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My Trip To The Old Country

My Trip To The Old Country

Johnny DeCarlo (May 11, 2010)

I was transported into a paradise


To me, there’s only one place in the world that’s as great as my home state, which of course, is beautiful New Jersey. That place is Italy. Exactly three years ago, I traveled there for the first time. What an amazing country. I was transported into a paradise, which cannot be described in words.

Nevertheless, when I got back to the Garden State, I wrote a travel tip guide of my experience for my cugine. He was going for the first time as well, a week after my return, and he was a bit nervous to embark on his first plane ride in many years—especially going to an international destination where he had never been. When I went, I was just filled with excitement, and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest with anything.

I went to Venezia, Roma, Capri, Napoli and several other places in between. I saw so much in such a short time—from the Grand Canal to the Vatican, to the beautiful beaches. It was a trip of sightseeing, but also relaxing. It was a trip of wine, food, and experiencing the real Italian way of life.

I found that Italy and the U.S. are very similar in many ways, but there are some differences here and there, that one should be aware of. So here is my accumulation of tips from my two-week trip, which I hope may offer some insight into my take on the modern Mediterranean culture. Everything is broken down into categories, and I’m sure that in the past three years, certain things have changed since then in the areas I highlighted. Also, please take note that all of the information in this little travel guide is from my particular experiences, and while many of the statements may generalize Italy as a whole, they only refer to the places visited on my trip. Other folks may have different perspectives and other opinions, just as one traveler may look at something in a totally different light than another one. The only way one can truly get the sense of all Italy (or any foreign land) has to offer is to go there and get the experience like I did.

First things first, let's talk about money—since you will spend a few bucks. The “Euro” is the European form of money and the exchange rate varies from time to time. When I went for example, something that cost me $1 over there, was like $1.50-$1.75 American. It’s very simple to use cash when you are there, even though all the bills have different color combos and sizes, they all come in pretty much the same denominations as U.S. money—except the single is in coin form—not bills. 90% of the places there do take credit and debit cards, but I converted about $3,000 for extra spending cash (can be done at the airport or hotel). I’d recommend carrying about $150-$200 in your pocket at all times for the small shops and street vendors, and for tipping when eating. You cannot leave a tip on your credit card when dining out, as this always must be left in cash. Most places already calculate in a “service charge” or “sitting fee,” which is usually 12%, regardless of how many people are in your party. If you are used to tipping 18% or 20%, you will have to leave the difference in cash.

When I refer to vendors and small stores, I am referring to those run by people who greet you with a “BUON GIORNO.” Mostly every worker in the places I went to is really Italian, from the shop owners to the chefs, to the servers and housekeepers and everything in between. It is not like here where you will have an Indian fellow running an “authentic” pizzeria. I did encounter some African and Asian peddlers who will try and sell you illegal knock-offs of Fendi bags who are sprinkled in highly populated areas like the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps, for example. I personally observed arrests being made, and did not find the Italians at all “accepting” with illegal aliens as it’s been reported.

Most people speak English well, but it is nice to use some simple Italian phrases like “GRAZIE” and “CIAO” just to name a few, if you want to feel more welcome by the locals. You will be surprised how much you pick up in a few weeks. Don’t get too caught up in that clichéd travel tip of “keep an eye on your wallet” in big cities like Rome or Naples. Pick-pocketers are no more a concern there then they are back home—just be aware of your surroundings like you normally would. That particular tip is one more for people from middle America, not the New York City area like myself, who know the deal. It is very safe and there are police (called CARIBINIERI) always in sight. Most souvenir shops and eateries are closed between about 2pm and 4, 4:30 or so for “siesta time” and then reopen, so keep that in mind when out and about.

What I found interesting is that whenever I went into a trattoria, ristorante or pizzeria, you always sit yourself no matter how fancy the place, and then just give a slight wave to the server to show you are there. There were no hosts or maître d’s in sight. When you sit, the first thing you will be asked is if you want “aqua naturale” or “with gas,” meaning water with or without bubbles. There was no offer of tap water in Italy, so if you don’t want to pay for a bottle of water, just immediately order your soda or cocktail. They also seem to prefer that you have your menu selections ready when they return with the beverage, and they always took my ENTIRE order upfront, as most places are always very busy. Servers did not take the appetizer order and return for the rest like they do here.

There is no Diet Coke, only Coca Cola Light, which does not have any sugar, but does have about 2 calories per can. When ordering wine, keep in mind there are rarely places that give it by the glass. A small bar or caffé might, but everywhere else you will be given the choice of a medium bottle (gives about 2 and a ½ glasses) or a regular bottle. These run from about $12-$20 and up, but are really a better value if you are with another person (or if you drink for two people like me). You are going to eat well in Italy if you love pizza, because pizza is available EVERYWHERE. When ordering pizza in most places, you will see prices for around $5-$7 for the “Margherita” (which is their mozzarella and fresh tomato) and up for toppings. These are personal pizzas, good for two people depending on how hungry you are. Pizzas are only by-the-slice in real small, quick places. The personal pizzas were NEVER cut when served—you must use a knife and fork. Do not ask them to slice it unless you want real ridicule.

If you are a fish fan, you are in luck, because the fish choices are endless too. Keep in mind though, when ordering any kind of fish, nine times out of ten you will be getting it whole—as in with head—and you must de-bone it yourself. This goes for everything from shrimp to sole. The server may filet it for you if you ask kindly, but then you must tip extra. You can get a steak in most places, but forget about things like hot dogs and hamburgers for this trip (if you get a severe craving for American food, there is the Hard Rock Café in Rome and also a McDonalds in Rome). If you really are a meat person, veal and chicken is always readily available but be prepared for much less breading and sauces, and much more fresh veggies and spices on the plate. Things are very simple and elegant and always FRESH—just like where you dine—outside. 90% of my meals were outside, day or night. Now pasta in Italy is not served with non-pasta entrees, meaning, your “side” will be vegetables. Pasta is its own course, so if you must have pasta with your dinner, you must pick one from that section of the menu. Be prepared to pay minimum $10 for a marinara or a Bolognese, but it’s good for two people to share. The pasta is served with just a tablespoon or two of light sauce, it is not drowned, and asking for extra would surely scream out that you are a tourist.

Also, don’t expect butter with your bread—it is NEVER on any Italian table and asking for that would really tip you off. Using the table olive oil to foonah (dip) is a lot more accepted now throughout the country, even though that custom really became established in New York’s Little Italy. The salads there are amazing and usually make a good side dish for two when ordering a pizza or a good mid-course before dessert. The tomatoes and greens are the freshest and crispiest I have ever tasted—the ripest in the world. There was no “dressing” offerred, it’s was always extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Period.

When it comes to dolce, you cannot go wrong with anything you pick if you are a dessert lover. I did not have one bad dessert. A warning regarding coffee—the American coffee we are used to is just not drinkable in Italy—it is on the level of “instant.” There is no Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks on every corner either, because in Italy, the emphasis is all about espresso—which is strong, rich, and amazing. In the morning or with dessert, you’ll be better off with espresso. The cappuccino is phenomenal too, but never ask for one past 11am, as most places don’t like to serve it after breakfast.

I also noticed there were no busboys running around cleaning up, so be patient. The servers take the order and serve the food and clean up, and rarely can check up on you to refill glasses—so that’s probably why the water and wine come in bottles. Although things I’m sure are more diverse now, the melting pot I was used to seeing in New Jersey where every race and nationality does every job was just not like that in the spots I visited. The Italians were the dominating presence and they work very hard, so tip well and show that you appreciate and enjoy all they do. All were super friendly and warm (and even warmer if they find out you have Italian blood and you share your lineage with them).

When I went, I was told that I could bring home up to two regular sized bottles of liquor per piece of luggage, or any multiple amount of bottles equaling that amount. You can bring home all the food you want—from cheese, pasta, jarred and canned items—just no meat of any kind. Meats must be shipped.

I found that Italy in May is a lot like Florida’s average weather. Temps for the most part were in the upper 70s to low 80s on most days, and it never got any colder at night. A windbreaker is all you will ever need as far as heavy clothes that time of year, and you may want to keep a mini umbrella at all times because the rain comes and goes in the form of sun showers. It’s usually warm enough for shorts but if you are going on day jaunts to Churches or museums, some places ask you to have pants on and no bare shoulders, so plan your attire accordingly. The most important thing to always remember is to have comfortable shoes because you will do A LOT of walking and some spots are hard to maneuver around. There are many high places in Italy (especially the more hilly regions), and the rocky ground at places like Pompei and the Colosseum are a little rough, so you must be extra careful as to not trip and twist an ankle.

When it rains in Venice, San Marco’s Square has floodspots—meaning the water from the canal rises up and puddles start to form, so don’t wear shoes you don’t wanna get wet around the square if it looks like rain. Also, if you aren’t a bird fan, you may want to stay clear of that area altogether, as hundreds of pigeons are there at all times. You can feed them if you want and they will land on you and eat right out of your hands. Animals are actually very prevalent in Venice and really all the places I visited. Stray dogs are the most common, and you will often see them just hanging out enjoying the sun.

Foot is the best form of transportation in Italy, great for exploring and for exercising off all that food. This is the only way to get around in Venice. Gondola rides are a lot of fun, but keep in mind that they cost $50-$60 per person for about a half hour or 45 minutes, but then go up to over $100 when the sun goes down. Gondola drivers are everywhere (dressed in black and white stripes) and you will hear them shouting “gondola, gondola!” all day long—loudly. Motorboats, water taxis and ferry rides can get a little choppy, so take motion sickness pills if you are extra sensitive.

When traveling by cab or bus, understand that most roads are high and winding, and many are single lane streets that cars travel up and down. Yes, you read correctly—they are single lane roads—but there never seems to be any accidents, even with hundreds of Vespa scooters zipping around. The drivers know how to maneuver but may seem overly aggressive or even reckless at times to nervous passengers. Picture New York cabbies and multiply their intensity by about fifty. But the thing is, I always felt safe. Also note: if you fear heights, don’t take a window seat when going around a coastal mountain area, as you are VERY high up and with wind, you may feel some swaying.

Italy is very modern in many ways but also still very old fashioned in many ways too. Everywhere is different in its own ways, from the small seaside villages to the big cities. Everyone will have different preferences and enjoy different things, and I guarantee you will find that one special thing, whatever it may be, that touches you forever and leaves an impression. I definitely plan to go back to Italy one day soon and discover more of this gorgeous, Heavenly place. I was able to adjust to the minor differences in our cultures immediately, and found myself really impressed with the lifestyle there, and one that I definitely could have grown accustomed to on a regular basis.

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