I love places that have an incredible history. I love the Italian way of life. I love the food. I love the people. I love the attitudes of Italians. – Elton John
A good friend of mine has traveled to Italy with me a lot. A few years ago, when she announced to her co-workers that she was going to be on holiday soon, they asked where she was going. She replied excitedly, “Italy.” The group was silent for a few uncomfortable moments, and then one of them asked, “But didn’t you go there last year?” Yes, she had. Last year, and the year before that, and probably the year before that. They were a little dumbfounded.
Like me, my friend gets it. She understands that a 6-night three-city whirlwind tour of Italy is not really Italy. You have to leave the big cities eventually and drive off into the mountains, up to the hill towns, down onto the plains — and unpack and stay there for a while.
You have to find ways to interact with the locals: eat where they eat; be curious about them and engage in a little conversation, no matter how bad your Italian is; buy them a drink or a caffe; shop at the mercato with them. You have to try to not be so obviously American: easy on the short shorts, tank tops, flip flops and OUTDOOR VOICES ALL THE TIME.
You have to not be upset when you can’t get a PB&J for lunch or a Denny’s-style pig-out for breakfast. You have to patient and not complain that you can’t eat dinner at 6:00 in most restaurants. You can’t get upset when the restaurant won’t write individual checks (the phrase doesn’t even exist in Italian) or when too many people want to share plates and rush out in 30 minutes. Dining is an art form, to be savored and enjoyed slowly.
You shouldn’t be surprised to still find the odd “squatter” bathroom in public places . . . and you should learn to always carry tissues for just such an event. You mustn’t be afraid of the drivers in Italy: sure they go fast, but are generally pretty good drivers. On the other hand, if you drive, you shouldn’t be surprised to receive a ticket for some kind of allegedly egregious automotive violation six months after you’ve come home. Consider it a luxury tax on your trip.
I advise travelers to learn a few words before they go: ciao, grazie, prego, arrivederci, piacere . . . dove? Che? Quando? Quanto costa? Dove il bagno? A little attempt is much appreciated, especially once you’re out of the major cities. Heck, you might even enjoy it. I love the sound of Italian and hope to be stranded there long enough one year to really know what I’m doing. But I consider it something of a victory that I have convinced my friend that my favorite Italian word is also hers: cucchiaio (spoon). Don’t ask me why, the word just cracks me up.
So where is all this going? I don’t know. To bella italia, I suppose. Back again, with an open heart and a suitcase full of piccoli regali for old friends and new. And a just-in-time sense of needing an infusion of good Abruzzese food and wine, with a few days in Rome first to get acclimated (and to appreciate the slower pace of Sulmona when we arrive).
It’s always a stunner to drive from Fiumicino to Sulmona — at one point (even if you haven’t been paying attention), you cross into Abruzzo and know that you’ve arrived. You’re somewhere different. Greener, more mountainous, rustic, and that the eyes of 1,000 nonne are probably on you already. And sheep. Lots of sheep.
This New York City girl never thought she’d be this close to where her grandparents hailed from (Siena and Salerno), living a schizophrenic life between two cultures. But here I am. And here I go again.
I would be delighted to escort you some time to meet my friends and see how they make their way in this gorgeous part of the world where food has always been slow and the land is entirely important and la famiglia rules. Think about it.