I’m in Italy for a couple of months. Unfortunately I’ll be chained to the Internet just like I was in America. This is not so much a working vacation as a change of scenery outside the workroom window. But what scenery. Oy vay! Ooh la la! Oh boy! Opa! (Slowly shake right hand up and down as if it hurts in the Italian equivalent of the previous expletives)
My current location is a little town called Frascati, about forty minutes by train south of Rome. This place is everything an American expects from a true old-world experience: ancient buildings, cobblestones, no English whatsoever. Do I speak Italian? Non bene. Do I recall making fun back home of speakers of English as a second language? Si. I’m painfully reminded of that every time I go out to eat and get something from the head of an animal instead of the nice barbecue pork sandwich that I ordered. I know what they’re thinking and what lies behind those courteous smiles. I know the people at the next table are trying hard to not spit their pizza out through their nose as they guffaw at my faux pas. Yes, that’s Coca Cola streaming from their nostrils as they roll on the floor laughing at me. If I could speak better, I’d remind them that Coke was in America before it was anywhere else. They would hardly care: Coca Cola belongs to the world now and everyone claims it the same way Americans claim electricity and thoroughbreds. Does anyone anywhere really know where Coke came from anyway?
Frascati is crazy-crowded all the time except between noon and 3pm (1500 if you will) even on the weekends. The noon hour is sacred. During lunch the tumbleweed drifts across the piazza. Not for nothing did Sergio Leone invent the spaghetti western. Shot here in the homeland during pranzo del mezzo giorno, it was easy to recreate that ghost town feel.
After lunch at three in the aft, the Italians return to the streets which quickly become sardine-tin full. When I say full, I mean pedestrians, Vespe, cars, even carousels just off the front steps of the town’s cathedral during certain times of the year. Everything mingles together. This does not slow down the cars a bit. They drive high speed down narrow streets that have no sidewalks or views of cross traffic. There are no stop lights, just suggestions at the corners to not go the wrong way on a one way street. Nor are there any stop signs.
To be truthful there are red hexagonals at some cross-sections. The word “stop” is centered nicely within the red hexagonal. No one heeds the sign, though. When you ask your driver why he didn’t stop–“perché non ti fermi?”–he’ll say, io non capisco inglese. Why are the stop signs in English? Italians believe firmly in the need for the law, but they feel no need to heed it (Another good reason to shoot cowboy pictures here: everyone is already an outlaw.). Insurance companies insist on some sort of control, but Italians beg to differ. People think Italians are the worst drivers in the world. Not true. They are exceptionally good. They invented the circle and the style of driving that ensures you never have to stop. They are masters of merging and can do it at low speeds, high speeds, mind-numbing speeds that only addicts of amphetamines should attempt.
Food and drink are the birthright of all Italians. Every store, cafe, and street vendor sells wine; every Italian is an expert at it. Even the homeless. I never order wine by myself. When faced with a choice, I knock on the window by the table and hold up a bottle so the zingaro begging out in the street can give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
The pizza here is wonderful of course, as is the chocolate, but there are some disappointments. For instance there’s a super market here. Nothing can ruin the view of old-world charm as much as a huge set of windows sporting today’s great buys on toilet paper and fresh ground beef. Worse than seeing a super market in my chosen town, though, is seeing it so much like a super market in America. There’s no Pellegrino there, or Illy. Instead you see aisles of generically branded soda and Kellog’s breakfast cereals. The prepackaged what-have-you is as popular as is the fresh mozzarella, today’s baked bread, and just butchered meat that you can easily get on your way to the super market. Why would anyone go to such a place? Of course processed food is cheaper than real food, so there is that. But sadly I fear the super market is supported here because Italians like anything American. The homogenization that plagues my homeland is being imported even as we surf. I’m just glad I got here before the charm is totally paved over. I might not have beaten Coca Cola to this locale, but for now I can still enjoy a cappuccino made the right way.
There is of course, something that can’t be imported and that’s fresh-baked bread and the right way to eat it. No native would think of buttering it or dipping it in oil. That’s an American thing probably imported from Germany or France or Wisconsin. In fact, no one here even eats bread. Bread is fattening and Italians are hung up on the Prada and Versace ads they feel they must live up to. They know they have a legacy of thin, dark style and so avoid carbs like the plague. They only eat seafood or red meat from baby ungulates. The bread gets put out for the Americans only because it looks good on the table. The Italian dining room is terribly picturesque and Italians are wonderful hosts. It would break their hearts to disappoint guests. The Americans in turn are wonderful guests and it would break their hearts to disappoint their hosts. They eat the bread rapaciously. Unfortunately there are no Americans here in Frascati except for Gary and me and he’s on a diet. He too wants to look good in Versace sunglasses. It’s a lot of responsibility eating all that bread, but I feel I’m up to the task. Usually by eight pm I’m so stuffed I forego supper. While the Italians are drinking wine, eating mussels or lamb, and enjoying la dolce vita, I’m in bed bloated and groaning. I lay there and make plans for tomorrow’s debauchery.
Love it, love it, love it here!
Thanks for reading,