My experience with the land of my ancestors

Oh Italy! My entire life, I've been tied to Italy in one way or another. My sister and I grew up with the story of our Sicilian grandfather, who had come to America with his family (or been born here shortly after they arrived, no one is sure) and had suffered such harsh racism for their origins that they had to change their surname. When I got my first car, I proudly adorned it with the extra-fee "Italian American" license plates and at the ripe old age of 18, my sister and I went to get matching wrist tattoos of our original Italian surname.


I heard romantic stories about how my father's grandparents couldn't speak English very well and would Italianise his name and speak to him nicely in the old language when he went to visit as a child. He himself never learned the language, but I did go through a time in my early twenties were I learned a decent amount of it to feel more connection to the homeland.


It may sound weird to a lot of people, all of those thoughts about a place that I'd never been, but it's pretty common in my home country, because rarely is anyone from there originally. Those that are, are fiercely proud of their heritage; and those who come from immigration of the 18th and 19th centuries, like me, are proud of where our ancestors once were. It's a common topic of conversation to discuss where someone's family comes from. And even upon hearing someone's surname for the first time, it's an automatic response to decipher what part of the world that may come from.


But in all that time learning italiano and getting tattoos and random paraphernalia, the closest I had ever really been to Italy was the version that exists in New York City. Which, by all accounts, is so far removed from Italia that New York Italians have trouble even understanding modern Italian when they go on their European vacations.


I'd never even really had Italy on the top of my "to visit" list. I think it's a bit of "never meet your heroes" mixed with the fact that it's not so easy to just hop to Italy for a trip. But then I moved to Europe. Specifically, to the Czech Republic, which only keeps Austria between it and the country of my forefathers.


So when my husband and I decided to rent a car and drive around central and western Europe for 8 days, I planned a stop in glorious Italy for two nights.


We could have stayed in a famous city like Milan or Verona or perhaps Venice, but I wanted to stay in smaller cities. This is our chosen path in our travels as it gives us a more exciting adventure with a realistic view of a country. And we avoid falling in to tourist traps. Though I imagine Venice is amazing, what am I going to bring from that experience that I can't vicariously absorb from a million others?


The city I chose for our stay was Brescia. It was as close to the centre of the country as I could get us and boasted having two of the largest lakes in the country just a mere half an hour's drive from where we were staying.

Now, I had been having a rough time driving around Germany and France in the four days prior to our entrance over the border to Italy. I had been learning all of these foreign signs and rules on the go through nearly 20 hours of driving and had been almost brought to tears a time or two simply from the frustrations of not being in control of my own knowledge of the road. But, by our last day in France, I was used to it. I felt completely confident driving amongst the alps.


Then there was the Mont-Blanc tunnel. The leisurely and beautiful drive through the country tapered to a long line of cars at a checkpoint where we were asked to pay a toll of 40 euros simply to drive through the tunnel. The 10th longest tunnel in the world, though. I wasn't even aware that there would be a tunnel.


It was as though the very moment that we crossed through that toll station and on to Italian soil, everyone instantly forgot how to drive. As though there was an invisible force field that demagnetized driving  ability and replaced it with pure automobile insanity.


I was only vaguely familiar with a stereotype that Italians are bad drivers, so I'm not trying to perpetuate anything I imagined through bias. No, I was honestly shocked by what happened. From the very first instant to the moment we reached sweet, sane Slovenia, I never had a moment of calm behind the wheel. And I drove through the thickest part of the country.


I don't want to dwell on the driving experience (though I was doing it for about 7 hours of my life), but a few things I noticed were:


  • Shoulder checking doesn't exist. It seems that you are to watch your front only and expect everyone else to do the same to keep you safe from behind.
  • A turn signal doesn’t mean "I want to be over there," it means "I am in the process of moving in this direction."
  • When there is road construction (which there was constantly),  and you need to move out of the closed lane, no one will let you in. You have to forcibly take that space and just pray that the person you're cutting off is paying enough attention to not kill you.
  • There are signs all over the highways reminding drivers to keep a distance between yourself and the car in front of you, but absolutely no one reads them. You will always have someone trying to drive inside of your car from behind.
  • Speed limits are suggestions. Some go way under and most go way over.
  • If your car has limited horsepower (which mine did), you are closer to death than is comfortable every time you try to change lanes, enter a roundabout, or turn. This is why Italy makes such fast cars.
  • Parking is a nightmare. Nuff said.
  • People will quickly get in front of you just to then slow to a crawl immediately. You have to constantly be on edge because every moment in unpredictable.
  • There will always be hundreds of cars, trucks, and big rigs surrounding you at every moment. There are no nice stretches on the highway.


Since we couldn't check in to our apartment until the evening, we had previously decided to explore Lake Iseo. I was no longer looking forward to this, but thought at least we could park and I wouldn't have to move the car anymore. We could go enjoy the lake.


But we made this journey in July. We went to Italy in July. …July. It was like walking in to an oven when you opened the car door. In Fahrenheit, it was more than 100 degrees outside. Since we had Lucy with us, it was definitely not cool to keep her out and walking for too long and she's terrified of bodies of water, so we had to keep driving.

I stopped then at a few restaurants only to find that we were there during this weird phenomenon of national closure. Everything closes from  something like 13:30 to 16:30 daily for riposa, the Italian version of a siesta. So, if you're a hungry tourist, you're out of luck. I guess I was going to just have to keep driving.

But the more I drove, the more complicated it became. The streets got narrower, and then we were stopped by some police to tell us that their city is not for driving so we had to turn around. So did everyone else. All the traffic. On the narrow road, together, as we headed back through countless towns with nowhere to park and nowhere to stop the car. I wanted to stop the car so badly that I just pulled off onto a reserved parking area to gather my thoughts and let all the dangerously close cars pass me.


Luckily, when we reached our apartment in Brescia, the parking was easy and accessible and the neighbourhood was not in the city centre where all the complicated streets are.


At this point, though, I was pretty much completely disillusioned on the whole aspect of Italy. After the day I had had driving through, completely stressed out and yelling at my family, I was done. I wanted to go home and never drive again.


Our first order of business, since we still had another hour before we could check in, was to get food. Thankfully, by this point, the riposa was over, so we did what any self respecting tourist would do and we got ourselves a pizza.


When we visit Slavic countries, my Russian husband does the talking. But I have domain over the rest of Europe. I had meant to freshen up my basic Italian before our journey but, you know how things can be when you're a procrastinator. I figured I would be fine with the Italian I had taught myself six years prior. If I got lost, maybe I could just use Spanish with an Italian accent and see how that goes.


We found a little pizza place called Mondo Pizza (I already felt confident when I knew that it meant "World Pizza") and I entered bravely with my wallet, armed with the knowledge that pizza is an international word.


"Bongiorno" I said slyly. "Il Italiano mio non é…buono…"


The three workers (or two workers and their buddy) excitedly made an "ah!" noise and threw their hands up in the air and chanted "buona!" in encouragement.


I froze for a moment as I realised that I couldn't remember the very basic verb "to want." I couldn't remember how to say "I would like" "I want" "I'll have…" none of those really important words involved in ordering. (For reference, simple "Io prendo" would have sufficed).


So I just said "Uh…pizza. Per favore."


Again, I was encouraged with "buona!" and smiles all around. One of the men walked over to the menu on the wall and said a lot of words I didn't understand, but judging by body language, gestures, and the situation, I imagine it was "which kind of pizza do you want? We also have other stuff."


"Eh…Quattro Formagi" I said, knowing that that's a safe bet for my vegetarian family.


More encouragement and a question of what else. I know this is true because they started listing more food words and pointing to the menu again.


"Uh…ne carne." I resorted to the Russian negation accidentally.


"ne?" Our first confused moment.


"No carne?" I panicked.


"Oh!" A smile and a raise of both arms. "Senza carne! Si si!"


Now there was a gesture of "which size?"


"Per due persone" I said, feeling pretty cool about my communication skills.


"Due pizze?"


"No. Una pizza. Per due persone." I felt like a master of language.


"Ah si."


Then I sat by while Seva and Lucy went for a walk and waited for the pizza. The men talked to men from time to time while I waited, but we all knew that that was not going to go anywhere meaningful so I acted like I was really interested in reading the menu.


When it came time to pay, the man wrote the number down on a piece of paper and then read each number to me while pointing to it as a way of giving me a tiny Italian lesson to use later.


And it was the best pizza I've ever eaten. Maybe because of the skills and bravery it took to acquire it, or maybe because of the fact that the American brain is programmed to assume Italy will have the best pizza. But it honestly was.


In fact, all the food was good. Every single thing we ate in Italy was a joy to experience. One evening, we went to two restaurants consecutively just because we wanted to experience more of the amazing food. We ate Piadera (Piadere? Piaderi?) and then immediately went to get more pizza and tiramisu. In fact, I had tiramisu at every opportunity during our two day stay. We even went to a grocery store and bought a frozen pizza to help our pizza fix in the wee hours of the morning. Shame that our oven didn't work. But Seva, drunk on some shitty Sicilian wine, spent two hours cooking in on the stove.


Oh and the parmesan cheese… My goodness. It's my favourite kind of cheese and it was a great joy to buy a huge wedge of it to enjoy on our gnocchi. Ah and yes, of course we had gelato as well. That was probably the least impressive of all the foods.

And at every restaurant, shop, museum…everywhere outside of a car, everyone was so friendly and helpful. They all encouraged my terrible Italian with the same enthusiasm and offered us the best advice on where to go, what to see, and how to experience life in Italy. A kind shopowner even gave us a pack of free tissues to help us with the incredible amount of sweat we were producing. Because, again, we decided it would be a good idea to visit Italy in JULY. My husband, a man from a city above the arctic circle, and me, someone who spent most of my life in the Rocky Mountains, decided to visit Italy in July. I really can't stress enough how little we thought this through. Thank god for the air conditioner in our apartment. Were it not for that thing, I am certain we would have perished.

We definitely learned not to visit Italy in the summer, that is for certain. It was even difficult to enjoy the sights as the sweltering summer sun beat down on the city streets. We were often the only people out and about. While I originally assumed that was due to the fact that everything was closed on the weekends, I think it was more likely because it was so darn hot everywhere. It explains why everything is closed during the day and Italians stay up late at night. It's cooler at night. Hanging out in the daytime could get you killed.


I know it got me pretty burned despite the sunblock I was wearing throughout the entire trip. Once again, we really didn't think this through at all.


We only spent two days in Italy which isn't enough to fully judge, but going by all the landscapes I saw and the highways I drove, I am not really itching to return. I would love to one day see more of the beautiful country. Specifically, I'd like to see Sicily, which is a completely different breed of experience, but I am left without a burning desire to live in Italy like so many romantic films and books have advertised to me. I did love the people, though, and that's more than 50% of my bias towards a place, I've learned. I felt welcomed and accepted and that was really nice. But I can't say the flat expanses of fields and lack of greenery were really my style. Maybe it's much different the further south you go.


But I am happy that I visited the land I'd felt such a connection to for so long, and I'm very pleased that I survived driving there. It was close.