Thursday, July 24, 2008

Departure Date Set

After months of waiting and wondering, I finally found out last night that I'll be leaving for Quito on Friday, August 29. We're leaving from Miami at 7:45 or so in the morning and will get to Quito around 10:55, if all goes to plan.

I'll need to get to Miami the day before for a pre-departure meeting and, of course, to make sure that everything is set to go before jumping on the plane to South America. I considered taking a bus down to Miami to save money and get to see some of the country before I leave, but after doing some research, found out that it was actually cheaper to take a flight with American Airlines through STA Travel. Not to mention that it would take somewhere around, oh, 26 hours by bus.

It's a relief to finally know when I'll be leaving, and now it just seems all the more real. Having a departure date, I'm able to give my work notice of my last day, make some doctors appointments, and settle anything else that I need to take care of. Still far away, yet the date comes closer with every glance at the calendar. And it seems like there's still so much I have to get done.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Forza D'Agro

Another short vignette from my Sicily collection, this story is about the small hill top town of Forza D'Agro, which was destroyed in World War II and hasn't really been fixed up since. Some scenes of The Godfather were shot there, making the church a popular destination for fans of the films. Enjoy.

Imagine sitting out on your balcony one night, and in the distance you can hear dull humming slowly getting louder. Then, before you know it, B-52’s are above you dropping their payloads, and the lights go out. This was the first time we destroyed this town. Sixty years after the invasion of Sicily during World War II, and the ancient stronghold at Forza D’Agro is still in ruins. It was amazing to be walking through a preserved battlefield. This place is literally a ghost town—most of the 500 villagers are now old and dying off.

It wasn’t always like this. Kristi and I walked through the cemetery on the mountaintop, overlooking the ruins, overlooking the town below. Death, upon dying, upon rebirth. This town may never flourish again. Like soil that’s been trampled on so many times, nothing new can grow. Somewhere up there all the Salvatore’s and Vito’s are crying in the wind. They want us out. The second time we humiliated this town was when we filmed The Godfather here. Any Italian stereotype you can think of probably has roots to this place. Now yuppies like to visit in the summer and snap photos.

As Kristi and I walked through the town we made a wrong turn, and an enormous German Shepherd started barking with fury. His message: back off. Even the animals made it clear that the wounds went deep and we weren’t wanted here.

Before we left we had one last order of business. Some local had parked his car right next to our tour bus, and we couldn’t maneuver around it. Some of the guys started to bounce it, meaning we just knocked and pushed the car until it was out of the way. Some locals looked on disapprovingly. The alarm went off, disrupting the tranquility. Once again, we’d bothered the people of this town.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Evoking the Senses with Spoon in Providence
Spoon, Merge Records

Under a reddish-pink tint of light, everyone's profile looks like someone else you've known or met in your life. There isn't enough light to be sure, but just enough to fool you for a second that the guy second from the left was in your Friday discussion two years ago. Eventually though, when the lights change to a blue tint, you can see better and realize that you actually don't know anyone there. You're all just strangers who've come together to see the same band. To hear the same music.

On Thursday, July 17, Spoon played at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, across the street from the URI Providence campus buildings. Spoon is one of those bands that has been around for a long time, but most people don't know about. Their following is loyal, however, and as of late you would recognize some of their songs appearing in mainstream media. "My Mathematical Mind" appeared in a car commercial recently, and "The Underdog" was played in the beginning of the movie, "Cloverfield."

Back when the movie came out, my buddy Goldberg leaned over to me and asked what song it was. He said he knew the band and just couldn't place it. I had no idea. Later that night he realized it was Spoon and told me to listen to their newest CD "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga." Right as he usually is, I liked the band, and over the last few months, they've worked their way into the few top spots of my favorite bands.

So on Thursday night Goldberg and I headed down to Lupo's to see the show, and even though I was exhausted from working a full day, aware of having another full day of work the next day, I was excited to see the band play.

As I mentioned, the following for Spoon seems to be pretty faithful, even with the influx of new fans from the mainstream exposure (myself included). I was surprised, however, to see a mix of mostly white fans in ages from what seemed to be early teens (mostly girls) to early 40s. Goldberg pointed out that it's a good sign for a band that can draw fans of many age groups, showing that the music is something that can be appealing to everyone. Still, I always find it a little awkward to be at a concert with younger and older fans. I don't know why that is.

Lupo's is set up as a two-floor night club with a stage in the back. Right before the pit area is a step up, and we were lucky enough to land standing spots right by the step. Probably for the first time in my life I was actually able to see the stage clearly. At 5'5, I was so happy that I could finally see the band I was hearing that I started to think about all of the senses and how they each play a critical role in the concert experience. I used to tell myself as a consolation that all you really need is to be able to hear the music, but now I see that that's just a bunch of malarkey.

Let's go over the five senses and how they all increase, or decrease if it should happen, the enjoyment of the show.

Sight is one of the most important senses for judgment. As soon as you look at someone, even without thinking about it or trying to, you're judging them. When Spoon came out on stage, I could see that they were having a good time and glad to be at the show. Unlike some other bands I've seen that have come out on stage looking pissed off, Spoon actually looked cool and composed. Points were immediately awarded.

Lead singer and guitarist Britt Daniel looked like he was a bit European with a faux-Flock of Seagulls-do. The body language spoke volumes, and as the members joked around on stage and got the feel for the instruments, the fans were getting ready for some good music.

At this point in time, a middle-aged couple started to make their move into my line of sight, getting closer and closer to blocking the band with every passing minute. I was getting nervous. Would my perfect view be ruined? They kept turning around to talk and make out, making the corner of my eye twitch with disgust. It sounded like they were speaking French, and I wondered if they thought this PDA was acceptable at a concert. Typically, I go to shows to hear the music and not be distracted by anyone else.

After about 10 minutes they finally started to notice my dirty looks and took off for some other part of the club, leaving a nice view to be admired. I've got to say, once you've seen the band playing, and I mean actually seen them, you always have something to think of when you listen to the music on your computer or in your car. It adds another component to the music that wasn't there before.

Obviously, just seeing the band isn't enough. You need to be able to hear them. And I don't just mean be deafened by too much bass and treble or horrible acoustics. Lupo's had very good sound quality, so that while the music was loud, you could still hear every individual instrument and the vocals, not just a mesh of noise making you bleed from the ears. My friend Elyse once said, "Music is better loud." That simple statement is incredibly true. However, you don't want to overdue it and miss the music that's there. Spoon has all of the elements of music like any other band: guitars, drums, vocals, and on top of that, a brass section with saxophone and trumpet for certain songs.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of seeing a band live is seeing how they actually play together and on the fly, not just in a recording studio with the ability to lay down a new track if it didn't play well. As much as I love the songs that I've heard on the CD, nothing beats seeing a good musician actually freestyle and try something new. I can't imagine the kind of monotony of playing the same song night after night, each new crowd demanding the same thing. That's what got Jimi Hendrix into trouble as he tried to change his songs with each show, the crowd unaware of the talent he possessed, only wanting to hear the radio versions. In the end, Hendrix was disheartened with playing big shows because of this.

Spoon, however, was able to play their same songs, yet change up parts of the vocals or guitar solos that weren't too far away from the original so that the fan was left wondering what they just listened to. It was perfect, really. You get to hear the song you like, but get something new at the same time.

For one song, the band played a different version of "The Way We Get By" and afterward requested that if anyone in the crowd had recorded it to send it to them. You're hardly ever allowed to record a concert, let alone have the band ask you to send it to them.

This change of pace demonstrated not only the ability of the band to improvise, but how talented they are at their respective instruments. Even when some of the music was changing, Daniel would get down on the ground and bend the notes until he eventually got to where he wanted it to be.

The music touches and gets inside of you at a show. Even if you're far back from the woofers, you feel the vibrations in your bones. Your heart starts beating to the bass. With every pitch change and new beat, you find yourself moving differently. It's amazing how the only sensible thing to do at a show is nod your head. The louder and better the music is, the faster and harder you will nod, giving your approval to the band. A crowd at a good concert winds up looking like a cluster of chickens and roosters.

People keep walking by you, rubbing and pushing, stepping on toes and spilling drinks. If we are to believe that everything is made up of matter and tiny little atoms, each one not actually a solid, but just creating a larger thing that appears to be solid, then a concert must too be a living thing. Each person, drink, and instrument is just another little atom moving in unison. Some are positive and some are negative. You might be drawn to stand close to the attractive girl. You might be repulsed by the annoying kids trying to mosh. But if you pulled back and saw the whole thing from Space, you might just see one solid concert, just a mass of something listening to the same music, becoming a whole. For in that time period, you cease being one person, but become one group, all following along to the same thing for two hours.

Taste is one of those funny senses. It's dependent on smell. Without the sour, the sweet just isn't as nice. So what do you taste at a concert? A lot, really. You taste the drinks, if you're having them. With every beer or mixed drink, you numb your taste buds further, and sometimes this makes you ignorant to the fact that you're hearing crap. Other times it only enhances the good music you're listening to. When you're crammed into a small club with hundreds of other people, you start to sweat a bit. You soon might get some sweat on you lips. It tastes strong and sour, and it reminds you of physical activity, humid nights without air conditioning, and nervous situations. So you taste a bit of the atmosphere in the room, like a snake tonguing the air. But then you hear the music, and if it's good, it relieves you of the lousy tastes. It brings back the sweet to the experience. So even though the sweat is sour and unpleasant, the music sweetens the deal, and you're much more appreciative to be hearing it at that moment.

Smells often take over a concert, even though you don't think about it as you focus on your sight and sound. Your olfactory sense, or sense of smell, is most commonly associated with memory. If you walk into a bakery, you might suddenly be reminded of your grandma's kitchen for no reason at all, so you think. What's really going on, however, is your memory recalling sitting at the big table as your grandma made you your favorite cookies, and of a simpler, happier time.

At the show, the smells were varied and diverse. A girl would walk by and I'd suddenly smell some fruity shampoo or an overpriced perfume. Then a guy 10 feet away would fart and the disgusting methane smell would linger for 15 seconds before fading. Another man would walk by reeking of Axe body spray, clearly not having enough time to spring for a full on-5 minute shower.

After a while, you get jaded to the smells, and stop noticing every little thing, unless it jumps out at you as so distinctly that it puts all of the other senses on hold. One more sniff confirms that someone has lit up a joint, and as a mini flashlight from a security guard shines into the crowd, you can see a small cloud of smoke hovering above just about everyone in the pit.

By the time you leave the show, you're ready to sneeze and expel everything that was just crammed up your nose. You get outside and breath the fresh, semi-polluted city air, and get a clean slate.

At the end of the night, exhaustion was setting in. It's a lot of work to stand there and have your senses take over without your consent. Spoon came back out to play an encore with beers in hand, and I thought about how awesome it must be to be in a rock band. It's the only job where you can go to work with a beer in your hand and get cheered on for it. Daniel had a Corona in his hand and spit up a mouthful on stage in preparation for more songs.

I wonder if at some point down the rock and roll line, there was a legitimate reason for encores. I wonder if bands would say, "Thank you, good night!" and leave, the fans happy with the show. At certain shows, there certainly must have been a performance so good that the crowd wouldn't leave because they were so happy with the show. Eventually the band would pay them back with a couple more songs. Now, however, the encore is worked into every show, to the point that they shouldn't even leave the stage. Still, Spoon earned that encore.

Few things are important enough to evoke the full onslaught of sensory overload to most people anymore. For some people, music can do that. You can talk to someone with hardly anything to say, a dullard really. Then once you start talking to them about their favorite music, their eyes light up and they actually get excited. They want to share their feelings on the subject with you. Music is one of those things that just gets inside of you where no one else can do anything about it. As long as Spoon keeps playing great sets like Thursday's, they'll be doing the same for me for years to come. The utensil, not the band.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lewd Behavior, Debauchery, and Irepress: A Beautiful Night Out in Boston

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Sometimes the easiest things are the most complicated. Yeah, that's a bit of a cliche oxymoron, but you know exactly what I'm talking about. You're trying to make plans with your friends, and then comes up the issue that everyone has been avoiding. Who's driving? Such a simple question, yet its implications carry so much weight and importance, you might as well ask, "Who's the human sacrifice this week?"

No matter what, in any situation when driving is necessary, the responsibility falls on the driver in every scenario. They are supposed to be the one with a clear head and the ability to reason and rationalize. Even if you're not going out for a night on the town, however, in your standard group of friends, no one wants to be the one to drive. It's just so much more fun riding shotgun.

Saturday Night Begins

We'd been in a make-shift chat room for over an hour trying to hammer out our plans to see Irepress in Boston on Saturday night. Irepress, a popular local band, was more than just a reason to get into the city. The band comes from our hometown of Sharon, but it still goes further than that. I suppose if you're not cool enough to be in a band, a very far second is knowing someone in a band. My friend Adam's older brother Bret is the guitar player for Irepress, and aside from seeing some shows in the past, we've seen Bret and the other members of Irepress at Adam's house and parties around town.

Irepress was just finishing up a tour in preparation for their new CD being released in October. and Boston was their big homecoming party. We wanted to go in to support a band we like. We wanted to go in to get away from the drudgery of small town living. And most importantly, we wanted to go in to have a good time.

After arguing through an agonizingly long chat room, Adam agreed to drive to Riverside T station, where we would take the Green Line into the city. We had just enough time to make it to Riverside, a 30 minute drive from Sharon, and tailgate in the parking lot before jumping on the train. As poor recent grads, we needed to spend as little in Boston as possible. Downing a few beers by the trunk, we watched the sun setting behind the trees, magnifying the gold, crimson, and purple tint of the atmosphere. Such colors are only truly visible during a sunset, the perfect time to stand around and appreciate something beautiful, now that the day is over. Nothing beats a good sunset after a long day. Yeah, the night was already off to a good start.

Buzzing Through Beantown

By the time we got into Boston it was dark, but the temperature was still hovering around 75 degrees; a tasty little night in the city, amplified by the crowds fleeing from Fenway Park. Irepress was headlining the show at Bill's Bar on Landsdowne Street, right across from the park. Someone told us the score of the game was 12-1 in the 7th, and the Sox were winning. I was disgusted to see so many people leaving so early in the game. If you're going to pay $80 to see the game, you might as well stay until they kick you out. I started to say, kind of loudly and on purpose, actually, "Sure is a fairweather night out. I love this fairweather in Boston." Some people walking by looked, but everyone else was so consumed by the joy of leaving a blow out that they hardly noticed anything until a little boy decided to throw his 32 ounce soda filled with ice over the guard rail and onto the Mass Pike.

I was shocked; here we were in this crowded street over a stretch of highway, where you can find Jesus freaks, bums asking for money, magicians, garbage can drum heroes, and happy families wearing their brand new Sox hats and jerseys all sharing the same sidewalk peacefully, and this little brat threw a potentially deadly object into oncoming traffic. And no one cared. I immediately scolded the boy, telling him he could kill someone and asking if he was nuts. He paid no attention to me, acting as if he'd seen much worse in his few years. Seeing that it made no use, we continued on to Landsdowne Street, dodging fans left and right.

After getting some sandwiches for $7 from a stand outside the park, we went over to Bill's Bar. Just before heading into the city we'd bought our tickets online for a dollar more, just for the peace of mind that it wouldn't be sold out when we got there. It was a clean $11 to get in to the bar. The opening acts had already started, and I bought the first round. I laughed when I realized I'd have to pay $24 for the beers, including the tip. It could have been worse, and it wound up being the only round I had to buy that night, but hell, when you pay your job to work, it hurts no matter what.

Soon one round turned into three or four, and the night was going really well. In a blur of interesting conversations that were barely audible as I yelled over the music, the opening acts went on and went off. More friends showed up and soon it seemed like half of the crowd was from my town, all there to support the band. It was a nice show of support for community that you don't see a whole lot anymore, mixed in with the constant flow of beer and liquor to the eager supporters.

It's About the Music!

By the time Irepress was warming up, the crowd was swimming in anticipation. You could sense it in the air. You knew it was going to be an awesome show, and in a way, that was as exciting as seeing them play. Like a meal tasting the best before you dig in, this was going to be worth every minute.

I shoved my way to the front of the stage in left-center, with two of the speakers right in front of my face. I figured I'd be deaf within a few minutes, but the sound waves must have been traveling over my head and smacking the guy in back of me, because the noise damage wasn't even that severe.

Irepress started to play and the place went wild, everyone bouncing their heads in rhythm and time. The band has no lead singer or lyrics, so everything is dependent on the instruments telling the story and getting the fans into it. The performance is key, but ultimately it comes down to the quality of the musicians, who put on a show that leaves more than ringing in the ears. With long songs, some going eight minutes or so, you find yourself drawn into the music and the scene, forgetting that you have a crappy job, forgetting that you're low on cash, or forgetting that you're spending a fortune on drinks. It's just good music that you can nod your head to and have a good time with.

Making It in the Music World

In order to help support the band, some of the members are invested in a T-shirt company called SweetTime Clothing. A brand that appeals to many shoppers who buy from companies like Hurley and Billabong, shoppers like this brand because it is environmentally friendly and is like many other companies were before they made it big and "sold out." In today's music scene, in order to survive, a band must find other sources to get the word out. More important than record sales are the effectiveness of the word of mouth and touring, which have always been a backbone of recording artists.

Because music can so easily be shared on the Internet, record sales no longer dictate how popular a band is. If you can show me one person under 25 who's purchased all of their music from their MP3 player legally, I'll show you a leprechaun with a pot of gold. Bands have caught on to this, and now many offer their songs streaming through their Web sites, rather than trying to fight it. At least with this method, bands can attract more listeners to their Web site, where you can see advertisements for upcoming shows and merchandise. If you can get enough good press and fans, you just might make it on tour with a better-known band, thus drastically increasing your fan base.

These are just some of the elements that go into the chemistry of making it as a band today. But like I said, it all comes back to the music. If you want to make it big, the music has to speak for itself. In this case, Irepress has made the adjustments a band must make, and the music still speaks loud and clear.

The Aftershock

When the show ended we met outside the bar, some of the guys going home, others heading back to our friend Jackson's apartment to spend the night. Those of us that stayed followed Jackson, who despite living in the area for a long time, has a lousy sense of direction and sometimes takes people the wrong way. As we made our way through The Fens, my friend Ajay suddenly put me in a headlock from behind and took me down. We both crashed down laughing, making a huge scene. My knee was scraped up, but nothing compared to Chris, who for some reason had cuts all over his bicep and elbow on both arms. It looked like he'd been attacked by a cougar while trying to scale a barbed wire fence. He couldn't explain what had happened. The alcohol was making its move.

Jackson later told me that The Fens is a pretty bad area, as homeless people will hang out there at night, and occasionally, target someone. It was probably a good thing I didn't know that at the time, otherwise being suddenly attacked from behind could have really raised an eyebrow or two.

Singing in the street, on-lookers watched as we marched towards the apartment. Suddenly, Ajay fell flat on his face. If you've seen enough Family Guy episodes, you know their signature one-frame fall scenes. Basically, a character will be standing perfectly still and in the next moment they're instantly on their face in an impossibly rapid fall. Somehow, Ajay pulled it off, and right in front of a cop car.

The cop simply looked at him for a second, then pulled up to me and another friend and said, "You guys make sure he gets home ok," and he drove off. He had bigger fish to fry.

Once he was back on his feet, Jackson led us to a late night pizza shop where we were able to order practically half a pie for $3. We finally got to Jackson's apartment, a huge brownstone near the Green line and Northeastern University, where he's completing his undergraduate degree. The night was still beautifully cool, and we rushed up to his roof to eat the pizza and continue being idiots.

Once on top, we had a tremendous view of Back Bay, all of the buildings lit up in a display of engineering masterpieces and wasteful energy consumption. After all, who's up working on the 23rd floor of John Hancock at 2 am on Sunday morning? The only building I could recognize was the Prudential Building, but everything else has been a fixture in my memory of Boston since I've been coming into the city from the south when I was seven years old.

We heard that on his birthday a few months ago, Chris decided to jump the small gap between Jackson's building and the neighboring building, horrifying all of us. The next morning when we saw the gap from the street, we called him a moron. He never even remembered doing it.

Chuck was peeing off the roof as three bike cops rode past, but none of them saw or cared. We ate our pizza and agreed it was a good thing Ajay never made it upstairs. He was already passing out on the kitchen floor with a huge slice of pepperoni pizza on his lap, drunk dialing an old girlfriend. Other people from neighboring buildings were on their roofs doing the same thing, and we could hear their shouts in between ours.

When we went back downstairs some people passed out and others stayed awake to watch Chris jump and roll over the pull out couch, eventually landing on his eye in pain and confusion. Jackson let some of us stay in his roommates' rooms, but was afraid that one could come back that night. Coincidentally, it was the room where Goldberg and I shared a bed, Bryan sleeping at the foot of the bed on a mat. I wondered what the scene would be if a kid strolled in at 4 am to find people all over his living room, opening up his door and seeing two guys he doesn't know sleeping in his bed. It would almost be worth it for the look on his face.

The night wound down and the lights went out. That's always how the story has to eventually end, unless you live in the North or South Pole and just as the sun is setting, it starts to rise again. In this crazy city on a fun night, exhaustion made the most sense. We saw a good show, had drinks and food, and spent time with the friends that will eventually be spreading out. And there aint nothin' wrong with that in my book.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Market

Here's another short vignette from the Sicily pile. This article is about buying food from an old Sicilian man.

As Marissa walked over to the old man selling food out of his trunk outside the gates of Érice, a smile came over his face. A potential sale. Soon a crowd developed, as if no one had ever seen a toothless Sicilian selling homemade food out of his car before. This old man wore a caddy hat, a beige winter jacket, and a pair of slacks. In any other setting he could have been someone’s grandfather going for a stroll. Instead, he was playing the Sicilian version of Let’s Make a Deal. Chocolates, pistachios, fruits and veggies were on the menu today. Although more customers weren’t buying, enough people were around to keep him occupied.

More people started to buy chocolates and other treats, and the historian in me was trying to work up a thesis. There we were in the Mediterranean, where civilization evolved and the market began. For thousands of years, people have been doing the same thing we were. Now it was our turn. Instead of the Greeks or Romans, we are the Americans. We traveled thousands of miles to view the Italian culture, but now we were interacting and are a part of it forever. We’d left our mark on Sicily.

The thought of cheap Sicilian pistachios was torturing me, and I had to buy some. He spoke with a soft tongue, which was aided by his lack of teeth. Marissa talked to him for a while, telling him who we were, what we were doing, asking him questions about his food. She told me the man said everything he sold was good. If he couldn’t eat the pistachios, how did he know they were good? Since I bought them, I would have to be the judge.

-April, 2006

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Wine-Tasting Woes

Here's another short vignette I wrote about my experience in Sicily. It's just a lighthearted larf about drinking wine on vacation. Somehow, it embodies a certain sense of Gonzo, even though I wrote this before I knew what Gonzo was. Here it is...don't judge me.

I almost peed in the corner of the church in Monreale. That’s how badly I had to go. I was drunk in a church. Hey, I’m no angel. I had to keep reminding myself not to touch anything or say anything. Just smile and look interested. A nap in the pew would be golden right about now. NO! Wake up, dumbass, the giant Jesus can see you.

Wine— it’s hard to avoid in Sicily. It’s even harder when you take it upon yourself to become an expert wine taster in a few days. Wine tasting is a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it, and I’ll be damned if that somebody isn’t me. Of course, as I ambled through the church, barely paying attention to the tour guide, I knew I wouldn’t need anymore wine for a while. We’d just come from Osteria Calatrasi Emporio, one of the many wine vineyards in Sicily. This one specialized in cheap wine for college students on Spring Break.

Let me get one thing straight—before we even had lunch I was drunk. I’m not saying this to brag, but to put you in my shoes. You wanna go to Sicily, you wanna try the wine and get a better appreciation for finer things, instead, you take the wine no one else wants to drink so it won’t go to waste, Jeremiah tries to teach you the important things about wine tasting, but all you keep thinking is “Holy crap, this got me drunk in like five minutes.”

Now, leaving the church, I realized I was sobering up at 5 p.m. I got back on the bus and tried to nap so I would have energy for later, go out and drink more wine with my new tasting skills, get drunk, pass out, wake up, and get drunk at lunch again. Wine is so unappreciated in Sicily.

-April, 2006

Friday, July 4, 2008

Traveling Etiquette For Dummies

I've got some articles that I wrote a couple of years ago from my travel writing class that I just dug up on the old hard drive, and thought I'd share them. Some are kind of stupid, and some are a little bit entertaining. Either way, it's cool to see the progression in writing and the change in the style. Here's an article called "Traveling Etiquette For Dummies," a bit of a sophomoric look at group travel. Enjoy.

Often times people will come up to me and ask, “Jon, can you give me some tips on traveling?” My initial response will usually be, “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” but after a minute or two I agree to dish out the advice. In my life I’ve learned some important things, and I’d like to share a few of them with you. Today’s lesson is on etiquette while traveling abroad with a group. There are many things that the common traveler can do that would anger others in a group while traveling, whether it be arriving late for a bus, waking up an entire hotel in a drunken stupor, or just plain old exhibiting youthful ignorance to the elderly travelers. Now I know what you may be thinking: “I’ve traveled in groups before and I have no idea what you’re talking about. There were never any problems.” Well, you sir, are an idiot. Sorry, I kid, I kid. But seriously, listen to me, my innocent reader, and I will teach you how to not disrupt the peace while on vacation with strangers.

I recently traveled to Sicily for spring break with a travel writing and photojournalism class. Spring break—a time when weary students head home to rest, catch up on a good book, and help the community. Wait, no that’s not right. Let me try that again. Spring break—a time when students head to exotic locations to learn about travel journalism and drink enough alcohol to kill a baby rhino. As a student myself, I felt comfortable with the other kids on the trip. I knew we would be able to bond on at least some level, and if not we would let the wine take care of it. A night of wine drinking can make closer friends than a half of a semester of classes can, as was proven by the second night on the island. The older couples that went along with us were wonderful, and I can’t say enough about them. That is to say, I know nothing about them. They stuck to their side of the bus, and we stuck to ours. We got along well enough, and I’d like to think that we didn’t scare them too much.

I didn’t want to scare anyone on this trip. I just wanted to learn how to do some writing, take some photos, and see the beauty that is Italy. Now, while I don’t think I alone ever angered or bothered the adults, there were some times that certain characters I’ve been known to associate with in Sicily may have done so. Let me introduce you to some of these characters. First we have Chaz, a loveable teddy bear of a man with a rough beard and a heart of gold. Chaz likes to say what’s on his mind, but he does so without intentionally trying to hurt anyone. Next we have Chaz’s roommate, Justin. Justin likes wine and long walks on the beach. Well, that’s a half truth, but who’s keeping track? Lastly we have Marissa, a saucy Italiana who speaks fluent Italian. Anyone else that is mentioned is just as important, but they are only in here as supporting roles.

So, now we can get to the juicy stuff that those fat-cats over at the journalism department don’t want you to know about. Our first incident takes place early in the morning in Céfalu. Everyone was ready to go on the bus, except for two: Chaz and Justin were no where to be found. I had banged on their door for a few minutes, praying something would stir from the other side, but nothing happened. Rick, our photography professor and trip organizer, had one rule—do not be late for the bus. I knew there would be dire consequences. I returned to the bus and told everyone I had no idea where they were, but that wasn’t entirely true. Only hours before we had all been in their room, drinking wine, talking, laughing. We had spent a long time in the basement of the hotel at the Blu Bar, dancing and having fun. Later, we decided an after-party until about 2 a.m. was a good idea. I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone was too drunk to wake up. Somewhere in the back of my head I was sure they were still passed out on their beds, completely immovable. Rosa, our tour guide, called their room and told them politely to get outside immediately or the bus was leaving.

Finally Rick decided we’d waited long enough, and ordered our bus driver, Mario, to start driving. Moving as slowly as the bus would allow, we headed out, all looking back at the hotel trying to see them. All hope was gone. But wait! Running out of the front doors, confused and disoriented, were Chaz and Justin. A scream went in the air to stop the bus. They hobbled up the steps and wheezed heart-felt apologies into the microphone. Their punishment: to wear watches featuring the donkey from the movie Shrek the entire day, no matter where we went. Those watches came to be known as the “ass-watches”. A fitting consequence considering the situation.

While I’m sure most of the kids on the bus were just glad that the guys had made it, I can’t help but think the adults were more concerned with the fact that they were being held up. You have to remember, the older couples paid just as much as we did and didn’t want to miss out on seeing things because of hung-over students. It was our trip, but it was also theirs. They knew we would be drinking. After all, it was spring break. Still, there had to be limits, and this was learned the hard way.

So to recap, drinking wine can be fun, but you have to keep it in check. Make sure to always have at least two alarm clocks set, and if you think you might sleep in a little, set it early. Also, if you tend to black out drunk, at least pass out on the bus so when you wake up you are already where you need to be. Got it? Good.

Our next incident came on our first night in Taormina. The night started innocently enough, sharing bottles of wine at the hotel and going over some writing. Around 10 p.m. we headed into town to check out the local watering hole and mingle with the common folk. We found ourselves a great little pub called Red Bastoni. Apparently that name has something to do with tarot or Magic the Gathering, but that wasn’t what concerned us. Good beer and a good atmosphere was what drew us in and kept us coming back every night. That, and the fact that one of the bartenders looked like Johnny Depp, so of course the ladies had to stay for a while. The greatest thing about this bar? The liter beers. I commented to Justin how badly I wanted my mug, so he told me to just hide mine when I was done and we’d come back for it later. It was fool-proof.

We met many people there, and Marissa was talking with a man who was friends with the owner of the bar. Marissa and her new friend spoke for several hours in Italian, breaking the record for most hand gestures used. After many hours of consuming, it was time to leave. With a gentle March rain cooling us on the walk back, we laughed and yelled, probably waking up the neighbors. I had my mug, but Justin had forgotten his, so he ran back to grab it. I don’t know if it was the fact that we had just stolen the mugs, or the fact that Justin ran down the street yelling happily, “I got it! I got it!” or the man we came to know yelling “Ladro!” which means thief in Italian, but something seemed wrong about this. Eh, I’ll deal with it in the morning, I thought.

When we got back to the hotel we began post-gaming. This means we opened another bottle of wine and began belligerently yelling. Justin and Marissa were sitting outside and we were taking multiple pictures of them, yelling and laughing. We were completely oblivious and loving life, and nothing could stop us. Then it happened. From a few floors up on some balcony out of sight, an old woman began yelling in broken Italian-English at us. What she said cannot be repeated, but it went something along the lines of “Please shut up, I am trying to get sleep. Thank you.” Suddenly reality became real. It dawned on us that we had just woken up the entire hotel, and we knew this was a very bad thing. The party was over. We went to bed and knew we’d have to face the consequences in the morning.

As expected, everyone looked at us like we were a bunch of lewd alcoholics. For some reason though, Chaz and Justin became the patsies, and took the blame for everyone else’s actions. They were late once before and now everything else that went wrong would be related to them somehow. Still, we were all guilty. I felt bad leaving my friends in the trenches taking grenades, but I was glad I wasn’t being chewed out. Now that we’d woken up the adults, I felt like there was no chance of forgiveness. We’d done the ultimate no-no. You do not, I repeat, DO NOT, mess with people’s sleep, especially when they are old and wake up early.

So, to recap again, when traveling in a group, do not risk the security of everyone by stealing liter glasses from the bar you continue to go back to night after night. If you do choose to steal from said bar, do not run through the streets yelling that “you have it.” If you go back to the hotel to drink more, for the courtesy of everyone else, don’t wake up the old lady, who then wakes everyone else up. It’s just rude. I hope these stories and tips have helped you out. I just wish someone had told me this stuff before I went abroad, but hey, if you wanna make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs. Good luck abroad, and remember, if you ever get in a sticky situation, just pretend you don’t understand what they’re saying.

-March, 2006