Back Home Again in Italy

After my brief “flirtation” with Wales and England, followed by my exciting adventures in Finland, I spent the last days of my November European trip in Italy, my casa dolce casa (home sweet home).  I flew from Helsinki to Rome and picked up a rental car and drove into the city in the late afternoon. When I reached my guest house in Rome, I chuckled as I saw an open parking space that was perhaps 10 steps from the door to the building where I’d be staying for the weekend. I sometimes amaze even myself regarding my parking karma.

The nice thing about spending one’s umpteenth time in Rome is that there is no pressure to do anything except just BE there. I had a wonderful Saturday night visiting with my friend Fabio, who made me a great dinner, and then a leisurely Sunday afternoon dining at my regular haunt, Trattoria Monti and catching up with the brothers Camerucci.

On Monday I hit the autostrada northward and drove the 6 hours to an area called Montegrotto Terme, a spa town just south of Padova. There I spent the late afternoon soaking in the natural hot springs pools of the Hotel Leonardo da Vinci Terme, and then drove to my friends Claudia and Marco’s place in nearby Pernumia. Claudia had prepared a dinner fit for royalty, with pumpkin risotto, veal with lemon, and TWO cakes (each with a conspicuous piece missing because “Marco was a bit hungry last night!” They now have one cat named Mini and a tiny kitten named Amelie… which is confusing, because the kitten is about as mini as you can get! Evidently the two do not get along, which culminated in a fight where Mini literally shoved the kitten off the side of the open staircase. She has now been forced to stay outside and is spending a lot of time at a neighbor’s house, while Amelie races around the house like a superball, bouncing off walls, sliding across the floor under the couch, bounding into the open dishwasher, etc. Marco sighed as he watched her antics and said, “She has only two switches: on and off.”

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Dear friends, Claudia and Marco

Meanwhile Claudia and Marco are in the midst of attempting to adopt a child, and it has not been easy, as the two of them have had to undergo countless interviews with psychologists and social workers. They ask vague and probing questions that Claudia confesses she is not sure how to answer, and of course when she does answer, the psychologists show no reaction or emotion, and simply write cryptic notes on their notepads. There will be a home visit soon, and I made them laugh when I suggested that perhaps the saga of Mini and Amelie should not be brought up, and that perhaps Amelie should also go to the neighbor’s house while the interview is being conducted.

The following evening I stayed in nearby Verona and had a great visit with my friend Luciano, who has considerable tech knowledge and gave me some tips about how to improve my website. I want to try some of the things he suggested, but I am terrified that when I do, everything I have accomplished so far will be swept away and I will have to start over. He says I’m being silly, but did admit with a grin that perhaps I could suffer a “minor nervous breakdown” until I sort things out again. I think I’ll wait a bit longer. We had a great dinner together at a small, local place and the homemade gnocchi was like little clouds of Heaven on a plate.

Next I drove down to Firenze (Florence), thoroughly excited by the fact that one of my favorite singers, Giorgia, has released a new CD. I stopped and picked up a copy at the Autogrill tops along the highway and listened to it as I drove. When I reached Firenze I could not believe my good fortune; the place I’d reserved online was absolutely breathtaking. Set on a hillside just 1 mile from the center of the city was Art Hotel Villa Agape… a strange name for a magnificent villa surrounded by olive groves and formal gardens and a long row of gorgeous poplar trees, making it a green, quiet oasis in a city I find a bit too congested and claustrophobic. I arrived in time to see one of the best sunsets of my long life, and was touched by a woman staying at the villa who had just arrived. It was her first night in Italy on what was a lifelong dream vacation, and she just couldn’t stop crying as she watched the sunset over the hills to the west.

After the sunset spectacle, I thought I would take a nap before dinner, but alas, I had a couple with two young children across the hall from me and all I heard was screaming, and I mean SCREAMING, and the door being repeatedly opened and slammed shut as the mother kept repeating, “Stop opening the door!” The child was either deaf or obstinate. There would be no rest for the weary, so I decided to go to dinner in the center. I visited an old favorite, Borgo Antico and was craving their amazing hot seafood appetizer that serves two. I asked if perhaps they could do a half-sized one for me, but the chef refused, so I bit the clams, the mussels, the calamari and the shrimp and ordered a whole platter. And I ate every single bite. No pasta tonight, but I had to have a slice of their fantastic cheesecake topped with mixed berries.

The night was peaceful, but as morning broke my neighbors were at it again. High pitched screams reverberated through the hallways of the villa, waking me up far too early. That was it; I asked the manager if I could please be moved, and they graciously showed me a room in their much more modern annex building. While it did not have the charm of the villa itself, it was sleek and modern and comfortable and I had a gorgeous view of the gardens and the villa. I settled into my new room, and spent several hours working on my website on what was a cold, drizzly afternoon. Every once in awhile, I’d take a break and stare out the window of my room and the sound of high pitched children’s screams was carried on the wind. I looked out and the whole family was up on the rooftop terrace. An hour later, screams again, and this time I could see tiny heads peeking out of a second floor bedroom. I made myself laugh when I thought, “They ought to call this place the Villa of the Screaming Child!” Seriously, I do not know how the other guests could stand it and I cannot fathom how the parents could allow it.

That evening I tried a new place called Zeb, a very trendy looking establishment that looked more like a wine bar but was said to be the place to go for homemade pasta. Seating was simply around a glassed-in bar, and the host/manager/waiter brought a chalkboard around to explain the night’s menu offerings. It was a little intimidating at first, but the gentleman was very kind and the prices were very reasonable. I explained that I knew it was strange, but that I wanted two pasta dishes instead of a pasta and a main course. I began with a ravioli stuffed with sweet cheese and topped with beautiful fresh pear.  Then I had a spaghetti with pesto that was equally wonderful.

About halfway through my meal a young American couple came in and sat a couple seats away from me. They went through the process of choosing their pastas from the host, and then I watched as a woman emerged from the kitchen to bring them a basket of bread. As she was leaving, the man asked her if he could have some olive oil. She turned and stared blankly at him, as if she didn’t understand what he’d said. He nervously fidgeted and in an attempt to communicate he lifted the bread basket and said, “Oil for the bread?”  She stared back and without a pause said, “No!” and returned to the kitchen. When I’d finally stopped laughing, I turned to them and said, “Let me explain to you what just happened here…” For years I have educated my students about Italy’s rigid dining rules and the one I beg them never to break is to request olive oil to dip their bread in. I do not know why Italian restaurants in America have made this so common because it is simply not in the Italians’ comprehension as to why someone would do something so utterly barbaric! Bread is for mopping up the last of your soup or pasta sauce and that is it. There is no butter, there is no dipping it in olive oil, there are no bread plates on the table!

My new friends, Jason and Ruby listened with great interest and Jason laughingly said, “I thought I was being Italian by asking for olive oil instead of butter!”  I also explained that they should never attempt to put Parmesan cheese on any seafood dish, never eat their salad before their main meal, and never order a cappuccino after 12 noon… though I have to confess that I have broken the last rule a few times and have been met with great disapproval by friends and waiters alike!

For my last two days in Italy I drove back to Rome and relaxed, got a lot more work done, and again saw friends. Out for a dinner with Fabio on Saturday night, the waitress asked if we wanted a coffee after our meal, and I raised an eyebrow mischievously as if I was about to order a cappuccino, and Fabio humorously, but seriously glared at me and said, “I will have to kill you…” No cappuccino for Matteo that evening!

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Fabio: “Order a cappuccino at this hour and I will have to kill you!”

Finally, it was time to fly to Amsterdam, to spend one night at an airport hotel and catch my early morning flight back to Boston. As I exited the plane in Amsterdam, my cell phone buzzed me and there was an urgent message from Lufthansa airlines saying that my bag had failed to make the flight. I like the way they worded it… as if my bag had been spending time in an airport bar or shopping in the Duty Free shops! And so I had to go to a baggage office and fill out several forms. The good news was that I was staying about 500 paces from baggage claim, and my luggage was supposed to be on a flight arriving at 9PM, just two hours later. I was told they would deliver it to me once it arrived.

I checked in to my bizarre hotel, the Citizen M, where you check yourself in with the help of young “hosts and hostesses” and everything is cutting edge. In the room, which looked out directly onto the airport runways, I could change the mood of the room by adjusting the lighting from blue to orange to green to purple. I could play jungle sounds, waves, or various genres of music. It was pretty interesting and it kept me busy for a while, since without a winter coat (packed) or a change of clothes or knowing when the bag would arrive, I had to abandon my plan to go into Amsterdam for dinner and instead had a rather dull meal at the hotel.

Other than receiving word that the 9:00 flight had arrived and that my luggage was on it, I got no word at all from Lufthansa and no luggage was delivered. By 11:00 I was getting anxious. My flight to Boston would be departing at 8:30 AM, and if I did not have my bag, I sincerely doubted it would find its way back to me across the Atlantic. I decided to walk back to the airport and see if I could retrieve it. Unfortunately, the airport was virtually closed down and I will not recount in detail the hour and a half I spent at information desks, security, baggage claim, etc. trying to locate my bag. Suffice it to say that I learned that my bag was locked in a storage area and could not be retrieved until the office opened at 7:00. And I never did hear a word from Lufthansa. And so, I trudged back to my room at 12:30 AM, changed the colors in the room from blue to orange to try and cheer myself up, and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to go back early in the morning in the same clothes I had on my back to get my bag and hope I could do so before I had to check in for my flight.

So after about 4 or 5 hours of fitful sleep, I was back at the baggage claim and was finally reunited with my bag, with no real explanation or apology. Had I not gone to get my bag, I wonder when Lufthansa would have contacted me to deliver it! At any rate, I then ducked into a bathroom and like Superman, had to pull some fresh clothes out of my bag and change in a tiny stall about the size of a telephone booth, which was no easy feat. And then I was on my way home to Boston, ready to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends, multiple birthday celebrations, and… a brief respite before my planned return to Europe for another round of travel in early December. Indeed, I have so much to be thankful for this year.

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