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Travel Diary: The Dos & Don’ts Of Visiting Italy

Last week, I told you about my trip to Paris, in all its gorgeous, historic, delicious glory. This week I explored Italy with my mom and my brother Devin. My family is Italian but we’d never been to Italy, and from the people to the scenery to the food, it didn’t disappoint. We went to my friend Milena’s beautiful wedding on Lake Garda and then drove down to Rome, stopping in a couple seaside towns on the way but mostly trying not to die on the highways. I’ve compiled a list of Dos and Don’ts based on my experience — read on to check ‘em out, and please share your own Italian travel tips in the comments!

Do: Visit Lake Garda if you get the chance. I am forever indebted to my friends for getting married here and giving me an excuse to see this breathtakingly beautiful part of the world. The lake is crystal clear and surrounded by mountains, castles, and adorable little hotels and restaurants. We stayed at Hotel Lido in Malcesine, which was stylish, affordable, and, most importantly, their bar served chilled red wine for 2 euro/glass.

Don’t: Expect any personal space. Italians live, work, drive, and socialize in close quarters.

Do: Wear a scarf in your hair and pretend to be Sophia Loren.

Don’t: Flub your Italian and accidentally say “Pope Blowjob” really loud at the Rome Airport because it makes things awkward.

Do: Go to Vatican City to see the Sistine Chapel (and repent for that whole blowjob thing).

Don’t: Be surprised if you fall in love with some of the Roman emperors. With those Caesar haircuts and strong jawlines all the marble busts look like George Clooney circa “ER.” I was nursing a pretty serious crush on Nero before I read a plaque that said he used to burn slaves to light his garden at night. Dealbreaker.

Do: Eat. Eat constantly. Eat everything. Eat everywhere. Eat more. The food in Italy is world-famous for a reason. It’s amazing. Even the worst meals I had in Italy were still some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. I made it a goal to eat gelato twice a day. If I walked by a cafe that had something interesting in the window, I stopped in and tried it. If I saw a dish I didn’t recognize listed on a menu, I ordered it. One of my favorite foods (and memories!) from the trip was a chocolate cannoli I bought at a gas station in a tiny town between Parma and Rome. The place sold gas, cigarettes, and cannoli. My mom and I ate it outside next to the public restroom. Glamorous? Certainly not. Delicious? Absolutely.

Don’t: Overplan each day. Remember–you won’t have time to do everything so don’t try. Focus on a few things you’re most excited about and really savor the experience.

Do: Be prepared for a sometimes shocking mix of modernity and history. It might be easier to get lost in the incredible history of the Colosseum, for example, if the street vendors outside weren’t blasting Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night.”

Don’t: Rent a car unless you really, really love to drive. When we were planning out our trip itinerary, we thought it would be a good idea to drive from Lake Garda down to Rome. That way we’d be able to see the countryside, stop wherever we wanted, and have a more flexible travel schedule. When my mom talked to a travel agent, she found out that renting a stick shift would costs us a few hundred dollars less than an automatic. I suggested we reconsider.

“Why?” She asked. “It’s only been 25 years since I drove a stick.”

We flew into the Verona airport and got the keys to our new ride: a Peugeot (which I kept calling a “Foucault” by accident). We found it in the parking lot, threw our stuff in the trunk, and climbed in. “OK,” my mom said, drawing in a deep breath.”Here we go.” She put the car in first and inched forward, then slammed on the brakes. “Oh my god am I gonna hit that post?” she gasped, gesturing at a concrete pole a good 4 feet in front of us.

“You’re fine,” Devin said, “Keep going.”

The car inched forward a bit more. Gas. Brake. Gas. Brake. “How about now?” she said. “Am I too close?” Gas. Brake.

Another car screeched around the corner of the parking garage and came barreling toward us. My mom panicked. She killed the engine. Now we were parked perpendicular to traffic, directly outside the window of the rental car agency. Another car approached from the opposite side.

“I can’t get it into reverse!” my mom yelled, jerking the gear shift back and forth.

“Just get us out of here!” Devin screamed.

I waved politely at the waiting cars, trying to charm some patience out of them. They layed on their horns.

The rental car staff came outside to see what the commotion was. Finally my mom just put it in neutral and we slowly rolled into the parking space in front of us.

“Maybe we should take the train,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” Devin said. “We just need to get out of this godforsaken parking garage and then we’ll take a spin around some sidestreets to practice. No pressure. No traffic. Easy.”

So my mom eased the car out of the parking garage, out of the Verona airport, and directly onto a major highway.

Turns out Italian drivers don’t appreciate American tourists trying to merge onto the Autostrade at 30mph in a rented Peugeot wagon. They welcomed us with a cacophony of car horns and lewd gestures. Semi trucks pulled up behind us as loud and fast as fighter jets before swerving into the other lane. I sank into the backseat and started crying. My mom was crying. Devin was screaming, “Mom! The gas pedal! USE IT.”

When we almost got sideswiped by a fruit truck my mom took an exit and pulled into the parking lot of a random restaurant.”Let’s regroup,” she said, and we all stumbled inside.

The restaurant was actually a dark bar. A big screen TV on the wall showed a man tenderly sucking the nipples of two voluptuous blondes. “Buon giorno,” we said, and sat down at a table. The bartender came over and greeted us, then started listing off either food specials or porn channel options. Devin and I have each taken a couple years of Italian classes, but we didn’t understand a word she said.

“Inglese?” we asked.

“No,” she said.

My mom got up to go to the bathroom while Devin and I tackled the language barrier. A minute later the fire alarm went off and we watched all the employees rush to the back. Soon my mom emerged, escorted by the bar owner. “All I did was pull a lever,” she explained. “I thought I was flushing the toilet!”

I walked up to the bartender and mimed the motion of throwing back a shot of vodka. That, she understood.

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