Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Viva Italia

Reminiscing in this blog about growing up around my Italian family in Brooklyn sparked in me a powerful desire to visit the land of my ancestors. After much planning, and in the company of two special friends, Rich and Joann, my wife Jasmine and I touched down in Rome on October 6, 2009. It was a long, tiring flight since sleep is hard to come by when your knees are up against your chin. The FAA should pass a regulation requiring that, for flights over 4 hours, airlines must provide roomier, more comfortable seats. My ass was asleep until we got to Florence!

Rome was an incredible city, full of energy and bustle, much like New York. The traffic there makes New York look tame by comparison, as tiny cars and scooters zoom down main streets and narrow alleys, trusting to God to keep them from harm. One big difference from New York is that there is no horn honking. Romans simply point their vehicle where they want to go and rely on everyone (including pedestrians since there are relatively few traffic lights) to get out of their way. Rome is a marvel, where antiquities from the days of the Caesars stand, surrounded by a modern city. The Coliseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter's, the Vatican all co-exist with apartment buildings, restaurants and commuter buses. A side trip to the Tivoli Gardens inspired awe as we tried to imagine how these architectural marvels were conceived, much less constructed over 500 years ago.

Florence is a city of the arts. The main Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore with its gilded dome and magnificent interior; the Uffizi with gallery after gallery of Renaissance art and sculpture; and the Florence Academy of Art that houses Michaelangelo's David...all seen in too little time on our tour schedule to really appreciate them. We then made another side trip to the storybook town of San Gimignano, a walled, hilltop fortress near Sienna (pictured left) that guarded Florence from her enemies during the feudal wars of the 14th century; then on to the Chianti region in Tuscany where the hillsides are covered with vines, mainly the Sangiovese grapes used in the local wines. Lunch and wine tastings at two wineries made for a most pleasant afternoon.

Venice was our last and, for me, most surprising stop. I had anticipated the beauty and historic significance of Rome and Florence, and my expectations were well met, but I never imagined how beautiful the city of Venice would be. It was like living in a picture postcard, with breathtaking views everywhere one looked. The canals and bridges of the town were much like they must have been centuries ago. St. Mark's Square and church were exciting and alive with tourists, but somehow serene and religious at the same time. The Palazzo Ducale, the residence of the Doge of Venice, was a museum full of art, statuary, period furniture, and a wonderful collection of Medieval weapons.

Our tour guides in every city were knowledgeable and friendly. The residents of each city were warm and many spoke English. Europeans put Americans to shame when it comes to speaking more than one language. I know a little Italian, but each time I spoke to a local in Italian, they assumed I knew the language and their rapid replies left me in the dust. It is impossible to get a bad meal in Italy. We had a funny restaurant experience in Venice. After devouring a platter of Prosciutto and Salami, Joann asked the waiter what the dark red meat was. After checking with the kitchen, he came back and said: "Atsa horse!" "Excuse me" gasped Joann. The waiter repeated: "You know...cavallo...HORSE". I guess whatever nag comes in last at Venezia Downs that day turns up on the menu that night. (P.S. It was delicious.)

Italians are warm, welcoming people with great style. Even the seniors dress with flair and carry themselves with attitude. I felt a kinship with them and was sorry I didn't speak their language better than I did. This visit kind of closed the loop for me. Our grandparents on both sides left southern Italy in the early 1900's to make a better life for their families here in America. By going there and standing on Italian soil as their grandchildren, it felt like an affirmation of their pioneering spirit and work ethic. It was like saying: it's OK Italia, although Pasquale and Caterina Camardi, Nucenzo and Lucia Pantaleno, Vincenzo and Gelsomina Salamo, and Francisco and Matilda Corsano may have left you many years ago, they did well in America, and here are their grateful grandchildren to thank you for their proud Italian heritage. Viva Italia!