Sunday, August 20, 2023

BFT23 - A Few Observations

1. Late July and early August in Italy are a lot hotter than mid-March in Italy.

This is one of those really obvious things that in hindsight you realize you should have figured out going in, and intellectually perhaps you did. It’s high summer. Of course it’s going to be hotter than early spring. But however much your mind understands this, your body won’t until you’re there and baking in it. This is especially true with the current heat waves. Folks, the climate isn’t changing – the climate has changed. This is it. This is the new normal, until it gets hotter. The entire time we were in Italy the highs were in the low-to-mid 90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius), and this was cooler than it was the previous week.

2. You will get used to the metric system.

Yes, my fellow Americans, it is possible. Even easy! We did a lot of walking around and a lot of driving and after a while it became fairly easy to understand when GoogleMaps said it was 300 meters to our next turn or when the weather app said it was 34C outside. At some point we as a nation will catch up to the rest of the world this way.

3. Don’t bother bringing a water bottle from home unless you have a favorite. Just buy a plastic bottle of something and keep refilling it from the fountains provided expressly for that purpose.

Italians have figured out water. Everywhere you go in Rome there are these fountains – about a meter high and maybe 20cm across, with a thin pipe about halfway up that comes off and curves down. There’s a small hole on the top at the bend. Water is always flowing out of the pipe, and you can either fill your bottle up from the end or cap the end with your fingers and let the water shoot through the hole like a drinking fountain. Other cities have similar things that are just shaped differently. A half-liter ice tea bottle will get you through, and then you can recycle it when you leave and not have to carry it home. In Prague I bought a bigger water bottle my first day – it had a flip top, which was useful – and filled it up before we left the apartment each day. You will drink more water in less time than you ever thought possible, so be sure to do whatever works for you along these lines.

4. Likewise, don’t pack umbrellas.

Everywhere you go there are cheap umbrellas. They’re designed to last about as long as the average vacation, maybe a bit more, and you can leave them in your apartment for the next person rather than carting them back home. It rained almost every day we were in Prague, and the umbrellas we bought on Wenceslas Square were worth every Czech crown we paid for them, and now someone else in Prague is probably using them.

5. All Italian streets are pedestrian streets.

We were in maybe half a dozen cities, towns, and villages while were in Italy and in all of them the streets were full of people and cars just sort of nosed through like cows in a field. You get used to that pretty quickly, but it’s not really something you want to try in other countries.

6. Venders should play ABBA music.

It makes people happy. If you leave the Vatican and walk down the main road you’ll end up at Castel Sant'Angelo, a giant fortress on the Tiber that we’ve walked by any number of times without ever going into.

It was a hot sunny day and we weren’t in any hurry, so we stopped at one of the carts along the way and got snacks and drinks and just sat for a while. Whoever was running that shop had the ABBA Gold album playing at max volume and every single person who walked by – every single one, including us – bopped along to the music, even if they didn’t stop. It made the day brighter.

7. Subways come all the time. Trams follow a schedule. Buses come when they want.

We took a lot of public transportation while we were in Rome and Prague. I have now been on public transportation in seven capital cities around the world (eight if you count New York City, which considers itself to be the center of the universe), and it is in fact the best way to get around in those cities. It’s fast, reliable, and cheap, and there is no better way to get to know a city or the people in it. Prague has an amazing trolley system, though they insist on calling them trams. And the Roman bus system is a marvel. Both cities have metros – subways – and you don’t bother checking the schedule for those because the next one is always a few minutes away. The trams are almost always on time, though a bit further apart – the longest we had to wait was 16 minutes. Buses appear whenever they wish to appear, though, and sometimes you just get this notification that your bus came and went without you ever noticing it, even though you’ve been at that bus stop the whole time. The Mysterious 30 Bus in Rome was good at that, so we ended up taking other buses instead.

8. Italians view cell phones as public entertainment.

Italian culture in general tends to be fairly performative, a characteristic that continues to live on in those of us descended from it, and cell phones are just part of that. Everywhere we went in Italy we ran into people having loud, animated discussions on their cell phones. It was entertaining, and probably would have been more so if we’d understood any of it.

9. European cities are generally walkable, which is why they’re more fun.

They were designed before cars and you don’t need one to live there – it is, in fact, rather a nuisance to deal with a car in these cities, as the streets are narrow and parking is impossible even if you understand the intricately color-coded system of painted lines or detailed signs that tell you who can park where for how long. When we were trying to figure out how to pay for our parking in Trani we met two young Englishmen who told us they were “on a quiet tour of places with difficult parking” and helped us figure it out, which was nice of them. The tyranny of the automobile is really obvious in a city that is designed to be walkable.

10. Paprika potato chips are wonderfully good and we should have them in the US.

Food companies adjust to their markets, of course, and one of the things I enjoy when traveling is simply wandering through grocery stores and seeing what people consider normal food there. I stocked up on chinotto in Italy and cold cuts in Prague, and wherever possible we bought paprika chips because they’re really tasty. They’re hard to find in American markets, and really this is a failure of Late Stage Capitalism to provide the consumer with the satisfaction of their every whim.

11. Neither Rome nor Prague slow down at night.

We didn’t go out into the wee hours, but there were often times where we’d be out at 9 or 10pm just walking around and the streets were always full of people – including families with young children. Coming from Our Little Town, where there are few people out walking around at any hour and even fewer after 6pm, that was a welcome change. This extended to other places as well – we ate dinner in a small piazza in Corato around 9pm one evening and the place was, not packed, but very definitely not empty. It was nice.

12. It is impossible to overstate the affection Europeans seem to have for American classic rock.

Radio works differently in Europe. Instead of having thousands of radio stations owned by four megacorporations, they have half a dozen stations owned by the government. The playlists are about as narrow either way, but you hear things in Europe that you haven’t heard in the US in a while. I don't remember the last time I heard Seasons in the Sun on the radio, to be honest. Also, did you know that you can make It’s Raining Men even MORE disco? ‘Tis true!

13. Google Maps is perfectly willing to inflict psychological damage on you if it will save you a hundred meters of driving.

We relied heavily on GPS while were away, both while walking around unfamiliar places and while driving from one place to another. It’s really great when you’re walking or even taking public transportation, but sometimes when you’re driving it makes some strange choices. The roads in southern Italy can be really, really small and steep and are not always well maintained, and there were times when we found ourselves thinking “Is this actually a good idea?” In Google Map’s defense, we always got where we needed to go. But sometimes there were moments where we had to question it.

14. I will concede e-books as a travel strategy.

I generally prefer to read paper books, but when you’re trying to pack light and save weight the e-books will do. I read four of them while we were away, all tucked safely onto my phone and weighing nothing. I could read them in the dark when I was busy not sleeping on planes. And when one of the ones I downloaded from our local library turned out to be a dud, I could – in a suitably wifi-oriented place – just download another. So traveling with e-books: winning idea. I will confess I’m glad to have regular books now that I’m home, though.

15. The feral cats are fun to look at but not that interested in you.

Everywhere we went there were cats in the streets. Sometimes they were in the historical monuments as well. They’d stare at you in their inscrutable feline ways and would sit there while you took pictures of them, but for the most part that was as far as they’d let you go. There were a couple of times when we got to pet them, though.

16. Prague has the most in your face bees in the world, though they are not aggressive

We ate outside a lot in Prague because it was fun and they had the facilities for it, but every time we’d be visited by squadrons of bees. They’d fly around, land on things, and you’d shoo them off gently so you could eat without chewing on one. This arrangement seemed to work for both bees and humans.

17. So much of modern travel is just the slow attrition of cables and chargers.

We left for Europe with extras. We came back with just enough to keep everything charged. Somewhere in the back offices of every airline and rental car company in the world there are shipping containers full of these things, unclaimed and unloved. Maybe they’ll recycle them.

18. It is strange to think of the choices it took to get you to cross paths with the people you see on these trips.

For some reason this hit me particularly hard in a restaurant in Prague on our last full day there. We looked it up online and the place was well recommended. It took us a while to find it – we nearly gave up and went somewhere else – but eventually we sat down and the server came over, took our order, and came back with delicious food. She was clearly not a native Czech and neither were we, and yet somehow all of the various paths of our lives converged on a Wednesday night in Prague. We will likely never see each other again, but for an hour or so we were there together, going about our lives. If you tried to predict that a year ago you’d fail, and yet it happened. This has no particular significance in the grand scheme of things, but I think about it sometimes anyway.

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