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A Masshole's Guide to Italy

I’m just getting back on the grid after more than a week away in Italy, the first time off I’ve taken in the year and a half or so that I’ve been at the Stool full time. By way of background, I’d not only never been to Italy before, the closest I’d ever gotten to Europe at all was taking the Boston-to-Bermuda cruise. So this was a big move for me. But a necessary one. This year is the 25th for the Irish Rose and myself. (If we make it late September that is; I’m not spiking that ball until we cross the plane and the replay is confirmed.) For our 20th, we talked about going to Ireland, but the exchange rate was kicking the U.S. dollar right in the E Pluribus Unums, so we scaled that plan back to maybe taking the kids to Orlando, but we were all too busy. By the time life quit getting in the way, our big trip turned out to be dinner out sitting next to what was clearly Visitation Weekend between a bored dad and sullen teenager who wore backwards baseball hats and spent the whole time texting people they apparently give a shit about. I was not going let that happen again. So we got together with our couplesfriends doing their 30th and it was ciao, Italia. What follows are a few random impressions of one lifelong Masshole who’s closest cultural comparison is the occasional visit to the North End:

The People: The first, knee jerk reaction I had to the Italians the moment we hit  was confirmed everywhere else we went: These people work. The are builders, designers, masons, pavers, construction workers, cooks, artisans. Say what you want about Mario Bros., but even they have a trade. For millennia the Italians have come up with impossibly audacious plans and then executed them. From a 2000 year old stadium built stone by stone that held 60,000 people (and even in near ruins is better than the concrete toilet seat the Patriots played in pre-2001) to the houses we rented in Tuscany, they have worked miracles. We stayed at a place on the top of a mountain that was built in 900. With a marble sink in the kitchen that is 1,400 years old. And every stone was quarried, hauled up the mountain and cemented in place without burning a gallon of gas or a volt of electricity. And it’s three stories high. The modern stuff in there was personally installed by the Air BnB guy, a fifth generation owner of the place.  We visited a walled city on a hill – literally a castle – that was commissioned by the Pope to be their Minas Tirith in case barbarians came to sack Rome again. In order to withstand a siege, you need clean water. So these people dug one hundreds of feet and 45 feet around into solid stone.  It took 10 years. All of which I’m going to keep in mind as I sit at a laptop all day writing about shit I watch on TV.

The country: Everywhere you go, the landscape has been terraformed for thousands of years to grow useful things. Vineyards. Olive tree groves. Orchards. Seemingly every family we met makes their own wine or olive oil. Grown in soil so rich it could be sold in bags in the garden section of the hardware store. Even though it never rained once and was surface-of-Mercury hot and my lawn dies if I go three days without ignoring my town water ban and run the sprinklers. It’s like God just decided to throw a strip of land in the middle of the Old World just to get you drunk and make things taste good. Which explains all the churches the aforementioned workers built, I guess.

The women. Obviously I only have eyes for my own beguiling lass, but if there’s one common trait the women of Italy seem to have over the rest of the world is they tend to age well. Whether it’s genetics, diet, good living, the heat keeps them from glomming on the makeup or all of the above, I can’t say. But most of them north of 40 are naturally, effortlessly, gorgeous. Like they stepped out of a Fellini film. (Or what I imagine women in Fellini films look like, since I’m more from the Spielberg/Nolan/Tarantino school of cinema.) And like they could no sooner understand Americans with the fake lips/fake cheeks/fake tits look than they could the NFL “catch” rule. Though, like ever culture on Earth, they have a population who seem to have been born 75 years old. And where American old ladies favorite pastime is moving to Florida and eating dinner at 5PM, in Italy they sit at open windows and people watch with a Mona Lisa smile. If Disney wants to make the Italy Pavilion at EPCOT authentic, they should put an animatronic figure that looks like Barbara Bush with one arm on the windowsill waving at the tourists.

The men: At the risk of generalizing, Italian guys seem to fall into two categories. Younger, preternaturally handsome men in stylish skinny pants and short-sleeved shirts. With hair like The Bachelorette contestants that looks like they spent two hours on it, but probably just step out of the shower and shake their heads to make it fall perfectly into place. Them and older. strong, rugged types who are always working on something. In other words, no stereotypes. For by way of example, at my old job we had a department head who passed himself off as The World’s Foremost authority on Italia. And he was insufferable. An over-the-top caricature gilded from head to fingers with gold rings, gold chains, Italian horn pendants and a mustache that practically made you expect him to break out a squeeze box and sing O Solo Mio. I now know he is about as authentic as one of those wooden statues of the Italian chef next to the door at a tacky pizzeria. The million or so locals I saw would laugh a guy like The Lord of the Pinkie Rings off the peninsula.

The roads: Driving was the biggest culture shock of all. I’m a huge believer that if you can make it on the roads of Massachusetts, you can make it anywhere. And we did. Even though I was driving a stick for the first time in 20 years. But Boston driving is the AAA ball to Italy’s Major League insanity. It can’t fully prepare you for the speed of their game and the talent at the next level. Rotaries everywhere where the traffic laws are pure Darwinism. We took a cab in Rome where the driver had literally worn through the leather on his horn. Streets the width of the cart paths at your local muni, filled with tiny cars with drivers wedged into them like Mr. Incredible by makers I couldn’t recognize. The logos on most of them appeared to be Game of Thrones sigils, houses at Hogwarts or symbols from the Periodic Table. I kept seeing this one with a diamond shape that turned out to be Renault, a French car maker I remember as a kid disproving the theory you can class anything up by putting “Le” in front of it with “Le Car,” which kept Le Repair Shoppe in Le Businesse because it was a piece of Le Shit. But is everywhere in Italy. The house on the mountain we stayed at was a 20 minute sphincter-clincher up a narrow switchback road with blind, hairpin turns and two-way traffic. In cities we walked through, these minicars appear out of nowhere like Jason Bourne driving down a staircase. What we never saw in hundreds of miles of driving over eight days was … an accident. Not one. Except for George Clooney’s, but that was on Sardinia, so I’m off the hook on that one. Meanwhile you can’t commute a week in and out of Boston without witnessing at least three. And for the most part the roads have these grandiose names celebrating the great figures of world history. Take a right onto Via Niccolo Machiavelli. A left onto Giacomo Puccini. The first exit onto Guglielmo Marconi. We crossed a small side road named after Dante Alighieri. Flew out of Marco Polo Airport. Meanwhile I defy anyone to tell me who the Christ “Logan” was.

The hat of the international tourist: The NY Yankees hat. You see it everywhere, especially on the heads of people who clearly are not from New York. I saw my own Sox hat and one guy who was Bills Mafia, and that it is. Draw your own conclusions, but John Henry better recognize he’s getting his ass kicked in the overseas markets.

The attitude toward Americans: The Irish Rose speaks fluent Opera, so she was going to be our interpreter. It turns out we didn’t need one. The Italians were unfailingly polite and patient, even the few who didn’t speak English. The good news is, whatever Old World might have used to think about Americans, they have a new enemy. At one time we might have been the Romulans, but the Chinese are the Borg. As a tour guide put it to us, and I’m quoting, “Why should we be nice to them when they’re not nice to us?” And told a story of taking a group of 30 on a tour through Florence and was explaining the history when one guy interrupted with “Is this where we get to drink wine?” No, that comes later. “Then why did you bring us here?” While another went knuckle deep into both nostrils, pulled out two giant snot rockets, rubbed them into a ball and smeared it onto one of the wine casks, right in front of the owner of the vineyard while he was in mid-sentence. Congrats, America. We’re being taken off the hook!

The food and drink: That same tour guide told us he came out as gay to his family and three generations were 100 percent behind him. But when he joked to his grandmother he was turning Vegan, she said “Fine. I will just die now. You killed me.” In other words, Tuscany is my kind of place. I didn’t go to Italy to not load up on carbs. But I got lousy tourist pizza in a quiet neighborhood and the best slice of my life from a take out window in the middle of a tourist mecca. It’s a crapshoot the world over. Everybody knows the rules. You can get drunk on wine for a fraction of what it costs in the States, but finding good beer is a struggle. On the South Shore where I live, every strip mall has a rented storefront with a brewpub producing better than anything we could get there. What they mostly have are the Eurobeers you would drink in the 90s when you were trying to impress people with your worldliness. Stuff from the Czech Republic and brands like Beck’s, which are now covered in dust in packies all over New England. But there’s hope. We were walking down stone stairs of a castle/town, took a left instead of a right and stumbled into a brewpub named Monkey Arts or Monkey Ass or something, with a couple sitting there from Boston. So we are exporting our culture one way or another. What they do need though, is take out coffee. When you order one, they serve it to you in a cup that holds the approximate volume of a Tostitos Scoops. They can provide you with what they call Coffee Americano, but it’s like ordering the Kosher meal. You have to walk them through it. The things you take for granted.

The best place I saw: It’s a tough call. I visited the Vatican. Stood in the Sistine Chapel and did the Robin Williams speech from Goodwill Hunting about knowing what it smells like in there. (Spoiler: It smells like Tourist Armpit.) Like I said, the Coliseum:

And drank my way across northern Italy. But if there’s one place that fits the cliche “There’s nowhere else like it in the world, it’s Venice. I knew there were canals and gondolas and … that’s about it. But it’s indescribable. An architectural miracle. An entire major city built on pilings in a lagoon. A maze of streets, some no bigger than alleyways, all of them with something to offer in terms of bars, cafes, shops or just a view not available anywhere else. With a Kellogg’s Variety Pack of cultural influences. A massive cathedral with statues of saints on top across from a palace with Roman gods next to a huge clock with signs of the zodiac. But not one car. And navigating your way around is like doing an Escape Room, except instead of solving puzzles you’re drinking and eating and people watching. Because not all who wander are lost. I’m glad to be back. But I can honestly say I’m back from the best place I’ve ever visited in my life. And I’ll be back.