You know, I've always heard about Tuscany and the wonderful rolling hills scenery that marks that region, the fine wines and food but I've never been there until last week. Spending a week in the countryside away from the crowds, basking in the sun with vineyards surrounding you, and taking in homemade pasta was truly a treat.
Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I go into observation mode and start seeing all the differences between the U.S. and where I've gone. These impressions stay with me and range from good to annoying. So in order to make sure this post won't come off sounding like a bitch session about Italy, I will alternate between the good things about my trip and the truly annoying things as well.
GOOD: Rolling Green Hills
It is such a peaceful land in Tuscany. Everyone moves at a slow pace, stores close up for hours for lunch, and the people are genuinely a happy group (drinking tons of wine notwithstanding).
Every day we would open a bottle of wine around lunch time, eat a home made delicious lunch, and just relax and stare out into the countryside behind our villa. As the sun moves across the sky, along with the clouds, the shadows and light play a visual dance across the green hills and provides yet a new view of the vineyards and crops which fill the hills. Tall spruces pop up singly and in groups in and around the hills and they remind me of the sculpted grounds of an ancient Roman city in some movie I've seen.
I am reminded of the book I was reading, "In Praise of Slowness" by Carl Honore where he talks about the Slow movement which has huge roots in Italy. I can feel myself slowing down and not worrying about where to go next. It really doesn't matter. I am glad to be away from the allure of the touristy stuff to see because it always makes me want to rush around and see everything. Instead, I just remind myself that if I really want to, I will be back and be able to see all art and history, and hopefully in a less-crowded non-tourist ridden time.
By dinner time, we've probably polished off 3-4 bottles of excellent red wine and eaten some of the best fresh pasta money can buy. It is truly a mellow and recharging experience.
We are wondering why the towels in Italy are these super thin sheets of cloth that barely do anything. Perhaps we are spoiled in the U.S. with our lush, plush Ralph Lauren towels which we wrap ourselves luxuriously after a nice shower (yes, men do this too hahah)?
And the shower in the place we stayed in Florence - I think there must have been about 6 inches around me once I got in there. How one is supposed to soap down and rinse off in there, I just don't know. Woe to the overweight person who tries to get clean in there!
Why would showers be so tiny in Italy? I just don't get it.
Every day we would hit the market and buy fresh pasta and vegetables and fruit and cook it all day long. The pasta is all handmade and it is delicious! Much better than the dry kind you find back home. We bought regular noodles and gnocchi and would stir in green onions and garlic, and always with fresh olive oil. So simple and yet so tasty!
The bread we get is baked fresh every day. It is a staple for us as we sip our wine out behind our villa. We break off chunks and dip it in olive oil and sea salt - one of the things they don't do in Italy is put salt in the bread. Thus, the sea salt gives the bread an added zing which I just love.
Another interesting thing is that the fruit and vegetables are grown very organically there. It was very interesting to taste the spinach because it was actually sweet! You won't find that at Albertson's! Also, we had canteloupe which was about half the size of the melons you get in the U.S.; but, they were twice as sweet! Instead of the hormone pumped mega melons we get, these small petite melons get to concentrate their sweetness in much smaller volume and they taste wonderful!
Even pizza tastes good here. I think it's more than just the food. I think it's the environment, the air, and feeling of ancient-ness in the ground where civilization has been for centuries that makes the food taste extra special. When you are relaxed and your mood is enhanced by the positive around you, then the food just tastes extra good.
ANNOYING: Rolling my R's
OK so I try some Italian and I just can't roll those damn R's. My tongue can't make that motion and sound. Yet another muscle I haven't developed...? How does one weightlift with my tongue?
My buddy Ricky and I turn on the equivalent of the shopping channel on TV. We watch this 20 minute long ad on this portable tanning light that you can use just about anywhere. These girls in bikinis, or lack thereof, are displayed at various angles throughout the ad. Ricky and I just sit there sipping wine and watching our real live Italian soft porn.
I am now reminded of some of the women I've passed on the street and remember that they looked extra brown. For me, this dark brown tan isn't attractive. It's too dark for me. These days I am out training so much that I get way too much sun and slather on SPF 48 no matter what I do. I definitely try to avoid the leathering of the skin as it ages prematurely in the sun. It just ain't worth it speeding up that process by sitting under a tanning lamp.
But I guess it's a Euro thing because there sure are a lot of women walking around with that dark brown tan.
GOOD: Wine tasting
I've started learning a lot about wine tasting and about wines in Montalcino. Certainly there are so many factors governing the taste of a wine and I'm trying to take it all in. One of these days I'll have to develop the vocabulary to describe wine as I taste it.
I walk into a wine store and the lady there gives me a glass of Cupano Brunello di Montalcino to taste. WOW. It was fabulous! It is real smooth, no harsh tastes anywhere, and there is a hint of vanilla aftertaste which I just love. I ask her how much this superb wine is - 95 euros per bottle! I buy 4 bottles and ship it back to the U.S.
But then I am stuck. All wines I taste after that I compare to that Cupano and nothing comes close. This is what happens when you start at the top.
ANNOYING: Top-ing Up
Ricky and I go and buy some Vodafone SIM cards. We both add in 50 euros to talk and surf the net with. But within a few days, we run out.
Then comes the adventure. We can't find anywhere to top up our Vodafone cards! We walk into everywhere that posts some sort of mobile phone sign but no one can help us.
We try the ATMs where supposedly you can add money to your SIM cards but for some reason when I put in my ATM card, it doesn't give me the menu option. What the hell. I figure it must be that I have a U.S. ATM card and it doesn't let me do it! ARG!
Then we get to an internet cafe and try to do it online. We wade through forms written in Italian until it asks us for some tax ID number. What is this? No idea. We try typing in all sorts of numbers but it doesn't take any of them. Foiled again!
GOOD: Giro D'Italia
On Friday we head out to Grosetto and watch the Giro D'Italia. It was my first pro cycling race and it was pretty amazing. We were extremely lucky to have found a stage where the cyclists actually loop four times through the city. Thus, we were able to see them four times as they whipped through the city streets at 30+ miles per hour! Lots of great pictures and we got to see a big pileup as well.
These guys are so buff. I was watching the stage prior to this one on TV. They had slow-motion on the leader and I could not help but notice this weird little muscle bulging above each quad. Ricky tells me this muscle is the muscle used on the uplift motion of pedaling and when you do it a lot, it grows huge. I need this muscle.
More amazing was the fact that we bumped into an ex-Yahoo Lawrence with his wife and some friends riding with Trektravel and following a week of the Giro. How funny to see him there and somehow we knew we might!
ANNOYING: Driving confusion
I could not believe how confusing it is to drive in Italy. We found so many signs which pointed ambiguously in opposite directions to the same place! Also, I remember distance markers where it would say one distance on one sign and then we few KM down the road the sign to the same place would show a greater distance! Are we getting closer or are we getting further away? Who knows.
People also always drift across lanes. I have no idea why. You see someone driving and all of a sudden they just start drifting right. No particular reason. It just happens. So Ricky and I decide there must be something to this so we start straddling the lane too. Nobody cared. No polizia pulled us over. It was the normal thing to do. When in Rome....
FUNNY: Polizia picture opportunity
My friend Brian points out the polizia cameras which time you and then shoot a picture of you if you drive by too fast. You then get a nice 8x10 glossy plus speeding ticket in the mail from the local polizia a few days later.
Of course Ricky and I can't resist. Every time we drive by this camera, we give it our best funny face and flip it the "bird" and wait for Avis to get a nice 8x10 glossy of us.
ANNOYING: 2 pt Font
Why do they fill their street signs with so many words? And they write everything in 2 pt font! You don't even have time to read the signs to figure out where to go! And join that arrows that point in ambiguous directions and you're toast.
GOOD: Davy Crockett
But I feel lucky to be driving with Ricky because he is freakin' Davy Crockett. He tells me to drive with the moon on my right and says that this road feels right (yes use the force, Luke). By doing this all the way from Florence back to Montalcino, we make it back in one piece. Amazing!
Montalcino where we mostly stayed.
Inside Florence and the Duomo.
Fiesole, outside Florence with my buddy Brian.
Biking around Florence.
Giro D'Italia 2005 in Grosetto.
Biking from Montalcino to Pienza, last day.