Our first day in Italy

The shower. It’s small but great. Six square feet of space, maybe less, but after over a day and a half without a shower, I’d be happy with a solo cup full of soapy water and a hand towel.

We head to the parking lot to pay to keep our car there for the day. While there, we see two food trucks at the top of the lot: one with fresh fruit, and one with cheeses and a few cured meats. We pickup some strawberries and other items from the fruit ladies. Picking out a cheese is a little more daunting. This thing is essentially a “roach coach” dedicated exclusively to cheese. The guy inside speaks no English, and we speak very little Italian (I knew I should have skipped to the food section of Rosetta Stone).

We explain as best we can that we’d like cheese to go with our fruit. Parmesan. Er… ok. No we don’t want that big wedge. No, we don’t want your smallest wedge. We’d like half of your smallest wedge. (He looks non-plussed at this point). He explains that the grapefruit-sized piece of Parmesan is the right amount for two people. His speech and gesturing, along with our growing hunger, manage to convince us to by the piece of cheese. That was probably the hardest 2 bucks he’ll make all day. :)

On the way back into town, we find a place to get a drink and Nancy sees a salumi sandwich leave the shop. She promptly orders one to go with our new treasures. We find a spot to eat on the piazza looking out onto the lake and tuck in.

Around 9 or 10am, we take a ferry over to the Island of San Giulio. It feels empty and deserted, but there is life on the island. It’s very tranquil. We walk long the path of meditation, filled with little inspirational signs along the way. It’s not a very big island, and after around 60 minutes and twice as many pictures later, we board the boat to return to the main land.

On the way back, a group of 25 Germans board the boat with us. Out of the 10 that come to sit in the back with us, 9 of them hit their head on the ceiling when stepping up to our level (providing some comic relief).

We get back and explore what Orta San Giulio has to offer (which is surprisingly deal): many shops, eateries, a collection of chapels an churches on top of a really steep hill, (if you take the shortcut… which we did). We pick up a bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba for 10 euros and get some local salumi, cheese and bread to go with the rest of our Parmesan from earlier. We sit on our balcony  – eating, drinking and enjoying the view. Nancy begs me to let her take a nap since she’s so tired (I’m refusing since I want her to get over her jet lag quickly). I eventually relent, and she retires. Determined to continue relaxing, I finish the wine (and food).

After sunset, we head our for dinner (pizza) and end up splitting two pies from competing places in town. Verdict: Pizzeria di Campagna is better than Napoletana. Pizzeria di Campagna has better crust and mozzerella, but Napoletana has better sauce or tomatoes. We had a (warm) beer at Pizzeria di Campagna and the house wine at Napoletana (a tremonte made by the owner, which is for some reason not in a bottle, but on tap. That should have been our first clue). The wine smells like petroleum and is absolutely purple, if not passing into the UV spectrum of color wavelengths.

After dinner, we hit up a gelateria that we had skipped earlier. That would be two gelato servings in one day.

Lesson learned today: Tremonte may be a decent grape, but not in the hands of the owner of Napoletana Pizzeria in Orta San Giulo.

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Wide Awake

4:00am – Why the f*** am I awake?! I was sooo tired just a few hours ago.

I fake it for a while and just lay there with my eyes closed for the next two hours in a vain attempt to convince myself that I’m asleep. I doesn’t really work.

6:00am – Who says Italians aren’t early risers? They’re setting up the market outside our window right now. They are not being quiet. Nancy wakes up around this time and we pretend together for another hour.

7:00am – The sun rises and we step our onto our balcony and enjoy the view, now coming into full sunlight. Che belissima!

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TGIBT (No… that’s not German. That’s “Thank God It’s Bed Time”)

Weve been travelling for 22 hours now. No showers. Not much sleep. Smelly. (Ok, that may just be me).

We figure it’s too late to shower at this point in the night, so we brush our teeth (TGIBT) and hit the bed. A real bed. The kind of real bed that involves lying down, body fully extended, softness, pillows and cuddling. Finally… rest.

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The Aftermath

After dinner, we decided to go for a walk to help move things along. All of the gelatorias are closed (thank God), but we stop in at a bar/coffee shop/restaurant for a drink. We end up with water (for later in the night) and a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate ends up tasting like hot chocolate pudding. It’s pretty good, but reminds me of childhood chocolate milk-making and adding in too much Nestles Quick. I can’t take too much of what we got, only a couple of spoonfuls (yes, spoonfuls), since it’s so thick. Fortunately, Nancy doesn’t seem to have the same reservations and downs most of it.

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Ristoro Olivio

Our first meal in Italy. I don’t know what it is about the menu, but something is throwing me off. I feel like there are too many pages for what is being offered. Another problem… wines by the glass are not shown on the menu (something that I’m really not used to). Nancy directly handles the issue of BTG wines by asking (God bless her). She gets the house red ( a Barbera d’Asti) and I get the Dolcetto d’Asti.

We order the risotto al funghi for our main course, and order appetizers as well. Nancy, a sautéed gnocchi with pancetta and some greens (arugula?) and I get the Tartare di Tonno. All dishes are preceded by an aparatif (passion fruit and blood orange juice with grappa on the rocks) and an amuse of sorts (a diagonal half of wheat bread topped with cheese and salami, served with strawberry jam and dried oregano on the side). The first, delicious and palate-whetting and the second, odd but yummy.

The appetizers arrive. The gnocchi looks good , and smells better. It tastes good, but I’ve had better sautéed gnocchi in Sonoma county at Monti’s. The flavor is pure, however, and the pancetta is welcome and the greens refreshing.

The tartare di tonno (tuna tartare) is a different matter. It looks great and tastes great. As you would guess, the tuna is fresh tasting and tender. It’s served in the trendy cylindrical format, but it is topped with three types of sprouts (onion, frisée and bulls blood beet) There’s a nice decorations drawn with molasses in one quadrant of the plate, and I’m instructed to pour a liquid served on a side dish over the top. The liquid reminds me of tea with honey in it. Honey is the only ingredient that I can readily identify, but Nancy seams to think that some sort of vinegar was involved. The taste of everything was wonderful. Clean, refreshing and reasonably light.

Nancy was full by the time our main course arrived, but she still managed to make the large circle of risotto into a Pac-Man by eating a quarter of it. The risotto was full of mushrooms (porcini?) and perfectly al dente (not a hint of uncooked centers of the grains anywhere). It had the perfect amount of sauciness to it, and the flavor was great. However, that didn’t stop Nancy from telling the Italian couple next to us (Anna and Maximo) that my mushroom risotto was better (much to my simultaneous pleasure and chagrin).

With Nancy stuffed and me with a quarter of my dish left (also stuffed), we skipped dessert. I did order an espresso, however.

I’d been waiting to try coffee in Italy since we started planning this trip about a year ago. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but it didn’t live up to the hype. It smelled strong (expected), but it was thick (unexpected). It was strong, almost harsh, and had an ok finish. It wasn’t like the espresso that Nancy’s sister brought back from Rome (which had a wonderful nose, strong flavor and was slightly acidic, resulting in a terrifically clean finish). I’ll be conducting more research in this area over the next two weeks. :)

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Albergo Orta

I sign in and unload the bags. With everything dropped off, I move the car from in front of the hotel (because why should one be able to park at the hotel where one is staying? That would make too much sense, at least… to an American). After driving all the way around the village and walking 5 minutes back to the hotel, Nancy is walking out of the hotel and into the piazza to meet me. Then, we head off to dinner.

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The Ride

I haven’t driven stick in years, but as the saying goes, “it’s like riding a bike.” I fire up the GPS, switch to the map of Italy and start driving. Stop! In attempting to exit the lot, I get stuck behind a bunch of parked rental cars … in the middle of the lane! I seem to recall the words of Ben Kenobi at this point, “your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” all right Ben, you sound like a smart guy…. I back up and try another way out.

Success! I’m on a road with a name! I’m driving in Italy! Holy shit! I’m driving in Italy? I mean… oh… shit! I’m driving in Italy, I don’t understand the signs, I’m not used to the km/h, I’ll be driving on toll roads and don’t understand the system, and I don’t really speak the language and I’m the only one that knows how to drive a manual transmission. And is this an alley I’m driving in now? Not paying attention to the map on the GPS, I’ve turned too soon. Crap! I guess this qualifies as a road. I mean, it’s paved.

Ok. Back on a major road. Wait… what’s this circle thing? Ah… a roundabout: the European civil engineer’s gift to efficiency and the GPS programmer’s hell to interperate. Wrong exit, adapt. Wrong exit, adapt. Eventually, I begin to adapt to the GPS’ instructions instead of letting the GPS adapt to my mis-actions. That works for a while, until Italy throws some road construction at me. No problem… GPS adapts, I follow the instructions and… uh.. is this a road or a dry riverbed? I swear… rocks. I’m driving our Ford Focus on rocks. Wait… I see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. I see the autostrada! Why? Why would they block the onramp to it? Adapt again, and… again, and… we’re on!

And then, a toll booth. Wait… I don’t have to pay? Just take the ticket? Sweet! Suckahs! Another toll both. A’ight, cool. Just give me my ticket and… oh, I give you my ticket? And 1.70 euros? Ok. Eh… easy come, easy go.

And then (after a while), il laggo. It’s still twilight when we reach the lake. It’s so beautiful. It’s all worth it: the 20 hours of traveling, the bleakness that was Frankfurt, the bleakness of airline pot roast. Here is the beauty and charm (and excitement?) that I’ve been waiting for.

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Malpensa

After Frankfurt, Malpensa is a breath of fresh air. They’ve got color… on the walls! Wow! And the floors! I don’t feel like I’m on the fashion world’s catwalk or anything, but the place definitely feels alive vs. the frozen tundra that was FRA.

We get our luggage and head to the car rental area, something that I normally wouldn’t dread, but seeing as how I’ve left our fully paid rental voucher over 7000 miles away on our coffee table, I’m …. concerned.

As Nancy gets innocently hit-on by a good looking Lebonese guy, I apologize to the guy behind the counter who says that I need my voucher to complete the rental. I think my apology is effective, and he graciously calls someone for a copy of the voucher to be faxed to him. I sign the rental agreement, collect the keys, collect my wife and baggage, and we’re off!

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Frankfurt

I have to say, this may be the most depressing airport I’ve been in. There’s a surprising lack of “Der Weinerschnitzels,” and absolutely no *wursts or beer in sight. What there is is a large, grey, convoluted habitrail of an airport with a train in the middle of it. Half of the employees there look militant or bored off their asses (and can’t wait to get to their next Kraftwerk concert), and the other half look like they’re related to me… and probably are.

Despite the drudgery, the attendant at the Lufthansa transfer center is entirely pleasant (and has a head shaped like an eggplant), and after a second security screening, we arrive at our gate. The one thing that I can’t neglect to mention (other than that one should not pack all of their electronics in their carry-on on an international flight, especially if one is a geek), is that Palymobil is awesome They still can’t hold a candle to Lego (and not just because they have the Star Wars franchise and they’re so huge). Regardless, the only reason that I didn’t come back with the Playmobil BBQ action set was the value of the dollar to the Euro.

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Lufthansa Flight 3888

Veird. That’s all I can say. Veird. The gate looks like a normal gate, but there’s no plane outside. Oh, there are planes outside, just not outside our gate. Instead, after passing through the gate and walking downstairs, we were greeted not with a plane afterwords, but a parking garage and a bus. Eh…. are we driving to Milan? No, no. The bus takes us to the plane, the über-sterile plane, and we eventually take off with “Cherman” efficiency.

The flight was uneventful. Well, not entirely. I did pass on the “ham & cheese sandwich” (comprised of 1 slice ham + 1 slice cheese, each designed to fit precisely on 1 dinner roll-sized dinner roll). Given my proclivity towards cured meats and cheeses, this could qualify as an event, but I think we all know that I mean “uneventful” in the conventional sense.

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