As luck would have it (and, believe me, my luck has never had it like this), I won a five-day Mediterranean cruise in a Facebook contest sponsored by Food and Wine magazine.
It was a writing contest, of sorts — a “tell us why you deserve the prize” kind of thing.
In my entry, I likened myself to a bottle of champagne (“effervescent, but not overly sweet”) and my husband to a glass of chardonnay: “A carpenter by trade, he’s so oaky, he smells like the plywood aisle at Home Depot.”
Oceania’s Marina would take us from Monte Carlo to Rome, stopping in glamorous ports and beautiful vineyards on the Italian Riviera along the way. Having never been to Europe, Mr. Oaky and I decided to extend our trip in Italy, to take full advantage of the opportunity.
“You’ve GOT to get hip to Rick Steves,” my well-traveled friends advised. “He’s the god of European travel. His guidebooks are the best!”
For eight weeks, it was “Rick Steves this” and “Rick Steves that.” We bought Rick Steves’ books, printed articles from RickSteves.com and devoured Rick Steves reruns on PBS.
I adhered faithfully to the Rick Steves packing list for women, cramming two weeks of clothing, shoes and accessories into one regulation carry-on bag.
Even the Oaken One hopped onboard, obsessively studying Rick Steves’ train schedules, routes and fares. When we left for the airport two Tuesdays ago, he wore a Rick Steves money belt and carried a Rick Steves travel pillow in his backpack.
On the long trans-Atlantic flight, I poured over Rick Steves’ “Italy,” boning up for our two days in Rome, trying to schedule as many must-sees as humanly possible.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned in the Eternal City, but on Wednesday morning, as luck would have it, we found ourselves drifting in a sea of humanity into St. Peter’s Square, unaware the weekly papal blessing was just minutes away. (Guess I didn’t read that chapter.) There he was — the Pope! At a hundred yards’ distance, he appeared an inch tall, but I bowed my head and made the sign of the cross, my eyes welling with tears.
I recovered over a lunch of pizza and wine (because, when in Rome…) and thought the trip couldn’t get any better.
After plowing through more Rick Steves recommended sites (that Colosseum place was in ruins … who knew?), we were off to Vernazza in Cinque Terre, Rick Steves’ favorite spot in Italy.
On our second day in town, my spouse was at the window of our third-floor rented room, watching the action on the street below.
“That guy looks a lot like Rick Steves,” he said.
“Yeah, right, Oaky McBlokey,” I replied from the bed, my swollen feet propped on a pillow, a glass of wine in my hand (because, well, you know …).
Minutes passed. Then, “It IS Rick Steves!”
I hobbled to the window, looked down and saw a familiar figure, sweater tied casually around his neck, posing for a photo with two giddy middle-aged blondes.
Later that night, as luck would have it, Rick Steves sauntered into our restaurant. There he was, up close and personal, and big as life — his 2010 Cinque Terre guidebook in his hand!
The 50-something Americans two tables over gasped audibly.
“First the Pope, then Rick Steves?!” I bowed my head and made the sign of the cross, tears welling in my eyes.
He questioned the proprietor for a bit, making notes in the book. At the first opening, I popped out of my chair, camera in hand, and approached the god of European travel:
“Rick Steves? Cathy Hamilton. Lawrence, Kansas,” I said, proffering my hand. “We took your advice, packed light and didn’t buy the Eurail pass. Oaky here has been wearing your money belt for seven days straight. May I suggest a sweat-proof model next year? It’s kind of hot over here. Just saying.”
He was gracious and funny, and he solicited our opinions of the food and our accommodations. He posed for a photo, signed an autograph, and then he was gone.
We would see him twice more during our stay. By the third time, Rick Steves sightings had become old hat.
On our last night, we savored seafood and wine (because ... oh, never mind) on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
“What do you think the odds are of the Pope walking in right now?” I said, tipsily.
“Don’t press your luck,” Oaky Dokey replied with a grin.