Survival in Italy – a few travel tips for the discerning 60 year old

(From the peripatetic pen of David Rowan White)

A whole different set of imperatives applies to the 60-ish traveller in Italy. No more the backpacking, hostel-staying freedom of youth. No more the indifference to the scornful looks of locals cast at the tourist infestation.

Rather, it’s appropriate to display a slight contempt for the concept of travelling light; a desire as much as possible to blend in surreptitiously with the natives; and a bit more focus on daily comforts.

Here are a few tips gleaned from our current continental tour:

What to take

  • Your Leatherman Juice or equivalent – there are no wines under Stelzer in Italy, and screw caps were actually prohibited until recently for the top wines. So you need your corkscrew. You also need the knife, which is sharp enough to slice the salami you pick up in the local alimentari.
  • Your bottle stopper – occasionally, you may not want to drink the whole bottle of prosecco you found in the supermercato when looking for deodorant, and it’s good for keeping the bubbles lively, plus easy-to-pack.

 travel blog 1

  • Something other than, or at least as well as, a backpack – nothing says “tourist” more. A leather briefcase, perhaps, to sling casually over your shoulder messenger-style, with internal zippered pockets to discourage pickpockets?

 travel blog 4

What to souvenir

  • Little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from every decent hotel which has them – because even in some fancy places you may only be provided with this kind of thing, a brown paper sachet with one-for-all soapy gel.

 travel blog 3

What to buy

  • Local electrics – as early in your stay as possible, find the equivalent of a $2 dollar shop or a market, and get at least one or possibly two local USB chargers. These ones cost 2.20 euros each. They’re light and convenient for charging all your portable devices, taking the pressure off your one big adapter which you are trying to share between computer, camera and hair straightener.

 travel blog 2

  • Local disguise – there’s been some Facebook controversy about my attempts to go native in the sartorial sense, but there can’t be much argument that a baseball cap won’t cut it in Italy, unless perhaps it is red with a Ferrari emblem. Could I suggest instead something in the flat cap line, frequently worn by the better-dressed locals – maybe like this faux suede and alcantara number from Mantova?

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What to avoid

  • Setting the next hotel as your satnav destination – in its search for the shortest route, our satnav took us up a steep and narrow goat-track down which, unfortunately, a motor scooter was coming at the same time. The resultant slight bend in the rental car caused by a low, invisible wall will hopefully be within the excess, or covered by the travel insurance. Instead, set the destination as just the town initially, then towards the centre of the town, reset with the hotel address. Or just ignore anything that you don’t like the look of, drive past, and make the satnav recalculate. There’s always another route.

Of course, it doesn’t take much longer than your first few phrases of Italian, no matter how carefully rehearsed, for your cover to be blown. In the meantime, a little bit of preparation, some petty theft, and a few minimal purchases can have you cruising 60-style around Italy.



Racing the train

train 2

What else would you do?  What else could you do?  You’re riding your bike and you turn into the road that goes along the railway line.  As you make the turn a train comes along, one of those long, long ones loaded with a gazillion tons of coal from out west.  It’s going relatively slowly for a train, 30-35 kph, and you discover that you can just keep up with it if you go really hard.  In fact, you could get to the end of this road, 2 k’s away, before the train passes you, if you maintain the effort.

No matter that you haven’t, for various reasons (or excuses), ridden the bike much in the last month.  Discount the fact that this is not the beginning but the end of the ride, during which a fair bit of fuel has already been burned.  Gloss over your brilliant idea that you really ought go to the gym today, but it’s such a beautiful day and a bike ride would be fantastic – wait, you could ride your bike to the gym, and throw in a loop through the dirt to add in a few extra k’s.  Ignore the fact that you inadvisedly did a few sets of squats at the gym and your legs are jelly.

No, you’re a bloke, with an inner boy  egging you on: “Race the train, race the train!”  So you do what the pesky little kid is telling you, and bust a gut to stay with the train, which is of course unaware and unconcerned that a race is going on. You get to the end of the road where you have to turn off, still level with the train, and you just manage to gasp out a victorious “Yesss!”.  The train rolls on oblivious to the fact that it has been bested.

You are, however, comprehensively buggered.  For the rest of the day, which has a full agenda including lots of up and down ladders, you struggle.

What ought one to do?  Act your age?  Stop chasing some untouchable goal of being as tough as you used to be?  Be sensible?

In the end, to the court of public opinion, you plead the usual defence.  Boys will be boys.  Of course you race the train.  Even if it kills you.  Even if you are 60.  That’s what boys do.

(Image credit



two dogs

After I wrote that blog about Spirit Mountain, and the two yapping, howling dogs and the shamanic overtones, I remembered one of my favourite old jokes, and one of my favourite old T-shirts.

A young Native American boy (you can’t say “Indian” any more, can you?) said to the tribe’s old medicine man: “How do you give our people their names?”

The medicine man said, “When the baby is presented to me, I pray to the Great Spirit, and then I look around, and the first thing I see gives me the child’s name. Like I look into the sky, and see that one child’s name is Soaring Eagle, or I look across the plains and know that another child’s name must be Running Elk. But why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking?”

In an old heritage building in Adelaide, where I used to visit because Perpetual Trustees once had its offices there, the basement was inexplicably occupied by a bar and micro-brewery which made and served what it claimed to be Australia’s first alcoholic lemonade, bearing the name “Two Dogs”.  Which I of course found highly amusing.

I convinced them to sell me one of their staff T-shirts with a picture of two bulldogs on the front, and a legend on the back reading “Why do you ask?”

That was my second favourite T-shirt ever, after the one that said “Try to never split an infinitive”.

Once a nerd ….

Spirit Mountain


[Hippie alert – this is a story grounded somewhere in the early 70s, so if anything with a whiff of shamanism turns you off, you may wish to click “close”.]

At 60, I’m still not entirely convinced about the validity of signs from the universe, but sometimes the inference is hard to resist.

I had a particularly shitful day recently, thanks to some external forces, and the next morning I was still befuddled by the previous day’s episodes. I took heed of one of those aphorisms you find on Pinterest – “You’re only one bike ride away from a good mood” – and took off on my bike to see if I could blow some of the bad vibes away. I had a certain route in mind, but something led me instead to visit Flat Rock.

You can be lucky, or not, at Flat Rock. It’s supposed to be a little-known vantage point with a staggering view of the Jamison Valley. Word has leaked out though, and the smaller tourist buses can access it. Some days there may be three bus loads of gawkers swarming over its natural sandstone terrace. This day it was deserted, like it was there just for me.

The principal vista from Flat Rock is Mount Solitary, a massive weathered feature which seems to have adopted me, and which I in turn adopted as my spirit mountain. There are views of it from various angles, all around where I live.

On the ride out to Flat Rock, I had been seething with anger and frustration. Standing in front of Mount Solitary, though, I had a shaft of memory from 1975, and thought of the old mystic Don Juan, and his teachings to Carlos Casteneda about “stopping the world”, and listening to what it might be saying. Then, from even further back, I recalled a line from Psalm 121, out of some evensong service in my church-going childhood five decades previously:

“I lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

[Any bible verse that ever comes into my head is in that kind of language because we were raised on the King James Version circa 1611.]

I looked again at Mount Solitary, and felt compelled to offer a short prayer:

“O Spirit Mountain,  Give me strength, give me courage, give me compassion, give me wisdom, give me guidance.”

As I finished the prayer, two black cockatoos, with those yellow highlights on their wings, flew directly over my head, just a few feet above me and in perfect side-by-side formation. Just like they had been sent in answer to the prayer. What guidance were they giving me?

“Float over the top of all that vindictiveness and cruel-heartedness,” they seemed to say.

Then behind me, far across the valley, two dogs started up a ruckus, one barking, the other giving a mournful howl.

“Let the yapping and howling of others go on in the background, unheeded, and get on with things,” the Spirit Mountain said.

As I got back on my bike and rode away, my soul settled, and the anger drained away, and I even doled out a bit of compassion towards the previous day’s protagonists.

Maybe we just make up that sort of external intervention in our heads, to suit ourselves. Maybe there is something out there giving us guidance if we ask – then listen to see if there’s any answer.

Either way, it’s better than anger and frustration.


Escaping the Nanny State


It’s a risk, being 60, to put on your ranty-pants because you’re likely to be branded “grumpy old man,” whereas younger people can just have strong opinions on something.  Well, here goes anyway.

We snuck out of the country last week (martial law in Thailand notwithstanding) to beautiful Koh Samui.  We thought we’d have a holiday from:

  • the cold of the Leura winter
  • work (in the Squadron Leader’s case at least)
  • cooking
  • cleaning
  • the thought of those two alcohol free days per week
  • the continuous guilt trip which is the paleo diet.

We got away from all those things.  We also discovered that we were having a holiday from something else well worth fleeing for a while – the Nanny State.

Look at those electrical wires in the photo (and the lantern hanging from them).  When you need a new connection, you just hook one up wherever you can fit it.  Doesn’t look like any inspector of any sort has stuck their nose into that viper’s nest.  But the power never went out once, and we had better wifi than at home.

There were many other images conjuring a sense of freedom:

  • the standard uniform for riding your motor scooter, being singlet, shorts, thongs and your hair waving in the breeze – well, the odd bandage on knees and elbows as well.  Not for me, however: Nanny Central had required me to swear a solemn oath on my travel insurance application that I wouldn’t ride a scooter at all.
  • a four-pack of Singha beer at the 7-Eleven for 110 baht, or about $3.60; and there didn’t seem to be a multitude of drunken teenagers fighting in the gutter as a consequence
  • if you had any kind of health need, a pharmacy every 50 metres or so in Fisherman’s Village
  • seat belts?  who cares?
  • building regulations apparently based on what it looks like when the building is finished, not what is underneath, which is perhaps why they are so fast in getting the render over the ubiquitous concrete blocks they build everything with
  • workplace health and safety requirements which apparently prescribe the personal protective equipment to cut said concrete blocks with a giant angle grinder to be thongs, no helmet, no safety glasses, no dust mask, no earmuffs, and no gloves.

I know, I know, there is without doubt a degree of employee exploitation, workplace injury, road accident trauma and threats to public safety which we have mitigated to a large extent here.

But gee, it was nice to step back 50 odd years, to a time when shit might happen but it was called an “accident” – remember them? – instead of:

  • some lawyer being hell-bent on convincing a judge that ultimately everything had to be someone else’s fault except the person who had voluntarily assumed the risk and was consequently bleeding and/or broken (yes, I know I used to be a lawyer but I’m over that now)
  • some politician whipping up a media melee and demanding a legislative fix, while really being more interested in the 15 second sound bite on Nine News than the alleged victim.

I just wish I could have found a merry-go-round in Koh Samui, like the ones we used to have in the park, circa 1959, when the object was to see how fast you could get it spinning without it flinging you off and removing modest tracts of skin.  You know, the ones Nanny Central has banned in NSW for the last umpteen years.  I bet there’s one of those somewhere in Samui.

Here endeth the rant.  Call me grumpy, but that was liberating.


Not being who you thought you were



It’s funny getting to 60 and realising you weren’t the kid you thought you were, 50 or more years ago. That you’ve had this picture of what you were like when you were young, which turns out to have been: wishful thinking; mildly delusional; revisionist; or a bit of all of those.

Here’s what I thought I was, in those younger years: a clever, if slightly nerdy kid who did well at school, was liked by his teachers, didn’t get into any real trouble, and never gave his parents a worry in the world.

Turns out that version wasn’t true. I was in fact inattentive, careless, with my head in the clouds and not fulfilling my potential. If I was getting the reports about my kids that my parents were getting about me, I would have been worried.

I have come to that understanding because one of my father’s favourite hobbies was filing. We sometimes thought it more obsession than hobby, but it has turned up some revealing, almost disturbing, material.

A decade or more ago, dad proudly presented me with a folder that contained every school report I had ever received, starting in third class (year 3, they call it now). I had never realised he diligently collected them.  It appears he never missed filing one report.

I hadn’t paid much attention to that file, until I started on another typical turning-60 thing – writing about your life just in case anyone will ever be interested in it some time later this century or next.  I did a bit of research and remembered there was some contemporaneous material, the school report folder, and I delved into it to find support for my optimistic self-assessments.

Here is what the documentary evidence disclosed:

In my first ever school report, from 3rd class, in June 1962, Miss Stuckey commented: “He works well in class, but occasionally has ‘daydreaming’ spasms.”

In my half yearly 4th class report, in June 1963, Mr Farrow wrote: “Although David is inattentive at times, his results are quite satisfactory.” Satisfactory? I’d always thought I was kicking arse in 4th class.

My 5th class year in 1964 seems to have been a real worry. Mr Hazell informed my parents that: “David has done well but would have done much better had he made fewer unnecessary mistakes in arithmetic”; and “David does some excellent work but often spoils it by carelessness and avoidable errors.”

Things seem to have gone even further downhill in 6th class, when in 1965 Mr Bennett commented: “Thorough revision and intensive preparation, plus careful attention to detail in the ‘moment of crisis’ will help David avoid adverse publicity. Though more mature and composed, he still seems to prefer the inane to the ingenious. There is much work to be done.”

Yes, very amusing. I can see Mr Bennett congratulating himself, for coming up with such witty repartee. I obviously must having been generating some of that “adverse publicity” – sorry mum, sorry dad.

My high school reports were nowhere near as detailed as those early primary school ones.  So my optimistic illusions, or delusions, about those years can maybe remain intact.

But I I guess I now know how the former Premier felt when that “thank you” note turned up.

5 lists from the year of turning 60

Being afflicted with a congenitally over-developed case of self-examination, I was reflecting on the best and worst bits from the year I turned 60.  It went like this:

5 best books I read (all by women authors as it turns out)

liz gilbert

  • The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Foal’s Bread – Gillian Mears
  • The Light Between Oceans – M L Stedman

5 best tracks I downloaded from iTunes (and paid for)

  paul kelly

  • Little Aches and Pains – Paul Kelly
  • Loretta – Lyle Lovett
  • Babel – Mumford & Sons
  • Big – Sneaky Sound System
  • That one with the unprintable name, you know, the one about her dad – Martha Wainwright

5 most embarrassing moments

  • Being told by my daughter, “It’s good to see your hair colour is resolving itself – grey.”  Then falling for the suggestion by the artistic director at the salon (i.e. the bloke who cuts my hair) that he could put some dark highlights in my hair so it wouldn’t look so grey; getting a plastic bonnet put over my head and tied under my chin, and having little strands pulled out then having to wear it for an hour; then seeing a bunch of women I knew in the colour-setting lounge.  Couldn’t convince myself I was just one of the girls.  After all that, no-one even noticed anything different.  Now going grey defiantly.
  • Getting my annual skin cancer check-up, and having the doctor inspect every skin irregularity.  “What’s that?” she asked.  “Where I fell off my bike.”  “And that one?”  “Where I hit a tree riding my bike.”  “And that one?”  “Where I stabbed myself on my bike’s chain sprocket.”  She concluded the examination with: “Are you sure you should be riding a bike?”
  • Going up to the ticket machine at Redfern station for my over-60s $2.50 train ticket and finding I had to push a button that said “pensioner excursion” to get it.
  • Getting sucked into a conversation about shaving my legs, only for it to lead to revelations from the other participants (girls) about how painful it is waxing your own bikini line.  Won’t be trying that one.
  • Falling off the stand at the gym that lets you do forward facing sit-ups.  The armhole of my singlet got caught on one of the supports, and ended up suspended in space, and having to be rescued by one of the hardline body-builders.

5 least credible people of 2013


  • Christopher Pyne – come on, all that Gonski bullshit?  If I was that other David, I would be thinking about changing my name.
  • George Brandis – you appointed whom to the Human Rights Commission?  The guy who thinks it should be abolished?
  • Ray Hadley – for all his multiple inanities and insensitivities.  I was cheering about that defamation judgement.
  • Bronwyn Bishop – hadn’t we finally got rid of “Madame” Speaker and those old robes?
  • Kevin Rudd –the most self-indulgent concession speech ever.

5 miscellaneous things

  • Best box set I watched – Breaking Bad Seasons 1-3 and yay, there’s still 3 seasons to go.
  • Most disappointing award-winning novel I read – Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser – did I wade through all that, for it to end like that?  Or am I uncool?
  • Best re-read book – Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card – after I read somewhere that it was prescribed reading for officers in the US Marine Corps and before I heard it was being made into a movie.
  • Most difficult parting – the MGF, after 13 years.  It had to be towed home just a couple of times, nothing major, but Brigitte got a bit over that minor inconvenience, and a bloke was begging me to sell it to him.  All things must pass, just like George Harrison said.


  • Most extravagant purchase – Brigitte’s Fiat Abarth.  Can you really pay that much for such a tiny car?  But it does go like the clappers when you press the “Sport” button.  And it does say “Brembo” on the brake callipers.


Vises and virtues


Wouldn’t you think that by the age of 60 I’d be over performance anxiety?  Apparently not.

We had a working bee this week down at the Men’s Shed.  We are building a quiet room for those blokes who want to come and hang out at the Shed but not play with tools in the workshop.  So we were clearing out the space for the new room and moving the tools and equipment.   This included getting rid of one surplus-to-requirements workbench – on this bench was a large metalwork vise that would have to be repositioned on another bench.

I’m not sure how it happened, but the job of refixing the vise was allotted to me.  Now it’s a job I’ve done in my own sheds maybe 3 or 4 times over the years, and it’s straightforward enough.  This time, however, I would be undertaking the job under the gaze of a retired industrial arts teacher, a mechanical engineer, and one of those archetypical fix-anything DIYers who are drawn to the Shed.  So if this vise wasn’t installed straight, level and steady then my reputation as a real Shed guy was under threat, or so I surmised.

We had the inevitable blokey pre-job chat, about where on the new bench to put it, whether to use bolts or coach screws, what bracing underneath might be necessary.  Then I was left to it while they went off to do other tasks.

I don’t think I have ever measured, re-measured and then measured again for one job.  I did have a sneaking moment of smugness when the DIYer came up and looked at the two bits of wood I had tightened up in the vise, and said: “What are they for?”   I explained that they were to make sure there would be enough clearance past the edge of the bench if you were putting a long piece of material in the vise.  “Makes sense,” he said and went back to his own job.  I gave a secret internal fist pump and returned to checking my alignment.

I finally committed, and drilled the holes.

Coincidentally, the bench where I was working was right next to the one where the blokes from the mental health unit of the local nursing home were doing their weekly manual therapy jobs at the Shed.

I thought it might be nice to engage them with my process, seeing if the vise was straight and the drill for the coach bolt holes was the right size.  They, on the other hand, seemed to think it would be more helpful if they gave me encouragement like “Give it a good screw,” as I tightened up the coach bolts with a socket.

They found their interventions very amusing.  Come on boys, I said, I’ll be in strife if I don’t do this properly.  But they kept it up as I lay underneath the bench straining to tension the nut on the final bolt, with gems like “”Giving it a good pull down there?”

With or despite their questionable cheerleading, I finished the job, and stood back to give a final check on everything being square and level, ready for the judgement of my peers.

And then, after all the anguish and performance anxiety, I’ll be buggered if the experts didn’t even look at it, let alone inspect it for quality of installation.  All I got was, “If you’re done there, come and help us lift this lathe.  It’s bloody heavy and it’ll take 5 blokes to move it.”

Oh well, perhaps every vise has its virtue.

How David became a smart-arse

just so stories

How do we get to be who we are?  Sometimes it can take until you’re, oh, about 60, to make some connections between things that happened when you were young, and how you are now.

My parents must have spent countless hours reading to me, though I can mostly remember only the content, not the process.  There was no TV, of course, in the 50’s.  No electronic baby-sitter in front of which to plonk the kids.

Much I what I was read would no doubt be considered imperialist, colonialist or monarchist these days.  In particular Kipling, whose work seems to have shrunk from public view except where it’s been reduced to some animated pastiche of The Jungle Book, or when we say, on Anzac Day, “Lest we forget,” with no knowledge of where those hallowed words come from.

My battered and broken-spined copy of The Just So Stories still sits on my bookshelf.  I’m not clear how long it’s been there, but mum obviously kept custody of it and I’ve retrieved it at some stage.  It’s the 1958 edition, the flyleaf tells me.

That book is the reason I have had certain phrases running through my head all of my life.  Like:

  • “Go down to the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees”
  • “I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me”
  • “Off ran Dingo – Yellow-Dog Dingo – always hungry, grinning like a coal-scuttle.”

Apparently Kipling was the genesis of my career as a bloody know-all.  One day during my early school years, mum was summoned to the office of Miss Bridle, the very proper headmistress of Sans Souci Infants School.

“What have you been reading this child?” she said.  “He told me that his father was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.”  Which of course I had stolen from the ‘Stute Fish in “How the Whale Got his Throat” and parroted back to the stern headmistress.

It’s no wonder, really, that I don’t think a word has star quality unless it has at least three syllables, preferably four, having been fed “comestible”, “promontory”, “sagacity” and such-like from a very tender age.  That’s my excuse for being a smart-arse, anyway.

(image courtesy of

The day I shaved my legs

bike race start

You still have some big decisions to make in life, even when you’re about to turn 60.

One of the instructors at the gym castigated me recently for going in a bike race without having shaved my legs:  “You get out with the Gillette before the next race,” said definitely-less-than-30 Will.

I didn’t accept the advice.  But lining up at the start of the Woodford to Glenbrook race last month I was regretting that, surreptitiously checking out the other competitors – even the blokes in the over-60 category mostly looked to have shaved down either for the event or because that’s just what you do as a bike rider.

So I’ve got the Kanangra Classic in a couple of weeks, and I figured it was time to make a big decision – to shave or not to shave.

And now it’s done, and I look down at the place where my hairy legs used be, at skin that hasn’t been bare since I was maybe 11, and it’s a bit – well – weird.  Like:

  • There was a lot of hair on the bathroom floor
  • How far up to you have to go, like right up to the top or just where your shorts come down to?
  • I don’t remember where all those scars came from
  • I didn’t realise my legs were that skinny and white
  • Isn’t it a bit girly, actually?

Maybe not.  In self-defence at the unveiling, I said to Brigitte, “Sonny Bill and Sam Burgess shave their legs too.”  She said, ”You’re about as alike to Sonny Bill as I am to Angelina Jolie.”

It didn’t help saying, “But you’re as pretty as Angelina Jolie,” because I got back “Those boys are in their 20’s and you’re nearly 60.”  Fair point, if not exactly the hoped-for seal of approval.

But at that start line, at the next race, nobody will be casting aspersions.  We’ll be cool and hairless together, stripped for speed.  I wonder how much faster I’ll go?

And what’s the worst outcome anyway, that I just let it grow back?  The only big decision left now though is, do I have to get some spray tan?

[Image courtesy of]