Sunday, September 20, 2009
How To Lose Your Sanity in Italy
This is a long blog, but worth reading. I have not had this much to write about a trip in a long time! Even Galapagos was not filled with this many stories!
Before we begin, here is a cast of characters and a little background to help you along:
BackgroundDuring our year trip one of the incredible countries we visited was Italy. Of course we wanted to see all the amazing cities but Troy had an alternative reason for visiting. His great grandfather, who grew up in Italy, moved to the US in 1909. His grandmother, Mary and her sisters were born in the US a few years later. So Mary still has several first cousins there that she has never met since she has never been to Italy. Some US relatives of Mary had traveled to Italy several years ago and had found these first cousins and passed along information such as names, who was still alive and the name of the village, Nocciano, where most of them lived. When we decided to visit Italy, Troy said he wanted to find this village for his grandma, who he is very close to. So we booked a B&B at a major city that we knew was near Nocciano thinking that we would rent a car and drive to the village, take some photos and that be the end of it.
Some of the information that was brought back from the relatives was that Mary’s first cousin, Mario had a son, Nicola, who was a heart surgeon in Rome. Since we knew we were going to be in Rome, Troy made contact with Nicola and we ended up meeting him and his family in Rome.
So to continue with this long story, when we arrived at our B&B in Pescara, we were pleasantly surprised to find the owner, Dominic, spoke perfect English. When we told him why we were in Pescara, he told us to rent a car and he would go with us to Nocciano to find Mary’s first cousin. So Troy called Nicola in Rome and told him we were going to try to find his dad to meet him. Nicola called his dad and told him to expect us the next day. For some reason we didn’t have his address but Dominic said it wasn’t a problem. Nocciano was so small that all we needed to do was stop at the first old person we saw and ask for Mario Luciani’s house. Sure enough, the first old man we saw gave us perfect directions to his house. That afternoon we met Mario, his wife and several other family members. Mario even gave us photos to give to Mary. One photo was of her grandmother who she had never met. Since Troy was so close to his grandma he decided that before it was too late he would get her back to Italy to meet her family. She just turned 90 so we knew that the time was now or never. That is how this return trip came to be.
Onto the StoryIt started out that Troy and his grandma was going to go. He wanted me to go because he knew he would need help. If anyone else wanted to go, great. Rick and Ray definitely wanted to go who in turn invited Carol and Pam to go as well. Mary soon decided that she would pay for everyone to go which meant that she wanted to invite a slew of people. Things rapidly got out of hand with how many people she wanted to invite. It was going to be hard enough as it was traveling as a group of 7 with one of them being 90 years old. But luckily the invite list got under control and I was able to start making travel plans.
I was in charge of the travel plans so my stress started long before the trip even began. It’s one thing to book a trip for just Troy and I. I don’t need to check with him on anything because I know how he likes to travel. It’s another thing to book for 5 other people I have never traveled with and who have not traveled internationally in quite some time (if at all). I had to be the travel coordinator and basically tell people what they had to do, where to be at a certain time, how to prepare for the trip, etc, without sounding like a bitch. However, it ended up that being a bitch was what got results from everyone! Anyways, I had to figure out how to get a wheelchair for Mary (she can walk fine but not for hours at a time); what was the best way to get her around Rome to see all the sights; finding flights with enough layover time to get everyone to the gate in time; etc. Booking the B&B in Pescara was easy because Dominic had 2 units we could use. He said he would help book our apartment in Rome so he became our go between for the Rome accommodations. I didn’t like that. There was an extraordinary number of e-mails that were passed back and forth to explain to him that 7 adults were not going to fit into beds that slept only 5. I don’t care what country we’re going to, it just doesn’t work.
Okay, Let's Go!!!Troy and I knew we were going to need a lot of patience for this trip and that it would be tested over and over again but we didn’t know the testing would start so soon at DIA. We had no sooner gone through security when both Rick and Ray realize they had lost their money pouches. What??? Both of you??? You’re kidding me! Two grown men losing their money before we have even left the country. Ended up when they took their belts off to go through security, the pouches had slid down their pants leg. Or in Ray’s case got stuck in his underwear because that is where he had tucked his. But I can’t give them too much grief. I made a dumb mistake myself of booking our hotel transfer for the wrong day. Me, the world traveler who booked our year trip without a hitch! What happened was September 5 was stuck in my mind for the day we left that it never occurred to me we were arriving the next day. It only dawned on me when we were landing and Troy asked me what the date was because he was changing it on his watch. Troy had received a call at 2am from Italy the morning we were leaving . We couldn’t figure out who would be calling us. I thought it was a coincidence. Ended up being our transfer at the airport wondering where we were! Whoops!
I have to stop here for a moment and give Ray some more shit (that is the great thing about family - we can do that). One of the afternoons in Rome, him and Carol had it free to do their own thing so they went and visited the Roman Forum. This is the central area in Rome where the ancient Roman civilization developed. The oldest and most important structures of the ancient city are located here. Do you kind of have an idea of how important this site is? As they are touring the grounds, guess what Ray did? He picked up a rock from the ground and kept it!!!!!! It’s like going to the Petrified Forest and taking a piece of the forest or going to the Acropolis in Athens and taking a rock from there. You know the old saying “If everyone took one…!” You just don’t do these things! When I found out what he did I was horrified!
Our first day was a good start. After getting settled into our apartment, which was going to be cozy (to say the least) for the next 4 days, we went to lunch and then went to visit the San Giovanni in Laterano Catholic Church, of which the Pope is Bishop of and is considered the “Mother of All Churches”. This church was right by our apartment so it was an easy walk to visit. This was my favorite church when we visited in the past and still is. Stop laughing!!! I can have a favorite church if I want to! Anyways, there are all these…coves… (for lack of a better word because I have no idea what they are called) in a church where people can sit or kneel and pray. So Mary, who is very Catholic, stops and prays at the first one after putting in her 1Euro to light the electric candle. She then moves onto the next cove and sits and prays more. I turn to Troy and say “What’s she praying for now that she didn’t pray for over there?” After that we rested, walked down to the Collosseum which was very near our place, had dinner then started the vacation off with a bang by preceding to drink way too much which pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip.
On Tuesday we had booked a tour of the Vatican Museum, which Troy and I had seen last time around, but we didn’t have a guide so we didn’t get the inside scoop on a lot of things. Such as: Michelangelo was so angry he was blackmailed into painting the Sistine Chapel, that he painted God’s Ass on the ceiling. Hmmm… do you capitalize ass since it is God’s ass we are referring to? There is also a sculpture from the Roman period that looks disturbingly too much like Bill Clinton - I mean, exactly like him! Pompous hairdo and bulbous nose and everything! Oh, and you can see his penis!
After our tour we stopped to get lunch where pretty much a full brawl broke out amongst us. There was mis-communication about who was spending the afternoon doing what, who was going off to do their own thing, etc. and the next thing I know "the adults" were yelling at each other and trying to get the last word in. Mary is sitting at the end of the table completely oblivious to this fight going on around her. She turns to Troy and says “Do you want a bite of my potatas? How about my fish?”
We knew Mary needed to see St. Peter’s Basilica regardless how tired she was, so after lunch and everyone settled down we took her back to the Vatican. We had used the wheelchair that morning for the museum tour because it was going to be 3 hours of walking. We knew she would need it because she wouldn’t be able to walk or stand for long periods. She hated it though. She gave it dirty looks every time we told her she had to use it. So upon arrival at the Vatican, I immediately went to get a place in the long line thinking Troy is bringing up the rear while pushing Mary in the wheelchair. Next thing I know, Rick is getting a phone call from Troy saying they were in already inside! Ahh… the power of a wheelchair! So the rest of us stood outside in the sweltering sun silently cursing the fact that Troy is already inside.
Troy and I had to leave early that afternoon to go pick up tickets to the Papal Audience I had reserved at a Catholic Church that I had found through the internet. Just as Troy and I are rushing out of the Vatican square to catch the subway, Rick calls to say Pam got tickets! What??? How??? It literally stopped us in our tracks because we didn’t understand how she got the tickets so easily. Long story short, the nun in the Vatican gift shop offered them to her because they were having a difficult time communicating how much something cost. Troy and I didn’t know what to do because it was made very clear to us that we needed to either pick up the tickets or cancel the reservation so someone else could get the tickets. I didn’t have the contact information with me to cancel the tickets so instead Troy and I bought a beer, sat outside the Vatican walls and contemplated that we were going to burn in hell for not picking up the tickets… oh, and the fact that we’re drinking a beer outside of the Vatican in St. Peters Square!
Wednesday morning was the day of the Papal Audience. While I was researching tours and things to take Mary to do, I kept coming across this. Since she was Roman Catholic I thought she would like the opportunity to see the Pope. I couldn’t get very detailed information about what this would entail but what my assumption was after talking to other people and what little I read on the internet, I thought we would be in St. Peter’s square with 100,000 other people and would see the Pope as a tiny little speck at his window a half mile away. Sure, he would be a tiny little speck but it would still be the Pope. So Wednesday morning we get up, put on our casual clothes, slather on the sunscreen, get Mary’s umbrella, grab the wheelchair and off we go to the Vatican again. When we arrived 2 hours early I anticipated a lot of people. There were a lot of people but not as many as I expected. After we got through security, instead of going straight into the square which is directly ahead of us, we are directed left through a gate that is guarded by the Pontifical Swiss Guard. I immediately knew something was up since the average tourist rarely sees these guards around the Vatican.
So me, Rick, Pam, Troy and Mary in her wheelchair follow the line of people away from the square towards who knows where. We are then directed into an auditorium but Troy and his grandma are told to go in a different entrance because of the wheelchair. We quickly find chairs because we were tired of fighting the crowd. We sit down, look around and see a large stage in front of us with a huge sculpture in the background with Jesus growing out of it. In the center of the stage is a lone chair and I ask Rick how far are we away from that. He quickly thinks about what golf club he would use to hit that chair and says 75 yards. As 10:30 nears the three of us are sitting trying to figure out what is about to happen. 10:30, on the dot, here comes the frickin Pope! Here we are 75 yards away from him, but guess where Troy and his grandma are? 30’ away. 30 frickin’ feet. They are in the front row barely off center stage. As soon as he walks on stage the whole audience roars to life!!!!! He stands there with his hands raised with the attitude of “I am such a rock star!!!” Afterward we asked Mary what she thought of the wheelchair and she says “Oh, I like the wheelchair now!”
The Papal Audience was the most bizarre thing. Here we are in a group of 5000 people in the presence of the Pope and people are yelling, whistling, screaming (yes, screaming at the Pope) waving their country flags, unfurling huge banners, playing trumpets, there was even a full fledge high school band complete with pom pom girls! It was by far nothing any of us expected!
Have you ever gone souvenir shopping with a 90 year old in a foreign country? Don’t do it! Rick had told Mary from day one that she needed to do her shopping. Either she kept forgetting or what I think is the real case is she wouldn’t speak up when she wanted to go into a store. So after the Papal Audience and lunch we told her it was time to do her shopping. She only wanted to spend $2US per person which in Rome is not getting you much. The stuff she picked out and how much she bought was unreal. After she bought for everyone on her list she kept buying little ceramic figurines “just in case!” When we got to Pescara she wanted to do more shopping. She said she wanted to find “tourist candy”, whatever that is. Then, when we were at the Rome airport, more shopping, then at Washington DC airport, still even more shopping. By that point we all put our foot down and said no because no one wanted to carry her stuff. I was already carrying 5 big boxes of candy for her and I was not going to carry anything else. I know I'm being hard and she’s 90 but there has to be a line drawn at some point!
When Troy and I had traveled through Italy before we were not able to experience the food like it deserves. We were on such a tight budget that we ate as cheap as we could. We made up for it on this trip! For the most part in Rome we ate pasta and pizza – nothing special. But in Pescara and the Abruzzo region we feasted. Our first full day in Pescara we rented a car, went and toured a winery then went to lunch at a place that Dominic recommended. The waiter spoke very little English but Troy was able to order for all of us. We had bruschetta, several antipasta plates, 2 pastas, rosticcini – which are small skewers of the best tasting lamb ever – pork chops and a few other plates I’m forgetting right now. It was a nice $150 lunch!
That afternoon was the first time that Mary was to meet Mario, her first cousin who is 86 and has exactly 4.5 teeth. That evening 12 of us went to dinner at this tiny, no frills, boring restaurant. It was one of those places with the plastic tables and chairs outside, stuffed animal heads on the wall, Pizza Hut table cloths and a fat old lady cooking in the kitchen. But in spite of all this, the food was phenomenal. Our anti-pasta plate consisted of boars meat, the pasta had shaved dried truffles (which evidently are common in the area) and of course copious amounts of wine.
The following day was the family reunion. This was what Troy brought Mary to Italy for: so she could meet her four first cousins and other family members she had never met. By pure coincidence, this year was the 100 year anniversary of when Mary’s father moved to the US. Pretty clever of us! We had hired three translators, one being Dominic who in turn hired two university students. Talk about a small world. One of the students, Stefano had lived in Colorado Springs, where his grandparents resided, to attend school. In the meantime his grandparents have moved to Casa Grande, AZ where my aunt and her family used to live. Anyways, there were about 40 people at this reunion, very few could speak English outside of Nicola’s family but that is why we brought three translators. I can’t imagine what was going through Mary’s mind when we arrived and she first got out of the car. I personally would have been nervous as hell and hoping I could get through the afternoon without making a fool of myself.
Through our translator, Mario told me and Troy a funny story. Two years ago when we had visited, the day after we left, Mario received a phone call from a friend that said he was on the news. Mario responded with “Go to hell,” before he let his friend continue with his story. Evidently word got out that these 2 Americans had come to Nocciano to meet their distant relatives. I guess in their very small world, this was a big deal and found it to be very news worthy. Then to top it off, the news people found it even more bizarre that these 2 Americans were traveling the world for a year. We never knew who told who what about our visit but we thought it was funny that something like this made their local news. We were celebrities and didn’t even know it!
After the reunion, Mary wanted to find the house her father grew up in. The last relatives to visit had said they had found the house. At the end of our own personal house hunt, we think somebody lied to them. Two relatives from the reunion came with us so off we went in a caravan of three cars. One of the relatives was a farmer who knew the surrounding area very well and the other one was Mario who had been to the house when he was very young. So we all thought it would be a short 15 minute drive to the house, take a few photos etc. etc, then be on our way back to our hotel after a long day. Oh no. One and a half hours later we are still searching. Troy had his GPS out because everyone wanted him to mark the spot but after the hour and a half drive, all he had to show was a spaghetti bowl of crazy driving all over the Italian countryside! So after our too long search we stop to talk to this old man at the side of the road who is in a motorized scooter. We all thought he was being asked directions, but next thing I know he is getting in one of the cars. Mary asks “Do they know him?” Me, being the smartass, couldn’t resist and said “No, they just like to pick up random old people from the side of the road!” Turns out he was a second cousin of the Luciani family. Luckily he did come with us because he took us directly to the spot where the house was. Who knows what house the last relatives saw, but what we saw was a lot of empty land with a very small dilapidated building on it. We know for a fact this building was not the house because it used to be big enough to hold 48 people. Since Mary was so excited to be here she wanted to add to her souvenir collection and collect a few rocks. These were not small rocks that would fit in your pants pocket. No, they weighed several pounds each and no one was allowed to wash off the dirt.
Sunday was our last day here so we piled into the car and took a driving tour of the castle villages in the area. The main one to visit was Rocca Calascio. This was built in the 14th century and is the tallest bastion in Italy. Isn’t Troy’s photo of it awesome? After visiting the castle we were to head onto the next village following the Tom Tom’s GPS directions. You know, the navigational device with the pleasant female voice that says “In 200 yards, bear left!” I think our Tom Tom was Satan in disguise. In fact, here on after, I am going to refer to the Tom Tom as Satan. Heading down from the castle Satan says “At the end of the road, turn right” which is taking us into the village. I’m sitting in the middle seat and I start mumbling quietly “This is not a good idea, this is not a good idea.” As Satan takes us deeper into the village my mumblings get louder and louder. Ray turns to Troy and says “Why is this not a good idea?” and Troy responds “Because Shelly is remembering the villages we walked through and how narrow the streets are. “Narrow streets” is an understatement. Sure, we’re in a car that can hold 7 people but it’s still a small car. We’re driving through alleys that are so narrow that we have to fold in the mirrors. I am getting more nervous with each block we go because I have yet to see a place for us to turn around. I start rubbing my temples thinking this can’t end up good and that there is no way Troy can back up through these narrow streets. He was barely able to navigate them going forward. So we finally come to a fork in the road and Troy says “What do I do?” Remember Satan has directed us to this point in the village and is telling us to go left - tricky f**ker. I say, “Someone needs to get out and look to see where the road going down leads to.” Ray gets out, goes and looks, comes back and says it’s tight but we can do it. When he looked at the road and the passage we had to make he was thinking of the width of the car, not the length.
So Troy proceeds down an incline that curves left then immediately cuts right between two old buildings. So Troy tries with no luck. He can get the front left bumper through the corner but that means the back right panel is going to get scrapped really, really bad. So he backs up. Tries again, no go. Backs up again, still no go. By this time the clutch is burning because it has no torque to back up this steep incline. During all of this an old man has come out of his house to see what the bad burning smell is all about. He doesn’t speak any English but tries to give us directions on what to do. Troy and I both had the same idea that he should get in a drive. At one point, Troy gives up and Ray gives it a whirl. He get’s the back right panel the clearance it needs only to have smashed the front left bumper into the wall. “Am I ok on the front left?” “No, not anymore!” He gives up so Troy jumps back in the driver seat. In the meantime an Indian has come out who speaks both English and Italian and is helping to translate what the old man is saying. He tells Troy “You can make it but it will be a small crash.” Troy responds “We have insurance” and the Indian says “Ahhh, you have insurance, big crash, no problem!” The old man has finally lost his patience and has kicked Troy out of the car and has taken over driving. Both Troy, me and Rick realize that all we need to do to make this sharp corner is to pick up the rear end and move it left 4”. That’s all we need, 4”. So me, Troy, Rick, Ray and a few locals start lifting the bumper up and down to bounce it while Troy is pushing it left. Lo and behold we moved it enough to get the car through. We found out at the end of all this Mary had her rosary out the whole time praying we would make it! And of course no one got a photo of the car stuck. Damn! I also forgot to apologize to the locals for trying to destroy their several hundred year old village.
Ok, ordeal done with, Troy’s adrenaline has subsided and his legs have stopped shaking from dealing with the stupid clutch. Onto another small village called Santo Stefano for lunch that is 2 hours overdue. First restaurant we see we stop because we are all famished. The waitress speaks very little English so Troy accidentally ends up ordering the whole menu. So $300 and 2 hours later this is what we have devoured: 2 bottles of wine, individual plates of prosciutto and pepperoni, 2 types of bruschetta, pickled zucchini , a plate of some sort of tasty sliced fat, platter of ricotta and assorted cheeses, cold green beans, lentil soup, roasted potatoes, gnocchi, pasta with red sauce, pasta with white sauce, fried cheese with honey, puffed rice, porkchops and sausages. Troy caught her in time to keep her from bringing us dessert because we had no room on the table or in our bellies for it!
Finally, we had booked a private transfer from Pescara to the Rome airport because the bus and train schedules were not going to work with our flight departure time. So I tell the driver we are on United. When we get to the airport I repeat it again. He drops us off at the airport and I’m seeing signs for multiple airlines but I’m not seeing United. I figure it would get sorted out when we get in the terminal. Shortly after we enter the terminal we quickly realize he had dropped us off at the wrong terminal and we had to catch a shuttle bus to get to the right place. There is nothing like running down the airport road to catch a bus dragging 6 people and their luggage with them with and trying to coax a 90 year old grandmother to keep up with us.
Ok, I’m done!