Observations on an Italian Summer Sojourn

We survived our Italian summer – it was tough, but someone’s got to do it!

  • It’s hard to learn even the most basic tourist phrases of another language (hello; excuse me; pardon the fart; where is the toilet?; waiter, the check!; please remove your thumb from my nose) in 4 weeks.
  • I have several anxieties that appear mainly when traveling outside the U.S., such as: When and how much do I tip? Will there be toilets? Are the trails well marked? Will they realize I’m an American and insist that I explain the last election (I cannot)? Can we return our rental car without incident? Will there be toilets?
  • Fun facts about the opera Rigoletto, seen in Verona: Apparently it does not depict how a clown loved then lost an overweight cross-dresser named Gilda. Rather, this classic Verdi opera is about a deformed hunchbacked jester whose redeeming quality is his devotion to his daughter Gilda, who falls heavily for the handsome misogynistic Duke of Mantua, who starts Act III with “La Donna e Mobile” (you’ve heard the tune), its most famous aria (technically, canzone – not to be confused or spellchecked into “calzone”). The first stanza begins:

italian summerLa donna è mobile
Qual piuma al vento,
Muta d’accento — e di pensier.

In the old days, before simultaneous English translation, I assumed this was a song about a woman, Donna, who used her mobile phone to call (“qual”) her pal Al Vento, who had a muted accent and two pensions.

With simultaneous English translation, I finally appreciate that the song is a five-minute smackdown of women. The first passage translates roughly as follows:

Woman is fickle.
Teases and tickles.
Mean and despicable — won’t eat my pickle.

  • The food in the Dolomites is incredible, though as much Germanic (wurst) as Italian (pasta). We cannot resist insanely over-ordering at the first of our four 5-star, 5-course, all-inclusive meals, stumbling from the table sick to our stomachs. But we exert better control the next two nights, leaving merely nauseous. And by the last evening we’re back to our U.S. dining out behavior, simply uttering an exasperated “Why did we eat so much?” as we exit.

Still, by skipping lunch and walking endlessly we keep weight gains within targeted range. (Thus, literally by the skin of our teeth, we avoid returning home and immediately having to buy a new, plus-size wardrobe. Rather, it’s just the usual post-vacation dieting resolutions.)

  • Driving in the Dolomites is an experience, mainly in quick-shifting from 2nd to 3rd gear and back again. I hope the rental company didn’t charge extra for 5th — I barely used it. (I could have skipped 4th, too, except on the A4.)

The tag on the car keys said “gasoline”; the sticker on the gas cap read “diesel”; the attendant clearly thought I was an idiot for asking his advice (diesel, moron) and needing help pumping the gas (though he himself had to reset the handle to get it going).

I enjoy biking and like bikers. But the 200th time I had to downshift to 1st, or full-stop the car, on those narrow, twisted, steeply-inclined roadways, to avoid running a Lance Armstrong wannabe off the road, I was ready to start running them off the road.

  • In July there are A LOT of tourists in the Dolomites (but with a surprising dearth of English spoken) (maybe my countrymen also feared having to explain the last election) (a young UK couple we met worried they might be called on to defend Brexit). We were rarely more than 100 feet from other hikers on the popular trails and, on the most popular, such as Tre Cime, it felt like a Hajj pilgrimage. Indeed, after we took the funicular to Resciesa, we chanced upon a Catholic service that culminated in a congregational climb up the nearest hilltop to a large wooden crucifix, a true pilgrimage for many.

With all those people passing by – one way or another – I was often on a 4 “buongiorno” per minute pace, a personal best in foreign greetings. (It became so quickly ingrained that my first week back in the States, I had to resist saying it to everyone I passed. After one forgetful buongiorno, to people joining me on an elevator, I immediately burst into the opening song from Beauty and the Beast, pretending I was just playing a character.) (Oddly, this seemed to unnerve them more than my knee-jerk buongiorno.)

  • At Lake Como we stayed in Varenna, prompting this ditty (a parody of Louis Armstrong’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”):

You say Varenna and I say Verona,
You say Sienna, I’ll visit Sedona.
Varenna, Verona,
Sienna, Sedona.
Let’s call the whole thing off!

Varenna happens to be on the opposite side of the Lake from Bellagio, Menaggio and the male favorite, Fellatio.

No, we did not see George Clooney.

Howard Zaharoff
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