Thursday, October 3
I’ve been home now for about a week. I’ll be processing this trip for some time, but a week is enough to put some observations together.
Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe it’s the power of denial. I’ve always heard about jet lag, and expected it to hit me pretty hard. The surprise is that I didn’t experience it: neither on the way there nor on the way back.
We did try to use the time in flight to synchronize our internal clocks with the time zones we were entering. On the way there, we tried to get some sleep during what would be our new night. On the way back, we tried to get a little sleep during what now would become part of the morning.
It’s always an unwise mistake to generalize from a small sample, but we saw a lot of kindness and patience on this trip. The sisters at Casa Santo Spirito were a hoot: working for the Lord is supposed to make you joyful, and it’s working for them. Francesco Costa in Bettola is a fascinating young man, navigating his way in a society in which he doesn’t necessarily blend in. In Genoa, we were helped by strangers on the bus, including one older couple who got off the bus with us and walked us halfway to La Marcelline so that we would be sure to arrive where we belonged.
Both men and women seem to dress carefully. Few men wear shorts; a fair number wear red or green pants (colors of the Italian flag). I would have bought a pair, but I never found any for sale.
We also saw some characteristics that are less attractive. The Roman peddler habit of sticking their merchandise in your face lost its romance quickly. If one more person had tried to sell me roses while we were trying to eat at an outdoor table, the roses might have had to be surgically removed.
None of us spoke Italian, but several of us had some workarounds. Noël had an app on her iPhone; John and “young Bill” (or “Bill the Red,” Lauren’s boyfriend) had taken Italian classes; Judy speaks Spanish and has been to Italy before, and can use “Spitalian” in many circumstances; me, I relied on the Rough Guide Italian Phrasebook.
Generally we found plenty of English speakers, but not always where we needed them. We could find English speakers readily in Rome, which depends more on tourism than the other places. And generally, those who knew some English were happy to practice it on us. We ran into a few people–English-speaking Italians and Italian-speaking Americans–who could provide some tips on how to use certain phrases.
More than anything else, I would advise practicing numbers. We were constantly transacting business, and negotiating a price or figuring change would have been much easier if I had had at least that much of the language committed to memory.
Patience, gestures, and a good sense of humor always seemed to help.
Plenty and scarcity
Italians were careful in using electricity and prodigal with water. Mike, our guide for the Crypts and Bones and Catacombs tour, told us that in Rome, ample potable drinking water is free because it’s regarded as a human right. After years of using faucets with flow restrictors, it was odd to use a faucet that poured water like a hose. But for electricity it was the opposite: a lot of the places we visited used motion detectors for their lights.
We saw a lot of seafood and pork on the menus, and little beef.
I never saw a tissue. The only person I saw who carried a handkerchief was me.
I never saw a whole sheet of blank paper. La Marcelline had a basket of little squares of paper for writing down phone numbers, etc.
I had heard that Italians eat a light breakfast, a heavy, late lunch, and a light, late supper. The times worked out as expected, but not the quantities. Maybe it’s because we were eating at restaurants, but it seemed that the lunch options were similar to the dinner options. So which did we opt for: the heavy lunch or the heavy dinner? The answer is yes.
Generally, the food was excellent, but in this part of Italy not always what we tend to think of as Italian food. Very little if any red sauce. None of what we call “Italian sausage.” Never saw a pepperoni. Pizza had thin crusts, generally very good, although at a few places the center of the pie was a bit underdone. Fish was served closer to life than we are accustomed: shrimp and crayfish cooked whole, for example.
They will let you linger at your meal, but they like to get an order right away, even if it’s just for drinks. Early on we established a habit of ordering vino both rosso and bianca, and acqua both naturale and frizzante, right at the beginning of a meal. I don’t remember seeing a wine list; or if there was one, we ignored it and ordered vino di casa – house wine. That was just fine: the company and the conversation made the meal.
Gelato–wonderful stuff. This is a sort of ice cream, softer and denser than ours, with more concentrated flavor. Gelaterias were everywhere, and they were generally very good. The best was in Genoa, on Piazza San Lorenzo. Not only did they have gelato without sugar for Judy, but they prepared a batch of pistachio when John asked for it.
We had a lot of excellent coffee. I drink my coffee black, so capuccino doesn’t work for me. Espresso was fine, and they can make a café Americano, which as the name implies is what we’re used to. The best café Americano I had was where they give you an espresso in the bottom of a larger cup and then a little pot of hot water so that you can regulate the strength to your taste. That’s how they served it at the café we visited in the Castelletto neighborhood of Genoa; a few other places did their own mixing.
Drivers and pedestrians
I came to the conclusion that interactions among drivers, and between drivers and pedestrians, served as a metaphor for the whole culture. We expect rules: walk or don’t walk, drive or don’t drive. You have the right of way or you don’t. You walk on the sidewalk, bike where you’re supposed to, and drive in your lane. In Italy, most of those decisions seemed to be negotiable.
In their typical city, they have marked places for pedestrians to cross, without traffic lights; the drivers are required to stop if a pedestrian walks into the crosswalk. In heavy traffic, it would be a silly pedestrian who decided to push the point, so pedestrians tended to wait for the slightest break before claiming the crosswalk. Sometimes we thought the cars couldn’t possibly stop on time, but they invariably did.
Most of the narrow switchback roads through the mountains were only wide enough for one car; the one on the inside had to move closer to the hillside to let the outside car pass. Again, a negotiation.
Similarly, cars would head into the same lane, and one would eventually yield. And the motorbikes! They were everywhere, snaking their way among the pedestrians and the cars.
It seemed to me that these interactions were negotiations, and that this was a society in which everything was negotiable. They weren’t dominated by rules with automatic yes-no answers; everything–from prices to walking across the street–was subject to negotiation and interaction.
Doors and windows
Italian doors are fascinating. They’re cut larger than the opening, and then part of the door is milled down so it fits in the opening. This leaves a lip outside the door. No stop molding is needed, the doors are sturdy, and the hardware is substantial and attractive. I suspect that all this comes at a cost, but the doors work well.
Windows were fine, but we never saw a screen. When it was dark outside and the lights were on in the room, we closed the windows to keep from attracting bugs; that helped, and we weren’t as infested as I had anticipated. At La Marcelline, the windows had a type of roller shutter that I had never seen before. They appeared to stand off from the wall a bit so that if they heated up from the sun the hot air could escape from behind them without entering the room. They seemed like a good idea.
I could write a whole article about these. Having installed a few toilets, I recognize the elegance of this simple solution to one of life’s basic issues. The worst bathroom I saw in these fifteen days was at Fiumicino Airport; the second worst was at Philadelphia Airport. But even aside from cleanliness itself, it was interesting to see many other differences.
Italian bathrooms tended to be smaller than ours. If you deducted the shower, our bathroom at Casa Santo Spirito probably had about the same floor space as the lavatory in the Airbus 330 we flew to Frankfurt. Shower stalls were small and required careful movement so as not to be surprised by a fixture in the back, or worse.
I’ve already mentioned the generous use of water: we’re used to 1.8-liter flushes, but their toilets seemed to use gallons.
A lot of the toilets seemed to have their tanks behind a wall. I kept thinking what a mess it would be if the tank sprang a leak, or even sweated much.
For a traveler, one of the concerns you always have is whether you’ll be able to find a loo. We were generally able to find public bathrooms, but they tended to be single-stall affairs, and lines queued up pretty regularly. Some of the bathrooms were unisex, and some had separate men’s and women’s toilets with a shared sink in between. Even at a service plaza on the Autostrada–single, separate men’s and women’s restrooms.
By the way, except for one place that prided itself on its “WC,” the universal term was toilette or sometimes toilet–not bagno, which corresponds to “bathroom.” No euphemisms for them.
Tech and phones
I had better luck with Vodafone than with Wind. I was able to get a Vodafone micro-SIM for my phone, with plenty of data and minutes, for about $40. My Motorola Droid Razr Maxx has the kind of radio that works in Europe, and it worked fine with the SIM.
I was never able to get the data-sharing (mobile hotspot) feature working. Part of the reason may have to do with the language barrier. One Vodafone store had my SIM and another had someone who spoke English, but neither had both. I’m not sure that the person who sold me the SIM understood what I wanted it to do. But whatever caused the problem, the message I got on my phone when I tried to use my mobile hotspot came from Verizon, not from Vodafone. The Vodafone customer-service emails I got on my phone were in Italian, and I didn’t have the time or patience to try to decipher them. Lew had better luck finding the right store and the right clerk.
In general, when we found WiFi, it was weaker or slower than we expected. If I could do something on my phone, it was generally faster than any WiFi I could find.
I did try using an internet café, and was startled to realize that their version of a QWERTY keyboard is just different enough from ours to make things difficult. At first, I could have typed faster on my phone.
I went with the intention of posting my pictures promptly, and that proved impossible.
I decided to depend on my tablet and left my laptop at home, and that worked fine.
Flights and airports
We’ll probably never fly US Airways again. While they weren’t actually rude, they were utterly unhelpful with the flight delays and rerouting that they helped cause.
I’ll avoid the Philadelphia airport in the future. It’s big enough to require a more efficient system for conveying passengers from one concourse to another, and it should have one. Their customs intake used only half of the available windows, and lines were about twelve deep. It’s disconcerting that their gate attendants don’t have a PA system and have to shout out the boarding instructions.