Over the past year a little thread has been drifting past me. I hear a story about a couple going to Italy to spend time on a large yacht, another story about a fellow who travels to Italy with a concierge-in-waiting. A trend, or something that has always been there? It seems there is a whole 'nother Italy for a group of people who travel. I call it Italy-in-a-bubble.
For Americans who don’t travel much outside of their comfort zone, which in the last eight years there seems to have been a surge, there is the experience of getting on a very comfortable plane and going to the Italian peninsula. Once the craft touches ground, it seems everything is done to make sure this elite group of travelers never touches their feet on true Italian soil. Usually some kind of driver is waiting there to pick these affluent souls up out of the squalor in which the natives squat, and then there are whisked to some 5 or 6 or 7 star resort, the ones with the 800 count sheets and the white-goose-only down pillows. Or better yet, whisked straight to a port, like Naples or Ostia, where an offshore vessel awaits, private chef, staff and ambience included.
In the last month I have had a handful of people tell me they were “going to Italy” and described something similar to what I just laid out. Then they asked me where they should go once they got to Italy.
My first answer? How about going off the reservation? Dump the boat, get on land, get your Cole Haan’s dirty, and step outside of your protective cover. Inotherwords, go to Italy.
First of all, you are not a high ranking government official who needs security. What you need is some oxygen. Dress down; you can “do a Google” to help you find out how to do that. And get out of the hands of your handlers.
I understand it is difficult to go into a strange land where the language is different and the food comes from a garden instead of a freezer. Or that you might have to try the fresh Swordfish when you’d really rather have Chicken Parmesan.
Chi mangia solo crepa solo.
So you travel halfway across the world in your private jet or in business class with the headphones and the champagne and the lay-down seat. And you get to the airport where someone is waiting for you. And you are whisked away to a private resort on some secluded hilltop town that has been remade for the travel-elite, so you can rest from your journey. Then what? Is there a plan B, someway to escape the Stalag?
A million years ago I was in Naples for the first time. I was traveling alone, with a backpack and a couple of cameras. I decided to walk west from the Marina, see what I could see. It was August. About 10 miles later I end up in a little place called Pozzuoli. In those days there were lots of cork products, shoes made of cork, you name it. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I wasn’t too broke to buy a groovy pair of cork-soled sandals. I was surely not traveling the elite route, but it was the real Italy.
Along the way I met scads of children who were amazed at this tall, Italian-looking, jean-wearing alien. I spoke even less Italian than now. But you know what? That day was one of the great memories of travel for me, ever.
Sure I was out of my element. And I was walking alone in a poor part of Italy, that only 25 years earlier had seen war and destruction and famine. Starvation. Poverty. Got the picture? The children, many of whom are now the folks running the place, what were they going to do to me, rob my soul? Let’s say someone took a roll of film or even a camera, or a pair of jeans, so what? But it didn’t happen. Old women sitting on the outside of their homes greeted me as if I were a grandson. Some invited me in for a bowl of pasta, a glass of wine. That wonderfully real Campanian stuff. Kids wanted me to take pictures of them and kick the soccer ball around with them. Merchants wanted me to take things home for a pittance (this was the era when the dollar was worth 600 lire, and you could buy a meal for about 1100 lire).
I didn’t have a place to go back to. The super yacht wasn’t waiting off the coast for me to finish my day with the natives. There wasn’t a concierge in a Mercedes waiting up the street, car running, air conditioner conditioning. And guess what, I survived. Not only that, but with memories more golden than the sunset from that isolated cruiser that was never there waiting for me. And for those souls on those super-yachts who think they got a taste of the real Italy, or real anything, I am sorry for them. Because they got the freezer. For those who take that step outside of their Italy-in-a-bubble, they get the garden.
So who is basking in affluence, in the end? Is it the wealthy trophy wife who got off for an hour to go shopping at the boutiques in Capri? Or the young student with a backpack and a dream? I know which road I took, and will continue to take, as long as the real Italy will be there for me. And the deeper you go, the more gold you will find. And that is something that can never be taken from you, never pick-pocketed, never, ever goes away. Because it is the stuff of memories. And memories are the elite treasures of travel.