Friends,

Today is my fourth day overseas in the low hills of northwest Italy outside a small village called Cairo-MonteNotte. The place reminds me of a mix between the N.C. mountains and the dryness of Califorinia.

The house where I am staying is 1500 feet above sea level in low mountains in the Liguria region of NW Italy. It is about 25 minutes from Savona, a coastal town near Genoa. The house itself is a monster home with 10 bedrooms and a kitchen my whole house would fit into. With a pool, tennis court, steady breeze in the 70s and no misquitoes I feel like paradise is at hand. My friends, Martin and Annelies have spent a small fortune renovating this country estate that they rent out (www.estateinliguria.com) to make it a modern palace where up to 20 people can live in style in the Italian countryside.

My trip started badly. I woke up sick as a dog last Saturday morning coughing and wondering why the vacation gods had made me so ill the morning I was leaving for a week of fun in Italy. But I was not about to give up my vacation just because I had a cold. So off to Tampa airport I went in a taxi that picked me up at 6 am.

My friend Gary helped me get a buddy pass on Delta which means that whereas the ticket is more reasonably priced, when flying you have the lowest priority for seating. The flight from Tampa to Milan Italy can go through either JFK in New York or Atlanta.

After being unable to get on three flights to Atlanta because the flights were so full, I tried to catch a non stop flight to JFK at noon. Unfortunately I could not get on this flight either!

I had been at Tampa airport for over six hours and missed four flights and I was getting desparate. I only had a few hours to get to Atlanta or NY City in order to make the overnight flight to Milan. The gate agent was a nice lady and she recomended that I take a plane to Laguardia in New York and then take a taxi accross town to JFK.......voila. I was lucky that there was an empty seat to Laguardia and a 3 pm on a blazing hot Saturday afternoon I found myself on the streets of New York City in line for a taxi that would hopefully get me to JFK in time to get to Milan.

The taxi driver spoke Spanish and we chatted about the Dominican Republic and New York politics for an hour while he drive like a maniac cutting off other motorists, cursing out the window and finally saying the ultimate NY comment to a guy, ARE YOU TALKING TO ME? I was sweating like a pig and coughing like mad as I stumbled into the maze of JFK airport hoping to get boarding pass and get into the departure lounge for the flight to Milan.

After another tedious hour of security, lines and the NY attitude from everyone around me I found myself surrounded by smiling well dressed peopled chatting away in Italian. They all wore very cool clothes and designer eye glasses. I already felt like a tourist and I had not even left the states! I was at Gate B20 and the sign said, MILAN 6 pm. Thing were looking up.

Finally they called my name and gave me a boarding pass......seat 7c....yes. Business class to Milan. I collapsed in a fitful coughing sleep accross the Atlantic and found myself breezing through Italian customs 8 hours later with my carryon bag looking for my friends who were supposed to pick me up in Milan....

I had arrived at 7 am local time and the plan was for me to call Martin when I got an Italian sim card for my mobile telephone. Since he was scheduled to also pick up his wife Annelies and one of his sons friends named Tom at 11 am it gave me time to get an Italian Sim card for my phone.

I quickly learned why the Dutch and German economies are so much more efficient than the Italian ecomony. The transaction to buy a sim card took over an hour while they checked my passport, driver license, and took a blood sample (joke) to decide if I was worthy of making mobile phone calls in Italy. The Italian beuracracy is renowned for slowing commerce and I can say from first hand experience that its all true. (My friends told me horror stories of having hired agents whose whole job is to call building departments to get appointments to have licenses and permits pulled.) Its a stiffling thing to do business in Italy but heck, when you look so good and the weather is so good its worth it I guess.

I finally met up with all the group and the five of us drove on the Italian motorway south toward the sea and the Liguria region. Italian motorways are like u.s. expressways except its all toll roads here. Simply driving 100 miles costs $27 in tolls and when we filled up with 12 gallons of gas the cost was $155! Thank god I brought a pocket fully of 50 euro notes! Italians interstate highways in this part of the country run right though the mountains through incredible tunnels. It is strange doing 80 miles an hour through a tunnell every 10 minutes. As we drove along we were constantly watching for motorcyles doing 120 mph that whizz by you like you are standing still. I felt like we were in a road race and I shut my eyes more than once and cried for martin to slow the heck down. He just laughed at me and kept going. Driving is not for the weak of heart in Italy.

Finally, 25 hours after starting my journey we arrived at the house. I fell into bed and tried to adjust to the time difference but after an hour of fitful sleep I was up sipping wine, looking over the mountains toward the sea and feeling the gentle breeze. It was all worth it.

The next morning I organized a tennis tournament with martins kids and some friends. Martin and Annelies begged me to whip his son in tennis to wipe the smirk off his face and I entered the tournament confident that my tennis prowess from high school 35 years ago would come out and i would show them all how a real American kicks butt......I lost miserably however, coughing and tired. I was eliminated from the tournament. I drank and coughed and sulked the rest of the night.

The next day i woke up so sore I could hardly get out of bed. The 16 year old boys banged on my door that morning laughing and begging me to play them again. They loved hearing me curse in German, dutch, spanish and english while they whipped me. But a meal, a nights sleep and a bit of wine and practice after a 30 year hiatis from tennis brought me around and I found myself actually winning games. First I beat Tom, the cocky kid who played tennis in flip flops and finally after many lost games I beat Marc, martins son.

We jumped in the pool afterward and the boys said we would play again tommorrow. And after four days my cough is not so bad but unfortunately some of the members of the giant household are getting sick and they are all blaming me.....

Today I was finally getting over the pain of tennis and swimming and walking the hillside and feeling great when martin called me down to the barn.

Outside was a giant machine with a conveyar belt that looked like it was from pre WWII (it probably was). On a trailer behind a tractor sat 200 bales of fresh field grass that had been baled for storage to make hay for feeding the neighbors farm animals. HEY RALPH, HELP ME THROW THESE ONTO THE BELT. I protested that i was on vacation but the farmer 40 feet up in the barn and martin looking down from the trailer would not take no for an answer. Bam, the first bale came at me, at least 50 pounds of wet grass bailed in nylon string was thrown into my arms and i carried it 9 feet to the belt. I felt my back and realized this was a new source of pain.

The machine growled as claws grabbed each new bale and sent it carreening up to the waiting farmer. Bam,another one. And another. And 45 minutes later I was coughing, scratching and sweating like never before in my 55 years. Two hundred bales weighing 50 pounds a piece thrown onto the coveyer belt. The kids looked down from the wall and laughed like hienas at the fat cracker holding his back and limping up to the house. MILLE GRATSIE...a thousand thanks said farmer. GOOD JOB RALPH said martin. I staggered to the house and collapsed in a fit of coughing and delerium. WATER.....please.

Its day four and dont know what else is coming on this vacation but hopefully the next three days will include a bit of doing NOTHING.