This piece is a bit off the beaten track, but I think it’s sometimes worthwhile to leave today’s cultural and political arguments to consider some other places and peoples.
Despite the title, I harbor no pretensions of writing a sequel to Mark Twain’s brilliant book describing his travels to Europe in 1867 with a tour-group of religious folk. Nevertheless, two weeks spent touring Italy in a tour bus with 39 Australians, Canadians, Americans, and Filipinos made it inevitable that an article relating some of our experiences should bear a derivative title. Although not exactly the “innocents” Twain described, we were certainly strangers in a strange land of Euros, Bernini, Verdi and spaghetti.
A single article can’t be a travelogue, of course, so I’ll simply touch on a few impressions of Italy, where modern people and technology are overlaid onto – but not really integrated into – an ancient landscape and culture. Cars and buses compete with motorbikes and pedestrians for passage through narrow cobbled streets that teemed with life and commerce long before Columbus sailed westward to reach the Indies.
Cars and driving are, in fact, fascinating aspects of modern Italy. Considering the narrowness of streets and highways, Italians drive extremely well – better, I think, than Americans, generally. The quiet, diminutive driver of our big, modern bus, was especially impressive. Cruising through narrow streets and turning corners I thought impossible with a vehicle of such size, he never made a miscue or even had a close call in over 3,000 kilometers. Truck and bus speeds are strictly controlled. A governor kept our bus from going faster than 63 mph. There were no hot-rodding tractor-trailers doing 80 or 85, as in America.
Our driver’s driving – indeed, most driving which I observed there – was nothing like the caricature of crazed Italian driving that films and comedians led us to expect. This was true even in Rome. Although purposeful and aggressive, traffic was generally orderly and predictable. Narrow streets made traffic look chaotic, but it was not really so. Crosswalks were scrupulously observed – unlike in America where pedestrians often risk life and limb by stepping off the curb. I saw no “Italian standoffs,” with drivers yelling and gesticulating.
To conform to the narrow streets, Italian cars are quite small by American standards. Also, gas costs over 6 Euros a gallon – nearly $7 today – so you don’t see many vans or SUVs. The Smart car – a tiny vehicle with no trunk and just enough room for two people – was ubiquitous. The seats are positioned right against the back of the car. (If rear-ended, you would be in big trouble.)
Tiny, three-wheeled pickup trucks, with room in the cab for only the driver, were everywhere, too. We called them Clouseau trucks, as they were the kind the madcap detective drove into the swimming pool in one of the Pink Panther films.
Bathrooms represent a culture shock for North Americans. Italians – Europeans, generally, in my experience – do not truly understand the shower. When they provide a shower stall, it is often so small that an average-sized person has trouble turning around in it. A guy my size has trouble even getting into it. (On one occasion my wife was on the point of calling the concierge to help me get out of the shower.)
Europeans do understand the bath (and the bathtub), and to accommodate tourists they have tried to graft the American-style shower onto it. Typically, hotels furnish a bathtub – often a high, old-fashioned tub that you have to climb into – rigged with a shower hose, but not always with a shower curtain. This can produce hilarious results. Fortunately, most bathrooms also have a drain in the floor, because flooding is likely with no shower curtain and an out-of-control shower hose.
Good European hotels provide lots of nice, fluffy towels but no washcloths. Most also furnish a “Sitzbath.” This helps you wash your bum, since you don’t have a washcloth. One of our party thought it was either for foot-washing or a wash-basin for really short guests.
Soap is evidently a controlled substance in Europe – particularly in Italy. Or else hotels are in a competition to see who can provide the smallest possible bar that can still be wrapped. (Several of our hotels were undoubtedly finalists.) Anticipating this, we brought our own American-sized bar of soap which lasted through most of the trip. We always hid it from the maid, in case the controlled-substance story was true.
Full employment is a natural offshoot of the bathroom tales. Italians have discovered how to achieve full employment in a stagnant economy. If you haven’t visited Europe, you would naturally wonder how. The answer is that at the entrance of every restroom in every truck stop or other public place in the country sits a man or woman (sometimes both) collecting money from users of the facilities. Sometimes an actual cashier collects a set fee of 50 Eurocents – about 60¢ US. (By my informal accounting we spent at least $50 using public toilettes in Italy.)
To be fair, we did not encounter the filthy restrooms one sometimes finds in the USA. So evidently some of the money collected actually pays for maintenance people who keep the restrooms clean and presentable. (All the same, one felt a sense of outrage at paying to pee.)
Water (give me acqua)! I have often joked about Americans paying $1.00 for a pint of water (i.e., $8.00 a gallon) in a country that has the cleanest tap water in history. But Italians are far ahead of us there. Bottles of water typically cost 2-3 Euros ($2.50-3.60). Even restaurants charge for carafes of what is undoubtedly tap water.
Travelers should be prepared to spend $50-100 on water during a 2-week trip to Europe. We tried to beat the system by filling our water bottles at the hotel each morning, but we still ended up buying drinking water. The water fountains we find everywhere in America don’t exist in Europe. (Perhaps water is a controlled substance, too.)
Soft drinks are a subtext to the water-market. They are still apparently an exotic novelty to Europeans. A can of Coke or Pepsi also costs 2 or 3 Euros – approximately the cost of a 12-pack in American supermarkets. Actually, almost everything in Italy seemed to cost 2 or 3 Euros. Except for a trip to the loo, I saw nothing that cost less than 1 Euro.
At some restaurants, wine is actually cheaper than soda-pop. Iced tea is sold in bottles, at similarly exotic prices, but fresh-brewed iced tea cannot be found in the country. Indeed, iced drinks are virtually unknown. Europe is a long, thirsty trip – or else an expensive one.
My pop said European tap water could not be trusted when he was there during the war. But that time is long past. Europeans have simply gotten used to making a nice living from selling water. They see no reason to change.
Fast food (Italian style) was a real education in Italy. We frequently stopped for lunch at highway plazas. 45 minutes was our standard break. We soon found that unless we ordered something that had already been prepared, we should use up most of our lunch time waiting for a hamburger to be cooked. Unfortunately, spaghetti that has been sitting for a while tends to assume the consistency of rubber bands. This left prepared sandwiches as our best bet.
The Italian fast-food process consists of three steps:
- Identify the items you want in the display case;
- Pay the cashier for those items (for which you must know the correct names);
- Return to the display case area, present your paid receipt, and obtain the food.
However, all this takes some time, as you must fight your way (twice) through crowds surrounding the food display-cases. A faulty memory can be disastrous. If you arrive at the cashier without knowing the correct name for what you want, you must return to the food case to identify it, then wait again in the cashier-queue.
Ultimately, we saw that the “fast” in fast food applies not to the preparation, but to the customer. We learned to make an immediate dash for the food case, quickly identify a sandwich such as the “Capri” (ham and cheese), hurry over to the cashier, and then dash back to the food case. Italian traffic was nothing compared to desperate tourists elbowing through those crowds at lunchtime. By the end of the tour we longed for the halcyon environs of McDonalds and Burger King.
Bellissima. One aspect of Italy that exceeded its reputation was its beautiful women. As a normal man (and long-time fan of Sophia Loren), I especially appreciated this. Everywhere we encountered crowds of beautiful women of all ages. Their dress was comely, but not provocative in the American style of bare midriffs and short shorts. Our tour guide pointed out that Italian standards for dress are actually quite conservative. It gave the place a kind of old-fashioned charm. (Alas, the bella Sophia was nowhere to be found.)
Old (very old) is what almost everything in Italy is. In America, 100-year-old houses are designated as national landmarks. But many Italian buildings exceed 500 years in age, and considerable numbers are more than 1,000 years old. Some date back to the first millennium AD, or even earlier. The Coliseum, completed in AD 80, looks good for at least another 2,000 years. The Pantheon – built around AD 120 as a Roman Temple – has been a church since the fourth century, AD. Its beauty and durability boggle the mind.
The city of Pompeii – founded in 600 BC and buried in ash and volcanic mud from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 – has been partially excavated over the last 200 years. We visited the ruins during our tour. Its size was astonishing. The main avenue of the city stretched out for a mile or more. Hundreds of buildings have been excavated, some of which survived almost intact because their roofs did not collapse.
Music is one of the things that truly makes Italy unique. It is said that every Italian either is a singer or thinks he is. But many actually are, of course. Our tour featured several encounters with the richness of Italian music. As musicians, we found this a real treat.
At a restaurant in the Tuscan hills a young lyric baritone with a big-league voice entertained us with operatic arias and Italian love songs, and flirted outrageously with all the ladies. His beautiful singing brought tears to my eyes. Every person in our group returned to the hotel smiling and humming. What a wonderful time.
In Venice, we heard a string ensemble perform a program of Vivaldi with a youthful verve and passionate delivery that thrilled us. And on our last night in Italy, at a restaurant in the shadow of the Vatican, a short, mischievous tenor teamed with a soprano who towered over him to give us a memorable evening of opera, laughter, and joyful abandon.
In our own small way, we participated in the music of Italy when my daughter and I sang the “Prayer of St. Francis” for our tour group, at dinner in our Assisi hotel. We also sang the Doxology in the Pantheon Church – perhaps for the first time in its 1700 year history.
I often quote the maxim that every Welshman is “born privileged – not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a song on his tongue and poetry in his soul.” It was easy to see that Italians are similarly blessed. If you love music – especially singing – Italy is the place. There is nowhere else like it.
Faith literally knits the nation of Italy together. If you miss this fact, you’ve missed Italy. Whatever you might think of the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Pope, etc., you cannot help being impressed by the continuity of faith and devotion that produced giants of the faith like St. Francis of Assisi and Pope John Paul II, artists like Michelangelo, and musicians like Vivaldi.
Ancient churches dot the landscape. Some have held services every day for 1000, 1500, even 1800 years. Wars, famine, plague, floods, earthquakes, political change – nothing has stopped them from ministering to the hearts and needs of the people. It is awesome to contemplate.
On a Sunday morning we stood in the rear of the nave of the great 14th century Milan cathedral, as the congregation gave their worship-responses. We heard the Apostles Creed (in Italian). My wife whispered, “God is here. The people are worshipping Him.” With a thrill of joy, I realized she was right.
These brief reflections remind me of why Mark Twain wrote an entire book about his impressions of Europe. Suffice it to say that Italy is a marvelous and exotic place. It’s not America, but then nowhere else is or could be.
As we passed through U.S. Customs in New York, the officer chatted with us about having grown up near to where we live in Virginia. He flashed an easy American grin. “Welcome back to the USA,” he said. Amen to that. It’s good to be home.