We wrote an article about of adventures in Europe last summer, discovering our ancestral roots in Italy and Croatia, and about meeting online pen pals in Ulm, Germany. The Orange County Register will be running the article along with photos we took in this Sunday’s Travel section. You can check it out here!
A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi is a bestselling novel in which the author recalls her trip to Venice where she meet first met a Venetian man named Fernando. Before really even knowing this “stranger” as she calls him, she relocates her entire life to the Italian island where she marries him and renovates his apartment before deciding to sell it, move out of Venice and start a new life adventure together (which the author has written subsequent books about). De Blasi is a middle aged divorcée who feels she has gotten a ‘second chance at love,’ and for this reason makes this book only appealing to middle aged and older women. I apparently missed that memo when buying the book based solely off of high amazon reviews in the travel literature section. Up until the last two chapters I was a little bored with the book, as I resent reading about how delicious food is that I can not actually taste myself (the author loves to talk about food in detail). For me the book picked up in the last two chapters because they began talking about getting the heck out of Venice and opening a bed and breakfast in the countryside. For me the novel got a bit more youthful and adventurous at this point and even left me hanging because I want to know what happens next! Damn you De Blasi! Not sure I want to read any more of your granny romance novels, but I want to know what happened to you after you left Venice! What do I do now? Well I guess I did buy another De Blasi book…so stay tuned for that review. All and all I enjoyed reading it but am not in love with it. So beware of glowing reviews on Amazon.com if you are under 45, and if you are over 45 its a sure bet you will love it.
Driving from Lake Bled to Zadar wasn’t exactally a straight shot due to our obligation to drop off our rental car in Italy to avoid a hefty fee. So before crossing the border into Croatia we swung into Italy to drop off the car in Trieste. According to a book we have called 101 Beautiful Small Towns of Italy Trieste was looking like a lovely place to stop for lunch. Unfortunately we did not do any research about where to go in Trieste, thinking that in these small towns it must be obvious, however, when we arrived we discovered that Trieste is in fact not a small town but a gritty large port city! We never found the “beautiful small town” part, but we did find some pizzas. There wasn’t much to see there and our family of five seemed to get a few stares as we felt out of place as tourists here. It looks like a nice place to see in the book, but we are still not sure where the place we were supposed to go is.
Luca was right, Bergamo was “molto bello.” We had heard it called the “wealthiest city in Italy”, and our expectations didn’t let down. The entire old town is built atop a steep cliff. Cars are not allowed in the old city on the weekends so we had to take the stuffy, hot and unventilated Funicular to the top, where upon exiting we were drenched in our own sweat and the smell of deodorentless Europeans. The old town, or “Bergamo Alta” was very well maintained, very walkable and shoppable. It seems like an important city historically as well as architecturally, as there are many gems to be found here. It was the first city invaded by the Nazis in Italy and there was a park with lots of WWII memorabilia and statues. Luca and Massimo explained that when the Nazis came to Ghisalba they knocked down doors and stole all the children away and killed them.
We were surprised to see tourists in the city as it barely appears in any guidebooks. Other than us the tourist population seemed to be mostly from other parts of Europe, like somehow that the city just never made it into the English guidebooks. But it was very interesting, with its obvious Venetian influence and interesting architecture. It seemed very rich. We loved being in a beautiful city that didn’t feel overly crowded or over touristy in the high season. It felt like we had a secret. Luca and Massimo insisted on paying for the entire excursion and we returned back to Ghisalba to pack up our things before saying our goodbyes and heading on our way to Slovenia.
After barely conquering the road from Bellagio back to a highway, (which never seemed to be the highway because it took us so long to get anywhere near Ghisalba) we made a stop to quickly call (using our iphone) and inform the relatives that we were running late. Unfortunately the Italian word for “late” had slipped Bryan’s mind and after twenty minutes of getting nowhere in Italian the conversation ended with “Sono Retardo!” Yes, finally something they understood: ‘I am retardo’. It took twenty minutes and about thirty dollars in roaming charges to get them to understand we were running late.
But getting there could not be that easy! On the road we realized that the directions we had hastily printed in the wee hours before our trip were to the street Ghisalba in a neighboring town, and not the actual Ghisalba! So after getting lost again, we decided to pop into a pharmacy so someone could confirm we were at least in the vicinity of Ghisalba and point up in the right direction. This also turned into another big twenty minute ordeal with the pharmacist quasi-comprehending what Bryan was asking. Bryan then asked the pharmacist to call the family telling them we would be even more late, but would arrive shortly. Instead the family decided it would be better if they came to meet us and direct us back.
So there we stood and waited by a bridge, watching every car pass by wondering if they could be the family. Each person driving past in cars appeared to stare at us, making us all the more confused as to who it could be. One car honked and a man got out and walked toward us speaking to us in Italian. He didn’t look excited to see us at all, but then it became clear that he merely wanted help moving the “bridge closed” sign which we were standing next to, so he and his friend could drive over the bridge. It then dawned on us that we were not imagining that people were starring at us, because they were all trying to read the sign and wondering “why is that bridge closed?”
Eventually a packed car of ecstatically smiling Iotti’s arrived to meet us. We exchanged greetings and Luca (Bryan’s 5th or 6th cousin) came to ride with us back to Ghisalba. Luca spoke about as much English as we did Italian, and he managed to talk non-stop the whole way to Ghisalba explaining to us that Ghisalba is not “bello” but Bergamo was “molto bello” and he would take us there tomorrow. We arrived at the home of Franco and Mariella, who would generously host us for our stay. They showed us around their apartment and our room for the night (which was their room), we showered and then sat with them in their living room trying to hold a conversation with them in Italian, as they spoke no English. At worst it was only mildly awkward.
Iotti’s — Ghisalba Style
Once the rest of the family arrived for dinner, they took us to a pizza restaurant nearby. Luca drove us in his mini cooper with his mother Marisa. We talked about politics — how they hate (Italian PM Silvio) Bunolesconi, repeatedly calling him a “pedophilia” because of all his escapades widely reported in recent times. They also spoke of their dislike for him because he lets all the Africans in and does nothing about it (which was very evident, because we did not expect to see so many non-Europeans in the countryside). We soon noticed that Luca’s knowledge of English must be straight from hollywood movies due to the awkward use of curse words such as “Brunelesconi fuck you!” or “Brunesconi fuck off!” He also refused to stop talking about how Jim Morisson was the greatest. Luca and Marisa were very chatty and very funny and we laughed the whole way to the restaurant. Plus Megan really liked that Marisa kept saying that she had a “figura” like a “top model.”
The pizza at the restaurant was just ok, nowhere near as good as the amazing pizza we lived off of in Rome. But they do things differently in the north and pizza is more of a southern dish. During dinner the family ridiculed Megan for having wine with her pizza, as it was customary to drink beer only with pizza. Misunderstanding where we had come from earlier in the day, they kept asking when we are going to Lake Como, we had so much trouble trying to say “already” in Italian the waiter was called over and explained to them what we were trying to say. His explanation was followed by a big gasp of understanding by the group.
The Never-Ending Castle Tour and the “Crazy Aunt”
The next morning Massimo, who looks like the stereotypical “Italian Stallion” with his deep tan and long dark hair which he tosses about, took us with his daughter, Aurora and her cousin (or friend) Julia (or Guilia) on a tour of Ghisalba and the neighboring towns and castles. Luca was right, Ghisalba was not beautiful. It has a few old churches and buildings, but unlike the country village we had imagined it to be, in reality it is a conglomeration of ugly modern apartment buildings surrounded by corn fields (grown for polenta). The first stop we made was at the big church in the center of town, which looked like a younger Roman pantheon painted yellow. After that we went to visit an old woman who they called “the crazy aunt.” When we asked why she is crazy they informed us she kisses too much. They were right. We were not really sure who she was or how she was related but she offered us coca-cola (everyone assumes we must love coca-cola here, which we don’t) and biscuits. We politely declined and let her kiss all over us and tell us how “bello” we are.
We proceeded on the the town’s graveyard where we basically just took pictures of all the Iotti graves. Then we went from one castle to another in neighboring towns until we realized that every town in Italy has its own castle and we didn’t need to see anymore. Later we visited another assumed relative and her assumed retarded son. For all we knew it could have been her father. We had not a clue who they were, but they were happy to meet us, even if we were interrupting the Pope’s Sunday message that they were watching on TV in the kitchen.
Across the street Massimo showed us the church he was married in and we briefly met some mysterious people who may or may not have been related before meeting up with everyone for lunch. Lunch consisted of a strange meal in the yard of various types of meat, the main meat being the one that Franco barbecued. It was edible, but not the amazing old world family meal that we had imagined. After lunch, Luca and Massimo took us to Bergamo before we returned to say our goodbyes. Upon departure we were given gifts of local wine, a book on Ghisalba history, a snack pack for the road and Luca and Aurora both gave us CD’s of their favorite music which we listened to in the car on the way to Slovenia.
a dying breed
La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini is a New York Times Bestseller about how Italians think and act. It was a good read at times, but I must admit even though I spent a fair amount of time in Italy some of the references and things I should find humorous were lost on me. I think it would be better to read if I was Italian and understood the culture in a more intimate way. Overall I did enjoy it and do recommend it if you are interested in Italian culture or already familiar with it.