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William Graebner

William Graebner - Personal Retirement Story

Photo of SUNY Fredonia retiree William Graebner and his wife, Dianne Bennett, in Italy

Retirement was ordinary, at first. After 33 years in Fredonia’s History Department—I retired as Professor Emeritus in 2004 – I was content to scour the New York Times in bed, read depressing books on the war in Iraq, and putter around our house in Buffalo, where we’ve lived since 1978. When that routine got old, I wrote and published a book, my eighth, titled Patty’s Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America (University of Chicago Press).

But my wife, Dianne Bennett, and I had always had a passion for Italy. We met in Florence in 1962 as Stanford students, took six months off our jobs in 1989 to live in Bologna with our two boys, and had been charmed and awed by Rome in 1993, when I held a teaching Fulbright at the university, known as La Sapienza. 

Rome became our passion and, as it turned out, our vocation. As retirees, we returned to the city every year, usually in the spring, for two to three months, renting apartments in the close-in suburbs, enjoying the Italian and American friends we had made, mostly former graduate students of mine. 

Rome is infinitely interesting – sometimes intimidatingly so – but getting to its attractions, whether by automobile or public transportation, is irritating at best. There are a million scooters in Rome, and I wanted one. 

Dianne was appropriately horrified – my only two-wheeled vehicles had been bicycles as a child – but in a weak moment she agreed to consider a scooter if I earned my New York State motorcycle license.  On the third and last day of a three-day “crash” course, I had my license (actually, if you crash, you don’t get it).  And, as luck would have it, a colleague in the Fredonia History Department, an Italian, had a Piaggio Hexagon, a substantial if older machine with a loud but powerful 2-cycle engine, up for sale and stored in Bologna.

That May, we picked the scooter up, I drove it around the block to assure Dianne that I wouldn’t fall over, she got on the back, and we headed south through the Appenines on the historic Futa, a road famed and feared for its white-knuckle curves and steep descents. Four days and 300 kilometers later, through Florence, Arezzo, Montepulciano, Orvieto, and Viterbo – exhilarated but chastened by a near-collision with a semi and our first experience with being rained on while riding – Dianne and I wheeled the blue monster into Rome. Like the city, we felt eternal. 

We’re on our second scooter now, a sleek Bologna-made Malaguti 250.  We’ve used it to get to every mountain and path (only a slight exaggeration) within two hours of Rome, and to navigate the city’s complex geography, “riding the white line” next to the oncoming traffic or going between cars and buses to bypass slow-moving vehicles. In Rome, as it is in Los Angeles, where we now have an apartment but no scooter, that’s all legal, efficient – and fun.   

William Graebner, SUNY Fredonia retiree, ridiing his Malaguti scooter in Italy.

Scooters are dangerous, too, and we would never advise anyone to take up the pursuit. We’ve had one serious accident, broadsided at night along the Circus Maximus by a vehicle that ignored a yield sign (As my Dad used to say, “There’s no right-of-way in heaven.”).  Dianne broke her shoulder.  For a month we walked and rode the subway and learned more than we wanted to know about the Italian health system.   But we got back on – she got back on, I should say, because that took real courage – and over the years the scooter has been immeasurably helpful in getting us to sites that otherwise would have been virtually inaccessible: rural churches, Roman-era paths in the Alban Hills, late-night jazz clubs, suburban housing projects, model towns of the Mussolini era, World War II battle fields, the field near the Tyrrhenian Sea where the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered. 

We thought about sharing our “alternative” Rome with others, and on the plane home in 2006 I threw out some ideas and roughed out a few chapters. Rome the Second Time: 15 Itineraries that Don’t Go to the Coliseum appeared in 2009, followed in 2014 by Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler. Both are self-published (after our publisher folded in the financial crisis), and that’s been another adventure and learning experience. We also have a website, http://www.romethesecondtime.com; 600 posts and counting.  And we’re on Facebook: Rome the Second Time.

I’m uncomfortable with giving retirement advice, but for what it’s worth, here goes: retire earlier rather than later, when you’ve still got a body that can do things; for the first year or two, do anything you like without guilt; maintain and use your preretirement skills; and take some risks. Just don’t go to Rome and rent a scooter. 

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