Deep Thoughts

Executive Summary

Italy was really fun!

Travel

Sitting at dinner one night in Sorrento, a member of a group of older Americans at the next table spied my "Rick Steves Italy 1999" book and said, "Oh! We're on a Rick Steves tour!" I was bemused. It is a strange thing to know that a guy who espouses "Europe through the back door" takes 3 000 people a year to Europe through the most typical front doors of all front doors. It makes me want to say, "Folks! It's so much fun to do your own thing in Europe! Don't get on a coach tour, just do it yourself!"

A lot of people are worried that since they don't speak "the language" they will somehow be left stranded, or go hungry or have to sleep on a park bench. Nothing is further from the truth. I don't really speak Italian and I got along fine with pretty much everyone I met. Of course the occasional rude bus ticket seller would annoy me, but so what? I'll never see her again, she'll never see me again and it was just one transaction out of hundreds or thousands I did there.

Without exception everyone I met there could speak enough English to allow me to rent a room, order a meal or sell me a ticket. How much more do you really need to do? The wonderful old guy who runs the Hotel Anna in Perugia had the drill down; to explain that there were two keys to get into the hotel he simply held each one up and pointed out the window at the outside door and then held up the other one and pointed to the door to the entrance area. To tell me the outside door key went into the third keyhole in the door (the other two were left from previous locks, the first probably the original) he simply said, "Chiave (key), no, no, si" while pantomiming inserting the key into each hole.

Even I could understand that. In fact, I'd think as I came to the door, "chiave, no no, si" and then stick the key in the third hole.

The cute girl at the gelato counter told me that my raspberry sherbet was "two hundred lira."

"No, signorina, due mille lira - two thousand, si?"

"Oh.. yes! Two thousand!" <giggle>

Traveling Alone

When you travel on your own you learn a few things. First, you meet more people since you are "outwardly oriented". If you travel with someone you naturally turn to him/her when you want to talk about something or need some help. I spent about half of this trip completely on my own and half with friends. I spent several nights with friends in their homes and several nights with a an ex-pat friend in several very nice cities, including her own home.

This was probably the best of all worlds for me; on my own for a while, at friends' houses and traveling closely and working together as a a "couple" (there's no better way of phrasing it), like when she pulled me out of the sticker bush in Cinque Terra.

On my way to Roma from Napoli I shared the cabin with four Brazilians and a young Italian woman. The Brazilians and I hit it off well and by the time the train ride was over I'd made new friends. They were two families; two sisters and their two grown children. The five of us got the Italian woman involved in our conversation too and she became a friend as well. Our joke was every time they needed or wished for something I had it in my day pack.

"Do you have a map of Rome?"

"Why, yes, I do!"

A little while later, "Can you write down the directions to get to our hotel?"

"Of course!"

"Thank you... do you have some paper?"

"Yes!", as I pullout my journal and tear a few blank pages from it.

"I'm thirsty!"

"Here is some water for you."

They knew I was an engineer and knew a little bit about computers and the internet and guessed that I liked "toys". The son asked me, "What about those small computers that are out now?"

"Oh, you mean Palm Pilots?"

"Yes, I think so..."

"Well, guess what! I have one right here!" and the cabin just burst out with laughter. I pulled it out from my pack and proceeded to show him the whole thing.

I met more people on this trip than I have in all the other trips combined.

My advice is if you don't have someone you really want to travel with, travel alone. It might be a better trip than if you were with someone and it's defintely better than staying home.

Speaking English

On my way to Perugia I met an 18 year old kid who played American football (football bandiera - flag football). He didn't speak much English but we talked pretty well anyway. He was sitting across the aisle with a priest who had been talking with him for a while. I think he was grateful to talk to me (even if it had to be in English) instead of talking to the priest in Italian.

"Scuzi... parla inglese?"

"Yes, a little."

"OK. You have an American football in your bag."

"Yes" as he quickly moves across the aisle to sit with me.

"How long have you played American football?"

"Ah... 2 months. It is a new sport here."

We talked for another 10 minutes or so about American and "proper" football and other things.

When someone says they speak "a little" English it means they speak it but are shy about it. Just speak slowly, use simple words and they will understand you. The Brazilian daughter commented that I was a lot easier to understand than the British people they'd met.

"That's because when I speak English with someone who does not speak it as their native language I speak slowly and use smaller words, just as I wish Italians would speak to me, but do not. British people speak quickly and they mumble."

I could see she didn't quite understand the word "mumble", so I acted it out. "They talk like this" and I put my hand in front of my mouth and made, well, mumbling sounds. That made everyone laugh in agreement.

My German friend actually apologized to me more than once for his english. It's amazing to me that someone who is nearly fluent in another language apologizes to me. I barely speak my own language let alone German, Italian, Slovene or anything else. I finally just replied to one of his apologies, "Are you apologizing for your english again?!?!" and that ended that.

I've found that Europeans who speak english as second language also like to learn new words. I always try to teach them some slang. I met a pretty blue eyed brunette on the train to Napoli. She saw me writing in my Palm Pilot and asked me what it was, so I explained it and then said, "It is pretty cool, I think." She nodded her head and with a slight smile said, "Yes, it is... cool." We then talked about other more important things.

Life in Italy

I don't profess to being an expert at anything, let alone Italian culture and lifestyle, but that doesn't stop me from having an opinion.

Americans have this image of Italy as being lazy days and drinking wine in the piazza with a big bowl of pasta on a red checkered table cloth. It's a romantic image that may have been more true in the past, but not any more. There are certain slices of the population that do that; the younger kids, teens and older retired people have more time to do that sort of thing. People in their prime to pre-retirement can't - they are busy working and driving the Italian economy. None of my Roman friends did much of that; they worked all day and then came home and made dinner, relaxed for a while and then went to sleep. Pretty much the way we do it here.

I think the "la dolce vita" or "la dolce far niente" stuff is perpetuated by authors of books on Italy because they are successful enough to not have to work, so it seems like a great way to live. It is, because you aren't working, fercrissakes!

It's entirely possible that "modern" Italians regret losing that way of life, but on the other hand they are doing much better overall economically now than they ever have. The povery in parts of Italy even thirty years ago was appalling, but signs of economic prosperity abound in the cities and in the countryside.

The fact that they've had 45 governments since the end of WWII doesn't bother them; the jobs still have to be filled, the work has to get done and the girls still have to be watched every night.

Conclusion

This was easily the best vacation I've ever had. The early frustrations only served to teach me about myself and force me to be flexible. I soon got the hang of it and slipped into the rhythm of Italian life.

Italy is as different from any place I've been as it can be. I had a great time being with old friends, making new ones, seeing new old things and learning about myself through the people and things I met and saw.

Go. Go as soon as you can. You won't regret it.



Link to the pictures