A Successful “Bleisure” Trip to Italy

A relatively recent phenomenon that is becoming increasingly popular has been dubbed, “Bleisure Travel”: the combining of a business trip with leisure travel. Business travelers who have a few days of meetings or a conference to attend may schedule a few days of pleasure travel before or after having fulfilled their professional responsibilities. A couple of days in New York for meetings may be followed by a weekend to explore the city; a conference in Hawaii might provide the chance to spend a few leisurely days on Maui before heading home.

A rainy night at Piazza Navona in Rome, my “bleisure” destination.

As an academic, I’m fortunate to have multiple opportunities for bleisure travel. Whether I am conducting a research study, taking my students on a study abroad trip, or speaking at a conference, I often have the chance to add some leisure time and exploration to those experiences. So when I learned about a conference on disaster management taking place in Rome during my Spring Break, I applied and was accepted to do a presentation about some of my research on disaster preparedness. I planned to spend the weekend in Rome, then attend the conference on Monday and Tuesday, and then finish my Spring Break in Venice and northern Italy. The perfect bleisure opportunity.

I had a horrendous flight from San Francisco to Rome via Zurich, Switzerland. The woman in the seat in front of me reclined her seat as far back as it would go for 9 long hours of the 11 hour trip. Her seat was about 8 inches from my face, I had to stretch my legs out on either side of her seat and I was unable to even use my tray. I was like a caged animal. Then there was a 2.5 hour snow delay in Zurich. I was glad I’d reserved a driver to meet me at the airport in Rome, something I have never done before, but upon arriving in Rome at almost 11PM, it was nice not to have to mess with the train and Metro

I rented a 5th floor apartment in a quiet neighborhood only one block from the Vatican Walls and when I arrived I found that the owner’s wife had made a beautiful welcome cake for me: the perfect gift for a newly diagnosed diabetic, but I did eat it in modest servings over the 5 days I spent there.

Over the weekend I saw friends in Rome. Saturday I had lunch with my friend Tullio who was the colleague with whom I did my research at Mt. Vesuvius 15 years ago. On Sunday I met my friend Fabio for dinner and tried a unique and delicious pasta dish flavored with lemon and pecorino cheese. It was an early dinner, because I had to be at my conference at 7:30AM on Monday morning. I’d mentioned this to Tullio and he exclaimed, “In Italy? A conference at 7:30 AM? This is simply impossible! This is Italy!” When I shared the information with Fabio, without missing a beat and as if it’d been rehearsed, he exclaimed, “In Italy? A meeting at 7:30 AM? It’s impossible! This is Italy!” Evidently the folks who’d planned the conference schedule were not Italians.

I had been notified by the conference organizers that I’d been made a Session Chair for the very first session of the conference starting at 7:45, immediately after registration. This meant I would have to introduce all the speakers, keep time and cut them off if they went too long, and rate each presentation on a number of criteria. Strangely, I was to be the first speaker in my session, so I was assigned a “co- chair” to introduce me and rate my performance. I’d received detailed instructions on how to manage the session: “Speakers are allowed 15 minutes for their presentation and 5 minutes for questions. NO EXCEPTIONS”. However, as I lay in bed that night reviewing the program, I noted that my session ran from 7:45 to 9:30AM and there are 7 speakers. Maybe it’s the new math, but when I multiplied 7 speakers times 20 minutes each, I come up with 2 hours and 20 minutes, but the session was scheduled for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Huh?

And then there were the topics being addressed by other speakers. The conference was supposed to be about disaster management, but reading the titles had me wondering if I’d applied to the wrong conference. Titles of other papers being delivered in my session included: Probabilistic Life Cycle Assessment of Nano-Membrane Toilet, Devulcanization of Waste Rubber Using Thermo-mechanical Method Combined with Supercritical CO₂, and Analyzing  Food Waste as Feedstock for Anaerobic Digestion. I had no idea what any of these were about or how they related to disasters. I also fretted about whether I’d be able to pronounce the names of speakers from Japan, Greece, Iran, Bangladesh, China, and the Czech Republic. I also noticed that the conference ended at 3:30PM on Monday and resumed at 7:45AM Tuesday for just ONE session with only 2 speakers, ending at 8:30 AM! Why not just have these two speak at 3:30 and not force them or anyone else to go back for under an hour at 7:30 AM? Mamma mia! So needless to say, I had a horrendous night worrying about all this and probably got 2 hours of sleep at best.

To get to the conference hotel, which was way the heck out of the city at a hotel not close to any Metro stops, I had to leave the apartment by 6:45 and walk 40 minutes in the pouring rain. I arrived at 7:25, and other than a man setting up the registration table, I was the only person there. I spent awhile in the bathroom trying to drying my hair and face, and then found the room where the presentations were to be given. There I met Lucia, a young woman from Argentina who was my session co-chair and a fellow presenter. (She was doing the talk on vulcanized rubber, which turned out to be about tire recycling!) She expressed all of the same concerns that had kept me up all night: there was not enough time allotted for 7 speakers; why were only two presentations scheduled for the next morning and why was the conference venue so far off the beaten path? We bonded pretty quickly.

We started the session with about 12 people in the room and 6 of us were presenters; one presenter was a no-show, so at least we each had a bit more time. I led things off with my talk, but the color scheme of the text on my Powerpoint slides did not show up very well and I kept having to say “If you could read this table, it would show that…” I was very unhappy, but one never knows about the lighting and the projectors to be used at a conference. I then introduced a young man from Japan who was speaking about tsunami walls that are used to protect vulnerable coastlines.. Unfortunately, the only words I understood in his entire 15-minute talk were “tsunami” and “walls.” I felt so bad for him, but his accent was just so heavy it was impossible to understand him, and his slides were nothing but calculus formulas that were indecipherable to me. My co-chair Lucia was next and I understood most of what she was saying, but the things she was talking about were things only chemists or physicists would understand. Then there was the nano-membrane toilet presentation by a Greek woman, and while I gleaned that it was some sort of portable toilet technology to use after a major disaster, the details were all about how the toilet breaks down the wastes.

Finally the session came to an end, I turned in my “grades” of the other presenters, Lucia also turned in her rating of them as well as of me, and then it was time for the second session. I sat listening to something having to do with “whey solids” that I did not understand and looked around the room. A handful of new people had arrived, but everyone from the first session had left the conference. All of them – except me. I felt really, really bad, but after sitting through another 3 presentations unrelated to anything I do and looking at the talks scheduled for the rest of the day, I just left and caught a bus home and slept for most of the rainy afternoon, catching up on all that lost sleep from the night before. When I awoke, I checked e-mail and there was a note from the conference leaders. Uh-oh… had they called me out on skipping out on the festivities? No… they wanted to CONGRATULATE me for being awarded the best presentation of the conference. I sat in bed and laughed for 5 minutes straight. Only the session chairs voted on the presentations in their session, and since I did not rate myself, I surmised that Lucia must have given me all 5’s and gave me the win! Thank you, Lucia. I also learned that the two presentations for the following morning had been cancelled, so I was then able to take the B out of bleisure and enjoy the rest of my Spring Break!

My final day in Rome was a bit chaotic. Fabio had left the small gift I’d brought him at my apartment when we went to dinner and I found it when I got back. I’d made plans to have dinner at Trattoria Monti that evening and though he was unable to join me, he said he would come by the restaurant on his motorbike to retrieve the gift before heading to an engagement he had for that night. I’d done a lot of walking earlier that day, but then the rain was back with a vengeance and so I ducked into a café in the Camp dei Fiori to have a glass of prosecco and some bruschetta and dry myself by the gas fireplaces they had lit. My dinner reservation was for 8PM, so at 7:00 I ventured out into the rain once again to catch bus #70, which would take me within a couple of blocks of Monti. From 1/2 block away from the bus stop I saw bus #70 pulling away from the curb, but I wasn’t too worried because I had 50 minutes before my dinner reservation and the #70 was supposed to come every 10-15 minutes. So, I stood there in the rain, being hit in the face with countless umbrellas of passers-by as I waited for the next bus. At least 10 other buses pulled up, none of them the one I needed, but I saw two bus #70s going the opposite way, so again I thought one should arrive at any minute.

By 7:45 there was still no bus. Meanwhile my sadistic phone battery, which only runs low at times when I really need it, was down to 7% power. I should have just started to walk to the restaurant, which would have taken a half hour, but it was raining so hard and I just assumed there MUST be a #70 coming soon. Alas, at 8:00 I gave up and hopped on a different bus that would take me somewhat closer to the restaurant, but we simply sat in traffic as the driver uttered Italian swear words I had never heard before and laid on the horn. I managed to text Fabio who was already at the restaurant waiting for me. I asked him to tell the folks at the restaurant that I was coming and picked an intersection at Via Nazionale and Via Milano where Fabio could meet me, pick up his gift and get to his meeting and from which I could walk the rest of the way to dinner. My phone was at 2% power now.

I consulted with a woman on the bus who told me there was no stop at Via Milano and found that the bus went 5 blocks BEYOND it before I could get off. Madonna! I then had to run all the way back to Via Milano to wait for Fabio, but it was now 8:30 and I assumed he’d given up on me. My phone battery was at 1% and so I sent a last text to him to say I was walking to Monti and was so sorry to have kept him waiting. About 2 blocks later, a scooter screeched to a halt in front of me, Fabio collected his gift and with a million apologies for not having a second to even say goodbye, sped off to his meeting.

I was just about fried by now, and the rain would not relent, so I finally hailed a cab and arrived an hour late for my reservation, feeling totally embarrassed and stressed. Daniele, one of the waiters/owners whom I know well looked surprised and a bit confused to see me. Seems that when I’d made my reservation he’d mistakenly written THURSDAY instead of Tuesday. So now he was embarrassed and kept apologizing to me for his mistake, and I was still apologizing for being so late – even though I had no reservation! Monti is so popular that one simply has to make a reservation days in advance, but because Daniele and his brother Enrico know me so well, they managed to squeeze me in at a table after a few minutes’ wait, continuing to apologize for their error and bringing me a giant glass of wine, which I didn’t feel I deserved – but definitely needed! And finally I was able to have a relaxing and delicious last dinner in Rome after a pretty crazy day.

From Rome I took the train to Venice, 4 hours north, and after finding my apartment, checking in, and unpacking, I headed off to Osteria La Zucca, my go-to restaurant whenever I’m in Venice. The food was wonderful, as always, but I had a simply horrendous evening thanks to the presence of the most annoying American student and her boyfriend sitting at a table across the room from me. They struck up a conversation with some Germans at an adjacent table. The student was evidently a Public Health major studying in Barcelona for the semester and taking advantage of this to tour other European cities with her boyfriend… her own brand of bleisure travel. Every other word out of her mouth was either LIKE or LITERALLY. Like, she literally must have, like said “like” and “literally” like literally 2,000 times. She is like, planning to be like, a doctor and is like, doing study abroad in Barcelona, but literally she like drinks all the time and like, is literally having a hard time focusing on her studies. She also went on several tirades, putting down and insulting almost everything about the USA in a morally superior way that only someone so young and ill-informed could pull off. I was fuming. It was IMPOSSIBLE to ignore it. A French couple beside me seemed to be giggling and whispering to one another, and they noticed my look of utter exasperation. The wife leaned over and said, “I do not understand much of what she says, but I think I am lucky, yes?” Amen, sister! I like, literally inhaled my dinner just to get out of there because this woman like, literally never took a breath and the more wine she drank, the louder she got.

I paid my bill, I went to the bathroom, and then as I went to leave the restaurant, I snapped. I approached their table and in a very calm, cool and collected voice:  “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.” (Understatement of the year!) Then, looking at the Germans, I said, “You should know that there are a lot of wonderful things about the USA, and I just wanted you to know that you’re hearing only one person’s very one-sided opinion. Enjoy your dinner.” I walked out to stunned silence. I only wish I could have stayed around to have enjoyed that silence. Luckily, I returned to Zucca for lunch the next day and was seated beside a charming young French couple, Melodie and Julien, who spoke fluent English, loved to travel and had eaten at Zucca many times, so we had a grand time exchanging travel and food stories and I was able to digest my meal without heartburn!

Thursday was International Women’s Day, and throughout Europe there were transit strikes “in support of women,” rendering my all-day vaporetto pass useless and canceling my plans to go to the island of Burano that afternoon, since there were virtually no boats running. I wondered whether the idiots who came up with this idea realized that 52% of all the people they left stranded that day were women!

My apartment in Venice was nice enough, but the owner was kind of a jerk. I lost the key card that allowed me to enter the building and turn on my lights. I had no idea how it could possibly have gotten out of my pocket, but what could I do? Things happen. I called the owner and he came over and just threw a fit, treating me as if I were an errant child. “These cards are VERY expensive! It’s VERY expensive!” I kept assuring him of how sorry I was and how I would, of course pay for the lost card, but he just kept ranting. I finally asked how much the card cost and he said 20 Euro, which I didn’t think was THAT big a deal. I handed him a 20 as fast as I could, went upstairs to the apartment and the lost card was still sitting inside the slot to turn the lights on, so I had to chase the owner down again and trade the new card for my 20 Euros back. Meanwhile, there was no Wi-Fi for my entire stay; he claimed it was a city problem, but regardless, it left me totally disconnected. And on my second night a young American couple stayed in an apartment above me (it was probably the annoying couple from La Zucca!) and they pounded across the floor, laughed, yelled and talked in booming voices until after 2AM. At one point, I SCREAMED “Shut up!” but ironically, they didn’t seem to hear it, even though I could hear their every word. Finally, workmen started running a cement mixer outside my bedroom window at 7:30AM. As the Italians say when frustrated, “Uffa!”

Despite all this, my relationship with Venice is untarnished. Rain or shine, day or night, crowded or empty, Venice speaks to me and touches me in a way that few other cities ever have. I must have walked almost 8 miles around the city in the 2 days I was there, and around every corner was a brilliant photo opportunity in the city’s incomparable and constantly shifting light. Sometimes she looks like the proud and prosperous capital of the empire she led for hundreds of years; other times she seems crumbling and melancholy. Either way, she’s beautiful. I think of Venice as a place that has survived against all odds: an impossibly fragile location built across hundreds of islands and on wooden pilings hammered into a muddy lagoon; hostile invasions by barbarians and military enemies; and today hordes of cruise ship passengers and day-tourists who seem to parade through her narrow streets and crowd her bridges without really taking the time to get to know her. She is a survivor, and I treasure my “alone time” with her, on a quiet back street far from Piazza San Marco or in the stillness of the night, when all the tourists have left and I stroll the streets and squares and just soak it all in. Venezia, ti amo, davvero!

On Friday I said farewell to Venice, rented a car and reconnected with my old friend Leo who recently moved back to Italy from Seattle. He made a delicious lunch for me, and then I drove to a beautiful spa hotel located in an area of natural hot springs south of Padova called the Colli Euganei. I ended up heading straight for the hot mineral pools after check in and spent two hours there before going to dinner at the home of my dear friends Claudia and Marco. As usual, Claudia went to so much trouble after a long day at work, but it was all delicious: cheese and prosciutto and Aperol Spritzes, pumpkin risotto, steak, peas, fried potatoes and some dainty pastries I brought from a local bakery. As always, we had a lot of laughs and interesting conversation, and they painstakingly attempted to explain the complicated results of their recent presidential election in which three very different groups each got approximately 1/3 of the votes, resulting in a rather gridlocked mess. I stayed with them until almost 10:30PM and all three of us were nearly falling asleep, and I fell into a coma as soon as I got back the hotel, having had so little sleep the prior night.

The next day I decided that I needed and wanted a completely relaxing day: leisure with a capital L and absolutely no B! And that was exactly what I did… I slept in, had a nice breakfast at the hotel, spent the afternoon in the pools, went out for a nice dinner and a gelato, and spent the rest of the evening back in the pools, relishing the contrast of the hot mineral waters and the cool night air.

Having been diagnosed with extremely high blood sugar back in January, I was worried about this trip. I have managed with the help of a medication and some serious changes to my diet to control my blood sugar to the point where it has consistently registered in the normal range for the past 6 weeks, but I worried what pasta and gelato might do. I definitely avoided the breakfast pastries that are commonly served in Italy, and I also watched my intake of bread, pretty much using it only to soak up a delicious sauce as the Italians do. But Italy without pasta and gelato is a thought too depressing to contemplate. I ate my pasta each day, trying to balance the carbs with ample protein and vegetables in the form of tender octopus steaks, calamari, salmon, and delicious salads, I had gelato at least once per day. And then holding my breath in anticipation, I checked my blood sugar and never once in the entire time did it ever vary from the normal range. I am sure that all the walking I did helped as well; when you have a wonderful and carbo-rich dinner and an ice cream, but you walk 3 or 4 miles to get them, the body seems happy with that trade-off. It was a huge relief and I am very grateful.

For my last full day in Italy, I went to see my friends Emanuele and Chiara, who’d also invited me to lunch. They have two kids now, a 5 year old named Leonardo and 6 month old Greta. Both are absolutely adorable, but how parents cope with kids is totally beyond my comprehension. When Leonardo wasn’t dumping giant boxes of Legos all over the floor with a thunderous clatter, baby Greta was mimicking a not-so-dainty fountain, burping up her pureed pumpkin lunch and sending it a foot or two into the air. It was both terrifying and entertaining. Leonardo took to me almost instantly, which his parents said was unusual. He shyly handed me a strange drawing on a sheet of paper and ran off to another room, and I had no idea what it was until Emanuele told me that it was a “treasure map” showing the route down the hall that I was to follow. As I walked, there were little candies left in a bread-crumb-like trail through the hall and into the bedroom where he had hidden himself, but he gave his presence away by giggling. Later he gave me a small square of yellow paper with squiggles all over it, and I understood enough of his 5 year old Italian to know that he’d said it was a “ticket”. He then pretended to be a museum curator, and insisted on collecting my “ticket” before taking me to see the “exhibition”: a Star Wars Death Star made of Lego blocks. He’s pretty clever and may have a future in the travel industry.

Finally, I made the three hour drive to Milan in yet more pouring rain, had a very nice dinner of warm seafood salad and a lobster risotto, and reluctantly flew out the next morning for home. Spring Break was over, but my bleisure trip had been very rewarding. I’m already searching for my next opportunity to find a conference to attend in some interesting and attractive place. But next time I just need to be a little more careful to vet the conference before I sign up!

UPDATE:  2/23/2018

The last sentence of my blog could not have been more true. I have been conversing by e-mail with another researcher whom I’d met at the conference and he forwarded me some information that showed that the conference was a complete fake. This organization – called WASET: World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology – has a long history of throwing together these bizarre gatherings of researchers from various disciplines and has future conferences in exotic locations planned out through 2024! I am in complete shock, as it would never have occurred to me that people go to this much trouble to scam people, but apparently, they do and I feel pretty stupid. But now so much of it all makes sense in hindsight!

2 thoughts on “A Successful “Bleisure” Trip to Italy

  1. Great descriptions of the sites, food and people. What a surprise about the conference! I guess there is no lack of scammers in this world in all fields, like education conferences. What a hoot.


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