Tag Archives: Italy

A Sojourn in Sicily – Part 1

Traveling to Europe from Austin is usually an adventure unto itself, and this trip was no exception.

We’d opted to fly in/out of Houston to avoid the missed or much-too-lengthy connections that occur when landing somewhere else in the US.

After a last-minute switch of hotels (note to airport travelers: do not book the Houston airport Holiday Inn, which is filthy and reeks of smoke!), we check in at the airport Marriott and have dinner at highly recommended Chez Nous in nearby Humble. I learn that the town is pronounced “umble” – perhaps to avoid the obvious jokes about pie?

The meal is excellent and we’re off to a good start.

Next morning, we check in for our flights: Houston to Newark and then on to Milan. Board the plane, settle in, and… nothing happens. After three “we’ll be slightly delayed” announcements we’re told of a “mechanical issue” (airline code for “we have no freakin’ clue what’s wrong”) and herded off the plane to scramble for new flights, as many on board are clearly going to miss their connection.

Several hours later we’re en route to Munich, where we’ll connect via Lufthansa to Milan. We arrive safely – still shivering from the insanely cold airplane – way behind schedule. Our luggage does not.

This necessitates another hour filling in paperwork while the lost luggage clerk tries to figure out whether United or Lufthansa is responsible for locating it and getting it to the hotel before we leave for our next destination.

BUT, intrepid travelers that we are, we head to our hotel, the very lovely Grand Hotel Et De Milan, and set off wandering this sophisticated and stylish city.

Day 1

Since we’re both opera fans, the main reason we’ve stopped in Milan this trip is to see a performance at La Scala the following night. Today, we head over to the opera house museum, which is pretty much a shrine to Maria Callas, patron saint of warblers worldwide. There are costumes, posters, videos, photos, portraits, you name it. Also set and costume designs from various other performances.

We scarf down a delicious dinner of trenette with pesto and cacio e pepe (here’s one recipe, though it’s even simpler and better if you use grated cacio cheese, olive oil, pasta water and freshly ground pepper) at nearby ristorante Salumiao, which we like so much we eat there the next night as well.

Day 2

Having been awakened at 1 a.m. by my dear husband (DH) who was obsessing about the missing luggage and wanting me to call someone (who in god’s name is working at that hour? but sure, why not!), I’m not as rested as I could be. Still, off we go to walk around and shop for a shirt and tie for DH to wear to La Scala in case the bags don’t arrive (it’s looking bleak).

Best discovery of the day: Museo Novecento, showcasing major art movements from 1910-1960’s, including some interesting political pieces.

After an afternoon drink at the hotel bar we return to our room to change for the opera and – mirabile dictu – bags have arrived!

At La Scala we see a silly opera (Von Weber’s Die Freischutz; about a hapless suitor, magic bullets, and the devil) with pleasant, mostly forgettable music, but we share a box with a nice couple and can now cross it off DH’s bucket list.

Days 3-6

We take the train to Florence – our 4th visit to this beautiful city, which is sadly overrun with selfie-stick-brandishing tourists even in October. Our hotel (a private palazzo nicely located near the Duomo) turns out to be lovely despite its unprepossessing exterior: ancient gate/courtyard with faint “eau de urine” from generations of animals and a dirty welcome mat in front of the battered industrial elevator which takes you upstairs to …

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Some highlights: Eating at Del Fagioli and Alla Vecchia Bettola, admiring fresh vegetables at the market and frescos at the Pitti Palace and Santa Maria Novella, and window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio,”considering” whether we need to buy the Buccellati lifelike silver crab serving dish that’s “only” 3600 euros after the VAT refund. Hey, let’s take two!

Day 7: Arrival in Sicily!

Alitalia seamlessly transfers our luggage from Florence to Rome to Palermo (take note, United!), where our Stanley Tucci lookalike driver takes us to our modern (aka no frills) hotel at 11:30 pm. I’d bought a sandwich to eat on the plane but DH has not eaten – he’s been fighting a cold and wasn’t hungry until now– and dines on minibar bottles and potato chips. Who says travel isn’t glamorous!

Next up: Palermo….

Chance Encounters of the Meaningful Kind

What’s the best part of travel for you? The food? The culture? Hearing another language? To all these, I’d add, “Having unexpected conversations with strangers.”

I’ve got nothing against museums, monuments, scenery, restaurants, etc. – they all enrich the experience. But to get to another level, you’ve gotta get personal.

Some of my most vivid memories of last winter’s trip to Paris were random and often awkward chats that, despite my halting French and their equally limited English, somehow managed to connect us on a more profound level. In one shop, the attempts to find my correct size led to observations about women in general – how we often think we’re larger than we are, or want an outside observer to reassure us that we look attractive. (Yes, even Parisians can be insecure!)

And at a little place near the hotel specializing in tableware and jewelry, the owner engaged us in a discussion of art, politics (both US and French) and the current state of global anxiety so many of us share, as well as recommendations for which current exhibitions to skip and which to put at the top of our list. What could have been an ordinary, five-minute transaction became an enjoyable half hour conversation.

Our trip to Sicily raised the need to communicate to a whole new level, since almost no one we encountered spoke English and my Italian is basic at best. Yet, we blundered through and in doing so had some delightful moments.

There was the cashier at the grocery store who began to recognize us and teased us about buying yet another bottle of a favorite wine. And the woman selling fish at the local market who insisted that my husband eat a raw shrimp right on the spot so he’d believe her when she told us how fresh they were.

Back in Milan on Wednesday, our last night in Italy, we met two very chic women – a mother “of a certain age” (i.e., close to my own) and her adult daughter – who were also staying at our hotel. We’d shared a car with them earlier in the day when the hotel had taken us to a destination in town and then met by chance in the bar. After the mother greeted us, we invited them to join us and we started talking.

In this case, language wasn’t the challenge; the daughter alone speaks seven languages. (We Americans have much to learn from other countries: for most of us, studying another language in high school is the extent of our globalization and we expect the world to speak English when/if we leave our borders.)

But what I found fascinating was the ease with which our conversation skipped among a number of topics, some light and others quite serious, in a way that rarely happens on a first encounter.

In the space of an hour, we learned about their heritage, their life in Jordan, their fashion business (buying for their boutique brings them to Milan four times a year; how lucky is that?), and some of their family history, including seeing photos of the lovely younger daughter and father, both deceased.

We discussed politics, karma, spa vacations, the importance of intuition, Turkish hostilities towards Armenians and Jews, Bruce/Caitlin Jenner and the Kardashians, favorite fashion designers, which cities are “simpatico”, where to get good pizza in Milan, US universities, modern marriage, and more.

In short, we began to know them in a substantive way, and if we hadn’t been leaving early the next morning we would have enjoyed talking further.

I don’t know if we’ll continue to be in contact, but that’s unimportant. What matters to me is the generosity with which these two women shared stories about their lives, and the depth it added to our trip. Rather than being passive observers in another country, I felt that we were among friends.

And that’s a huge part of why I love to travel.

xo, Alisa