Here is part 2 of my abridged Top 25 Italy moments from the past 19 years. As I drew these together I knew it would be about people and circumstances much more than just the place itself. Italy, it seems, provides the canvas for which to paint amazing images. I read many of my fellow bloggers' posts and it is amazing just how close we all are in our assessments of things and yet how much diversity exists in our varied experiences. Now, on to the countdown:
As I prepare to embark (finally) on my Top 10 Italy Moments I am rebroadcasting those that were seen only by friends and people who entered the wrong letters on Google Searches. Welcome to the TBA Top 25 Italy Moments that shaped my passion for the Boot and my need to share. Cheers!
#25 - Rome and Thieves - In 1992 when I was a student at the University of Dallas Rome campus, we were always warned of thieves carrying cardboard signs, thieves that cut your pants and steal your wallet, thieves that would gas your train car and rob everyone in the car while they slept in an "ethereal" slumber, and of course, the talented pick-pocket. I was always wary of these kinds of things to the point of keeping my wallet in my front pocket, propping my train car window open even in the dead of winter so as to not be gassed (while freezing ass), and I even threw a punch into a hapless gypsy's kidney once when I felt him press the ominous cardboard sign against me. I was thief-proof, or so I thought, and I really thought petty crime in Rome was for women and old people.
14 years later I was on a flight from Ireland to Rome with a stop-over in Prague. I had 800 euro cash that I had stored in a "secret" compartment in my checked bags. When I got to Rome's Fiumicino airport (until recently a total shithole with Uzi-clad Abercrombie models posing as guards) and retrieved my bags the 800 euro was gone. This was all the extra money I had on earth. I was working as a trip leader (an abysmal one for sure) and this was all that I had earned and I was being sent home because there was no more work and I was no longer of use. I was pleased to be leaving the company and I was prepared to enjoy a day or two in my beloved Rome before I came home. Needless to say, I had only the 50 or so euro in my pocket and the company credit card for lodging and a cheap meal, otherwise my Rome experience was over. The details of what followed will be in the book for sure and all I will say now is that no one in 1992 prepared me for this kind of experience.
#24 - His Name is Orazio - In the course of human existence, we people have learned the careful practice of rearing domestic pets. As pet owners we are often broken into 2 camps: the dog lover, and the cat lover. I contend there is another special camp for special animals. While these special animals may be of a familiar species: dog, cat, bird, lizard, etc they are not of familiar behavior. Evolution and the nature of a species does not always override the genetic accident. From the outside, Orazio appears to be just a normal cat. He is first of all, very nearly Calico in color which is not even really possible for a tomcat I am told, and he also is not particularly fond of grooming himself. I believe Orazio is not from southern Italy, but from some far away planet, disguised as a house cat, and sent here to spy on the goings-on of the Southern Visions Travel team. The trouble, predicaments, and often hilarious idiosyncrasies and hypocrisy of this "cat" are a book unto themselves. I am not particularly fond of animals, and I really do not even like most human beings on an intellectual level, yet I am fascinated by Orazio and I am confident you will be too. My Italy would not be "MY" Italy without Orazio.
#23 - Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (The Wedding Cake or the Urinal?) - The very first thing that struck my eye on our first trip into Rome from campus in 1992 was how dirty and dingy all the buildings of Rome were at the time and the 2nd thing I noticed was the stark white giant Victor Emmanuel Monument. I remember thinking to my ignorant 21 year-old self, wow, I did not know such antiquities stood in such states of grand repair. Little did I know at the time that I was staring at an artistic aberration reviled by the Romans much like we Americans hate Godfather III. I had no idea the monument was less than 100 years old (literally still in diapers by Italian standards). I was blown away by the contrast of stark white marble versus all the old orange stuff all around me and I loved the monolithic design like something from a Kubrick film had just landed and created the most chaotic round-about in Italy. I did not hate the "Wedding Cake" or the "Typewriter" and I was just glad to see something that looked clean and cared for while the rest of the place looked, well; ruined. I had no idea at the time that I was just a stupid American and by my very genetics I was pre-disposed to kitsch and newness. I was from a small town and so when they opened the first Jack in the Box in Ennis, TX, we all marveled at the architecture. Who was I to admire this pariah in the heart of Lazium? Ahh, I came to understand the disdain for this poor building honoring the man who unified the tribes of old Italy. I came to know why it simply "was not proper" and in that understanding I came to understand Italy much more.
Finally, on one drunken night stumbling back to the Piramide bus stop for our arduous late bus ride home to Vitinia, the most talented artist in our class stopped to micturate upon the base of the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. He looked at me with slitty eyes and slurred speech while explaining that if this was "real art" he would keep walking, but as it stands, it serves the people best as a public urinal. Perhaps in the book my artist friend will allow me to use his name. In the meantime, I still love the monument even if my buddy pissed on the birthday candles.
#22 - Ciceri e Tria - It took four spots for food to make the list and believe me this pasta would be way up the ladder if this was only a Top 25 Italy meals post. One part hand stretched, elongated and loosely uniform pasta noodles, boiled in salted water and one part of these same crafted noodles that have been pan fried in fresher than virginal flesh extra virgin olive oil. The two pastas are combined and tossed with a simple, warm chickpea and olive oil sauce. The combination of textures, earthiness, salt, and pure love in this dish almost gives me chub. We shared this amazing dish in Lecce (the far south of Puglia) with our amazing friends D&E while being led by the incomparably hospitable Paolo Cantele of Cantele winery in the Salento region of Puglia. I can tell you, for my tastes, the food in Lecce is the most comforting in Italy and at the wonderful Alle due Corti (restaurant) you cannot go wrong.
#21 - My first Italian Shower - When I was shown to my room in the former monastery that once housed Phillipine monks I knew I was in for a different kind of living experience. I was immediately struck by the way in which sound bounced about the concrete walls and tiled floor of our 3 bed dorm. Basically I felt like I was in an echo chamber and I wanted to recite ads from Ford commercials I remembered from home, record them, and try my hand at voice-over work. It was loud, brown, and each time a door was closed in the hall it sounded like someone had just clapped thunder for a stage performance. The noise was one thing, but the bathroom was another. There was a toilet which seemed to hold only a 1/2 cup of water and with a strange promontory bit of porcelain within the bowl that came to be known as the "shit shelf", and a bidet that was the subject of much giggling which was often used as a makeshift cooler for bottles of Bruegel beer. Then, there was the tub. Now this tub was approximately 3 feet long and 2 and 1/2 feet wide including the tile trim. The trim was a shade of brown that suggested neo-monk fashion of the 1960s and the inside of the tub was a basin that I am certain a toddler would find cramped. At the head of the basin was a faucet with hot and cold knobs inscribed with the letters "C" and "F". I knew what C was, but what the hell was F? Only 2 temps, Cold and Freezing? I had no idea at the time that Caldo is hot and Freddo is cold in Italian, but boy did I find out when I turned it on. How was I (6'5") supposed to shower here? Where the hell was the shower curtain? Why was everything in Italy so brown? I can still remember my poor, bony, ass-cheeks spreading as I sat that first time in the basin and my exposed anus taking the full effect of cold porcelain. I could not bear the scrutiny of standing and spraying water all over the bathroom while trying to cleanse my scrawny body and trying to explain the mess to my roommates. For the sake of being a conscientious roommate I had to battle anal frigidity and corporeal contortion. Now, at age 40, I am sure without the help of yoga and 2 nurses I could never squat into that position and manage to stand again. Ahh, that first shower said to me, "Michael you will not be clean again for 4 more months so get used to it" and I never really did and my roommates turned out to be far from conscientious.
#20 – Gorilla Photography - In 2002 I took a good friend of mine with me to Rome for his first time. We arrived knowing we had less than 4 full days to explore the ins and outs of the eternal city and we were not there to waste any time. To this day I cannot think of a more efficient 4 days I have ever spent in Italy. We got off the train at Termini station after a very long overnight from Paris. We were supposed to have made a trek through several wineries in Italy on our way down to Rome, but we had been tempted to stay in France longer than planned by languid days sipping beers and playing Pétanque. Now, having missed the better part of our 9 days planned in Italy I was not going to let us miss it all together as I had not been to Rome since 1995 and needed Spaghetti alla Carbonara like Clinton needs cigars.
We hustled off the train, grabbed the first caffe' we could find just outside of the Colosseum and as usual, it did not disappoint. We tossed our bags down in the sparse room in the Monti district and then I remember gazing at the mirror and fancying the few days of growth on my face that I had allowed for the first time since I was married (and at the time on my way to divorce). Once our bags were down we were at a recommended pizza joint within minutes and slamming down suppli' while mapping out our route. The proprietor of the Pizzeria had lived in Jersey for years and came back to his native Rome to do things his way. We affectionately named him Fonzi as he was just that cool, in control, and we of course saw him for Pizza refuel each subsequent day we were in Rome.
On our final night in the city we dined (for my 1st time) at the now famous Grappolo d'Oro Zampano in the Campo dei Fiori where I will never forget the crudo of fresh anchovies served over a bed of thinly shaved local fennel. From there we made our way to a wine bar on a corner and powered through a bottle of something local and precise before returning to our hotel and grabbing the camera gear. This was my last great adventure with celluloid (Nikon 6006) and we hit every major monument, powered through beers and late-night panini while capturing antiquity under the lights and not knowing at the time that we were sharing our final travels together as friends before I up and quit my gig at Central Market.
#19 – White Truffles and Piemonte - In 2009 Juliet and I finally got the opportunity to visit Piemonte. I had been dreaming of a time to visit this part of Italy for years and now, my wonderful friend Mollie Lewis was working for the Malvira' winery in Canale d'Alba and she and I were hatching a plan to bring these wines to Texas. We were coming for our 2nd trip to Puglia of 2009 and celebrating a few days prior to Puglia in Piemonte would be an auspicious start and a bit a of a delayed honeymoon. Malvira' winery is housed on the grounds of the gorgeous Villa Tiboldi and we had no idea what kind of decadence to expect on this journey through the hard-working north of Italy.
Juliet and I arrived in Milan and immediately grabbed our rental Alfa Romeo and made our way out of the city and into Langhe hills. As it happened, I was stopped by a cop for a routine traffic check and when I explained to him that I was from Texas he got very excited and yelled back to his partner that I was from Texas and did his best yee-haw impression before letting me go. Upon arriving at the villa, the staff called down to Mollie and she met us for a great bottle from the cellar and she introduced us to the charming and mischievous winemaker of Malvira, Roberto Damonte. Roberto is effusive in his storytelling and easily one of the most affable people I have met in my years of travel to Italy. Roberto invited Juliet and I to join him in the vineyards the following morning and to subsequently enjoy a typical Piemontese lunch. As we parted ways that evening Mollie warned Juliet and I to go easy on breakfast as lunch would be quite elaborate.
Of course, when we awoke the next morning my wife and I discovered a breakfast spread fit for a Sultan with at least 5 types of local cheeses, numerous pastries, and exceptional late-season fruit all laid before us in the breakfast salon. I tried every type of cheese and at least 3 of the breads all while stuffing fresh toasted hazelnuts into my mouth like kettle corn on Halloween. I washed it all down with a couple of nice coffees and set out for the vineyards. Our meeting with Roberto was unorthodox in that we just blew past the winery and went straight to the vineyards which were producing a little second crop from which Villa Tiboldi produced the amazing grape marmalade I had gorged down at breakfast. I really have no interest in seeing another fermentation tank or another bladder press so I was thrilled to get into the shoddy little 4x4 and up into the steep vineyards of the Roero. The ancient vineyards at the top of the hill are some of the oldest in the region and with a hammock plopped down on top of the hill and the cool November breeze blowing fall leaves we all seemed to be at peace as we chatted, chomped on Nebbiolo grapes and worked up an appetite. I felt like I was at home here and back to the Italy of discovery I had longed for in my planning and my nightly dreams of lottery winnings.
As we approached 12:30 Roberto announced he was hungry and we should pay a quick visit to his cellar before having lunch at the villa. In the cellar there were numerous lovely bottlings of Malvira' and on top of that some of the top Barolo and Barbaresco from the past 10 years; many in large formats. I tried my best to stall in the cellar as my stomach was not yet shod of the weighty raw cheeses and the copious amounts of salumi I had ingested at breakfast. However, my pleas were in vain as we rolled into the dining room and were met immediately by the Sommelier with a fist-sized white truffle. Our first course was carne crudo, or raw beef from the amazing local fassone cow that is covered with olive oil and shaved white truffles. We were each served a pile of beef the size and diameter of a medium hamburger patty which was then summarily covered in white truffle to the point where the meat was not even visible. I am guessing she shaved to a 10 count and basically went through the entire truffle for just 4 of us. My good God, this was simply decadent and nearly obscene. I remember seeing Roberto's face as we ate and he looked just as happy as I was even though he could enjoy the truffles every day while in season. I guess if oral sex was seasonal, I would smile at every opportunity I had to enjoy it during the "oral" season. Mollie told us that Malvira' had their own truffle hunter and they exchanged wine each year for the lovely fungus.
Later that day in Alba we saw a truffle about the same size as we had eaten for lunch and the price in the window was 580 euro. We long to return to Villa Tiboldi and the amazing hospitality of Malvira'