Sixty-Eight days exploring Italy, its sights, culture, foods, and people leaves one with many impressions, but the most indelible is that sixty-eight is not nearly enough days – but that’s all we could countenance. Traveling for extended periods it tough, granted, the more you are willing to spend on comforts, the less of a ‘young man’s’ sport it becomes. But, when you begin to lose track of what village/town/city you’re in, what day of the week, or month your in, it’s probably enough for the moment. So, one day we’ll go back and try to plug in all the holes we left behind on our discoveries, but it may be a few years before that happens. The world is a big, exciting place with too much to see and do, and for now, we’re ‘Italyied’ out. For me, my eyes are straying a little further east for future adventures.
For this final ‘Bellissima Italia’ Blog, I present a few of the more memorable observations made throughout this adventure that will draw us back to this fascinating and bewitching land.
The constituent parts of culture are commonly accepted rules and norms. Society establishes standards so that people may live more harmonious and enriched lives amongst each other. And as their lives are more harmonious and enhanced, they reinforce these norms into the culture. The absorbing Italian Coffee Culture is one self-indulgent and fascinating of the cultures. Admittedly, I am a coffee snob. Yes, on occasion, I really enjoy the chemical mixture you get from an American gas station they call French Mocha, but I never fell in with the Starbucks culture of the sweet, exotic, and acidic flavors. Literally, it’s not my preferred cup o’ Joe. After drinking the sludge of Turkish or the swill of Honduran coffee, Viennese coffee is purely divine. But, there is nothing that compares to the addictive, velvety, luscious nectar of Italian coffee! It’s all good, whether that be a cappuccino, Caffè macchiato, Doppio, Long Black, Caffè corretto or espresso, or the many other varieties. But, like all aged and sophisticated cultures, coffee culture is attendant with rule sets to help you get along and enjoy the experience. As an example, when entering a bar or cafe, you choose between drinking coffee at a seat & table, or ‘bellying up’ to the bar. The chair will cost you extra, almost double in some cases. Italy charges a table and silverware fee for all sitting customers. But the main reason Italians drink coffee at the bar is that they are always in a hurry and have just a few moments to pop into the bar for a caffeine fix. Perhaps the other purpose is that Italians are a gregarious people and find it entertaining to chat with everybody that walks into the cafe. The bar position is where everybody can be found. Another reason is most coffees are much smaller than the typical US oversized 12/16/20 ounces buckets of dregs. A usual coffee is only a few ounces and take but a few minutes to imbibe, have a chat, and then move along for your day. Our typical coffee visit was under ten minutes from entering, ordering, eating a cornetto, chatting, and moving out! The practice is perfectly efficient to get that needed charge to carry on with a busy day of sightseeing.
The coffee prices are scandalous, scandalously inexpensive, that is. Or at least relative to everywhere else I’ve ever been. Our morning cappuccinos usually cost 1.20 euro or a buck fifty (if you avoided the tourist traps). There were a few places where we scored a coffee macchiato for .80 cents! Incredible. No wonder every Italian has a coffee habit, it’d be imprudent not to engage in such a delightful national obsession. The other rules center around when you drink your coffee. Naturally, it’s available, and drunk, all day and night. But no coffee with milk after noon, or ever, after a meal, because it’s too heavy. After noon, black coffees or espressos are the norm. After their late dinners, espresso helps cleanse your pallet and close your stomach. It’s all very sensible, really. There’s a reason, a norm, a culture about why you drink what you drink and when – unless you are a tourist, then it’s cappuccino all day! Sometime’s it’s good to be a tourist where skirting the norms only draws superior looks, and that delightful, velvety smooth elixir of life, the cappuccino.
We were always amazed by how friendly were the Italians we met. Granted, as you get around on the Island of Sicily, they’re a bit more superficially gruff, but if you actually engage in a conversation with them, they blossom into long last friends like so many others. Ursula and I traveled extensively, and friendliness on the tourist trail, unless someone is interested in your money, is not a universal characteristic of most of the people we’ve met. Few are mean or outwardly angry and rude, but usually distant and disinterested. We found few Italians like that. Most, particularly after they discovered how good Ursula’s Italian was, wanted to chat away and figure us out. Once we told them we were from Alaska, they always brightly beamed and this almost guaranteed a good 15 minute discussion. We’ve had complete strangers assist us in ways that would have scared the hell out of us in many other parts of the world. As an example, I wrote previously of the guy who showed us how to get to a ruin site by putting us in his car and driving us the 5 kilometers to the location. In most places we’ve been, we would have been worried about being kidnapped or set up for some scam with the local police or something. Not here! (Editors note – Yes, I am a bit paranoid and suspicious by nature! But, there’s a reason Old Soldiers actually make it to become Old Soldiers!) When we left our Lecce B&B to get a rental car, the B&B manager also drove us to the car rental place. He exclaimed that ‘all of Lecce’s taxi drivers were crooks and he couldn’t leave us to them.’ He then drove another five miles, leading us to the highway exit in the direction of our next adventure. Just amazing. In many places, they would have demanded a ‘tip,’ but I’m sure here, he would have been offended. They just have exquisite manners and helping others is second nature…..or at least, that was our finding. Granted, we found a few pricks along the way, but by far, they were the rare exception. Our finding is that Italians are a gentile, loquacious, and very cultivated people, both in manners and dress.
As I rave about Italian coffee, they are only seconded by Italian cuisine. It truly exceeds my culinary, descriptive powers to adequately speak about just how good the food really is. It’s just best for me to say, ‘it’s just damned good!’ I’ll say it’s not the Olive Garden variety of Italian food or Dominos Pizza! I’ll leave it at that…but digress a little and also say that the food is only seconded by the pastries and breads. I am befuddled to understand why I did not gain 15 pounds just because of my copious intake of morning (and afternoon, if the truth be known) pastries. Every region specializes in their own, just like the pastas. Every region has its ‘killer pastry that’ll defy one’s disciplined approach to moderate eating. I will miss my morning pastries. In 68 days of meal, we recalled only have two bad meals. The first was at a bistro (bad choice to eat dinner when surrounded by so many exceptional restaurants, except they open for dinner before 1930!). The meal was pre-made and heated in a microwave, and done poorly at that. The second occasion currently escapes my memory as it was a minor infraction to good taste. Two meals out of about 160, that’s pretty awesome by my accounting! I’ll miss real Italian pizzas, authentic Italian pasta, and sauces. I won’t miss starving until 2000 because the restaurants don’t open until then!
Speaking of the effects of food, here’s a little missive I wrote about the impact of foods other than to my waistline. “OK, so I stink! Yeah, that’s right, I stink, but in a whole new way. After 57 days eating exclusively Italian food, my smells have changed from the noxious Alaskan based foods to the noxious Italian based foods. When I belch, my stomach gasses exude new aromas. When I sweat, my body odors aren’t mine…or at least not the old me. This shouldn’t be a surprise; we are, after all, what we eat. But it’s a surprise nonetheless. I don’t recognize my own dreadful stink. Oh well, I smell like an Italian. At least I haven’t been eating Korean Kimchee for the past two months! It’s the small things that matter in life!”
Another memorable surprise was the ease of public transportation. We all live in realities of our own making from experiences, observations, assumptions, and other people’s stories. I’ve always heard that public transportation in Italy was atrocious – always late, dirty, disorderly, and never reliable. That’s just wrong. Our considered experience is just the opposite (though we did have a few late trains, but only by minutes). Both the trains and buses arrived, for the most part, when the timetables directed. They were clean, reliable and polite conductors enforced the rules with strictness. Now, publicly walking along the side roads, that’s entirely another matter. Within the cities, pedestrian traffic is safe, easy and quite enjoyable with plenty to see and do. Many of the city sidewalks are elegant covered porticos and make walking an absolute pleasure. Out in the ‘burbs,’ not so much. It’s dangerous as hell as there are no sidewalks, the sides of the road are strewn with trash, tree branches and bushes overgrow the almost non-existing shoulders. To top that off, drivers along these roads are all insane. They drive too fast for the conditions of the road, and this is coming from a guy who routinely drives too fast. Walking the streets is just plain scary as hell until you get used to it. Once you get used to it and realize they don’t want to hit you as much as you don’t want them to hit you, you stop worrying and just steam ahead with cars zipping inches away. It’s just the way it is. But public transportation in Italy, it’s delightful!
I’ve mentioned this one previously, but it’s worth capturing again. Italy is stunningly beautiful country, rich in variety and form. But that’s the landscape. It strikes me as odd that a people graced with so much natural beauty wouldn’t jealously protect it. Almost everywhere we went, the streets, allies and roads were splattered with refuse and debris. Most buildings were in dire need of a paint job. Wherever you looked, buildings and structures, even relatively modern ones, are disintegrating from lack of routine maintenance and care. Perhaps a lot of this can be chalked up to the product, or side effect, of poverty. But not really. It takes very little to develop the norm, or culture, or habit of not throwing your shit into the street. It takes only a bit more effort to pick it up and not much more to disapprove of other’s fouling their own nests. Clearly, it’s a culture thing that I don’t understand. You see it all over the world, even in my little town of Big Lake, but the contrast really seems prominent in Italy. Such a shame.
Not many Italians that you meet along the roads and streets speak English. However, it’s always surprising where you do find college-educated Italians, and they mostly speak English and wish to practice it. But, without the ability to freely converse and get your message across, one’s travels in Italy could be less enriched. When people understand what you want or need, as I previously wrote, many will take Herculean efforts to help out. But, they have to know what you’re talking about first. This is where Ursulas special powers fluidly and fluently speaking to everybody and anybody set us up for fullest of experiences of depth and character. It’s funny how as things change, they remain the same. One gentile old man in a bar (coffee shop) apologized to me for not being able to speak English. He recounted that ‘the whole civilized world used to speak Italian (Roman), so Italians never had to learn other languages!’. While I didn’t say it, I empathized with the sentiment as now English is the international language, and resultantly, we Americans are equally lazy, or should I say I, ‘language challenged.’
Prices, quality of goods, and markets. Stay away from the tourist areas, and you’ll be rewarded by some of Europe’s best services and product prices, particularly away from the Northern, prosperous cities. But beware. While most of the quality of the products is reasonably good, lots of it excellent, there’s also a lot of crap out there. I was always amazed at the poor quality of bathroom fixtures. We travelled through a lot of hotels, B&Bs, etc…and showered in a lot of crappy stalls. I have to admit, most of them looked really, really good. Very modern, very stylish, but of such poor quality that it even made American bathroom products look durable by comparison. The Germans and Austrians are the standard-bearers. They make doorknobs that’ll last twenty generations. Their showers are stylish and sturdy. But not the Italians, at least not in most of these quick, get rich ‘rent-a-apartments,’ these bathrooms, though sleek, modern and inviting are all falling apart. It’s a shame. They’ve built structures that have lasted two thousand years and still enjoyed by everyone. Just stay away from their faucets, shower stalls, toilets, and don’t hire them to lay your tiles,,, at least not in your ‘get rich apartment.’ They do, however, make this one bed mattress that I would literally kill for! I really should have torn that bed apart to find the manufacture label and paid whatever it cost to have one shipped to Alaska. Oh well, ‘buyer beware!’
I would be remiss not to mention Italian alcohol and consumption. The beer, it’s OK. Not great, better than most cheap American beers and almost to the level of US craft beers, but very drinkable (did I tell you I’m also a beer snob!). After a lot of Italian beer, I’m still committed to an excellent Bavarian Helles. The wine, well, drinking Italian wine in Italian weather with Italian food, you’d be an idiot to drink anything else. The digestives (Lemoncello & grappa) are pretty good, but the options seemed to be limited when compared to all the Austrian and German aperitifs and digestives I’ve enjoyed. But, I didn’t do a ‘deep dive’ into the liquors and perhaps just didn’t show enough interest to discover more. But the wine, yeah, one cannot say enough good about the wine, particularly the house wines. When in a restaurant, do yourself a favor and just order the vino di casa, you can’t go wrong. As far as consumption goes, everybody drinks all the time. But, oddly enough, I can’t say I ever really saw anybody drunk, other than tourists! Sure, there’s the few wandering winos and drunks cavorting around, and I suspect if you hung out at the train station, you’d see even a few more. But, in a culture where alcohol is such a routine part of life, there’s a surprising dearth of public drunkenness. Somehow they’ve sophisticatedly broken the code about how to enjoy life’s finer elixirs and not abuse it. Very cool!
The ‘Valley,’ in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley, experiences tremendous battering by strong winds. We’re used to racket it creates and the effects on homes, driving and walking. No big deal. I’ve experienced monsoons seasons from Bangkok to Tegucigalpa. I’m a veteran of nasty in-climate weather. But, I have to sheepishly admit that my storm experiences never came close to the monsoon storms those unfortunate Neapolitan routinely undergo. Just outside of Naples, the volcanic mountains block the passage of the heavy clouds to the interior, and they don’t like that! To demonstrate that the old gods still live in the clouds, they wreak havoc upon the landscape with the most surprisingly ferocious and vicious storms I’ve ever experienced. The winds are mini-typhoons in themselves. The gale-force winds throw around any unsecured heavy metal gas grills like they’ve toys, trees grow very thick at their base just to survive the sustained beatings. But it’s the thunderclaps that let you know who’s the Boss! I’ve been under incoming mortar fire that sounded tame by comparison. These tremendous booms one midnight had me thinking that terrorists had broken through the wire, and we’re blowing up the neighborhood restaurants or something. It took a nervous first night to realize that this was normal. It’s no big deal, it is what it is. These Neapolitans are some sturdy fellows.
Italy is a pretty large country when traveling from the northern border to its southern coasts. But it is really a very long peninsula. What surprised me and pleased my variety of loving nature was the discernible difference in geology, landscape, architecture, vegetation, and climate. A description of each of the climates, and sub climates, with their natural fauna, I’m sure fills books and books. The architecture changes in each of these, and based on their ages, the architectural evolution is evident as well. I guess if you hang out long enough, you can appreciate what age and what part of the country your in by looking at a pillar or an arch or the carvings along the lintel. The Greeks, the Etruscans, and other invaders and colonialists all settled in environments familiar to their home climes along the coasts, and they featured their own building styles. The foods, as you would naturally expect are products of whatever flourished readily in their soils, but remnant perhaps of their diets from whence they hailed. The wines, the same. The variety of Italy is bountiful, extravagant in some cases, and always, always compellingly interesting.
Dogs and Cats, oh my! Another surprising discovery was to learn about the dog and cat culture. As I often note, you can learn a lot about a people from how they treat their pets. On this score, the Italians earned a mixed review. We found every variety of dog, well trained, well mannered at the end of many people’s leashes. Like in Germany and Austria, Italians will bring their dogs everywhere, into restaurants, stores and always along the promenades. They rarely bark and always mind their manners and keep to themselves and yet will frolic around when you pay attention to them with a pet and encouraging words. Many of the dogs you find are of the fighting kind, pit bulls, terriers and the works. I’m guessing that a lot of them serve as home guard dogs to protect their owners from crooks. But, as friendly as they seem along the streets, it’s hard to see how any crook would be intimidated by them. Cats, you see wild cats everywhere. They travel in small packs in the cities and all over the countryside. Some of them too are incredibly friendly if you show a little gentleness and interest in them. We had one blued eyed cat that would meet us every morning for morning walks for a belly and chin rub. But, there is a darker side. As I noted, there are cats everywhere and even a few dogs. Often the ones you seem roaming the streets appear ferrule, dirty, unbrushed and unloved. We discovered that often Italians will just abandon their pets when they become a burden or when they take off for the holidays. They just leave them on the streets to fend for themselves, and if they’re still about when they return, they’ll pick up caring for them again. This is a heartbreaking practice. We found many many pets looking for some human to care for them as was their habit before being abandoned. In many places we stayed, Ursula would take our leftovers to the street just to feed them. Indeed, many of the more compassionate Italians do the same. In quite of few of the back streets, you’ll see little bowls of water and plastic plates where the local drop off nibble of food and drink. Again, you can tell a lot about people from how they treat their pets, and in this case, it’s a mixed review.
I’ve written about it often enough in this series of blogs, but this observation is worth noting again. Italians have style. Simple as that! They dress stylishly and exquisitely. Dressing well seems to be a national pastime. Sure, the clothing and shoes are inexpensive, but of good quality. Sure, you see the standard hopeless fashion criminals cavorting around in exercise pasts or those skin-tight leotards (my age must be showing). Still, often enough, they’re tourists as well. If you see someone without a current haircut or disruptive facial hair, it’s probably a foreigner. If the shoes are dirty and old and worn, probably the same. Italians just seem to take pride in looking good, and they do. Italy is one of those places that you just enjoy ‘people watching’ because they’re so attractive.
With this final observation, enough said. We’re still in Austria as of this writing and should be returning back to Big Lake soon. But, this blog series is now ‘put to bed.’ Our Bellissima Italia adventure is now a remnant of our photos galleries, our blogs & social media postings, and our memories. Fortunately for us, as our memories fade away, we’ll always have our blogs and photos to remind us of our sixty-eight-day journey through history, refined and sophisticated gastronome and epicurean delights.