Valium Vickie

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Italy Through the Eyes of an Ignorant Comedian: Introduction

So exhilarating to stand in the very same building where that kick-ass Russell Crowe movie was made.

Over the course of 12 long, exhausting and amazing days, I had the opportunity to see Italy for the first time. My wife and I crammed in stops at Venice, The Cinque Terre (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso), Pisa, Florence (with a Tuscan wine tour a few miles outside of the city), Rome, Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast (Sorrento, Positano and Ravello) and Naples. While you really should allow at least a month for a trip like that, we didn't have the time. My wife has burn victims to treat, and I have a daunting backlog of prank emails to send.

Instead of basking in the beauty of our foreign locale, we trained, bused, boated, walked, ran and climbed at a frantic pace, stopping only for essential three-hour, multi-course meals. From the crack of dawn (8 or 9 am) until well after midnight (11:30 pm at the latest), we saw as much as we possibly could at each and every place we stopped. Plus, thanks to Rick Steves, the European travel guru and owner of what my wife calls "boyish good looks," we did everything very efficiently.

I'm going to be documenting every stop of the Italy trip over the next few weeks, but first here are some general thoughts on a country Rick Steves says offers "Europe's richest, craziest culture."

Italy feels like many extremely different countries

While I regret not being able to wander around a bunch of European countries, I'm glad we settled on Italy as our one European destination. From the surreal labyrinth of interconnected canals and narrows streets of the  "City on Water" in Venice to the dominant background of the modern world's first dome -- The Duomo -- in Florence to the exposed ancient ruins of The Forum in Rome, Italy is rich in unmatched historical beauty. The stark differences in the scenery, food, culture and people from place to place made it feel like I needed to get my passport stamped at each stop. Sure, our country has some plenty of contrast but, with all the chain restaurants and Walmarts in proximity to practically everything, it all still feels like America ... except for maybe Texas. 

Italy just feels disjointed, and it has its reasons. For one thing, it's new -- even compared to this place. Italy didn't even become a unified "country" until the mid-1800s. Prior to the unification, Italy was a hodge podge of city-states just trying to do their own thing and avoid being conquered. And if you want to go even further back, Italy was basically Rome or the Roman Empire, one of if not the single most powerful empire in the history of the world. Of course, Rome essentially fell because of its penchant for orgies and primitive selfie sticks. Mix in an artistic, cultural and scientific Renaissance period we haven't seen the likes of since, a god-awful plague, an interesting relationship with Christianity and Catholicism, and religious devotion to a proper meal, and you have yourself a very memorable country. Where did I learn all that? St. Paul's Catholic School in Norristown, PA? No, from the man who gave us the 80 euro 30-minute gondola ride.

I thought the middle-aged Asian man with the self stick in front of me would make for the better photo.

Italians defy the aging process -- or the American idea of it

To save money, I'd finish the uneaten crustaceans that tourists left on their plates.

Because Italy is renowned for its world-class cuisine, I was expecting a country filled with people resembling that obese pizza chef cartoon, waddling through the streets and stopping every few steps to catch their breath. But the lack of fat people in Italy is staggering -- or the lack of fat Italian people in Italy is staggering, anyway. There were plenty of fat Americans everywhere. There were even some fat Germans, fat Asians and fat people of ambiguous ethnicity, too. The native Italians, on the other hand, were all slim, trim and remarkably nimble (the middle-aged guide of our Florence bike tour effortlessly navigated the hills of the city in skinny jeans). I've been told there's no escaping the saggy, beer-belly body that virtually every middle-aged American man morphs into eventually, but the Italians convinced me this doesn't have to be the case. If I want to stay fit, all I have to do is walk everywhere and maintain a diet that consists of a cappuccino for breakfast, a large lunch and light dinner, and between 34-75 cigarettes per day.

That's the other thing about Italians. They LOVE their hand-rolled cigarettes with a fierce, unbridled passion. In Venice, I saw an older man with a baby in his outstretched arms and a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. When he puffed on the cigarette, the smoke would float right to the baby, instantly causing the future smoker to brighten to a pure and radiant smile.

If you could see the pure joy on this baby's face when the delicious, unfiltered tobacco hit his little nostrils, you'd probably be hard-pressed to believe anything bad ever happened to a person just because of cigarettes. I was so moved by the sight of this that I got out my phrase book and asked the old man, in perfect Italian, if I could please blow smoke at the baby, too. The man obliged, and I took the baby and one of the man's cigarettes and went to work. There I was, more than 5,000 miles from home in some crowded alley in Venice, partaking in the time-honored Italian tradition of blowing smoke in the face of a baby -- Fumatori il bambino -- and thinking to myself, "This is it. This is the real Italy I'm experiencing right here."

Anyway, if you love cigarettes, then Italy is the place for you. Italians are always smoking -- and they're doing it everywhere. For locals, every task seemed to require a new cigarette, and finishing a meal without a smoke break was the exception. Most restaurants would ask if we wanted to have a cigarette before looking at the dessert menu. While there are "rules" about not smoking in certain areas, those rules have plenty of wiggle room. For example, you're not allowed to smoke on a moving trains. However, you are allowed to smoke on a train during the 10 minutes or so that the passengers are boarding because, smoking in the middle of a train with its doors open is basically the same as smoking outside.

Italy isn't for germaphobes 

If you're one of those people who needs to use Purrell before, during and after everything you do, then Italy probably isn't for you. The whole fear of germs thing hasn't really caught on over there. My wife was constantly talking about how nobody washed their hands after using the bathroom, and there certainly weren't any of those ubiquitous signs you see over here about what employees must do after a trip to toilet.

I wish I can tell you that I didn't pee in the one on the left when I was drunk.
For the record, I don't think Italians are any more disgusting than us. I just think they're more free about their bad habits. I actually saw two men engaged in a lively conversation when one of men brought his hand to his nose and started digging ferociously in his nostril without breaking eye contact with his conversation partner. When the nose-picker got what he wanted, he simply brought his hand down and wiped mess off on his pants. The other man didn't show any type of reaction, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the pickers' actions.

Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe unlike over here, picking your nose isn't something you need to hide or be ashamed of. Italians may be a bit lax about the cleanliness of their hands, but they're meticulous about their assholes. The number of bidets in Italy is impressive. I saw a bidet at a fancy (i.e., pay) train station restroom and thought, "Who decides, 'Well, I've got 10 minutes to kill until the next train arrives, so I may as well give the old starfish the once over ..." Who knows, the Italians may be doing it just right. Maybe if we all spent a little bit more time worrying about the state of our buttholes, we wouldn't be so afraid of the germs that come in contact with our hands.

Those are my first impressions of Italy and its people. Now it's time to get into the specific places I visited. First stop: Venice.