Playing for Pizza

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Playing for Pizza
by John Grisham
RATING: 7 out of 10

Remember back in the day when the world clamored over when the next Grisham book would come out and how great it would be? I remember reading A Time to Kill and The Firm years ago and devouring them as I marveled at Grisham’s ability to make legal proceedings accessible and to make lawyers seem a little less…um…lawyer-y. For about 6 years during the late 80’s and early 90’s, he dominated the book world. His books now come a little less often, but are still putting plenty of coin in his pockets.

Grisham has written 16 legal fiction books and 4 non-legal fiction books (as well as a single legal non-fiction book). Playing for Pizza falls into that second non-legal fiction category and focuses on an American football player who has managed one of the single biggest failures registered in the history of the NFL (think Lin Elliott).

Rick Dockery is a typical anti-hero…lazy, physically gifted, a real schmoozer. But he’s also tainted goods. No one in the NFL will sign him so he flies the coop off to Parma, Italy where they play real American football (not that silly stuff we call soccer). Apparently, Italy has a league that allows 3 American players per team (Grisham apparently discovered American football while researching another book in Italy) and the competition is probably equal to that of large-high-school football.

The title of the book comes from the way that most of the players in the league get paid…with pizza and beer. Most of the Italian players are athletic guys who just enjoy the game. Oh, to have players that enjoy the game…

Anyway, you can imagine what happens. But predictability is not the biggest sin of this book…the story itself is interesting and Grisham’s descriptions of the food and the cities of Italy made me miss it very much. The story is light on character development and it just made too many leaps where there were opportunities for great storytelling. The book reads more like a screenplay and, frankly, it will probably be better as a movie. Actors will (hopefully) be able to capture the nuance and subtlety of the characters’ feelings, which was one of the major omissions from the book.

Still, it’s a quick, enjoyable read; it just leaves you wanting a little more. It certainly could have been longer, only clocking in at less than 250 pages, giving Grisham more room to develop the characters, but like I said, it’s something that actors will be able to overcome in a movie (as long as they are decent).

Anatomy of a European Dream Trip

When we started planning this trip, we were filled with anticipation and nervousness. As it got closer, we began to worry that we didn’t start planning early enough. Once we got on the trip, we realized that our nervousness and worry was nothing – this trip was about us. It was about falling in love in another country and discovering that, even worlds away, we are the best of friends.

This may sound somewhat arrogant, but weaker couples would have come unhinged by the struggles and inconveniences we encountered along the way. We returned stronger and more in love than we’ve ever been.

Discovering Paris together was so fun and I imagine we’ll return to Paris and Venice sooner than we’ll return any of our other locations. My negative experience in Florence almost made me want to go back and give it another try. But not enough.

We spent a lot of time in Rome – enough for two separate posts covering all we did. Rome was interesting enough, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. We did, however, see Ferris Bueller and Carrie Bradshaw, which was cool.

After Rome it was off to the Amalfi Coast. It was incredibly beautiful, but difficult to get around. By the end of our trip, we craved creature comforts that we often take for granted (more than 1 pillow on the bed, easy access to food, etc.). But getting home wasn’t easy.

As happy as we were to get home, we were ready to go back after about a week of sleeping in our own bed. Having the experience of this trip will give us more experience going forward. I can’t wait for our next adventure.

Here’s one last thing, a re-posting of my earlier Trip By the Numbers:

  • Miles Traveled: over 12,000
  • Countries Visited: 2 (and the USA)
  • Cities Visited: 8
  • Hotels Stayed In: 6
  • Hours Spent on Planes: 39.5
  • Hours Spent on Trains: 44
  • Hours Delayed on Planes: 32 (includes a 24-hour delay in Paris)
  • Hours Delayed on Trains: 7 (includes the 3-hour delay that caused the Paris delay)
  • Taxis Taken: 13
  • Trains Taken: 11
  • Subways Taken: 8
  • Planes Taken: 4
  • Boats Taken: 8
  • Modes of Transportation: 12
  • Stairs Climbed in Churches: over 1,000
  • Times Swam: 5
  • Gelatos Eaten: around 20
  • Pizzas Eaten: Shane – 7; Alli – 8
  • Croissants Eaten: over 20
  • Museums Visited: 6
  • Americans Met: 19
  • Movies Watched: 7 (Including Shrek the Third in French)
  • Celebrities Seen: 6 (Jude Law, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Andie McDowell, Nicole Ritchie, and all of Good Charlotte)
  • Books Read: 4.5
  • Times We Did Laundry: 4
  • Souvenirs Purchased: ZERO
  • Pictures Taken: 1,920

I hope that you have enjoyed my overviews of each city. It’s been fun to revisit the trip in this way. I apologize for my long-windedness in many posts, but this isn’t nearly as extensive as my written journal, which is now effectively shut until our next trip.

Finishing up the diary

We now return to your regularly scheduled blogging. There’s lots to discuss. Chiefs, poker, US Open Tennis (how good is Roger Federer?), golf, etc. The floodgates are now open.

Trip Days 14-20: Amalfi

In our research prior to our vacation, one thing that we heard from a lot of people was that we should visit the Amalfi Coast. If you don’t know where that is, I’ll do my best to give you an idea:

Naples is Europe’s most dense city and it sits on the western coast of Italy just above a little nub of land that forms the Gulf of Naples. At the end of that nub are the isles of Capri and Ischiia. The Southern part of the nub is what forms the Amalfi Coast. It is a group of towns that stretches from Positano at the far west to Salerno on the far East.

Driving to the Amalfi Coast was an adventure unto itself. We arrived by train in Naples and met our driver, Claudio, who would take us the hour-and-a-half ride to our final destination. I was quite glad we had Claudio because driving from Naples to Amalfi would have been treacherous. For those of you who have ever driven Pacific Coast Highway or Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, consider the road that we were on to be that…times about 100.

Heading out of Naples, you drive along a normal highway along the coast in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D. You drive past a couple of towns before you reach the mountains and then you drive through a tunnel and all of a sudden, you are staring directly into the Mediterranean Sea.

A quick turn onto a road and you find yourself on the only highway that connects these coastal towns. You drive from town to town and see the beauty of the ocean on your left and the magnificence of the mountains on your right. As you travel west from Salerno, you begin to wonder if there is a more beautiful place in the world.

The roads wind and undulate, passing through towns that date back to the 11th century. Each town has a large church at the center, a testament to the far reach of Rome and the Vatican.

After an hour or so of that, you start to get a little carsick and you can’t get enough air. However, arriving at our location was worth it. Villa Scarpariello Relais sits between two towns on the Amalfi coast – Minori and Amalfi. It is a beautiful property that was originally inhabited in the 11th century by the prince of Amalfi and over the course of its existence has had such visitors as the reigning pope and Jackie Kennedy. And why wouldn’t they visit?

The View from our Villa

More of Villa Scarpariello

The Amalfi Coast is beautiful. We were so thrilled to have 6 days of just relaxing. We didn’t have a lot we wanted to see… just the intention of some serious rest and relaxation, which would be welcome after the madness of Rome.

However, we quickly realized that it was going to be much more difficult to relax than we thought because our resort, while beautiful, only served breakfast. We had to go into town for any other meal. Fortunately for us, the resort’s sister property, Villa San Michele (which was just down the road), served dinner every night for only the customers of the two properties. Walking along the crazy road Unfortunately, you have to either call a cab, which costs around 10-15 Euro or you can walk, which we chose to do. The thing is that walking looks a little like the picture at right.

You have to walk along the single road that we arrived on in an area that can’t be classified as a “walkway” just as the road can’t be classified as a “highway”. Walking along the road is taking your life into your own hands. It’s a scary endeavor in the daytime (which is what it was on the way over) and is even scarier at night (which is what it was on the way back).

Wine at Dinner We found a small market just outside the hotel and we stocked up on some essentials for the week Рwater, cookies, crackers, cheese, etc. Рand then had a wonderful dinner. Even though it was life-threatening to get there, the dinner really was worth it. They had a house white that was fantastic and the food was quite good. The view was the best of all. Every table in the small restaurant was arranged in the ideal romantic angle, facing the sea through windows covered in beautiful, colorful flowers. The restaurant was manned by three men in front and I believe 1 or 2 cooks in the back. They were jovial and the one who seemed to be in charge reminded me of Jean Reno from L̩on (The Professional).

The next day was nice…we relaxed by the pool and the ocean, took a nap, and did a whole lot of nothing. It was a wonderful start to the day and that evening, we braved the crazy road again and walked to the closest town, Minori, for dinner. We made reservations at the restaurant that Claudio had recommended called L’Arsenale. Unfortunately, we could not eat when we wanted to at 6 and had to wait until 7:30. We walked around the small town and ended up people-watching near the beach for about 45 minutes. There, we saw perhaps the porkiest little kid we’ve ever seen in our lives. I would post pictures, but I should probably protect the innocent.

Dinner at L'Arsenale - Sea Bass in Salt Our dinner at L’Arsenale was wonderful – for me. Claudio had not told us that the restaurant was a seafood joint, difficult to find a vegetarian meal on the menu for my lovely wife. I ordered the sea bass, which was baked in about an inch of salt. On the menu, I had read that fresh fish was only 5,50 Euro, which was great by me – I was all about some fresh fish. In all my American-ness, I failed to understand that the 5,50 was per 100 grams. Once I realized that the fish was 700 grams (do the math, then the exchange), I wasn’t so psyched.

However, the sea bass was incredible, the best I’ve ever had. But Alli started to feel iffy when we began eating and barely touched any of her food. As the meal went on, she felt more and more sick and the waiters at L’Arsenale didn’t seem to be in any hurry to let us leave. We kindly paid our check, the most expensive meal of the entire trip, and left to find a cab to take us back to our hotel because walking wasn’t really an option considering how Alli felt.

Man, did we ever pick the wrong night to go to Minori! It was some festival that night and was totally crazy in town. Finding a cab was impossible, so we ended up having to walk anyway. It was such a relief to arrive back at the Villa, where we promptly cranked our air conditioning and laid down on the bed to cool off.

Alli had a rough night. Not only were we awakened at 12:30 a.m. by fireworks from Minori (which was much closer by water to our room), but at about 3 a.m., she started to feel very ill. From this day forward, that night will be referred to as “The Night Alli Puked in the Bidet”. It may eventually be remembered fondly as a part of our larger adventure, but I’ll tell you right now that it was absolutely dreadful. I felt really helpless. As much as I wanted to make her feel better, I could do nothing.

The rest of our week was not exactly what we intended, but still wonderful. The food may have tasted good, but we are convinced that the first night Alli got either food poisoning or salmonella from the linguini carbonara that she had. We took it easy the next day. And the next day. And the next day. We took a couple of small day trips once Alli started to feel a little better, going to Ravello (which is a small town up high in the mountains with a beautiful garden called Villa Cimbrone) and also to Capri (which is totally overrated and overpriced).

The view from Villa Cimbrone

The picture above is a view from Villa Cimbrone in Ravello. The small pool that you see is actually the pool at our resort. That should give you a decent idea how high above sea level we were.

Caprilu Limone The best thing about Capri were the Caprilu di Limone cookies that we found. I don’t know how to make them…all I know is that they smell and taste like lemony heaven. Outside of the cookies, Capri was not worth the trip (60 Euro by boat for two of us).

Seemingly, every major trip that Alli and I take, we get a little crazy near the end. The final morning we were in Capri was evidence of that craziness. I think that by the end of the trip and having to deal with everything it involved, particularly the hassle it was to get just normal food during this leg of the trip, we were totally ready to come home. That contributed to the madness that was our last morning. These pictures probably say it all…

Crazy Morning - Shane

Crazy Morning - Alli

The return home really deserves its own post because it took so long. As much as I’d like to cover it in this post, I realize that I’ve been loquatious as it is. So until then…

UPDATE: Alli’s Amalfi post.

Trip Days 10-14: Rome (Pt. 2)

Continued from earlier…

Rome is much bigger than I expected.

After finishing up at the Vatican and walking all around the basilica, we somehow got lost looking for food. We made our way back to Caffe Leonardo for the second night in a row.

Palantine Hill The next day we walked around the rest of Rome that we planned to see. We started at Palantine Hill, a large group of ruins that sits above the Colosseum. We then took a guided tour of the Colosseum with an absolutely mad woman. Over the course of the tour, she managed to offend Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Romans, Fascists, Christians (sort of), and somehow animals. We walked through the Roman forums, up to the Trajan Market (the worlds first mall! – according to the map), over to Piazza Navona, and then to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is beautiful. It’s hard to believe that it was originally used as pagan temple because when you step into the building, the presence of God is palpable. I felt extremely close to God during our time in the church. The most stunning feature of the church is obviously the oculus, which was in its full splendor when we arrived around 4 in the afternoon.

Oculus at the Pantheon

We got some gelato and then went over to Trevi Fountain where we found another American couple who we exchanged pictures with. It’s interesting – when you are in a foreign country, biases about cities you live in, etc. are thrown out the door because you are just so happy to hear English. The folks that we met at the fountain were from St. Louis, our cross-state rival, but we were pleased to speak with them for a while. We had a similar experience on our tour of the cupola where we met perhaps one of the friendliest New Yorkers we’d ever come into contact with.

Flatbread Focaccia at Caffe Leonardo After the fountain, we returned again to Caffe Leonardo for another half-liter of the house white and some dinner. It was a big day and we were pretty famished by that point. Our strategy for Rome had been to eat as much breakfast at the hotel as we could. The Rome Hilton has a “continental” breakfast that was included with our room because my dad is a gold card Hilton member and an all-around good guy. The only thing “continental” about the breakfast was that there was enough food to feed a small continent. Breakfast Each morning we gorged ourselves on fresh fruit (at least I did), made-to-order omelets, 8 kinds of fresh-squeezed juice (the blood orange juice was the best), more pastries and breads than I could imagine, and the best brewed coffee I’ve tasted in my entire life. We figured with a breakfast like this, we could do 2 meals per day in Rome and dinner ended up being at Caffe Leonardo every night. Usually we ate an early breakfast, which wasn’t exactly regular, but since our favorite restaurant was open at that time, we figured it made sense to do it this way. It worked for us…people who are more “foodie” will probably choose a different way.

That evening after we returned to the hotel, we headed down to the lobby terrace that overlooked the pool for the evening. We caught up on our journaling for a few hours while we drank more of their wonderful Holland coffee (all I know about it is that it was FROM Holland, but I’ve yet to find it and figure out where I can buy it) and listened to the lounge singer who was entertaining the nighttime pool crowd (and by “crowd”, I mean the 10 or so people up on the terrace enjoying the beautiful Roman evening).

The lounge singer was great, covering everything from traditional Italian songs to “Roxanne” by The Police. Most of what she sang were lounged-up covers of American pop songs with an Italian accent. It was such an enjoyable evening sitting outside and speculating on what she would sing next. Time passed quickly and we ended up not turning in until after 1 a.m.

The next morning, on the recommendation of one of our waitresses at Caffe Leonardo, we visited the Gallery Borghese, an art museum that is a part of the large park in Rome, Villa Borghese. We had to make a reservation to get into the gallery, so we were excited about what we might see, even though we had not heard much about the collection. It turned out to be not very good at all.

The collection was very well put together and all came from one guy – some Cardinal from a long time ago who was related to some Pope (whatever happened to that vow of poverty?) – but this place was knotted up like Fort Knox. You couldn’t take ANY bags in and it cost more to enter than it did to get into the Vatican. Based on the collection that we saw, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was all about – it was mostly sculpture and stuff that I didn’t really recognize (nor did Alli, who took Art History). Not really our cup of tea.

Alli drawing in a tree After our alotted two hours in the museum (we didn’t need both hours), we walked around the park a bit, stopping for a while near a fountain, where we both got out our journals and drew. Yes, I attempted to draw. While Alli took on the Colosseum, I tried my best to sketch the fountain in front of us. It was a pretty cool experience and Alli seemed proud of me, which was enough for me.

We walked to Piazza Popola at the Northern entrance to Rome and then back to…you guessed it…Caffe Leonardo for our last night in Rome. The next morning we were headed for our final destination – The Amalfi Coast.

Out of all the cities we visited, I would say that I was most looking forward to visiting Rome. There’s something about the city where modern civilization seemingly started – a city rich with both religious and political history – that made me anxious to visit it. I think that what I envisioned was something more like Paris or Venice, where the historical parts of Rome were preserved instead of intermingled with a bustling metropolis. Rome just seemed crazy to me and I didn’t like it nearly as much as I wanted to. Perhaps the terrific hotel room spoiled it for us; maybe it made us just want to hang in our room more than explore the city. I still wouldn’t trade that hotel room (and that breakfast!) for anything.

Claudio After another great night’s sleep and another wonderful breakfast, we once again found ourselves on a train headed for a new location. This time, our destination was Naples, but only briefly, as we would then meet the head of the Italian Taxi Mob himself, Claudio, who would then take us to our last stop on the trip – Villa Scarpariello Relais.

The View from our Villa

And yes…that was the view out of our room.

UPDATE: Alli’s Rome post.

Trip Days 10-14: Rome (Pt. 1)

One of the things that we were really excited about our trip was that we were going to get to celebrate our 7th Wedding Anniversary in a foreign country! It worked out that we the day of our anniversary ended up being our travel day from Florence to Rome. Even so, what lied ahead of us in Rome was reason enough to celebrate.

I spent the short train ride to Rome catching up on some reading (I ended up reading 3 books while on vacation, I think, which was so nice) and when we arrived, we quickly realized that, compared to Florence, Rome was a whole other ballgame. Roma Termini (the main train station in Rome) is the size of some airport terminals and about 10 times busier. We made our way off the terminal toward the exit, looking for the taxi stand.

As we neared the taxi stand, I saw an older fellow standing by some other drivers and he hurriedly grabbed our bags and shoved them into his dilapidated old brown Mercedes station wagon that curiously didn’t have anything close to a sign that said “Taxi” on it. CRAP.

We took the taxi anyway up to our hotel, The Rome Cavalieri Hilton, named one of the best hotels in the world. You might ask how we managed to stay at such a beautiful place. Well, the truth is this: my dad travels all over the world for business and had a TON of points. He converted those points for an anniversary present to us – a wonderful anniversary present that allowed us to stay in our nicest hotel yet.

Our room was huge – a big, clean bathroom, a sitting area, a king-size bed with 4 pillows each, and room-darkening shutters. You heard me correctly – Room. Darkening. Shutters. When we got into our room, Alli was running around in it just because she could. After almost 2 weeks of small hotels and bed & breakfasts, this really was a welcome luxury, especially on our anniversary!

Once we unpacked all our things (the first time we’d actually unpacked out of our suitcases), we took the hotel shuttle down into the main area of Rome, craving some good food. I realized that we were quite close to the Spanish Steps, so we took a side street and ended up at the top of the steps. We were just getting ready to walk down the steps when I heard a vaguely familiar voice. I turned around to see who it was and my jaw dropped.

Life goes by pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

That’s right. Ferris FREAKING BUELLER. Looking closer, I realized that the person that Matthew Broderick was talking to was none other than his wife, Miss Sex-and-the-City-Carrie-Bradshaw-herself, Sarah Jessica Parker. Don’t believe me?

Sarah Jessica Parker

That’s her with the two bags in the middle. The navy blue-shirted guy (whose face you can’t see) to her right is Broderick and the non-entity that both are addressing between them is their son. With the lesson of Jude Law behind us, we knew we must photograph the occasion, so we snapped this picture and a couple others. Unfortunately, I tried to be all coy about it and they didn’t turn out quite as well as I would have liked, but still…Carrie Bradshaw and Ferris Bueller. HOW COOL!

Since their son was with them, we again left them alone and went off in search of food. We found a great cafe just around the corner called Caffe Leonardo. It was a relatively small place, but given its location near a very touristy area of Rome, almost their entire staff spoke great English and they were more than willing to help us out. We liked Caffe Leonardo so much that we ended up eating there every night we were in Rome. Some might call that short-sighted or unimaginative, but we enjoyed the atmosphere and the fact that by the second time we came back, they remembered us.

Vatican wall and line The next day we decided to tackle the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. We also ended up visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and Square as well, but not after waiting in one heck of a line to get into the museum. We got in line at about 8:00 AM, 2 full hours before the doors opened to the general public. With this in mind, we were still a good half to 3/4 of a mile back in a line that seemed to go on forever. We were surrounded by touring groups of students who…I’ll stop there before I say too much.

The Vatican’s collection is rivaled by few museums in the world; it is fascinating and massive and includes works from many different eras. Obviously, the collection of religious art is unequaled anywhere in the world. Alli and I made our way slowly through the galleries, savoring every moment in that we could. Passing through the rooms containing Raphael’s beautiful frescoes was so inspirational. Alli and I were glad that we’d invested the €6 to have the informational walkie-talkies along the way. We learned a lot about the vast collection and enjoyed hearing the stories behind the pieces that we liked.

Everything leads you to the Sistine Chapel. It’s a maze of rooms previously occupied by popes and other important Vatican figures. Finally, after seeing 100 or so signs reading “Capella Sistina” you arrive in the small chapel considered as the pope’s church and famous for the beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling designed by Michelangelo.

This was moment was one of the biggest reasons for making the trip. As an artist, Alli had always dreamed of coming to Italy and seeing these works of the masters and the Sistine Chapel was at the top of the list. You’d have to ask her to be sure, but I think that the look on her face would tell you that it was worth the wait. Many people had mentioned that it is smaller than you think it will be, but that wasn’t what startled me…it was the absolute magnificence of Michelangelo’s work. Alli and I stood in the Sistine Chapel for at least an hour, just craning our necks and staring all around us at this unbelievable expression of what human beings are capable of when God helps. It is truly spectacular.

Vatican stairs down After our time in the Sistine Chapel, we exited the museum through an absolutely beautiful staircase that someone said was designed by Michelangelo as well. and made our way toward St. Peter’s Square. The plan was at least to see the inside of the basilica, but we ended up taking the cupola tour, which was about 700 steps up winding, narrow staircases to the very top of the largest cathedral in the world.

You get some spectacular views on the tour, first from the inside of the basilica looking down into it:

View from the dome of St. Peter's

Then once you get to the top you can see all of Rome:

St. Peter's Square

To get there, you have to climb up staircases that look like this:

Alli exiting the cupola

Insane.

OK…before this post goes on and on, I’ll split it up over two. So…

To be continued…