(... Mark is wondering what street to explore next....)
We are strangers in a land overseas. I barely have the language (although people are patient and wonderful communicators, as I will have discussed in another post). Aside from the obvious landmarks, which are teeming with tourists---where do we stay? Where are the best, out-of-the-way eateries? How do we get from one wonderful destination to another? In fact, where are the can't-miss but hidden destinations, given a limited amount of time?
A guided tour is a terrific way to be introduced to a new place. But then, large groups are difficult to corral, and hard to keep together, with more potential for delay. It is more difficult to get into smaller restaurants or shops. A large group can't travel as quickly together, and members have less freedom to explore on their own.
Our little group, coordinated by a travel-tour agency called Outgoing Adventures, was a hearty six people, plus our leader. The group was all guys, men of about the same age, with similar interests and political leanings.
Along with Mark and me, there were: a professional couple from Washington, D.C, Michael and Paul; a retired nurse from China now living in Vancouver, also named Michael; and a photographer and dog-lover from San Francisco named Steve.
We had varied backgrounds and personalities, and widely diverse travel experience and expertise. Still, we shared many common interests in art and "beauty"--we were always on the lookout for the most aesthetically pleasing men:
We shared our stories, often personal details about our lives, which bonded us. We got lost in small towns together, consoled a lost wallet together, and endured teasing together.
For 10 days we became a family, under the caring and hilarious guidance of our heroine and guide, Yvette.
Yvette was an astonishing storehouse of knowledge about European and North African history and current politics. I learned everything from the state of the Italian economy and political turmoil, the role of Gadaffi investments in Italy, the sources for unrest in areas around her home country of Tunisia, the long-standing feuds between Italians and Turks, and the roadblocks for journalists in reporting of everyday life in Israel. All of this she made part of a world-community, rather than isolating it to just Italy.
She effortlessly provided us with bits of information that enhanced our travel, and that were also easy to digest. She facilitated our easy entree into our hotels, our restaurants, and our destinations (like the Vatican, the Volterra museum, and the Colosseum.) She toiled behind the scenes to line up drivers, boats, trains and small vans for our cross-country treks. She provided us with guides who gave us fascinating histories of the small towns, as well as a wealth of art appreciation. She arranged for our last dinner to be a group cooking class in a country house in the Tuscan countryside.
Yvette knew EVERYONE.
And she assisted us with things like using ATM's, tipping the hotel workers, and ordering authentic food.
Our dinners, after some wine (every night!) were laugh-fests, one more festive than the next. We always had red and white wine from the region, which enhanced our giddiness and a natural wit that emerged from around our table. I may have to devote an entire post to our dinner-table hilarity. For example, who knew that a proper "drag" name should combine one's first pet with the name of your childhood street of residence? (My name, Bonnie Robert, was cause for one of our most extended laughs.)
And the food was always diverse, and we never had to go over our budgets. Italian food, the authentic stuff, is a lot more than spaghetti and Ragu, and pizza loaded with mozzarella and sauce. Ingredients are fresh daily from various markets. Bruschette could come topped with mushrooms, or "lard" (like a bacon) as well as tomato. A "first plate" usually meant a small portion of pasta with a variety of sauces. A "second plate' was a simple entree, either a cut of meat or piece of fish. Side dishes like fresh vegetables were ordered a la carte. We were often too full for dessert...but indulged all the same. We were on vacation, far from home.
I shall miss our traveling family. We shared an experience many real families often do not.