I’ve been to Juarez, Mexico. And I don’t mean I’ve been to the border and looked over, as I did in 2009 for the Sun Bowl and in 2012 for that OU-UTEP season opener. I’ve walked across the border, ridden in a Mexican cab that paid little or no attention to the few traffic laws that seemed to be in existence, had some form of authentic Mexican food and watched my dad barter in a marketplace for a chess set that we still, have though it’s missing a green horse and a white pawn. That was 1975.
I’ve ridden through a sliver of Canada. We went to Niagara Falls in 1976, crossed the border and drove to Detroit through Ontario, exiting the True North strong and free at Windsor. Seemed like it was only about 90 miles. For old time’s sake, I looked it up: 236 miles; border to border probably is in the 240s.
And during the 2000 East sub-regional at Buffalo, N.Y., colleague Dave Morris and I drove the 30 miles or so to Niagara Falls, checked out the amazing cascade and walked across the bridge into Canada.
So those three paragraphs and 190 words describe my full experience in international travel.
That changes today. Or tomorrow, depending on how you look at it.
At 11 a.m., I’m getting on a Delta flight bound for Detroit. At 5 p.m. Motor City time, I’ll have hopefully passed through customs and be buckled into a jet headed for Rome. The Dish and I are going to Italy.
This is heady stuff for me. I’ve told many of you this face-to-face and I’m sure I’ve written it somewhere along the road, but I’m a little partial to the United States. For several reasons.
First of all, I haven’t been everywhere I want to go in the U.S. Still nine states I haven’t stepped in — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Montana, the Dakotas, Alaska and Hawaii. I haven’t been to Boston. I haven’t been to the Gulf Shores, unless you count flying out of Naples, Fla., after driving over from Miami following the OU-Florida title game. I haven’t been along the West Coast between Eureka, Calif., and Florence, Ore., and I love the coasts of Oregon and Northern California so much, I know I’ve got to see it all. I haven’t been to the real mountains of Wyoming, just to Laramie, straight up from Denver. Haven’t been to Charleston or Savannah. Haven’t been in Pennsylvania other than Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and their outskirts. I’ll bet the rest of it is a heck of a state.
But it’s more than that. I’m a little partial to the U.S. Constitution. I got the willies just sitting in the Sun Bowl pressbox in that OU-UTEP night game, looking over at the lights of Juarez and realizing I was no more than a mile or so from ground where my rights as an American citizen didn’t mean a thing. Here’s where most people insert their belief that our constitution has been trampled anyway, and here’s where I look them in the eye with disgust and don’t even have to tell them you should never take for granted living in the greatest country on Earth. This connection to the Constitution is no solo feeling. At the youth ballpark Tuesday night, I ran into a guy I’ve gotten to know over the years, a closer reader of The Oklahoman and a caller into my radio show. I told him I was going to Italy and he said virtually the same thing, without prompting.
Of course, I know I’m going to a first-world country. Italy is not some war-torn, American-hating, volatile corner of the world. But here’s the deal. When I go to Los Angeles, and my rental car reservation is screwed up, I know what to do. When I go to Lubbock, Texas, and Holiday Inn says I have no hotel rooms, I know what to do. When I go to New York for the Super Bowl and a snowstorm hits and cancels flights, I know what to do. When I go to Chicago and get on the wrong train line, I know what to do.
But put me in Rome, and I have no idea what to do when something goes wrong. Put me in the Tuscany countryside, and all bets are off. Drop me off from a Venetian gondola someplace different from where it picked me up, and I’m like Buffy and Jody from “Family Affair.” Remember when the gang took a trip to Spain, and Mr. French and the kids went sight-seeing, and during a bus transfer, Buffy forgot Mrs. Beasley, and when Mr. French went to retrieve the doll, the bus took off, taking the all-alone 8-year-old twins to who knows where in Backwater Spain. I was a twin when that show aired 45 years ago (still am). That’ll cure your European travel dreams quick.
But we all develop. And at 53, I’m ready to take the plunge.
The Dish is a fund-raiser at OU’s College of Engineering, and as you know, David Boren has developed a study-abroad program in Italy. Bought a monastery and everything. Every semester, a bunch of students go to Arezzo, in Tuscany, for OU courses taught by Sooner faculty. The Engineering college has started encouraging donors and boosters to tag along for the start of the trip to get a feel for the program; the college sends a staff member to shepherd the group, and this year, the Dish drew the long straw.
I can’t make it 13 days without her (actually, I survived 18 days without her during the Atlanta Olympics, and survival is exactly what it was), so in mid-May, something remarkable occurred. My passport came in the mail. Fifty-three years old and never had a passport. If the Thunder had made the Finals against the Raptors, I would have been in big trouble. Me and Erik Spoelstra.
So here we go. This is going to be a grand adventure. We’re going to tour the Coliseum and the Vatican and who knows what in Rome. We’re going to Venice and deal with some merchants, maybe find a boat or two to ride. Stop off in Bologna and tour the Lamborghini factory. Go to Arezzo and experience Tuscany; even signed up for a cooking class.
I was hoping to use the trip as a sports lesson. Be in the middle of Italy during the World Cup? Are you kidding me? Italians hanging out their windows with their drying clothes, celebrating an Italian soccer victory? Alas, the Italians lost to Costa Rica and to Uruguay; Italy is out of the World Cup before I’m even there. Dang soccer.
So my sports experiments will be relegated to the Thunder. I bought a Thunder cap and plan to wear it around Italy, just to see how much brand recognition it gets. I doubt Marco Belinelli has turned Italy into Spurs Country, but we’ll see.
We’ve already learned many things. Or been told many things.
* We’ve learned to pack tight. We’ve got less luggage than we take for four days to the Big 12 Tournament. Going from trains to buses and back to trains for travel over Italy, we were told the less the better. So wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles, the Dish has virtually all her clothes in one carry-on suitcase. Rolled them all up like newspapers. Darndest thing you ever saw. She never ceases to amaze me.
* The food is phenomenal. Actually, one reader told me the food is overrated, it’s all the same, and the restaurants charge you if you eat the bread that’s placed on the table. But everyone else says the dining is superb. Even told me that tipping is not a staple, as it is in America. So if you remember that, you’ll come out ahead even if they charge for bread.
* I’m the Ugly American who never has gotten around to learning another language. And I’ve really learned very little Italian in recent weeks. As in none at all. The problem is all this technology. The Dish has an app on her phone that tells you the word you’re looking for and how to pronounce. Technology is a betwixting thing. Education creates technology, then technology consumes education. But I’m told that Italians aren’t like the French; as long as you make the effort to try Italian first, they’re OK with settling into English.
* Beware of gypsies, who will create diversions, then pick your pocket of a wallet or iPhone. My brother said that happened to him in China (Chinese gypsies?). Another reader said the same thing. That’s the kind of warning that makes me want to go to Yellowstone, but I think I’ll be OK.
* Make sure you’ve got the right electric adaptors. No kidding. My brother lent us an adaptor. Says that European plug-ins don’t match ours. If that proves to be true, I can’t tell you how disappointed I will be. If this world can’t even get together on plug-ins, what hope is there for our future?
* Sleep on the plane, everyone says. We’re supposed to land at Rome somewhere around 9 a.m. Italy time. That’s 2 a.m. back in Oklahoma. By the time we get to our hotel, probably 11 a.m. Rome, 4 a.m. Oklahoma. But if you go to sleep immediately, people say, it can throw you off for days. I can sleep on planes if I’m dead-dog tired. Otherwise, not so much. If the Delta flight has Wi-Fi, I’ll get online and follow the NBA Draft. If not, I’ll probably nod off.
* I packed three books for the long flights. The Racketeer, a John Grisham novel that hooked me when the first two chapters were tacked on to the back of Grisham’s baseball novel, Calico Joe. Talk about inspired marketing. To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the five best movies ever made but a book that has managed to escape my reading. And Port Robertson, a bio of the late OU athletic icon, which interests me because I knew Port, he might command the most respect of anyone I’ve ever even heard about and the author is Ed Frost, a friend of mine. If I knock out two, I’ll consider it a success.
So off we go. My plan is to write a daily travelblog, because for some reason, those things are so popular. I could write a Grantland Rice-worthy piece on the OU-Texas game, or a Bill James-worthy piece on why Kendrick Perkins is invaluable to the Thunder, and readers get a bigger kick out of my weekend adventure in Ames, Iowa. Maybe I was miscast. Maybe I’m supposed to be a travel writer.
Soon enough, I’ll at least be an international traveler. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going.