Thursday, November 18, 2010

10 Things I Learned On My Vacation In Italy

1. Comfortable Shoes Are Paramount
I did not have good shoes. I thought I had good shoes, but I was proven wrong in the first cobblestoned village I came to. I bought flats; cute, fashionable flats. I was going to Italy after all, and people look at your shoes in Italy. I didn’t want to be the American in jeans and white sneakers. Boy, was I wrong. EVERYONE in Italy was in sneakers. Many I saw were a brand named Hogan, which are in the
$300.00 range, but they are sneakers nonetheless. Let me just tell you how foolish I was not to listen to the advice of others that have gone before me. FOOL. ISH.

2. Don’t Plan Too Much
I think I over-planned. I had an itinerary. A beautiful itinerary, if I do say so myself, but it wasn’t really needed. My intention with the itinerary was to organize our days so we’d have an idea of where we were going and what there was to see at each location. I pulled my information from several sources; travel websites, books by Fodors, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves. I read magazines and reviews by travel “experts”. I knew where the hole in the wall chocolate shop in Rome was and I knew how to count on my fingers Italian style (they start with the thumb to indicate one, pointer finger to indicate two, and so on). I thought I had it all. My travel mate only came equipped with one Rick Steves book and one Lonely Planet book. Who was she kidding? Me, I guess, since hers were the books I kept asking to read. Lesson? Do not scoff at simplicity.

3. People Don’t Hate Americans
This sentiment has been around for years. Everyone hears it on the news and I guess they just believe it. Even if they’ve never been outside of America. Prior to going to Italy, we’d only been to Canada and Mexico, and although those are also foreign countries, they don't seem to "count" in some people's eyes. The “real” hate for Americans is further away than that; Europe, Asia, the Middle East. In fact, when we went to get our International Driving Permit at the Automobile Association of America (AAA) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, we got some unsolicited travel advice. As the women who processed our permits handed them to us, she said, “Make sure if you get pulled over you don’t give them your real driver’s license. They hate Americans over there and they might not give it back.” This coming from a woman who probably hadn’t been fifty miles from the spot she stood in. Clearly uneducated and obviously biased against a group of people she’d never even been among.

But we were among those people. And everywhere we went, people treated us kindly. I attempted to speak in Italian during every interaction, be it ordering coffee or asking for a book in the bookstore I went to in Arezzo. I told several people I was American. I met many Germans, Australians, Irish and even a young Hungarian teenager who spoke excellent English. Not one of them made me feel hated. In fact, the Hungarian teenager, who was on holiday with his parents, told us that he was going to college to become an electrical engineer and then planned on moving to the United States. When we asked him why he wanted to come to America, he said he wanted to use his engineering degree to get a job working with our military. Not one bit of anti-Americanism. None. Nowhere to be found.

4. Pack Less
I think I took too much to Italy. Too many clothes, too many shoes, too many earrings. Less is more when traveling. Lugging bags, even when you’ve got a big strong man to do it for you, makes you reconsider which outfits are essential. Even though bringing less means having to do laundry, it might just be worth it. For the most part, you never see the same person twice and mixing and matching can work out just fine if you stay in the same color family or wear neutrals. My next trip will be a single bag event. And I will bring exactly two pairs of shoes. Anything I discover I need, I’ll buy. And like one of my travelmates did on the Italy trip…I might just leave clothing behind to make room for souvenirs when I depart.

5. Food Is Better In Italy
It really is. Fresher. Tastier. Simpler. We ate a lot of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and basil, a lot of
mozzarella di bufala, bread that makes you want to learn the art of baking and pasta to die for. We had delicate veal cutlets, steak you can cut with a fork, vegetables that tasted as if they were just plucked from the garden and pastries with dough so flaky, they melted on your tongue. And don’t even get me started on the coffee. I didn’t have a bad cup of coffee anywhere. And because of that, I was not only spoiled, but am now suffering severe withdrawal symptoms.

6. Americans Suck At Embracing Other Languages
As I said in #3, I tried very hard to speak Italian with people I was interacting with. I had my phrase book and my English-Italian dictionary with me everywhere I went. I learned how to say “one moment” so I could look up the word I needed. I made an effort. But most Americans put absolutely NO effort into learning another language. We don’t care, because people here think everyone else should learn English because it’s what we speak. That's just crap. While in Italy, I overheard several people speaking more than one language; German to their travel partner, but Italian to the storekeeper, Spanish to the folks they were dining with, but Italian to the waiter. It was cool. And I was envious. I may just have to seriously study my Italian now, so I’ll be ready for my next visit.

7. The Internet May BE Everywhere, But It Doesn’t Mean You’ll Get Online
Coupled with the fact that I was sick with brochitis for a week upon my return from Italy, the main reason I have been so behind in my blogging is because I had intended to do it daily while I was in Italy. Well, that just didn’t happen. As the owner of the villa said, “Atta night, the eeenternet isn’t always available. Sometimes ita works, sometimes no worka.” OK, greeeeat. So I paid you to get part-time internet? And the only time it’s working is during the day, when I’m out exploring Italy? Might have been a good idea to tell me that when I handed you my 30,00 euro for the week of usage.

8. You Must Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone
If I listened to my brain telling me how out of shape I was or how much my feet hurt, I wouldn’t have climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa or walked the foot bridge to Civita di Bagnoregio. Or saw any other village for that matter, since all of them were perched on hilltops and the ones that weren’t were paved with unforgiving cobblestones. Not only did my feet hurt, but when I got off the plane, my ankles were the size of Sequoias. Why that happened, I can’t really say, as I’ve never been plagued with swollen ankles before, but gee body, thanks for puffing up on me now.

All ailments aside, I still pushed waaaay beyond my comfort zone in order to take in everything I did. I’m not a walker/hiker/outdoorsy type of person. I don’t like climbing and would really rather just sit on my ass and eat a croissant (called a cornetto in Italy). But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see these sites. Who knew when, or if, I would ever be back. So I pushed. And in some cases, was pushed. And in the end, I’m glad.

9. The Old World Is More Modern Than You Think
Traveling through old villages in Italy, I was expecting rustic farmhouses, tiny roads and locals who hung out in the piazzas because everyone knew everyone in the town. And in some cases, that was true. There were rustic farmhouses, tiny roads and many, many piazzas. But there were also laptops, cell phones and McDonalds in places I didn’t think they’d exist. I know that sounds lame, because of course I know they have these things but in my mind, in my vision of Italy, the hillsides in Tuscany are dotted with vineyards and people are walking behind oxen as they till the fields. And although there’s modernity, I will remember only the rustic. That is my Italy.

10. Travel With Like Minded People
In our group of seven, there was a clear disconnect in what the majority of the group wanted to do and what we actually did. There was a clear 4/3 split on almost everything. One group wanted to get up early to pack the most into a day; the other group had trouble getting out the door. One group wanted to see the sights and talk about the history, art and culture; the other group wanted to shop. The communication was poor and it was impossible to come to an agreement on what was going to happen during the day. When plans are made but everyone can't seem to manage their time to adhere to them, day after day, it's not only frustrating, it's a problem.

So if you’re going on vacation with a group of people, be certain you have the same idea of what that vacation should be. If it’s going to be a sightseeing trip, make sure you include everyone's top must-sees. If you are a foodie and want to hit all the recommended restaurants, make sure your travel partners aren’t satisfied just eating at a food cart. And if you don’t want to spend your time in and out of every shop that sells cheap trinkets from third world countries, make sure your counterparts feel the same way. When the flow of the group is the same, it's easier to move about smoothly, even through rocky seas. And who doesn't like smooth sailing?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
1 YEAR AGO: A Beautiful Deep Fried Pocket Of Cornmeal Dough. Or, My Mom.
A Foxy Furry Little Friend
The One That Got Away
Don’t We All?
Miss Singular


Anonymous said...

I am so glad you had a great time in Italy.
I so love your second plan "Don't Plan too Much".
When we took my Mother (Nancy) to Ireland we had no plan at all.
We had a general idea of most of the major sites to see. Every night we would look through the "numerous" travel guides thanks to you. And then decide what to do the next day. Nancy ( Ms Must Have Everything Planned) at first was so stressed but by the end of the trip said it was the best vacation she had ever had.
I must admit our favorite guide was the Lonely Planet one because it was so funny.


Gil said...

We had a few of those problems in our first trip. Things like bringing dress pants, shirt, tie(s), shoes and other crap that just raveled back and forth. Another thing is now if we plan to visit Naples, Florence, Rome or any big city we use public transportation and rent a car only when it is time to visit far off places. I feel like a jerk for not mentioning these things, but I thought that I was overloading you with info.