Italy, Land of Contradictions

“Train travel!” cried Todd. “It’s the way to go! Sit back, watch the scenery, and they bring you espresso!” I had to agree it was pretty relaxing, and I couldn’t say which was hotter: the coffee, or the guy who served it! Leave it to Italian men to make pushing a little silver cart look sexy.

Our train trip from Konstanz to Ferrara, Italy took us through Switzerland; and since I’m speaking of contradictions, I couldn’t help but notice one about the Swiss. Known (well, at least in Germany!) for their conservatism and distrust of outsiders, the Swiss have declined to join the European Union. And yet, Switzerland has four national languages (German, Italian, French and Romansh) in what you would guess would be the most diverse country of Europe. What’s up with that?

Anyway, we were thrilled to be headed to Frank and Arianna’s wedding in Arianna’s hometown of Ferrara. “I can’t wait to drive one of those cars! Vrraaa-eee, vrraaa-ahhh!” squealed Todd, mimicking the movements of a race car driver shifting gears. “It’s Ferrara, not Ferrari!” I corrected him. At first he was pretty disappointed, but once he learned that we’d be in a region famous for pork products, fine cheeses, and rich foods, he was psyched up to start eating!

Well, we definitely weren’t disappointed in Ferrara or the food we had there! We spent the first afternoon walking around the city’s medieval streets, having a beer next to the castle, and walking on the walls that were originally built for protection, and now serve as a walking/running/biking trail. Fun facts about Ferrara: During the Renaissance, it was the home of the powerful Este family. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Native residents (including Arianna!) have a genetic resistance to malaria (the place used to be surrounded by mosquito-filled swamps).

That evening, we joined Arianna’s parents Remigio and Anna for dinner at a restaurant in what used to be the stock exchange building. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t catch the name of the restaurant, because Todd and I agreed that it was one of the best meals we’ve had in years. We had the same first course: a soft-boiled egg, shelled, breaded, and lightly fried, served over a chanterelle mushroom sauce. It was nothing short of heavenly! Our main courses were pasta; mine was pumpkin-filled ravioli (a specialty of Ferrara) and Todd’s was a spicy spaghetti. Again, both were exquisite. And the wine! My god! Organic, local, and amazing!

Organic, local food is a really big deal in Italy, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement. There is even a big organic farm right in the middle of Ferrara! And it makes sense: when you think of Italy, you think of long, leisurely meals with friends and family. Given all this, you might imagine that a coffee break in Italy would be a relaxed, hours-long affair, because even in the States “having a coffee” means sitting down, having a chat, connecting with a friend.

Not so in Italy! When it comes to coffee, Italians are all business. Having an afternoon coffee means running in to the coffee shop, ordering an espresso, drinking it standing up, and running back out the door! And, just like San Franciscans are a bit snooty about burritos, Italians have very set ideas about coffee. Think you’ll come off as cosmopolitan by ordering a cappuccino? Well, you better check your watch, because if you order one after noon, Italians will snicker at you. Silly American, cappuccini are for breakfast! “Okay, maybe at 10 in the morning,” Arianna advised us, “but not in the afternoon!”

Another contradiction in Italy: they somehow manage to be both very serious and very casual about religion. On Sunday, we were wondering where we might buy some sodas, snacks, and the like, and someone mentioned the local corner store. “Not today,” said Arianna’s mother. “Everything’s closed. It’s God’s day.” This from the same woman who, when I commented on a beautiful building near the center of town, dismissed it with, “Oh, that… it’s an old church. We have so many, we don’t know what to do with them. Some are now shops… there’s even one that is now a sex shop!”

Well, we were certainly looking forward to an Italian wedding. An old church, food, wine, dancing, and a huge Italian family, right? Um, almost! Frank and Arianna were married at a lovely old abbey, and the reception featured nine courses and wine that Arianna’s father made. Afterwards, we danced until almost 3am, and were amazed by the thunder and lightning storm that held off until the festivities had ended. But the big Italian family? Well, Arianna is an only child, and apparently, the huge Italian family is a thing of the past. With only 1.33 children per woman, Italy has one of Europe’s lowest birth rates. The only countries with lower rates are… Any guesses? Sweden? The Netherlands? How about Spain and Greece!

But, even without a big loud family, like so many before us we were enchanted by Italy. Maybe it was just great spending time with Frank, Arianna and their friends. Maybe it was the relaxing spell of riding bikes around the city on a sunny afternoon. Or it could have been the custom of aperativo, in which cocktail hour includes a free appetizer buffet that thrifty travelers can turn into dinner. And, I’m not ruling out the possibility that we were so hopped up on espresso that we weren’t so much “high on life” as “high on caffeine”. Whatever the reason, life is just a little more fun when you speak with an Italian accent- something we felt compelled to do the entire time we were there!

One Response to “Italy, Land of Contradictions”

  1. Ari and Frank says:

    Ciao’eh, it’s really fun speaking with an Italian accent’e…at least for Frank!

    It was just great having you both at our wedding and especially having Todd as my best man!

    For the record: the name of the nice restaurant, where we have been with Ari’s parents is “Don Giovanni” and it’s in the old “borsa” (stock exhange) of Ferrara 🙂

    All the best for your next trip! We look forward to following your adventures on the blog.
    Hugs, Ari & Frank

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