A year ago I took my parents and girlfriend to Italy, though never ended up blogging about it. Perhaps it’s the barren look of Connecticut in December, or grim contemplations on America, that have me reflecting on our tour of the ancient Roman peninsula now.
One thing that instantly stands out in Italy is the culture of hospitality everywhere you go. Walking into a restaurant, the proprietor wants you to have a good experience; it’s not about rushing to take your order and euros. Rather, it’s about enjoying your food, engaging with the people, adding to the collective moment. The first local restaurant I was in had the proprietor sending over free limoncello shots to the table after the meal, and following some good conversation, a free pastry and more shots (which he partook in himself.) A wine shop saw me plied with free cheeses and Chianti; when I inquired about a black truffle product, the owner asked me, “Have you ever tried black truffles? No? You have to try them!” And then he served slices (actual slices!) of truffles with bread and promptly opened another bottle of wine to accompany it. He wanted me to experience the flavor, the accompanying drink, the moment. He took genuine pleasure in watching me enjoy the food and libations. This is not a culture based on fleecing your customers on their way out the door, but one of older values: the joy of human companionship and camaraderie, if only for the short time we have together.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: me. Overlooking what remains of the heart of Ancient Roman day-to-day life. In this narrow space between the Palatine and Capitoline Hills, and across 2,500 years, you can still see the ruins of the Temple of Saturn and the nexus of early Roman life, a veritable nebula of this civilization. My eyes misted while standing here; it is extremely difficult to articulate the sense of history that seems to dominate the very molecules of the air. Not all that far away is a statue of philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.
The highlight of the trip was Venice, however. The floating city at night is surreal and enchanting. Glassy canals spanned by centuries-old bridges and navigated by modern watercraft. An endless warren of alleys and narrow roads threading buildings that arose during the heyday of the Venetian Republic. The glow of shop windows riddling the dark. In the daylight, the illusion does not dispel. Sunlight paints with warm, bright colors and fuels the enchantment.
Italy cannot be experienced in a few days, or even a few weeks. It needs to be savored, open-minded and open-mouthed. Explorations and expeditions.
“Travel,” Mark Twain wrote, “Is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”