Italy Journal – Observations

Wine & Roses

{Reposted from my original 2008 trip journal and reflections in 2009}

Nothing is free – I came away from Italy with a reinforcement of the idea that “nothing is free.” It’s not that much of a revelation when gas is so expensive and the US economy is having a ripple effect everywhere. Every little thing had a cost associated with it, even if it appeared to be free or included. In most restaurants there was a “cover charge” on top of whatever you ate, just for sitting down. Then of course you have to consider tip, which usually can not be placed on a credit card, so you need to be sure to have cash on hand. At one point at dinner, I returned from the lavatory to find Audra and Kristy with roses presented by a charming roaming flower man. Of course they were not complimentary  (five Euro). Cash tips took a chunk of our daily budget, especially on travel days. At the Pompeii refreshment house, they charged 3 Euro for a 12 oz. iced tea. Most of our guides made you feel obligated to tip them, even if you had already paid for a tour. I felt obligated to tip most of the street musicians. The guide books warned of possible charges for public rest rooms, and for the most part they were right, though the bathrooms sometimes didn’t have seats.

Capri was the most expensive, since as an island everything needs to be brought in – more so because it doesn’t have drinkable water. You have to keep your own supply (unlike our hotel in Positano that supplied it for us).

But more than the obvious monetary outlay, you got an even more intense sense of what your time was worth on a trip like this. Do you really want to schlep your luggage up hundreds of stairs, or would a porter service be better so you can use that time doing something more enjoyable? Do you really want to drive across Sardinia to experience the land, or stay a few more days somewhere to get to know one place better? These are questions you find yourself asking when you realize that for a little more money sometimes you can have a better experience, and when you are talking about a trip like this, being reserved in your spending can end up costing you valuable vacation time and only crank up the stress you are trying to avoid.

Language – We really had very little trouble getting along with limited Italian, even in Sardinia where English is spoken less. Several months before the trip I started listening to Learn In Your Car Italian, picking up some of the important phrases I would need and learning some vocabulary. Again, due to my semester schedule in the Fall and Spring, there was little room for a formal class. Audra got a CDROM and used my tapes too. Kristy took a travel Italian class.

I had two experiences where my weakness with the language really showed. In one case I bought a few postcards with a larger denomination bill than required. The salesperson asked me if I had change, as in anything smaller or any coins to make change. I did not. But somehow she thought I was OK with this, so I did not get the correct change and ended up paying something like 6 Euro for four postcards! I only realized all of this afterward, and didn’t feel comfortable going back since it was really my own error. That might explain why the salesperson’s daughter was so friendly about showing me the closest Internet café.

During one of our first meals, I wanted a cold tea, but got confused between hot (caldo) and cold (freddo), and ended up with a hot cup of tea when it was 85 degrees outside. I explained (poorly) that I was confused and it was resolved without much trouble.

While visiting one of the ruins in Sardinia, the tour guide explained – in limited English – that there were no tours in English. The guide books had warned of this. We waited for the tour to start, but it didn’t look like anyone was coming we so went on our own and did OK exploring the site, even if we did not get as much context. We got kindly reprimanded for not going with the tour. That was probably our only real faux pox. Silly Americans!

Never trust your bank – I wanted to make absolutely sure that we did not come back to any surprises with our household bills while we were out. To this end, we paid our mortgage ahead for July, in person, at the local bank. Two days before we left we got a letter saying our escrow had been recalculated and we owed for that, so I made an additional payment (in person) to catch everything up. We had two tellers promise us that we would not have anything to worry about and that we should relax.

Upon our return we had a letter from our bank telling us that our *June* payment was still unapplied because of some nonsense with the escrow, which wasn’t supposed to kick in until July anyway. So within 30 minutes of being back from Philly, I was on the phone with the bank on a Saturday morning, just before they are about to close. They assured me they would look into it Monday and that it could be worked out. Later that following week I finally received a statement that showed how everything was applied and that in fact they had screwed it all up the first time just as I expected they would. You can never be too sure with things like this, and it makes one wary of having accounts with anyone these days. People just do not seem to take pride in their work.

Speaking of which, I think I can also mention that you can’t trust your credit union either. I told mine – in writing weeks before – that I’d be going abroad and to make sure my account remained active. I called a few days before the trip and they didn’t have it on file, so they made a note. I called the next day and they STILL hadn’t made the note in the proper place on my account.

And, as if you need one more warnings from me, you can not trust the post office to follow your instructions about holding and delivering mail. This is really no surprise because we had the same problem last year. The US Post Office continues to be one of the worst vendors that I use. Audra set up our mail holding in person. She asked them three times if our mail would be delivered the Saturday of our return, and they looked at her with disdain as if it was too much trouble for them to assure us they knew what we wanted. Was our mail delivered the day we returned? No.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.