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story and photos by Tammy harrow

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Italy-Sorrento

When one lives in an historical seaside paradise such as St. Augustine, deciding where to go on vacation can be a dilemma. For me, there’s only place in the world I’d rather go, and that’s Italy. With something like 500 ancient cathedrals, it’s hard not to find jaw-dropping beauty everywhere. It’s also nearly impossible to have a bad meal. The friendly people, the shopping, the sites, the smells and the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea will draw you in and make you want to stay as long as possible.

What not to pack

Unless you want to show off the fact you’re an American tourist, leave your shorts, gym clothes, and clunky white American tennis shoes at home. You won’t see anyone except maybe cruise ship passengers sporting this attire outside of a gym. Sadly enough, this too includes yoga pants. Italians dress nice, so if you want to blend in, plan to wear modest, business casual clothes like skirts and slacks. Dark, slim tennis shoes are acceptable if you’re worried about aching feet.
Ladies, if any of your tops show the slightest hint of cleavage, toss them out of your suitcase right now. Trust me on this, unless you plan to stir lots of unwanted attention, particularly if you’re traveling alone. Take a cue from the scarf-clad Italian women probably born with this knowledge. Many chapels throughout Italy won’t even allow you inside with as much as your shoulders exposed, so be prepared to cover up.

Bathrooms

When you leave America, prepare to leave behind the lush bathrooms large enough to house your extended family. Most bagnos here are tiny, leaving much to be desired. There are no dual showerheads or extra jets, and if the water pressure is good, consider yourself lucky enough.
On the plus side, there are bidets, which leaves me wondering, “Why in the world are these ingenious little contraptions not more popular in the states?” We have sinks to wash our hands, but only dry toilet paper to wash… never mind. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, like the same reason washcloths don’t seem to exist in Italy. Do they even make them? I don’t know, but I’ve spent months traveling all over and have yet to see one.
And while we’re on the subject of bathrooms, always carry loose change. What does that have to do with bathrooms? Many places make you pay to use the facilities. Even the few that don’t have attendants responsible for keeping them squeaky clean. You’ll likely come face-to-face with one when exiting a stall. She’ll offer you lotion, cologne, mints and you will want to give her a little tip. Why? Because she looks like someone’s cute little grandma and because her job stinks, literally.

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Language

So you’ve bought an Italian phrasebook and have been practicing. Be prepared when you try to impress someone with your new skills and find they actually understand you and even, oh my gosh, respond. What now? You have no clue what they’re saying, and flipping through your phrasebook isn’t going to help. They’re still talking 100 miles an hour and are probably laughing at you at this point as you frantically flip through the pages trying to figure out what they are saying.
Also, the Italian men who speak at least some English will rarely admit when they don’t understand what you’re saying. It takes a lot of practice to watch their expressions and signals to learn they have no idea what you’re talking about. Make sure when you do meet English speakers, you skip the slang terms. You will cause a misunderstanding if you say “Oh, that stinks,” unless you really mean something smells bad. Don’t use contractions either. For instance, say “cannot” instead of “can’t.” When there are several variations for a word, stick to the most proper word, i.e. instead of belly, tummy or gut, use stomach.

Learn the phrase “Non capisco” (I don’t understand) so you don’t appear rude when someone’s trying to speak to you in Italian. It also helps to smile when you say it.
If you’re a solo traveling woman, repeat after me: “Ho un marito” (I have a husband). Even if you don’t, I promise you’ll thank me later. 

Eating & Drinking

The coffee here will kill you. OK, not really, but imagine sipping hot jet fuel, no amount of sugar and/or cream will help. Choking it down requires dilution of water for a while until your tastebuds adjust, which can take weeks. Most places offer great mild cappuccinos, which I’m told are “for little babies.”

Water is either still or with gas (sparkling), even in the convenience stores, so pay attention if you have a preference.

Italians eat small continental-type breakfasts, usually pastry or some type of bread with their morning jet fuel. I’m guessing they don’t want to dilute the caffeination effect, which for me means quivering insides and hands too shaky to even hold my camera.
Learn to like, or at least tolerate, olives. They’re about as easy to avoid as candy at Christmas and are in every dish, growing in almost every yard, everywhere. There’s no escaping them. At some point you will at least accidentally ingest one. Embrace it.
Prepare your palate for the lack of creamy 1,000 calorie salad dressings, a staple in every American restaurant, only oil and vinegar here.

Fish here is expensive, I mean really expensive, like sell-a-kidney kind of expensive. Doesn’t matter that every restaurant I visit is a stone’s throw from the sea where there’s an overabundance of them. I guess I should have realized this when I learned fish was sold by the gram rather than the portion. With that being said, it is worth ordering, especially in a place where you get to choose your catch from a tub of ice or window display, wait for it to be buried and cooked whole in a pan of salt, before being cleaned and drizzled with olive oil at your tableside. Delizioso.
In the Amalfi region, delicious limoncello and wild fennel liquor apertifs are often served with lunch and dinner. Maybe this explains why the Italians take such long lunches. 

Lodging

Apartment, and even house rentals, are often less expensive than hotels. Airbnb.com is a good safe bet for searching for that perfect place.
Beds are extra firm and bring back memories of childhood camping…on the ground, so when you leave home, prepare to bid arrivederci to the comfort of your pillowtop mattress. On the plus side, your achy neck and back will suddenly feel better, trust me.
Italian hotel rooms offer less amenities than Americans are used to- many have no TVs, and if they do they only offer a few channels. I guess they expect visitors to be out doing things rather than laying in bed watching the televisione. Many rooms don’t offer alarm clocks or even booklets of information. Recommendations on things to do and places to eat will have to come from the hotel staff.

Driving/ Riding

If driving or riding in NYC leaves you reaching for anxiety meds, prepare yourself, and bring them along. I’m not even sure why those pointless traffic signs are placed along Italy’s roadways, since no one, except maybe foreigners, even pretend to obey them. Sto simply means slow down, and yield means accelerate enough so you can beat the other guy heading in the same direction. If drivers see a sight they’d like to explore, they simply stop the car in the middle of the mountainy road, get out and take their time looking over the edge. No worries about the other drivers, they will go around, usually after a few horn honks and unfamiliar gestures. If you find yourself on a one-lane road speeding head-on towards another car, bus, or moped, don’t be intimidated. Remember, he who shows fear first loses… and will have to back up, even if it means driving around a treacherous mountain in reverse. Don’t be a chicken. And on the highways, as far as speed limits go, don’t bother trying to see if there are any actual signs posted, you’ll be going too fast to notice. Speed is dictated by the bumper of the guy in front of you, there’s no 3-6 second following rule here.

Work Ethic

Italians take pride in their jobs and well, just about everything. Waiters, hotel employees, the whole hospitality industry is paid well, and it shows in their work. You will never see a waiter reach across you, or act like you being there is bothering them. The ones I’ve met have made careers out of their jobs, and have no desire to do anything else. It’s as if they were born for their job, or their job was made for them. In America, we only expect college students or job hoppers to be temporarily employed as waiters, and we pay them accordingly. When tourist season ends, some of the towns basically shut down, and the hospitality employees take a nice long winter break. Also, be aware most businesses and shops shut down for a few hours each day from around noon until 2 or 3 p.m. 

Drinking/ Smoking

In the states, most of the smokers I know shamefully hide their habit, and are close to beginning their 75th attempt at quitting. I guess the whole lung cancer/cigarette smoking connection hasn’t caught on in Italy because everyone here smokes. On the bright side, the vino flows freely here, and it’s common to see house bottles on the tables during both lunch and dinner. This makes up for the overabundance of cigarette smoke. 

Putting aside all of my cynicism and silliness, Italy, in all its splendor, will welcome you with open arms, teach you to breathe, to just be still, and to take in its magnificence waiting for you around every corner, in every town.
Other than St. Augustine, there really may be no better place on earth.