I Have Become a Biker Babe!

The first time I saw A ROMAN HOLIDAY with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, I fell in love with the idea of riding a Vespa through the cobbled streets in Italy. Because my recent trip to Florence fell on my birthday, I decided it was an excellent time for such whimsy. Walkabout Florence Tours put the whole experience over the top.

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After determining our ability to ride the adorable bikes, Angle, our guide (on right, below), escorted us in a Vintage Fiat out of Florence and into the nearby hills where the views were postcard perfect. I enjoyed immensely sharing my birthday and the tour with three American sorority sisters. We thought we should have secret agent code names. Riding a scooter is a hoot! After multiple photo stops, we were ready for our included lunch at a beautiful facility set on the side of a hill. A little wine,  penne pasta in tomato sauce, and a desert of unparalleled perfection made me exclaim “This is my wish!” when they asked me to blow out my candle.

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I loved this tour so much, I considered doing it again the next day. I was off to Siena, however, and still had to navigate the Italian bus system. Most people believe that travelling by train is best. However, the train station is at the bottom of a hill, stops along the way, may include changing trains, and takes longer. The bus trip from Florence to Siena is about 50 minutes and the station is centrally located.

I stayed in Siena at Hotel Italia on Viale Cavour, which is a short walk to the historic center. After getting my bearings and finding my spot, Al Peccatore on Via Camollia, where I enjoyed both fresh and aged pecorino cheese served with honey for drizzling, as it should be, rustic bread and a glass of red, I prepared to enjoy my five days in Siena. I was still thrilled by my Vespa tour in Florence so enlisted the aid of the exceptionally friendly and accommodating staff at Hotel Italia to book another Vespa tour.

Though not vintage, this Vespa was bright red. I joined a group of folks from Ohio, and one couple from Mexico, who all drove Fiats. In spite of a good drenching and fog, the ride was thrilling. For the first few miles, I needed wind shield wipers on my glasses. After we stopped in an ancient village and then enjoyed lunch and a little wine at Poggio Amorelli, a small winery, the rain gave way to sunshine and puffy clouds. We toured the Monteriggioni castle and thus ended my second Vespa tour.

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Just When You Think You’ve Had Enough

Sunday afternoon, Red Ants Pants Music Festival, White Sulphur Springs, Montana, and I am done! I’m hot and tired and if I were three, I’d rub grubby fists into my eyes and there would be dust smeared into the stickiness from my Italian Ice around my mouth. But I’m a full-grown woman and even though recalcitrant Ma Nature beat our pop-ups and canopies into mangled spiders with 40 mph winds Thursday night, increased prices and people tested my resolve to hear every band (I failed miserably), I resolutely attended, slumped in my chair, waiting for the next group.

Stamina is required. Without pacing yourself, you’ll never make it. It is also impossible to adequately review here every band so I’ll just hit the high points. My high came early on Friday night. True to Montana weather, Friday was beautiful after the storm. The Shook Twins, hailing now from Portland, Oregon, retro microphone and all, rocked their harmony with tempered folk-pop instrumentation. Followed by Lucero — a voice like Joe Cocker — a Memphis band that swings from moody blues to wild rock, there was little time to fill my wine cup. Next, with her melodic tones and song writing skills, Lee Ann Womack knows how to reach her audience. If you have never heard “I Hope You Dance”, crawl out of your cellar! She is just plain fabulous and a wonderful performer. Then a group about whom I knew nothing came on stage. Reminiscent of Boz Skaggs, Keb ‘Mo’, a three-time Grammy winner, lulled me with his guitar work and beguiling lyrics. Listening to the blues of Keb ‘Mo’ was like rolling the darkest richest wine around in my mouth. Like velvet, their four voices blended into smooth perfection. And yes, I bought the CD.

Keb 'Mo' Hat

Saturday brought another full day beginning with The Cattle Women’s breakfast, yoga, a book sale downtown, talent demonstrations, hay wagon rides and (pause for effect) The Music. Del Barber, it was remarked, is as good a story teller as musician. Holly Williams showed off her song writing chops with the poignant lyrics “Waitin’ on June”, a song which had us all weepy. Her frank comments about her Dad, Hank Williams, Jr., and the subsequent song about her Mom’s grace under such conditions proved her a remarkable talent. Red Molly, a return group from 2014, showcased their pure three-part harmony and (along with my grandmother) gave me added motivation to learn the slide guitar. The Turnpike Troubadours, hailing from Oklahoma, showered us with a gutsy roots-rock-folk-country sound. I’ll be downloading some of that to my phone! And last but not least, Ryan Bingham brought Saturday night to a thunderous climax as the dust from the mosh pit rose above the crowd and dissipated into the lavender twilight.

Red Ants Pants night stage

Then it was Sunday and I was pooped. Inspired Saturday night, we played our own instruments in our camp and, as I’ve said, you have to pace yourself. So at noon when The Easy Leaves came on, I was hunkered in the shade of a pop-up behind the crowded seating section. I loved their sound so much I jostled my way toward the stage to get a visual, but had returned to the shade, slurping my Italian Ice, when Sarah Calhoun, Red Ants Pants founder, announced the next band. She said we might not have ever heard of them, but we would not forget them. Intrigued, I re-claimed my seat closer in. Parsonsfield is a five-piece Americana band from Connecticut whose music is more than bluegrass and folk. Their Appalachian sound (including a saw) broadens into a modern and edgy high-energy performance that will raise goose flesh! If you can sit in your chair while listening to Parsonsfield, you are, as my Dad used to say, “Dead from the ass both ways!” Thrilling and provocative and laugh out loud enjoyable, I forgot how tired I was, jumped up and down, sang along, and purchased their music! I wasn’t ready for their set to be over, but they primed my interest for the sweet lyrics and melodies of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis up next. Finally, this year’s Headliner was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. As seasoned performers, they know how to engage an audience and through their music for a few minutes recall the feeling of the bygone decades of our lives. They, along with another light show from Nature, closed down 2015’s Red Ants Pants Music Festival in fine fashion.

I’m always dazed when I leave, inspired, motivated to delve into music further, to get it on me, to wallow in tempo, harmony, lyrics; wearing it into a familiar soft wrap around my heart. That’s what music should be. It should move you, touch you, and the diversity of talent at the Red Ants Pants Music festival will do just that. I’m already wondering who will perform next year.

Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013
Merle Haggard, Red Ants Pants 2013

EIGHTEEN DAYS AND COUNTING

A funny thing happens the minute I walk into an airport. I become someone else. There is something … magical after four or six or eight or more hours on an airplane. It’s like re-booting a computer. I become someone — not different — but more. I become a better version of myself. Suddenly I’m more confident and witty and capable and worldly. Some people love to gamble. They like to believe that some strategy or skill or bit of good luck allows them to beat the system. Well, that’s how I feel about travel. Most people consider travel just a means to an end: that fabulous vacation spot perhaps. I might be weird, but I like the actual travel itself.

From the moment I walk in, the game begins. I compare every airport and their personnel. Print my boarding pass from my computer before I leave home? You bet. Check in curbside or at a kiosk? Yup. Buy a better bag so I’m hands free going through boarding or in the bathroom? Done. Read every article about how to make your flight go better? Yes, indeed. To travel comfortably you have to suspend your sense of control over what happens next. It’s going to be what it’s going to be and you have to learn to roll with it. My niece calls that “getting your Zen on”. I just like being released from having to be in charge. I’m kind of a control freak, but I also think I’m pretty smart. I embrace the slip on shoes, wireless bra, no belt, three ounce liquids in a clear plastic bag and carry-on size rules. I’m glad those people are serious about airport security even if they feel around on my body. I take my own blanket in the form of a wrap and have the best damned travel pillow ever. I’ve got the apps and the frequent flyer program. I drink the Airborne laced water, I use the disinfectant wipes on my seat and tray. I even clean up in the bathroom and brag about it to the flight attendants. I judge every person I come in contact with from the TSA agents to the waitresses in the bars. I have favorite airports and ones I’d rather never have to be in again. Often it’s the bathroom attendant or the grumpy looking customs agent who will make my day better. I’m at the ready with a smile and friendly greeting. And even though I like to pretend I know things about travel that no one else does, I know it’s basically playing the odds. Do it often enough and not only will you enjoy the vouchers and the discount prices and the occasional free upgrade, but you’ll also get your share of crap. It’s always the people who make the experience better and once I’m calm and friendly they will be too. You get what you give in an airport and mastery over one’s frustration is the best start — because there will most assuredly one day be frustration.

Now I haven’t been everywhere I’d like to be, but I’ve been a few places. My next adventure is taking me back to Italy. I’ve been to the Amalfi coast and enjoyed the sweet little sea side town of Sorrento, a fabulous trip that will be recounted on another blog entry one day. Yes, I’m headed back to Italy, in eighteen days. I’m going alone and leaving on my 54th birthday to Florence and then to Sienna and if I can successfully navigate, I’ll be visiting the tiny little town of Montepulciano — a name you may recognize from a wine bottle or two. This Corkscrew Adventure is taking me to the heart of Tuscany, people!

I’ve been studying Italian through Rosetta Stone so I might be able to order a salad (insalata) rather than soup (minestra) and talk to the locals about vintages and various dishes (pietanze). I know from past excursions in foreign languages that the most important phrase you can use is, “Please speak slowly” (parle lentemente per favore). I also think it’s respectful to be able to say “please” and “thank you” (grazie) in the native language. If you follow along with me here, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Obviously, before you can go on a trip, you’ve got to PLAN a trip and this is where your inner control freak can rule! I’ve studied maps and researched train tickets and museum passes and booked my Delta flight and my rooms. But this is when my first stupid travel stunt occurred. I used Booking.com but I did it late at night after a hard work week and got sloppy. I booked everything at once because, as you know if you’ve ever been on one of those sites, all the rooms are “filling up fast … one left at this price”, without making sure I was getting refundable rooms. Most of them you can cancel and change right up until the day before, but you have to be careful and book a refundable room. When I went back to research a little more I found a more reasonably priced room, but I had purchased one nonrefundable one. I could have saved myself a couple hundred dollars. Lesson learned! Don’t panic.

I’m increasing my language lessons and restraining my excitement, but I’ll be making regular entries for this trip and I hope you’ll join me. Perhaps next we’ll explore a little history. So, ciao, la mia amiche, I’ll be in touch.