Two Weeks in Another Town Country
THURSDAY, JANUARY 10, 2019 -- No one ever confused this bald lump of scribe with Kirk Douglas, but my jaw has been clenching and my chin clefting over these past two weeks in another town.

You know the reference perhaps? One of the last Hollywood on the Tiber extravaganzas, Two Weeks in Another Town is a meandering not-quite-sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful. There's a boffo cast--Douglas, Edward G. Rcbinson, Claire Trevor, Cyd Charisse, James Gregory and even George Hamilton gamely doing James Dean--an honored director (Vincenti Minelli), a storied producer (John Houseman) and, of course, there is Rome. But something isn't quite right about this tale of has-been Hollywood making one final, not-particularly-artistic stand just outside the camera frame and cultural reference of La Dolce Vita.

Which is my way of saying I've had two weeks in another country and, since this week's Tactical Traveler explains all you need to know about life in the road in 2019, I thought I'd devote this space to some oddly cinematic, if disjointed, tableaux of a trip gone slightly sideways.

There I am minding my own business in the PreCheck line at JFK Terminal 4 on Christmas night when I'm randomly pulled for secondary screening.

"Over there," a TSA agent said with a shrug. "Someone will come to pat you down."

But the first someone is a female agent. We stare at each other from opposite sides of the full-body scanner.

"I'm okay if you're okay," I say gamely.

"Nope," comes the instant reply. "I'm already not getting paid for working tonight ..."

Delta Air Lines would have you believe that it operates on a higher level than other U.S. airlines. Delta has other U.S. airlines believing it, too. But look carefully. All is not what it seems.

Even though I'm in business, have checked in and printed my boarding pass at home and only need to drop a bag, I'm directed to a Sky Priority line that snakes out of the concourse and into the long queues of waiting coach customers. I have to cajole a counter agent to flag a supervisor to open a line just for the substantial minority of us who merely want to drop our bags. Then you fight maddening crowds at Delta's lone Sky Club, where a bored woman fronts a pop-up display hawking $60-a-box macarons from a French baker of no repute. The aircraft is an aged Boeing 767 with narrow seats and tiny monitors. There is an extraordinarily limited array of entertainment options. The menu is an uninspired choice of chicken, beef, fish--or a vegetarian option so awful that people on social media warn you off it. The wine is blah. The crew is detached and distracted. But a hard-sided, ivory-hued, Tumi-branded amenity kit seems interesting--until you look inside. There's off-brand toothpaste, mouthwash in a paper tube and a half-size plastic ballpoint in place of the sleek, square Tumi rolling-ball pen that once made a distinctive and useful amenity.

An early-arriving flight, a deserted airport and empty roads on a national holiday (Santo Stefano Day, December 26) meant I reached a middling Hilton in Rome's residential Parioli district hours before official check-in time. The front-desk clerk didn't bat an eye. We joked in English and Italian and he had a room ready instantly. Two days later, however, I went to the front desk to request a one-hour late checkout. Even though the hotel was not full that morning and would not be full that evening, the clerk said they needed the room and couldn't possibly offer an extra minute. Because, apparently, super-elite Hilton Honors status only gets you one bite of the apple.

Seen on a menu in a Roman restaurant that hosts many Americans and Brits: "Fruit on pizza and chicken and pasta are not Italian food. Please don't ask us to cook it." Which seems eminently fair and quite Italian. Except that a new-wave Roman restaurant across the street offers wok-fried noodles with chicken.

The New York Times story you may have read over the holidays is all too true. Rome does seem to be in ruins. It was less than a year since my last visit and I couldn't help but notice how much more trash was strewn about, how much more rutted the roads had become and how little hope Romans have for any imminent improvements. On the other hand, The Washington Post story about Italy's bad coffee seems bizarrely biased. Yes, Italians prefer their coffee cheap. No, they don't obsess about the provenance of their brew. Yes, they like their espresso drinks traditional. No, the country isn't a hotbed of pour-over, terroir-specific, bearded barista, Anglo-Australian coffee fetishists. You want great espresso? You find it everywhere and anywhere in Italy. Flat-white Kenyan grown, small-batch roasted, hand-ground blah blah blah? Not so much.

We spent a few lovely days with lovely friends in a lovely apartment in the Palazzo Costaguti, still in the Costaguti family half-a-millennium after they first acquired the imposing property. As I watched them tromp off each morning in search of more churches and more art and more Bernini and more Raphael, however, I was reminded of why I write about business travel. I know why businesspeople travel: We're worker bees greasing the wheels of commerce in remote locations from Akron to Zaire. That makes us easy to write for and serve. But who knows what motivates leisure travelers? They confound me as they flit from art to zoology. Who knows what they want?

As I wandered around Genoa on the Epiphany, the high point and the final day of Italy's Christmas season, I was reminded how different Americans are from most other cultures. We're multi-taskers and all-things-all-the-time people. Not Italians. Hordes of locals took to the street for a passeggiata, but most shops and restaurants were closed. Merchants didn't see the holiday as a chance to serve customers or profit from them. They kept their shop doors--and coffers--closed. And I thought back to a spectacular pizza shop I stumbled upon earlier in the week along the beachfront in Viareggio in Tuscany. The bustling storefront sold pizza. Nothing more. Just pizza. That's what it did. Pans of four or five types of pizza emerged from the ovens at regular intervals and the waiting crowds immediately snapped them up. It went on for hours. But that is all the shop sold. Pizza. Not even beverages to go with the hunks of pies the adoring crowds devoured. Just pan after pan of pizza. The men in white pants and white shirts did what they did. And the crowd bought their Cokes, beers and wine from the beverage specialist next door.

Italians, as you may know, adore the cinema. But they are omnivores. They revere Fast and Furious as deeply as they love and admire, say, Citizen Kane. So I never visit Italy without spinning the TV dial to see what the Italians are watching. This trip, I got the mind-bending experience of Roman Holiday dubbed into Italian. There was a Hitchcock maratona on New Year's Eve. You have not lived until you've tried to talk a friend through the convoluted plot of North By Northwest dubbed in Italian. But dubbed Cary Grant and Gregory Peck are nothing compared to The Firm and dubbed Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman. That, fortified by too much New Year's Eve wine, leads to conversation about how No Way Out, a clunky 1987 Hackman movie, is based on the suave The Big Clock from 1948 and how 1950's The Great Rupert, the worst Christmas movie ever made, isn't all that different from 1952's Umberto D, the greatest neo-realist Italian film ever. After all, The Great Rupert is about an elderly gentleman who must set his beloved squirrel free because he can't pay the rent on his shabby apartment. For all its cinematic artistry and Roman location, Umberto D really is the same story with a dog instead of a squirrel.

Or so it seems when you're spending two weeks in another town ...