This post is sponsored and dedicated to ManGrate. If you’re reading this, mea culpa muchisima. Let’s get some coffee sometime.
Pardon the nonsensical opening. Moving on!
Most important thing first: food.
Above: A sign I liked, pizza, cannoli, gelato, calzone, and arancini.
Do I have any recommendations? Why yes! Here we go:
You’re in ITALY, for St. Peter’s sake. Walk into the nearest cafe and try something. Close your TripAdvisor app and discover that pizza or gelato of your dreams. I understand the desire to find THE pizza place or THE gelato place, but it takes away from the magic when a collection of pixels and code tell you where to enjoy the best Italian food.
“But surely a collection of people outside a place means something…” you say. Definitely! Or it could be a good place that was featured in the film Eat, Pray, Love.
Meanwhile, the pizzeria across the street with no line will give you the best pie of your life, and let you take a picture with the chef. You decide! Julia Roberts’ smug hanging over everything, or a jolly Neopolitan dough slinger who loves the Houston Rockets.
With that out of the way, what follows is what happened in three weeks in Italy:
Staying up all night before a flight and an entire travel day: Am I kidding? I am a quarter century old. Sure, I can party all night in Porto, hop a three hour flight that takes off at the ridiculously early times Ryanair uses to save you 10 euros and them 100s, ride a train (standing up for part of it because they overbooked) three hours, and trek through the city of Chaos itself, Napoli, for a hour with a heavy backpack but….my body will have its revenge.
Oh. Oh yeah. She was pissed. In retaliation, she laid me flat on my back with a 102 degree (39 in Celsius) fever for two days at the beginning of the trip.
But before I became sick I experienced a bit of Napoli.
There’s no better way to describe the city than: it’s. fucking. nuts. Feel more alive than ever as a legion of scooters rocket down the narrow streets, blasting their horns and coming within inches of taking your arm off.
There are FIVE scooters in this one photo. This was a “quiet” day.
Mounds of trash as tall as a person lay everywhere, compelling evidence of the continued plague of the Mafia (or Camorra as this group is called).
At night, young people flood into the streets like ants from a mound in a downpour. One large square ringed by bars is so jammed with people you can barely move.
The first day out, after a bit of walking, I sat down on a bench and enjoyed the view of the city and Mount Vesuvius.
A man in his early 40s approached me and asked me something in rapid Italian, to which I replied “eerrrr….English?”. “Ahhh.” he saidEhhhhhh…what are you doing…alone here?”. After some chatting he asked me if I wanted to see the Castel Dell’Ovo nearby. With some hesitation, I agreed. Yes he was hitting on me but in such a relaxed and charming way that I felt completely safe. We strolled through the old castle and the streets around it, using a mixture of the 5 Italian words I knew, his passable English, and my mediocre Spanish to somehow manage to create a fairly deep conversation. We made plans to meet in a half hour at a pizza place in the center, as he had to rest then ride his bike to it. It took me quite a while to walk and I was late. I anxiously waited to see if he would appear, scanning the crowd and feeling a jolt every time I saw a bike, but he never showed. I was, ironically after mistrusting him at first, very disappointed knowing I’d never see him again. But c’est la vie!
After that my fever came. All the best to Hostel Mancini and its staff for taking care of me. They gave me medicine, made me tea, and played me cool YouTube videos as my body baked.
But as soon as the fever broke I booked it outta there, having lost two days of travel. Nine hours later I was in Syracuse, Sicily, looking for warmer weather and indulging my love of Mafia movies.
MONDAY, TUESDAY, THURS sorry, couldn’t help myself.
After being cooped up in a hostel I hit the ground running when I arrived. Not far from my accommodations I saw a panini truck (think taco truck) enveloped by young people. Perfect: a place to eat and socialize. I’m shy by nature so I had to work up the courage to approach a group of guys and ask them “English?” with a raised eyebrow and a smile. Every one replied “Oh of course of course!”
I hit it off with one guy; we chatted a while then went with his friends to a club on the outskirts of town. The place stood in a small field, and by “club” my new friends really meant “a large barn with colored lights and a dance floor”. So obviously, I loved it.
My mother would kill me for getting into a car with strangers. Funny thing is though, when you trust strangers, you usually just end up making new friends.
I met a Roman god the next night. Well, he was as close as mortals could possibly be.
He was a Couchsurfer I made plans with to meet for a chat and a beer. When I set eyes on him as he approached me, I nearly had a heart attack. He was the spitting image of Karl in Love Actually, and as I would find out, loved cats and truly listened to you when you spoke.
Pictured: not him. But might as well be. How do you say “humina humina” in Italian?
He was taken, but it didn’t matter. It was lovely just to bask in the light of the gods, if only for a little while.
The next day I met the Couchsurfing host who I would stay with the rest of my time in Syracuse. After a coffee we set off for his place in a silver convertible, zipping through the narrow streets of the city towards the sea. The sun out and the top down, I could see the rocky shore and deep blue water through the hair flying around my face. I couldn’t help but feel a little Italian as I put on my sunglasses and enjoyed the ride, the whirring of the engine as he gunned it making the perfect music.
My host is a freelance graphic designer, and the first night we had to visit the office of one of his clients, an optometrist, to finish a project. Together they had developed a new lens for capturing HD images of the eye, and created a presentation to show its capabilities. He told me the doctor wanted to take pictures of my eye…sure, why not? Not everyday you can have an Italian eye exam. A few minutes later, I had a photo of my eye (cue from my host the Italian requisite: “You have beautiful eyes”) and a diagnosis of slight astigmatism. For free, in minutes, this doctor corrected what my optometrist in Texas had spent months and quite a bit of my money failing to fix. YAY communist (I forget my right-wing slurs for universal health care…socialist? fascist? No! I remember: NIHILIST!) health care!
Back at his place, his friends and his brother are over. They give me rapt attention as I answer their questions about my life and teach them some new English curse words. “Douchebag” and “in deep shit” prove to be particularly popular.
Then it is time for the greatest show on Earth.
There is no greater spectacle than a group of outgoing Italian friends telling stories about their lives. Massive gesticulations, raised voices to punctuate an important part of the story, arguments over disputed details, laughs that reverberate around the room, and even a hastily drawn diagram of the time two of the guys made out with some girls at a club, switched girls, then the girls made out. Just insane and amazing and the entire time my mouth hung open in awe. The Italians have the perfect word for the stupid, silly shit people do: “porcheria”. Say the “ch” like a “k” and it’ll make perfect sense.
I think it speaks for itself.
What do you Italians want to do during a get-together with an American? Play Texas Hold ‘Em, of course. “You are from Texas, you must be very good at this game!” HAHAHAHA YES SURE YOU BETCHA.
Well, as it turns out…
We divvy up the chips and cards and begin, the pressure of representing ‘Muricah and Texas and Women on my shoulders. Suddenly, my homecooked spaghetti dinner rears its head:“braaaaap. Oh excuse me.” I felt so comfortable with these guys, even though I’d known them an hour, that I didn’t care about burping. Immediately one I’ll call Rubio exclaims “Oooooooh. Carolyn, will you marry me?”, his earnest face betraying no guile. “Italian women would never be that relaxed in front of a man.” I wanted to say “because of machismo!” but that would be rude and he was so adorable that I just giggled and beat all their asses at the game.
My winnings. Heh heh heh.
Another marriage proposal followed the next day, after I admitted that, depending on the day and the man, I’m either a hopeless romantic or in it just for the fun. One more came after I said know tae kwon do. By the end of the night at the bowling alley, he had nicknamed himself “Husband” on the screen and wanted to “take a picture with his wife’.” All of it a joke obviously, but Italians have a way of flirting that is both sincere and yet seems to say: “You and I both know I am full of shit. But isn’t it just so fun?”
Hearts of gold, really.
The next day, my host took me to see the Castle of Eurialo, a 2,500 year old Greek fortress now in ruins. There was a twist: we were going to sneak through a back gate after closing time and explore on our own. I felt a twinge of guilt for not paying to enter, but once we hopped the gate and pushed through chest-high grass, castle on the horizon, I forgot everything else. We walked through alleyways thousands of years old and in caves leading to the underbelly of the castle, our phones lighting the way. We kept an eye out and ears open so we wouldn’t be caught, a few birds scaring us out of our skins when they would suddenly take off from the ground nearby. Surrounded by complete silence and ancient stone walls, walking on the same ground Archimedes did (he aided the design of the castle), I could feel the enormity of the history pressing upon me. We ended on an outcropping, where we seemed to float above the hills and city below as the sun set.
The last night with everyone was tough, though eating various pizzas topped with things like ground beef, broccoli, and pumpkin did ease my suffering. I introduced the boys to the American drinking card game “Waterfall”. One of the rules is that you can make your own rules if you pull a King, so my “husband” made the rule that you must drink if you burp. Fair enough. Unfortunately we ran out of beer and had to switch to limoncello. It was so tart I thought my mouth would be stuck in permanent duck face.
The morning of my departure they were kind enough to take me for a cannoli (“leave the gun, take the canno-SORRY still can’t help myself) and drop me off at the bus station.
After Syracuse I stopped in Taormina for a few nights, as it features an ancient Greek theater and is considered the jewel of the eastern Sicilian coast. A summer resort town, Taormina lay dead as a doornail when I arrived. But nearby Mount Etna definitely did not, shooting lava hundreds of feet into the night; the eruption causing thunderous booms seconds apart.
It’s the little red spot….what???!! You’d think I’d stay any closer?
It was all enough to keep my attention for a couple of days, then time to move on.
Salerno. The…well…it has pretty Christmas lights, is the most I can say. Not my first, second, or even thirty-eighth choice for celebrating New Years, but it would have to do.
Well ok yeah they were actually gorgeous
My hostel was the one you booked when nothing else was left. Drab lighting and silence filled the place, broken occasionally by the few other people there. Oh and a few times a white flash and massive BANG right outside my window.
Italians set off fireworks anywhere they want.
Yup, don’t mind this flaming rocket outside your window. Mi scussi!
I hit the streets to greet the new year.
Fireworks flew up into the sky from all corners of the old town square, and I could hear the alleys beyond sending up even more. The official city display was an afterthought; as I headed back to the hostel, lights and cracks and booms would erupt from random corners of the streets.
The Final Countdown. Complete with bangs and smoke.
Lovely evening, but I was itching to move on to the Amalfi Coast.
So pretty I kinda wanted to throw up.
Sorrento. Absolutely gorgeous, and absolutely dead. Just right, as I was looking for peace and quiet after World War III in Salerno. I walked the picturesque streets and enjoyed the view of Napoli and Mount Vesuvius across the bay.
I did want a bit of excitement though, so one night I went out with some American friends from the hostel. I predicted a normal night of drinks and conversation. NOPE. There was a lot more creeping involved:
First, like a traveling pothead trying to find a score, we had to stop a couple of people on the street, pull out a translating app, and ask them where we could find a club that actually had people in it. So far, everything had been empty.
They say Fijou Club is the place. Oh boy it was. Live hot piano music, and packed with Italians. We are making our way through the crowd, enjoying our criminally expensive rum and cokes, when I pass a man in a black vest, hear “mi scusi”, and feel two lips touch the base of my neck. Wait, what…Oh hell no…OH HELL NO.
I turn around and find him, tapping him on the shoulder an estimated thousand times because he’s so plastered that he feels nothing. I scold him with a firm “no no no” and a wag of the finger, as if he’s a mischievous puppy instead of a man who physically harassed me.
My friends saw it all and can’t believe his audacity. Later the man, let’s call him “Eurotrip”, comes over and apologizes, first to me, and then to one of my friends. We’d been flirting and Eurotrip assumed he was my boyfriend. So obviously, that meant Eurotrip also had to caress my “boyfriend’s” chest as he says “mi scusi”.
My fake boyfriend, “Rocket Man”, says the guy’s got a thing for both of us. We jokingly argue a bit about who he actually prefers. Then Rocket says we should kiss him on the cheek at the same time and see who he goes for. HA HA good joke! Ha……ha….. Nope. It’s a dare. DAMMIT. I never can turn down a dare.
After psyching myself up, we make our way to Eurotrip and get on either side of him (“Who’s being creepy now?” I ask myself as we circle him like sharks). Several false starts later, I say 1…2….(oh god oh god this guy needs a shave)….3! and we both lay a big smack on his cheeks at the same time. I “win” by getting a wet smack in return.
Theeeeenn a glass of champagne as well. Now this is more like it. My friends joke-but-not-really about it being “roofie champagne”. This isn’t my first rodeo, though, and I can tell Eurotrip has no malice in his heart, just a ton of alcohol in his gullet.
Rocket says we should get a picture with him. Hell at this point, why not? After a kiss a photo is nothing.
Eurotrip then proceeds to point at me and Rocket, saying “bella, bella”. He thinks we look good together. Rocket says “I think he wants us to kiss.” Am I in a bad romantic comedy right now?
“I don’t mind doing it to humor him,” Rocket says. I tell him that “I only want you do it if you want to, not to humor him.” His reply: “Well I do want to, that’s part of it.” How romantic….eh……….I’ll take it.
I quite liked him actually. But he took down my full name to find me on Facebook, and I never heard from him.
Luckily, Rome can make all your cares disappear.
I didn’t pay a cent for accommodation in Rome. Since I was by then scraping the bottom of my bank account, it was a godsend. My first host was a nice, quiet man who took me to an amazing Neopolitan folk concert and introduced me to one of the most gorgeous films of all time: La Grande Belleza.
Watch it. Do it now. This post’s almost over anyways.
The second host cooked meals with ingredients from his grandparents’ village (vegetables, cheese, ragu, wine) and took me on a tour of Rome on his scooter.
I fell in love that night. We hopped on the scooter, the chill of the night seeping through my clothes, but I didn’t care. The excitement of rocketing around the Eternal City on two tiny wheels was enough that I felt nothing else. We weaved through traffic, at times coming within inches of cars, streetlights, people. The mix of bracing cold air flying in my face, whirring by ancient buildings, and the slight danger made me shout “Yeehaw!” But only five, maybe six times.
Trevi Fountain by day. Even in the winter it’s packed.
Trevi by night. Everything, EVERYTHING, in Rome is better at night.
Then we went around a bend in the road and I felt my heart squeeze. With its rough arches glowing gold from the fill lights, the Colloseum at night is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The few drinks I’d had before setting off said I should shout “Mi amor! Mi amor! Bellissima!” at it. My love is eternal. I joke of course (mostly), but just like when thinking about someone you love, the memory of the Colloseum still makes me feel alive.
Honestly everything about the city makes me feel alive:
Outside St. Peter’s
View from the Forum
The…uh well..a bike
Some…ah..some leaves at the Tiber
Sign at Pompeii. I felt bad for smiling at the irony.
By the end though, I was ready for my own bed. But it was very hard to leave.
My time there was more than just a “trip”. The pizza, old buildings, beautiful coasts, gelato, all were fantastic, but the people truly mattered. I miss them all the time, even now. Keep doing “porcheria” guys, and stay safe.
Note: all photos are mine except for the celebrity and movie ones.