Taken a few years ago at some joint on Broadway in Nashville, this was one of several photos with good-looking girls I had never laid eyes on before. It wasn't my birthday, but the Nissan crew was telling every attractive female we encountered that it was. Here's to getting older!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Italian Adventure Day 2: More Fish, More Bad Beer, Some Bocelli and Great Cars!

The all-new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio unveiled at the brand's 105th anniversary celebration.
I'm not the kind of guy who always sees the glass as half empty. Usually I'm not...well, sometimes I'm not...oh, hell, all right already, the glass is nearly always half empty. As I rattled around in Milan's airport Sheraton Hotel on day No. 1 of my recent Alfa Romeo trip there, I was more than a little disappointed that we were staying some 30 miles from Milan. All I could see of Italy was the airport out one window and a crowded parking lot out the other.

Because my flight from Atlanta was delayed two hours (Click here to read more about this and some of my thoughts on the trip details.), I didn't arrive in Milan until about 11 a.m. I was all checked in and entering my hotel room by 11:30. The hotel is connected to the airport and its reception desk a brisk 5-minute walk from baggage claim.

I characterize my moving through the hotel as “rattling around” in it because it is absolutely huge. All I can imagine is that unlike the United States, where property surrounding airports is uber expensive, property around the Milan airport must be dirt cheap, or maybe Sheraton won it in a raffle. The amount of wasted space is nothing short of amazing. The guest rooms, as well as the reception area, are average size, but the corridors and walkways are immense.

Where I would expect shops, boutiques, and maybe a bar or two, there is just empty space. I tell you this as a way of explaining that there was simply nothing to do in the hotel except go back to your room, work, read or nap. I guess there is a train that runs from the airport into the city center, but I was worried that I wouldn't get there and back in time for the welcome dinner at the hotel that evening. I chose to hunker down in my room where I read and caught up on my sleep.

Dinner that evening was a sit-down affair in the hotel featuring Milan's favorite food: fish. When in Milan, don't expect to eat anything that didn't swim or at least dwell in the ocean. Despite being nearly 100 miles from the coast, Milan's main dietary staple is seafood. Hey, where's the lasagna; where are the meatballs? One must travel several hundred miles south to find that or just about anything else I think of as Italian food, I'm told.

The cocktail hour before dinner was a tease. There were no cocktails. In fact, the alcohol for this event and every other during this trip, consisted of Prosecco (an Italian champagne-like beverage), Italian wine and Italian beer. The Prosecco was fine as long as you like tiny bubbles in your white wine. The real wine was wonderful. The beer, however, left much to be desired. Italian brew is to beer what the accordion is to chamber music. I'd rather drink a Bud, and that's saying something.

The U.S. pavilion at Expo. Its examples of American cuisine were served from food trucks parked behind the pavilion. BBQ sandwich: about $12.
The next morning our Alfa hosts whisked us off to something called “Expo.” It's a world's fair-like event held in different European cities every few years. This year Milan happened to be the host. Alfa spent the equivalent of roughly $39 for each of us to gain entry to this event. Personally I would have preferred Alfa keeping its $39, taking us into Milan proper and setting us loose for a couple of hours instead. The Expo was basically country-sponsored pavilions showing off some aspect of their science or culture. After walking through each exhibit, visitors reached a gift shop and sometimes a little restaurant featuring the country's cuisine. Returning to the hotel mid afternoon, I broke into my stash of peanut-butter crackers that I always carry when traveling outside the U.S.

A couple of Alfas displayed at its museum.
By 4 p.m., Alfa had us on buses heading to its freshly renovated museum near Milan for the brand's 105th anniversary celebration. It was more Prosecco and bad beer as we wandered around the joint. It was fun, interesting and educational. The collection of historic Alfas is truly fascinating. 

The Giulia.
Part of the evening was spent at the unveiling of the all-new Giulia (pronounced Julia) four-door that will arrive in U.S. showrooms in mid 2016 as a 2017 model. The version they pulled the wraps off of was the top-of-the-line Giulia Quadrifoglio. It will get its go from a 510-horsepower twin-turbocharged V6. It will be rear-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission will be available to turn those wheels. Alfa was pretty sketchy with the details, but did offer that it will accelerate to 60 miles per hour in less than four seconds. It's 3,400 pounds is equally distributed (50/50) across its axles. An all-new double-wishbone arrangement up front and multi-link setup in the rear provides the suspension. And, of course, the emotion of the exterior design is typically Alfa Romeo.

Sergio Marchionne delivering his remarks.
We heard Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), speak to Giulia's role as the kick-off model in Alfa Romeo's rebirth. FCA will invest around $5 billion over the next few years in new product aimed at building Alfa world-wide sales to 400,000 units. That would be about a 600 percent increase over 2014's 68,000 sales.

Andrea Bocelli belting out a tune.
We were also treated to the voice of Andrea Bocelli who briefly performed at the unveiling. All things considered, it was an incredible evening. Of course, it was more seafood at dinner, but after hearing Bocelli sing, who was going to moan about another meal of damn fish? Not me.

The Aerodinamica: What must have been Alfa's first attempt at an Italian Weinermobile.
My flight from Milan back to Atlanta was delayed an hour or so. Apparently weather in Atlanta the previous day had delayed the plane's flight sufficiently to cut into the crew's required down time. My first order of business once comfortably situated in my business-class seat, wearing my Delta-provided booties was to order a beer. It turned out to be a Heineken, but was delicious when compared to the meager Italian attempts at the brewer's art.

Once on the ground in Atlanta, a three-hour slog taking me through Atlanta's notorious rush-hour traffic brought me to my back door.

A bottle of Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout and Chinese carry-out were the perfect cappers to my whirlwind, three-day Alfa Romeo Italian adventure.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Travel Update: My Italian Adventure So Far

The Milan airport as viewed from my hotel window.
I'm not the kind of guy who would turn up his nose at a trip to Italy. I mean, come on, who would? I had never been to Italy and it was prominent on my bucket list of countries to visit before I cash in my chips.

So, when AutoTrader asked me to attend the 105th anniversary celebration for Alfa Romeo in Milan in June in its stead, I was all over it. That's the kind of highly motivated go getter I am.

I responded to FCA – what Fiat-Chrysler now calls itself – announcing my attendance. FCA's travel department contacted me, booking me round-trip, business-class tickets from Atlanta to Milan. I have no clue what the tickets cost, but I'm sure I'm worth of every penny.

My flight was scheduled for 5:50 p.m. I left Greenville around noon for my two-and-a-half-hour drive to Atlanta's airport. I knew my international business-class ticket included admittance to Delta's Sky Clubs, I figured I'd enjoy a stress-free drive to Atlanta and then hang out in a Sky Club drinking Delta's wine until my flight. Although my flight left from E Concourse, I wandered into the Sky Club in F Concourse. This is officially Delta's international terminal. The Sky Club there is quite an operation with a fully stocked bar manned by a couple of bartenders. I'm impressed by any bar anywhere proffering Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon and Don Julio 1942 Tequila. This Sky Club had both. The Pappy was $20 a shot. The 1942 wasn't on the liquor menu, but the bartenders thought it was $8 a shot. $8? I nearly bought a shot, but decided discretion was the better part of valor. I stuck to my wine. I headed for my gate about 45 min before my flight's scheduled departure.

Three other U.S. journalists, as well as a handful of South American media were booked on the same Atlanta/Milan flight. Things got off to a rocky start when the flight was delayed for two hours – in 15- and 20-minute increments, of course – because after two weeks of Atlanta sweltering in 95-plus-degree temps, it didn't occur to anyone at Delta to maybe cool down our plane before it was time to board.

Nope; they left it to the crew to do when they boarded 25 minutes ahead of our scheduled boarding time. It must have been 110 degrees in that metal tube. Even with an auxiliary cooling unit backed up to the plane, pumping refrigerated air into it, dropping the temperature to a balmy 80 degrees required more than two hours.

The flight itself was rather pleasant. Close to nine hours, it provided plenty of time for me to savor a steak dinner, several glasses of wine, watch a movie and catch some shuteye. Extending completely flat, the business-class seats actually allowed me to sleep for two or three hours.

Arriving in Milan, our appearance startled the Italian customs officials on hand to check passports. Because our flight was two hours late arriving, they weren't expecting us. Scrambling around to man their stations, they finally opened for business. I get hassled more flying into San Francisco than I did Milan. The official didn't even scan my passport. He opened it, looked at me and then stamped one of the back pages. No one asked why I was coming to Italy; no one looked in my bags; no one delayed me in any fashion. I didn't check a bag and from the time I walked into baggage claim until I walked into the non-secure area where Alfa representatives were gathered to meet us required all of 45 seconds. Welcome to Italy.

FCA put us up at the Sheraton Malpensa. Malpensa may mean “right next to the airport” in Italian because that's where it is: right next to the airport. After more than 18 hours in Milan, I haven't seen anything but the airport and the hotel; both of which are about 30 miles from Milan.

Dinner and cocktails last night were in the – wait for it – hotel. Cocktails consisted of beer and Italian champagne. The Italians do a lot of things well, but brewing beer isn't one of them. Whatever beer they poured at this event tasted like it was filtered through Mussolini's gym socks. We did have some tasty wine with dinner.

The view from the other side of our hotel. I'm assured that Italy lies somewhere beyond the tree line.
Although I thought I would be able to check “Italy” off my bucket list, I feel like a cheater doing it. I could just as easily be in Des Moines, except I don't see any corn.

We are heading to some expo this morning that has been described as the “World's Fair of Italy.” I guess we'll see. This evening we're heading to the Alfa museum for some sort of pageantry and dinner.
The glass-half-full guy that I am, I'm filled with optimism that I'll catch a glimpse of Italy on one of these outings.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Last Month: Four Weeks of Nothing Punctuated by 36 Hours of House Cleaning

Company's coming? Crap, I've got to clean this joint! (Obviously this isn't me; he's wearing a tie.)
I'm not the kind of guy who can gin up enough enthusiasm about nothing to sit down and blog about it. And although I enjoy waking up to myself each and every morning, I'm not such a narcissist that I think anyone gives a rat's ass about my every-day life. Do you really want to hear about my day going to the gym, writing an AutoTrader piece, fixing lunch or dozing in my recliner? No, I didn't think so.

I have been anchored to Greenville the past several weeks. I haven't been anywhere in a month. My day-to-day activities the last 30 days have been restricted mostly to writing things for money or adding content to my Web site. Just because I make money – calling my writing “earning a living” wouldn't be even remotely accurate – writing, doesn't mean I want to do it 24/7. Consequently Clanging Bell has suffered.

While on my little sabbatical from traveling, I have built, installed and painted a new ramp for the shed. The original simply wasn't sturdy enough to withstand the elements and my sporadic walking on it. I also leveled the ground on which the ramp rests when deployed, installed a border around it and added some river rock. In the meantime, I haven't put a minute into the spare bedroom project in more than six weeks. I did order the small hand-held circular saw needed to proceed; so, I anticipate moving forward with that project beginning in July.

I did enjoy some overnight out-of-town company a week or so ago. Friends for more than 35 years, they are the folks who harbor me on my annual Louisville excursions. On their way to Florida for a business-related retreat, they broke up their trip with a brief stopover in Greenville. That's been the sum total of my excitement for the past month. I basically live the life of a shut-in.

My friends' visit did prompt me to spring into action for a 36-hour house-cleaning frenzy. My house isn't designed for entertaining. It's small. And, although the main floor is one large – well, smallish, actually, – space, there is a fireplace and chimney in its middle, breaking up traffic flow. People who knew me in Kentucky or Florida know I enjoy throwing a party for no particular reason. Can't do that in Greenville; I simply don't have the space for it. I tell you all of this as prologue to admitting, my house isn't always visitor ready.

For 355 to 360 days a year, it's just me and my damn cat rattling around in my 1,000 square feet. Although I'm a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place sort of guy, keeping the joint basically clutter free, dusting, vacuuming, cleaning toilets and the confluence of all the other little chores that equal a “clean” house aren't a weekly or even a monthly occurrence. Every once in a while I will notice the dust buildup on the top of the unit holding my flatscreen. That will usually motivate me to do a little dusting, which leads to running the electric broom over the floor. Otherwise, cleaning the kitchen counter once a day or so is about as active as I get in the cleaning department.

Two or three times a year someone does actually visit. These aren't drop-ins, but out-of-towners like my Louisville friends who announced their arrival somewhat in advance. Whether they stay for a night, a weekend or a week, I have to engage in the same amount of preparation. Because I clean so infrequently, I am really an amateur at it. There's no mental checklist. I don't have a “cleaning routine.” I simply glance around and think to myself, if I was a female-type person, what would gross me out? I then prioritize my targets by gross-out degree and get busy. Clean sheets on the guest bed: check. Clean sink and toilets in the bathrooms: check. Feet don't stick to the kitchen floor: check.

I spent more time cleaning my abode than my friends stayed in it. The good news, though, my house is good and clean for another four months or my next overnight guests, whichever comes first.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

2016 Nissan Maxima in Nashville: Stellar Car, Great Whiskey and Vince Gil!

The amazing Vince Gil.
I'm not the kind of guy who says, no, to an evening with Vince Gil. Truth be told, I didn't even know a side trip to listen to Gil play and sing with The Time Jumpers, a country swing group with which he has been affiliated for five or six years, was on the agenda when I eagerly accepted Nissan's invite to Nashville to audition the redesigned Nissan Maxima in May.

I have seen a raft of country artists in concert: everyone from Taylor Swift to Willie Nelson. Only two remained on my must-see-at-some-point bucket list: Vince Gil and Garth Brooks. I was obliged to enter a check mark beside Vince's name on this trip. 

Nashville is Nissan's North American home and a place I love to visit, especially when Nissan is throwing the affair. Nissan's events there always include an evening of dropping into a honky tonk or three to catch some great music. On the Maxima event, Nissan treated those of us who wanted to go to the show at a joint called 3rd & Lindsley. The Time Jumpers play there most Monday nights. It's only $20 to get in – a bargain by any metric. 

"Ranger Doug" Green tips his hat to my camera.
Upon hitting the door, our little band split off into several smaller groups. A good buddy and I with a couple of Nissan PR types, blocking for us like a couple of pulling guards, hustled up the stairs, across the left-side balcony and then down the back stairs to come to rest just off the left side of the stage. We didn't have seats, but who wants to sit listening to country swing anyway? I was able to work my way around the front of the stage snapping photos as I went. At one point, “Ranger Doug” Green stopped in the middle of a song to tip his hat to my camera, to the glee of his band mates and the audience. A little red faced (well, more red faced than usual), I slunk back to our little stage-left conclave.

This isn't Gil's band; consequently, his vocals were only featured every fourth-or-so song, but he sang backup and played that magical guitar throughout the night. 

Good friends, a couple of PBRs and some great music: a special night, indeed.

Sinema's well-stocked bar.
It was the wrap to an evening that also included dinner at Sinema, a converted movie theater transformed into a wonder restaurant. The food was exceptional and it featured one of the most extensive whiskey bars I've seen. There were a few bourbons with which I was totally unfamiliar. It was difficult, though, to sample those when the list included Black Maple Hill Bourbon and two versions of Angel Envy Rye. Oh, Momma. 

Just a couple of the bourbons I'd never seen before.
 Oh, and about that 2016 Maxima – the actual reason I was in Nashville – it's brilliant. 

Here's the skinny....

With Maxima's redesign, Nissan is reviving its 4-door sports-car legend. This was its marketing tagline when first introduced in 1981 – seven generations ago. Near-luxury shoppers, however, need not despair, Maxima hasn't lost any of its high-end appeal with the redesign.

Nissan claims its exterior styling was inspired by jet fighters after the design team made a trip to Pensacola, Fla. to visit with the Navy's Blue Angels. It's always good to have a little lore tossed into your product development story. In any case, the exterior wrapper is beautifully sculpted. One of the notable styling updates is what Nissan is calling the V-motion grille. 

With 61 percent of its parts all new, the 300-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 delivers its output to the front wheels by way of a new continuously variable transmission (CVT). Nissan has been pretty much married to the CVT for the past several years and probably does it better than anyone. Product-planning types borrowed a gimmick or two from the GT-R's engine, like sodium-filled valves, to improve performance. Government estimates put fuel economy at 22 mpg city, 30 highway and 25 combined city-highway driving.

With a center stack angled toward the driver, the new cockpit, is clearly drivercentric. A generous eight-inch touchscreen, located at the top of the center stack, is the face of the navigation system, standard on even the $32,410 entry-level S grade. Operating with pinches and swipes like a smart phone, the touchscreen also honchos the NissanConnect with its apps, Google search and other functions. A noise-canceling technology helps maintain low noise levels in the cabin.

A rearview camera is standard. Other safety features available as you work your way up through the five trim levels are Forward Collision Warning, Driver Attention Alert, Forward Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Alert and 360-view camera.

Taking a page from the Honda play book, to gain more content, you must step up in grade; there are no factory options.

We spirited the new Maxima around the Tennessee country side. It handled well even when aggressively pushed. It's comfortable, quiet and fun to drive. All in all, it can go toe to toe with the entry-level cars of any luxury brand, offering a more sporty driving experience than several of them.