Sunday, March 31, 2024

Azores 2024 – Tia Ana, Exponential Portuguese Loudness, Crazy Cousins

It’s Easter Sunday. The clouds have parted and the sun is out after two days of rain. John and I go for a walk in the neighbourhood. The houses here are unique, often attached to each other, and despite most of them being very, very old, they look modern. Many have huge stone fences built around the properties and an incredible variety of trees popping up above them. One house has an enormous cactus sprouting up among a sprawling plantation of banana trees. They can grow nearly anything on this island. We stop at the corner grocery store (Pingo Doce) and I buy a beautiful loaf of warm artisan bread for one euro forty and a bunch of Portuguese buns for twenty-two cents each. Breakfast is served.

Ana had contacted her aunt Ana’s caregiver friend (Ana Margarida) and arranged for us to visit them at her home this morning. But first we drive to the Parque Atlantico, a shopping mall, and buy Tio Manuel a new microwave as his cacked out yesterday.

By 11:30 we are at Ana Margarida’s home and are welcomed in by her husband as the two Anas are still at church, but they arrive soon afterwards. Tia Ana’s had a rough go of things. Her and her husband Joe were never able to have children and she would have been a perfect mom. Her husband became an invalid and she was his caregiver for many years and rarely left the house. He passed away and she only had a few years of relative freedom until she started developing dementia and has gone downhill rapidly in the past couple of years. Ana and her aunt are very close so it’s been tough on her hearing about this decline, and now about to see it in person.


Tia Ana slowly, ever so slowly enters the room with the help of a walker and sees us all sitting there but doesn’t recognize anybody. John begins talking to his little sister and after a few minutes it finally clicks and she remembers and gives him a huge hug. Same thing happens with Ana’s mom and Ana. Everybody is crying. She doesn’t remember me until I start speaking to her in English then she remembers right away and hugs me. It’s heartbreaking to see her like this. We stayed with her at her house on previous visits to the Azores and got to know her so well. She deserved so much more in her life but her religious faith has enabled her to bear these crosses. And she’s lucky to have such a good friend in Ana Margarida who has been supporting her and taking care of her for many years.

Before leaving we make plans to see her again during the week and next weekend. Ana Margarida’s husband tells us that after an hour or so she probably won’t remember our visit. But that’s okay.


We get back to Tio Manuel’s house for 1pm and things are really happening. The cousins have been to Sete Cidades to pick up a massive amount of cooked food, and people are arriving rapidly – similar crew as Friday night, but this time the cousins’ partners are also here. The cupboard has been emptied of dishes, and chairs and tables have been improvised to accommodate everybody. It’s not just a lot of people in a small house - remember, this is a house full of Portuguese people, and even worse, Portuguese Island People who are even louder than the continental ones, and worse than that, Rapidly Deafening Old Portuguese Island People who can’t hear shit, so everybody screams all the louder to make sure they get their point across. The noise level is deafening.

The aluminum trays are uncovered to reveal the food – pork slices, beef slices, spiced chicken, potatoes, stewed octopus with octopus-marinated potatoes, Portuguese bread stuffing, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t bother leaving any room on my plate for. Because it’s Easter there’s also chocolate eggs, chocolate rabbits, Ferrero Rocher chocolates
, plus a bunch of desserts – flan, rice pudding, two kinds of cake, and a whipped cream jelly roll thing. We dive in and eat merrily.


As we’re eating, I think of something I want to ask Tio Manuel in Portuguese. I craft it over and over in my head until I’m sure it’s right. I know it will really impress all the cousins. So I wait for a break in the conversation to deliver my awesome question.


Here’s a tip if you plan on spending any significant periods of time with Portuguese people: don’t wait for a break in the conversationYou’ll be waiting a long time. You will probably be waiting forever because there’s never a break in the conversation. It doesn’t happen. In fact, there’s never just one conversation; there’re a whole bunch going on at the same time. Sometimes one of them will be having two simultaneous conversations, then those two people are also having multiple conversations and this results in exponential loudness and confusion. You know how cell phone signals are everywhere, bouncing from phone to tower to phone, through people, buildings, and animals, and these millions of signals somehow miraculously make it to the right phone and everybody understands each other? That’s what Portuguese parties are like, but instead of silent radio signals it’s loud voices. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think the Portuguese all inherited the same genetic mutation where they can breathe through their ears, because they never seem to stop for a breath.


Anyway, Ana ends up asking Tio Manuel the exact same question I was going to ask so I give up after that and instead just focus on eating and drinking as much as possible.


At some point I realize that cousin Tony had disappeared with all the kids and I find out he’s taken them over to the park to play soccer. So Ana, her cousin Carmelia, and I walk over to see what’s going on, and to enjoy the beautiful sunshine that’s flooding the island. 


We find them and join in for a rollicking game of Keep-Up-The-Volleyball with all the junior cousins and some other neighbourhood kids they picked up along the way. I manage to keep my Easter dinner down where it belongs despite the jumping and stretching and am feeling a lot better than I would have collapsing on the couch and watching the Portuguese Ten Commandments on tv.


We return to the house for more desserts and drinking and eventually the crowd slowly starts thinning out. Around 9:30 the older contingent started comparing the back cremes they use for the aches and pains, then all of a sudden everybody’s whipping off clothes showing off scabs, rashes, discolorations, and all manner of skin abnormalities and I’m sitting there pie-eyed thinking, Goddamn everybody’s getting old – this sure as shit never used to happen around here. By 10pm only Paulo and Natercia are left and Natercia’s on a roll. We’ve been playing music real loud on the portable speaker and dancing and laughing, and Tio Manuel signals it’s time for everybody to leave when he flicks on the tv and tunes it into the Lisbon Weather Channel. He even turns up the volume, but it can’t overpower the speaker so we ignore the signal and carry on and Natercia even gets him dancing, sort of, for a brief moment.


I must tell you about Natercia. She’s crazy. In the best way possible. In my family, on the Olson side, we have Cousin Nicole who’s crazy and awesome. Natercia is the Azorean version of Nicole. And Nicole is the Canadian version of Natercia. If I ever managed to get the two of them together, I think the universe would experience a cataclysmic event, and it would totally kick ass. And Natercia’s husband Paulo Fernando is the chillest dude imaginable…just like Nicole’s beau Mark.


Natercia tells a story about her last trip to Canada, which was a long time ago, but it comes out fresh. It’s delivered in rapid fire Portuguese and animated pantomime and takes about 40 minutes. I can pick out bits and pieces, and there’s parts there about somebody trying to buy her fancy shoes at the airport for two hundred bucks, and some other part where she slipped on ice and faceplanted at Walmart, then she switches to English to explain the valuable items she brought home to the Azores from Canada – eighty cakes of Irish Spring soap, fourteen blocks of marble cheese, four enormous bottles of Sam’s Club pickles, and two jars of multi-coloured jalapeno rings. She’s crazy.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Azores 2024 - A Triumphant Return to My Village

The time difference is just three hours but it still messes you up a bit. We went to bed last night around 10 and didn’t have any cheater naps during the day, and woke up at 8am feeling reset and ready to go.

Remember that “death row” dinner I wrote about yesterday? Well today I have my first of many death row breakfasts. Breakfasts in the Azores are simple and they are the greatest. After picking up fresh warm buns from the local grocery store you slice one open, spread some butter made from the milk of happy cows, then put in a slice of ham and piece of fresh cheese, also made from the milk of happy cows. You also have yourself one or two mini bananas, pulled from one of the banana trees in your backyard or your neighbour’s backyard. You can accompany that with hot coffee, or perhaps a tall glass of milk, made from – you guessed it – happy cows.


It is again rainy, cloudy, and windy and the winter season is not quite ready to fully release its hold on the island, so we grab John and Maria and go for a car ride. First stop is the farmer’s market downtown where we pick up a bunch of vegetables then head upstairs to the fish market, where there’s only one stall still open. The fishmonger had a cross section of a huge tuna and slices off a quarter of it then places the long and deep red slab on the chopping block. He slides his blade slowly up the slab until we say stop and he cuts there. He weighs it and tells us it will be seventeen euro, and there’s likely two kilos there. He cuts them up into steaks and puts them in a bag with ice. Ana passes him a twenty, which he receives with his scaly and bloody hands then offers to throw in four calvalhos (sort of like mackeral…they might actually be mackeral) to bring the total up to an even twenty euro. I expect every customer evens up to avoid a pile of fishy euro coin in the pocket.


It's been at least two hours since we’ve eaten so we stop at a waterfront cafĂ© on the Avenida for a light snack. The Pink Queen of Bifana, as she calls herself, rewards us with four tall milky coffees (called galao) and pork sandwiches and we sit there for a good long while envying our own current situation in life. To me, not a thing has changed since we were last here six years ago. There are still just a handful of tourists walking around and I recognize many of the stores.


We get back in the car and drive west through the rest of Ponta Delgada and up the coast to Feteiras so we can check on our property. We bought a building lot here nearly twenty years ago so you could say this is my home village, and I have Ana take a photo of me in front of the FETEIRAS sign to celebrate my homecoming. Our original plan was to buy the lot then in twenty years after Feteiras had developed and was full of trendy restaurants, cool bars, and diversions of all types, we’d build a house. Well, Feteiras hasn’t changed at all in twenty years. The only difference is that our lot is the only one remaining empty of the six that were sold by the previous owner of the land.


Last time we were here the lot was overgrown with bamboo and there were some stalks of it reaching up and over the neighbouring houses. Sometime in the interim, the village must have sent some of their boys down with machetes and chainsaws and they cleaned it up completely. That was nice of them. We admire our lot for a while then drive down the impossibly steep road nearby to the coast. Here, we are surprised to see a number of vehicles and tourists taking selfies over the punishingly rough waters and the black volcanic landscape. There used to be a pool here many years before but it had been completely destroyed during one particularly nasty storm. That was the other thing we had hoped may have developed over the years, but nope. Sowe’re not sure what we’re going to do with the land. The ocean views are simply stunning from here and it could be a magnificent place. But we don’t plan on ever living here full time, we don’t love the town, and we certainly don’t want the hassle of managing a rental property. I dream that the extended periods of time we do spend here on the future could instead be on our sailboat in the marina, which offer 360 degree ocean views and walking access to everything. Of course, we’d need to actually sail the boat here, but that’s a larger discussion. So we may sell the land. We’ll see.


We drive back towards Ponta Delgada then turn north and cross the ten kilometres across the island to Ribera Grande on the north shore which is being pounded by huge waves and a watery gale from the north. Ana has an address of a care facility where we think her aunt Ana is at. We find it in the inner recesses of Ribera Grande and wander around inside but can’t find her. One of the workers makes a call for us and confirms she is living in their other facility in a different town. Because it’s getting on in the day we decide to abandon the plan and come back in a day or two.


On the way home we stop at the supermarket and pick up some food. I stand mesmerized in the wine aisle and am faced with a tough decision. The five litre boxes of wine come in many varieties and prices. I go with the high roller option and grab a box for eleven euro instead of the cheap-assed six euro plonk. I will be told later by Paul that this wine is good for only two things: cooking Wednesday food or cleaning power tools. He underestimates the simplicity of my palate.


We have a quiet dinner of leftovers and my freshly procured Cardboardeax. Delicious. Natercia arrives some while later and entertains us with an hour of stories then she is off like a flash and I am out like a light.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Azores 2024 – An Easter Visit to the Green Island

Arriving to the Azores feels like coming home. It has been a shameful six years since we last visited and six of Ana’s aunts, uncles, and cousins are here at the airport to greet us after our mostly sleepless overnight flight from Toronto. They all look exactly the same – even younger, maybe. It’s the clean island living.

Ana’s folks John and Maria have joined us on the trip for their final visit to the Azores (they say) but I don’t believe it. John will be turning 80 next week and Maria hit that marker recently, but they still have plenty of gas left in the tank.


Ana follows some Azores ex-patriate forums on social media,and according to those the whole place has gone to hell. Skyrocketing prices, swarms of tourists, congestion in the streets. But I see none of that during the short drive from the airport to her uncle Manuel’s house in Livramento, where we’ll be staying. Mind you, it is Good Friday, so maybe not the best day to judge; especially as the weather is awful and the wind and rain shakes and pelts the Dacia Duster rental vehicle as we drive.


The Azores is a very special place for us. My first trip here was in 2003 with Ana, a few years after we met and I have been intrigued and in love with the islands ever since then. Back in those days, the only tourists here were ex-patriate Azoreans from Ontario, Massachusetts, and California returning to visit their families, plus the odd German wearing hiking books. After that first trip I fully expected the islands would be quickly discovered and ruined by mass tourism…but they weren’t – even after a massive and modern cruise ship terminal was built in the 2010’s. Only in recent years has the world finally awoken to the charms of Portugal and its islands.


Before I begin, I must explain the family tree. We are staying with Ana’s mom’s oldest brother Manuel. His wife Alda passed away many years ago and three of his children live nearby – Manuela with her husband Antonio and kids Fernando and Raquel; Carmelia with her husband Pedro and their children Bella, Sofia and Sofia’s daughter MatildeNatercia with her husband Paulo Fernando and their daughter Leonore, and Manuel’s son Rue lives in Sweden with his twin boys Hans and Frans (that’s not actually right but Manuel couldn’t quite remember their Swedish names so let’s go with that). Maria’s youngest brother Luis and his wife Genoveva are also part of the wolf pack and they have an armada of kids and grandkids.

We get seated at the kitchen table and Ana’s cousin 
Natercia pulls out the blood pressure monitor and starts checking everybody’s number. How things have changed. Back in the day the first thing offered to us on our visits were shots of moonshine, bottles of cold Sagres beer, and pastries. I think it’s all for show anyway, because after we’re all checked and results recorded and compared and I’m anointed the winner with the lowest pressure score, we tie into a smashing breakfast spread of fresh buns, ham, cheese, fresh Azorean milk from happy cows, homemade grape chutney jam, mini bananas, and coffee, then followed up with samples of various home brewed and some store-bought liquors of varied intensities. Other cousins begin appearing and it is soon a beehive of activity and an enthusiastic discussion breaks out concerning dinner plans for the following weekend. There is finger pointing, yelling, arguing, second-guessing, triple-checking, lobbying, more yelling then finally I ask Ana what Tio Luis had just said and she reported, “shove the meat in the hole”. I thought the discussion had moved onto something more interesting than meal prep, but turns out they were debating making a cozida (Azorean meat and potato stew)with the help of the underground volcanic cooking tubes at the town of Furnas. But this promising plan ended up being scuttled and moved to mid-week to avoid weekend congestion, leaving us with no dinner plans for next weekend. I’m sure it will all work itself out.


The topic turns to another intriguing hole; this one the dreaded bottomless pit that Ana’s mom has been telling us about for years. Legend has it that the villagers of Livramento discovered this fissure in the earth after one of the senior pastors, probably named Joe, disappeared without a trace, and so did his cow. It’s pretty hard to disappear completely on this small island and good luck hiding a cow for any length of time. The hole was discovered and was proven to be an excellent portal for disposal of trash or any other unsightly, unwanted goods or people. Now we’ve never seen this hole, and I’ve always thought that Maria was maybe just making it up. So we ask Tio Luis about and he doesn’t just confirm its existence, he tells us that one time they rigged up a shaky, homemade man-basket and took a few hundred feet of rope, draped it over a big tree limb, then lowered their brother Tony into the hole to see if he could find the bottom. Well, he must have run into something supernatural down there because when they pulled him out he was scared shirtless and had become completely magnetized. It worked out well for him though, because as a carpenter, from that time forward, he was able to just stick tools to his legs and arms instead of wearing one of those uncomfortable leather tool pouches. And he never dropped a screw or nail again.

We beg Luis to take us to see the hole, right then, but he tells us that it had been sealed with concrete after some baby skeletons were 
supposedly discovered inside. Cousin Paulo’s never heard of this hole so Luis gives him directions and he pulls up Google Earth on his phone but can find no sign of fissures or concrete plugs; just a big dirt field. The whole story is real suspect, but what’s life without a bit of mystery I suppose.


Cousin Pedro appears with a huge tub filled with little chicharro fish (Two euro per kilo from the market, caught yesterday), enough to feed a frigate of sailors, and the whole house erupts in lunch preparation activities. Ana is flouring fish, Paulo is shredding cod pieces, Natercia and her sisters Carmelia and Manuela are slicing potatoes and veggies, Antonio is arranging plates and cutlery, Pedro has fired up four frying stations and is cooking fish, I’m washing a never-ending parade of dishes, John’s keeping everybody supplied with fresh beer, and Manuel and Maria are directing traffic and yelling stuff at people – everybody gets a job. Pedro goes to adjust the tablecloth and discovers that Tio Manuel has, in good bachelor fashion, been using curtains for this purpose. He quietly folds up the curtain and slides it into a drawer.


I duck out to the grocery store to pick up two more cases of 250 millilitre mini-Sagres and mini-Super Bock beers just to make sure we don’t run out. Paulo then shoves me into his car and says we’re going lemon shopping. Well, the best lemon shopping in the island turns out to be in his backyard so we go there and he picks a bunch of fresh bright orange coloured lemons off the tree while I play with his cute little dog, who I think is named Pincher and he doesn’t bite me or piss on my leg so I bond with him immediately.


When we return we find out Natercia’s tested everybody’s blood pressure again. The all day drinking has brought everybody’s down by double digits so that proves once and for all that drinking alcohol is good for you. So all you “sober-curious” messiahs can just shut yer traps.


The lunch is beyond incredible. The little fishies are fried crisp and you can eat them head, tail, spine and all. The cod dish made with French fries, eggs, peppers, fried onion, and olives is heavenly. There are boiled and salted new potatoes (which have all been sliced just partway through), fresh vegetables, and many bottles of red wine. Natercia demonstrates the proper technique for eating the new potatoes, which involves dropping a small spoon of pepper sauce into the gash then eating it like a sandwich. The thought of hot pepper in the gash makes me giggle a bit and this turns into a table-wide dirty joke with the help of Paulo. Ana explains to everybody the concept of a “death row dinner” and claims this exact meal as her preferred choice, if she ever finds herself in that unfortunate situation (and I’m assuming me, dead). We sit for a very long time eating, drinking, story-telling, and laughing. This is what we came for. This is why we’re here.

Paulo shows me this nifty trick for opening beer bottles – it’s a genius innovation and does not require one’s teeth nor eyes socket but I’m not going to reveal it here. Instead, have me over sometime and make sure you have bottled beer. Hand me one and I will maintain eye contact with you while I deftly remove the cap and you’ll have no idea how I did it. See, life is better with a bit of mystery.


Instead of music, the Azoreans play Portuguese variety shows to provide background noise in their homes. They are just awful. It’s usually middle-aged women with pancake-batter makeup in unflattering, tight gowns surfing the rolls and their balding male cousins in ill-fitting suits singing overly dramatic ballads with tons of vibrato and hand flailing, with hordes of deranged families gathered round clapping and cheering, probably because it’s a free event and there was nothing else going on that day. Today’s variety show is from Lisbon and it’s still going hours into our own party.


While we drink and goof around in the kitchen, all the younger kids loaf in the living room glued to their phones, exactly the same as what the device-addicted youth do in Canada, making me briefly sad. So I liven things up by going out there and speaking English with them every once in a while which makes them uncomfortable as hell and me laugh a bit.


Time takes on weird dimensions and all of a sudden it’s nighttime and we’re eating Calde Verde soup which has been bubbling on the stove all day and is frighteningly good with its flavourful green strings of kale, liquified potatoes, and chunks of chorizo. Manuela suddenly appears with Pedro and they are carrying this big charcoal grill through the house I think all the booze and food is making me see things, so I follow behind them and watch as they position it at the back of the house in the attached cooking area which has the fryers, stone oven, propane supplies, and a bunch of other stuff. Apparently at some point during the day I had innocently asked somebody about how the oven worked and they interpreted this as disappointment that there was no charcoal barbeque for our cooking needs.


I drink a few more shots with Natercia and Paulo and after they shove off, Ana and I trudge upstairs and collapse in bed after a seemingly ordinary, yet magically wonderful opening day with our beautiful and crazy Azorean family.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Domenico, the Italian Basement Dweller

Domenico the Italian lives in our basement.

Or I should say used to live in our basement as our strapping Italian exchange student moved out last weekend. Since early December Dom has been our adopted child and it's been a delight having him live with us for this short but memorable time. Especially since Magnus moved to Toronto in January, freeing a family slot.

Dom is from a town called Torre del Greco, located in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, close to the large city of Naples. How can I describe Dom? For a 17-year-old Italian Mamma's Boy (all Italian males are mamma's boys, no matter their age), he is mature beyond his years with an overwhelming sense of confidence and an incredible sense of humour. He has thick, black hair which he fluffs religiously every morning to precise specifications and an inventory of cologne that would make Hugo Boss envious. When we first applied for the honor of hosting a Rotary International student, we expected English instruction to be one of our core responsibilities. Uh uh, not so. Dom's English was excellent when he arrived and even better by the time he left. His vocabulary was impressive, and not just limited to stuff he'd picked up from Marvel movies. He knew the word "narc". He knew the word "vociferous". He even knew the word "menopause" and its worst symptoms, which he saw on display in our household daily and nightly.

We gave Dom our basement and within hours he had exploded all over it, making it his own. He had a pretty sweet setup down there - his own bathroom and shower, the nicest in the house. A full sized fridge full of premium beer and non-premium soft drinks. A washer and dryer (but banned from use, like everybody else in the house not named Ana). My kick ass 1980's stereo and a five channel surround sound home theatre system. My two guitars and small, but impressive collection of Bolivian charangos. A cold room full of my father-in-law's home made Portuguese jungle juice wine, guaranteed to paralyze your brain cells and activate your bowels. Yeah, he was rocking in the free world down there. The first thing he did was to hang this giant Italian flag over the glass door. I thought it was to provide himself with privacy, but I soon learned it was not that at all. It was a daily reminder to us that he is from the greatest country in the world, from whence comes the greatest (insert any word here) in the world. And who were we to doubt it? Especially as he was living with us through the worst season of the Canadian year when the imported Mexican vegetables are completely tasteless and we are left eating white-limbed potatoes six times a week.

I expected we'd quickly tag him with a good nickname. The Dom-inator, The Italian Stallion, Rom Com Dom, Dom the Bomb - these were the obvious ones, but none of them stuck to his olive oil aura. So it was just Dom. Or "Domenico", when I had to 
occasionally yell it into the basement as he was running late in the morning.

The three months went by quickly. We were not able to do a winter fly and flop this year, but he won the consolation prize - a trip to the Ottawa region to my brother's place for New Year's. And for the first time in collective memory, the place was not buried in dozens of feet of snow. In fact, there was hardly any. But we had a great time and he loved the city and my brother's fairy tale gingerbread mansion over on the "dark side" (Quebec). He didn't see much for snow until January when had a snowstorm in Brantford under mild temperatures producing ideal conditions for snow packing, so Stella and I treated him to an old fashioned snowball fight. He had no snow skills whatsoever so we totally destroyed him. I connected with at least two shots in the groin and one on the forehead and Stella treated him to a snowy face wash. He seemed to enjoy it.

Dom was easy to have around. One thing did perplex me, though. We do a lot of cooking during the winter, and I'm not afraid to say that our kitchen produces some ass-popping good meals. Rib-eye steaks, beef stew, pork tenderloin, grilled salmon, slow-smoked ribs, roasted chicken, chicken biryani, Chinese stir frys, custom chili dogs, homemade bread, vegetables of all varieties. He was always satisfied, but never seemed overly impressed. Until, that is, Ana brought home a bag of Food Basic's cheapest frozen garlic bread as filler food one Wednesday night. Eight of them were placed on a sheet then after five minutes per side under the broiler they were  tossed unceremoniously on the table beside the chicken tenders and microwaved brown beans. Dom's lovely blue eyes began to sparkle as he had his first bite. He was in heaven. The two slice quota per family member was obliterated as he tore into them like an Italian Cookie Monster. He told us with a straight face that this was the greatest food he'd eaten in Canada. Our cheeks burned red with the backhander compliment. And it didn't stop there. Ana brought home raisin bread one day. The expression on his face after taking a bite of extra-buttered raisin bread toast was one of great joy and unbelievable pleasure. Then, the ultimate discovery. And I'll say, I shouldn't have been too surprised, but I thought maybe it would be different with an Italian. Every international person we've ever introduced this dish to has fallen in love with it. What is this magical dish, you ask?

Kraft Dinner. And in Dom's case, Kraft Dinner with Chopped Up Hot Dogs.

Yes, all pasta he'd eaten in Canada up until his moment had been bunk. Dog food. Rat bait. But Kraft Dinner? Life changing. Awe inspiring.

There was only one thing he would not eat no matter how hard I lobbied. And this one food was Hawaiian Pizza. That Canadian-created gourmet pie with the ham niblets and fresh canned pineapple that is oh, so delicious. He would not touch it. My brother made his trademarked, gourmet pizzas one night during our stay there for New Year's. He cranked out a couple of Hawaiians and offered a slice to Dom. He just shook his head and winced, as if struck by a poison dart.

"What's wrong with him?" Marty asked me.

"Something serious," I said. "He thinks pineapple shouldn't go on pizza."

"Well what the fuck else are you going to put it on?" Marty asked.

"Yeah," I said. "You're right. There's nothing else it can go on. Dom, just eat the pizza. You'll love it."

"If it eat pineapple pizza, they won't let me back into Italy," he said, stone-faced.

"Why not?" Marty asked.

"You can't put pineapple on pizza. It's wrong. It's barbaric."

"Says who?"

"Everybody. And my mom. She won't let me back in the house if I eat pineapple pizza. And my dad, he would disown me."

"That's bullshit," I said. "Call them right now and we'll find out."

Dom called them up on Facetime. We all got to meet his mom and dad. They were lovely. Until Dom brought up the pizza question. Then they turned sour.

Despite not knowing a word of English, his mom mustered, " can't....come...home."

We knew when we were beat. Marty gave him a few slices of the Meat Lovers Special and the whole conversation ended right there and we never spoke of it again.

For one of our last weekends together, we took Dom to Cleveland, along with our friends Dave and Kira who would be Dom's final host family, and Magnus and Stella, packing the van to capacity.

We had an amazing time. We drove through snow squalls on the way to Detroit then had our van ripped apart at the border, where the guards even opened a bag of sealed popcorn to look for concealed drugs or Mexicans then spilled innocent kernels all over the seats while we waited patiently inside for the stone-faced agents of law to issue Dom a visitor visa. We saw an incredible Battle of the Bands competition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We visited two amazing art galleries. We had a rollicking foosball tournament. We played blackjack. Magnus got his ear pierced at a grisly tattoo joint. We ate out in restaurants. We went for a morning polar dip in the chilly waters of Lake Erie. And we ate fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It was a magical weekend.

But now, it's back to just Ana, Stella, and I as Dom has moved on. The garlic breads have been piling up in the freezer because nobody's eating them. The raisin bread has gone stale. The Kraft Dinner...well, the Kraft Dinner's fine and we're still eating that.

Fortunately, we'll still be seeing Dom as we visit Dave and Kira often, and we're finally heading into spring and summer which opens up plenty of opportunities for boating adventures and we hope he will join us.

It has been a pleasure hosting this fine young man and we look forward to see where his future takes him. We know it will be somewhere great.

I could not contain my excitement when this popped up in the news. I have been using it to torment Dom, sometimes daily. This pizza joint will be our first stop in Naples when we someday soon visit Dom and his family in Italy!