International travel can be frustrating and exhausting. Explaining the rewards is unnecessary. Deplaning at the international terminal in Atlanta years ago, I rode the escalator down to the underground shuttle trains. That shuttle station was nearly deserted. An Indian woman I would guess on the past-side of sixty was among the few others waiting with me. She looked lost, somewhat confused, and that next on her list would be anxiety. New then with my Indian IT team, my Hindi was atrocious, but I offered “Namaste!” She beamed, even after finding I was far from fluent and conversation remained a challenge. Her concern was for her baggage. I explained the process, which increased her confusion. We determined we should together negotiate the trip to baggage claim.
We rode from Concourse F, past Concourses E, D, C, B, A and T. Leaving the train, we faced a nose-bleed tall, crowded escalator. Not to worry. Hand-in-hand, we met the challenge. Almost immediately stepping off at the top, we ran into her son and his new bride. Momma hugged them both so ferociously I feared for cracked ribs. Baggage claim was a breeze and I got three delightful smiles and lovely Dhanyavaads when I left them to find my bag.
I knew later some of the anxiety that lovely woman felt. The Boss and I took a three-plus week trip to Italy not long after. Landing at the Milan airport, I discovered all the signs were in, um, Italian. In preparation, I’d studied, but only to be able to survive, not to be able to chat-up strangers.
Aha! Informazione! The woman tending the kiosk was put out that I spoke poorly but managed to convey that trains from the airport were downstairs. This was not a good start. Considering more than three weeks of this remaining, I was concerned. Downstairs, the Boss and I were alone with two female ticket agents more focused on their conversation with each other than with two tourists. We managed two tickets and a finger-point which sent us down more stairs to waiting trains.
Imagine my surprise on finding that all the signs in the train boarding platforms were again in – Italian. The Boss and I obviously showed our confusion in large part because Italian trains are (were) not clearly designated by final destination. Too, Italians have their own names for their cities. Not two hours in the country, after a delightful hour or so of English through Customs, and already I was counting the days before I could head home.
A railway policeman walked up to us. Not Polizia di Stato or Carabinieri, but clearly uniformed and not a train crewman. It was dreadfully hot in the bowels of the station. The man’s stiff-collared uniform tunic was opened at his throat, halfway to his stomach to allow the man to survive. In spite of what that suggests, the only unprofessional thing of his appearance was a cigarette, half-burned with the ash miraculously still attached to the unsmoked stub dangling from his lips.
He spoke no English. By this time, I was convinced I spoke no Italian. This gentleman graciously asked for and examined our biglietti. He not only took us to our train, carried some of our bags, walking us into the coach, but remained with us and made nice (as much as people can make nice sans common language) until I feared he would have to take the ride with us. He got off just in time and with a huge smile waved to the Boss and I as if he were our Zio Luigi and would anxiously await our return. The cigarette ash remained intact.
From here out I will relate what I fondly recall. Note the cities are in no particular order, lest you be concerned we spent more time travelling place-to-place than enjoying Italy. I’m just enjoying this re-visit as it bubbles-up.
We made most of the tourist sights, but the Boss was intent on our visiting real Italy. She had devised a wonderful sampling; a lot of off-the-beaten-path stops. We did museums of course – phenomenal when you consider we were seeing thousands of years of history – vineyards, olive groves, seasides, mountains, the delightful, often crowded trains – long-hauls and locals. The Vatican, Milan markets, Florence’s museums, Venice’s gondolas, the grand city squares, the statuary, street shops, tiny villages, large cities, south, central, and northern. Food and wine indescribable.
Our stay was not without other mishap. The Boss and I both suffered independent single-day stomach distress. The day I was out of commission, she had an unobstructed balcony view of the Tyrrhenian Sea, provided as an upgrade by the hotel manager because he felt responsible I couldn’t effectively speak or read Italian and our trip from the train station to the hotel was long, hot, and on-foot. While the Boss suffered for a day, she gamely still made our scheduled trip to an ancient olive farm and vineyard.
Before our first evening meal, in Lake Como, I recovered some Italian, asking for a table for two. Our host was impressed and pleased. We dickered for a table in the courtyard. Our waiter, short on English took issue with the Boss’s order of fish. To resolve it, he stuck a finger in the air saying “un momento.” He returned with a tray of uncooked fish. His point was that the fish she ordered was “di ieri,” and the one he felt she should order was “fresco oggi.” Done!
When the fish arrived, the Boss was dismayed. It was whole with head intact. She was up to it, but our waiter would not have it. Fetching his little serving table, and shyly pulling his occhiali da lettura from his apron pocket, he de-headed, fileted, and boned the fish. That gentleman’s performance has been told so many times he is due royalties. I am an above average tipper and there is occasionally some confusion on tips pre-calculated on the continent, but I was careful then, and all through Italy to pay close attention and respect the fine people who took care of us. We were never disappointed in waitstaff. I hope our waitstaff were never disappointed in us.
In Rome we learned that a table for four likely would have the Boss and I sharing with two complete strangers. What a delight! We met a young actor from Milan who struck me as a perfect young Robert De Niro. I said so. He was flattered. And tickled. Our conversation (in English on his insistence that I’d tried, and English would be expedient) was revealing, animated, humorous, and rewarding.
In Sorrento, the Boss insisted we dine in an exclusive (and expensive) restaurant on the main piazza, on the terrace. Focused on at least a dozen policemen at the end of the block more intent on their conversation with each other than on traffic backing-up, I suddenly noticed the Boss’s wine glass was empty. As I reached for the bottle, our waiter, wearing a uniform just short of a tuxedo, swooped in and gently snatched it up. I offered, “That is my job!” to which the gentleman replied, “Not this evening, sir!” As impressed as I was, the Boss liked it more.
We had a waitress in Florence who almost turned cartwheels over her tip. She deserved it. She took care of us. She politely hovered and explained. When our dinners arrived, she explained more. Before bringing il conto, she delivered two frozen limoncellos, in omaggio.
On a train headed to Venice, we chatted at length with an older woman who ran an artisans’ glass shop there. She still staunchly supported and missed Il Duce. She also suggested a secluded off-the-path restaurant locals preferred. Only perseverance got us there through the narrow streets and alleys following her directions. The food was impossibly delicious and abundant, the staff lovely. The Boss got us back to our room. I had a little too much vino. Venice, not a place I wanted to see, by the time we left, I loved, crowned with my last meal there, a mussels in wine and butter sauce on linguini the likes of which I may never again in my life enjoy.
Pizza? You bet! In Meta Sorrento we had the best stone-fired pizza, nothing like stateside at all, just oozing olive oil, loaded with sausages, tomatoes, and all the herbs, and spices one could imagine. We had to wait for it to be made. From scratch, short of grinding wheat. It was worth it.
One of Italy’s famous and almost regular transportation strikes locked us into Meta Sorrento for a day. Much younger than now, and anxious to take in as much as we could but not ready to drive a rental, we walked a coastal highway. We saw distant volcanoes, we gazed to isles across the open sea. We saw villages with lovely shops and businesses.
Returning to Meta Sorrento, tired and hungry, we stumbled onto a family restaurant hidden away on the second floor of what we assumed an apartment-type building. Climbing rickety stairs, we entered a dining area late in the afternoon, but a bit early for cena. Across the dining area sat four expensively suited older gentlemen up to their armpits in wine bottles, in the middle of a heated argument. We wonder to this day what we witnessed.
After we placed our orders, the young lady waiting our table, and delivering an occasional fresh bottle to the four gentlemen, brought us a basket of soft rolls laced with some kind of cheese that drove the Boss mad. She thought them so good, she wasn’t happy to share. She needn’t have worried. The attentive young lady kept fresh rolls coming until at last, even the Boss had to admit defeat.
Herculaneum was impossibly modern given it was frozen in time more or less around 79 AD. The Boss and I could not see enough of it. While we slowly took in as much as we could, we watched guided tours hurry from place to place so as not, we guessed, to miss being near as much as possible of what they never genuinely appreciated. Paying attention to what amazed and impressed us, we found ourselves examining a public fresh-water plumbing system exposed by ancient events and efforts to restore and preserve. Looking up, we saw we’d been joined by a uniformed guardian of the ruins. He spoke absolutely no English and spoke Italian so rapidly he was impossible to understand. At first it occurred we’d violated some prohibition. All the ancient private residences we were near were closed to the public. The guardian asked if we’d care to see “inside” one of the residences. But of course! Using one of fifty keys on a huge ring, he unlocked the glass enclosure and led us in. And explained in detail what we saw, little of which I could capture and translate.
Why he did that remains a mystery. But we made certain he understood we appreciated his concession. It was difficult to pry ourselves away from the tilework on the walls more realistic than many paintworks from the middle ages and later we’d seen in museums there. That man did more for Italian Tourism than you could imagine.
Rome put us up again our last few nights. We revisited the restaurant where we’d met the young Robert Di Niro. Rack of lamb was on the menu. The Boss was all for that. Alas, it had been a popular item, we arrived later in the evening, and they were out. While we contemplated what other delight we’d go for, I believe the whole damned restaurant stopped by our table to apologize. At the end, the owner and chef visited and promised if we came the next evening, they’d be certain to have a portion saved back. Regretfully, we informed her, our plane to Paris left the next afternoon, and we could not take her up on her offer.
The Boss and I would like to visit Greece, Ireland, Australia, Britain, Eastern Europe, China, Japan, and India. There’s a lot of the US we’d like to revisit too – Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, Wyoming, and the northeastern seaboard. If I learned we could only make one more trip and we could go anywhere, we would go back to Italy. The Boss agrees.
It shouldn’t be difficult to find that restaurant in Rome, to see if the Boss could have that rack of lamb she missed-out on. It wouldn’t take long to find that one-floor-up family restaurant in Meta-Sorrento with those marvelous cheese rolls. The Boss would trade me and a fair amount of change for a basket of those rolls. She’s tried to make them several times. Somehow it is just never the same. Good, but not the same.
Italy is a treasure of history, culture, food, and wine. Countryside. Cities of delight. Diversity. Given the opportunity, one shouldn’t miss visiting. The finest asset the country has though, as far as I’m concerned, is the wonderful Italian people.