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A Month in Italy (Note by Note)

A Month in Italy (Note by Note)

Karen and I try to take a substantial trip every year these days, the occasional global pandemic aside. Travel is a privilege that we’ve made a priority for the past decade (our “new” car right now is a 2006 Honda Civic) and we recently returned from our longest trip yet, 31 days in Italy.

Let’s be clear, though: if you’re anticipating a sequel to Under The Tuscan Sun, that’s not what’s on offer here. This year’s trip—our third to Italy—was about exploring two parts of the country that we knew relatively little about: Sicily and Puglia. (Sicily you could probably find on a map; Puglia is the heel portion of the “boot” of Italy, in the far southeast.)

Along with travel itself, one of the habits that Karen has encouraged in me is journaling on our trips. We find that doing this every day really helps us to remember and retain those experiences. But journaling has always been a back-in-the-hotel-room activity, and my brain’s on-off switch doesn’t work quite like that. As a perpetual observer, I also got in the habit this time around of pulling out my phone and making little notes right there in the moment.

A curated collection of these notes ends up comprising a sort of impressionistic travelogue of our trip. A few entries were serious, but most had a lighter touch; if there’s anything I’m truly addicted to, it’s irony and absurdity. With that, direct from my phone, here is a psychedelic Cliff’s Notes rendition of our month in bella Italia.

Cefalu, Sicily (Photo: Karen)

Day 1: The sun, the sea, the constant rapid-fire chatter of Italians on their phones. We’re here!

Day 3: The most Italian sight of the morning: a grizzled yet still put-together middle-aged guy on an electric scooter weaving through the crowded streets of old town Cefalu with his cell phone wedged between shoulder and ear, talking away.

Day 4: Every conversation here is punctuated with repetition: “Si, si, si.” “Ciao, ciao, ciao.” Is this for emphasis, or just one of those little cultural tics?

Day 6: Karen: “What time does X open?” Me, searching on my phone: “Nine o’clock. Except it’s Italy, so… -ish?”

Palermo, Sicily

Day 9: I’ve begun rating each hotel room shower we encounter on this trip. Today’s gets a soft 8; roomy with stylish if difficult-to-decipher controls, but with unpredictable temperature fluctuations and a slow drain.

Day 10: In Italy, personal space is a purely theoretical concept.

Day 12: Was I curious to catch a glimpse of the exterior of the hotel where they filmed White Lotus season 2? Sure, I’m human, and therefore curious. But it was roughly the 17th most interesting and/or beautiful thing to see in Taormina.

Taormina (right) and Mt. Etna, Sicily

Day 13: I’m now convinced that Italians have two walking speeds: faster than me and slower than me. More precisely, “leisurely stroll” and “get the F out of my way.”

Day 14: In every hotel, a scene repeats each morning. We enter the breakfast room, approach the buffet and begin assembling our meal as staff hovers nearby, asking brightly: “Capuccino? Café?” Whereupon we decline—neither of us drinks coffee—and are met with expressions ranging from astonishment to deep concern.

Day 16: The worship of relics—the bones and body parts of Catholic saints and martyrs—is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. As we stand in the side chapel of a vast cathedral staring at the glass wall case behind the altar that’s filled with bones and skulls, Karen leans in and whispers: “Promise you won’t do that to me.”

Day 17: On our own for a couple of days between tours, we Google a nearby bakery for breakfast. Inside the small shop there are two lines of half a dozen Italians shouting orders at the hard-working couple behind the display case. After a few minutes it’s my turn and I give my order—except we want pastries and the man’s emphatic, mostly gestured reply clarifies that I’ve been standing in the line for focaccia. I step back and get in the other line and two little old ladies nearby start jabbering away in Italian as they look me up and down. I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but their tone and body language couldn’t be clearer: “Where did this giant fool come from and how does he not know how to order a pastry?”

Day 18: To American ears, Italians in the south sound angry, until you realize they’re just talking. This afternoon I overheard a conversation between two men in the street below our hotel room that sounded like it might end with one or both parties in the hospital. A minute later it was all laughter and “Ciao, ciao, ciao.”

Monopoli, Puglia

Day 19: The first time we did laundry on this trip, it was just like a typical laundromat in the US. A week later in a new city, we once again encounter a wall of washers and dryers with coin slots, a change machine, and chairs to sit in. But this time there’s an attendant, who speaks almost no English and hovers over our every move as I bring our laundry over to a machine and start loading it. As I proceed, his agitation increases, until there is a long back-and-forth with a lot of gesticulating that eventually achieves understanding… this is a full-service laundry, and I’m the crazy American trying to do his job.

Day 23: Our guide, re: the various strata of ruins and artifacts from different periods and civilizations: “Italy is layered like a lasagna.”

Day 24: Remember the guy back on day 3, on the electric scooter talking on his phone? Today’s example is next-level: a guy riding a Vespa down a busy street, wearing a helmet, with his phone wedged neatly between helmet and cheek.

Day 27: Dear Italian hotels: I can cope with no Kleenex, odd lighting controls, and the occasional phone-booth shower. But what is up with no fitted bottom sheets? Is there some kind of elastic shortage they aren’t telling us about?

Monopoli, Puglia

Day 29: It’s actually quite funny on those occasions when wait staff in Italy ask how you want your meat cooked, because they don’t really mean it. It seems that every Italian chef knows that the proper way to cook meat is medium rare. If you ask for anything beyond that, the wait staff will eye you suspiciously, make a note… and deliver your meat cooked medium rare. Some things are just not done.

Day 30: If purgatory exists, it’s probably a lot like sitting in a restaurant in Southern Europe when you’re eager to pay the bill.

All kidding aside, did we have a good time? Si, si, si. Italy is a fantastic place to visit and explore, full of amazing food, wonderful people, rich history and spectacular scenery. I would go again tomorrow. Well, maybe next week. I need a few more nights with a fitted bottom sheet and a shower I understand.

Comments (2)

  • Jennifer Smith

    So enjoyed traveling with you guys in Puglia. Wonderful memories!!

  • Mariann McKee

    What a wonderful post on Italy!

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