I didn’t exactly fall in love with Italy. I found it to be a frustrating. Their public transportation is hellish. Almost all the food was inedible, and no it’s not just me. Trash is piled everywhere and most cities stink of piss. Rome’s Fiumicino Airport might almost be worse than Charles De Gaulle. Half the places you go don’t take credit cards and you could spend a whole day just trying to find an ATM (we did.) In many ways, Italy is lacking in more standard conveniences than any of the third world countries I’ve visited (they don’t call it the “Old World” for nothing.) Compared to the rest of Europe, it’s much harder to get by with only English because Italians don’t want to speak it. Really, before you hate me, I’m NOT one of those Americans who expects people to speak English in foreign countries. But I’d say most Americans are used to Europeans speaking at least as much broken English as they can speak broken whatever. Generally you manage to communicate well enough to ask where the bus stop is by meeting somewhere in the middle. In Italy, there’s no middle, just Italian.
So okay, on a 7 country trip, Italy did end up being my least favorite. But as I sit here now, listening to my favorite Andrea Bocelli album, Ceili di Toscanaand drinking chianti, I think I’d do just about anything to go back. I bought a plane ticket back to Rome for September to do just that–and try to give myself another chance to fall in love with it. Now, with the Coronavirus peaking across the world after ravaging Italy, that trip is uncertain. (The trip is a Mediterranean cruise leaving from Venice, incidentally, which I booked a week before the pandemic hit. It now has hilarious irony as the worst travel plan I possibly could have made.)
Two of my girlfriends and I decided to do a road trip through Eastern Europe. They were both doing a summer study abroad thing for our grad program, and I was taking the long way to get to my friend’s wedding in France. The plan was for my friend Kyle and I to meet our friend Leah in Dubrovnik, so we thought it would be a neat add-on to start in Rome, make our way down to the southern part of Italy, and then ferry over to Croatia. Seeing Italy was a dream of mine. I mean, I have watched Under the Tuscan Sun like, a million times. I’m an artist. I love opera. And old buildings. And cute, old men eating gelato in public places. How could I NOT love Italy?
As soon as we got off the plane, we realized we had no goddamn idea how to get to the Airbnb and no way to figure anything out because our phones had no data or wifi. (The wifi in Fiumicino is crap. I soon discovered Italy has the worst internet of anywhere I’ve ever traveled and that includes a dial-up internet cafe in an occupied Palestinian settlement circa 2006 where sheep were allowed inside. Really, Italy, get it together.)
As a rule, I’m always skeptical of taxi drivers, especially the ones who hang around airports waiting to prey on tourists. But we were desperate. Thank God we got lucky with this guy. Our taxi driver took us to our Airbnb for a really reasonable rate, and also gave us a pretty cool driving tour of Rome at night. He pointed out all of the sites, which turned out to be the only real experience of Rome we would have, because it dumped buckets of rain the entire rest of the time we were there. I’m very grateful we had the opportunity to see a little bit of Rome that way.
After a somewhat harrowing experience finding our Airbnb, we set out to explore the neighborhood and get some food. The neighborhood itself was a little sketch, so we stopped at the first place that looked open. It was a little, warm lit restaurant on the corner of a residential street. This was truly a place that real Italians went, we could tell right away. No one spoke a lick of English, but the hostess and server were wonderfully kind and we got by pointing at random things we couldn’t read on the menu. It was the best and last good meal we’d have in Italy (more on that later.) The whole place had a beautiful, golden glow. Old men and statuesque women conversed quietly. Everyone was drinking bottles of exquisite, impossibly inexpensive wine.
We both had left our phones to charge at the Airbnb, so we have no pictures of that restaurant or our meal. But it was magical. There’s a feeling that comes over you after the exhaustion of travel, once you’re finally there and finally feel there. You’re in this place you’ve always wanted to see. You’re eating in the most perfectly quaint Italian restaurant in Rome with one of your best friends. You’re so grateful to be alive, to be living the life you have. Everything is absolutely wonderful and you’re full of wonderment. That feeling is one of the most important feelings you can have, a feeling that only happens a few times in a lifetime. It defined that dinner. I wish I’d had a camera with me to capture it, but I’m also glad I didn’t. I think it has created its own gilded memory a photo couldn’t live up to.
The next day, we set out to actually explore the city. We stopped into a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place, the kind you expect to be good because you’ve watched enough Anthony Bourdain to feel dangerous when it comes to finding the “authentic places.”. But it wasn’t good. The salmon pasta I ordered was fishy and inedible. Nevertheless the owner of the restaurant came out and serenaded us with “Country Roads Take Me Home.” Then he offered to make us French Fries. Obviously he knew Americans well. We declined the French Fries.
At the time, I was working for an accounting firm, and I had to run payroll. This is normally a 5 minute process, but since we discovered Italy has the worst goddamn internet on the planet, it took about 5 hours. In all of this, it started to rain. And not a normal rain. A torrential, apocalyptic rain that lasted all day. We were stuck where we were, so there wasn’t much to do except get drunk. The bartender took a liking to my friend and kept bringing us shots.
The next day we made our way to Bari. We took an overnight bus, which was nice and also really cheap. Sometime in the dead of night and middle of nowhere, we stopped at a station. I was pretty tired, but I remember being really impressed by the fact every person who ordered coffee at the gas station received their coffee in an actual, ceramic mug. If there’s one thing I truly love about Italy it’s the coffee. Not just the quality but also the way they drink their coffee with some goddamn respect. (I love France, but their coffee is shit.)
In Bari, we rented a sailboat as our Airbnb. This was my idea, and one I made forgetting Kyle has motion sickness. With enough Dramamine she was fine. Personally, I have never slept so well in my life as I did on that boat. I could live on a boat, easy.
Polignano Del Mare
Not too far from Bari is a little seaside village called Polignano Del Mare. It’s slightly famous for having a restaurant called Grotta Palazzese, which is in a cave by the sea. If you’re a frequent Pinterester like I am, you’ve probably seen pictures of it. We didn’t have a chance to go because of the hours, unfortunately. We did try to find some decent food. A lot of the places were either very posh and expensive or very casual and all serving the same bad, weird food. We had high hopes for finding some great and often-overlooked Puglia region cuisine.
Looking back, I wish I’d done more research on places to eat before going to Italy. Normally following my instinct and picking “hole in the wall” places yields success when I travel. In Italy, except for the first night, that was not the case. At one point we just gave up ordering “Italian food” and tried ordering more familiar fare just because we were hungry. That didn’t yield much success either. As abominable as you could argue that American’s take on Italian food is, their take on our food is oh so much worse.
Aside from the food, Polignano Del Mare was beautiful. It felt like a movie set, too impossibly perfect, quaint and just Italian to even be real. The weather was still mild, so the beach wasn’t crowded. At one point, we were the only ones there. I bought a hat from a beach vendor and promptly got shit on by a pigeon. From what I understand, this means my luck was two fold: one, I was lucky because I bought a hat just in time. Two, because in Italy, getting shit on by a pigeon is good luck. At least that’s what the movie Under the Tuscan Sun told me.
On our last day in Bari, we decided to ask our host for a good restaurant recommendation. We had to make the ferry that was departing for Croatia, but had a couple hours for dinner. She raved to us about her favorite local restaurant, and we set forth bolstered by the hope we would finally get a meal that would top our first night. We got to the restaurant only to realize the restaurant didn’t open until 8 o clock (damn Europeans), and our boarding time was 9. Our hopes were dashed. At that point, we were so pissed at Italy we decided to get a Corona at a nearby Mexican restaurant just out of protest.
Before boarding the ferry (which we almost missed), we stopped into a local shop to get some wine for the trip, as well as some fresh meats and cheeses. I also bought a little container of pasta from a place by the dock that spelled like pee. It turned out to be absolutely delicious. My friend wasn’t willing to risk anymore Italian food, so she got a sandwich. It also had French fries on it. I’m telling you, that was a thing everywhere
We didn’t have cabins on the ferry, so we just stayed up all night drinking wine and eating our little Italian picnic. As we crossed the Adriatic Sea, it turned out to be our best Italian meal.
Writing all of this makes me miss Italy terribly, even though so much of it was frustrating at the time. Maybe it’s being in quarantine with all future possibility of travel suspended that’s making me see it through such rose colored glasses. Half the fun of travel is the absurdity, the survival. The moment you almost miss your boat after running half a mile carrying 80 lbs of luggage and you have to begging the humorless, seven foot tall Bosnian guy to let you board and the relief when you finally get to pop some bubbly and look at your friend and laugh as you prepare to sleep on the floor all night on top of your bags. I’m a firm believer there are no bad places, just bad experiences. Experiences can always be recreated, and also, they can be reframed.
Italy really needs to get it’s shit together about the wifi though.
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