La Dolce Vita

September 20, 2007 - Rome, Italy

No photos this time, since Swiss internet prices make us cry. (You can, however, see some Venice ones if you go to 'Pictures'.) We are currently experiencing a sharp downturn in average temperatures, but the Alpine scenery makes up for it. Hope you enjoy our reminiscences of a much warmer time!

Regular text is Lauren; italics is Henry.

Our seven-month trip can be broken into stages; these are generally related to locations, but have more to do with distinct shifts in culture and experience. In England, we eased into the travelling lifestyle with a minimum of difficulty, with our only major struggles involving the weather and the exchange rate. Egypt was an abrupt about-face, where the unexpected pampering we experienced as part of a tour group softened the challenge of dealing with an entirely unfamiliar culture. The Busabout northern loop toughened us up as backpackers, and we emerged with an extensive knowledge of hostels, internet cafes, walking, pasta sauces, budgeting, canned ravioli, and the €1 salads at McDonald's. As we entered Italy, we knew that the next phase of our journey had begun.

We were both really looking forward to Italy. The reputation of the country's food, music and people is legendary and we had high expectations. I was looking forward to dusting the cobwebs off my Latin studies and couldn't wait to visit Rome, the ancient centre of power and the cradle of civilization.

Almost unconsciously, we expected Italy to be hot, laid-back, full of amazing food, and peopled with the friendliest folk on earth. All of these things proved true to a certain extent, but Italy is a country that's full of contradictions. It was unambiguously hot - tick that one off. We had previously pooh-poohed any suggestions that the weather would be difficult to deal with, since Adelaide's Mediterranean climate had obviously prepared us better than most. 35 degrees? Pleasantly warm! Get to 45 and we'll talk. As it turned out, the heat nearly did us in, since we failed to take into account that a) at home, we're not stupid enough to walk around in 35-degree weather all day long, and b) at home, there is air conditioning. We eventually got into the habit of sticking our heads under obliging taps whenever possible, which eased that headspinning feeling considerably. (Italy, incidentally, is not suffering for water. Their drinking fountains do not have an off switch, which utterly floored us. We became extremely thankful for those omnipresent drinking fountains; in sweltering Rome, even Henry "Camel" Jones started to chug down the liquids without being nagged.)

As Lauren notes, public water fountains were ubiquitous and the water flowed freely. Most European countries, in fact, are far more generous in their water usage than we are able to be in Australia. It seems like such a waste of water but in many European countries, they simply have more water than they need.

Laid-back? True in that we could linger over a coffee for two hours if we felt like it, but also true in that the coffee would sometimes take approximately two months to arrive. True in that Italians never seemed to be in a hurry, which was refreshing in some ways but utterly infuriating in others: don't stand and have a chat in the middle of the footpath, people! Paradoxically, Italy's laid-back attitude was a major source of stress for us, as people never moved to let us pass and never seemed to realise that we might be in a rush. We eventually formed the theory that since Italy has a wonderfully open culture, its inhabitants are oblivious to the system of hints that has become ingrained in Western mentality. In Italy, a sigh, a cough, or a shuffling of feet will not result in anyone ceasing to ignore you; instead, you simply have to ask for what you want. While at home it's often considered rude to be direct, in Italy it's the opposite. On the downside, subtlety is not abundant; on the upside, passive-aggressiveness is non-existent. Embracing the cultural differences results in a much pleasanter travelling experience; unfortunately, this is not easy when you don't speak the language.

Our failure to speak Italian (Henry has a tiny bit, but mine is limited to the phrases I remember from first-year Italian for Singers: Buongiorno, Ciao, Grazie, Scusi, and Capre Tibetane - don't ask) did not work in our favour when it came to dealing with anyone in a position of authority. We'd heard many stories from fellow travellers about how rude everyone was in Paris, but in our experience, Parisians were lovely as long as we launched into our broken French rather than begin a conversation with the fatal "Parlez-vous anglais?". In Italy, we experienced something of the non-local-language-speaking phenomenon. People on the street were delightful and always eager to help us, but as soon as we uttered the phrase "Parla inglese?" to anyone in tourism, hospitality or retail, we apparently transmogrified into pieces of dirt on the bottom of said person's shoe. I was reduced to tears more than once due to the blatant rudeness we experienced. I can only guess that maybe these people had encountered many horrible Western-imperialist tourists in the past, and thought we were cut from the same cloth. But, Italian people, it's not that we expect everyone to speak English, or think that everyone should! It's just that we don't speak enough Italian to communicate with you, so we're just asking the question in case you happen to speak our language. Once again, we certainly don't consider it a requirement for you to speak English, but if you're working in a train station during high tourist season in a resort town (I'm looking at you, Sorrento man), it is NOT rude of us to just ASK if you speak English. It's fine if you don't, but nix on the attitude, 'kay? Thanks.

We found it strange that the rudest people were those who worked in the tourist industry; we generally had very positive experiences with the people we encountered in our day-to-day interactions. When we were arriving in Rome, we became geographically embarrassed (no, not lost) while trying to find our hostel; an elderly lady who spoke no English saw our perplexed faces and took us to a shop where she knew we could find English-speaking locals able to help us. This treatment was a stark contrast to our interactions with people at train stations and other places where you would expect courteous, efficient and helpful service!

I am happy to report that our expectation of amazing food was entirely fulfilled: Italy's pizza, pasta and gelati was every bit as good as we'd anticipated. We got off to a roaring start in Venice, where the budget haven of Campo Santa Margherita provided us with gigantic €1.80 slices of pizza and enormous €2.50 helpings of gelati for lunch each day. We tried a three-course meal in Rome, emerging extremely bloated but convinced that Italy's cuisine could not be beaten. In Naples, the home of pizza, we sampled authentic thin-crusted margherita pizza and concluded that the original is the best. In Florence, the amazing Gelataria Vivoli raised our expected standard of gelati forever.

We've now had baguettes and snails in France, sausages in Germany and tapas and paella in Spain. Though the national foods of all these countries are delicious, Italian food is without compare. Perhaps it's because we are so familiar with pizza and pasta or perhaps it is because the preparation and presentation of food are so much a part of Italian culture. Whatever the case, we consumed copious amounts of pizza, pasta and gelati during our month in Italy and hardly had a bad experience.

Italian Cuisine Awards
Best pizza: The margherita pizza we had in Naples - simplicity rules. An honourable mention goes to the slices from Pizza al Volo in Venice, but our encounters with Italian pizza, apart from one regrettable experience in Positano, were pretty much universally fabulous.
Best pasta: A tiny family-run restaurant in Naples provided succulent gnocchi for me and glorious bolognese for Henry. The penne all'arrabiata during our three-course meal in Rome made the resulting bloat worth it. An indulgent lunch of trofie al pesto in Manorola was worth every penny. Three-way tie!
Best gelati: Gelataria Vivoli in Florence definitely wears the crown for quality, but our beloved Il Doge in Venice is a close second (and wins hands-down on value for money). Other memorable experiences occurred in Naples, Positano and Capri; favourite flavours included chocolate with coffee beans, lemon cheesecake, tiramisu, chocolate and hazelnut, panna cotta, raspberry, melon, and kiwi. Are your mouths watering yet?

Mine is.

One thing we didn't expect about Italy was how unfamiliar everything would be. We'd been travelling through the more northern European countries for nearly two months without quite realising how similar they were in a lot of ways; each one has its own traditions, of course, but they all have the same chain stores, the same clothing sizes, the same supermarket products, the same general way of life. In Italy, everything changed. I suddenly had no idea where to go when I needed a new pair of shorts, no kitchen possessed a microwave or kettle, all the shops shut for siesta in the middle of the day, public parks became a fond memory, and we inevitably had to pay for the privilege of sitting on the beach. I never would have expected to suffer from culture shock in Italy, of all places, but that's what happened. I don't want to sound like one of those people who wants everything to be the same; Italy is perfect the way it is. It's a wonderful culture, and a beautiful country, and we embraced the changes as best we could - it was just hard at times, especially when we had no idea what was happening!

The Italians seem to have modernised without losing their culture. Germany and France are wonderful countries but in many respects they are Western democracies that have moved imperceptibly slowly away from their cultural traditions. The Italians, however, ever proud of their former empire, fully embrace their heritage to the extent that their society is still patriarchal and their family ties are strong. There are, of course, negative aspects to this, but I found it refreshing to know that not all cultures are submitting to the overwhelming force of globalisation.

Stay tuned for more about the individual Italian cities, and our impressions of Spain. Also check out our itinerary (click on 'Map' just below the 'Foreign Postings' header) to see what we're getting up to for the rest of the trip. Only one month today till we leave for home!


Nancy F:
September 20, 2007
Wow, kids, I just got caught up on your last two months. I love the little tidbits about how people in different places and stations respond to you. There are lovely people and the less lovely everywhere. Hope you enjoy your last few weeks!
September 21, 2007
Thanks, Lauren and Henry, for all the interesting detail. We certainly had the same experience with regard to language in Italy. Forte, pianissimo and the like didn't get us very far at all! But what a place - so rich and colourful. Continue to travel safely.
lou jones:
September 21, 2007
How observant & perceptive you are! You summed up so many of ,I think , the magical aspects of favourite place in the world!! Even the crabby man at the train station adds to the memorable experience..che! What an incentive to learn the language before you return! Hope you will try to recreate that Neopolitan pizza marguerita for us when you come home!? Can't wait to see your photos. Enjoy your next month of adventure! Love ++
September 23, 2007
Wow, I am drooling over the food porn. Good to hear from you, hope the last month is wondeful.
September 25, 2007
Thank you for sharing your experiences. We loved Italy, only a week
but Alan was an Italian student and we lived the life.
Our baby William Grenfell Douglas Bentley is very special, so much
love to share, I cherish every moment.
Ballet and music and art just pouring in to Adelaide at the present time.
Enjoy the final fling of your journey. love Margie
May 18, 2010
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