Have you ever built up a place, a culture, or a country up in your mind to be one thing and been completely blown away (in a good or bad way) when you actually experienced it for yourself? Upon arrival, you simply stand there, mouth agape and eyes slightly unfocused, with a variation of Inigo Montoya's "I do not think it means what you think it means" running through your jet-lagged, caffeine-addled brain as you try to wrap your mind around the fact that this place is not what you thought it would be like and you're not yet certain what to make of that fact. That's pretty much what happened to me when I visited Italy for the first time a few weeks ago.
Three weeks later and I'm still sorting out my thoughts!
What I Adored:
The casual attitude towards history. I was surprised at how many objects in the National Museum of Rome are not behind glass doors or roped off beyond arm's reach. If you really wanted to, you could touch and feel many priceless artifacts.
The attractions. I still can't believe I actually saw all those famous sites with my own eyes! Textbooks, pictures, and second-hand accounts can't do it justice. You simply must go and see them for yourself.
The fashion. Italy and Italians seem to be simultaneously formal and yet casual. High-heeled ladies do their grocery shopping with the same ease and informality as if strolling along a pleasant beach pier, yet they're dressed as if they might meet a prince by chance. The men are equally as well-groomed. Why I couldn't have been born into a fabulously wealthy family (or landed a big paying job!) so I could afford all the beautiful clothing is beyond me. While I don't have the budget to be a fashionista, I did my best to not be too obviously American in my clothing choices. I'm sure Italians could still tell anyway! When it came to wearing heels, however, I drew the line - at the end of the day, my feet were screaming and sore just from wearing comfy flats!
The wine. Although I've been trying to cultivate a better appreciation for beer, wine is still my first choice. It took a few tries, but I finally found some Italian wines that I enjoyed. And compared to the prices of everything else, buying alcohol is the same price or cheaper than in the States!
The coastline. Until this trip, I'd never seen crystal-clear water. While swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea, I could actually see the bottom even when it was nearly 20+ meters deep! Our day spent in and around Sorrento could quite possibly be my favorite day of the whole trip. Our only itinerary was to find the Roman ruins at Punta del Capo (about an hour walk outside Sorrento), lay out our beach towels, and splash around. I rarely ever feel as relaxed as I was that day.
What Surprised Me:
The garbage. An excess of garbage is more understandable in a big city like Rome, but I was disturbed at the trash left behind at the Regina Giovanna swimming hole in Punta del Capo. I'm not saying that trash is a problem specific only to Italians (we certainly find plenty of it on our Chesapeake Bay beach combings or down at the Outer Banks!), but when a perfectly good trash can is eschewed in favor of throwing the trash beside it, then some lifestyle changes need to be made.
A la carte dinners. That's not to say I didn't like the food itself - I love Italian food. But when you order, say, saltimbucca, you're not going to be offered any vegetables on the side unless you specifically order it. Expect a good meal to cost quite a bit, especially in Rome!
The traffic laws (or lack thereof). Let's just say that I didn't imagine my first experience with Italy would involve wheeling my suitcase IN traffic. Not on a sidewalk, not on a shoulder, but IN traffic. The shuttle bus from Naples airport to the main train station dropped us off in a little traffic island about 600 meters from the actual station. We had to walk against traffic around a blind corner with mere inches between you and autos driving with reckless abandon. It was eye-opening, somewhat frightening, but also a little bit exhilarating. Still, I was thoroughly relieved to make it to the station in one piece!
My expectations and imaginations of Italy were far from reality in some ways, but I wasn't disappointed. Just surprised! But then again, when you're basically just expecting a warmer version of northern Europe, you're bound to experience a bit of a shock! Southern Europe is so very different from the Germany that I love. I did like Italy. I just didn't like it as much as I thought I would. I've read (and been told) that Italy needs more than one visit before you can truly figure out your feelings about it. That sounds like a good reason to return someday! But as more time passes since our trip, I find myself thinking more and more fondly of Italy and wondering when I'll return to her.
Have you visited Italy? Did your expectations match reality?
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