|This was written by a gentleman (Vinny) who was visiting Italy for the first time. The primary reason for his trip was business, but as you'll see, he learned a lot about life in Italy.
Leave Seattle at 6:40 via British Airways, business class. Carpaccio portabella mushrooms for an appetizer, artichoke stuffed ravioli for an entrèe, and gorgonzola and stilton cheeses for desert. The 9 hour flight went pretty fast and the next thing I knew, we were landing in Heathrow.
Next leg was the flight into Rome. The airport at Rome was my first real interaction in a truly Italian culture. Wow, what an eye opener. These people are very strong and passionate; and they show it in both their body language and speech. Fashion is also very important. I was drowning in a sea of leather and gold. Quite a change from Eddie Bauer and REI. I was also able to witness a confrontation between a young, somewhat intoxicated (must have been on a British Airways flight) man and a sales person. Although I didn't understand the nature of the argument, my childhood memories kicked in and I recognized all the cuss words. This "conversation" went on for 10 minutes or more with no intervention from anyone. Had this happened in Seattle, I'm afraid he would have been tazered and locked up for a year.
The flight from Rome to Bari was a bit late, which pushed my arrival time out to about 9:45 PM. Although I had never flown Alitalia Airlines, I was quite sure that I was on the right flight and that the pilot was Italian. After hearing the stories of how Italians drive, it was an easy conclusion. Airplane taxi-speeds well over what I have ever experienced, and powering up in the turn just prior to take off. Mario Andretti behind the wheel (yoke) of an MD-80.... And landing was very similar to pulling in for a pit stop. Go like hell until the last minute, cut all power, bounce off the runway a few times, and nail the brakes. This was quite a contrast from the conservative British pilots who launched and landed their 747s without making a ripple in their afternoon cup of tea!
After thanking the "baggage Gods" after seeing my luggage on the carousel, my co-worker was there to pick me up and we headed off on a 25 minute ride to Martina Franca for a late dinner and check in to the Villa Rosa hotel. Traffic was light so I didn't get a chance to witness Italian drivers first hand. We walked to a small family restaurant in town which was quite a treat. Looking for only a small bite to eat, we ordered 2 appetizers. As we were warned, the food just kept coming and coming. Olives, meats, cheeses, breads, cheese soufflŽ, wine, etc. Our snack turned out to be much more than we had ever anticipated and all of it was exceptionally good with service that was warm and friendly.
We retuned to the hotel to call it an evening. Unfortunately, it was midnight, I was wide awake, and I had to get up again in 6 hours to report to work. (Jet lag is a wonderful thing...) After finally dozing off at around 2:00am (in the morning), I was awakened by the sound of a text message being received on my cell phone. You know, it's always nice to have friends that want to know you are OK and that you arrived at your destination safely. However, my advice is to not give them your international cell phone number (especially if they are computer/techno geeks) until AFTER you've had a day or two to adjust to the time change. They will be so excited for the chance to communicate via a text message to someone overseas, that they forget you might have your cell phone on, using the alarm feature to insure you don't oversleep for work the next day.
The Villa Rosa hotel is very nice. Rooms are small but clean with nice amenities. One thing I have not figured out, if the Italians are typically shorter than most people, why are their bathroom fixtures so high off the ground? The sinks, shower heads, and tub sides are all much higher than you would typically find in the states. And not just this hotel, I experienced this in most public facilities. Keeps the Italians on their toes I guess.
After a quick continental breakfast it was off to work. Now I get to experience Italians on the road. Anything from 40 to 140 kph on the same narrow, windy roads. My co-worker Dave is now a three term seasoned veteran of the "unruliness" of the roads and navigates our turbo diesel Alpha Romero through traffic and obstacles.
My first staff meeting was quite a treat. It reminded me a lot of the guy I talked about earlier arguing with the store owner at the Rome airport. It would seem these guys are all ready to punch each others lights out but that's not the case, they are just very "expressive." Quite a contrast from the politically correct, passive corporate world we live in. My office is a desk and chair and I share it with 6-7 other people fighting over power outlets and network connections. Life (and especially work) is not taken to seriously over here, and the people tend to take things in their own time, not being pushed or rushed as Americans are. They get to things in their own time and always take the time for the important things in life: each other. The workers all look out for each other and take the time to greet and talk about family, friends, events, whatever; then they talk work.
I am finding it a bit difficult to communicate with the people. I have been introduced as Vincenzo many times and automatically, the Italians think I speak the language and start yakking away. They are surprised when I tell them I do not speak the language. I also have to make a conscious effort to remember to initiate and respond to conversations in Italian. A hard habit to break but I am getting more comfortable with it. The Italians are proud of their language and respect the fact that you are making an attempt to communicate with them in that language.
After work we take the long way home through the back roads. This is my first chance to see Italy during day light. Lots of stone houses, agriculture, and garbage! Lots of olive groves and vineyards. Even saw a newer model Fiat Multipla! Remembering my father once bought a 1959 model, I was pleased (and shocked) to see they still make them.
We venture off to town to go to another co-workers house warming party in downtown Martina Franca. He was been fortunate enough to have been offered a 6 month stay here and has moved into a rental home for 6 months. Located right in the city square, it is in the middle of many stone houses which is accessed through a maze of narrow streets and alleyways. The architecture and history of the buildings in the square is beyond words. The house is a three level, 500 years old house with arched, vaulted stone ceilings, marble floors and stairs, etc. The top level has a ceiling height of about 5 feet with a narrow door (16" X 4.5') that opens to a roof-top landing that overlooks the square. It was something you would see in a movie. And everyone had their clothes hung out to dry from their small patio landings too.
The gathering was mostly co-workers until one of our clients arrived with two of her young friends who live in Grottaglie. Neither of the two friends spoke a bit of English so it made for an interesting evening of trying to bridge the communication gap after adding wine, food and Grappa. Anyway, a good time was had by all. We walked home through the city square again to find that it was packed with people eating, drinking, and socializing at well after midnight! These people sure enjoy life, are extremely social, helpful, and friendly. My friend Dave (who loves grappa) opted to take the opportunity to socialize with some of the local people a bit more than I did. After their conversations started leaning more towards religion and politics, I decided to move on so I ended up walking to the Villa alone.
Finally got a decent night's sleep and a chance to sleep in today. But where is Dave? No word from him yet, but I learned from the cleaning staff that he is indeed alive. Grappa one, Dave zero....
Dave gives me a call about noon and we decide to go get a bite to eat for lunch at the town square in Martina France. As we walk closer to a Panini shop, different Italians say hello to Dave and ask him how he is. Apparently he made some stops at the local watering holes on his way home last evening. We enjoy some water and cappuccino's and visit with the owners. Dave seems to be snapping out of it now.
We drive to Brindisi to see an event that someone had told him about last night. Apparently Brindisi is the home for the Logistical center for the United Nations and they were celebrating its birthday. It was quite a festival with street vendors, dancing, Special Forces displays, etc. And of course it was right on a bay of the Adriatic Sea. My first look at the Adriatic. We walk around town to find many sights. Two very tall columns from Corinthian times, War memorials, St. Teresa church (unbelievably old but still beautiful), another large memorial which we can't figure out what its meaning is, and many other churches. We treat ourselves to some Gelato and head back home towards Martina Franca. We walk up to the local pizzeria and have dinner which consists of a slice of pizza and a beer. At about 9:00 we head off to our rooms and get ready for an early start at work tomorrow. Jet lag is still breaking my "you know what's" and I cannot get more than 2 hour of sleep without waking up again. This goes on from 9:00pm to 4:30 am when I finally decide to just stay up and be tired tomorrow, hoping to crash about 9:00pm again and sleep through the night.
Off to work we go. It's dark and foggy. The time here at work seems to fly by and no one seems to know why. I look at my watch expecting it to be 10:00am and it's noon! I blame it on the fact that most of the day is spent in a slow but enjoyable mode of trying to communicate and listening to some of the Italian's stories. They find that the social aspect of work is more important than doing their work and structuring their day.
At 8:00pm, Dave and I decide it's time to head back to the Villa. Just as we are about to leave, one of the Directors shows up and assign's Dave a project. Given that, I bum a ride back to the villa with another coupe of co-workers. We decide to get a bit to eat in Grottaglie before it gets too late. So, the three of us pile in a small Ford station wagon and go in search of a place to eat. None of us know where the hell we are going and end up in the city center where the roads are very narrow and getting narrower all the time. At one point we met a car head on and had to back up 30 yards to let them pass. An interesting feat on a narrow street. Other times we had to fold the mirrors in and jockey the car back and forth a few time to make a turn. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and we are getting hungry. Finally we make our way to wider streets and signs and smells of food. Because of the chance of theft, we all carry our laptops as we go in search of food. Turns out the food we smelled was from someone's home so we walked a half mile or so in what we saw as a "questionable" neighborhood with some interesting characters and no place to eat. We pile back in the car and move to another part of town where we find a pizzeria that is open. Huge place. We are directed where to sit and given menus that none of us can read or understand. The other two guys decide on pizza and bruschetta and I order a glass of wine and saltimbocca alla Roma (whatever that is).
Pizzas come right out as does the bruschetta but my dish is long over due. But I don't care, the glass of wine I thought I ordered was actually a half-liter. Of course the jokes about having to butcher the horse for the meat start in. Apparently it is commonplace for horsemeat to be served here. I would not have guessed. So we watch Italian game shows on a projection TV aimed at a blank wall. In the 1.5 hours we were there, not one other customer came in. Not a good sign so we decided to "black list" this place for the duration of our visit. We proceed home to the Villa abut 10:30pm where I finally get a good night's sleep but am awake again (like clockwork) at 4:30 am.
Dave and I decide to have dinner in Grottaglie at a place he knows and had been to before. (Wish I could remember the name) Husband and wife team; she is the chef and he is the property owner and host. Apparently this used to be his family's home. He still lives there but the majority of the house is dedicated to the business. This too is another lovely piece of architecture. Same type of masonry construction hundreds of years old with the same arched ceilings. This seems to be a pretty common theme around this area. The entryway is small but the inside of this place is huge. We are seated down 3-4 stairs to what I would assume was a large (what we would call) family room. It has 7-8 tables for two and two larger setting with seating for 6-8. There is also a room that has been turned into a well stocked wine cellar. There is also an archway that leads into a room with a well and bath.
The antipasti plate was great. It had four different types of meat, a very sharp Romano, and a couple of "balls" of mozzarella. It was hard to imagine eating another plate after this first course. However, the little skewered shrimps (chef special of the night) were not that filling and I was able to make my way through about 9 of them. After dinner, the owner brought over two glasses of what I would refer to as a "Late Harvest" wine. Anyway, it was pretty dang tasty and on the house! You see a lot of that around here. If you are a regular or they recognize you or just like you, there will always be a freebee coming for you. Nice change from what most of us are used to. Needless to say, I passed on desert.
Today is another long day at the office. Again we get off at 8:00PM. This time Dave and I go straight to the Villa and wanted to head out quickly to get a small bite and a good night's sleep. Well that wasn't going to happen. Turns out 4 more co-workers had just arrived at the Villa and needed to eat. So, Dave and I offered for them to come with us for a slice of pizza. They proceeded to tell us they had no Euros to spend over here because they never exchanged their US dollars. On top of that, they could not get cash because they had left home before their corporate credit card PIN's had arrived in the mail. So all we could do was take them to a place that accepted credit cards. Do you know how few places over here take cards? VERY few. It is a cash-dominated commerce system here. Kinda nice really, except when you have no cash.
The six of us head out the door to: you guessed it, Momma's. What a place. Down three very steep and narrow stairs to what looked like what could have been a torture chamber! There were large wrought iron rings anchored to the stone walls, old timbers spanning archways with nails and visible signs of rope wear on them. And the ceilings were nothing other than of the same architecture and design talked about all through this report! And as I guess, Dave had already been there weeks ago and was getting the Royal Momma treatment by one of the servers. Apparently the first time he went there, he walked in and asked the hostess if she would take a picture of him out front of the place. She misinterpreted him and though he wanted to take HER picture and proceeded to ham it up and posed for him. So, after he explained what he really wanted, she asked one of the guys to come out and take a picture of both her and Dave, only this time she sat on his lap on the bench out front. Not sure Dave will be emailing that picture of Italy to his wife any time soon.
Needless to say, another great meal was had by everyone. Breads, cheeses, Primativo wine, swordfish steak, green salad, etc. Interesting thing about the wines over here; they contain no sulfites. Apparently there is some government restrictions on adding them to their wines to preserve the natural essence. Good news for me because the sulfites just stuff up my nose. Again, no desert for this guy but a shot of Molonari Sambuca after dinner is always in order. Even still, the entire dinner lasted from 9:00 to 11:30! Then it was off to the Villa for another 6 hour of sleep before the wake up call rings.
As I suspected, it was a tough "get up" this morning with another 11 hour day. This 9:00 dinner and wine stuff is killing me (feeling real sorry for me aren't you) so tonight I got back to the Villa, brought my laundry to the front desk and proceeded to walk to a local pizzeria for a light dinner. A little place called "La Panini" is just a hole in the wall down the street but great in a pinch. So dinner was one slice of pizza and a 6 oz. Coke. Walked back to the Villa, ordered up a double Vodka rocks at the bar and looked at the pictures in an Italian news paper in the lobby. What else can you do when you can't read the language? As I had planned, this was the perfect prelude to a long overdue good nights sleep. Now it's back to the room to fall asleep with the TV on the background listening to the script of some old Italian re-run movie. Maybe I'll learn the language through subliminal suggestion.
Hi ho, Hi ho, it's off to work we go! During the day I am introduced to LeAnne, another co-worker who arrived in Italy some time ago on a 6-month assignment. She lives in Naples and splits her time between Foggia and Grottaglie. LeAnne is your typical Seattle gal so you are not apt to find her in any kind of leather, make-up, or pumps as I described being worn by the Italian women. Picture more of braids, Levi's, hiking boots and a tee shirt. On top of this, her occupation is not one you'd guess. She is a tooling engineer. (Remember hearing about those earlier?) Her mission has been to come to Italy, study the tools, assess how they work, and if they don't, find out why and what the resolution is. So on any given time of the day, she can be found crawling around the inside and outside of these mammoth tools. Sorta like a large squirrel dressed in Levis.
Now, the Italian men are still very traditional as to their views of women in the workplace. The work force here is almost solely men. I have seen only two women in technical or hourly position in the factory. So you can imagine their views of a woman who is a tool engineer, and not afraid to get her hand dirty crawling around machinery. "Momma mia....next thinga you know, they gonna wanna to vote!" Anyway, it's pretty amusing.
My buddy Dave finds himself having to work until 11 pm so I say Arividerchi and hook up with Leanne for a ride back to the Villa. Along the way we talk shop, careers, life in Italy, and life at home. She is a wealth of information on how to survive living and working in Italy and where to turn when things go sour and you need bailing out.
Having driven around Italy for a few months, LeAnne is an expert on where to go and how to get there so we get to the Villa in half the time it normally takes. It's now about 8:30 so we decide to walk to town for a bite to eat. We end up at a place called La Cantina. Although she had been in town before with some of the other folks on this assignment, she had not been there. So it was a research project for both of us. We decide to eat light so it's just an antipasti plate and another side dish she finds interesting, and a bottle of 2006 wine. We ask (in broken Italian) if it is really a 2006. Turns out that it is. A small amount of the pressings are bottled early every year to celebrate the harvest of the grapes. Surprisingly, it is very tasty. However, almost immediately we both start getting stuffed up. Turns out she is as sensitive to sulfites in wines as I am. (And I thought they didn't have sulfites in the wines here!) Apparently, these early pressings are known for that. Who would have known...
The food starts to come out and never seems to end. We enjoyed six different types of meats, three cheeses (mozzarella, sharp, and one other type that I had never had), deep fried balls of something, Italian sauerkraut, roasted peppers, polenta, olives, bread, and some type of unidentified greens. Needless to say, it was more than we could handle and most of it probably went to the dogs that were hanging out near the dumpsters out back just like in Lady and the Tramp. Instead of desert, Leanne asks me if I'd ever had a limoncello. (Lemon flavoring seems to be very popular over here) Anyway, I say no.
Next thing I know, there are two of these lemon after-dinner drinks at the table. Although I am not a big fan if citrus drinks, these were a good balance between sweet and sour and were kinda hard to put down. I mean "down" on the table. LeAnne informs me that her husband, who stays home while she's out globe trotting, makes this limoncello at home. (Sometimes with better success than others) Like bathtub gin maybe? I don't know, but apparently there are all different types and grades of this stuff just like that stuff they call grappa. Give me a bad tasting limoncello any day.
So, back to the Villa we walk, surprised (bit not really) to find that the streets are again foaming with people at 11:00 pm. Like Dean Martin sings in the song "An evening in Roma", "the beginning has just begun when the sun goes down". As luck would have it, we are greeted at the Villa doors by a group of Italians just getting ready to head out to town. We just shake our heads, laugh, and retire to our rooms for the night.
Leanne and I had agreed to meet at 8:00 in the lobby and she would give me a ride in to work and then out to Brindisi to pick up my Ford station wagon "Babe Mobile". We get to work around 8:30 and work the firefighting routine until noon and head out.
The Brindisi airport is something to experience. It is quite small and currently under construction. All on one level, it consists of (3) car rental agencies, food marts, arrival and departure gates, a police booth, and a few other things I can't remember. Imagine this all in a building less than a football field long. The rental booth that I went up to when picking up my car could not have been more than 4 feet wide. Cluttered with paper, dot matrix printers, pens that had no ink, and post it notes stuck all over the walls with numbers and codes, it was like something out of the past. But as I walked down past the other booths/counters, I realize that this was the norm for the airport. I was waiting to hear someone yell "clear the prop" as I walked past the tarmac in search of my Italian sports car.
And what a beauty it is. Silver over dark blue, roof racks, plastic hub caps. I am the envy of every soccer mom in Renton! I'm glad I'm in Italy because I don't want anyone I know at home to see me driving this thing. It has all the pizzazz as a pair of white jockey shorts, but it will roll in whatever direction I choose. Speaking of which, the directions I chose on the way home were not quite what I had in mind. Either the road signs here suck, or being half way across the world has thrown my GPS off a bit. In three attempts to get off the highway and take some back roads to Martina Franca, I managed to end up in the same dumpy little town! Even with the help of a map! I felt like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day or worse yet, being caught in the Bermuda triangle. Finally, after 1.5 hours of driving in circles, I relented to taking the highways all the way to the Villa. Not too scenic, but it got the job done.
Feeling beaten up by the Italian maps, roads and getting lost, I decide to go the grocery store and get some things to fill my fridge and make my hotel room stay a bit cozier. I walk to the store only to find that it is not open. As you might have guessed, they are open mornings, closed mid-day, and open again from 7:00pm till 2:00am. Kinda like the restaurants. When will I ever learn. So back to the Villa I go to pull the blanket over my head and crash for a few hours. Back to the store I go filling up on canned tuna, sliced cheese, crackers, sea salt (don't ask what for), and peanuts; all the comfort food one could ask for when there's nothing else to eat mid day in Italy.
After bring my stash home and playing on the PC for a bit, I set out to find a light dinner somewhere. But before I do, I stop at the little bar in our lobby and have a double vodka on the rocks to sorta ease the nerves before heading into downtown on a Saturday night. 7:00 pm and the streets are again packed with people. Scooters everywhere, horns blowing, music in the streets, etc. Further up the street I see what might be adding to the celebration. There is a small street fair with maybe 20 booths selling everything from chain saws to costume jewelry. There was also live cooking, window cleaning squeegees with a life time guarantee, massage chairs, art, meats, cheeses, and breads. Everything you would ever need to stock a fine Italian household. Although I wanted one of everything, (who could resist) my baggage space home is limited so I had to leave these treasures behind.
Dinner was at a place I had walked past some time before and made of mental note to try out sometime. It was called Trattoria la Cantina. It had a great crowd last time I had walked by so it was worth going back for the social aspect and good food. I walked up to the door at 7:30 pm to find that they had just opened and I was the first one there. Not a sole in there but the employees in the kitchen and me. Not even the servers where there yet. So I got waited on by the chef who was a very jolly fellow who understands about as much English as I did Italian. Not a good combination but had there been other people there, no doubt they would have found it entertaining. After about 5 minutes of trying to convey the idea of something light, small portions, no starch, etc, we were both laughing at each other and about in tears, neither one of us having any idea what the hell we were laughing about. Finally, one of the servers showed up for work and he explained to the chef what it was that I wanted. I ended up with a green salad, cheese plate, and pasta. Go figure, you can't win.... "You can order anything you want for dinner, as long as it is pasta."
Off to the busy streets of Martina Franca and then to the Villa for a good nights sleep.