12/26/2007

We'll Always Have Italy




Rick Blaine to Ilsa Lund: "We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night."

My husband and I may not always have Paris, but we will always have Italy.

We have both been blessed with a fair amount of world travels in our lives : Spousal unit was an army brat, born in Germany, lived there several years in his youth, travelled all over Europe while he lived there. Happy stories of driving around England in a VW bug, skiing in Berchtesgarten. Lived all over the US of A, too, and several more trips with his family back to Europe as an adult. But he had never been to Italy.

I grew up in Texas, ( aka , middle of nowhere, between the coasts , land of the land-locked ) and was given a "grand tour" of Europe as a high school graduation gift. Visited London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Greek island cruise, Turkey, and a grand finale visit to Cairo and Luxor Egypt. ( I like to remind folks that the very same time I was in Egypt , the museum exhibit of "King Tut's Tomb" artifacts was touring America. I didn't get to see it, b/c I was away the entire summer it was here......and I didn't get to see it in Cairo, b/c it was on tour in America. What are the odds ? How many chances does one get to go to Egypt in one's life ?) In college, I decided I needed to visit these same places some more , cleverly chose ancient history as a major to facilitate this goal, and went on archaeological excavations in the summer , one month each, in Beersheva , Israel and Metaponto, Italy. With a few side trips through Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Israel, and Greece along the way. During grad school, I took off one summer with soon to be husband #1 and toured Scotland, England, Berlin, Bavaria, Austria, Italy and more Greece.

Then I went through a great "travel drought " of about 20 years - busy getting married, divorced, remarried, having babies, raising kids, moving about, buying a home . Important parts of my life, and all things I wouldn't change for anything. But they are each events that are extraneous income suckers, not conducive to world travels. And I forgot, mostly, about many of the places I had been and the things that I had seen, except in the most general way.

I am now, at middle age, entering a new era of what I am optimistically calling the "second great travel phase" of my life. Elizabeth Gilbert writes, in her novel Eat, Pray ,Love (One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy ,India , and Indonesia ) :
".....to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby - I just don't care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it's mine. "

I too, feel that travel changes you in a way that is profound. People who have seen other parts of this planet other than the square patch they were born on are different from those who haven't. (Once got into a big argument with someone on this very topic, who was shocked that I felt , at the tender age of 22, that travel could impact one's life as significantly as having a child. Over 25 years later, I still do, so if you are reading this, I HAVEN'T CHANGED MY MIND ! )

And I am still always looking for that next opportunity to go somewhere new.

One day I was driving to work and listening to WRR, just as I do everyday. A commercial for Lufthansa Airlines came on, and I half tuned it out, as I always do. At the end of the commercial, the announcer came on and said something about "registering for 2 free tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies" on the WRR website. That part, I heard. So when I got to work that day, I logged on , found the website, entered the contest. Of course, I have never won anything in my life. My husband however, always claims to have the "luck of the Irish". So I registered him, too, and my mother, and my best friend.....anyone I could think of. I figured, if they won, I'd get to go, too.Then I promptly forgot all about it.

Several weeks later, spousal unit calls me on the phone and says,"Did you enter me in some contest on WRR ? Well, I won it ." Just like that. Luck O' the Irish. No big deal, happens to him all the time- he takes it for granted. So after much discussion, (abbreviated here ) we decided to go to Italy. At first , we had a bit of a problem with WRR giving us ticket vouchers we needed to use right away, and not being able to get any flights b/c the soccer world cup was being held in Germany that summer and all the flights were full. But we got it all straightened out , and made our flight reservations for a later date.

My husband and I decided to spend 3 weeks touring Italy in July 2007. We flew from DFW to Frankfort, then on to Milan. Stayed several days in the very charming apartment of our friends , Kevin and Daniela, in the old city center area of town. At this stage of my life, visiting friends is more pleasant and charming than the impersonality of staying in a hotel and slogging day after day with a long list of tourist must - see sights. Seeing a city or country through the eyes of someone who lives there changes your entire perception of that place. You experience how people really live there.....and you get better restaurants, for one thing. As a traditional tourist, you plop down into any old spot, next to the museum or the church you just saw, tired and hungry and just eat whatever you can figure out off the menu. With natives as guides, you get really good food ( and wine ! ) in those off the beaten track places you'd never find on your own. You find stores , esp grocery stores ( have I told you how I love foreign grocery stores ?) and little neighborhood parks and smaller sites not listed in tour guides that are fascinating, too. We saw the Duomo, La Scala, and the original Galleria .

Kevin and Daniela were wonderful hosts, but we didn't want to wear out our welcome. After a few days, we set off on our own , first for Venice. Saw beautiful views of Lake Garda on the way -every trip I've ever been on fueled my desire to return and do other things, not on the schedule of the current trip . I had been to Venice during one of my previous trips, but oddly, had no memories of it at all. (Some friends would argue, it's b/c I went there with husband #1, and 'forgot' about it on purpose. I really don't think so, but who knows ? ) Even looking at old photos of myself, standing in various spots around town, I had absolutely no memory whatsoever of what that place was , what I was doing there. Many Americans can't tolerate Venice - find it too old, crumbling, filthy- whatever. I find Venice charming. It was so cute, it was almost unreal - I kept thinking I was at Disneyland. (Oh, how American vacation spots have ruined us.) Thousands of Germans apparently thought so, too - they all came for their family vacations, and brought their kids with them. So, along with all the Germans and thousands of screaming, gelato licking kinder, we saw all the main churches, art museums - incl the Peggy Guggenheim, my fave - the great public square, the clock tower, la Fenice ,Doges Palace. Took a day trip to the island of Murano to watch glass blowing.

After several days , we then departed for Florence. Wisely, we had gotten reservations for all the museums in advance, so we waltzed right by the mile long lines of American tourists waiting to get in. About this time, the heat wave kicked in, and from here on out, it was 100 degrees or more each day of our trip. The heat, combined with the crowds, started to make it a bit stressful as we slogged about, checking things off our " must see, must do " list - the Uffizi, the Duomo, the Academia, etc. Yet Florence is still a wonderful place, and no one visit can ever do it complete justice. To combat our stress, we settled into a rhythm for the trip : we vowed to eat gelato at least once a day, preferably after ever meal, we stopped feeling guilty for drinking wine with every meal, spousal unit finally came to understand that my "need" for caffeine every morning was not just some wild exaggeration on my part, and so I developed the great cappuccino-wine-gelato , cappuccino-wine-gelato rhythm of my days. One bad lunch of bar sandwiches steered us into finding the local grocery store, everywhere we went, and we began building elaborate picnic lunches of meat, cheese, bread, fruit, wine, and dessert that were fantastically gourmet and far better than we had been getting in restaurants, anyways. The peak of this was a wonderful Sunday afternoon picnic in Fiesole, a hillside town outside of Florence with breath-taking views of the entire Tuscan valley.

After Florence, we then took a turn sharply south , and headed for Naples. Figured it couldn't get much hotter.... I had always avoided Naples, on previous trips while travelling about on my own, hearing "travellers myths" of how dangerous it was, yadayadayada. We found that Naples was just as safe as any other place we visited, (we try to travel carefully, anyways, dressing conservatively, with neck wallets and zippered bags over our shoulders, trying not to stand out too much as obnoxious American tourists, don't flash alot of cash, or jewelry), and far more pleasant than the crowded, over touristed areas north of Italy . Our money ( the dollar was actually shrinking in value, during this trip, day by day) went further. The mobs of tourists were practically non existent ( only present at Pompeii). Things cost less, so we let ourselves stay at a nicer hotel and eat at better restaurants. By now we were managing with our tourist guide book broken Italian , could read signs and navigate the public transportation systems. We tried speaking a few phrases and locals were patient and kind, understood our hand gestures if nothing else , and somehow we managed to communicate. The hi-lite of this city was eating real napolitan pizza at one of the most famous , original pizza joints in town. Let me tell you - it puts anything you've ever had in America to shame.

Next stop was Sicily, specifically Palermo.(My mother still nagging me to this day b/c I didn't make it to Syracuse - next trip, ma. Next trip. You can't do it all. ) It was nothing at all like what I had expected. Not sure what I expected - montage of mental images from old "Godfather " movies ? Instead, it was more like Rhodes, or southern Italian towns in general. One of the weirdest most fascinating things about getting there, is , if you take the train, they load the train cars into giant boats to cross the water from Italy to the island. I didn't believe it myself, until I rode in one . Surreal. Like most islands in the Med, the water and the sky are so blue it's unbelievable. Palermo was completely charming , full of medieval castles, beautiful churches, a charming old town district with restaurants, shops,etc. We stayed in a rental apt for several days , loacated in an old building , down a dubious alley in the middle of what appread to be the outdoor sidewalk cafes of grilled seafood street. It had gorgeous Chrismas style lights twinkling all night long. The apt was two stories, 2 baths, kitchen, living room, etc. Everything was recently updated, modern and posh - except the a/c, which like most of the ones we experienced in Italy, was only the faintest suggestion of cooler air, really more imaginary than real. We cooked for ourselves some - still enjoying the whole ouormet grocery store aspect , you get so spoiled to really fresh pasta , produce , and seafood - and ate out as well. Tried Moroccan as well as local seafood dishes and wine. (In fact, never had a bad glass/bottle of wine during the entire trip.) Took day trip to see the Greek temples at Agrigento - it was 120 degrees that day, so hot we and the rest of the tourists could barely stagger about and see them. They are awe inspiring, there are half a dozen of these maginificent arching Doric temples , all lined up along a high ridge, facing the sea - I think it was a "one stop fits all religions" in the ancient world. Tv/radio voice : On a journey to conquer some Phoneicians ? Stop as you sail by Sicily and say a prayer to the god of your choice at Agrigento ! Definitely one of those things I recommend to anyone as worth the effort to get there and see . Photos just don't do it justice.( And it is wheelchair accessible.)

After Sicily, we started to complete our loop, and headed back north towards Rome. By this point in the trip we were almost 3 weeks into our journey, and still married ! Tired ( note to self : 2 weeks is probably the optimum time length for a trip , as one starts to drag after that ) , hot , cranky.....husband dear wanted to bag Rome, to hell with all those ruins and churches and paintings and museums. You've seen one, you've seen them all. But I, gentle reader, forced him to hang in there, knowing how important the "Catholic pilgrimage" is to children of Rome. We managed to see it all ......the cappuccino-wine-gelato trifecta helped greatly. And we were somewhat rested from all the crowds and tourists by our jaunt to places south, ready to face the masses again. As we were nearing the end of our trip, the shopping on my part began in earnest, and poor dear husband had to suffer being dragged around to thousands of shops - although he likes to complain more about shopping in the glass boutiques of Murano. Did manage to eat tartufo ( ice cream dish to die for, seriously) at that place in Piazza Navona that I am so fond of, and throw some coins in the fountain to ensure we make it back.The Colosseum, the fountains, the Circus Maximus, St Peters were all duly impressive, and we sort of galloped through the Vatican, only stopping to look at our "top 5" and gently pushing timid Japanese tourists aside as we went. We "cheated" (did the crass American touristy thing ) just once - ate at the Hard Rock cafe, savored coca-cola and big thick juicy cheeseburgers, which after 3 weeks abstaining from same, tasted mighty fine. The over powering American style air conditioning in the place was great, too. We lingered and savored that a bit. Saw the latest "Harry Potter "film in English, with Italian subtitles, in an Italian movie theater which promised air conditioning , but lied.

Soon, too soon, it was all over . We headed back to Milan , flew back to Frankfurt and DFW and home. Just shy of 3 weeks, we saw 28 of the "top 30 " things to see and do in Italy. Not sure what the missing 2 places were, but probably wasn't interested, anyways. Hubby 's fave church was St Peter's , natch, mine was Monreal. We both agreed the best gelato was in Florence, the best pizza in Naples. We brought back as much wine and lemoncello as we could, and wish we had more. Italy is like that - glorious, exciting, full of sensual pleasures - food, sun, art. You can never take it all in in one trip. You must simply plan to go back for another.




Thank you , WRR and Lufthansa Airlines. This just goes to show, that once in a very blue moon, you really can win something for nothing.

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