Boots & Sabers

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0749, 20 Jun 15

Around the Bend

Judy Steffes is still cycling through Italy to raise money for Alzheimers activities. She’s raised almost $64,000 so far! Here is her Saturday column. Perhaps it should be called “Around the Curva” this week.

Around the Bend  June 20, 2015  By Judy Steffes

ROME, Italy – To the Vatican and beyond. Jumped the convenient bus from the campsite in Rome, located about 3 miles from the Vatican.

Rome is a busy hub – think of a beehive on steroids and then throw in every element of motorized transit as well as all signs and language in Italian. At this point I feel sweetly naive, like a country mouse gone to the big city.

There’s an outfit just outside the Vatican called ‘Vatican No Line Tours’. I went for it because it came with a docent, and how can you beat not having to wait in line? For a supposedly religious tour, who could believe they’d lie?  Well, they did. We had to wait in line like everybody else. Then, once inside I found I could have rented my own little radio tour for a very modest price; so FYI, consider this a free travel tip for anyone planning to do Italy on your bucket list.

On the plus side, the guide, Alexandra, was wizard-smart and funny. “Now, if you lose the headset it’s a $1,000 fine from the Vatican,” she said.  “Just kidding, it’s not but don’t walk away with it, we will find you.”

The tour was an extensive two hours of history, art, and more history. The sculptures were detailed, gorgeous and, to my surprise, they were fake.

“The originals were done in bronze,” said Alexandria. “A lot of these are copies, many sculpted by Greek prisoners.”

Alexandra’s stories had detail often found in Marvel comic books. “See the depth to that painting – you don’t see much of the lower half of the body and so it just flies off the wall with kind of a Superman quality.”

She followed that up with a note about the time the Pope climbed to the top of the scaffolding to get a better look at Michelangelo’s work, and then he did nothing but “rag” on him.

Michelangelo got even with other critics by putting their likeness on paintings of scoundrels, she told us.

The fabulous sculptures showed full motion and an artist’s eye for detailing every muscle. The paintings and mosaics were graphic and Alexandra worked to drop art knowledge on us. “The colors are the feast of the redemption of man and in this painting with the light and the moon, the bigger lump is the light.”

We followed our docent like ducks, tied in with our florescent green transistors and ear plugs, snapping photos; there wasn’t time to blink or think.

Our exclusive tour ended, we turned in our radios and it was on to the Basilica.

“No shorts,” said the guard. Which was kind of “judgy” because others had shorts. “No knees,” he said.

Alexandra warned me this could happen so I managed to pinch a garbage bag. I was rockin’ a trendy Hefty-style wraparound, but the security fashion police came back at me, “No plastic,” biting off the end of each word.

It kind of sounded like he just made that up. I asked him for help and he sent me to the gift shop run by the nuns. I picked up a cute little number for 3 euro. One of the sistahs tied the scarf around my waist and cinched it with a scout knot. I sashayed the scarf a bit as I walked past the guard; he didn’t even make eye contact but I knew that he knew I was there.

The whole Basilica looked crazy familiar, just like I had seen on TV. I went to Mass, had my cross blessed and talked to Rev. Kevin near the confessional. He was from Ireland and had a very O’Irish way about him.

“You had to be selected for this job,” he said. “I didn’t even know my hat was in the ring.”

At Mass the priests wore fiery bright red robes. There was a mix of Latin and Italian spoken, and the priests said the entire Mass facing the altar.

A man named Sepp

PISA, Italy – There was a fantastic campground in Pisa. Fantastic is G.I. talk for – they had toilet paper.

Well rested I was on the road again and headed north for Parma on the Aurelia SS1. I was pushing along at a good clip, about 23 miles an hour. I was going to buckle down and get in some decent milage.

At about the 12-mile mark the traffic picked up, the ominous skies opened and it was time for a rain delay. When it rains in Italy it’s serious business as the raindrops are heavy and about the size of a solid nickel. Within 30 minutes the rains stopped and I was on the road again but struggling a bit, hunching over my handlebars as the winds shifted.

Enter Sepp; a small man on a bike. He came up from behind me and was moving along effortlessly.

We had a brief ‘Ciao’ moment and Sepp took the lead.

Sepp was from Switzerland and touring, too. He had the build of a fire hydrant in clingy spandex and padded shorts.  He looked to be in his mid 60s and he was moving.

I, being the experienced and somewhat weary biker, took full advantage and drafted….close.

We rode for miles. I hung in Sepp’s wake and rode so close I could read the small print on his rear fender. It felt rather intimate and naughty since I never jumped out to take my turn in the lead.

Sepp was strong. His hill climbs were a breeze. I took a breath, lost a step and dropped 15 feet back. Sepp coasted and waited.

There was a small wayside and we veered off to take some shade and that’s where I learned more about Sepp.

A retired truck driver, he was on holiday bicycling from Rome back to Switzerland. He showed me a photo on his flip phone; he was posing with two police officers in front of the Basilica in Rome.

Sepp was 73. He  stood about 5 feet tall, wore a blue-and-white “do” rag under his helmet and he had a small, gold triangle earring in his left ear.

I mentioned how impressed I was with Sepp’s fitness and then I noticed his bike – a Bosch with a 400 Power Pack. I heard about these bikes being popular in Europe, especially with senior citizens. It gives them the ability to tour, but also provides a booster rocket when the going gets tough.

Color me shocked.  You know what this meant – it meant that all this while I was looking at this guys calves and admiring his Olympic bicycling skill, thinking he fell out of the Ron Howard movie ‘Cocoon,’ it turns out he’s got a built-in jet engine and I’m the amazing biker to have kept up with him.

“Coffee time,” said Sepp, “Next stop.” ….and he was off – at a stunning pace while I lugged and careened along, dragging my dinosaur tail of gear and trying to catch someone who was 22 years my senior.

During our coffee break I learned Sepp was an amazing athlete. “I run seven New York marathons, two Boston and one L.A.,” he said.

‘Fitness,’ said Sepp.

I was feeling less amazing, like I should take off the superhero cape and give it to Sepp.

An Italian education

PARMA, Italy – Had the nicest breakfast at the hostel in Parma with Alexandria from the reception desk.  She’s 30 years old, has a PhD in French literature and is wonderfully well rounded and interesting to talk to.  A summary of some of our discussion is below.

-This hostel is owned by the city of Parma. Under government orders we are required to house people from Africa who have come over by boat to escape the war and brutality in their country. Our taxes pay for their stay.

-About 60,000 Africans have come to Italy illegally. About 300 pay all they have to get onto a boat and when they get here, if they get here, they have nothing. Some know a little Italian and most do not. The city is responsible for their wellbeing. We have a large financial crisis because of this welfare.

-The Italian government is ordering the illegals to go back to Africa. How do they get back?  Well, they have no way. They are not going back – they stay here.

-There have been 3 to 4 boats with African immigrants that sank at sea; at least those are the ones we know of.

-In Italy we take great pride in our food and restaurants.  It’s the one thing we do really well. We judge the food by quality rather than like the States where you like quantity. No offense. I visited the states and I did not know what to do with all the food. And the size of your drinks – who can do that?

-We have messages on TV warning people about dangers of the internet. We do not date on the internet. No offense – wouldn’t you feel like a loser? We like meeting people face to face.

-Dating is difficult because most men into their 30s live with their mother. Good jobs are hard to find and most men are mama’s boys.

-When Italians visit America they can not find old things because the US tear it down and build new. We say if you want to see old things, stay home.

-These Kardashians, who are they? Somebody stop them. Your government must do something.

Tidbits from Italy

-Everyone who shops in Italy brings their own bag. It’s habit. If you need a bag, the store charges. There are even bar codes on the thin, white plastic bags.

-Touring on a bicycle allows me to find the niche things, including the well-hidden Castello dei Burattini and the Giordani Ferraro puppet and marionette museum in Parma. In Montichiari I found Italy’s only indoor velodrome – a 250-meter banked bicycle racing course. Daily I’ve been able to quietly explore the ornate cathedrals with solid wood doors that are so high they look like they’re expecting a giant to visit for Mass.

-The hostel in Parma cost 30 euros and looked like it was in a government building. The hotel in Montichiari that cost 65 euros had a fountain out front and a marble stairway and reception area. The hostel room was bigger and so was the bathroom. Both served breakfast – I’ll have to file that update next week.

-There are a lot of newts in Italy.

-I met a nice 12-year-old boy, Jayden, at the hotel in Montichiari. He was from Texas. He came to Italy with his family five years ago to help his grandmother save her hotel. He missed the States. “I want to go home,” he said.  Jayden’s two older brothers worked the hotel as did his mom. All the boys were fluent in Italian. Jayden didn’t have as distinguished an Italian accent as his brothers. “I like the American way of speaking,” he said. The family planned to stay for three more years. Hopefully by then Jayden will realize how much American girls like a man with an Italian accent.

-Administration at Cedar Community said the tour has raised nearly $64,000 for Alzheimer’s activities over the past three years.  A big thanks to all the sponsors and supporters of the tour.

-More stories and photos are available at

-On a personal note, I’ve received word from the director of the John McGivern show Around the Corner that I will be one of the people featured on the West Bend edition. Filming will be in mid-July. Although my goal was to help the show highlight all the great things in the community, they apparently were impressed with my involvement in West Bend, my passion for the community, knowledge of history and they even liked me as a primary media outlet with Washington County Insider on Facebook.  Stay tuned… week a one-on-one interview with the key people involved in the show.



0749, 20 June 2015


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