Sunday, November 22, 2009

Italy—Reflections and Observations

By Claire
As you’ve probably figured out, we REALLY love Italy. Having the full 5 weeks we planned has allowed us to immerse ourselves to see more than we were able to in France.

As we entered Italy for the first time, we started noticing the letter “I” on the license plates. Believe it or not, we began discussing which country it represented. Let’s see, Ireland? Iceland? We started going through every country we could think of and just gave up. I think it was about 20 minutes later that the light bulb went off. ITALY! Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!

Signage is terrible. Or maybe we just can’t find our way. It’s either nonexistent or there are so many your brain can’t take it all in. I think one of the reasons people were falling in Florence is because they were looking up to find street names or the occasional directional sign to major sights. It’s quite frustrating when you know what street you’re looking for based on a map but there is no street name posted. Or, we’ll find a street name but then it isn’t on the map! Bus stops are the hardest. Even if the stop is marked, it’s almost impossible to see it from the bus window that is either steamed up or too low to see the sign posted about 5 feet above the bus. Navigating is definitely challenging. But, it does get us to interact with local people by asking questions. On the other hand, I saw a stop sign that had a paper sign pasted on it warning you that there would be a stop sign in 50 meters. You could even see the upcoming stop sign while reading this warning.

Speaking of falling, I have almost slipped several times and did fall once. Because of the combination of rain and marble, we learned to walk with great care. Maybe this explains why we hear and see so many ambulances racing past.

And then there are the drivers. Navigating across any street is death defying. We have learned that as with all things Italian, you just have to do it. Cross the street? Start walking, hand up and they stop. Wait at a crosswalk for the cars to let you pass? You’ve got to be kidding. It will never happen. We have ridden in buses and on private shuttles from campgrounds and I’ve just stopped looking. We’ll either survive or we won’t. It’s out of my hands. Horns and hand gestures seem to be the way to get around. Maybe the frequent sound of ambulance sirens has something to do with the driving as well as the falling. Here is a typical Italian driver. Why pick one lane when you can take both.

Gas stations are quite interesting. Italy has full serve which means you pay about €.10 a liter more just to let some guy put the fuel in. They do have self serve but those are always blocked off or closed. We paid €1.06 to €1.19 throughout Italy. Add €.10 anytime you have to pay for service. I must say though, we really enjoyed those €1 cappuccinos, standing up at the bar and knocking them back and then hitting the road again.

Queuing up to get on a metro, train, or bus or waiting in line to buy a ticket or get into the WC is just ridiculous. I’ve learned to just muscle my way in, hoping Chuck is not far behind.

We have found the people of Italy to be almost always friendly and helpful. Even if they can’t help, they really try. I bumped into a tiny little old lady in a very compact market and she took my hand and apologized over and over in Italian. I wish I knew what she was saying. She was so sweet.

The gelato is amazing. We have a gelateria in Davis so we are not unfamiliar with it. I never dreamed I’d be eating it almost every day and sometimes several times a day.

At home, I am a daily exerciser and hike as often as I can. I have not established an exercise routine here as I planned. However, many days we are on our feet and moving for 6-8 hours at a stretch. We sleep very well.

I really love this lifestyle. We have a comfortable bed, toilet and running water. What more do we need? Just this morning, we decided to do a load of laundry in a washing machine (€6 to wash and dry), a big deal for us. It seems like a hassle dragging our laundry to another location at the campsite, but because we are living such a simple life in the camper, and everything is concentrated in one place, cleaning up and accomplishing needed chores just seems easier. We have been forced to be super organized so everything to do with laundry is in one place. I’m sure it’s possible to live in complete chaos inside a camper but we would not survive.

I have found that rain is just another kind of weather. We have everything we need to stay completely dry and warm. Sunshine is of course preferred, but rain just doesn’t stop us at all, I’m happy to say. Well, maybe trying to read a map without an overhang to protect it is a little challenging. I’m so grateful for my hat, rain jacket, rain pants and waterproof shoes. I’ve stopped caring about how ridiculous I must look. A young woman got on the metro in Rome wearing a sheer purple blouse stopping just short of her midriff which spilled over her tight white jeans covering her fancy heels. In one hand was a suitcase size purse and in the other was a tiny, folding umbrella. I must admit, she did look good. The makeup and hair were exquisite. Maybe she had just gotten up and hadn’t faced the elements yet. I mean, how long could that look last in the pouring rain?

Italy is so green and beautiful, even in November; we have enjoyed seeing the change of colors as we drive through the country. However, they still burn their rubbish and brush and it can be awful with lots of stinky smoke that ruins the clear sky. Sometimes there are small fires going all over the hillsides.

This is smoke—not fog.

The late legislation of divorce and the recognition of rape as a crime only in the 1990s reveal just how far women have come in Sicily in the last couple of decades, according to Lonely Planet, our guidebook for this area.

I was most moved by the Pietá in the Duomo in Orvieto. The grief expressed in Mary’s face was the most compelling I have ever seen. It was carved from one piece of marble in 1579 by local artist Ippolito Scalza. Is anything ever carved from more than one piece of marble?

Italy is the land of tunnels and bridges. There are dozens upon dozens of tunnels and many, many bridges. There is also an amazing amount of construction of more tunnels and bridges going on. Perhaps it’s EU money? There are also many, many old stone houses just sitting on the hillsides. Beautiful.

House on hillside

It’s fun driving past the big trucks. Many have either their name posted on a big card in the cab for everyone to see or a lit up crucifix. We’ve seen Aldo, and Nello and Nicola 17—don’t know what that means...his girlfriend?—Francesco, and Papa Franzio, to name a few.

The public bathrooms are a trip. In one, there was a man sitting on a chair reading the newspaper, ready to collect your €.50, only about 3 feet from the stall I was in. In another, Chuck and I both went into the same bathroom with side by side stalls. We even shared the one sink.

With Italians, we’ve found it necessary to always remember to ask. We checked into a campground just for the night and after we got settled in, we went to investigate the bathrooms, a regular routine for us. I noticed that there were coin boxes for tokens for the showers. Some campgrounds have turned them off during the off season so we can just run the shower as long as we want without coins. These had no way to turn them on. I walked back to reception and asked about the showers and she gave me some tokens. I’m glad I found out the night before rather than at 6 am when the office is closed. We have learned that information is held tight unless you ask but how do you ask if you don’t know what to ask? Signs are the same. You get one sign and that’s it. If you come to a fork in the road you just make a guess and hope you’re heading in the right direction. This all adds to the adventure.

Sicily turned out to be quite an experience and we are grateful we had 11 days there. It’s different from mainland Italy in ways that are hard to express—Much poorer, without question, but the importance of family was very clear. The people we interacted with were so helpful and friendly. It was interesting to see the formal and hierarchical style with which they do business. Chuck went into Reception one day and the “boss” would only speak to the assistant who then told Chuck what the boss had just said, even though it was in English. At the Fiat Dealership, the “boss” came over occasionally when we had communication problems, once even saying, “what’s the problem” but only speaking through the service manager, Michelangelo.

Goodbye Sicily

We will really miss Italy: The food, the wine, the people, the climate, the beaches, the gelato, the food, the countryside, the bread delivery, the beautiful language, the food. I think you get it.

Chuck with Gino’s nuovo wine, celebrating San Martino—this stuff was great and can only be found in Italy.

Chuck bringing home the morning bread

Chuck—connecting with Gino and Denise
Claire—hiking Mt. Etna with Gino and Denise along. Also, the Cinque Terre hike.

I love the language, that soft bastard Latin, Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, And sounds as if it should be writ on satin With syllables which breathe of the sweet South. ~ George Gordon Noel Byron

Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life. ~ Anna Akhmatova


Diane said...

What a beautiful tribute to Italy. It is so true that it takes time to pick up the nuances of different cultures. Now you are heading into territory that is even more unfamiliar--the Greek alphabet and the Muslim majority in Turkey for example! I'm eager to hear about your next perceptions and insights. Thank you for sharing so many of them along the way!

Toni said...

Chao Italia. (I hope that's correct.) I have enjoyed your writing so much. Thanks for taking the time to put your experience on the "written page." Can't wait for Greece and Turkey!