Friday, February 29, 2008


I faced death squarely in the face when I let Jason drive me to the airport. His U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic was quite interesting.

Leap Year day in Roma /Catania, it doesn't get any better than this!

For those of you keeping score, Contreras family 2 - British Air 0! Neither one of us lost any baggage at Heathrow Airport in London on our two separate trips! This doesn't sound like much unless you know about the black hole of luggage that British Air has become.

Random Thought of the Day: As many of you know, I taught Criminal Justice at Rio Mesa H.S. for many years, my favorite class by the way. For many years I held a very hard stance on punishment for convicts. I have now made a change in my core beliefs in this area and thoroughly believe that all convicts should be given a conjugal visit if they can put together a streak of let's say 57 days of good behavior. I believe this would make things much more positive for all people involved in the penal system.

The Pantheon is my absolute favorite building in the known universe.

Trevi Fountain
We did promise to come back by throwing coins into it two years ago.

Early morning at Vatican City at St. Peter's Basilica

Laurie in front of Michaelangelo's Pieta.
When we visited this sight two summers ago the crowd was 50 people deep and wider than the scope of this photo. 

Two pilgrims visiting the Pieta

This Holy Water fountain in St. Peter's is bigger than any other one in Christendom!

This reminds me, I went to Confession at St. Peter's Basilica today.
The Sacrament of Confession binds the priest to secrecy but not the penitent. That being said, I must relate that after telling the priest my sins he asked me two questions. The first was to find out if I help the poor (thank you United Way)? I gave him a hardy, YES! The second question was if I have ever helped a woman get an abortion? I gave him a hardy, HUH? Random and bizarre indeed! I doubled the penance prayers he assigned me in hopes of getting Brian FitzGerald to heaven some day!

Laurie's first cappuccino of the trip.

"The Senate and the Roman People"

Wednesday Night Practice

Lucky models our new helmets at Wednesday night's practice.

Jonathan's Pannini Stand, a Wednesday night post practice staple.

Please note that the blue lines marking this parking place already put the driver about 5 feet over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
The tree is an added bonus.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Laurie in Roma

After 43 years together, I still feel this way about her!

Life Is Definitely Beautiful

Laurie arrives in Roma in about 23 hours as I write this. These two pieces of graffiti near Malibu pretty much sum up how I am feeling about her arrival.

The Small World of the IFL and Ventura County

David Lassen NEEDS to cover the Catania vs. Parma game!

If you have been following this blog you know that I am involved with the Catania Elephants, an American football team, playing in the Italian Football League. The IFL is made up of the top nine teams in Italy. Over 50 teams all over the country are playing football in leagues based on their various levels of proficiency but the IFL is king.

Besides the Elefanti, the other 8 IFL teams are the Ancona Dolphins, the Bergamo Lions, the Bologna Doves, the Bolzano Giants, the Milan Rhinos, the Palermo Corsari, the Palermo Sharks and the Parma Panthers.

So, approximately 12,000 miles away from Ventura County what would be the odds that three people with Ventura County ties would all be involved in the 2008 IFL season?

On Sunday, May 25 the Parma Panthers will travel to Catania for a 3:00 p.m. kickoff. I will be acting as the Defensive Coordinator of the hometown Elefanti. If you don't know, I've been coaching high school football since 1970 at four different Ventura County high schools (Thousand Oaks H.S., Westlake H.S., Buena H.S. and Rio Mesa H.S.).

The Parma Panthers will feature WR Cory Mazza out of Thousand Oaks H.S. and Harvard University. Also, James Bonelli who went to St. Bonaventure H.S. and Notre Dame University will be playing on their offensive line.

What were the odds? I think that an enterprising newspaper, like the Ventura County Star, should send a crackerjack sportswriter like David Lassen to cover this great human interest story. What do you think?

Things I Saw Today On My Aci Trezza Walk

All of these pictures were taken on my short, approximately one mile walk this morning in Aci Trezza on the way to our daily cappuccino and Nutella cornetto. Amazing things are happening daily in Sicilia!

Take a shot big boy and grab her hand!

How many Sicilians does it take to paint a boat?
One to actually paint the boat and four of his friends to second guess him.

Jason tries to move in on the old guy's action.

What were the odds of running into a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus walking in Aci Trezza?

For a split second he thought I was Ernest Hemingway.

Discreetly look over your right shoulder, is that tall, quiet girl looking at me?

Does Steve Gama know about this?

Grooming is the key to success with the ladies.

I bet you I can tip this car over in 5 seconds flat!

Jason's Best Pictures

Child on a balcony in Syracuse

Sant'Agata Parade Madness

Agrigento Temple

This is my absolute favorite Jason/Margaret picture.
It is of a priest in Catania at the start of the Sant'Agata Parade.

As you have read here before, I believe that Jason is the spirit of Margaret Bourke-White, the great 20th century photographer, re-incarnate.

I offer you my four personal favorite Jason Johnson pictures, out of the thousands he has taken so far, for your approval. See if you agree with me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Golfing On Our Day Off

A slight driving problem in a small mountain town on our way to the golf course.

Claudio, "Il Naturale", teeing off with Jason in shock over this Italian phenom on his first day on the golf tour.

Three golfers enjoying a "Good Walk Spoiled".

Mt Etna

LAURIE IN ROMA: Less than 44 hours as I write this post!!!

Claudio joined us for our first round of Sicilian golf at the Il Picciolo Golf Club in Castiglione di Sicilia on the north side of Mt. Etna about 45 minutes from Malibu. It was a great setting and a nice course to play. Because golf is not big in Sicilia, we only saw two other golfers, both singles, the entire day. This made for a quick pace although walking with our rental clubs on a hilly course was a true test of my intense conditioning program. The rental club bag came without a strap, an obvious ploy to make us pay 7 more euros to rent a pull cart. As the manly men that we are, we scoffed at the very notion and started our epic trek on the slopes of a live volcano!

I know the question you all want to ask is how did I play? Let me say that when our boys Andy and Mike were about 8 to 10 years old, we bought them an adjustable basketball backboard that could go anywhere from 6 to 10 feet tall. They would play against me and I would at will swat their shots away. Today I was one of the boys and EVERY TREE in Sicilia was playing the Dad role routinely swatting my shots all over the hillsides. PAYBACK SUCKS!

For a first time player, Claudio did VERY well and we all had a great time. Golf to me is all about scenery, a good walk and fun with friends. Today was a GREAT day of golf!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The People of Catania

This is the sun rising in the East this morning as viewed from the upstairs patio at Malibu.

The question is did I wake up in time to take this picture at 5:45 a.m. or was I just getting home?

Do you remember the joy of riding a brand new bike as a kid?

Did I mention that Italians like to talk with their hands?

Two boys and a ball, it doesn't get better than this as a kid!

This interesting old house is on the water on the path of my daily morning walk.
LAURIE IN ROMA: Less than 72 hours until her plane lands in Roma! This morning while standing in the Cityper Market parking lot waiting for Jason to get something out of the car, I looked around at the cars and the people as was struck by a feeling. I no longer feel like a visitor or tourist, Aci Castello/Catania is where I live and work, these are my new towns. I like the feel of my new surroundings.

When I was researching Catania before I left California, the people I spoke with that had visited Sicilia in the past usually said the same thing, “Why would you want to go to Catania? It’s nothing like Rome, Florence, Venice, etc.” That is exactly why I love Catania! We are not living in a tourist town although there are some historical sights and summer’s heat will draw MANY visitors to our beaches. Catania is basically a gritty working town with vibrant people, great food and a great range of nighttime activities. The best thing here is the people not the things or the sights.

We have found people here who you are glad you had a chance to meet including, of course, the Elefanti, their wives, girlfriends and children. We see people standing on street corners just talking, kids playing in piazzas, crazy drivers, funny billboards and people engaged in interesting cultural habits that are different but still very charming from what we are used to in America.

I have mentioned young love before. Here there are always public displays of affection. We think it might be because everyone lives at home with Mom and Dad until they are married so the streets are the only place for “privacy” for young adults/teenagers.
The calendar says it’s winter so our friends are wearing their scarves, fur coats, heavy jackets, etc. If the weather goes up into the 70’s (21 degrees Celsius) like the last two days, it doesn’t matter, we will wear our winter clothes because it is winter! I’ve been wearing a t-shirt and shorts today while Jason is doing the same plus wearing flip-flops, the looks we get are interesting…crazy Americanos, IT’S WINTER DAMN IT!!!
I love Italian kids and their parents playing in parks or piazzas. The bambini have the same joy for life as the adults only they are much more fun to watch.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

A Wonderful BBQ

The Church Lady is the one seated on the left.
I know the picture quality is poor but security was tight and I had to use my clandestine, C.I.A. issued shoe camera to take this picture in the church!

The beauty pageant before the big BBQ.
From the left to right:
 Daniella, Davide's wife, currently in her 13th month of pregnancy
Titziana, Salvo's wife
Roberta, Claudio's girlfriend
Federica, Lucky's wife
Our hostess, Ika,  Tony call me Pony's wife

In Sicilia, as in America, every man in his heart knows he can build a better BBQ fire than any other man. Here Lucky, on the left, and Davide, on the right, second guess Pony's fire starting techniques. 

In red, Fortunato, a.k.a., Lucky
In blue, Ika, a.k.a.,
"The Pride of Amarillo's Cap Rock High School"

Antonello, a.k.a., "Tony call me Pony", our host, chasing his two year old son Federico who it turned out is wise beyond his years.

Salvo, in white, and Claudio, in blue, discussing the correct way to clean ricotta cheese off your hands. Matt with his hood over his white hat is about to go into a state of torpor.

Davide's dream is to be the next great Italian international motorcycle champion.

Future Elefanti linebackers Alicia, left, and Federico enjoy a moment recalling how they gang-tackled one of Lucky's boys earlier in the day.

Lucky and Francesca's son Simone on the left and Pony and Ika's boy Ruggero on the right.
Two baby faced assassins in the Elefanti's future defensive schemes.

At the BBQ, Brandon, Matt and Claudio relaxing between sausage servings.

LAURIE IN ROMA: Three more days! This is like waiting for Christmas morning  when you are 8 years old and have known for two weeks that your parents have hidden your new bike in the attic! It’s all about anticipation!!!
Sunday started off on a low note when the Mass in Aci Trezza lasted 42 minutes! The reason was the gospel which was about four times as long as usual, what could the priest do but read it. After Mass I saw the priest storm out of the church in street clothes visibly upset at letting the congregation down.
When you arrive at church before the start of Mass you are greeted by a group of women who fill the church with their voices as a mature woman we shall call “The Church Lady” leads them in chanted prayer. She calls out a chant and the other ladies repeat it instantly and loudly. I have been led to believe that “The Church Lady” was at one time the Padrina (Godmother) of the Curva Nord section of Calcio Catania, leading the crowd in hundreds of soccer related chants. Now barred from Stadio Massimo for rioting and having found God while in prison serving a six month sentence for disorderly conduct at a public sporting event, she instead chants in the more dignified venue that is San Giovanni Battista Catholic Church. When the Mass ends, she is back at it for about five more minutes. The whole time she is chanting she keeps looking back over her shoulder to see who is and who isn’t following her lead. Another week or two and I know she is going to call me out in front of the flock for nonparticipation. I really hope that she isn’t packing an oak ruler with a metal straight edge!
Davide called us just before we were leaving to drive up to Taormina again. He invited us to a BBQ at Tony call me Pony’s family summer cabin in the foothills of Catania. Thank goodness we said yes and changed our plans!
The thing I really like about the Elephants is that we really do act like family. Back in the states, the high school players are too young to hang out with and there are just enough parents with axes to grind that you have to be very cautious in socializing with the parents. Here in Catania we are all adults and we tend to all be on the same page. Today’s BBQ was a good example.
When we arrived at Pony’s we were greeted by Davide and , WR Salvo as opposed to the LB Salvo, Fortunato call me Lucky, Claudio and, of course, Tony call me Pony and their wives and children. In Claudio’s case it was his girlfriend Roberta (her smile again lit up the patio area as the sun went down).
We brought three bottles of red wine and they brought every possible type of meat and dessert imaginable. Although the food was fantastic it was the family atmosphere that was even better. I especially liked watching the interaction between the six male children, 2 each for Salvo, Lucky and Pony. Davide and Daniella still have about a month to go before their first, Alessandro, is born. The craziest one of the bunch had to be Pony and Ika’s lone daughter Alicia. She may grow up to be the first female Elefanti if she can just keep her intensity, being the only girl in a sea boys, at this level for a few more years.
It was obvious that these people have been friends for a long time and truly care about each other and their families. Being graciously welcomed into this family setting on this glorious afternoon will be one of my fondest memories of Catania.
Except…There was one huge, depressing bit of news we were given at this otherwise joyous BBQ. The men got the four Americanos together for a discussion and you could tell by their faces and body language that something bad was about to happen. Their purpose was to inform us that ricotta cheese is not produced due to spoilage issues during the summer months in Sicilia. This means that starting in about May, cannolli will no longer be served until the Fall, long after we are back in the U.S.A.! WE WERE STUNNED TO SAY THE LEAST! There was talk of our leaving Catania and abandoning the Elefanti in midseason after the last cannolli is crafted. Cooler heads prevailed and someone, Pony and Ika’s two year old son Frederico I think, told us to suck it up, reminding us that after all summer IS gelato season! Out of the mouths of babes…
Salvo eased our pain by bringing cannolli from a new pasticceria, Fratelli Di Bella (Via Battiati 1, Aci Bonaccorsi if you are in the neighborhood and hungry). These cannolli had good slant, fine pistacchio, ricotta made by the hands of angels and the mandatory blizzard of powdered sugar. These may give Savia’s a real test if they meet head to head in Jason’s B.C.S. Cannolli Championships. I give Savia’s a small edge due to the crispness of their shell, which is of great importance to our expert Matt Obi Won Cannolli. We may have to sample more cannolli to be certain.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Catania Saturday

The Elefanti's new ad campaign that is sweeping Catania starting today.
Note the football between the knees of our mascot, that is a football isn't it?

Brandon and I at the Havana Club last Friday before
"The Incident".

I only bought two this time.

Two Curva Nord Calcio Catania crazies just chillin'.

Laurie In Roma: FIVE more days, YAHOO!

The day started with a phone call from Jason at 8:45 a.m. that he and Matt missed their flight (why am I not surprised?) and would make the next flight that puts them into Catania at 2:30 p.m., a half hour before Saturday's practice. They made it and had a good practice thank goodness.

Our defensive team is starting to come together. Our third linebacker, Salvo, showed up for the first time this year. He was the Elephant's best linebacker last year but has not been to practice as he has been studying for his final exams to graduate from college. Salvo lacks knowledge of what we are doing but his skills are evident and he is very aggressive! Salvo, Pino and Gianmarco make for a VERY solid core to any defense.

We have seen five or six accidents in the streets, not counting the Night of the Shattered Glass, and all of them have included a murdercycle, imagine that!

P.E.T.A. will not be holding any conventions in Catania in the foreseeable future. The mature women here love to wear their fur coats when they go to church on Sunday's or if they are going out on the town for an evening.