones and stone walls are my most memorable feature of Malta. They’re everywhere, walls upon walls, each defining a small plot of land. The amount of work required over the centuries to unearth and stack all those rocks is hard to imagine.

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  • Malta, Valetta in particular, is more beautiful at night. The city and major building lighting is dramatic. I hope you can see some of that in the pictures.

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  • In Valetta there’s music on every corner, every evening. Sometimes an orchestra, sometimes a solo artist, sometimes a band. It’s wonderful.

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  • If our Maltese friends are any indication, they LOVE the water. Makes sense with the heat and the beautiful beaches and coves. And swimming here is pretty easy – the extremely salty Mediterranean water floats you like a cork.

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All in all, we loved our time on Malta. I’ll add it to my list of favorite European destinations – I could easily see us return to Valetta for a 3-4 day visit in conjunction with a France or Spain trip.

8/26-8/30, Valetta, Malta

Much longer writeup and pictures coming (pictures are a much less convenient process with the Chromebook than the Mac), but the short story is that Malta is great. Valetta is beautiful and vibrant – imagine if Del Mar or La Jolla were 5000+ years old and included some huge stately walls and plazas. That’s Valetta. Clean, civilized and picturesque. More to come.

So far we’ve seen several cities in Malta – Valetta, Rabat, Mdina (not misspelled), and a UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_c0d7.jpglittle bit of Sliema. Valetta is far and away our favorite, but Mdina was pretty nice too. Mdina, a fortress city totally encased in the beautiful Maltese yellow limestone, reminded us a lot of the French city Carcassone.

Maltese traffic is quite a bit better (dense but much less crazy) than Sicilian, but I’m still glad I’m not driving. Lots of compound roundabouts and driving on the left thanks to Malta being under the influence of the British Empire for many years. We’ve bought a weekly bus pass, and the buses are OK. Pretty crowded and the passage of choice for lots of Maltese people.

Our big day trip on the 29th was an excursion to the island of Comino and the famous Blue Lagoon. The destination was nice but crowded, and it wasn’t even a weekend. The Lagoon itself would have been spectacular in a less crowded, more unspoiled context, but with crowds of tourists (I know, we’re guilty) and lots of them jostling for a spot on the rocks and dropping cigarette butts everywhere (not guilty on this count), it wasn’t the experience we had hoped for. If we ever did it again we’d hire a more private boat, get there faster and have some say in where we disembarked to swim.

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But after four days in Valetta we’re very happy with this part of our trip. There’s a lot to be said for getting settled into a place for a week or more, assuming the place is OK. And our boutique hotel, The Cumberland, is very comfortable. Might even be considered “posh”. Highly recommended.

8/22-24, Palermo, Sicily

Palermo has been a complete surprise. I was ready to be underwhelmed based on Palermo’s online reputation, but I was wrong. I like Palermo quite a bit. An incredibly rich history, beautiful hybrid Moorish and Norman architecture, surprisingly nice artwork and great stories about every place in the Old Town.

Admittedly, the bar was pretty low. Catania has few positives, so the generalization one does led to low expectations. But Palermo was relatively cleaner, relatively safer feeling and had a much stronger sense of history than Catania.

Our BnB was in an area that at first glance looked to be a huge mistake. But inside it was spotless, architecturally interesting and hosted by wonderful people. And it was central to everywhere we wanted to walk and visit.

We visited several palaces, cathedrals, piazzas, gardens and landmarks all in a 15 minute walking radius from our BnB. Pretty sweet. The car has stayed garaged the entire time, aka no stress.

One big surprise in Palermo is that truly good wine is hard to find. Most restaurants serve Nero D’Avola and Grillo (red and white Sicilian varietals) exclusively. Pretty much just chilled table wine. While we had a great bottle from an excellent wine list  in Catania, that restaurant seems to be the exception. We hope for better in Malta.

We took a bike tour of the Old Town that was a lot of fun. Learned a lot, saw a lot and got a tiny bit of exercise. Bikes are definitely a great way to get around these crazy streets. We’ve seen some electric bikes that are pretty cool.

The palace and cathedral tours were impressive. Palermo isn’t Florence, but it’s trending that direction. I was really impressed with the history of Palermo, all encoded in the buildings and museums. Turns out that all the Crusader movies we’ve all seen take place here in southern Italy and Sicily in particular. This was the most contested area of the war 500-year religious war between the Normans and the Arabs. We’ll have to watch some of those movies again with our newfound appreciation for Palermo in mind.

Tomorrow we travel back to Malta for the final leg of our Euro trip. We hope it will be relaxing, and there we meet up with our friends Todd and Tania.

Damning With Faint Praise

I’ve thought quite a bit about what to write about Catania, Sicily. Getting right to the point, we didn’t like it much and won’t be back. But rather than focusing on the negative, I’ll write about the high points of our three day stay in Catania.

First, all the service people we encountered were very polite and professional – the people working in restaurants, the B&B and even in the crazy car rental agency. It’s curious to see how different people are in professional settings from the everyday people driving cars and in the streets. There has to be some overlap, but…it was like two different populations. Go figure.

Another highlight of this part of our trip was a guided Jeep trip up the 11,000 foot high Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bb40Beautiful views, an interesting and very knowledgeable guide and some unique experiences like creeping through a lava tube. I now know a LOT more about vulcanology than before, and Mt. Etna is a great place to learn it. We had a great evening with our guide and a couple of nice folks from Holland.The featured image at the top of this post is of our guide standing on a lava flow. And on the left we have our intrepid crew standing in a caldera most of the way up the volcano.

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The final positive on our Catania stay was a spectacular restaurant, L’ Horloge, meaning The Clock in French. Simply superb food, great service and atmosphere and an excellent wine list. I selected a Mt. Etna-produced red, a 2010 Aglianico that was perfectly balanced and tasty. Add to that UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_be7c.jpgthe best caprese salad ever and some perfect risotto. We liked it so much we came back a second night for the caprese. We liked L’Horloge much more than the reviewers on Tripadvisor.

There were very few scenic views on our strolls around Catania. We took lots of photos but came away with very few worth sharing – it’s just not what I would call a “scenic” city. One nice scene was this shot of an alley filled with restaurants and decorated in an interesting way (oddly, we saw exactly the same scene/decoration in the NuLu area of Louisville. I’m guessing Catania was first.

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So that’s it for our first three days in Sicily. Palermo comes next. In closing I will say that driving in Sicily continues to be terrifying. Part of it may be that I’m just older than in previous European driving experiences, but I think that’s a minor factor. The streets, cars, cycles and drivers in Sicily are simply crazed. There are no rules other than aggression – it’s like one big Mad Max race. So we’ve changed our plans and will garage the car once we arrive in Palermo, using it only to get back to the airport. Live and learn, I suppose. Ciao.

 

A Hard Day’s Night

After 24 hours of travel (!!), we’re finally ensconced in our lovely (jury’s still out on that) hotel in Catania, Sicily. Our route was complicated and ultimately brutal. Louisville to Chicago Midway to Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt, Germany to Valetta, Malta to Catania, Sicily. Five trips through airport security and/or customs; three of them without TSA Pre. And the Europeans want every single electronic device out of the bag – cameras, pads, computers, phones, battery packs…and I’ve got multiples of all of them. I’ve finally found the hard downside of being a device hoarder.

Things were actually pretty good until we got to Catania. We felt like we were at the finish line, only a car rental and a 5 mile trip to the hotel ahead of us. After 22-ish travel hours, those two small tasks took us over 3 hours. The car rental was the worst I’ve ever seen. Avis’ systems were down in Catania, so everything was being done with much shouting, gesticulation and the approvals of a few managers who managed to be in the wrong place pretty much always. Two hours to rent a car.

And you’d think it wouldn’t take long to drive the five miles to our hotel. Turns out I’ve 110% underestimated the craziness of Sicilian roads. I tried to puzzle the route out with a paper map, but that was (a) dangerous and (b) futile. My big Plan B was to use the Nav system of the BMW 318 we had rented (a bright spot there) and just let it take us to the hotel, but we got to the rental car and found that its menu system was in Russian. Or Polish. Or something Cyrillic.

Twenty minutes later the Avis rep had successfully changed the menu system back to English. So we entered the address and followed the route.

In my wildest dreams I could not have gotten to the hotel without technology assistance. The car took us through some roads I couldn’t believe. I don’t have any pictures yet – photography is on a completely different level on the hierarchy of needs I’ve been on today – but suffice to say I’m not impressed with my first drives around Catania.

Making matters worse, K has not fared well on our marathon travel day. Migraine and stomach problems make for a miserable day on top of all the strenuous travel. So I feel terrible for her.

This may be the whiniest weblog post I’ve ever written. Sorry about that. Perhaps tomorrow with some sleep and a new outlook Sicily will look and feel better. But first impressions are a big deal, and this one was/is pretty bad. Ciao!

Update and footnote: I’ve broken a basic social media security rule with this post, letting readers know we’re away from home. Typically a terrible idea. But in this case (a) my readership is restricted to about four family members, (b) we have workers at the house every day (putting the final-final touches on the new fire suppression system) and (c) we have our Special Forces-trained and well-armed nephew staying at the place while we’re gone. So I’m not too worried about an opportunistic break-in.

The featured image at the top of this post is from where we should have stayed, in Taormina at the coast. Catania is/was nothing like this.