Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Being Italian for 10 Days

For the third straight year, Audrey and I embarked on a biking vacation in Europe. That sounds more ambitious than it really is. “Tour de Francers” we are not. We look for regions that are flat and tours labeled “active” and “easy,” during which we can plan to pedal 30-35 miles per day at a leisurely pace with frequent stops for rest and snacks. Two years ago, we rolled through Holland, biking into quaint cities such as Haarlem, Leiden, and Gouda (whose name we learned is pronounced How-dah with a guttural H; we bought cheese there, of course). Then, last year, we went to Belgium, which our guide noted was as old and flat as Holland but with the added attraction of producing more than 300 excellent beers. And we got to sample some of those beers in places such as Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. We also ate more moules and frites than we should.
This year, we headed to north-central Italy, where we planned to ride in the flat (or so we were told) Po River valley and the region near Lake Garda. We called it our “Shakespearean tour,” which would begin in Mantua and end in Verona. It’s a region filled with grape vineyards, olive groves, and orchards where the trees were proudly bearing kiwis, persimmons, and pomegranates, almost ready for picking.

Did you know kiwis grew like this?

We also discovered, to our chagrin, that the region is pretty hilly. I’ll write more about that element of our adventure in a later blog. You won’t want to miss it. It will include an account of my being easily left in the dust by an elderly woman pedaling with her groceries uphill. I was dying; she wasn’t even breathing hard, and she was smoking a small cigar while she rode!
Audrey and Phyllis take a break from biking
If having to maneuver the hills was the —you’ll pardon the pun—low point of our adventure, experiencing being Italian for 10 days was the high point. It’s hard not to be upbeat in Italy. The people always speak with a lilt in their voices, especially when they speak English, where they add a vowel syllable at the end of many words (skies-a, bells-a, lake-a). Even the Italian word for “thank you,” grazie, we discovered needed an extra syllable to be pronounced properly—“gratz-ee-ay,” and not simply “gratz-ee.” We began each day with a quick lesson in Italian offered by our vivacious guides, Claudio and Carlotta. We didn’t learn just words; we also practiced speaking with our hands the way Italians do.  Did you know that waving your hand back and forth in front of your forehead means “you’re crazy,” but waving it below your nose means ‘you stink”? Claudio and Carlotta also had a way of bouncing when they spoke, rocking their shoulders, heads, and hands. It became contagious. Soon many of our group were bouncing, too.

Claudio and Carlotta, bouncing and using body language

Audrey and I actually got off to a rocky start in our learning to be Italian, and we discovered that Italian waiters have something in common with New York waiters—they speak their mind, though sometimes more in their expressions than in their words. In our first two days, which we spent in the coastal town of Portovenere, Audrey and I unwittingly committed two restaurant faux pas. The first night, we ordered a fried mixed fish dish that begged (in our American minds) for some marinara sauce in which to dip the fish. When Audrey asked for the sauce, she got a perfectly blank expression from the waiter. “Sauce?” he asked. “A plate of sauce?” “No, just a small bowl,” Audrey explained. The waiter went mumbling back to the kitchen but emerged with the sauce. The next night I topped that one. I had ordered pasta with scampi. When I asked for grated cheese, I received a stare. “With fish?” the waiter, who was also the owner, asked incredulously. He brought out the cheese but looked at me funny while I spooned it on the pasta. Then he happily brought more red wine, which we made sure to drink like Italians.

We also discovered that being Italian meant looking at time a little differently, particularly historic time. Near the end of our trip, we were taken on a guided tour of Verona. In one main square, our guide pointed to a building in one corner and said it was constructed in the 1200s, the one next to it in the 1400s, and the one across the way in the 1600s. “That last building,” she said, “is much younger. It is only 250 years old.” Which makes me think of a story from an earlier trip Audrey and I made to southern Italy 10 years ago. One couple on our trip had been in the Sorrento area 55 years before on their honeymoon. They seemed surprised that the buildings and squares seemed much the same, even after half a century. In many areas of Italy, 55 years is just a blink of the eye.

Dante and a pigeon stand guard in Verona

So maybe the Po River valley in Italy wasn’t as flat as Holland. And maybe we were “forced” to drink wine instead of beer as in Belgium. And to eat pizza and pasta almost every day. And to sample several different flavors of gelato. And to pick grapes off the vine while trying to avoid the gaze of an annoyed farmer. And to speak with our hands. And to climb hills slowly in the wake of elderly women smoking cigars. And to feel a little timeless. Bellissimo!

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