After 40 years as a full-time sportswriter and 30 years as a freelance travel writer, John Henderson retired to Rome in January 2014. Why Rome? He lived there for 16 months from 2001-03. John says “When you fall in love with Rome it’s like spending a weekend with the most beautiful woman in the world and then you spend the rest of your life trying to find her again. It took me 11 years. However, I finally found her.” He originally called his website Retired in Rome but changed it when his passport’s cover really did develop dog ears. That’s how much he travels.
On his website Dog-Eared Passport , John blogs about travel, food and sports with a little politics and romance sprinkled in. He has traveled to 100 countries and has yet to find one he didn’t find positives. In 2006 he wrote a book about his previous stint in Rome. “An American Gladiator in Rome” is about moving with a long-distance girlfriend to a country where they had no home, no job, no friends and no language skills. Jahn says “Call it a tragic comedy. Like a great relationship, I love Rome as much now as when I first met her and I’ll be here the rest of my life.”
John was kind enough to spend time answering our questions below.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
John: 2018 marks my 40th year of international travel. For the first 22 years of my life, the only international experience I had was dipping into British Columbia on a family vacation when I was 6 years old. It showed. Growing up I was horribly insecure, hated being alone. In college I couldn’t go to a 7-Eleven by myself. Then my senior year of college I reunited with two separate friends who returned from Europe and Southeast Asia totally changed men. They were confident, secure, kind of worldly. So I bought a ticket for London to depart a week after graduation. I meant to travel to Europe and Africa for five months. I wound up traveling around the world for a year. I was addicted. I loved seeing all the places I read about in college, meeting new people and exchanging new ideas, to try new foods (Yes, snails really are good) and swim in beautiful seas. But what made me dig deeper into the mysteries of the Third world was the challenge of managing money, time, border crossings and transportation. I also learned to handle myself alone. I got the travel bug and after 40 years it’s the size of a polar bear. I haven’t once tried to get rid of it.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
John: No. I do a little bit of everything: adventure (I’ve hiked trails from the Himalayas to the Andes with climbing Kilimanjaro thrown in), high cuisine (I did a story on Solo Per Due, a restaurant outside Rome that serves only one couple a night, billed as not only smallest restaurant in the world but the most romantic), cities (I’ve been to every capital of the old West European countries except Nicosia, Valletta and Belfast), food (I was a traveling food columnist for The Denver Post and have written food columns from ? countries), culture (I wrote a three-part series about Mongolia’s Naadam sports festival for The Chicago Tribune) and destinations (from Iceland to New Zealand). I also write about life in Rome, from language problems to Rome’s problems to an annual list of all the things I love about living here.
TA: What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
John: Bora Bora. It’s simply the most beautiful place in the world. The South Pacific around it is such clear turquoise you can see 100 feet down. I’m a scuba diver and every day I dove in another beautiful spot with nearly limitless visibility. You don’t know the meaning of the word “paradise” until you lay on the bow of a sailboat with the sun setting on a mountain covered in palm trees with lit torches lining a sandy beach and soft Polynesian music drifting over the water.
TA: What’s one place you’ve always wanted to visit?
John: Papua New Guinea. With the world getting smaller, with traveling becoming easier in this Internet age, it’s harder to get to the back of beyond. I’ve heard Papua New Guinea hasn’t changed much in centuries. And I like going places few people have been. Second on the list is North Korea.
TA: What’s one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
John: Pepto Bismol. It’s THE best preventative stomach medicine ever invented. I take it after every meal in the Third World and keep it handy in Western countries, just in case stomach problems surface. They never do. I have been extremely healthy overseas.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
John: When you travel alone it’s never crowded.
TA: What would be your #1 recommendation for a place to travel in 2019?
John: Republic of Georgia. This former war-torn Soviet republic is embracing tourism yet hasn’t been spoiled. It has everything: Some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world and great hiking, world-renowned wine, great food, friendly people, beautiful women, excellent public transportation and fascinating history. Also, it’s real cheap.
TA: What are the top 3 websites you use for research/inspiration when planning a trip?
TA: What is the best piece of travel advice you’ve ever been given?
John: If someone is different, it doesn’t mean they’re better or worse than you. They’re just different.
TA: Is there something you think most travelers worry too much about?
John: Safety. If you’re an American, you come from the most dangerous country in the Western world. Every place else is a playground. Guns are almost impossible to find. Just never leave your bag unattended and ALWAYS wear a money belt to put the things you can not afford to lose: passport, one credit card, mass amounts of cash.
TA: What’s a travel scam travelers should be wary of?
John: I live in Rome where legend has it there once was a pickpockets’ school. Scams abounded here, particularly from gypsies who would sometimes had their infant to you and a team of them would go through your pockets while you frantically try to figure out what to do with the kid. (What you should do if that happens, don’t give up the infant until one of them returns your wallet.)
I foiled two scams in St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg’s subway has a long escalators descending into subterranean levels. I was returning from the supermarket with two bags of groceries in each hand. As I was about to step on the escalator, an old man in front of me suddenly stopped and started tying his shoes. I got squeezed toward him by three guys behind me. I was wary of Russia’s growing number of thieves and I suddenly twirled around and used my grocery bags like weapons. I looked like an old angry woman but it worked. The three men backed off and one said as he was leaving, “Hey, we’re just trying to go on the escalator.” I said, “Then why I are you walking away? And why are you speaking in English?”
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
John: Hungary. It’s the most underrated cuisine in Europe. Chicken paprikash, goulash, spatzle. The dishes are loaded with flavor but not greasy. The variety of lean sausages is huge and the desserts are the best in old Eastern Europe.
TA: What was the most romantic place you ever visited with a partner?
John: Venice. It meets the hype. What makes a place romantic isn’t just the sights, the sand or the scenery. It’s the sound. Venice has no cars. Despite being overrun with 28 million tourists a year, any back canal will be as quiet as a church on a Monday. Go to the wine bars in Cannaregio and sit at a table along the canal. Have cicheti (bar snacks) with Spritz, Venice’s signature drink, at Cantinone Gia Schiavi in Dorsoduro. Go across the water to the southern neighborhood of Giudecca and have a rooftop drink atop the Hilton with a view of the city.
TA: What is the most beautiful and affordable city you’ve ever visited?
John: Bruges, Belgium. Canals snake through the old town and are lined with flowers, churches, bars and restaurants. The architecture has been preserved for centuries and its Markt square is one of the prettiest in Europe. Belgium has the best beer and chocolate in the world and Bruges is its prettiest city. What’s not to like?
TA: Have you ever met someone while traveling who changed your life?
John: My University of Oregon’s sociology department was mostly based on Marxist principles: Capitalism is evil; socialism is good. This was 1978 and the Cold War hadn’t cooled much. I was half Marxist when I started traveling that summer. I found myself behind the Iron Curtain in Budapest where, at a bus stop, a Hungarian soldier practicing his English asked me if I needed directions. We hung out for three days and he told me about what life was like in communist Hungary. He had a dream of opening a flower shop. He couldn’t. He wanted to see Paris. He couldn’t. He wanted to speak out against the government. He couldn’t. When I left, he handed me his address. He wanted me to put it in a personal ad in my old student newspaper. He wanted to find an American woman he could marry and get the hell out of Hungary. He taught me that capitalism is to democracy what communism is to socialism. I also met an Egyptian teacher who gave me a tour of Old Cairo. This was the first bona fide ghetto I’d ever seen. People hung sheepskins to dry for use as blankets. Flies covered hanging slabs of beef. People lived in hovels. Yet they welcomed me in their homes, they smiled, they were happier than the people I left in Oregon. From that day, I realized you don’t need a lot of material goods to be happy.
TA: What are the best places to travel solo and why?
John: For men, Rio de Janeiro for the parties, friendly, beautiful women and great beaches. Indonesia is also on my list. Every island is different and lots of solo travelers to meet. Also, Indonesian is one of the easier languages to pick up. For women, most Buddhist countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. Buddhist men are much less aggressive than in other cultures. Many years ago I’d put India atop the list but it’s had a few high-profile rape-murder cases that spoiled its safe rep.
TA: What’s something that other tourists do when traveling that drives you crazy and why?
John: They don’t learn ANY of the local language. Everywhere I go, I learn a few simple words to get me by: Where is … How much? I would like … and, when in Sweden, I want to father your child. With those few phrases, you can travel through any country, of course, some better than others. But seriously, how hard is it to learn “Thank you” in the local language? Learne “Grazie” or “Merci” or “Danke.” Most locals don’t really care but if you try they really, really appreciate it.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
John: Laos. It’s one of Asia’s few landlocked countries so it doesn’t get hyped through beautiful sunsets on beaches. But the mighty Mekong River goes through almost the entire length of it and lots of adventures can be had by traversing a country on a slow riverboat. There is so much to do, from the adventure activities in Vang Vieng, to the Buddhist culture of old Luang Prabang to the lazy hammock life in Si Phan Don to the fantastic hiking in Phongsali Province. Vientiane still has a feel of a small provincial capital and while the French left some bad marks during colonization, one great thing it left was a wonderful cuisine.
TA: Do you have a few blog posts from your website that you would like to share with our readers?
John: Every Jan. 11, the date I moved to Rome, I list all the little things I love about living here.
I like doing lists: Best five restaurants. Best five gelaterias. Ways Rome has changed me. Here’s a list of the five most overrated and underrated places in Italy.
Because I travel a lot, I always do destination pieces. Here’s my overview of Iceland where I didn’t pull punches on the prices.