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Living Slow in Italy - Vagabonds

Valerie Schneider

During our tenure in New Mexico we had our fair share of visiting family and friends, drawn to a place they'd not seen before, and to spend some quality time with their loved ones (that would be us). After several years of residence the visitors tapered off, as everyone had pretty much "been there, done that" and moved on to other vacation destinations, leaving us feeling rather lonely.

Now, after nearly eight months in Italy, we think maybe we would like to feel lonely again. Truly, our cup has runneth over with company. We spent so much time away from home this autumn that our landlord declared us vagabonds and said we should invest in a camper instead of paying rent on an apartment. She has a point. Nearly all of October and half of November we found ourselves in giro. December brought another two weeks of visitors. More are on the way. All this tour-guiding is beginning to take a toll. I am tired; my apartment has so many dust bunnies that my broom is running scared; my email has piled up.

But it has provided us with some wonderful experiences, a chance to show our families where we live and why we love it here, as well as plentiful laughter (for ourselves as well as for the local population who delight in the entertainment value of our quirks).

My stepfather nearly caused an international incident in a seafood restaurant when he asked for parmigiano cheese. What for, the waitress demanded? When he told her it was for his spaghetti alla vongole she gently told him no, he didn't need cheese on that dish. He was not to be put off, though, and repeated the request. Now she was upset; why would you do that? she asked. What kind of philistine are you? You do not - ever, ever, ever - put parmigiano on spaghetti alla vongole. Everyone knows that! When he continued to insist - not a smart move but by now he was getting as steamed as the clams - she said she would have to call the carabinieri as this was unlawful. We're pretty sure she was joking.

Because our car is piccolo piccolo, most guests have opted to pay for a rental car which Bryan drives, so they will have ample trunk space and leg room, but won't have to tackle the blood sport that is driving in Italy.

When my sister visited with my uncle we had a comedy of errors involving the windshield wipers. The smaller wiper meant to clean the passenger side didn't swipe at all, while the larger, driver-side blade swished effectively. Until the errant little wiper decided to pop up and assert itself across the glass while we were traveling about 130 kph on the crowded and slick autostrada. The Bad Boy didn't play well with the functioning wiper and grabbed hold of it, causing Good Wiper to break off and fly away into the misty landscape that was zipping by us. Aghast, we all sadly watched it go while the rain accumulated on our windshield and Bad Boy calmly went back to his original, non-operational position. "We're screwed," said someone in the back seat.

Calls to the rental agency didn't prove helpful. We were on our own to get it repaired and they would reimburse us. Driving with our heads stuck out of the windows to try to read the signs – the rain greatly impeding our views - we eventually made it safely and soggy to a Fiat dealer, who declared the car too new to have the necessary parts in stock. They didn't offer any further assistance and didn't seem to like our drippy presence in their squeaky-clean showroom, so we drove to another garage. I entertained the mechanics in my rudimentary Italian of our tale of woe, not knowing how to say windshield wiper in Italian and making a game of charades of the whole thing. They ingeniously rigged up the Bad Boy onto the other side of the window, to at least get us home to the agriturismo. Bryan drove scrunched down in the seat to see out the little portion of clean glass.

As we neared our exit, anxious for a warm fire and a bottle of wine to console away the rain and the fearful experience, my brilliant sister remembered seeing a Fiat dealer with a repair shop not far from our rental. Yes, yes! She's right! We all remembered now. Lucky for us the windows blazed forth light; they were still open. I repeated the Tale of Woe and the charades. They called more people over and had me repeat the story so others could enjoy the show. No problem, they said. Indeed, the car is too new for us to stock the part but we can order it. And in the meantime, we'll take the wipers off the new car here in our showroom and put them on your car, he said with a grin. And they did just that, even recommending a nearby restaurant as they completed the work. (We were eventually reimbursed, in case you're wondering. )

On another car rental experience we parked our own little macchina in the lunga sosta lot at the airport. This involves parking about 124 kilometers from the terminal and taking an over-crowded shuttle bus. This, my friends, is what it means to go native. You know you've truly become part of the local scene when you're face to armpit in a packed bus while your luggage rockets about causing bodily injury to strangers and you are muttering "uffa" and "porca miseria" along with the rest of them.

Then there was the embarrassment in Florence. When Bryan's parents paid a visit, my father-in-law was nearly left on a curb to fend for himself when he committed the mortal sin of not only entering but also purchasing something at McDonald's in Firenze. We left him unattended for two measly minutes; he returned happily licking a soft-serve ice cream cone. In Italy, the land of gelato! I know you understand my embarrassment; you can also bet we will never let him forget this infraction.

Dining is a true joy in Italy, of course, but some of our guests have been a bit timid about the whole affair, mostly because many restaurants in our part of the country do not have written menus. Naturally, I translate the orally-recited daily menu but they seem to think I'm either holding something back or trying to trick them into eating something they would deem disgusting. While I will admit to considering ordering a nice plate of trippa for my father-in-law after The Ice Cream Incident, as it has come to be called, I was merciful and dutifully translated accurately. Still, there is some trepidation, which I think may reflect poorly on their opinion of me, or perhaps my reputation as a jokester. But really, I don't joke around when it comes to food. It's just too important a part of the whole Italian experience.

Wonderful opportunities always present themselves when visitors come calling. When I took my uncle and sister to see the grotto where the local saint Emidio was originally interred, a neighbor came out and opened the little chapel, but also took us into his own portion of the cave structure next door, telling us about his experiences hiding there with other townspeople during the bombardments of World War II. My trip to Basilicata with my cousins is one I'll treasure forever. Laughing until I snorted with friends from New Mexico. New Year's Eve in the piazza with my uncle and aunt watching fireworks and being plied with champagne from strangers. Wonderfully leisurely meals. Drives through time-worn landscapes and fortified hill towns. These are the unforgettable things about being here and showing off our corner of the bel paese to those who make the trek half-way around the globe to see us.

When it all comes down to it, we'd rather be tired and have a dusty house than trade these happenings for sleep and tranquility. Maybe we need to give some serious thought to trading in the Ford Fiesta for a vagabond camper, after all.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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