Finding my roots or ‘Benvenuto all’Italia’
With a last name like mine, it should come as no surprise that I’m Italian. My family, however, emigrated from Italy a very long time ago and never went back as they found their American dream. They still remained very much Italian with their big family reunions, homemade meals and loud passionate conversations.
One of the perks of being Italian is, well… being Italian; as many other countries in the EU, Italy offers its citizens –and their descendants- dual citizenship, which is my case. Growing up, I never heard much about why they left their homeland or anything about their home town, so I had always been very curious about it, but since all of my Italian nonnos died when I was very young, I never had the chance to ask. What better reason to plan a vacation throughout Italy for over a week to try and rediscover one’s roots?
We purchased the tickets from JFK-LHR-LIN on British Airways on a $2+tax fare sale and then added the positioning flight SEA-EWR using a Bank of America companion certificate for Alaska Airlines. The JFK-LHR-LIN portion had a 23 hour layover in London that we usually like to squeeze into all of our European trips as it’s one of our most favorite places to visit, and as usual, we stayed at the St. Pancras Renaissance (which deserves its own post!). The plan was to arrive in Milano, then slowly drive down Italy all the way to Bari, stopping at various cities we had in mind.
We landed in Milano at about 4PM after our 1 day in London and went straight to our hotel, the Diana Majestic, which we booked with cash so that we could rack up some SPG points. It’s not centrally located, but as we were only staying in Milano for the one night and weren’t planning on exploring much until the end of our trip, we didn’t really care. By the time we checked in, freshened up and walked downtown for dinner, it was dark and most places were closed for the day, so we had to default to eating a truly Italian pizza, which I hadn’t had since moving to Seattle.
Next morning we had breakfast and caught an Uber to Linate Airport to pick up our rental car. So that we could make it an even more Italian experience, the car we got was a Fiat 500, which is what I drive back home too. For all those not used to renting cars outside of the US, most countries’ default cars are manual transmission and those with an automatic one come at a premium; since I do drive a stick but I loathe driving while on vacation and Jon does not know how to drive a stick, we had to rent an ‘automatic’ from Sicily by Car, which was the cheapest option. Note: I use quotes on ‘automatic’ as for some reason this version does not feel truly automatic and has the revving and acceleration of a manual car, hopefully someone who knows about cars as much as we know about travel can explain… Once we tetris’ed our luggage into la machina and got our 7 different versions of how to get onto the autostrada in Italian dialect, we finally started our (Inter)National Lampoon Vacation-style trip down the boot.
Parmesano Reggiano. Prosciutto di Parma. Need I say more? I am absolutely convinced that if I got a DNA test, the results would say I have traces of both in my lineage. The city is nothing too exciting (for European standards anyway, compared to any American city, it probably has more historical buildings than a whole US State). What IS really exciting though, is the fact that you CAN in fact bring back home parmesan cheese, as longs as it’s vacuumed sealed (note: learn how to say vacuum sealed in Italian before you spend 20 minutes explaining it to the salumeria employee: ‘parmesano reggiano sottovuotto, per favore’).
Unfortunately, one cannot bring back prosciutto di Parma, and most other cured meats are also prohibited, but you can always check with Customs before bringing them into the US instead of risking a hefty fine. Also, funny story: you might want to take all of your cheese in your hand luggage since, as we learned, cheese looks very similar to C4 as it goes through the X-ray scanners, so you might want to be present to give them a heads up as they’re being scanned. As we were happily strolling around town we came across a pastry shop and couldn’t help ourselves so we decided to go in for some delicacies and a bit of extra broken English. The lady who helped us with our pastries was cool so we asked her for recommendations for places to eat, so she gave us an option, but when we asked her if she would eat there she replied ‘no, food is not good and price is expensive’ so I’m not really sure they understand the concept of recommending a place. She ended up suggesting we went to a Trattoria where she usually goes, Trattoria Corrieri, so we did just that. When we arrived, I couldn’t help feel like we were walking into my grandparents’ house; old furniture with outdated décor and food-related machines like pasta makers and meat slicers, next to hanging full legs of prosciutto and jars of olives. We were sat at a table and given the menu.
There were so many things I wanted to try that we did just that: we started with some torta fritta with prosciutto di Parma and olives as an antipasto, and then I had the cavallo (yes, horse meat) which was delicious and Jon had ravioli tricolor.
At the table immediately next to ours were a young woman and her mother, who seemed to have never seen anyone from abroad so she kept staring the whole meal, until she realized Jon had ordered the same dish she did. Hilarity ensued when our lacking Italian met their lacking English, but we managed to communicate just fine, and in the end it felt so much like we were famiglia that the signora commanded us to eat everything on our table before leaving the place and she wouldn’t rest until we were pienos, pienos, her words. Onward to Pisa.
Possibly the most overrated and overcrowded place in Italy. Finding a hotel here is hard. Finding a good hotel here is impossible. Loyalty hotels are scarce in small towns across Europe and Pisa is no different. Since they all tend to book up and they jack up the prices ridiculously, we resorted to using Chase Ultimate Rewards and booked ourselves the picturesque boutique only available option, Hotel dell’Orollogio. It was cozy petit way too small and floral/old timey/victorian/weird patterns were abundant.
It was once again dark when we checked in to the hotel and we had dinner at the highly recommended and only option open. When we returned to our room, we had what would later become our recurring experience in most of our hotels during this trip. As in many European hotels, air conditioning is not a thing. They instead do climate control; for those not familiar with this abhorrently un-American green practice, it means you will be able to turn the room temperature up 2 or 3 degrees or down 2 or 3 degrees. And we’re talking Celsius, because… remember, we’re not in the US anymore. This meant for us, that during a couple of unusually cold days, the main system at the hotel would be pumping warm air and you could only make it 3 degrees cooler, which was still too caldo and not nearly as freddo as we would have liked it. That was exactly what we explained to the checkin counter signora, who explained to a really sweaty and frustrated Jon that ‘en Italia we do not use aria condizionata’ and that if we wanted it cooler we should just open a window… We woke up early the next day, had a really disappointing breakfast and headed out to see the leaning tower, take all the silly customary pictures.
Since we had a really tight schedule, went back to the hotel, got in our Fiat and continued with our adventure, which we will go into detail in the next post. Ci vediamo!