Before arriving in Italy I had highly romanticized what the trip was going to be like. But really…who doesn’t romanticize Italy? With cities like Rome or Venice or Florence that are over two thousand years old, their decorative crumbling facades all tell stories alluding to their rich and dramatic history. To drive through the rolling blue and green hills of Tuscany or climb the ragged cliffs of Cinque Terre and look out on the pristine Mediterranean…I mean, what isn’t romantic about Italy?
But as I touched on in my last post, I forgot that Italy is also a country that many people call home, with their own ways and customs, many of which made me very uncomfortable at first because their way of life was so different from my own. Not to mention there’s also garbage and jerks and crime and every other facet of cold hard reality like in any other part of the world.
But once you know and accept this, you also learn there truly is a romantic side to Italy as well. Having lived here for about six weeks here are some of the things I have learned (in no particular order of usefulness or loveliness).
When the word dessert come to mind, I have never pictured cheese. That is until I tried fresh pecorino romano drizzled with honey on a hot summer afternoon. Ooh. Yum.
Now, what does come to mind when I picture dessert in Italy is gelato! And no, gelato is not ice cream. American ice cream is made with heavy cream and egg yolks. It’s also churned faster so it has more air and less flavor. And finally, it’s frozen at a lower temperature than gelato and is chocked full of preservatives to make it last longer. Gelato is made with more milk and more natural ingredients such as fruit so it only stays fresh for a couple of days. It is also churned more slowly and served at a warmer temperature to give it a richer taste. And by the way, it is possible to eat bad gelato! Almost all gelato in the touristy areas of Italy are made from a powdered mix. These gelaterie usually have vats of gelato piled high with decorative fruit or Nutella containers to let you know what the flavors are. The bad gelato is also usually very brightly colored. Look for signs that say artigianale which means it was made the old fashioned way with natural ingredients. If you’re still unsure someone gave me the tip to check out the color of the banana flavor, it should be a dull yellow gray. If it looks like neon sunshine kiss that faux gelaterie goodbye.
One of the things I love about Italy are the drinking fountains throughout the cities. If you’ve ever traveled in Europe you know it is very difficult and very rare to find free water! The fontanelle are very safe for tourists to drink from. Not to mention, the fountains are usually very pretty and decorated with animals. And there’s something very magical about filling your water bottle from the gaping maw of a carved lion.
Speaking of beverages, Italy is big on the bar scene…coffee bars that is! Again, it was so helpful having a few locals show us around. The bars do not have menus as everyone here is born with more coffee expertise than a Starbucks barista. Italians drink their coffee espresso, which is made with less water. So if you ask for a coffee, or caffe, that is what you will be served. American style coffee is caffe Americano. I am not a coffee drinker, but my favorite drink to order was a caffe latte: a little coffee served in a tall glass with hot foamy milk. There is nothing more decadent than sipping this comforting drink for breakfast and scooping out the foam at the bottom of the glass with a spoon.
If you ever plan on visiting Italy, I cannot stress how important it is to get outside of the tourist zones. In some ways they are inevitable because that’s usually where all the good site seeing stuff is. But if you stick to the touristy crap you will be treated as a tourist with the pushy hagglers selling wilting roses, cheap toys, and t-shirts, the pickpockets and expensive tour groups shuffling you along like cattle. “But,” you might say, “I am a tourist.” Of course. But you don’t have to act like one! It’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable and walk into a restaurant that does not have pictures of the food. It’s okay to fumble in bad Italian. And remember to try learn some Italian. Even a few simple phrases such as ciao or grazie comes in super handy as not everyone knows English. Italians are very good at communicating with their hands however, so if you at least attempt to speak their language they are almost always very willing to help you. We’ve met some of the most wonderful people this way. And the pushy hagglers? Don’t make eye contact or smile or even acknowledge them. Just keep walking and if they follow, give a very firm, “No!” They’ll get the message.
There are some other things to be aware of when visiting Italy. The drivers are crazy and they will run you over so I wouldn’t recommend jaywalking. Learn how to use the bus and metro systems. You will do lots and lots of walking, but learning the metro will be a feet saver. Italians also do not like to touch your hands. Rather than handing someone your money, put it on the table (usually there’s a small dish by the register to put it on). Also, do not help yourself unless you’ve asked permission. This includes picking out your own produce at a local fruit and vegetable stand or market. It’s highly offensive to touch their produce with your bare hands. I saw this done time and again by oblivious tourists who were then either severely reprimanded or given an icy glare. If someone is on hand, simply point to what you want. If there’s no one around, look for the box of plastic gloves to put on before helping yourself. The toilets here can also be weird. They usually do not have a seat on them as it is considered gross sitting where a stranger sat their bum, so you’re supposed to squat. In one bathroom there wasn’t even a toilet…just a hole with two places to put my feet. On that occasion I decided to hold it.
Above all my favorite part of my Italian adventure has been the sense of home and family in the Avanti Italia program. Working up a good sweat is cleansing for the soul. It can also create a sense of bonding when working alongside others. Even though they were strangers just a couple weeks ago, the Avanti group has been incredibly accepting, not to mention fun. Every day we eat a big homemade Italian lunch together like potato ravioli and Tuscan bread with warm tomatoes, okra, and peppers fresh from the garden. Everyone laughs and jokes, in spite of the fact that we are behind on our work and each new project seems to have more frustrations, missing tools, and unexpected somethings than successes.
I also love the rustic feel of hanging my clothes to dry out on the line right off of my terrace. Outside my bedroom window the tall perfectly manicured trees, terra cotta rooftops and rows of yellow houses look perfectly incandescent in the warm golden glow of the setting sun.
Perhaps I was right. Italy is perfectly romantically idyllic.