Italy: Disneyland for grown-ups

When I landed in Florence last week, it dawned on me that this was my fourth trip to Italy in two years. I went twice last summer during my month-long vacation in the south of France and once in 2009 upon finishing my French study abroad program. Because I practiced French for five years and lived in Paris for almost two months, I considered France my favorite foreign country. I’m happy to say that’s no longer the case.

Since childhood, I’ve had an inexplicable affinity for all things French. When I was seven, I raided my father’s bookshelf and grabbed his pocket French dictionary, which I attempted to memorize. With help from no outside parties, I was hopeless, especially since I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce letters with peculiar symbols above them, such as “ê” and “é.” Nevertheless, I was determined to learn French if it killed me, in part thanks to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” my favorite Disney flicks.

The first movie I loved was “Beauty and the Beast,” which is based off “La Belle et la Bête” by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and includes characters of French names such as Belle and Gaston. In junior high, I wrote a short skit about a French bistro, forced Crystal and Nikita to take part in it, and sprinkled the few French phrases I knew into the script. Though my French accent was weak and indistinguishable for many years, I was hooked at a young age. By three, I’d embarked on the path to becoming a Francophile.

I successfully made the transformation at 19, but at 23, my interests have shifted and perhaps matured. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for France, but over the past year I’ve become more intrigued by the Italian culture, which seems richer, grander, and warmer than that of the French.

Keeping all this in mind, I was ready to embrace Italy in a different way as I hopped off my Lufthansa flight and onto the bus to Florence airport. For the first time in years, I wasn’t just excited to consume incomparable food, but thrilled for the Italian attitude to rub off on me. I wanted to take a shot at the language as well.

I took to the country almost immediately. My first meal of the visit was a plain but predictable plate of Spaghetti Pomodoro, which was nothing short of perfect. I was close to eating everything in front of me, but because I gained tons of weight on my summer 2009 European excursion, I didn’t want to push it this time around, at least not so early in my stay.

Afterward, we headed to Grom, which, according to my sister’s 2009 assessment, is the tastiest gelato shop in Florence. I could say I agree, but I refused to go anywhere besides Grom for my gelato, so I can’t really be the judge of which business produces the best quality ice cream.

Grom is the Georgetown Cupcake of Florence, Italy, at least when it comes to gelato. People wait in endless lines for the colorful treats, which cost just as much as gelato at different vendors and gelaterias.

That day, I began my quest at learning Italian. Like a 2-year-old American trying to master English, I repeated each Italian word I heard. Surprisingly, this didn’t annoy my mother or sister, who is basically fluent in the language.

Anytime my sister spoke in Italian, I’d emulate what she just said.

While the two of us walked back to our hotel, a waitress approached us and asked if we wanted lunch.

“No, io o mangiato,” my sister responded.

“Mangiato,” I repeated. “Does that mean ‘eaten?'”

“Yup,” she said.

That night, my sister, her American classmate Hannah, Italian buddy Carlos and I went out for drinks. It was then that I really had the chance for Italian language exposure. Thanks to French, I could understand most of what Carlos said, but couldn’t necessarily formulate my own sentences. My sister’s friend commented that I’d picked up on Italian pretty quickly, and my sister said the same thing. From then on, I actually tried speaking Italian, and to my luck, no one laughed at me.

The only trouble I faced was at the dessert shop, where I ordered a Fragola (strawberry) Popsicle. The cashier wasn’t too pleased with my American accent, so he worked with me on my pronunciation until I got it right.

“Just trying to help YOU learn,” he said, and for that I was actually grateful. While in France, I hated it when my host family failed to correct my mistakes. The only way I’ll ever get better is by recognizing my weaknesses, so I welcome the assistance.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons between this vacation and my previous trips to Italy, but I’m happy to report that I’m much more thankful for traveling opportunities now that I’m out of school. During my days at the University of Arizona, I seemed to have unlimited free time and resources to go to Europe. My circumstances have since changed, and for the better. Now that I’m employed full-time, I know exactly how hard it is to take long vacations. I financed my France trip last summer, so I’ve always known the price of European flights, but what I didn’t understand back then was the value of time off. Now that I have a job, I’m aware that it’s nearly impossible to be away for extended periods of time, especially this early in my journalism career.

That brings me to my next point. For college kids, there’s a fantastic view of study abroad and European travel. In French, you’d say it’s “féerique,” fairy tale-like and magical. The kids who do it essentially live the dream, especially those who come out of it with a well-groomed, stunning foreign significant other. When I studied in France, I thought of this as somewhat of a fairy tale for college students abroad.

But on my first evening in Italy, it hit me that this seemingly enchanting situation is indeed surreal—If you’re an undergrad, that is.

I had the opportunity to chat with a gorgeous, fun 22-year-old American girl named Jessica, who is currently studying for her Master’s in art history in Florence. Since moving to Italy, she has met a nice Italian man and been seeing him for several weeks. While I wanted to hear all about the experience of dating a European guy, the prospect of this seemed to much cooler to me when I was 20 and 21 and studying abroad in Paris. Even back then, I was a little turned off by the forward nature of French men, but I was open to the idea of hanging out with one. I remember feeling so giddy about Damien and Christophe, the charming French boys I met in Cannes last summer, but the story is much less exciting now that I’m done with school. I think it’s wonderful that this girl is having the time of her life in Italy, and I take my hat off to her for living in a foreign country, but I know the lifestyle just wouldn’t work for me, and the notion of running off with a foreigner just doesn’t seem all that incredible anymore.

The same goes for my work life. I’m too type-A and into my job to live in Tuscany. Honestly, I don’t think I’d fit in anywhere besides D.C. or N.Y.C, as I thrive off fast-paced workaholics and career-driven people. As much as I love California and leisure, I’ve outgrown relaxed environments. If I’ve learned anything about myself on this trip, it’s that I need to feel free to escape my life every few months, but not for more than a week. I can’t part from the work-obsessed culture of D.C. I’ll always need to be in the center of everything news-wise.

But it’s not all work for me. During my evening out with the group, I engaged in conversation with Carlos, speaking a mixture of French, Italian, and English to him. Thankfully he knew French very well, so I was most comfortable conversing in that. I’m shocked by how much French I’ve retained since my last France vacation. I haven’t really spoken it since August, yet I can remember everything at a moment’s notice. From time to time, I dream in French and accidentally speak it to my American buddies, so my knowledge never went away. It is simply hiding somewhere and only makes occasional appearances.

On day two, we took the train to Lucca, where we rode bikes on a flat, scenic path for two hours. If I can track down a similar spot in D.C., I’d love to bike the area, but hills would definitely kick my ass. Baby steps.

Day three was slightly challenging, as the heat wave and jet lag finally got the best of me. I went on a bus tour to Chianti and participated in a wine tasting event, which was awesome for much of the afternoon. I enjoyed talking to the other people on the tour, eating bread and meat, and having a Corona later on. Most of all, I liked playing with the random dogs I saw running around, even though they were panting and dehydrated.

When I got back to my sister’s apartment that afternoon, I felt dizzy and my stomach began to turn.

Those of you who know me well are aware of my bimonthly Migraines, which I capitalize because they’re so awful and debilitating that I have to drop everything I’m doing to recover. If Advil doesn’t do the trick, nothing will. I typically have to lay on my side, drink gallons of water, and turn off all the lights to begin feeling better. I usually have the luxury of being home when my Migraines invite themselves into my life. Sadly, I got one in Florence that day and was a danger to everyone around me.

The pain was tolerable until I arrived at a restaurant, where I asked for Spaghetti Carbonara and some espresso before rushing to the restroom.

After I ordered the pasta, my forehead was on fire and nausea had hit me, so I didn’t want to be around anyone. Thinking food would make the sickness go away, I tried to leave the private bathroom.

But somehow I’d managed to lock myself in the tiny restroom. The door wouldn’t budge and my heart started to race. Not only was I sick and just about ready to pass out, but incapable of calling out for help. I couldn’t yell through the door because no one would understand my English, especially over all the bistro noise. Even if they did pick up on my voice, I couldn’t possibly explain that I’d barricaded myself in the restroom.

Just as I was about to fall over from the heat and claustrophobia, I fixed the lock and busted out into the hall, relieved.

It didn’t take long for me to detect the culprit for my bad reaction. I’m not a wine drinker, so the sugar, 95 degree weather, and windy roads took a toll on me.

There are many reasons why I’ll never evolve into a real adult. For starters, I hate wine. I’ll have it at dinner, but I almost always feel awful afterward. If I ever get married, my husband will either love or hate the fact that I’d rather chug beer during evening meals than drink wine.

I'm nothing without my beer.

Nevertheless, the wine tasting adventure was worth my delirious, nauseated state.

The bread and prosciutto were unbeatable, too:

The wine tasting tour guide was hysterical without meaning to be. Though she was Italian, she had on an English t-shirt that read, “Bad Girl” and in small print, “not for you.” I’m guessing she was at least 30, so it’s rather amusing to see adults wearing that sort of thing. It brings me back to my middle school days, when “Hottie” and “Princess” tank tops were wildly popular.

The following morning, we took a tour of Pisa, which is gorgeous and much slower than Florence.

Early in the day, we stepped into a giant dome-like basilica and listened to a choir woman chant one of her prayers inside. We were all supposed to be silent as she sang, but at the very end of her song, I let out an explosive sneeze at the center of the dome. The sound echoed throughout the church, my mom started cracking up, and several others pointed and laughed in my direction. It took an hour for me to find humor in the situation, as I temporarily felt as if I destroyed a sacred moment.

The picture is blurry, but I love that dress.

On our way back to the bus, my mom and I ran into a street vendor who was selling Pisa memorabilia and various pieces of jewelry. I told my mother I wasn’t interested in getting souvenirs, but she wanted a few trinkets for the house, so we stuck with the salesman for a few minutes.

After my mom purchased a magnet, she asked again if I wanted to buy something.

“The magnet is cute, but I don’t need it,” I said.

That’s when the street vendor, a Bangladeshi man, chimed in.

“You strong character woman,” he said.

“Thanks, but how could you know something like that?” I asked.

“What we see outside of you not same as inside,” he said. “You strong because you know difference between want and need.”

I’ve heard all this before, but not from street market folks who are out to manipulate tourists into wasting money. Regardless, I didn’t NEED the brief therapy session from some random dude, so I walked off.

Though not a huge city, Pisa is an awesome place to visit. I was definitely amused by some of the (literally) colorful street characters as well:

Wednesday was low-key, so I looked into our hotel a little bit. Built in the 1300s, Hotel Monna Lisa was supposedly a convent way back in the day. The hotel bar supposedly used to be a confessional. Oh, the irony:

The hotel itself felt like a giant house, so I really loved the feel of it. I spent my evenings in the Mona Lisa room, which reminded me of the living room in my childhood home.

Loved that white couch.

Our hotel room, which lacked an alarm clock, might have been haunted. One night, I woke up with a jolt and could have sworn somebody was staring at me. I saw nothing but could feel eyes on me. The following day, I asked one of my family members if she’d gotten any odd vibes from the room. Alas, she too had had a supernatural experience. Two nights before, she’d woken up and seen three flashing orbs on the wall. The light could have come from anywhere I suppose, but the hotel is so ancient it would be insane to assume the building is void of old energy.

Though I ate like a king on this trip, I didn’t put on any pounds, probably because I didn’t overdo it as much as I could have. Even so, I devoured pretty much every dish I received.

On one hand, I was proud of this. As I learned in France last summer, it’s seen as rude and selfish not to finish an entire meal someone else has cooked for you. It’s a sign of respect to metaphorically lick your plate clean. At the same time, it could imply that you’re a pig.

I wasn’t too concerned about how I looked on this trip. Every time my meal arrived, I’d stare at it for a minute and swear there was no way I had the capacity to stomach everything in front of me. But the impossible always happened. I’d chomp away, already thinking about the next bite. I’d keep going until there was nothing left. By the end of the meal, I’d wonder how in the world I’d managed to eat entire plates of pizza and pasta. Best of all, I felt energetic and happy afterward rather than stuffed and full.

I was also impressed by my capacity for gelato, which I had every. single. day.

Went in for a bigger size...

I often bought the same two flavors: Crema di Grom (cookies and vanilla) and Nocciala (Hazelnut). When it comes to food, I find what I like and stick with it. Though I’m up for trying new things, I have my favorites and don’t really want to waste time on anything else.

We spent our final day in Bologna, of which I was most certainly not a fan. My sister’s friend Suley showed us around town, and I loved chatting with him, but the city was gloomy, depressing, and run down. It was hit hard in World War II and long before that, so I got the impression that it simply couldn’t get back on its feet. Maybe it never stood tall to begin with. After all, the city has a high count of rainfall and lacks charm, so I wouldn’t be surprised if its glory days were hundreds of years ago.

Regardless, I loved the University of Bologna campus, tortellini, and gelato, and Suley could not have been sweeter.

The second Leaning Tower?

On a walk to my sister’s apartment in Florence, I inquired about the meaning of “Grom.”

“Does ‘grom’ mean cookies in Italian?” I asked.

“It’s not a real word,” she answered. “In fact, Grom isn’t even unique to Italy. It’s a chain. They have one in New York City.”

I felt so jaded by this place, which I assumed was authentic Italian gelato. As proven by Grom’s website, the gelato shop has many locations, one of which is in Malibu, California. So much for believing I was remotely cultured.

On my final evening in Florence, I went back to Grom for one last time. Now that I’ve been there, Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream doesn’t seem so indulgent or delicious.

Bye, Grom! 😦

It wasn’t all food, all the time for me in Italy. A couple of times a day, I had to look out for my mother, who was getting hit on daily by a studly 27-year-old hotel employee named Giovanni.

We met Gio on our first evening at the hotel. He stopped my sister in the lobby because she responded to him in Italian and he was stoked about Americans using his first language. They talked for a few minutes, but he wouldn’t stop bringing up my “beautiful” mom, who was standing at the end of the room with nothing to say.

At one point, he asked for all of our ages.

“Let me guess. You are 20,” he said to me.

“22,” I answered.

“Wow, and I bet your stunning mother is 19,” he said, winking at her. She was unresponsive and assumed he was just being friendly, but the hot mom comments didn’t stop there. “You are so, so, so beautiful,” he kept telling her.

Giving him a polite smile, my mother said it was time for the family to leave.

That wasn’t our final awkward encounter with Gio, who reminded me of other trouble maker boys I’ve met in the states. It goes to show they’re all the same worldwide. (Some) Gorgeous men can be players and charmers. Don’t fall for anything they say, especially if they pursue you heavily. Some guys just like the chase. This seemed to apply to Gio.

At 11:30 one night, my mom and I ran into Gio at the hotel bar, which was completely empty. He was serving alcohol that night and decided to ask all about us. It didn’t take long for Gio and I to begin speaking French, which really put me at ease. Gio knew five languages, and we decided that French would be the best means to communicate.

“What do you do?” he asked me. “Are you in school?”

“No, I am a journalist and editor in DC.”

“Wow, you’re so young to be working full time,” he said. “Do you like it?”

“I love everything about it. Writing is my entire life, I’d be nothing if I didn’t write,” I said.

Naturally, he circled the conversation back to my mom, who was just a few feet away.

“Is your mother a writer too?” he asked in English so she could understand.

“I used to be,” she replied. “I was a journalist and TV anchor in my twenties.”

“Wow,” Gio said, turning back to me. “So you are following in the footsteps of your perfect mom. Good plan, she is very, very, very beautiful, your mom.”

By that point, it was just deja vu. When I said I needed to go back to my room, Gio asked me to return to the bar at midnight so we could go out at the end of his shift and practice French, Italian, and English. I didn’t come back. Gio was nice but smarmy, and boy am I done with these kind of guys, even on a friend level. Not in the cards.

On Tuesday, my mom and I saw him at the breakfast room, where he instructed me not to sit at the four-person table I’d selected. No one else was around, so it wasn’t as if we were stealing the seating area from others, but he assured my mom and me that we belonged at a smaller, more intimate table.

He went on and on with the mom comments all morning, and my mother eventually found amusement from his compliments.

“Tell me today is not your last day,” he said, giving her a look of desperation and concern.

“No, we will be around until Thursday,” she said.

“Thank God,” he said.

Smiling at me, he asked, “What is your room number?”

“53,” I said.

“Your mom is just so beautiful, I cannot handle it,” he said, looking over at her.

By then, she could laugh about his odd gestures. You can’t help but have an ego boost when someone half your age constantly flirts with you. There’s a reason my gorgeous mom won beauty contests when she was younger.

A while back, a former grade school classmate told me that he was certain I’d marry my high school sweetheart, Kevin.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Because you both have hot moms,” said my friend. “You two are meant to be.”

It doesn’t really work that way, but my mother was flattered by the statement nonetheless. Hopefully this means I’ll take after her and age well.

It’s nice to be back in the U.S., where I can stay updated on the news, get fast restaurant service, and use my BlackBerry. Even so, this is the first time I’ve ever really missed a place. Yesterday at noon, I felt the urge to have post-lunch gelato, but quickly remembered that I can’t get that in the states. I miss the glowing sunshine, tiny streets, incredible food, and historical sites of Italy, which has become my favorite destination spot. Move over Cannes, you’ve got nothing on Florence or Rome.


4 thoughts on “Italy: Disneyland for grown-ups

  1. Nice pictures that bring back my own memories of visiting Tuscany. I think Siena should have been my favourite place but it rained all day so I have to pick Lucca instead. I liked Pisa but not all of the crowds or the tatty market stalls in the Campo. Have good travels wherever you go!

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