On a package tour
I travel well in my mind. I enjoy reading about great travels made by people who write travel books. I love perusing catalogs that feature travel clothing and intriguing luggage.
I do think I have a secret passion for the latter, imagining being able to pack all that I might need in a small stylish case. I can see myself reliving the experiences of Rick Steves or Samantha Brown, especially Samantha whose clothes just seem perfect for each experience.
In my real world, most of my travel has been as part of a packaged tour. A packaged tour with 30 or so other travelers can have its high and it low points.
Among the latter, there are the unexpected visits to retail outlets, overpriced leather shops, jewelry stores and such. These were never part of the visions that I have about traveling to other “theres,” yet on tours they are always a part of the experience, explained a way of keeping the cost of the trip down.
Even the big moments can be anxiety producing.
Visiting the Vatican Museum is a case in point. There is no reasonable way that anyone could absorb even a smidgen of what is there. Ceilings, walls, even the floors are masterpieces of artistic excellence. Forget the statuary and other sculptures, there are just too many of everything to appreciate even one.
You are exhausted by the pressure to take it all in and to acknowledge how very not talented you are, how outside of it all you are.
There are moments, however, snippets of time and memories from these tours that bear mention as worthy of remembering with a smile.
It was a small restaurant on the corner of two narrow streets somewhere off the beaten track in Florence, Italy. We had spent the morning visiting the sometimes overwhelming riches of this Renaissance city, Michelangelo’s David, the Uffizi Gallery, Santa Maria Novella.
Most of the group had decided to go to one of the larger eateries that cater to tourists. Tired from listening, from trying to absorb so much genius and beauty, we wanted something less touristy.
Our tour guide, a Brit who had lived in Italy for 20 or so years and had offered to take us to one of his favorite local places for lunch.
Many of the side streets, like the ones where the restaurant where we were headed, were far too narrow for anything but a motorized bicycle or foot traffic. The main streets were crowded, full of the noise of daily life and the hoards of tourists and traffic.
The narrow streets were different. The sounds were of work, residents calling to each other, resonance of locality, familiarity. Local charm. A counterpoint to the pressure to take in all of the greatness of Florence’s past.
The menu was written in pencil on a torn piece of paper affixed to a sandwich board. Men in work boots stood nearby chatting.
Inside, there were maybe eight or 10 tables. Our little group made up of two other couples and the guide headed to a banquet, and I use that word in the broadest sense, since it conveys a far more elegant setting.
A young man, who greeted our guide by name, gave us photocopies of the menu that was posted outdoors and our guide, Martin, offered to translate.
“Point to the selection that you want when the waiter returns,” he said.
In Italy, being a waiter is not the same as being a waiter in the U.S. In Italy it is considered a profession for which one studies and when the student achieves a level of competence, he or she is allowed to wear the coat or jacket of a waiter. In this establishment the waiter did not wear a coat.
I questioned Martin.
“Oh, he said, “the waiters here are sons of the owner and chef. They don’t need to wear jackets. If they didn’t do well, they would have to answer to their mother.”
The menu had four entre selections, most of which were some kind of seafood. When it came to my turn to order, I decided to live dangerously and I spoke up and said in my best Italian, “Farfale con gambaretti.”
Martin gave out a very audible gasp.
“What? What did I say,” I asked.
Did I make some kind of awful faux pas that would reflect not only on Martin but the U.S. as a country? Was I the quintessential Ugly American?
“No,” he said. “I didn’t know that you spoke Italian.”
I looked at him, smiled and said, “Giada di Laurentis.”
I am smiling at these memories. The lunch was fabulous, the food excellent, the company energizing and we did get to meet the waiters’ mother who was also the cook.
For one brief shining moment, I was a part of Italy.
Mar 20, 2019