Friday, May 8, 2009


We neared the runway. The wheels touched down and I heard a sudden noise. Music. Trumpets playing triumphally. Many of the passengers broke out in applause. As Anson and I grinned and looked at each other inquisitively, wondering why a normal plane landing warrented such celebration, a voice came on over the intercom and annouced happily that we had arrived on time. Furthermore, so the annoucement said, Ryanair flights were ontime more than 90% of the time (the best record in Europe) and that because of this, and the cheap fares, we should continue flying with Ryanair. A damn fine argument if I've ever heard one. 

Anson and I had decided, while he was visiting me, to fly to Bari (on the Adriatic in southern Italy) and there rent a car. Now that the flight was on the ground, the next thing to do was rent the car. It took a little bit of waiting and some finagling, involving going to another rental place, but we did get a car rented. Now came the fun part ... driving. We drove straight out of the parking lot and ran smack into a roundabout. We took it and went straight back into the parking lot. We took a break, got our bearings more firmly settled, and headed back out onto the open road. The roundabout didn't manage to foil our exit this time and we headed for our first destination, an old castle built by the Holy Roman Emperor Federick the Second in the 
mid 1200's called Castel del Monte. Getting there didn't prove too terribly difficult but it was a sort of sink or swim experience. 

Anson was driving first and had had no chance to familiarize himself with the road conditions of Italy (a quasi complete lack of obeyed traffic laws). Although he was able to swim fabulously, avoiding all collisions and managing to pass a bike while being passed by a car in the other direction and being flanked by two parked cars, we did have to take an early brake. I went into a grocery store to get some supplies and Anson headed into a cafe for a sandwhich. After I got the groceries I decided (having brought the map into the store with me) that asking for directions would be good. The supermarket seemed to have a slight excess of staff and when I pulled out my map they materialized from all directions to provide assistance. I pointed to Castel del Monte on the map and did my best to communicate that I wanted to know how to get to the road that led there. I think they got it but none knew which road to take, so my cashier led me out of the store. 

We headed across the street to what looked like an abandoned gas station. There was nothing inside the store and all the pumps were wrapped up in paper. There turned out to be a middle aged man sitting in a plastic chair out front with his hands in his pockets, apparently not doing anything. The cashier began to talk to the man and show him the map. A near by German Shepard stood up and barked liesurely. 

The man began to speak to me rapidly in Italian. I gathered that we were looking for highway 95, that we should take a couple turns, and that there would be railroad tracks involved at some point. With these directions in mind, Anson and I headed back to the car. I decided that I loved Italy and asking for directions. I hadn't understood most of what transpired but everyone had been friendly, and it seemed like I had learned some things that would help us  get out of town. 

We headed off in the indicated direction and did take some turns and find some railroad tracks. We crossed them, but ended up pulling a U-ey (an art we would become practised in over our trip) and heading back into town. We had a map of the country which was reasonably detailed, showing major roads and some secondary ones. However, it completely lacked maps of cities; something that turned out to be a serious deficit. We did devise a strategy to cope with it which was, although not perfect, certainly adequate. We just drove around turning onto the roads that were bigger than the one we were on until we were on a road large enough to have signage directing us to the next town. Many of these towns were not on our map, but we usually could make an educated guess, and we always ended up somewhere.

After a few detours, we made it to Castel del Monte. It was neat to see but ... perhaps not as neat as one would hope. You couldn't even get on the roof. So we kept moving, heading north towards the Gargano Peninsula, the so called 'spur' of Italy. We stopped along the way in Barletta and ended up finding another castle. This one was much more like a fortification and less like a hunting home. Although we were able to get up on the roof, this castle seemed to have been partially turned into an office building. We checked out the dungeons too, where we stumbled upon an echo chamber. All in all, the second castle was much more fun to see, but after  a bit we decided to keep moving. 

Our destination for the night was Manfredonia and, without too many wrong turns, we made it. We were starting to get hungry but, in what was going to be a trend for the trip, there were no stores open. It was about 6 pm, which is earlier than many restaurants open but, we hoped, not too late for the tourist information office to be open. So we went there. The front door was locked, but the lights were on, so Anson and I hesitated outside the door wondering if there was anyone still inside. A man rounded a corner in the building and came over to open the door. He said something I didn't understand, so I just sort of looked back at, smiling stupdily. He repeated it, and I guessed that he was asking what we wanted. I don't know how to express 'can' so I asked where it was possible to eat. Then I rubbed my fingers together to indicated that money was a consideration. Here our man started to show his true mettle. Anson later observed that when you ask an Italian for something they treat it as a problem to be solved instead of a simple inquiry. This observation was to be proved again and again over our trip, but this first time was one of the best examples. Our man didn't just point us 50" down the street to a random cafe. He wanted to get us the best possible Italian food we could while meeting our cost considerations. He also wanted it to be easy for us to get to. Immediately, after I asked the question our man stepped outside the door and began to ponder. We could see that we were in for something good.

After thinking for  a moment our man invited us inside. He took us back to his office and offered us seats. While looking at his office we realized that he was a city employee, i.e. he didn't even work for the tourist office, but he just wanted to help us out. He did most of the talking and a lot of repeating,  but I gathered we were supposed to go to 'Leclerc'. I asked if it was a city. He said no but then got up and went to a map in the corner of the room. He then began to ascern where we had come from, where we were going, and where we were going to sleep that night. 

During my time here, my Italian has progressed significantly from nothing to ... descent tourist Italian. I can ask where things are, how much things cost, make sure that there is no meat in foods, and that sort of thing. However, my Spanish has gotten a lot better and whenever my Italian breaks down I try to slip in a Spanish word or two without anyone noticing. If that doesn't work I resort to English and more enthusiastic gesticulations. If this doesn't work ... I repeat myself a few times with different inflections and gesticulations. Between all this I can usually get my point across, and I actually enjoy it, partly because I think its just sort of fun and challenging in and of itself, and partly because I am putting myself in their shoes. I can only guess at how crappy my diction is, and it makes me laugh to think about asking someone the Italian equivalent of 'wheeere is posseble eating?'.

Our man also seemed to enjoy communicating and definitely one-upped me with the gestures. We where planning on heading to Naples the next day. When he found out he took his glasses off and rested them on a table. He looked deep into my eyes and slowly raised his hands towards his face. He gave Anson the same penetrating stare. Then he started to smile, pulled down his bottom eyelids, continuing to stare at us and smile happily, and said slowly 'o c c h i   a p e r t i'. Then he took his hands down from his eyes and held them in front of his chest with the fingers of one hand spread wide and the other hand in a fist. He said something in Italian and then, whistling slowly, he began to close the fingers of his open hand one by one until it too was a fist. He then pulled his eyelids down again and repeated 'occhi aperti'. Apparently, Naples was dangerous, and we should not only watch out for people stealing things but keep our eyes open. Ah, the joys of communication. 

These two warnings were repeated frequently thoughout our whole interaction. Indeed, they were repeated frequently enough that, when we did get to Naples, I was really worried about our car getting stolen. Our man continued questioning us and seemed concerned about where we were going to spend the night. We told him we were planning on camping and managed to gesticulate across that we had sleepings bags. Also tent is 'tenda' in Italian so ... we got that idea across too. He recommended against camping because of the weather and told us to sleep in our car in the parking lot just outside. I'm pretty sure he said he would have let us sleep there except that he might get fined. After 'discussing' this some more we moved back to where we would eat. 

He said 'Leclerc' again and then wrote it down for us. 'Le  cle  rc' He held up the piece of papers and read slowly for us emphasizing the spaces so we would be doubly sure to understand. He went on to discribe this place to us. Apparently it was a mall of sorts but there was a good restaurant there that was not only cheap but was also very good. Our man began to expound the virtues of this store, good pasta, good meat, lots of fruit, good appetizers, and on and on. I'm fairly sure that he said he'd go with us, except that he had work to do. I told him I was a vegetarian but that Anson could eat the meat dishes. A few days later I was thinking about it and I'm pretty sure I called Anson 'she' on accident a couple of times, but our man didn't make a fuss about it. Our man continued to talk about Leclerc and even wrote down directions (frequently repeated) on the same piece of paper that he had written the name on. 

When we finally left, our man walked us out and shook hands with us. He pointed to the parking lot and told us we could sleep there if we wanted and it would be safe. We could close our eyes without worrying there. As we walked back to our car, Anson and I shared our mutual astonishment at how nice our man had turned out to be. He certainly wasn't the first Italian to be nice to me, but he genuinely tried to help us find a place to eat good Italian food. Despite how good his directions were we still took a wrong turn (although we noticed it quickly) on the way there. In the parking lot we got honked at for stopping at a stop sign, reminding us to keep on our toes.

We were quite hungry by this point, but when we went into the mall we were quickly disappointed. We saw a restraunt dead ahead. It was, however, all shut down. A small sign on one of the doors explained, it was closed for renovations, but only for one day. Our man must not have known. We walked around the corner and found a pizza place. We would've thought this was the place our man meant, but when I had mentioned pizza he had shaken his head, disappointed. Pizza, he informed us, was okay if you were in America but in Italy ... :( ... we should eat good pasta. We ended up eating pizza anyway, but ...  at least we tried to follow his advice.

We camped at a roadside campsite and were on the road early the next day.

1 comment:

James said...

I heard that you were heading back to the U.S. soon, before parting for the wasteland of DC.

What's the deal?