Vincent: “It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here but it’s just, it’s just there it’s a little different.”
Last month I spent almost two weeks in Italy, traveling with my girlfriend. We flew into Milan, took a train to Venice, a train to Florence, bikes to Siena, a bus to Rome, and a car back up to the Chianti region. It was my first trip to anywhere in continental Europe. I had been to England before but it was to see family. I got my gray skies and Weetabix but it wasn’t the same as a vacation to experience a country.
We only spent a few days in each Italian city that we went to. I felt like I got to sample several different parts of Italy and I was fascinated by the little differences.
A Few Random Differences
There are a whole hell of a lot of piazzas and campos. Renaissance painters? Kinda into Jesus. You get a receipt with everything you purchase. Everything. There are coins for one and two Euros, so there’s a little tray for each transaction for all of the coins. There are plastic gloves for handling produce and grocery bags are five cents apiece (I’m in favor of both of those ideas over here). You can buy wine – good wine – in the grocery store. Diet Coke is called Coke Light. There are a lot of scooters and dangling cigarettes (I thought the French cornered the market on that). What’s for breakfast? Biscuits and Nutella. Oh, do you have any cereal or fruit? No, we only have biscuits and Nutella.
Everyone says that Italian coffee is amazing. What they don’t tell you is how small it is. I truly felt American with regard to the coffee. I would have a cappucino and be finished in two or three sips. Europe isn’t big on drip coffee – it’s all espresso based – but I need my 16 ounces in the morning, in a Starbucks cup that I can take with me on the street. In Rome, we found one place with to go coffee and, judging by the proficiency with which it was made, no one ever orders it. At our B & B in Florence, they had instant coffee, which I made in their biggest mug.
You can drink at any time of day. I noticed everyone drinking these flourescent orange drinks before noon. It was a “spritz” or, more specifically, an Aperol Spritz which is Aperol (orange-y Campari), prosecco, and soda water with an orange slice. Once, before catching a train, we had prosecco at 11 AM. We weren’t the only people drinking.
You can buy a beer and walk with it on the street but nobody does. After seeing the Coliseum, we walked with cans of beer back to our Airbnb. We were the only people in the city who were doing that. Apparently walking and eating or drinking is considered low class. I suppose we only do it out of good old fashioned American impatience. We combine transportation and consumption because time is money, bitch. But in Italy, you have to, if not sit down, at least stop and enjoy whatever it is you’re having.
Almost everyone spoke English which was sort of disappointing. In my mind’s eye, I pictured us having difficulty communicating with people but getting by anyway. I don’t know why I romanticized the inconvenience of being separated by language. It ended up being really convenient. The car rental employee in Rome spoke better English than the average American. We only encountered one person who didn’t speak any English. She worked in the deli of a grocery store and made us a sandwich. Actually, it was a panini. In Italy the panini is, like, their default sandwich. For real, you guys.
We said “grazie,” “bongiorno,” and “buonasera”. I had one exchange entirely in Italian while getting tickets to the Duomo in Siena. “Due biglietti a cattedrale.” Boom! Italian! Sure, I had to stop myself from saying “s’il vous plait” at the end but no matter. She said the price, I paid and then I said, “Grazie.” End of transaction! All in Italian! Then she probably said, “Prego.”
I still don’t know what this means but they say it all the time. I heard it mostly as “you’re welcome.” Grazie followed by prego. It’s not exactly “you’re welcome,” it’s more like “no problem” or “don’t mention it.” But we also heard it used in the context of, “Can I help you?” the equivalent of, “Yeah?” We were in a taxi in Rome and the cab driver was explaining that he was taking us past some closed streets. I said, “Prego.” I wanted it to mean “no worries.” My girlfriend leaned over to me, “I don’t think you’re using that right.” Yeah, probably not.
I now know what it must be like for Chinese people to look at our tattoos. Here are some actual English phrases I saw on t-shirts over there: “P.E. Major Phys Ed”, “Brooklyn Games”, “Life Is The Word”, “Seattle 62”, “Fame Fame Fame.” I want to start a t-shirt company that markets exclusively to Europe. Each shirt will just feature a city, a sport, and a number. “Philadelphia Softball 18”, “St. Louis Soccer 47”, “Spokane Bowling 4.” I think I’ll make a killing. I also saw quite a few Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts over there. It made me nostalgic for the seventh grade when I last wore one of those t-shirts.
The History of European Cities
When old stuff is still standing, it’s just automatically beautiful. Every corner in the cities we went to looked like a postcard. There’s a certain kind of history that I never grasped before. In the northeast, we have things like “these cobblestone streets were here in the 1800’s!” When we were in Florence, we were told to take a left at the gate that protected the old city from wars with Siena and Pisa during the middle ages. In Rome, we stayed in an apartment building that was 500 years old. So, that one building was more than twice as old as the United States of America. I don’t think there’s a single thing left standing in New York City that’s more than 500 years old.
Oh, by the by, I didn’t know a damn thing about the places we were going before we went there. I think all I thought before going was, “Chianti and gelato, yay!” Then I found myself googling the Medici family while I was actually in Florence. Wait, which churches are we supposed to see?
The Tourist Paradox
I wanted to be able to be a tourist in touristy areas but also be the only American there while totally blending in. No, it doesn’t make sense, it’s just how I felt. I resented hearing American voices on the street. They were spoiling it for me. I wanted us to be the only Americans in Italy wherever we happened to be. I also wanted to be able to take out a map whenever I wanted and get our bearings, which, I’m sure, made us stick out like the true Americans that we were.
We had heard that you’re supposed to linger and enjoy meals in Italy, that the American attitude of eating and running isn’t particularly welcome. That’s fine but the waiters are still far too temperamental. I will never understand what the hell it was that the waiters wanted from us. I had never gotten so much attitude from wanting to pay for something. We ate a really great meal in Siena. Our waiter left us two bottles of alcohol – a nutty liqueur and some grappa. “We should just sit here, right?” “Yeah, I think it’s rude to demand the check.” “Right.” We waited there for an hour while he chatted with the couple next to us. When we finally asked for the check, he acted as if we had asked for naked pictures of his sister.
And we still tipped him even though no one can tell us if we were supposed to do that or not.
The Mother’s Day Miracle
This isn’t one of the little differences, it’s just something that happened and it was kind of cool.
I love TV. It soothes me. So, even in Italy, I wanted to watch some. However, watching English speaking shows in Italian just doesn’t work. It’s too distracting. But I flipped through the channels anyway when there happened to be a TV in our room. I happened to be doing this on Sunday, Mother’s Day. I came upon an old movie with a young Richard Harris. It was a period piece. It was The Molly Maguires. In another post, I spoke about my mother being an extra in a movie, this was the movie. So, I watched on the off chance that I might see her. A few scenes later there she was, a sales girl unfocused in the background.
What are the odds of that happening in Italy on Mother’s Day? An obscure American movie from 1970 playing on TV? Well, perhaps pretty high because it happened. Also, it totally doesn’t count as a miracle but it was Italy – the most Catholic country on the planet. Just go with it.