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Italy makes it into my travel ‘record book’ – it is the country in which I’ve stayed the longest amount of consecutive time. I arrived in to this pasta haven at the end of April – so that makes 2 months in Italy. I had grand expectations of Italy as prior to starting on this world adventure it had been my favorite country to travel to and I never seemed to want to come home. In fact, I had dreams of living here one day. However, now after more travel under my belt and 2 months here – I can safely say that I still love it here, but I’m ready to move on. I had a wonderful time here; however, I never really felt a part of the everyday culture as I hoped I would have. Sure, there were great times, times where I met locals and tried to ‘fit in’, but for some reason or another I never really felt super comfortable here. I’m not sure if it was an internal phase I was going through, or my experiences in Italy. Even when I lived in Sorrento for a month, I still never really felt like I belonged there. I used to use Italy as my escape…my escape from NY and work. I glamorized it and fantasized about it. But maybe since I’m not running away from anything – any place, any job – maybe, just maybe that’s why I’ve felt differently about it this time around.
I did have my favorite places in Italy – Ferrara, and Ischia probably top my list. I will also always love Siena and Tuscany, but maybe it was all too much of a good thing. Maybe it was too easy and beautiful…is that possible? Like most everything, I think I had higher expectations than reality – so I’m sure that jaded my feelings about it. I really don’t mean to paint this negative picture – as it wasn’t a bad time at all. In fact – it was quite the fairy tale time – cooking schools, sailing schools, villas in the country, laying by the beach, wonderful food, Rome nightlife – it was all a great vacation! However – maybe that’s just it – it was a vacation and I’m not sure that’s what I was really looking for. It’s rather difficult to sort out all of these thoughts as I’ve never traveled for this long before, I’ve never been away from the US this long and I find it difficult to sort out my feelings – is it the country, is it the long term travel, is it the fact that I’m still living out of a suitcase…is that why I felt off my game here in Italy?
However – I also spent a lot of time in Italy sorting out my next travel plans. The plans had changed rather extensively from my original itinerary – so I had to spend a great deal of time playing travel agent. Many people ask me how in the world I plan all of this travel on my own…the answer is that you spend many hours on the internet searching. Searching, searching, searching. It’s exhausting and you never really know what sites to trust and you wonder if you just look for another 5 minutes, you may find something else that’s better or more desirable – and then it’s 5 hours later and you still haven’t made any travel decisions! Sorry – I kind of got off the topic of Italy…back on track…sometime soon I will dedicate a whole post for how to do travel planning on the internet.
So- I may not have become fluent in Italian, nor met an Italian lover, nor bought my own Italian villa – but as always, I made a few observations about the people and the culture here over the last two months. Things that I found funny, or strange, or stupid…I’ve collected a few here.
Things I learned about Italy
There is no escaping it – food is frickin’ everywhere. I believe it is impossible to be healthy in Italy. Or at the very least it’s impossible to leave here the same size you came here as in two months. Everyone is trying to stuff your face…it’s crazy! I’ve decided that’s why all the shops are filled with moo moo dresses. Seriously – in these resort towns it appears that you either have to dress as Elilzabeth from Pirates of the Caribbean (all corsettes and cleavage) or you dress like you are 60 years old and overweight in a moo moo dress. They even try to disguise the moo moo dress with sequins, loud colors…and call it a tunic or beachware, but however you look at it – the big, boxy dress with out any shape is still a moo moo dress. Yet – I find myself looking at the sequin boxy dresses thinking – oh – that’s cute – that would fit my new curvaious pasta body…then I have to tell myself to snap out of it and realize that once I leave Italy that it’s likely I will contract dysentery in India and all of my weight problems will be solved!
The other baffling part of the equation is that Italians appear very unhealthy in their lifestyle (like most of Europe that I’ve seen) – everyone smokes constantly, and no one exercises. I honestly don’t get it – how do they stay thin? There’s no shortage of good looking, skinny women in Italy – I have no idea how the do it. You see people eating gelato every day…and that’s not fat free! I would go running and people would look at me like I was a freak! It just doesn’t all add up. More than once I wondered if these Italians were actually from this planet or maybe they were some alien lifeform! I digress…
However, I did find out that there’s the tourist eating lifestyle and then there’s the Italian eating lifestyle. The Italian daily menu consists of a café in the morning, and some biscotti or maybe a croissant…but that’s it. Their breakfast is very small. Lunch is the big meal – it’s the one in which people do actually eat pasta, meat – the normal Italian courses. Afternoon consists of another café and then the evening is typically a light dinner of grilled veggies or just some proscuitto and cheese. The tourist daily menu consists of coffee, toast, cream croissant, and fruit for breakfast. Lunch is normally pizza or a panini – basically something that has huge amounts of cheese. Every afternoon you are to have a gelato – normally 2 scoops of ice cream as it’s just too hard to choose one flavor. Dinner then is antipasta, primi pasta, secondi (meat dish), and dolci. Oh yeah – add in a few café’s and bottles of wine too. So – after spelling this out…maybe I have my answer. I – obviously signed up for the tourist menu for 2 months.
I used to love the idea of an Italian lover. Italian men had that dark, thick hair, and olive skin, and that accent…ohhhh…the accent. However, after spending 2 months in Italy traveling around to many heavy touristed areas, I have lost my infatuation with Italian men. It’s sad, but true. I was jaded by the fact that all of them were looking for tourist women to pick up. Sure, I thought it was cute at first, but then I realized that they all used the exact same pick up line – “let’s go for coffee and you can practice your Italian and I can practice my English.” Like clockwork…after meeting some random guy, this is what they would say. At one point, I looked at the guy and said – you are going to have to come up with something better than that…I hate predictable. However, my favorite (or maybe I should say funniest) pickup line that I heard was “I am the Italian Stallion.”…upon hearing this I cracked up….but at least he got my attention! I actually had one friend, a local, tell me that many times in the heavily tourists areas the Italian men get themselves into trouble – they focus so much on picking up tourist women, that when the winter arrives and the tourists leave, they can’t get a date with a local girl! I honestly have no idea how true that is –but I certainly did see the magnetic draw of Italian men to tourist women. Then there was also another magnetic draw that I witness. My friend Aireka is African American and apparently Italian men find “la donna nero” extremely exotic. When Aireka would walk down the street it was watching bees to honey – I”ve never really seen anything like it. Cars would slow down and they would try to talk to her while driving down the street holding up traffic behind them. My Australian girlfriend, Tash, and I would talk about how we wished we could find a country where “la donna bianco” were worshiped this much! I honestly don’t think any exist! I kind of feel like it’s not fair. I mean average looking, overweight men can go to Thailand and they are saught after as if they were Brad Pitt …but where can I go to be worshiped?? I still have a few countries left – maybe I will find it…the land of Sherry.
If you want to act like a local in Italy, drink cappuccino ONLY in the morning for breakfast. You only have one – and there are no to-go cups. This is one of the few countries that I never saw a Starbucks…and I understand why – no Italian would ever go there. They have a whole different coffee culture here – and it’s not about drinking it on the run or drinking huge grande cups full. They like it strong and in small quantities. After noon, it’s café (meaning espresso) only…as you would certainly stand out if you ordered a cappuccino at 2 in the afternoon. It would be akin to ordering a stack of pancakes at 2PM…on a Monday…when you weren’t hung over….it would be a strange site in the US. Never mind the fact that I actually enjoy a stack of pancakes at 2PM on a Monday. Another odd thing about coffee etiquette in Italy is that a café drank while standing up – is cheaper than if you sit down at a table. Why can’t all bars be like this? Most of the time in NYC I had to stand up because there are too many people there…wouldn’t it have been nice if I would have received a standing discount on the Lower East Side on a Saturday night?!
I came to realize that Americans must be a touchy/feely culture. Now I would never initially call them that – however after shopping around Italy I became aware of my tactile fetish. I have become somewhat accustomed to the different shopping culture in Europe. You know, the one that follows you around as if you are going to steal something. The sales people are all rather aloof and act as if you are ruining their day by entering their store. Yet at the same time they look completely pissed off at you when you say – “No, I’m just looking” . They follow you at your heals around the store, so that as soon as you pick up a shirt that was folded on a shelf, and fold it back up and put it down – they are there 2 seconds later refolding it – making you feel as if you never should have touched it in the first place. Some stores even go so far as to ask you not to pick things up yourself – they will get it for you. This isn’t just in clothing stores, I encountered this a number of times at fruit stands. I can’t tell you how many times I had shop owners tell me,”Signorita, no touch”. When I go to a fruit/veg stand at home, I of course pick up the fruit, look at it, squeeze it, smell it – trying to figure out if it’s ripe. You won’t get away with that in Italy…no way. You point to what you want and they will put it in the bag for you. No touching! I’m assuming this is because they don’t want you bruising the fruit. Or maybe it’s just the assumption that if they are selling it then it must be ripe. Same goes for shoes. I was in a store in which all of the shoes were displayed nicely out on a table in the store and on the wall. I went up to go look and also saw a nicely printed sign that read in English “Please do not touch the floor sample shoes”.
However – the strangest experience I had was while shopping for a shirt in Rome. I went into a nice store and found a shirt that I liked. I wanted to try it on so I took it back to the fitting room. The saleswoman all of a sudden comes running back and interrupted me before I could try it on. She told me that I wasn’t allowed to try on shirts. I looked at her in confusion and repeated – “I CAN’T try this on???” bewildered. She said, pants ok, but not shirts. I asked her how I was supposed to know if it fit right. She just repeated that I could not try on shirts – that’s their policy. I of course put the shirt back and walked out. Granted – the shirt incident was a first – most stores aren’t like that, but it is true that they definitely don’t like you touching things! Some stores explicitly state the ‘no touching’ policy and some just watch you like a hawk and make you feel bad for disturbing their display.
I love the fact that the word “Ciao” in Italian means many things – hello, goodbye, hi, or welcome – it’s a multipurpose word, a happy welcoming word. However I was surprised to find out that this wonderful little word wasn’t used when answering the phone in Italy! Instead, they answered the phone “Pronto!” It threw me off guard because the word sounds so harsh…as if you just answered the phone and said “Talk to me NOW!” Actually – this tactic could probably work well in NYC…it seems to fit the attitude there. I have decided that I will try answering my phone with “Pronto” and see what kind of reaction I get.
Overall – Italy was a great time – and even more so because I traveled with so many friends there. Thanks to David, Marcy, Mike, Angie Amy, and Veronique for joining me and eating gelato every day with me! Then there were the new friends that I met – friendships that will be for life…like Tash, who kept me laughing (and a little intoxicated) throughout my time in Sorrento! Of course I will go back to Italy again and vacation…I will continue to use it as my Europea escape route from real life and work. After all – I’m sure that one day I will need to get back to real life. In the meantime, Morocco awaits!