Monday, August 06, 2007

When in Rome... Hop on a Train to Tuscany and Don't Look Back

We did it. We spent two weeks traveling through Italy at the peak of tourist season and despite scorching temperatures, inflated prices and sour service we still managed to have a wonderful trip. Even more astounding is the fact that we are still friends with Andrew and Alyssa, our faithful and rather useful traveling companions at the end of two solid weeks together. Their traveling experience is more limited than Mickey's and mine, but they are so much better at it. Perhaps it was last summer's excursion to Tanzania via Dubai that toughened them up and helped them prepare for virtually anything. I guess when you've had to practice sleeping with the sheet over your face so that lizards climbing on the ceiling won't fall in your mouth, you're not afraid of even the grossest Italian squat potty. Anyway, it was a joy to have this adventure with friends who actually remembered to pack things like wrinkle releasing spray for suitcase weary clothing, baby wipes for sticky hands post-gelato and a perfect travel Scrabble board for fellow nerds on long train rides.

So great company partially explains the success of our trip. Fresh pasta, a daily dose of gelato, cheap wine, beautiful views and (as much as we may not want to admit this to Mickey) the Rick Steve's Italy 2007 guide book also must have contributed to our contentment in Italy because it certainly wasn't my naive strategies. Now that I have returned, I'll reexamine my three pronged attack and attempt to offer some real words of travel wisdom.

1. Forget learning synonyms for 'beautiful' or 'amazing.' In cities like Rome and Venice, more words to express 'hot' and 'crowded' would have been handier. Seriously, leave the thesaurus at home because what you really need is a secret code. A couple of friends have admitted to me that they sometimes lie about their nationality while travelling abroad, telling folks that they are Canadian when they are actually American. I can understand wanting to distance oneself from Dubya and current politics, but I am not ashamed of who I am and where I come from. Also, I think it is unfortunate that many of the people who do this (deny their American citizenship) are some of the more conscientious travelers who might have otherwise given Europeans a better impression of what we Americans are really like. Anyway, these were my feelings before I came to Italy and realized that my friends and I could never undo the damage already done by hoards of rich, fat and ig'nant American tourists. All hope was officially lost when we noticed a group of three American youths trailing behind their People to People Young Ambassadors tour group because they stopped to graffiti their names into the Italian cliff side. And the whole purpose of their trip was probably to improve relationships and understanding between Europe and the US!

Again, so what you need is a secret code. Let your waiter or your tour guide overhear you and your crew speaking code. Perhaps they won't mentally lump you in with the other lot of ethnocentric barbarians and you may get better service. Speaking code is also useful when you want to talk trash about someone who speaks and/or understands the same language as you. Remember, your code doesn't have to be as elaborate as Klingon or Elvish. You just have to be able to say things like, 'can you believe that hick just touched the bronze statue?' or 'this ape needs to go back to the Cleveland zoo!'

2. I now realize that 'one museum per day' should not be set in stone, a guideline, sure, but not a hard and fast rule. In order to not get museumed out, you must adhere to a schedule built around your siesta, gelato break and cocktail hour. Insert these activities into your plan first and see which museums you can work around them. By the end of the trip, we had it down:

7:15am - Get up and prepare yourself for the day (too bad if you partied hard the night before)

7:45am - Eat the hotel breakfast and don't complain if they don't stock peanut butter. Go wild with Nutella and prosciutto and when that gets old, fall back on muesli.

8:15am - When possible, make a reservation for a museum or church before your visit to avoid waiting in long lines. If this isn't possible, don't worry because the crowds and heat will definitely be less intense at 8:15.

8:45am - Sightseeing can be really costly if you routinely pay for an audio guide on top of the price of admission. If you download podcasts of museum tours of your attraction ahead of time, you can walk right on by the audio guides and save your six Euros for something edible.

10:45am - Find an outdoor food/produce market and shop for lunch. Even if you aren't hungry now, by the time you and your friends actually find the market, decide what to buy and where to picnic, you will be. Besides, these markets are fun and less costly than a restaurant.

12:00pm - People-watch while you picnic. Don't forget to speak only in code.

1:30pm - Siesta time! This is the hottest part of the day and you need to spend it in an air conditioned room with your feet up. Nap, read or watch local TV. If your travel buddies are funny, you can play that game where you are watching a show in another language and you dub in what you imagine they could be saying Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.

3:00pm - Get up; it's time for gelato! Consult your guide book to find the very best gelateria and go there. Try at least two different flavors every time you go.

3:30pm - Do something that doesn't require all of your attention and doesn't involve anything you learned (or should have learned) in school. Go shopping at a market where vendors will haggle over prices with you; who cares if you don't actually get a good bargain, if you even attempted to negotiate you can bring a story home along with your souvenir. One fella acted really offended when I asked him politely but confidently for a little discount, but I am told that this is part of their game. If you are broke, go for a walk in a garden. If you feel that you must see another attraction, go wine tasting or take a tour of a local brewery. Intensive sightseeing can feel like work if you don't mix it up a little.

5:30pm - Soak up as much night life as you can by having an aperitif in one bar/restaurant and dinner in another. The menus will let you know which dishes are local favorites, but go out of your way to taste test the local cocktail as well. In Venice we discovered that our palettes are not sophisticated enough to enjoy Campari, but the Bellini, a cocktail consisting of nectar of white peaches (keep it pulpy) mixed with champagne, was a taste of sweet serenity.

6:30pm - Because portion sizes vary from restaurant to restaurant, order your meal course by course. We made the mistake of ordering while famished and were too stuffed to fully enjoy the secondi piatti when it finally came around. Take it slow because you're on vacation and yes, they are charging you for table service so you might as well make the most of it.

8:30pm - See your age and marital status below for instructions regarding your evening:
Under 25 and single - go out to a bar/club and live it up. If you don't know where to go, find some Australians and follow them around.
Under 25 and single and broke - find a liquor store and brown paper bag it back to the hostel. If the people there are lame, walk around and look for other people who are broke and cruising the streets.

Ever been out on a Friday or Saturday night in a middle/upper class suburban shoppertainment center and seen those seventeen year olds blaring music from cars they don't pay for? It turns out this is universal because young kids in Venice do it too, even though there are no cars in Venice and they have to cruise for girls in a motor boat. No joke, these guys had pimped out their boat with a high quality but ostentatious sound system and played techno tracks while the tourists stared. I was in a weird mood when they passed under the bridge I was standing on so I started to dance around wildly and acted like I was totally into their music. I figured that once they noticed their little parade was attracting the attention of not the young and hot but a strange, married tourist, they'd realize that they were lame. But they just continued to play their music and drifted away through the canals.

Over 25 and married - Go to a movie. Many tourists don't consider seeing a film while traveling abroad because they don't want to waste time doing something they could do at home, but going to the theater is one of my favorite ways to experience local culture. I've seen movies in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Ireland, Holland and Switzerland and I haven't forgotten which movies I saw where because the cinema experiences are rather memorable. Even though I never treat myself to the concessions at home, I couldn't get over the two bottles of Heineken and a bucket of popcorn deal in Amsterdam. I also think that watching advertisements and trailers are much more fun in a foreign country; I find them much racier and more graphic than those we are used to at AMC.
Over 25 and married and nerdy/broke - Buy a bottle of wine and drink out of hotel glasses while playing board/card games. Didn't bring any? Try charades, truth or dare or that one game where everyone sticks the name of a famous person to their forehead and tries to figure out who they are. That game isn't actually much fun, but taking a picture of someone with a piece of paper awkwardly stuck upside down on their forehead is funny later.
Over 50 - Go to bed! You're getting up at 7:15 the next morning, remember?

3. The only one of my previous suggestions for not getting museumed out that was fairly right on was the one encouraging the traveler to read books, watch movies or TV shows (even The Bachelor: Rome if you must) that take place in your destination city. It makes seeing the sights in person all the more exciting. This is why Salzburg is cool even if it's really not because The Sound of Music was filmed there.

And speaking of movies and TV shows, I have a new theory that has yet to be tested that high culture might best be enjoyed when contrasted with not low culture, but pop culture perhaps. Again, if you're bombarding yourself with the extraordinary: the Louvre, St. Peter's, etc. then you become a bit desensitized to the beauty and enjoy it less. What would happen if you balanced every trip to a museum with a quick shot of something frivolous like an episode of The Office from itunes or Wayne's World during siesta time? Somebody please try this and let me know how it goes. If you have already tried it, I'm dying to find out if reading a Sophie Kinsella novel the night before you visit the Uffizi intensifies the experience.

1 comment:

Oscar1986 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.