The delicate art of accepting free crap

I’m back in my Village of Solitude on the coast of western Sardinia – the place that timely bus service forgot – still shell-shocked and woozy from my trip to Umbria.

As I reported previously, my Umbria research trip was gearing up to be an exhausting week of racing after public buses, sleeping on a friend’s couch and shyly studying menus to report on restaurants that I could not afford to dine in. However, three days before departure, it transformed quite suddenly into a week of chauffeured cars, junior suites, lavish dinners, tours, meetings with a cornucopia of very important people and being force fed expensive wine anywhere from two to five times a day. As of now, the article’s working title is “The 144 Hour Hangover”.

I officially submitted myself to Umbrian Tourism at noon last Saturday. Seven hours later I was shitfaced and I wasn’t myself again until, oh, hopefully tomorrow.

I never dreamed I’d say this, but maybe, just maybe, there’s such a thing as too much wine.

Maybe. I’m gonna have to think about that after my blood-alcohol level dips below .30.

I haven’t touched alcohol in 36 hours, but when I sniff hard, I can still detect an aroma of red wine and grappa permeating out of my pores. The ladies in my life might argue that this would be an improvement over my usual odor of onion, garlic and coffee, but I’m unconvinced.

At any rate, please allow me to reverentially gush about Umbria. Quite simply, it’s molto awesomeo. Take Tuscany, remove about 85% of the tourists, halve most of the prices, cut out the patent attitude of entitlement brandished in tourism circles, sprinkle with a never-ending expanse of tiny hilltop towns, each more disarming than the last, and add my purdy face in about three months and that’s Umbria.

Typical hilltop town

That’s right folks, unless work drags me away kicking and screaming – and, unfortunately, there’s an even chance that it will – Umbria (Perugia, to be specific) is gonna have a new Gringo staggering around in a state of satisfied bliss come May.

This trip ended up being the best week of my travel writing life, despite the fact that I never broke the seven hour sleep barrier, I was constantly hungover, I never had more than 90 waking minutes to myself and I was compelled to eat the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner twice a day for six days straight.


A dozen Pitalians tag-teamed all week to keep me constantly on the move. There was always a meal or a tour or a car waiting to take me somewhere or someone to meet. I slept in four different hotels in six nights, never staying in any one place two nights in a row. I was whisked around from Perugia to Montefalco, to Bevagna to Torgiano and back to Perugia. I took a cooking class and I went on a truffle hunt. I toured four wineries, three museums, a number of rentable countryside villas and a luxury “wellness center”, among other things.

One night, I was impulsively invited to dine with the family and friends of the owners of the four star villa that was hosting me. This wonderful place was run by Umbrian “hippy nobility”, who had arranged a 22 person dinner “for fun”, which was followed by a slide show of their recent trip to an Indian ashram. Part of the meal involved a “vertical tasting” (a sampling of four vintages from consecutive years, 2004, 2003, 2002 and 2001) of Sagrantino wine, a grape variety only grown in the village of Montefalco and several surrounding towns.

The Montefalcans are very passionate about Sagrantino, in addition to their general conviction that “food” and “fun” should be synonymous and I was a glassy-eyed believer within seconds of entering the room. One of my wonderful hosts leaned over as the meal commenced and somewhat drunkenly notified me that I was about to “depart on a one-way, nonstop trip to Sagrantino, beeeeotch!!!”. He didn’t actually say “beeeeotch”, but it was implied.

Probably the most dumbfounding experience was my tour through a private castle late in the week. Everything – the furniture, weapons, books, art, pencils, dust balls – in that joint was older than my country. I was invited to tap out a few notes on one of Beethoven’s pianos and test a bed that once belonged to Josephine Bonaparte (lumpy).

At one point, I was spontaneously absorbed by a group of journalists on a press trip. We did the cooking class and went on the truffle hunt together. This is where I became acquainted with “Blowhard McFuckstick” – not his real name, by the way, but he just looked like a “Blowhard McFuckstick”, you know?

I helped cook that.

Mr. McFuckstick was, as we were constantly informed (by him), an extraordinarily successful journalist. He’d been in the industry for decades, wrote for many prominent publications, traveled widely, knew legions of influential people and spoke several languages. But I began to doubt Mr. McFuckstick’s pedigree when two things became readily apparent: He never listened to anyone and he never – not once – took a note. Indeed, he only reluctantly accepted media kits, as this seemingly brought him down to the level of the rest of us lowly writers. He was quite clearly too distinguished to be doing actual journalistic tasks and demonstrated this with his casual disregard for everyone around him, including the people lavishing him with their time and expensive free crap.

While the rest of us diligently listened to whoever was speaking, furiously scribbled notes, filled our digital camera memory cards with countless photos and poured over the literature in our media kits, Mr. McFuckstick exhaustively talked about himself to whomever was unfortunate enough to find themselves within earshot, a field of prospective listeners that increasingly dwindled as the day wore on. Occasionally he’d shut up for a second – mainly to draw a deep breath to keep from succumbing to babbling-induced asphyxiation – lock onto a single sentence uttered by whoever was leading the group (e.g. “Two percent of our truffles are harvested on a plantation, the rest are collect from the wild.”), then resume his own private lecture (e.g. “Did you know they have truffles in Nepal? Really? You didn’t know that? Well it’s true. The king told me while I was vacationing with his family in Bali…”).

On the rare occasions when someone was allowed to get a word in edgewise around Mr. McFuckstick, whatever was said was either wrong or he’d done the same thing, except better and/or before it was passé. Even when he was listening to what was happening around him, he absorbed nothing. When we’d discuss something that had happened 10 minutes earlier he’d pipe in, usually with information that wasn’t even remotely accurate, and whenever someone would gently try to correct him, he’d insist that he was right, even if the rest of us had notes/pictures/DNA evidence to the contrary.

Yet there were baffling signs of experience and knowledge. He did appear to know a lot about food and he actually spoke Pitalian a little better than I do, though with such a strong American accent that it caused the Pitalians to physically shrink away and in some cases lunge for the nearest sharp object with which they might slash themselves just to feel a less intense kind of pain.

I became obsessed with Mr. McFuckstick. How could such a socially intolerable, professionally inept person even buy tube socks on his own, much less be a jet-setting, successful travel writer? I went back to my room that night and Googled him. I couldn’t help myself. If this guy was genuine, I was gonna have to quit travel writing just so we wouldn’t have to share the same job title. Turns out Mr. McFuckstick was a food critic. I managed to find one obscure publication that he contributed to regularly and a few other scattered articles. None of the published material that Mr. McFuckstick had produced gave the reader (i.e. an increasingly indignant me) the impression that it had been written by someone with more than an 9th grade education. He also seemed to be liberally dipping into his copy of “Strunk and White’s 1,001 of the World’s Most Tired Metaphors”.

Infinitely relived, I slept soundly and resumed my rise to the zenith of travel writing rapture the next day with renewed vigor (and wine).

The truffle hunting was a highlight, even after the disappointing realization that no one was going to be entrusting me with any sort of firearm, with which I might mortally wound Mr. McFuckstick’s larynx. By the way, I’m aware that truffles do not need to be gunned down (unless they’re charging you, then it’s every man for himself). Equally, neither do people need to be strapped to hunt for Easter eggs, but that never stopped the folks in Flint, Michigan. But I digress…

Here’s a question: Who was the first jackhole to decide that truffles, which, I’m sorry, resemble petrified hog turds, were something that people might like to eat? Yet another “How’d That Happen?” mystery lost in the folds of time, along with haggis and Jennifer Lopez’ acting career.

Instead, a man that had been truffle hunting for over 40 years led our little group into the hills on a staged hunt (true truffle hunting requires 10 hour days, in highly secretive locales, which often come to a close without having found a single truffle). Two cute and playful trained dogs were set loose to find the pre-hidden truffles as we were lectured about the industry. After the “hunt” we were served truffle omelet sandwiches, saturated in truffle shavings and truffle oil, with a heaping cup of red wine (it was 11AM – I don’t think I went 12 hours without being drunk the whole week), that tasted like heaven on Ecstasy on Salma Hayek’s nipples. Someone in our group commented that this succulent, light snack would’ve cost about US$300 if it were served in San Francisco.

On my final full day in Umbria, I had lunch at a new, luxury “wellness center” that ended up being the greatest meal I’ve had in my entire life. All three courses were independently and unspeakably amazing. My first course was tagliatelle with herbs infused in the pasta (notice I didn’t say “on the pasta”), with tomatoes and shrimp. Except it wasn’t normal shrimp. It had been somehow prepared to taste like shrimp, but without the fishy taste, if that makes any sense. It was so light, yet still so powerfully flavorful that I probably would have wept, if I hadn’t been in the company of fairly important people and I hadn’t already shamed myself by wearing a simple Old Navy t-shirt under my jacket that day rather than Gucci like everyone else in the room. Then our host leaned over and poured a generous amount of a locally produced extra-virgin olive oil on my meal, which he confessed he used “like salt”, creating an eye-crossing flavor that caused a physiological chain reaction in me that made me wish I’d packed extra underwear. I washed this criminally delicious creation down with the eighth type of Umbrian white wine I’d tasted that week.

The second course was a fillet mignon that was so tender and perfectly seared that I could taste it just by looking at it. It was served wrapped in a seaweed-like substance with a layer of couscous-like substance between the meat and the seaweed (sorry, that’s the best I can do to describe it… this is why I’m not a food critic and Mr. McFuckstick is, I guess). The taste was precisely what I expected it to be: the best piece of meat served to man in modern history. Again, the course was served with wine, a red that complimented the meat so well that it nearly caused my taste buds to commit ritualistic suicide.

I was nearing a metaphysical conniption by this point. I wanted to rip off all my clothes and rub this food all over my body. I wanted there to be a vomitorium, so I could expel this food, tidy up and eat another plate of it. I wanted to kill the chef since there was no way he could ever make such a delicious meal again and I wanted to save him the agony of trying for the rest of his life. But there were certain appearances to be upheld, so I put my primal urges for nudity, gluttony and murder in check and soldiered on, making quiet, whimpering sounds only audible to dogs and hummingbirds.

The dessert, two slices of chocolate mousse tort with raspberry sauce which, while not suicidally good, was still enough to make me hornier than a man dumped on Paradise Island after two years in an all-male, Russian submarine with no A/C and a busted shower. If I left it on my tongue for a few seconds, it would completely liquefy into chocolate milk.

On my last night in Umbria, I was generously placed in the presidential suite of my hotel, which had an expansive balcony, overlooking all of Perugia and the immediate countryside, that by itself was larger than any room I had stayed in before. I enjoyed this opulence for 25 giddying minutes before being taken out to an “early” dinner with one of the region’s more reliable tourism representatives that ended up persisting until almost midnight. My bus to the airport departed at 8am the next morning, but I toughed it out and stayed up until 2am, wallowing on various pieces of furniture, trying to absorb what is likely to be my last brush with luxury for some time to come.

Part of my balcony. It was too large to fit it all into the frame.

Emboldened by a week where I’d only opened my wallet about three times, I filled out my in-room breakfast card, including the salmon omelet and extra orange juice, and collapsed into a bed larger than most English back gardens for four hours before I was being shuttled back to my life of semi-poverty, occasional sobriety and at least eight hours of sleep each night.

Right, we’re in Italy, so here’s the requisite Lamborghini taking up two parking spaces. I would have given anything to squeeze my Dacia in the next space, stand back and watch the hilarity ensue.