Monday, December 8, 2008

Italia, the trip of a lifetime

I still can't believe that Cosmo were able to fulfill the dream of going to Italy. This trip was so special for us, in so many ways. We were so blessed to have our wonderful travel agent plan this trip for us, and his fine work made it so magnificent. All of our accommodations were top-notch. In every city we had our own guide and a driver. We did take the train twice, once from Rome to Florence and once from Rome to Naples. Each time our guide deposited us at the train station, and upon arrival we were greeted by our new guide. All of our guides were charming, knowledgeable, friendly, accommodating, as were our drivers.

We went to Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Siena, Assisi, Lucca, Naples, Pompeii, and Cantalupo nel Sannio and Casalciprano, the towns where Cosmo's grandparents were born. Because we were a tour group of two, our guides whisked us past long lines, and we were able to pack in so much sight seeing. Each day we met our guide and driver, they took us to the days' sights, then back to our hotel and we were on our own for the late afternoon and dinner. Always they oriented us to the neighborhood, recommended restaurants, and in the morning needed to know if we were pleased with the previous night's meal, etc.

To prepare for our trip, we listened to Berlitz CDs for months. We were able to get by, and it was fun to at least try, although almost everyone speaks English, except in the small towns in the north. On our one evening alone in Campobasso, we did have to get by with our minimal skills as we tried to find a restaurant. We kept getting lost, and stopping to ask for directions. It was clear we were close, but we never found it. We were on the piazza, and finally decided to just go to the first place we found, and amazingly there were no restaurants on the piazza. Come to find out, the way Campobasso is laid out: all the restaurants and trattorias are off the beaten path. We did find a little bar that served pizza and sandwiches and wine, certo. No written menus, though, yet we managed to order, pay our bill and find our way back to the hotel. The next morning our guide was so disappointed that we hadn't been able to experience the true local cuisine, and she was so apologetic. We, on the other hand, felt triumphant that we had survived on our own minimal skills.

Only superlatives can describe our experiences in Italy. The food, the wine, the people, the art, the architecture, the history. All magnifico. We also were able to spend an afternoon and evening with a distant cousin of Cosmo's and his charming wife, who showed us around Pisa and then drove us back to Florence and treated us to dinner.

We still haven't figured out the exact link as to how they're cousins, and we'd only exchanged emails prior to meeting them. But the genetic bond was obvious, and it was as if Cosmo had met a long lost brother. Their mannerisms, their attitudes, their sense of humor, all eerily similar for two guys who had never met.

It's hard to pinpoint one highlight of this trip, but going to the birthplaces of Cosmo's grandparents was an experience and a privilege that defies description. Cosmo grew up hearing stories of these towns from his beloved grandparents. Being able to go back and walk the streets that his grandparents had walked, was truly the opportunity of a lifetime.

Except for feeling like we were on cultural and information overload at the end of each day, trying to process all that we had seen--especially in Florence-- no aspect of this trip was wasted on us. I think we can safely say that we didn't go to Italy, but rather we truly experienced it. For me the most magnificent part was watching Cosmo reconnect to his ancestral roots. It was kind of like that John Denver song. He was going home to a place he'd never been before.

We got so immersed in the culture that coming back home was really difficult for us. Diva told us that this is a common experience of travelers, students who spend time abroad often go through a difficult reentry and need time and help to process that. We just fumbled our way through it; I'd say it took a couple of months and in some ways we're still not over it. We want to go back, but we've decided there a few places in the US we should see first, and hopefully we will ride out this economy and be able to do that and return to Italy some day.

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