By Ralph Fisher


When most people hear you are going to Italy they are jealous. The lore, history, former glory and romanticism of the place conjures memories of even people who have never been to the place. As luck would have it, I was able to visit my friends in Italy for ten glorious days in May/June 2012.


The long flight from Atlanta finally ended in Milan Thursday morning where a friendly customs man gave me a pass and I walked into the bright sun with 70 degree perfect weather and was greeted by my friend Martin. The series of earthquakes here have been the talk of the town, but fortunately his home is unscathed so far.

After loading the luggage and buying an Italian sim card for my phone, we drove in his new Mercedes across the north Italian plains where Risotto rice grows in giant fields next to abandoned farmhouses. I asked about the farms. The farmhouses are long sets of buildings that have been added to over hundreds of years as families expanded and children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren built homes attached to the original structures. The result is a mix of attached houses that run along and often make a turn to create a central square.


Now, as people give up farming the buildings sit abandoned along with the thousands of other ancient ruins that cover this country. Every town has castles and giant houses that Martin jokingly calls Fixer Uppers. Itís an understatement to say you could spend a lifetime on just one of these old palaces that sit empty at every turn in the road. Seeing all of this as you blaze along an expressway is breathtaking and for me truly amazing.

The motorway is a toll road that costs upwards of $50 to drive for 100 miles or less but it was full of speeding motorcycles and Alfa Romeoís that raced by us along the ribbon of highway deep into the mountains where the Italians have built towering roadways hundreds a feet in a air on pylons that span whole valleys. You do not want to look down but you can see that you are at the level of the tops of mountains and only imagine how far down you would fall if you drove over a guard rail. I was terrified. After the tall roadways, you plunge into miles long tunnels where even the most jaundiced driver shows fear of the unknown coming around the next bend in the tunnel.

We must have driven 80 miles an hour as we flashed from tunnel to tunnel with bits of sunshine between.


After a harrowing three hour ride we arrived the, a beautiful villa situated in the hills near Cairo Montenotte, a small village in the northwest about 20 miles from the coast.

The house itself has a pool, 10 bedrooms and a tennis court and I have spent the last four days playing tennis, swimming in the Olympic sized pool and going into the village every morning for fresh bread and dutiful exchange of Boune Giornos ("good day!") with the locals. My Italian is good enough now to order food and drink and make change but not to have any serious conversation. My view is that the Italian people are a friendly lot, whether out of curiosity or culture they dote on me and seem to wonder that an Americano is visiting their small town. One local said the last American to set foot hear was during WWII!


The food in restaurants here is divided into antipasti, primi and secundi, which roughly means appetizer, first and second course. And with every meal there is wine, either, bianco (white) or rosso (red). When the bill comes, itís best to have a crisp green 100 Euro note at the ready. It can seem expensive at times but I am getting used to it. The US dollar has suffered over the years but recently the dollar is a bit higher and therefore things do not seem that outrageous in price. A year ago the Euro was cost $1.50, but now its only 1.24 so things seem fairly priced.

Tipping is something strange here. Although there is a set charge put on every bill for service (called a coperto), you almost have to get in a fight to get an Italian to accept a tip and in the end you just leave money on the table for them since they always give it back it you. When I would tell a waiter, "Il resto e per ti"...the change is for you.... they wave and smile but they woní take the money. Sometimes they hug you goodbye as if you are a long lost brother. The women on the other hand will give you a kiss on two cheeks when you say hello, even if they donít know you. Its a part of Italy, so I just went along with it all and smiled!

Also, if you buy a beer in a bar they always bring giant plate of wonderful snacks that seems like its enough free food to feed a table. The snacks are usually cheese and meat with bread and after a few beers and snacks you donít even want to buy dinner. But making room for Italian Pasta is a must. You donít try to figure all the different types of pasta out, just eat and enjoy and wait for the secundi!


The neighbors are farmers who have never learned to read or write but they are quite nice and have helped me with pumping up the tires on a bike I bought for the house as a gift. One neighbor, Biacho, even used me as a day laborer throwing hay into the barn after they bale it. I needed the exercise and it was actually fun taking the bales of hay down from the trailer and hoisting them onto a giant steel moving belt to lift them to the barnís second floor storage are.

I also enjoyed sitting in Biachoís home drinking coffee and listening to the Italians as they conversed with Martin, who pretends to understand and we laughed together and enjoyed the sounds of their dogs barking and the chickens outside the open window.

Another farmer who lives nearby that I got to spend time with is named Natale. He was born in the house where he lives and has never traveled more than ten miles from his house. He has no wife or children and is 83 years old. He walks hunched over and looks so crippled as to defy the imagination. So it amazed me to watch him chop wood for the winter and play with his dog, Bofi while we visited this week. He cooks and heats his house with wood and only recently got rid of his ancient black and white TV when Martin bought him a flat screen. Martin had to hook up the antenna so he could get 2 or three channels. The old guy told me he spends the whole summer gathering wood and farming for food. We visited his garden and the now unused vineyard where he used to raise the grapes for his wine. He told me he drank 4 bottles a day but now he is grateful when we show up with wine from the store.

Natale told me through Martin that he also raises most of his other food. He keeps an enormous garden with every vegetable one can imagine. To water the garden he takes water in a special tank on the back of a tractor that drives over the hill to the garden plot. Itís horrible to watch what the old guy goes through for his food but since his whole income is a government pension that pays 67 euros a month he is forced to do this to survive. We brought him wine and sat for hours listening to him tell stories of the past. What a guy. He thought I was a little strange and made some jokes about my childish curiosity about all things Italian. It was true of course. I am awestruck at how Natale survived WWII, recessions and poverty to live such a long happy life so far.


Finally after a week of bliss our time to leave Italy came. Martin had a special plan for us: risk our lives on a crazy scheme to transport a car on the back of a Mercedes to Holland. We were the happy riders on the first 100 km of the trip. Oh God. The Mercedes 250 of Martinís was rated to carry 1650 kilos in a tow vehicle but there we were with a 2500 kilo 1985 model Maserati in tow for the 100 km to Turin. God how the thing swayed in the turns and fishtailed into the tunnels at 75 mph as we begged our gracious host to slow the f. down.

"How much is that 1985 model Maserati really worth," asked Tammy, my travel companion.

"About 4000 Euros," answered Martin. "Why?"

"Well, Iíll pay you that to pull the heck over leave this thing on the side of the road," she retorted.

I tried to make some peace by convincing our driving hero to pull over and fix the swaying, rocking car a bit better to the travel carrier. I then proceeded to wrap the nylon straps around each wheel of the Maserati to secure it better to the trailer. We also moved the car back a foot to balance the load and hopefully reduce the swaying of the machine as we pulled it through the Italian alps.

After a while of sitting on the side of the motorway adjusting the load on the trailer, the Italian police came up and asked what we were up to. They smiled an left us alone when Martin started to speak his British English. The cars blazed by at 100 mph while we finished up and continued our journey.

In time we reached Torino and Martin dropped us off and continued his long drive to Holland with the Maserati in tow. We later heard he made it home safely after too many hours driving and at too great a risk.


We ended up enjoying an amazing two days in Torino (Turin) and Milan touring the churches, museums and wonderful restaurants of these great cities. My Italian course came in more than handy as I asked for checks, directions and help in Italian. A waiter Iíd met the year before even gave me a glass of red on the house for my feeble attempt at Italian. "I wish all foreigners were like you." Iím not sure if he referred to the language ability or the tip, but Iíll go back there the next time Iím in Milan.

The flight home was long and we were exhausted when we finally reached Atlanta. I used my Global Entry card by bypass the masses lined up at U.S. Customs. Then we boarded yet another flight to Tampa and arrived on June 2, 2012, just in time to feel the intense humidity and heat of Florida. I was so overdressed that the taxi driver asked if we were from Canada! Heat aside, Tampa is home and its great to be back but Iíll be back in Italy soon.

Let me know if you like this narrative.