Christmas 1992 * La Maddalena, Sardinia
"Benvenuti in Paradiso fin che vuoi, scivolando nel blu...nel blu..."
("Welcome to Paradise as long as you want, slipping into the blue...into the blue...")
Antonello Venditti, "Benvenuti in Paradiso"
This year, an Italian song played often on the radio but I only understood the words "amore" (love) and thought that was the title. I asked the lovely Italian ladies at the front desk of my barracks what the song was and tried singing a part of the melody. They immediately got it and informed me that the song is "Benvenuti in Paradiso" by Antonello Venditti, which thrilled me because Paradiso is the name of the barracks that I live in (supposedly the only building on the island of La Maddalena that has central heating in winter and air condition in the summer) and the song title translates to "Welcome to Paradise". I went out to buy the cassette tape and love many of the songs on the album. I'd consider Antonello Venditti to be the Italian Phil Collins, as far as music style goes. This popular and uplifting song pretty much represents the theme of my life here, in this part of the world.
I had a great year, like 1991 was. The two best years of my life. This year began with the USS ORION going underway to nearby Gaeta on the mainland of Italy. The ship was there in September 1991 when I checked aboard. I like our "second home port" because it gives me opportunities to travel on my free weekends to other destinations in Italy. I got to visit Florence, which is a beautiful and walkable city in a valley, rich in history and the birthplace of my favorite period in human history: The Renaissance. I got to see the Duomo cathedral, the museum that houses the famous statue of David, as well as Michelangelo's other sculptures, Ponte Vecchio, and bought the coolest looking green velvet shoes which I think makes me look like Robin Hood. I tried some Spumante, an Italian champagne.
The next underway period was in April to Naples, Italy. After several months of being pestered by the chiefs and officers I work with, I decided to accept a TAD (Temporary Additional Duty) assignment to the USS NORFOLK, a fast attack submarine, for a three day ride to Naples. My office hoped that it would inspire me to volunteer for sub duty, but I am an Aircraft Carrier guy and only accepted this opportunity for the sheer experience of being on a submarine. It was an interesting experience and I even got to drive it for a half hour, 400 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. Shhhh! That's supposedly classified information. Ha.
In Naples, I did the usual tourist things, particularly a trip to Pompeii to see the ashen ruins of an ancient Roman city. I was thrilled to finally see this place because when I was in the 8th grade at Fulda American High School in Fulda, Germany, my English teacher Ms. Floto told the class about her trip to Pompeii and said that she would only tell the senior class what were on the walls in Pompeii. This unfairly piqued my curiosity and now that I finally learned the secret, I can't understand what the big deal was. My own visit to Pompeii proved adventurous, though. As you can see from the photo above, I happened to wear a soccer shirt (the black and red striped shirt that you see). I had no idea that this would become a source of much stares and strangers approaching me and making comments to me in Italian. All I could do is laugh, along with my shipmate who also went to Pompeii with me and try to communicate in my limited Italian, their limited English, and a dictionary / phrasebook. At the end of my trip, back in Naples at a McDonald's, an Italian struck up a conversation with me. He mentioned that I was very brave to wear such a shirt in Naples. I asked why and he said because I was wearing the shirt of the Milano soccer team and they were playing Naples tonight. Oops! No wonder why I received such reactions all day. I have to admit, I did enjoy feeling like a celebrity, though.
In May, I finally set foot back in my beloved France. The ship went to Toulon, a large French Navy base. I explored Toulon and took the train to Cannes, home of the famous Film Festival. I also took at USO sponsored tour of Monaco and Nice, where I got to see the famous Casino of Monte Carlo and marvel at the postage stamp size of the country (smaller than Central Park in New York City). I loved the port visit to France.
Later in May, my command, Submarine Squadron 22 invited a French submarine to the annual Submarine Birthday Ball. I asked to be seated at the French table, the only American who did so. After a little nervousness, I ended up having great conversations and was able to impress the French sailors with my knowledge and love of French culture and politics. One French sailor even invited me to eat lunch on board his submarine the next day, the only American do do so. They kept trying to get me to drink their wine with the meal, but because I was on duty, I couldn't and they did not understand why I could not drink their wine. It was a great experience and I did my part to foster good will between America and France!
For the annual summer underway period, the USS ORION made ports of call in Cartagena, Spain (where I took vacation to see Madrid); Corfu, Greece (a fun time, British tourists were everywhere!); and Alexandria, Egypt. I was most excited about the visit to Egypt because it had been a dream since elementary school to see the Pyramids. The first night, I made it off the ship and walked around Alexandria, buying a bunch of souvenirs, including an Islamic prayer carpet. The second day, I was signed up to go on a tour to Cairo and the Pyramids, but due to the choppy and dangerous waters, the ship's captain decided to cancel the port visit for our safety. None of the liberty boats had life jackets on them and the U.S. Navy is still shaken by the drowning deaths of sailors on a capsized liberty boat in Israel during the Gulf War. While I understood the safety concerns, it was still depressing to come all the way to Egypt and only getting to see Alexandria. So close to seeing the Pyramids, but so far. The morale on the ship was low for the remainder of the underway.
Another underway period came in October, to Villefranche-sur-mer, France (near Nice). I decided to use this as my starting point for my first Eurail vacation. With my shipmates returning with the ship to the homeport in La Maddalena, I boarded a train to Venice, where I spent a day walking on platforms while it rained. Next stop on Eurail was Vienna and into Budapest, which I only spent an afternoon / evening due to my inability to find a hostel to stay in and not finding anyone who spoke English. Budapest looks like an interesting city, but the people had pale skin and dark hair, making them look to me like vampires and since Hungarian words are superlong with little vowels, it was too intimidating to stay overnight so I caught the last train for the night to Vienna and then onto Munich. I stayed in Fulda, Germany for a couple nights, revisiting my old haunts on the Army base my family had left four years ago. I was thrilled to see my favorite teacher, Frau Karsten, and surprise her with the German phrases I still remember. It was a good emotional visit.
Next on my Eurail itinerary was Paris, where I stayed with a French family, whose daughter started writing to me earlier this year. It was great to see Paris again, my favorite city in the world. I also went to the Brittany region to visit one of the sailors I had met at the Submarine Birthday Ball. I met his wife and baby daughter, and enjoyed seeing how the French live. I never would have traveled to Brittany for tourist purposes, so it was nice to see a part of France that does not get many American tourists.
On this Eurail journey, I also got to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which was a disappointment because the bottom part was walled off. I caught the ferry back to Sardinia from Genoa and already am looking forward to another Eurail journey next year (this time, I'm hoping to see Scandinavia and Amsterdam).