After spending so much time in so many trips to Italy, I used to give a talk that encouraged others to go. I love that country and I want others to love the things I appreciate. Although the following works better as a lecture with slides that I showed along the way, you’ll get insight into how marvelous going to Italy can be!
The Talk: Italy My Way
Italy, My Way!
Buon giorno! (or sera or notte, whatever the case may be)… I assume that some of you have been to Italy, and some of you have not. Either way, I hope this discussion gives you an insight in travel, not just to Italy, but to other lands as well. I want to show you how to travel “close to the ground” so you can be a traveler and not a tourist.
I have a love for Italy more than any other country — other than America of course! I’ve studied Italian quite a bit, taken classes and self-study, as well as having read numerous books about the country as I can. For years, Jayne and I went annually. We might travel to other countries also but we’d always make Italy the one place we went for pure bliss.
I’ve got so much to say about Italy!
Lots of people have been to Europe and loved Italy, lots of people have been to Europe and hated Italy. I understand both views. Parts of Italy is dirty, have smog, noise pollution, and graffiti in the larger towns. Obviously, those things do not make Italy a top-choice attraction for everyone upon first glance. I’ll tell you what does make Italy a top attraction: Its people: food, history, and art.
Let me tell you my goal here: I want to give a brief rundown of how we travel overseas in general a look at Italy itself as a travel country, and a look at travel philosophy that I have been learning to adopt.
Of course, most of us learn that Italy is the European country “shaped like a boot.” We conjure up images of mounds of spaghetti and sauce, fat people, and lots of Roman ruins. Well, of that list, only the Roman ruins are accurate.
Italians rarely eat mounds of pasta, despite out thoughts to the contrary. On one trip, we spent 1 & 1/2 months there and I made it a point to look for overweight people in an effort to get some anecdotal evidence that this American myth is true or false. In that entire time, I may have seen only 25 overweight people, but 24 of them were American tourists me being one of them! And by the time I finished with the Italian cuisine, I was even heavier. Most people in Italy are very thin but healthy. They generally eat a small side dish of pasta with each meal, but most of their meals consist of very fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, and chicken.
I guess the mafia movies and the Ragu commercials have done a lot to make us believe in the mounds of spaghetti myth, but Italians eat very healthy. As you travel south of Rome, the mid-point of the country both in culture and in location, you see more ”traditional” larger servings of pasta and sauce, but even southern Italians think fresh fish, chicken, and vegetables are the best thing to eat.
Italians do, however, specialize in both wine and cheese. Their wine is like our iced tea and Coca-Cola. A good bottle of wine is about $1.50 and it is better than you can get almost anywhere in the world, including France. (Actually, I don’t personally drink, but if you do, you should make Italian wine a part of every meal.)
Their cheese is wonderful. Let me tell you — If you haven’t had freshly grated parmesan cheese straight from Parma Italy, you have never had parmesan cheese! There is no equal. We brought back a bar last summer that I cherished for days, but not too many days as I ate it all up! I put it on everything! Soup, salad, sandwiches crackers fruit I put it on everything! If you go to Italy, buy the largest hunk of Parmesan cheese bar you can afford to carry, throw away some clothing to make room in your suitcase, and bring it home. You will guard it with your life as you try to keep your other family members from getting some!
The Italians love their meals. Their lunches are at least two hours, and their dinners average three. They eat the whole time, and talk the whole time. I guess the only reason they don’t gain more weight is due to the quality and fresh types of food that they eat.
#1 reason to go to Italy is to eat.
Even more importantly, to me at least, is Italy’s famous cappuccino. Has anyone here ever tried cappuccino? Did you try it in Italy? No, well, I’m not trying to be snooty here, but you have NOT tried cappuccino if you haven’t had it in Italy! There is ONLY one place in the world where you can get real cappuccino, and that is in the country that invented it… Italy! Italians drink their cappuccino two or three times a day. They’ve got more coffee bars than we have Quick Trips.
I was not a coffee drinker. The only reason I tried that cappuccino stuff was because I couldn’t figure out why all the travel books made such a fuss about it. Everywhere we looked, people drank cappuccino. I tried it one day — and mamma mia! Was I hooked! Cappuccino is a strong espresso coffee that is weakened with milk, and on top, milk is frothed, or steamed into a foam. The foamy top makes the “little hood” which is what cappuccino means in Italian, describing the steamed layer of milk on top.
You can get nearly-perfect CLOSE cappuccino DoubleShot Coffee in Tulsa at 18th and Boston (they ship fresh if you’re not in the Tulsa area). They are the only ones who come close to the Italian flavor, and that is due to the fact that they make it from Italian-made machines. However, once you go to Italy, you’ll want to buy your own cappuccino machine made in Italy. La Marzocco is the best. I’m telling you… Once you get back from Italy, you’ll have to have cappuccino!
Another thing: Gelato, gelato, gelato! The best ice cream in the world is Italy’s and they call gelato! It’s not that “Italian Ice” stuff you get here. It’s the richest, creamiest, and best ice cream. It makes Blue Bell taste like water! (And I like Blue Bell.)
This colorful photograph to the right is just a tiny sample of the many gelato offerings waiting for you on virtually every corner of every Italian city!
My prescription for Italy: Gelato and Cappuccino! Twice a day!
I’ll speak more about this throughout this talk, but be very open to people and businesses in Italy. If a restaurant says they open at 7:00, the owner may get there by 7:00 or 10 minutes after, to open the doors, but of course, then they wouldn’t open for actual business until 7:30, 8:00 or 8:30. But that’s OK. Expect it! Look at these types of things as an opportunity to people-watch, practice a little of the language, drink an extra cappuccino, and look at the country.
The train system in Europe is wonderful, and most of you use it at one time or another when you go there. However, as with all things in Italy “on-time trains” mean maybe on-time. Plan to be flexible. Being on-time is boring! If you are on that kind of time schedule, you are not living the Italian experience. Go to Germany where the trains are to the second! But when you’re in Italy, the great beauty of the people is their laid-back attitude.
They certainly have concerns. As a matter of fact, they gather by the hundreds daily on the many plazas of Italy discussing all the important philosophies, politics, and people of the world. They take things very seriously, but they don’t sweat the details as we do.
Oh, the art! The last thing in the world I am is an “artsy person.” I don’t understand art and before I went to Italy, I didn’t think there was such thing as art that someone as left-brained as myself could understand. But the art and architecture is beyond belief.
Italy is the art capital of the world. There might be some French who disagree with that statement, but I’m telling you that if you’ve been to Florence and Rome and seen the Michelangelo’s and the savings, you will know that what I say is true — Italy is the art capital of the world.
I’ll tell you right now how to become an art and sculpture lover in 20 seconds if you’re in Italy. Make Florence an early part of your trip. Go to the Academia and buy a museum ticket. Walk in, and look at the sculpture and art along the way. If you’re like me, you’ll ask what’s all the whoop? Keep walking. You will eventually turn a corner and see a long stretch between you and Michelangelo’s David statue. I promise that the closer you get to that statue, the slower you will walk, the larger your eyes will become, and the deeper you will love sculpture and all the other arts for the rest of your life. That sculpture is beyond belief. If it were possible for a human being to create something perfect, the David would be it.
Your life will be changed by the vastness the personal look of the David statue. Your life will be changed when you try to convince yourself that a human molded this incredible being out of a piece of marble. From that point on, you will appreciate the magic behind the rest of the art and architecture you’ll see.
I also promise you that by the time you get to Rome, you will have seen so much art and so many beautiful churches, and so much sculpture, that even the David will slightly begin to wear off. That’s okay. It’s almost as if the Vatican is planned to be exactly far enough from the David to let this happen, and then wham! you walk into the Sistine Chapel, look up, that that powerful experience will turn your left-brain to mush and your art appreciation on again. To think that a human hand painted the Sistine Chapel is to believe in miracles.
We are very lucky to be Americans. One of the reason we love to travel out of the States, is because it shows you the good things in our own country. But if you’ve never traveled out of the States before, you will surely wonder about the language barrier, unless you know the foreign language.
English is spoken by many Europeans. The European countries are as close as our state borders, and with each having a different language, so for practical purposes there has to be a common language between many of the people. Many times, that language is English. You will find many people in most shops and hotels that speak English.
But I’ll tell you what they’ll do. If you ask, say a waiter, if he speaks English you will almost always get a no. After you stutter trying to spit out what you want in very broken Italian, and after you’ve humbled yourself about 15 times trying to order the fish, he will almost always say: “Oh, just speak English’!”
Now, why do they do that? Are they just laughing at us? I say that if you have that attitude that they’re snobbish, you should never go overseas. Think about this: What if a Mexican walked into your store and said ”Habla Espanol?” and was put out that you didn’t speak Spanish? What would you think if an Italian tourist got uppity because NO ONE in this room parla Italiano!
When we go to their country we should expect to be a little to be a little flexible! Even though English is understood so well, don’t be a tourist expecting America because you are not in America! You are in another country. Your fun is strengthened when you try to communicate to them in their native tongue, when you mangle your phrase book. Relax! Enjoy the show! Take it easy! Take it the Italian laid-back way!
By the way — almost every radio and boom box we heard played American music. Most TV’s had at least one English-speaking station.
Take at least a semester of foreign language before you go to a foreign country. It helps tremendously! Your local community college should have many languages available.
As with most European countries, most places in Italy close for a few hours in the afternoon. You need to know that almost every museum in closed one day of the week, and it is almost always on a different day. If you miss an attraction, that’s okay! There are plenty more and trust me, you’ll be back in a few years. Be flexible.
If you are in Italy or any other place for a while, there is a chance you’ll get sick. That’s okay. You’ll take it easy for a day or two. Expect it. Being sick is another experience you’ll add to your collection of stories.
Let me tell you about what happened to my wife. Jayne got ill and needed some medicine when we were in Rome. Since everyone in America is asleep during the waking hours of Rome, we knew that we somehow had to get a prescription called-in from our doctor in Tulsa. We didn’t know how to do this, so we went to a pharmacy in Rome. The only one open (it was about 11:00 pm) was one in the train station.
So there we were, as luck would have it no one there spoke English. We kept trying to tell them we needed a prescriptione and we were furiously using our Italian dictionary, and we kept trying to ask them how to get a prescription called in from the USA. They, however, didn’t seem to want to listen. They kept asking what the symptoms were. We said stomach flu, or whatever it was. But they kept asking and ignoring our questions about the telephone prescription. Jayne felt bad, I was getting mad (forgetting all about my new “always be flexible” philosophy…), but eventually, they brought out some drugs and said that was what we needed.
Now, here was a pharmacist in a train station selling us prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription. Since it didn’t look like we had any other choice at the time we took the drugs and left, hoping to get ahold of the doctor In Tulsa as soon as his office opened.
Jayne was feeling so bad, she went ahead and took the first dose. When we finally got the doctor, he asked us what the pharmacist sold us, and he said, “Oh, that’s probably what I would have prescribed. You’ll be fine.”
It turns out, that most pharmacies in Italy make the initial diagnosis and sell whatever they think the patient needs! We didn’t know that, but we do now.
I mentioned trains earlier. Live as the local people live. Get on a bus or subway. The subways are safe and clean and the buses go everywhere. However, let me tell you something else about the Italian buses. When it is time for the driver’s break, he will pull off to the side of the road, shut off the bus, and literally take his break! The people just and it gives you a sit there and chance to look wait for his at the city return. Expect it and watch the people.
Rome is busy and a little dirty in places (probably not as much as Los Angeles, Chicago, or lots of other big towns here) but you need to see Rome for the Sistine Chapel and the Roman Forum (the ruins of the ancient Roman Empire.) However, I want to tell you about Roman traffic. “It’s BAD! Don’t drive in Italy’s big cites. They don’t respect signals, there are no speed limits posted in towns (really); and the right-of-way belongs to the fastest vehicle!
Venice: If It Ain’t Baroque, Don’t Fix It
But… let me tell you something else about this city I hated when we first went…
I cannot wait to get back to Venice each time we travel to Italy now!!! I can’t explain it, but I want to go back there more than any other town in Italy. It’s as though Venice’s power hit me once we were back after several months. Its water canals, lack of motorized vehicles, people, gelato and cappuccino make me crave its winding streets. It’s now probably our favorite Italian city, although having a “favorite” is difficult. We have never been to Italy without spending time in our beloved Venice.
Sadly, many public restrooms are unisex, so expect it.
A Brief Background on Myself…
Let me please back up a minute and tell you about some ideas I had on travel before going to Europe. I’ve always loved to travel, but until we went to Italy, I could not understand the attraction to Europe. I am a staunch American who never was going to step one foot off “my great country’s soil” to go to countries that hated Americans, didn’t have Hilton Inns, and didn’t have the courtesy to speak English!
Well, I write books as some of you may know, and I have always had an idea in mind for a novel set in Italy. The fact that it was in Italy has much less to do with the book, than the fact that its basis and historical characters had their start in Italy. I had an interest to learn more about Italy, but never did anything about it, never got my novel started, and always had it on the back burner of my mind.
I certainly never was going to Italy for the simple reason that, book or no book I wasn’t going to leave America buster! Then I glanced through a different kind of travel book called Europe Through the Back Door. I had not planned on liking that book or anything to do with European travel. My patience with ”foreigners” always wore thin, to say the least.
That book taught me more than any travel film ever could have. Europe Through the Back Door shows you how to experience European travel in a way that most travel agents cringe at.
One thing about the Europe Through the Back Door is that it is a book you use as a foundation, but you learn to travel your own way, using its ideas as a foundation, but it makes you want to develop your own travel experience. A lot of this talk and my positive attitude and experiences were due to that book. You must it before traveling to any foreign country.
When you hear the term, “backpacking through Europe,” I assume conjures thoughts that make some of you cringe. I would never have traveled to Europe, but if I did, I wouldn’t have done it with a backpack!!! I would have taken at least three trunks for each week I was there, expected everyone to speak English, and provide me with a hotel room like I can get here in my country.
Let me tell you that if you want to go to Europe and stay in a Holiday Inn, don’t go to Europe. You might as well keep within our wonderful country’s borders. You’ll be happier.
But you can want the Holiday Inn travel here, and still enjoy Europe.
Don’t eat at the places that say “We speak English!” Eat only where the locals line up to eat. You’ll get more, pay less, and love the real food of Italy.
Pack lightly. I’ve never heard of a person who said, “I wish I’d packed more.”
Wear very casual clothing. There is virtually no place in Europe that you have to dress up for during the summer months. We did buy clothes for our trip, but we went to Sam’s and bought $10 a pair, very light, drip-dry cotton pants (didn’t even need to pack a belt). We took some old shirts that didn’t have holes or stains. I recommend 2-1/2 changes of clothing. Take a little bottle of soap, and rinse out that day’s clothing. It’s dry by the next day. There are cleaners, but don’t expect one-hour service. I suggest you don’t take anything to the cleaners.
That’s it. Before you go to Italy and you need to go write me if you have any questions.