Tribute to my piano teacher, Alex Johns

By AUGIE FAVAZZA
I had my baby grand piano tuned the other day by Dave Clements of Falmouth and sadly learned of the death of Maine jazz pianist Alex Johns in Portland, Maine, back in April.  I had missed his passing, because as snowbirds, my wife and I, had not yet returned from Florida for the summer.
Alex was my piano teacher. Back in the mid -1980s, my then-fiancee and I had bought a baby grand piano on a lark and on my pledge to learn to play.
I asked popular local musician and band leader Tony Boffa, a golfing buddy of mine, for a name of a good piano teacher. He wholeheartedly suggested I give “Coolie” a call.
When I did, Alex quickly quizzed me about how long I had been playing. I replied I had never played the piano. With that, Alex lived up to his well-known nickname and “cooly” responded,  ”I don’t teach beginners.”
But before he hung up, I brought up Tony Boffa’s name which apparently eased his fears or anxiety of working with a neophyte. Alex inquired, “Do you like to drink scotch?”
I answered,  ”Sure, on the rocks.”
He then quipped, “Good, come over this afternoon, and we’ll get started.”
That afternoon Alex began to dangle before me the keys — 88 black and white ones — that opened a door to a world of joy and passion for the piano.
Now I am probably one of Alex’s least talented protégé and certainly not a professional, but there is not a day that goes by where I don’t want to sit at the keyboard and pound out a tune, mostly from the old standards.
That first lesson in 1985, Alex asked, “What exactly do you want to learn?”
I confessed I had no classical music aspirations. I knew basically how to read music from boys’ choir as a kid. I told him I wanted to play tunes like “Misty”‘ , “The Way We Were”, “Moon River” and, forgive me, that 1980s lounge- lizard ballad “Feelings”.
Alex took a drag from his cigarette and smiled.
“I will teach you the “stride method” and some basic chords,” he said.. ”Most basic arrangements of songs, have pretty much the same chords – C, G, F, D.”
Alex had a hip, devilish personality at times. Why sometimes, during a lesson, he would listen to me struggle through a tune and say “move over”. He would break the tension by playing the same tune expertly, sometimes with hands behind his back or lying prone on the floor and reaching up with his fingers, magically traversing the keyboard.
Well, that first lesson, he showed that devilish demeanor and proposed, “We’ll make a pact. If you practice the chords I show you with your left hand and read and master the melody line with your right hand …. WELL, YOU WILL NEVER BE ANY GOOD, BUT YOU WILL SURE AS HELL SURPRISE A LOT OF PEOPLE.”
“You got a deal,” I beamed and sat down at his mahogany baby grand Kawai in the basement of his home in the Deering section of town and began to learn major and minor triad chords.
For a year or so, I would go for a weekly lesson of an hour that would sometimes stretch into two as I made steady progress.  Alex would get after me at times, not so much for not practicing, but for relying on an ability I possessed to remember tunes I had played a few times.
“You’re not reading the lead sheets,” he would deduce. “You’re playing from memory.”
I had to give up my lessons with Alex when my wife-to-be and I moved to Florida in 1986, along with my baby grand. In Florida, I never did find a teacher I was so comfortable with.  But I still loved playing every chance I could at home or wherever. I’m not sure if Will Rogers tickled the ivories, but I never met a piano I didn’t like.
And so I play piano. Many people will confide in me that it was their dream to play. And they surmise I must have taken lessons as a child. They are stunned when I tell them about Coolie and how he taught me at age 35.
“And don’t be afraid to play in front of people,” Alex would say. “Few people will know you made a mistake. “
I’ve heeded his advice and have played in hotels, restaurants and even recently in the Charlotte, N.C. airport during a long layover. One of my favorite piano impromptu gigs was performing on a baby grand in the favorite cafe of the famed composer Puccini in the town of Lucca in Tuscany. I regret I had not yet mastered “Nessun Dorma”.
My wife and returned to Maine in 1989. But with a new business to run, I put off taking up lessons again with Alex, although I talked about it with “Coolie” whenever we found time to hear him perform at a local hotel lounge. Why bigger crowds never were on hand to enjoy the talents of a man, described in his on-line archive obituary, “as a giant in Maine music scene” always bewildered me.   I knew he studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but I didn’t really know of his sterling reputation as a musical arranger during his Navy career. I wished I had seen him perform with Maine’s big bands like Al Corey and Don Doane.
The last time I saw Alex was quite a few year ago at a Christmas party of friends in Cape Elizabeth. They had bought a Young Chang grand piano and needed a tuner. I had recommended Alex, and they hired him to play for the party, as well. Alex played brilliantly that night, and when time came for him to leave, with the party still going, I took a seat at the piano. I remember someone playfully remarking “well, look who’s going to clown around at the keyboard.”
I played quite few of those standards and a few Christmas carols by ear-and-memory to the amazement of the party-goers. Before, Alex went out the door, he came over and whispered in my ear, “I TAUGHT YOU WELL, YOU SURE AS HELL SURPRISED ALL OF THESE PEOPLE.”
The Piano Man’s parting words were music to my ears.

SW 45th Reunion

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By Augie Favazza, former sports reporter, editor and columnist for the Portland, Maine Newspapers. He began his writing career on the Southwest Pioneer as a sophomore.

I didn’t heed Thomas Wolfe’s novel title, “You Can’t Go Home Again“. So two score and 5 years later, I went back for Southwest High School Class of 1969 Reunion in St. Louis, Mo. this past weekend. I had attended the 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th. As student council president, I felt a definite connection, an obligation, a natural longing like a swallow needing to return to Capistrano.

Our old high school doesn’t exist anymore, and an increasing number of the Southwest Class of ’69 have died with the passage of 4 1/2 decades. One death I sadly learned about this weekend was Rick McAnnar, an elementary school classmate and fellow Boy Scout.

Dan Siefert and I at Ted Drewes.

Dan Siefert and I at Ted Drewes.

Dan Siefert from Dallas, John Pearcy from Baltimore and I came in three days early and shared a suite at a suburban hotel . Over the years, we have always tried to reunite somewhere ever so often, even though we live far apart. Of course, we lived only a few miles apart growing up in south St. Louis. This trio visited old haunts, including driving by the high school and stopping at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand, a historic site on Old Route 66. Too bad it was cold and damp, not exactly frozen custard weather. We visited our old neighborhoods. The houses we grew up in looked pretty much the same. We agreed that the large, Victorian-style homes overlooking the small picturesque pond in the Clifton Heights Park made much more of an impression than when we were teenagers cruising that and other neighborhoods on a dollars’ worth of gas.

Block after block, we drove and pointed out where classmates lived, friendships grew, and pranks and  bullying took place.

John Pearcy... raffle winner.

                                                        John Pearcy… raffle winner.

We drove downtown to the third version of Busch Stadium where John, a dutiful father for the first time after the age of 50, bought Cardinals playoff shirts for his two young sons. Dan and I didn’t have kids and were shocked by the prices for baseball jerseys, hats, shirts and coats. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Stan Musial No. 6 uniform shirt, no matter how big a baseball hero he was to me. The city was buzzing with playoff baseball fever.

As the reunion drew closer, the preliminary list of attendees remained sparse on classmates.com. Many fellow alumni evidently didn’t share the same connection or curiosity. Hopefully, they will feel differently for the golden 50th reunion.

We picked up classmate Bob Gebhardt, who needed a ride to the reunion event, after a dreary Saturday afternoon, weather-wise and having watched the Missouri Tigers get throttled 34-0 by the University of Georgia on TV. Was the reunion going to be a downer as well, the three of us wondered?

As we entered the door to the main bar area of the Seamus McDaniels Irish Tavern in the Dogtown section of the city, we recognized a familiar face, Dave Prokopchuk, who came in from Tulsa with his wife.

We walked through the busy tavern dining area and into a back room. There were our reunion classmates, many more than we expected. There was Joanie Roberts DeGregorio, still with a face that would launch a thousand ships. She was at the helm of this gathering, signing classmates and guests in. Mary Boekesch assisted in handing out gold SW Hello Day name tags with our senior pictures on it. For a moment you did feel like an incoming high school freshman shaking hands and making introductions to strange classmates. But wait a minute, I did know that person and so many others. As Janie Bennett Peterson hinted, it is the eyes that reveal the identity. (Janie probably aged the least of us) I informed Randy Brinkman that he looked exactly the same. He chuckled and said what about my beard? I hadn’t really noticed.

Sam Cardinale , with Patti Tamme and John Mullen. Sam attended to prove he was still with us.

Sam Cardinale , with Patti Tamme and John Mullen. Sam attended to prove he was still with us.

It was so good to see fellow alum and baseball summer league teammate, Sam Cardinale. With a white-gray beard and thick mane, he fittingly resembled Mark Twain, taking great satisfaction in announcing that reports of his death at the last reunion were greatly exaggerated.

During the evening there was talk about careers past and present, families,  and SW teachers (Miss Kinderfather, a girls coach and phys-ed teacher was in attendance at age 90). We lamented and toasted deceased classmates (most recently close buddy Mike Macey) We spoke of retirement and the demise of our high school. It was a combination of city politics, shrinking post-Baby Boom era enrollments, and the flight of white city residents to the suburbs of St. Louis that closed its doors but could not shut out our memories. It’s worrisome now to see the home town and nearby municipality of Ferguson in the national news about racial strife.

John Pearcy wondered the night before over dinner how the four African Americans in our class felt being such a tiny minority. We bantered about people, places and things, and dubbed Steve May, our historian. Steve lives locally, wasn’t sure he would attend until we three weekend roommates twisted his arm, including dinner Friday, when we met Janet Bley Wiese and Julie Otto, close friends a year behind us. We encouraged them to crash a reunion that might need a few extra attendees. Julie did show and was warmly received.

For the record, our old high school is experiencing a rebirth of sorts as the Central Visual Performing Arts High School. I still think it was a shame the powers-to-be didn’t name this new school, the Southwest High School of Performing Arts.

It was great seeing high school sweethearts Don and Sharon Poliette, who I hadn’t remembered at past reunions. Don said sedentary, early-bird dinner retirement in Florida is not for him. He still is a regional sporting goods salesman, a career position well-fitted because he was a fine ballplayer. I would have loved to step outside with him for a game of catch. Not sure my right-throwing arm of yesteryear would agree.

Paul Discher pulled me aside to a table where there was looping DVD “A Photographer’s Scrapbook” of still photos he took of our Southwest days, complete with background music. I recall Don was a mainstay in the audio visual club, and he did a wonderful job chronicling SW students being students. He had a DVD copy for every member in attendance. it is available to purchase on line for any of the class of ’69 who couldn’t make it. Naturally, he is in the business of video conversion, photography, and digital scanning at (www.dischercreative.com)

There was a contingent of special alumni who attended, along with me, the Isaac Mason Elementary School— Mabel Leong DeLuca, Sheryl Rietz Graber, Louise Wilcoxen Wilson, Mike Showers and Cliff Shepard. Cliff and I probably vied for man- mile award. He came in from Los Angeles, and I from the other coast in Portland, Maine. Mike Showers was a much more confident individual from what I remembered as he told me about his career as a Teamster Union negotiator.

Louise Wilcoxen, myself and Loyd Shantz enjoying the evening.

Louise Wilcoxen, myself and Loyd Shantz enjoying the evening.

Louise Wilcoxen had been my chief rival for scholastic honors in grade school. We laughed about how we shared a mutual admiration and innocent infatuation back then, although we never dated.

Loyd Shantz, who attended University of Missouri at Columbia with me but joined another fraternity, hadn’t changed a bit. He handed me a photo from the University of Missouri freshman yearbook. The photo was of my freshman dorm floor with SW alums Steve Berra, who was not in attendance this evening, and Bob Gebhardt, kneeling alongside me. After graduating from the University of Missouri, Loyd worked and eventually took over his dad’s business, Modern Imports, while I moved 1200 miles to the East coast to work in newspapers. Loyd didn’t venture away, because well, as he puts it, “it’s pretty hard to move a junk yard.” I left the newspaper profession in the late 80s, but I was glad to see Bob Watson is still at it, as a reporter in Jefferson City.

A lot of SW women in attendance area stay regularly connected through Facebook and meet every other month at Debbie Rizzo’s Pizzaria. Along with organizer Joanie, Patty Tamme Trares, Rosie Tamminga-Mack, Sydney Johnston, and others, they were the nucleus of this gathering.

Facebook has made it easier to stay in touch, and Terry Trayanoff Mulverhill said she followed my travel blogs in Italy from a message link. I was glad to see Jeanill Eyermann Curry, a close classmate, in the very rear of the room. I told her how I cherished an official Western Union Telegram from her mom and dad the day I was elected student council president. Can you send a Western Union Telegram these days, we wondered?

Another long-distance attendee was Marilyn Wilds Davis, who brought a raffle basket of goods from the State of Washington. She admitted to crying when seeing her old house, not far away, in Dogtown. My initial thought as I approached her to say hello was that I had crowned her Miss SW over 45 years ago. But it couldn’t have been that long ago, not by her youthful looks.

I have to admit, with a graduating class of about 600, I didn’t know everyone and that included this evening. But I did my best to mingle through the attendees and make acquaintances.

Joan sincerely hoped I could help in the planning for the Golden 50th reunion and to rein in a few alumni I stay in touch with who didn’t come in for whatever reason. John Mullen said he hoped I would influence Ron Bryant, class president, who lives near my winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla., to show up for the next big reunion. John and Ron went to grade school together. I pledged I would do my best, and reasoned some people probably regarded the 45th anniversary as just another year.

Joan, John Pearcy and I talked about what kind of affair would be right for the 50th. I think we agreed the cost of a band or DJ would be too much. We agreed those who showed up Saturday night and hopefully those who attend the 50th would prefer a setting, a little more formal, but quiet enough to mingle and share memories. Our location Saturday evening was perfect, a neighborhood bar that provided a very reasonable package of food, drink and space. Joan had considered my cousins’ up-scale Favazza’s Restaurant on The Hill, which would have made the event all the more special for me. But it was too expensive for this not-so- marquee milestone.  I suggested for the 50th a pre-party afternoon gathering and tour at the old high school and will try to make that happen. I made an unofficial visit there a few months ago when I was in town. The performing arts school principal said such a gathering might be possible with the present students performing for us grads of 50 years.

I even think author Thomas Wolfe would have loved this reunion’s cast of characters. In the novel, he did opine, “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”

Milan; Day 11

The chariot of victory over the Arch of Peace.

The chariot of victory over the Arch of Peace.

Photos by Teresa Favazza.

Our final day in Milan was a leisurely one while Laura decided to hop a train and tour Lake Como, which we had visited in an earlier Italy adventure.

We had become familiar with the city’s tram system the day before and made our way back to the hotel on the outskirts of town.  Not exactly sure where we were, we got off and inquired at a Best Western hotel as to the proximity to our Double Tree hotel. The front desk person said go up the street, take a right, and it will be 500 meters straight ahead.

Our final day, Teresa and I wanted to visit Milan’s triumphant arch, sort of like the Arch of Triumph in Paris.  This arch was built by the Italians to commemorate the conquest by Napoleon. What better way to stay on good terms with your conqueror.

The Italians realized that the French emperor’s occupation was not in their best interests. So they redesigned the placement of the majestic team of horses and Romanesque- driven chariot of victory to face in the direction of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, not in the direction of the seat of the Napoleonic empire in Paris.  I guess it was a classical way of calling Napoleon “a horses’ ass”.

The Arch was started in 1807 and completed in 1838 during the Austrian takeover of Milan.  It certainly commands a majestic presence at the head of a large city park that was a nice contrast to the busy city traffic.

From there, we hopped on another tram and made it back down to the Duomo and the Galleria area.  We went back into the glassed-ceiling Galleria mall to take a closer look at mosaic floor which features several interesting coats of arms.  There is a tribute to the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus

The classic scene of Romulus and Remus.

The classic scene of Romulus and Remus.

Twirling for luck with a bambino in the wings.

Twirling for luck with a bambino in the wings.

and Remus, depicting the classic scene of the twin infants with the mothering she-wolf. Another floor design is a crowd favorite where you are supposed to spin three times on your right heel for good luck. An Italian bambino couldn’t wait to follow my lead.

Museums were closed on Mondays, our last day.  We knew that yesterday, but Teresa and Laura wanted to sample the once- a -month huge flea market that stretches city blocks just up from the Duomo.  They made a few purchases.  I bought an Italian-language version of the familiar novel “The Horse Whisperer” which Teresa and I will use as a means of further studying our Italian.  We didn’t do that well in speaking Italian because Italians always seemed to have a much better knowledge of English and take the lead.

We found a small, vegetarian cafe that was featured in a tour book, and the pasta and wine was very good and reasonable.

Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

We were pleased Le Scala Opera House was open to tour.

We were pleased Le Scala Opera House was open to tour.

Luckily, the Le Scala opera house was open, and in the afternoon we toured the famed music hall and museum.  We are not huge opera fans, but it was fun seeing the busts and portraits of famous composers, such as Puccini and Verdi.  There was a beautiful, ornate baby grand on display that was over 150 years old.  There were many other 18th century wood, string and brass instruments on display.

An ornate baby grand piano 150 years old.

An ornate baby grand piano 150 years old.

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We were pleased to actually be able to peer into the opera house where a rehearsal was going on in preparation for the next performance of a Requiem Mass by Verdi.

It was a nice finish to our stay in Italy.  We did have some excitement on the way home when we took the No. 12 tram as instructed by the hotel. We gambled a bit because the destination point was not the right one. We were headed in the right direction.  However, we later found ourselves heading out of town much further than our hotel.  I had a flyer showing the correct destination stop, and showed it to a friendly Italian woman (yes, another travel angel) with two young boys in tow.  She recognized the stop, told us to to follow her. She got off at the next stop and reversed her direction. She then pointed us to another tram and bid us farewell without taking any reward for saving us.  We got on and off at the next stop to our hotel.

We got a good night’s sleep to prepare for the long travel day back home. The hotel shuttle took us to meet an express bus to the airport. Our return direct flight to the States on Emirates was much better than the flight over. We had two seats by themselves.  Four movies and two meals later, and we were at JFK Airport where we connected to a flight to Portland, arriving at midnight.

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Milan: Day 10

The Duomo in Milan.

The Duomo in Milan.

Milano has the reputation of being just another “impersonal, big city”, but we found it interesting and cleaner than Rome, where all our previous Italian adventures have ended before heading home.

We had two days here, and it was enough to view key landmarks of the business capital of Italy.  Teresa didn’t think the dress of the Milan people was any more fashionable.  I did notice that young business men were tapered suits and slacks. Ah, to be thin and in vogue.

Teresa expected the Milan women to be more fashionable.

Teresa expected the Milan women to be more fashionable.

We did have a travel SNAFU, upon arrival.  We took the Metro to the nearest station to the Double Tree hotel on the outskirts of the city.  I had Hilton Honor points that covered the cost of hotel for three nights. Laura got an Allegiant travel site discount.  Again having no phone proved to be challenging. We had no way to contact the hotel for a pickup.  The area outside the station was dark and left Teresa and Laura uncomfortable, and we didn’t see any taxis. But once again an Italian local, a woman who lived in the area, noticed our concern and walked us to a more lit area, called a taxi and stayed until the cab arrived.  Teresa said she must be one of those “travel angels” her friend Joanie believes came to her rescue (in her case it was an off-duty taxi driver) when she got lost and wound up in a dangerous-looking big city neighborhood.

The next morning we headed into town via hotel shuttle and Metro service and got out at the Duomo.  It is a beautiful Basilica, in Gothic style, although built in the Renaissance era.

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Sunday High Mass was going on,  amidst  tourists milling about the huge church. The priest was, of course, conducting the service in Italian.  I enjoyed sitting down and following the service in Italian.  The priest was speaking slowly enough.

The view from inside the Duomo. The stain-glass windows were impressive.

The view from inside the Duomo. The stain-glass windows were impressive.

Laura had been in Milan the day before we arrived at the outset of the trip and climbed to the top of the Duomo.  We have made several such ascents at other Duomos and decided to enjoy the view from the ground.

We then walked over to the “original” Galleria mall, with its three-story glass ceiling and painted murals.  I mostly looked up as we walked through, although Teresa also checked out the high-end designer brand name shops, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, etc.

Our major goal of the day was a 11:30 a.m. tour of the 15th century mural “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci located in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The Italian Renaissance genius is well represented in so many Italian locales.  No different here with a museum collection of his mechanical inventions. We had seen many of those in Vinci, his birthplace on a previous visit.  Da Vinci lived several years in Milan, working for elite families, and the “Last Supper” mural was commissioned by one of those families trying to gain favor with the Catholic Church.

Laura had lamented not seeing this masterpiece 18 years earlier while visiting Milan. She did her homework, and we had tickets bought in advance. Many people were turned away. The group size was manageable –about 30– and we had plenty of time to view the 15 foot by 30 foot mural, brightly painted, not in the customary fresco style, which proved more durable to the elements.  There have been many restorations, some good, some bad, the last most successful was in completed in 1999.  Sadly, the Dominican monks, which had used the room containing the Last Supper as their dining room, also made a doorway that cut away the feet of Jesus.

Luckily, The Last Supper mural and another entitled the Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato Montorfano, on the opposite end of the refectory, were not destroyed during the bombings of World War II.

A matronly woman — she might have been a nun — let us know our time was up, and we were herded off to the souvenir room.

I wondered what was Leonardo’s faith and inspiration in creating this masterpiece. Did he paint the image of disciple James, on Jesus’ right in the mural, as a woman as  depicted in Dan Brown’s  novel “DaVinci Code”? James certainly looks more like Mary Magdalene to me.

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Day 10: Verona

Verona is like  a miniature Rome with its very own Roman arena.

Verona is like a miniature Rome with its very own Roman arena.

Photos by Teresa Favazza

Text by Augie Favazza

Every vacation trip needs that one unexpected gem of an experience. 

Our stopover in Verona turned out to be just that. More on that later. We got off the train from Venice on schedule and had emailed ahead because we had no phone coverage as I alluded to earlier. Our contact and B £ B host, Romy Rocker, was to pick us up a the train station at 6 p.m.

This gave us time to explore Verona, but first we had to pay 6 Euros a travel bag for storage at the train station. I envisioned trying to cram our suitcases into a metal contraption, but for what we thought was a steep fee, there was an attendant to take your bags, tag them and place them on a shelf.

No longer bag-bound, we followed our tour book now, and for the most part Rick Steve’s travel advice has been very helpful. His description of how to tour Verona was spot on. We took a local bus to the Piazza Bra’ and could surmise that Verona center was a series of pedestrian malls.

Verona, of course, is known for its connection to the Shakespeare classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. I saw Verona as a miniature Rome, perhaps my favorite city, and maybe that is why I enjoyed our 2-3 hour walking tour.

First of all it has the third largest Roman arena after the big-Daddy Coliseum and the Roman stadium in Naples. The Roman arena here is a scaled back version with just two levels. There were tours going on, but we’ve been through the Coliseum in Rome several times and know the history of gladiator competitions and other gruesome attractions for the Roman elite and proletariat. I wondered it they had minor-league gladiators performing here waiting to be called up to the Big Show in the Eternal City. Not too be outdone, the Verona Arena had gladiator street performers .

Romeo, Romeo where art thou?

Romeo, Romeo ,where art thou?

We had enjoyed an excellent lunch not far off the walking tour trail. We came upon another pedestrian mall with street vendors in the center of the Piazza Erbe. Passing through, we walked over to the House of Juliet. It is generally known that this probably was not Juliet’s residence and perhaps she was only fictional. Leave it some enterprising tour agent to dream up the star site attraction of the town. Just like in the movie, “Letters to Juliette”,  many young visitors were affixing messages on Post-It notes or small scraps of paper to a nearby wall. There was a nearby mailbox where hopeful lovers post letters which are answered by women of the town keeping the legend alive.

Juliet... did she live here?

Did Juliet really exist and was this the site of her home and balcony?

At least there is no charge to walk into the little square and look up at the ivy-covered second floor balcony, that some say was an add-on for the touring public. Not sure if Romeo was there, but there were many young males running up to a bronze statue of the maiden Juliet and placing a hand on her breast for good luck.

Our incredible hosts, Romy and Claudio.

Our incredible hosts, Romy and Claudio.

Like Rome, Verona is built with a river running through it. The Romans built great bridges that stand the test of time, and Verona’s Roman Bridge is a great place to view the city. I was more impressed with the Adige River than the Tiber in Rome which we have never viewed with any substantial water.

Well, it was time to head back to the station, retrieve the ransom-held luggage, and meet our Bed and Breakfast host. We got a little nervous when the arranged meeting time went by and no pickup. Well, they say patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.

A sign was hanging out a Mercedes window that said “Romy”, our host’s name. We were saved.

Traffic had been heavy, and our B & B host apologized as she drove us high into the hills. The terrain reminded me of the hills of Umbria.

Now B & B in this case stands for ‘Bella, Bellissimo”. We met Romy’s husband Claudio, who just got back from a symphony music engagement in Sicily that morning. This couple was the most gracious lodging hosts we have ever experienced.

After taking our bags to our rooms, which were very reasonable (Romy admitted she had made a mistake in our booking because there was a high demand for lodging this particular week), we were treated to a glass of Prosecco on the patio of this pastoral B & B, which they have operated for 25 years. Romy said she was the first licensed B & B in the Verona area. Romy is originally from Germany, and Claudio is a native of the hill country of Verona.

Claudio than proceeded to tell us about his musical career playing double bass in symphonies, operas and for musical headliners such as Pavarotti. His wife Romy said the famed Italian tenor was very sweet and pushing up her nose said, “he was not stuck up.”

Claudio began playing the double base at the age of 15, because you have to grow up to play this instrument.

He assured us ‘that talent is not enough”, you have to continue to study and work because when you perform “there are experts who are listening to make sure you play perfectly.” Sounds like a musician destined to play Carnegie Hall, which he has.

He promised to give us a short performance after insisting he must take us up into the hills. The hike was almost as demanding as that Cinque Terre trek. Along the way, he spoke about ancient languages and history of the area that has been under Roman, French, Austrian and finally Italian rule.

Claudio took us up into the hills.

Claudio took us up into the hills.

Claudio said it was the Italians who insisted on only Italian being spoken. His comments on Giuseppe Garibaldi,  who was instrumental in unifying Italy in the 1800s, were not entirely glowing because the vote for unification was influenced by military presence.

The couple is well-traveled.  We laughed when he told us that he spent several years playing in Venice, and he still had trouble finding reasonable places to stay and eat.

A part-time professor at the Verona Conservatory of Music, he appreciates all music. He loves the classics and feels those symphonic performances should always be in formal attire. We are sure that our good friends, Carmen and Claire Celenza, would have loved staying here and discussing opera.

Claudio performed for us.

Claudio performed for us. It was a treat.

There was a Russian couple staying two days and had the “music room”  for accommodations where Claudio keeps a pair of double bass instruments and a baby grand piano. One of the big-string instruments is 250 years old. Only the rich could afford such an instrument back then, and for that reason it so well made, he stressed.

I sat down and played a couple of standards on the piano, but having not played in close to two weeks, I felt out of practice, and it showed. Claudio led quiet applause and said “Bravo” and then sat down and expertly played “As Time Goes By”‘ “Misty”  and “Midnight in Moscow” for the Russians.

Claudio then played classical selections on the antique double bass and then demonstrated the difference in sound with the other instrument that was made in 1930s.

On top of all that, he drove us back to the train station where we embraced and pledged to meet again here in Italy or maybe for a performance in the States.

Venice: Day 8, Farewell

A`300-plus year old chandelier.

A`300-plus year old chandelier.

(Photos by Laura Nielsen)
We spent our last day in Venice touring a couple of palaces that are now museums.  We must have just missed George Clooney, his bride-to-be and that A-list of Hollywood notables. We took the first ferry of the morning on Friday to the train station. We surely would have seen that wedding party parade of wafer craft on the Grand Canal if we were in town a day later.

Ca’ d’ Oro, the House of Gold,  showcased Venetian Gothic art.  We had thought there would also be examples of period furnishings, but it was strictly a museum of art.  It is was high tide on the Grand Canal,  and the court yard that is a well- known attraction  was flooded.  We were told to come back later.

Close-up of the Murano glass fixture.

Close-up of the Murano glass fixture.

Later we found the Ca’ Rezzonico to be more to our liking because in addition to the 17-18th century art on display, the palace still had many of the original furnishings including an elaborate Murano chandelier that is the oldest fixture of its kind still in existence. Laura remarked that the chandelier was older than the United States because it dated back 300 years. This museum has a military-style gondola on display. Of course, just about every other painting of that period was a scene depicting the Madonna and Christ Child.

The ceilings of the palace museums were great examples of period art.

The ceilings of the palace museums were great examples of period art.

The ceilings of the palace museum were worth the price of admission depicting mythological figures extolling wisdom, hope, virtue, and valor.  The Venetian upper class must have thought they represented those heroic traits or strived to do so.

Both of these museums offered fantastic vantage points of the Grand Canal.  Teresa remarked it must have been a more peaceful setting, too, when there were no gasoline-powered watercraft.  Now you see and hear every type of boat, from tugs hauling in huge cruise ships, the frequently running Vaporetto (water buses) that run very much on schedule, work boats, fishing vessels, personal and private craft for hire, and of course, the 500 gondolas. I didn’t see any police boats on the Grand Canal. Maybe they were forming a flotilla for the Clooney nuptials.

Overall, I thought Venice is trying hard to go greener, cleaner and had less of an odor than characterized. We recycled at the apartment. On our morning ferry to the airport, you could see the dedicated, working vessels picking up plastic, glass, etc. at each stop on the Grand Canal.

We chatted with the man behind the mask of this Carnival specialty shop.

We chatted with the man behind the mask of this Carnival specialty shop.

I can’t imagine what Venice is like during Carnival (Feb. 2 to Ash Wednesday). A very friendly shop owner selling hand-painted Carnival masks said there are maybe 25,000 people living in the city, but the population grows to over 200,000 for Carnival.  He said every inch of the city is a party sight, inside and out, and music is everywhere.  He, of course, makes his living off that time of year.

There are shops where you can paint your own mask and have your likeness painted on canvas in 17th century attire.

Of course, there is a variety of prices for every tourist item from hand bags, shoes, clothing, beverages, food, especially gelato. Teresa also won the prize for finding the cheapest bottle of the popular Venice cocktail concoction — the Bellini.  We walked away from a 13 Euro bottle, found it down the street for 9, and Teresa bought a bottle for 5 Euros. It was certainly cheaper than the 16 Euro price I gasped at for the cocktail on our initial Venice trip at the famous but not-so- impressive Harry’s Bar just off St. Mark’s Square. That is where the Bellini drink was created.

Teresa insisted I get a Continental-looking scarf to go along with my black and gray caps that have taken the place of my customary head wear, the golf cap  My prized possession, a black man-bag, was bought here four years ago, and gets almost daily use for business and pleasure, allowing me to tote the I-Pad with which I write and post my travel blog. It is an original I-Pad, and the WordPress blogging site has upgraded beyond the capabilities of my Apple device.  Photos have been very difficult to upload, and I have had to use Laura’s trusty mini lap-top to provide photos for the blog.

Laura and I enjoyed fresh seafood.  It doesn't get any fresher than this swordfish for sale at the fish market.

Laura and I enjoyed fresh seafood. It doesn’t get any fresher than this swordfish for sale at the fish market.

We have to give Venice only a fair mark for the cuisine and the price of meals were much higher than other places we visited, which was expected.  Laura and I did get fresh seafood one evening including the head of the sea bass.  We were impressed with the wide range of sea food for sale at the fish market. Some of the fish were still flopping.

There are many public WIFI sites here in Venice, but they required a registered User Name and Password and phone number.  We had planned to use Teresa’s I Phone for occasional phones calls.  Back home the Verizon customer service rep told me I would have no problems using the phone but would pay $1.30 per minute.  He failed to tell me to register the international status before we left on the trip.  The lack of working I phone has been a problem on more than one occasion.  We have had good WIFI connections at our places of lodging throughout the trip.

We continued to have ticket printing problems at the Venice train station.  Our reservation didn’t come up because the printouts I brought for this leg of the trip did not have the confirmation number.  We took the receipt of payment and got on board for Verona, and you guessed it, no one checked our ticket. We only have one more train connection, and we plan to buy it the day we leave Verona for Milan.

Unforgettable memories of the city of Gondolas.

Unforgettable memories of the city of Gondolas.

And for anyone planning a visit to Venice, no matter how many times you have been here, if you are traveling with someone else, have an emergency meeting place.  We were in St. Mark’s Square about to enter the Doge’s Palace, and Teresa and I lost Laura for 15 frustrating minutes.  We remained at the spot we got separated, and sure enough Laura came back to that location.

Venice: Day 7, Doge’s Palace

The Doge Palace.

The Doge Palace.

Teresa and Laura arose early and went to St. Mark’s Square to photograph the Basilica and the Doge’s  Palace without all the humanity. After their return and breakfast, we went back to tour the Doge’s Palace, also known as the Palazzo Ducale, adjacent to the Basilica.
The long line moved quickly enough, and for the next three hours we went through the huge palace which housed the seat of three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial, sound familiar?), The Doge royal quarters and the state prison. I guess the Age of Enlightenment had reached the Venetians, who certainly got around as a naval power for centuries. Of course, Napoleon came along and took control in the early 1800s.
The Doge, derived from the Latin word Dux for leader, had great power in the early 7th and 8th centuries. His power was passed down through the family until powerful Venetian families took control after corruption by The Doge in mid 1300s. The Council of Ten became the ruling body along with the 100 member Senate and court officials. It was one-stop justice in The Doge Palace. You were tried by the court and if guilty, you crossed the Bridge of Sighs to the prison cells for lesser crimes and for major crimes — to the dungeon.

A huge court yard greets you as you begin a tour that reminded the three of us a visit to the Palace of Versailles, just outside Paris. You get the same overpowering impression of spectacular art work, spanning 20 or separate government rooms. The Doge quarters are not that palatial. In fact, The Doge, eventually selected by the Council of Ten, presided over governmental meetings of the ruling class of Venice, but he was not allowed to make any decisions without the Council’s approval and could not leave the Palace for long periods of time without consent.We had reference books, and an audio guide that gave a running commentary of the rooms as you passed through.

The palace was reconstrtucted in 14th through 15th century. The court yard offers a great perspective of the Palace. On the far end was the impressive Giant Staircase, now closed off, sentried at the top by impressive statues of Mars and Neptune sculpted in 1567.

To reach the Palace residence of the Doge and other governmental salons, you climbed the Scala d’ Oro (golden staircase — actually it has a gilded vaulted ceiling ). Guarding the entrance were statues of Atlas holding up the Globe, and Hercules batting down an evil serpent. (It looked like Hercules had the makings of a powerful golf swing).

The Doge apartment was destroyed by fire in 1483, and Napoleon pilfered major works of art during his reign of Europe.

There is an impressive room of ancient maps including huge globes, one of the Earth that is fairly accurate in detail of continents, and the other of the Heavens that identified the major constellations. That was very cool, Teresa and I agreed.

Other favorites salons included:

The Sala Del Maggior Consiglio, the Hall of the Great Council, made up of 2,000 Venetians in mid 1600s. If you made a substantial contribution to the Republic because the State needed a war chest, you were a member. This chamber was the largest room without aid of a columns in Europe for hundreds of years. Housed here is a fresco of the 76 Doges. One portrait is covered, that of beheaded Marin Failer for treason in 1355.

Another favorite series of chambers housed examples of armory used by the Venetians, including full metal body armor for man and steed, swords, crossbows, cannon, and rifles.

It was an impressive tour, for sure. Luckily, the Doge’s alace was only a short walk to the apartment where we retreated for lunch.