Compiled a list of short articles on my experiences and thoughts of visiting Italy a few years ago with my wife. My goal for this post is to add a unique perspective on what we observed and experienced during our two-week stay there. The food was great along with the scenery and I had ample time to take some pictures in hopes of adding additional context to these short stories.
LA DOLCE VITA
If you read any travel or culture books on Italy, it won't be long before you come across the 'La Dolce Vita' expression, in English, of course, it means 'The Sweet Life.' Some more sophisticated and well-seasoned followers of Italian culture might also say 'La Dolce Vita' was Federico Fellini's distinguished film from 1960. Full disclosure, my sophistication of Italian culture is limited to wine, Sophia Loren, and delicious food.
Admittedly, I'm a little envious that American English does not have such a sophisticated expression in English about life’s pleasures. At this point, it's not like to make something up, chances are it won't become regular vernacular.
While walking up and down some of the touristy cities we visited, occasionally I saw restaurants and some small shops using 'La Dolce Vita ' as their name. That made sense to me as I've only read a few Italian expressions as a tourist and wanderer.
While touring Italy, I saw ads with this expression as well as some restaurants and clothing shops with this same expression. I was intrigued to see 'La Dolce Vita' still being used in Italy, which prompted me to ask several Italians about this expression. Is this still used? Is it still in vogue? The general response was that no sane Italian use that expression anymore. They realize it's cliché and because tourists believe this expression is still trendy, most Italians just go with it. Some adept merchants use this for marketing and branding, knowing it's cliche but it's good for business. In uncommon economic times, do whatever it takes to hang on, even if it's cliche.
VATICAN GARDENS DREAMIN’
Spent one morning in the Vatican gardens -- the Vatican Garden tour has only been available to the public for the last 5 years, tours of only small groups of no more than 20 guests. My wife planned well as she secured a spot for this unique tour months before our flight to Naples, Italy. This was our 10th or so day in Italy and the last 9 had been hot, dry, and dusty although I sensed that Mother Nature had something prepared for us. Our tour was from 9 until 11 am and we certainly had a great visit.
About 30 minutes into the 2-hour tour, the weather became dark, windy, and ominous and those attuned to the change in weather stability sensed not only rain but a powerful storm. As we continued our tour, we began to hear thunder and see lightning, she said, "Believe me, this is not typical Roman weather." Our petite and lovely Italian guide proceeded to tell us to be careful as thunder and lightning continued. I didn't know what to think, should I hide underneath one of those thousands of trees lining these gardens? Or, should I take cover in the museum even though we had waited months for this tour?
I also thought about her comment about this storm not being typical of the weather in Rome. I appreciate a history lesson on seasonal weather in Rome, however, at that time, it doesn't matter that it's untypical. It happened to me as I had to struggle with its ferocity, when you visit a foreign land, most tourists do not consider an intense course on that nation's weather at the time you visit.
One other thought came to mind, perhaps our guide wanted me to dance around lightning, especially if it got close. After a while, I didn't worry about it even though in the States many cities and organizations perhaps overreact to potential lightning strikes. Besides, if I did get struck by lightning, it wasn't a bad place to die, perhaps being so close to holiness? As soon as our sore feet touched the museum entrance, the ominous clouds began to dump rain on this parched landscape. Gave our tour guide €2 for three reasons. One, she was friendly, fun, and informative; two, she got us out of there alive; three, she made it rain once we were finished and due to the drought, many Romans were pleased to see the rain.
NO ONE TIPS THE BAG CHECKER AT THE BORGHESE GALLERY?
The Borghese Gallery in Rome explicitly stated all bags, purses, and water had to be checked in before visiting. It was our first day in Rome in the blistering heat having traveled from Pompeii (4 hours south) and trying to traverse the Roman metro so our stamina and decision-making could have been questioned. After walking nearly 2 miles from our metro stop to get to the gallery, I was determined to hold onto my water. Rules are rules so everything needed to be checked in at the gallery basement even for a short visit. About an hour later and lacking any more physical or mental stamina to continue, my wife and I retrieved our belongings and I gave the man a euro for his trouble. He said in perfect English, "This is my first tip" and I stated, "You mean today?" He said, "Ever." I must have made his day although I was just trying to be polite and considerate -- knowing he must receive a lot of abuse from many tourists hell-bent on holding on to their possessions inside the Gallery.
AT THE RISK OF BEING ACCUSED OF BEING CAPTAIN OBVIOUS, IT'S EUROS, NOT DOLLARS YOU'RE SPENDING
The more time an American spends time in Europe, the more likely you'll become accustomed to their currency, and that's not always good news. Shortly before our trip, €1 bought you $1.15 U.S. After a while, you may see something for €50 and forget the currency sign and think it's in dollars instead. If you simply want a gelato and cappuccino, the cost is much more mitigated. If I tire of standing in line at San Pietro Basilica and need food and drink, perhaps a primi or secondi at a nearby restaurant might set you back €20. If this is common, you may find yourself spending 15% or more on items unconsciously. Spending weeks in Europe and perhaps overindulging in food, drink, and hotels for you and your spouse could cost €1000, or, said differently, perhaps $150 more than anticipated.
There are just as many panhandling in Europe as the larger cities in the U.S. and from what I can see, it's a numbers game. What do I mean? Like telemarketers, you may find success after 30, 70, or 100 attempts. It appears to me that if they continue to panhandle, they'll be rewarded for your efforts. Not immediately but eventually it will pay off. That's not my cup of tea but perhaps a certain human mentality may engage in this activity and it's probably an activity that has been around for thousands of years. When it comes to success, if these panhandlers made nominal coin, many would probably give up this activity which would mean they'd be fewer of them around.
I don't know what's worse, the street merchants or the panhandlers. Those looking for cigs or money will leave you alone if you walk by them. Some of those street merchants in Rome and Venice will get right in your face trying to sell you an umbrella to be shielded from the sun or a rose for your lady friend. They can feel like gnats sometimes, never leaving you alone so you need a good move or two to avoid any interaction with them.
I PROBABLY SHOULD NOT WHINE ABOUT THE WINE
Often while dining and especially in the Amalfi Coast region, my wife and I decided to split a liter of red or white wine. Being on a budget, we didn't want to spend more than €20 per liter. Overall the wine did not disappoint although we may have been also intoxicated by the ambiance and culture that surrounded us. I did notice at one restaurant with an open kitchen concept where they filled the carafes with a large container of wine, roughly a gallon.
Ok, I sometimes romanticize Italy and expected a little more sophistication in terms of how wine was stored and served but that wasn't the case. I guess basic economics comes into play here. Restaurants may purchase white and red house wine in large quantities which may cost 3-5 Euros per gallon. If they charge 16 Euros for a liter, once you minus the expense, their profit might be in the neighborhood of 50 Euros or more per gallon. That doesn't factor in the profit when guests merely order a glass of wine instead. Even though economically it's best in many Italian restaurants to order a liter of wine, it still can be a significant profit center. I suspect many restaurant owners in the States and Europe realize the potential success of one's restaurant is to ensure the majority of the profits comes from liquor and wine sales.
DRIVING AROUND THE AMALFI COAST
Once I returned from Europe, some friends asked me about how Italians drive. My best description would be controlled by chaos. They are aggressive and will cut off drivers when the situation arises but it's more like merging which everyone expects. Fellow motorists are not offended if someone quickly turns in front of them, as this is part of the traffic pattern. With much traffic and narrow roads, you grab what you can. It's not like some areas in the U.S. where some motorists are offended if you slightly cut them off. They don't drive as fast as the Autobahn but you need to keep moving at a quick pace if one chooses the left lane.
On the Amalfi coast, there are as many Vespas (Italian scooter) like cars and many of these two-wheelers will zoom past cars on the left or right, hill or no hill. If scooter drivers see an opportunity, they will try to get ahead of as much traffic as they can. I would not say they are risk-averse, they can be quite aggressive and many don't closely follow the speed limits in southern Italy. The irony is most Vespa drivers wear helmets even though they are not mandatory. They may speed, pass illegally or zip out in front of motorists, but when it comes to something not required, the Vespa drivers invariably wear helmets.
One more thing about Vespa's, it means 'wasp' or 'hornet' in Italian. I'm sure many motorists feel those Vespa's zooming around them if given a chance is something they'd want to swat away.
ROMAN COLOSSEUM VS. RYAN FIELD (EVANSTON, ILLINOIS) WITH MUCH EXAGGERATION AND SARCASM )
The Roman Colosseum was quite interesting and of course, crowded. Regardless, I knew what I was in for in such a world-famous site. It had been over 3 decades since my last peek at the Colosseum although much of the area around this site was not all that familiar. Honestly, it appeared for a few minutes that they had moved the Colosseum. I know that is impossible but nothing looked familiar at all near the neighborhood surrounding the Colosseum.
I was glad it aged well and didn't see too many changes. In some ways, it reminds me of Ryan Field in Evanston, IL, where the Northwestern Wildcats play their home football games. I had last visited Ryan Field a few years ago and during the visit, took some pics of the internal structure of this facility. After visiting the Colosseum again, I'm wondering which facility is older? I'm kidding, of course, however, one of these stadiums needs a makeover and that stadium is not located in Rome.