History, not euros, is Rome’s most important currency

By Michael Kinney

ROME, Italy– What can be said about Italy that hasn’t been written in countless books or shown in a multitude of movies. Everything from Earnest Hemingway’s “Farewell To Arms” to films such as “Under The Tuscan Sun” and “Angels & Demons” have made the European country the focus of their work.

But when I decided to take a two week trip to the Italy, I didn’t want any preconceived notions about the country to cloud my judgment. I wanted to see everything with fresh eyes and clear heart.

Unfortunately, that was impossible. Images of wondrous cities, amazing food and beautiful, passionate people filled my head on the 15-hour flight from Oklahoma City to Rome.

After 10 days (subtracting travel days and a weekend in Croatia), Italy lived up to the hype while falling well short of it at the same time.

While Italy feels big in books and movies, it’s not in real life. Its 116,347 square miles is smaller than Alaska, Texas, California, Montana and New Mexico. At various points, it is possible to drive from one coast to the other in under three hours. It takes longer to get from Lawton, Okla., to Tulsa, Okla.

Italy’s population of 60 million is almost three million less than California and Texas combined. But Italy isn’t about numbers and size. Its main currency is history.

From the moment you fly into its capital city of Rome, this is where most of the world’s civilization had its beginning. And city officials make sure visitors remember that.

Depending on your personalty, knowledge of the language, and patience level, there are several ways to see Rome. Super-adventurous types just need a map, a bus/train schedule and Google Translator, and they are set.

For the rest of us, there are several stop-and-go bus tours that you can ride all day. Most have about 15 to 20 stops where you can choose which particular site to spend hours exploring or none at all. Cost is around 20 to 30 euros. I chose a three-day pass because I had the time and knew there was a lot I wanted to see.

The first day alone, I spent the entire time at Vatican City. The Vatican itself is awe-inspiring in how big and majestic it is. While I was unable to see the Pope, it’s not unheard of for him to venture into the cathedral.

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The Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica are stunning as well. But it’s the Sistine Chapel that is the center point on the tour. Security forbids photos from being taken inside the chapel, which Michelangelo immortalized in the early 1500s. Yet, that didn’t stop everyone from getting shots off at the immaculate ceiling. (I plead the 5th).

For those who are truly interested in every aspect of Vatican City, you can hire personal tour guides who will detail each room and artifact. It’s an all-day affair, so wear comfortable shoes.

The rest of the city tour allows you to see such historical sites as The Pantheon, The Forum, The Basilica and The Colosseum. To walk on the exact same ground that gladiators, kings and soldiers walked can be a mind blowing experience.

Across the street from the Colosseum is a line of restaurants and cafes where you can eat or buy t-shirts, postcards and key chains. The same thing went for the Vatican. Making money is now the primary reason for Rome’s history.

Yet, when you are at one of those cafes, sitting outside  and eating pizza and tiramisu as you stare in amazement at how old the Colosseum is, you don’t worry about people trying to hustle money from tourist.

Despite that, it’s an experience anyone who has love for history, art and architecture must take in one day. When you hear the phrase, “They don’t make it like that any more,” they could easily be talking about 90 percent of Rome.

At night, Rome is a different animal altogether. It then turns into any metropolitan city that is packed with people. Parking is horrendous, groups of drunk, loud and boisterous people roam the streets and the night clubs stay open until the sun rises.

The food can be great, but it’s not better than your favorite restaurants in America. What does make it stand out is its freshness. Most of the dishes revolved around fresh seafood, and a meal consist of three courses. You normally will devour a bowl of mussels and clams and mushroom-covered bruschetta bread before you even get to the main course.

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Also, when the waiter stares at you in amazement, mouth wide open and hands in the air, when you order fresh pineapple to eat with your calzone, don’t take offense to it. At least that’s what I had to tell myself.

Meals can last late into the night because conversations are an expected part of the dining experience.

Rome is also a great hub make day trips throughout the country from. Florence, Tuscany, Venice and Naples are all in driving distance or an easy train ride. You can also visit islands such as Capri, where you can inhale even more local history on the Mediterranean Sea.

Unfortunately, some aspects can’t be overlooked. Rules of the road don’t seem to apply in Italy. People drive how and where they want in cars that are no bigger than cardboard boxes for TVs.

Customer service in parts Italy leaves much to be desired. If you can’t speak the language, don’t expect much help from the locals. Rudeness seems to be a way of life. That’s especially true for the transit workers who couldn’t care less if you made your train or got onto the right one at all.

That just means you need to be extra prepared and have all information handy. The Italians don’t make it easy on you, but it’s not impossible to still enjoy your trip.

The day I was scheduled to leave the country, a 6.2 earthquake struck the region. More than 240 people were killed and several small towns outside Rome were decimated. Even parts of Rome itself was damaged.

Despite that, the planes from around the country kept on coming filled with tourist looking to walk in the footsteps of history. That will always make the country a popular location for a long time.

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Croatia was nothing like I expected, and that was a good thing

Photo by Michael Kinney

By Michael Kinney

HVAR, Croatia — When traveling in Europe, one of the best features about doing so is the accessibility to other countries.

While it’s a full day heft getting from the United States across the Ocean, once there, you can go almost anywhere that is new and interesting.
My first weekend in Europe, four friends and I decided to hit up Yacht Week at the Island of Hvar in Croatia.
Before this past week, my only knowledge of Croatia was that it was country that had been ravaged by war and was the home of former NBA player Drazen Petrovic. So it didn’t sound all that appealing to me.
The group tried to ease my apprehensions by telling me Hvar is the new Ibiza in Spain, which is where the rich and famous go to unwind. After an hour flight from Rome to Split, Croatia, I was quickly impressed by the beautiful scenery and landscape.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia and has become a tourist hub. The city provides free buses downtown for people to do shopping. I wish all major U.S. cities would do that.
After one look at the historic Jupiter Temple and the buildings, you realize the town has seen much of Europe’s amazing and bloody history. Split is also where some scenes from the hit TV show “Game of Thrones” is filmed.

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We were only in Split a short minute before jumping on a catamaran (big boat) to head to Hvar. I should have known we were running with a different crowd when I started seeing yachts off all sizes and country origins as we pulled into port. One gentleman had three huge yachts stationed along the coast just because he could, according to one of our guides.
 The organizers of The Yacht Week described the event as “seven days of sailing to hidden splendors most landlubbers couldn’t get to, experiencing exclusive events and, the best part, being completely surrounded by an equal balance of adventure-seeking guys and girls from around the world.”
I was sold.
As soon as I departed the boat, I was struck by just how clean and picturesque Hvar was. The houses that sit on the cost of the Adriatic Sea have an understated ‘Old Man and the Sea’ feel.
A 16th century Napoleon fortress overlooks the port city and provides amazing views for those courageous enough to climb the long winding stair path to the top of the hill. It’s well worth the extra exertion once you get a look from the top.
But as ancient of a feel as castle and merchants gave off, Havr is a country trying come into the modern age to fit its clientele – with Sports Bars and Wi-Fi spots easily found. Each time I told a Croatian resident I was from Oklahoma, the first words out of their mouth was Kevin Durant. That always led to a discussion on why he left to go to Golden State, to which I had no good answer for them.
One thing that brings wealthy tycoons and college students alike flocking to the small island every summer is the late night party scene. The square in the middle of the town has several good clubs with good music blaring out the doors beckoning passerby’s to come in.
But it was the Carpe Dien Beach Club that was on the lips of local residents and frequent visitors when asked where was the best night spot to hit. It is a mix of spring break in Daytona and bottle service clubs in Miami.
Revelers have to take a 20-minute boat ride to an island just off the coast of Hvar to get to Carpe. It doesn’t get really going until after 1 a.m. and doesn’t close until 6 a.m. But for those who have the stamina and willpower to make it to closing, with the sun coming out at 5:30 a.m. it makes for a nice walk back to the hotel in broad daylight.
The first thing our group did once we reached town was to hire a boat and a driver for a six-hour tour of the islands and coves that surround Hvar. Instead of going with a tourist company, we chose an independent operator. That means they follow their own rules like ask if it was OK for them to smoke a couple of joints while our crew went swimming.
Through some ferocious waves that made me feel like I had fought a young Mike Tyson, the two brothers took us to normal tourist sites like the Blue Grotto and the Green Cove. But they also found us secluded beaches to do some snorkeling and swimming in the clear blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.
We used the same duo on back-to-back days and the hidden gems they found us never failed. One of the two best spots was lunch at a beach located in an out of the way cove. Overlooking the cove and the beach, with the wind slightly blowing off the sea, it was a perfect spot for a bowl of steamed mussels and assorted fish. It was so quaint and relaxing, you were almost forced to take a nap on the padded benches.
This beach was also where I learned that every beach in Europe is pretty much a nude beach. I will just say Europeans are not ashamed to bear it all. No matter what age or fitness level.
The second best spot on Hvar was a very popular establishment called the Tree House. The cove was filled with boats and yachts of all sizes the Sunday afternoon we visited. There was a club atmosphere taking place as millionaires and some billionaires mingled with tourists and local residents with club music coming out from the speakers and spreading throughout the cove.
They were two totally different experiences. One was quiet, relaxing and understated. The other was overboard, ostentatious and pure new century.  But both best summed up what Croatia is all about these days.

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Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer. He can  be reached through Eyeamtruth.com

Italians hate tea, but love sunsets

By Michael Kinney

In my adult life, I have prided myself on the ability to travel anywhere unknown and be able to adapt. Whether it was to a small town in Alabama or smack dab in the middle of Times Square in New York City, I’ve found a way to adjust to the surroundings.

But my I may have met my match on my first night in Italy. All it took was finding out that Italians don’t offer tea at their restaurants. That simple fact blew my mind and I quickly realized this was going to be a trip like no other.

In my mind tea was a refreshment that crossed all international borders. And I was looking forward to cooling down with  a glass after spending the past 24 hours in airplanes and airports making treck from Oklahoma to Rome, Italy.

But when I stepped into Il Timone on Singita Miracle Beach, just outside Rome, I soon not part of menu. I think the waitress even laughed at me when I asked, but since I don’t speak Italian, it was hard to tell for sure.

Yet, the small, seafood restaurant  made up for the oversight in other ways. Il Timone a favorite of many locals who spend a few hours chatting and conversing at the beach before getting down to the business of enjoying huge dinner.

Along with not drinking tea, I found out that Italians take their meals seriously. Not only do they look to fully enjoy each meal, long conversations are expected to take place every night.

According to the residents and visitors I spoke to, dinner starts after 8 p.m. and may not end until midnight. Our main course consisted of octopus, clams drenched in broth, baby lobsters, shrimp, raw salmon and fried squid.

The food is so delicious, it’s understandable why they want to take their time.

Before I even made it to Il Timone, I spent a couple of hours at the beach watching my first sunset from inside Europe.

I wasn’t alone as bar owners on Singita make it a special event every night. With tables and blankets laid out in the sand, free pasta dished out and mood music coming out of the loud speakers, it makes for a very casual and chill atmosphere.

Once the sun sets, it’s just the start of a long night, even if you are suffering from major jet leg. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a large, cold glass of ice tea.

 

Sooners look to have impact at Rio Olympics

US mens gymnastics team has an #Oklahoma flavor

Michael Kinney Media

Coach Mark Williams and former OU gymnast Jake Dalton talk over routines as they prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games.

By Michael Kinney

When the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics team takes to the competition floor for the first time during the 2016 Olympic games, they will have a familiar look to them. Those who have followed the Oklahoma gymnastics program for the past decade or so will recognize several faces.

Three of the five gymnasts who will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the Olympic games are alumni of the Sooners. They include Jake Dalton, Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour. They will join Sam Mikulak and  Danell Leyva, who round out the five-man squad.

Leading US team into Olympic battle is OU head coach Mark Williams. After four previous trips to the Olympics as an assistant and individual coach, this will be his first turn as the…

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Westbrook sends message with extension

By Michael Kinney

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Russell Westbrook arrived at the Chesapeake Energy Arena Thursday afternoon, it looked like the old Thunder alley had opened back up. Hundreds of fans lined up outside and greeted him like he was a conquering hero coming back to the Roman Coliseum.

In many respects, that’s what Westbrook represented as he climbed onto the podium and to address the media concerning the new contract extension he had signed earlier in the day. After a month of

of hearing that they couldn’t compete with the bigger markets for top tier talent, Westbrook seemingly sent a message with his actions.

I love where I live. People ask me all the time, Why do you love Oklahoma City? I say, The people,” Westbrook said. “You guys are the nicest people I’ve ever been around. I’m not just saying that because I’m here. Just to be able to be around and walk around. Everywhere I walk around, nobody has never said anything to me negatively. Everything is always positive. Always great encouragement. That’s what I like to be around. I like to be where I’m loved, where I’m wanted. Obviously this is a place for that.”

When Westbrook was asked why now was the right time to make this deal, his answer was simple and also seemed to throw daggers at a former teammate who now resides in California.

“The city, the people around here, myself,” Westbrook said. “There’s no need to wait if you know where you want to be. There’s no need to waste time. I’m a straightforward type of guy. I shoot you straight. No need to go back and forth and try to figure out any other options, create this hoopla, rumors and all this stuff. This is where I want to be, and that’s what I made the decision based on.”

Westbrook’s extension is reportedly a 3-year deal worth $85.7 million. He holds a player option on the final season.

Since he was going to be a free agent after the end of the 2016-17 season, the extension adds one more guaranteed year under contract for the Thunder. After that, he can leave or stay with the franchise that drafted him.

“It was a lot of things that came into play. It really comes down to being around the guys and the people in the organization,” Westbrook said. “I love my teammates. They go to battle every single night. The group of guys we have, I’m looking forward to playing with them, continue great things for Oklahoma City. Obviously the organization has done nothing but great things for me and my family. I can do nothing but respect that and go out every night and compete at a high level.”

Some may look at the extension as just a temporary plug in a leaking ship. With no promise Westbrook will be in Oklahoma beyond 2018, the Thunder will have to go through this same tumultuous offseason in two years.

Even though the new deal isn’t long term, it was a win-win for both the player and the team.

For Westbrook, he gets a raise from the $17 million he was scheduled to make this year to $26.5 million. After two years, he can opt out of his contract, and sign a new one with the Thunder that could see him earning a five year contract worth more than $200 million.

The extension also gives Westbrook more freedom, not that he didn’t have any before. But without having to share shots with Kevin Durant, he could be in store for a historical offensive season.

Despite Durant leaving the franchise to play for the team that beat the Thunder in the playoffs, Westbrook contends their relationships is not over.

“We’ve been together eight years. You don’t throw that away,” Westbrook said. “Obviously he’s now with a new team. But we definitely will talk eventually. But obviously now we haven’t.”

For the Thunder, the extension stabilizes what has been an unsettling offseason. Losing Durant turned the franchise on its head and put them into emergency lock down mode. Keeping Westbrook became the top priority.

Being able to guarantee that their remaining star attraction will be around for at least two more seasons settles everything down and gives General Manager Sam Presti and his crew a chance to put together a game plan and direction going forward.

“I think his commitment and confidence is telling about him as a person. At the same time we’ve known him for eight years,” Presti said. “As excited as I am, I’m also grateful because you have an opportunity for a legacy player to put his stamp on continuing with the organization. I think his spirit, his competitiveness, aside from being a great player… I’ve seen him play for eight years and I’ve never seen him take a night off. If you can have that, that’s an incredible thing.”

For the fans, it gives them somebody to root for instead of someone to just root against. The same player that half the fan based wanted to trade five years ago is now going to champion their cause of being a city where big time players will want to come to and play.

No matter how long its for or what his reasons were, Westbrook did choose to stay in Oklahoma. For now, that may be enough for a fan base that has been rejected once already.

“Obviously with Kevin going, it opened up a few things for me in different ways,” Westbrook said. “Me being able to see the team we have, the guys we have, the fans, the support, I felt like this is the best place for me and the best team. I love being here. This is the place I wanted to be.”

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer.

How happy should Thunder fans really be?

 

By Michael Kinney

When Oklahoma City Thunder fans woke up Thursday morning and saw the news that Russell Westbrook had agreed to sign an extension with the team, there was a celebration on social media. Of the two top 10 NBA players who were on their team for the past eight years, one of them said he wanted to stay put and that was a cause for a party.

However, as the exact details of the proposed deal started to get digested, some of the shine was worn off, but not enough to detract from the fan’s celebration.

According to various reports, Westbrook will sign a 3-year extension worth $85.7 million. He will hold a player option on the final season.

Since he was going to be a free agent after the end of the 2016-17 season, the extension adds one more guaranteed year under contract for the Thunder. After that, he can leave or stay with the franchise that drafted him.

Some may look at the extension as just a temporary plug in a leaking ship. With no promise Westbrook will be in Oklahoma beyond 2018, the Thunder will have to go through this same tumultuous offseason in two years.

So should Thunder fans be happy or not?

Even though the new deal isn’t long term, it was a win-win for both the player and the team.

For Westbrook, he gets a raise from the $17 million he was scheduled to make this year to $26.5 million. After two years, he can opt out of his contract, and sign a new one with the Thunder that could see him making more than $31 million a season, or more.

The extension also gives Westbrook more freedom, not that he didn’t have any before. But without having to share shots with Kevin Durant, he could be in store for a historical offensive season.

When Durant was injured two years ago and played in only 21 game, everyone got a glimpse of what a Westbrook led team would look like. With a rookie Steven Adams and Enes Kanter playing only half the year in Oklahoma City, they were one game away from making the postseason and Westbrook collected triple doubles like they were baseball cards. Now the team is older, more mature and hopefully more talented with the addition of Victor Olidipo and others.

For the Thunder, the extension stabilizes what has been an unsettling offseason. Losing Durant turned the franchise on its head and put them into emergency lock down mode. Keeping Westbrook became the top priority.

Being able to guarantee that their remaining star attraction will be around for at least two more seasons settles everything down and gives General Manager Sam Presti and his crew a chance to put together a game plan and direction going forward.

For the fans, it gives them somebody to root for instead of someone to just root against. The same player that half the fan based wanted to trade five years ago is now going to champion their cause of being a city where big time players will want to come to and play.

No matter how long its for or what his reasons were, Westbrook did choose to stay in Oklahoma. For now, that may be enough for a fan base that has been rejected once already.

‘Citizen Soldier’ shines dramatic light on National Guard

By Michael Kinney

MOORE – Shurama Prince had watched the movie before. In the more than two years that it took “Citizen Soldier” to get made, she had seen rough cuts of the documentary at least five times.

Because of that, when Prince came to the premier of “Citizen Soldier” Sunday at the Warren Theatre in Moore, she thought she had gotten through the shock of seeing her husband’s death on film. But seeing it on a giant movie screen, surrounded by a packed auditorium, was just too much for her.

During the film’s most dramatic scene, which involves the death of Prince’s husband, Sgt. Mycal Prince, she rushed out of the theater crying.

“When they were having to carry my husband’s body up the side of the mountain, it showed a lot more than actually what I thought it did,” said Prince, a native of Minco. “It kind of made all of those emotions from five years ago come back up. Seeing it in a much larger screen than a TV screen gives it a whole different point of view. It showed a little bit more, so it was a little bit harder. But I still think that no matter what size, it was still great.”

Citizen Soldier” is the story of a group of soldiers in the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team during the 2011 surge in Afghanistan.

Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud of Strong Eagle Media, the live footage was taken from body cameras the soldiers wore during their tours of duty. It gives viewers an up close and personal look into what the men of the Oklahoma National Guard experienced in their daily lives while fighting a war.

The film-makers and the stars of the film were on hand for the big screen premier and were visibly shaken as they watched the most emotional moments of the film as many watched it for the first time.

“Watching the film for the first time, it just rips your guts out, you know,” said Captain Tyler Brown. “Having to relive something on screen like that.”

Brown was a 1st Lieutenant in 2011. He said he was hesitant at first to agree to be part of the documentary because it shows the raw emotions of what he and his men went through, including watching two members of their unit die in the line of duty.

But after Brown and other members of the platoon got together, they decided it would be a good idea to have the film made to address issues such as PTSD.They also wanted to let the public know the National Guard has been a key part of the war since the very beginning.

“I think what stood out the most was just the sacrifices,” Brown said. “Just to see the sacrifices that we all make. It being able to be portrayed the way that it has for the public and for everybody to see and feel the way we feel and come close to experiencing what we experience.”

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The brainchild of the film was Sgt. Eran Harrill, who is a single father and head of the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce. After returning home after his deployment, Harrill said he came across all of the body camera videos on his laptop. At that time he knew there was a message he and his team members could get out about what the National Guard really does during times of war and dispel the misconceptions.

“It’s been a surreal monument just getting to this point,” said Harrill, who is a producer on the film. “The purpose came from misconceptions that the state had had on the deployment that we had went on. We had the largest deployment in the state in 2011 since the Korean War. Coming back from that in 2012, there was just a disconnect between the state, its citizens and its citizen soldiers. For me there was something I felt there could be done to tell a story. Not just a story about our unit that was there in Afghanistan, but really the story of a nation and its Citizen Soldiers.”

“Citizen Soldier” will hit select theaters Aug. 5th, including the Quail Springs Mall in Oklahoma City. According to Salzberg, after the limited theatrical run, the film willopen nationally Aug. 30 on all major video on demand (VOD) and cable/satellite OnDemand providers, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.

At the very end of the movie, during the credits, the film makers put up the statistic that 803 National Guardsmen from around the country have died in war since 9-11. One of those was 1st Lt. Damon Leehan, who was killed in action Aug. 14, 2011 by an improved explosive device (IED) in eastern Afghanistan . Leehan, a native of Moore, was the platoon leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 179 Infantry Regiment.

Leehan’s wife, Audrey Leehan Brasee, had tried to move on since her husband’s death but found she needed to see Citizen Soldier before that could truly happen.

“When it first came out, it was very heart-wrenching,” Brasee said. “It definitely ripped off a scab that I had healed over after Damon passed away. But looking back on it now, it needed to be ripped off because there were areas I still wasn’t healed in. Watching this movie helped me heal on those areas. Seeing how it turned out it really helped me close the chapter on wanting to know exactly what Damon did over there. It helped me bring closure in areas like that.”

Yet, there were still moments while watching the movie that still get to Brasee.

“I think the toughest thing was seeing all the things that led up to Damon’s death,” Brasee said as she began to tear up. “You see the time-line and date at the bottom of the screen. You know that when it reaches Aug. 14 that it’s Damon’s time. Also seeing Sgt. Mycal Prince carried up the mountain after he is deceased and seeing his soldiers and his brothers going out there in harm’s way and carrying him up there because they don’t leave a man behind. It was was really touching to me because it shows how strong the brotherhood really is.”

Michael Kinney is a freelance writer. Go to Eyeamtruth.com

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