Pisa
Pisa

by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, 6/1997 and the Boston City Paper 4/2007

Back in January, Sue and I hosted some of her family from Viareggio, Italy. Uncle, Aunt, daughter Angela and her fiancée Franco were taken on a whirlwind tour of Boston, Foxboro and other places. [Read it here] These are warm and loving people and our time spent with them, for lack of a better word, was joyful.

Last month, Sue and I visited them in Italy. It was the adventure of a lifetime.

What made my experience so unique was that I was not on some tour bus, jumping off at each tourist site for ten minutes to snap some pictures and then racing to the next attraction. For eleven days, I got to live with the family and experience Italian life: The food, hospitality, friendship, frenzied driving, work … all of it.

My first adventure in Italy occurred only ten minutes after arrival. Sue and the family rode in one car; Franco, the luggage and I rode in the other. Problem was, Franco was so excited about our arrival that he forgot to put gas in the car. After making repeated apologies, Franco took off on foot for gas, leaving me on the narrow breakdown lane of the autostrada (the main highway) as machinas (cars) literally whooshed past me at 100mph.

To pass the time, I sang some songs (more on that later), reflected on the beauty of the countryside, thought about how I might explain my predicament to the police should they arrive, and as the car I was in shook with the warp-velocity of each passing car, I hoped my body could be recovered from the wreckage for a proper burial in America.

After refueling, we finally made it to beautiful Viareggio. This tropical city of 60,000 people is made up of rows of stone and brick houses and lush green areas, and is adjacent to a long stretch of pristine beach. Its small streets look a bit like the north end, and it’s amazing to watch the little cars, mopeds and bikes vie for the same piece of road at high speeds. Viareggio’s main street, which runs parallel to the beach, is very long and contains many hotels, restaurants, bars (cafés) and geletarias (ice cream shops) and newsstands. Open-air markets are everywhere. Church bells peal every hour.

Uncle and Aunt work very hard running a successful dry cleaning business here six days a week. In spite of the toil, they’re always friendly and happy, and the many customers who enter the shop all seem to be friends.

For our entire stay, we felt like part of the Italian family. One evening, we accompanied Franco to his home for dinner. No tour bus would give you this authentic picture of Italian family! Franco’s parents, as well as his many siblings, spouses and their children were all present, and all made us feel extremely welcome.

The evening was an amazing cacophony of competing voices; while one group discussed the benefits of Venezia (Venice) over Roma (Rome), another group loudly and enthusiastically cheered on the Juventos, the local football (soccer) team, and others kept offering us more food while still others took pictures. We sang “Boun Complanno” (Happy Birthday) to Franco’s 4 year old nephew Salvador and enjoyed incredible food.

When I told Franco I was happy I didn’t miss this get-together, he smiled and told me that the house was like this almost every night. He’s right — the ritual of eating is very important to Italians. Unlike Americans who wolf down a cheeseburger at the drive through (or don’t take lunch at all) everyone here — and I mean everyone — closes up shop at 12:30 to go home for lunch, and will return back to work at 4 until closing time at 8:00pm. Meals are usually attended by the entire family, and consist of first, second (and sometimes third!) courses.

The TV stays off, conversation is lively, and the family gets a chance to connect. Afterward, they might rest, go to the beach, or take care of house business. The Italians are definitely smarter than the Americans on this one — they make time for family.

Florence
Florence

At one such meal, the family talked about how expensive Italy is because of the taxes: Literally everything is taxed — the number of TVs you own, your car radio, and believe it or not, even the hookers are now required to give receipts for tax purposes! (We had some hilarious laughs over wives finding detailed receipts for “services” in their adulterous husband’s pockets!) Even gasoline is very expensive, and many car-owners have converted their cars to run on natural gas.

We spent most evenings out with Franco and Angela, who seemed delighted to reverse the tour guide roles we played in Boston — and we still waged war over who would picked up the tab! At one bar (café) where we tried to pay for our cappuccino, Franco told the owner not to accept our money. The owner inspected it and smiled as he said, “Cannot accept. This is Boston Lira!”

They wanted to share everything with us, and even drove us through the streets as literally thousands of people rallied to celebrate the Juventos’ win over a rival team. “Like the Patriots at City Hall,” Franco explained. The scene was wild but controlled, with people wearing the white and black jerseys of the team, beeping the horns and waving flags.

While we went out nearly every night, our most memorable visit was to a local Karaoke bar. Nearly everyone sang a song, and after much persuasion (and two Pina Colodas) they convinced me to go on stage. I’d hoped for something easy (say, “Jingle Bells,”) but the song selected for me was “Born in the USA.” Hopefully my Italian friends have learned from their mistake and won’t ask me to sing again. I didn’t exactly do the USA proud.

Naturally, this was all in good fun, but we always made an effort to be respectful to everyone — after all, we were visiting their country. I found the people — with extremely few exceptions — to be friendly, energetic, kind, or at least polite. I tried to observe customs, such as saying “Piacere!” (pleased to meet you) when I met someone rather than the more informal “Ciao.”

We spent much time exploring the country. In the town of Lucca, we discovered spectacularly beautiful churches with gold ceilings and fixtures, and brilliant paintings and marble columns. While Franco and I sang the old song, “My name is Lucca” all day, Franco told us that Lucca is known as “the city of 100 churches,” and we managed to visit a few of them.

In front of one church we met a friendly elderly woman who enthusiastically told us all about the legends of the city and her ninety-odd years as a resident. She was such a sweet thing — white hair, glasses, toothy smile, stockings, and big black shoes — and she took amazing pride in telling us about her city.

In Pisa, what impressed me most about the leaning tower is that it really, really leans — even more than photographs you may have seen. The tower is now closed to people and is falling half an inch per month, but I was pleased to learn that an international effort is underway to prevent this historic monument’s inevitable crash to the ground.

It was in Pisa that I realized there was simply too much to see to properly take everything in. In the beautiful “church of many saints,” every inch of the walls are covered with detail
ed artwork and gold. At the nearby caposanto (cemetery) are sculptures and mosaics so beautiful that words to describe them seem inadequate. The caposanto was bombed near the end of World War II, and an aggressive restoration process has been in place for over 50 years. I thought this to be very noble work — preserving and reconstructing these precious treasures for future generations to enjoy.

Venice
Venice

Without question, the most beautiful city was Venice. It’s a truly gorgeous city with the water of the Grand Canal and the little canals winding their way through the old buildings. In the Piazza de Saint Marco, people gather to feed the pigeons, watch artists paint, shop, and enjoy one of four symphony orchestras.

We were so overwhelmed by Venice that we stayed an extra day, mainly to see the church at Piazza de Saint Marco. Every inch of the walls of this church is covered in gold and other precious metals, creating stunning mosaics depicting the life of Christ and various saints. With absolutely no exaggeration, this church is so beautiful it would make you cry. We were in awe.

Massive restorations are also taking place in Venice, as Italy is anticipating a quadrupling of the regular number of tourists three years from now, when Rome and the rest of Italy celebrates the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

After Venice we returned to Viareggio, where the family took us to a restaurant where Uncle’s friend is head chef. We dined on an extraordinary four course seafood meal. At one point, Uncle turned to me and said, “We are family, as if you were my own son.”

I was overwhelmed.

This trip obviously left its mark on me — not just the hospitality extended to us by Uncle and the family, but really by everyone we met over there. All I can say is I really hope to visit again soon. Italy really touches your heart. Nice to find family and friendship so far from home.

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