You meet the most interesting people when you travel. It's not because the people who surround you on a daily basis are boring; it's because no matter how exciting their lives may be, they are still so familiar. Radio personality Dennis Prager and I discussed this not too long ago. He mentioned that my column was building a real following, to which I replied "…except among the people who know me." He laughed about how true that was for him as well and how several people close to him think "Oh, that's just Dennis; no big deal."
While my wife and I were in London waiting for our flight to Rome, I was recharging my Zune, and I asked the man sitting next to it to watch it for me. He showed me his hat, indicating that he was a retired U.S. Marine, so I said “Semper Fi” and struck up a conversation. Since his retirement, he has spent the better part of ten years working for a construction company in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was on his way back to Afghanistan for another nine-month stint. Boy, did he ever open himself up. I had a hundred questions for him.
The big one was whether he thought we should stay in Afghanistan. "Absolutely," he said, adding that he felt that we were making great progress under General Petraeus. He maintained that while the Afghanis love Americans, it is very difficult to change a country that remains backward in so many ways. He pointed out that the construction companies have started to change the way they operate, and are now hiring many more local people. They are training them to be carpenters, electricians and plumbers so that when the Americans leave, the local craftsmen will have the skills to maintain what was built. He was very proud of that evolution. It was quite a fascinating conversation.
Some Americans like to go where they can speak English. I find it fascinating to be in the midst of several languages, and then try to figure out where each person is from. On one evening, we dined at a restaurant in Palermo, surrounded by a couple from Germany, a quartet from France, and another group from South America. We asked the waiter how he kept up with all the languages. (Fortunately, most people revert to English.)
We visited Galati Mamertini, a small town in Sicily that is the birthplace of my client, an owner of upscale Italian restaurants in Los Angeles. On the drive from Palermo to the area around Messina where Galati is located, I could only think of two things. First, how did they ever build this road? It follows the Sicilian coastline, meandering through the mountains that hug the Mediterranean Sea. We went through tunnel after tunnel, some of which are two miles long! The engineering and construction costs must have been enormous. And some people think Italians are only good at food and sports cars. Second, this road didn't exist in the summer of 1943 when General Patton, after freeing Palermo, marched to Messina. How in the world he moved the Seventh Army across this terrain baffles me.
We pulled off the highway that hugs the northern coast of Sicily and turned south into the mountains. Thank God for navigation systems – because we may never have found our destination. Halfway to Galati, my client’s brother spotted us and guided us to his family’s restaurant. We drove by town after town, each one hanging off the side of the mountain, before finally arriving.
We had two memorable dining experiences. At the family restaurant, where they tried to kill us with course after course until we begged "no more," they brought out some carved pineapples for dessert. How these pineapples, which were originally grown in South America and then later in Hawaii and Guam, eventually ended up in this tiny village deep in the mountains of Sicily confirmed once again how small our world has become.
That evening, we went to the only restaurant in Galati. In this little town, in the middle of nowhere in Sicily, we enjoyed the most fabulous pizza you can imagine. It made us wonder why Americans settle for the dreck you get at Dominos and Pizza Hut. Too often, we sacrifice quality for convenience in our hurried lives. My bet is there is a place in every city in America that makes pizza worth eating instead of what we too often stuff down our throats.
The house we stayed at was just off the town square. The only way you can envision it is by watching the bucolic scenes in The Godfather when Michael Corleone was sent to Sicily. In the afternoon, we saw many people in the cafes of the square, playing games and talking. At night, there were more people, hanging around and talking. The following morning, people were still sitting and talking. It was straight out of a time long ago. That is something we don't do much anymore in America. We are all too busy, mostly with our electronic devices – and I am as guilty as anyone.
I don’t know what they were talking about, but it was nice to see people engaging each other instead of a machine - a great thing to do this Memorial Day. Ciao.