2023 Italia: In the land of Circe and Odysseus

Rain lashes the balcony windows of my flat in Norfolk as a near-freezing nor’easter pommels Tidewater. Winter coughs up its last gasps before giving up for the year.

I sit at my workstation, beating out my recollections of the three months I spent in Italy. My mind and my heart go back to a different balcony window, where the towering peak of Circe’s Island glows in the setting sun. Every day for two months, I sat in almost the exact physical arrangement as I am now. The desk chair here is a little softer, but the feeling is the same. Let’s wrap up that trip.

Settled in Sabaudia at the end of October, I could finally attack the three goals of the mission to Italy:

  1. Finish the first draft of the novel Art To Die for, the final book in the coming-of-age crime series about Sandra and Joe, set in Italy in the late sixties and early seventies. This was the primary objective of my self-designed writer’s retreat.
  2. Find a place to live. I needed a permanent address to renew my sojourner’s permit. I had left my flat in Formia in 2017 when I returned to the USA to spend Christmas with my son and have my hips replaced.
  3. Visit friends and colleagues. I had already signed up for the ATA Italian Language Division mini-conference in Firenze in mid-December, and I had enjoyed seeing Sara and Ciro in Fiumicino.

Almost immediately, I knew that the writer’s retreat would be a success. Every day, I spent several hours at a table in the living room, with my laptop computer hardwired to the internet and an inspiring view of Circe’s Island out the window. I never grew tired of seeing that famous peak all day.

The blinds on the windows (saracinesche) featured tongue-in-groove slats that blocked all light, and the city was perfectly still after supper every night. For the first time in many years, I slept without an eye shade to block light.

Finding a place to live proved more problematic.

The first week of November, I rode forty kilometres to the train station inland from Latina and toured an apartment in Sermoneta nearby. It was nice, but its main advantage was its proximity to the train station. I resolved to see more properties.

On the way back to Sabaudia, I stopped in Latina, the provincial capital, to visit the Questura (Police headquarters). The immigration office is in the Questura of each province. Guards manned the door where immigrants had queued up for about fifty metres. All had appointments for the afternoon, and they were waiting for the end of the lunch hour.

The guard understood my situation as an Italian resident with an expired sojourner’s permit (issued in Latina, no less). He called down the ispettore in charge of immigration issues, and we moved to the side to discuss my problem. My permit had expired while I was in the USA during the pandemic lockdown. Renewal required justifying my absence from the country more than sixty days after the border opened. I had not been aware of that rule. We examined what it would take to renew the permit and agreed that I needed to start over. A friendly handshake and I was on my way back to Sabaudia.

In all the time I spent in the Agro Pontino and the Agro Romano, I never failed to enjoy riding the long, flat, straight roads. It was like riding in the Netherlands without the cold rain and headwinds. I noticed a fair number of bicycles, which kept the drivers alert to our presence, even on the major thruways.

The cyclists fell into distinct groups. Utilitarian riders pedaled city bikes and hybrids in town. Out on the highways, I passed sportivi on expensive machines, clad in Lycra, and immigrant workers, mostly Sikhs and others from South Asia or Africa. I only passed two cycle tourists with panniers and touring machines like mine in the whole time I was there. But then, it was as far off the season as possible.

Much as I liked Sabaudia, it did have the disadvantage of being so far from the nearest train station. The bus system runs everywhere, but requires much changing, and has so many stops that I can ride to Latina faster on my bicycle. If I wanted to go anywhere quickly, I would need motorized transport.

I had a letter to post at the Fleet Post Office in Gaeta, and friends that I wanted to visit, but the 150-km round trip made that impractical for a same-day trip. To try a motorized option, I rode 30 km to Latina and rented a scooter. I wanted a Vespa, but PetroliniRent only had Hondas. I leased a 125-cc model for five days, and left my bicycle at the rental store.

My teenage memories of the Vespa 50 had not prepared me for the weight of a modern scooter. The upgrades in the last fifty years (automatic transmission, windshield, electric starters, oil pump and circulation, etc.) had swelled the vehicle to 130 kg, more than twice what I remembered. It took some getting used to, so I was glad to have rented it for a week.

First, I rode to Gaeta. I met with Maria Assunta and Ronnie, and stopped at the Naval Support Activity Detachment to drop off the mail and draw cash from the ATM. A heavy rain pummelled the scooter on the way back that night, making me appreciate the windshield. If I ever buy a scooter, it will have a windshield.

The scooter allowed me to check properties all over the province. I concluded that I would prefer to live in Latina, Aprilia, or Nettuno, which are all served by train lines. None of the properties were as nice as the Airbnb in Sabaudia. Too bad: the owners were very nice, and the Airbnb price was less than my rent back in Norfolk, but I could not rent the place long-term.

I rode around Latina province for the rest of November and December when I was not writing. The street market in Terracina (just about half-way between Rome and Naples) was bigger than I expected. The vendors explained that it was an annual event, more like a county fair than the usual farmers’ market. The vendors travel throughout the country in small trucks with a full inventory of goods to sell.

On one circuit the 15th of November, I resolved a conflict between my mapping programs. There was a four-kilometre stretch of the coast road that Google showed as missing, but OSMand showed as a road, with the unhappy name of strada interrotta (interrupted road). That was its name, in fact. It was there, but only for pedestrians and wildlife. I pushed my bicycle through the sand for more than an hour. When I mounted my bike, I realized that I had now covered the entire coast of Italy, from the French border to Slovenia, with my bicycle. It had taken me seven years and many bike rides to complete the feat, but that stretch of sand was the last piece. Very satisfying feeling.

Rain was threatening on the 16th of December as I rode through the cold to the Latina train station. I have often said that “I ride wet and I ride cold, but I don’t ride wet and cold.” I hate cold rain worse than anything.

The gods held off, and the rain came while my bike sheltered in the train to Rome. The rain stopped on the way north to Firenze.

The occasion was a mini-conference of the Italian Language Division of the ATA, organized by my friend and colleague, Miriam Hurley. Three dozen translators gathered at an Armenian restaurant in the historic downtown to socialize and listen to presentations about the American Translators Association, its Certification credential, and specific challenges in translation to and from Italian and English. The Hotel Arizona was convenient to the venue and the Santa Maria Novella station.

It felt like home to return to the cozy flat in Sabaudia, but the following weekend (the 23rd), I was forced to check out. My place was booked for the holidays, so I took a room on the Isola Sacra, which is an island in the delta of the Tiber River.

Retracing my route to Sabaudia from two months earlier, I rolled over another 1,000 km milestone.

While I was at the B&B Insula Portus, I finished the draft of my sixth novel, Art To Die for.

On the 28th, I went into downtown Rome to find some music for Daniel. Sheet music used to be at all Ricordi and Feltrinelli stores, but now the only books of music are method books for students learning instruments. I found a locally-owned store, Arte e Musica, in the neighbourhood where I grew up and bought two books as a Christmas present for my son.

It was a special treat to ride a few times past the headquarters of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at the end of the Circus Maximus. The FAO does not get the headlines that other UN groups get, but it quietly does more to feed humanity and preserve the green resources of the Earth than almost anyone else.

Also, I enjoyed riding in the Trastevere neighbourhood, which is more upscale than when I was a lad. It features bike lanes and high-end stores, where one can buy the fancy fashions of the downtown stores for lower prices. It is also where the train station to Fiumicino is located.

After a quiet holiday at the B&B, on the 3rd of January, I loaded up the bike and rode four kilometres to Ostia Antica, where I would stay for the rest of my trip. The host, Michele, is an enthusiastic cyclist, and active in the local community. I had just renewed my membership in the Italian cycling advocacy organization, FIAB, and while I was at it, I moved from the Rome chapter to the Ostia group. By now, I knew that if I was going to move to Italy at all, it would probably be to Ostia, or Fiumicino next door.

Michele invited me to join the neighbourhood association for a holiday bike ride. We stopped at several bars and a community center in Ostia, passing out Christmas stockings of candy to the children who had gathered there, waiting for Santa’s elves to ride by. Everyone had a good time. I added a dozen new friends to the list of people to see when I return. Two of them had leads to apartments that might come available soon.

The only objective still not accomplished was to find an address to put on my application for an immigration visa. Michele introduced me to a friend in the real estate business, and I talked with a very sharp agent who explained the difference between domicile and residence. These are specific legal terms in Italy, and the distinction put almost all the many listings out of reach for me. I would need to resume the search online as I did in 2015. At least, this time I am smarter and wiser. I can evaluate the offerings from North America and use email attachments to set up the contract.

As my last day came closer, I rode to Bolliger to reclaim my backpack and bicycle bag. Daniel had agreed to meet me at Washington Dulles, so I would not need to reassemble the bicycle in the baggage claim area.

On the Monday, the 9th of January, I packed up everything I did not need and mailed it from the post office in Ostia Antica. My backpack was my carryon. The next day before dawn, I rode the seven kilometres to the Leonardo da Vinci airport, and packed my bike in its bag. By ten a.m. United Airlines Flight 41 levelled off at 33,000 feet on its way to Newark International Airport.

My first tour of 2023 was coming to a close. I reflected on all the wonderful people I had met, the satisfaction of writing another book, and I looked forward to my flat in Norfolk.

Daniel met me with my little white car. We drove to Charlottesville for some quality time before I returned to Norfolk. Now I am taking a long, hard look at the pros and cons of moving back to the land where I grew up. I have never lived anywhere that I did not like, so I am not sure where I will be this time next year. I might not move.

This is the final post in the Freewheeling Freelancer for a while. I will spend the rest of the winter publishing the final books of the two trilogies and examining my options. I have not planned a bike tour yet, because so much depends on the decision to move or not. Stay tuned.

Until I come back here, enjoy the short stories about Hilda, Emily, Joe and Sandra (in that order) at my author website.

To read the complete set of stories in chronological order, start here on 12 November 2022, then click “next” to follow the adventures.

Until we ride again,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


2 thoughts on “2023 Italia: In the land of Circe and Odysseus

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