Short Stories from the Old Continent


 Random observations in the midst of a Italian summer:

Things About Europe:

  • Riding on a train, minding your own business, you’re bound to jump a mile each time your locomotive flies past rail cars headed in the opposite direction. The bullet-like CRACK scared the &$#@ out of me the first… nineteen times.
  • Not only in Europe, but across Asia one very good marketing scheme has been slipping into my subconscious. Although the brand name differs, the logo doesn’t. My eyes light up each time I see the red and white “ice cream!” swirl heart.

  • Turns out the American Dream isn’t the only one worth chasing. From the Africans selling women’s purses on Italian sidewalks, middle-easterners quietly going about their lives in small suburbs, to Dominicans cleaning houses and hotels on the north coast, there are thousands in pursuit of a better life. (There are also the requisite thousands of locals who resent the presence of the immigrants.)
  • Proof sex sells? The brand name belonging to these scraps of swimwear is the only other thing on the ad posters. Every person I’ve asked, bikini wearer or not, can pull the company’s name from memory.

    Brown skin is back in. After enduring a year in the “Slip, Slap, Slop” anti-sun culture of New Zealand, followed by six months under the influence of the white-skin-is-better-skin Asian creed, I am still startled by the darkly tanned babes in bikini ads.

  • Lighting up your life is done more thoughtfully in Europe (and New Zealand, btw). Here, users pay more for electricity consumed during peak times. As a result, people are more conscious of both the amount of electricity used and the timing. Many households do expensive things – like run the washer (no one has an energy-wasting dryer) – in the late evening.

Things About Italy:

  • Fat guy in a little coh-oht…

    Having to do both with fuel efficiency and parking, everyone drives some incarnation of a Honda Civic hatchback. When we thumb rides, we’re always glad we have small packs! Everyone also owns a scooter, I’m told. While the swarms aren’t half as thick as Southeast Asia, they are twice as funny. I always catch myself humming Chris Farley’s Tommy Boy ditty with the new words “Big Guy on a Little Bike.”

  • When we don’t hitch, we can be found purchasing bus tickets at the mini-mart. Nearly all “Tabacchi” double as vending points. Once inside the bus, I always get a laugh out of the placard that breaks down bus capacity into seated (47) and standing (25 more!): Italy is a fascinating combination of western and developing-world thinking.
  • Oh delicious nectar, there isn’t enough bread in the world for your heavenly flavor…

    The Italian diet really is bursting at the seams with wine, pasta, and olive oil.  Most of the households we’ve been in drink “vino” at both lunch and dinner. They also each have a supply of the most gourmet oil possible (their own or a friend’s) which sits next to the salt shaker at meals and is added to everything; bread, pasta, salad, beans, tomatoes… While at first it seemed strange to pour myself a small plate of oil, salt it, and soak it up with bread, it’s now one of my favorite snacks! And of course we all know pasta is a common Italian meal. How common? Even hole-in-the-wall grocers and convenience stores will have an entire wall dedicated to (packaged!) pasta.

  • Other food stuff (ha!): Pesto is insanely cheap. A container that would fetch $5 in the U.S. is on offer for $1-$2. Yeah! Next: “Coffee” is a synonym for “breakfast” here. A common practice: get the biggest mug you can find, fill it with (warm) milk, add coffee, then add breakfast cookies, cereal, etc. Really. Breakfast cookies. Finally: in a sort of eat-what-you-can-find-hunter-gatherer-throw-back, when a small village grocer orders a fresh rotisserie pig, the whole village eats pork. And so on…
  • How to speak Italian when you don’t speak Italian

    Waiting in line to pay at just such a store I witnessed the best example yet of Italian expressiveness. It started as one customer telling the grocer about Zumba Fitness and exploded into a cacophony of shouted opinions on the subject from every woman in the store – complete with typical Italian hand gestures and a few “Mama Mia”s!

  • Dialect is everywhere in Italy – to the point that people from one region struggle to understand those from another. So on top of tenacious dedication to my Italian studies, I also spend many pained minutes in fierce concentration trying to sort through accents and regional words.

  • In Rome the newscaster’s script is an actual newspaper with headlines highlighted and main points underlined. There is even a “paper-cam” which feeds the audience regular shots of whichever headline or story is being discussed. Umm…

  • In news this year: the Italian Catholic church owns shopping malls, hotels, and other commercial properties and enjoys tax free revenue from those sources. “A growing wave of Italians are opposed to what they see as special privileges in the face of a tightening economy.” Times, they are a changing…

    In a country where, at least in the smaller villages, “every day is a (catholic) festival,” the Pope’s organization wields a stunning amount of power. The church gets an allowance from the government for each Catholic citizen. Nearly all of those counted are Catholic by birth, not by choice. So what happens to those taking a stand against the dubious practice? Extortion! To keep one’s tax dollars out of Catholic coffers, one has to officially renounce the church. Upon taking this action, one receives a letter from the church full of vague warnings about the future impact of this decision – everything from not being allowed a Catholic funeral to insinuations that the person “may have problems” if they ever need approval from the powers that be (starting a business, building permits, etc.) Really!

Things About Things:

  • One may wonder how on earth Italy doesn’t struggle desperately against obesity when their citizens overload on carbohydrates, drink more than one adult beverage a day, and drown everything in 100% fat. While it would take a whole other entry blog to hazard a worthy guess, I did notice the “American” meals we occasionally make for hosts leave me feeling completely stuffed. Local meals, while equally voluminous, must be less dense, among other things.
  • The product of perseverance…

    Relationship skills are among the many “how-to’s” one can hone traveling. Being attracted to my opposite, trouble bubbles up when things get tense. When my man-friend is tired, he dissolves in a pile of babble – randomly blurting out silly phrases, melodramatic reactions to minor hiccups… When I’m tired, I get cranky, quiet, focused, and monstrously annoyed when my attention is usurped by anything that isn’t absolutely pertinent in getting home/to our destination/etc. Obviously there are lots of opportunities for me to practice patience and for him to get a handle on his LSD-trip-ish reaction to sleep deprivation.

Bring on more travel! ♣

Photo credit links: ice cream logos, bikini ad, chris farley, olive oilitalian hand gesture, money church.



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